5 Confusing Biblical Rules (and What They May Mean)

By A.J. Jacobs

For my book, The Year of Living Biblically, I spent 12 months trying to follow every rule in the Old Testament. Even the obscure one-like stoning adulterers (I used pebbles) and never shaving your beard (I did a lot of itching). My challenge: to reconcile the Bible's easy-to-grasp wisdom with some of its seemingly baffling laws. The following are a few of the more arcane rules I found along the way, with possible reasons behind them.

1. THE RULE: "...she shall put the rainment of her capitivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou shalt go in unto her and be her husband..." (from Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

THE TRANSLATION: If you capture a beautiful woman during war, and you want to marry her, you must first have her shave her head and trim her nails. Then you must live with her for a month without touching her. After that, she's all yours.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: Think of it like gun control-it's a mandatory waiting period. If you still want to marry a bald, short-nailed woman after a month of no sex, then maybe it truly is love.

(Image credit: Flickr user Willam Cho)

2. THE RULE: "Even these of them ye may eat: the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. / But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you." (Leviticus 11:22-23)

THE TRANSLATION: You can't eat bugs. Well, except for locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers-those you can eat all you want.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: A ban on eating bugs isn't all that hard to argue with, but why the loophole for locusts et al.? It's believed that this is actually an example of the Bible's pragmatism. If locusts swarmed and devoured all the crops, the Israelites would have nothing left to eat-except the locusts themselves.



3. THE RULE: "...thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed; neither shall a garment of mingled linen and woolen come upon thee." (Leviticus 19:19)

THE TRANSLATION: Don't wear clothes made of mixed fibers. Wool-and-linen blends are particularly bad. Polycotton is probably OK.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: The Old Testament was obsessed with separating things. (Don't wear mixed fibers; don't mix milk and meat.) According to many biblical scholars, the idea was to drill the notion of separation into the ancient Israelite mind. This way, they would remain separate from the pagans and not intermarry-a sin even worse than mixing wool and linen.

4. THE RULE: "And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even." (Leviticus 15: 19)

THE TRANSLATION: Stay away from a woman if she's menstruating. She's impure, and if you touch her, you'll become impure, too.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: While many people say this rule is misogynistic (kind of like the theological equivalent of cooties), some scholars and devout Jews defend the practice. They say it has to do with reverence for life. When a woman has her period, it's like a small death. A potential life has vanished, and this is a way of paying your respects.



5. THE RULE: "A naughty person, a wicked man, walketh with a froward mouth. He winketh with his eyes..." (Proverbs 6: 12-13)

THE TRANSLATION: No winking. This is just one example, but the Bible contains no less than four anti-winking passages.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: Many believe that the Bible's "wink" referred to a tacit approval of evil. As in "I saw what you did, but I won't tell." But let's face it; the wink is a creepy gesture, no matter how you cut it.

[Editor's note:] All Old testament verses are taken from the King James translation of the Bible. They are presented here solely for the purpose of historic investigation and in no way reflect the religious views of the magazine.

__________________________

The above article was written by A.J. Jacobs. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the November-December 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!




I think the "unclean" ban on sex might actually be another pragmatic thing, making it more likely that sex occurs during more fertile times. Just a hunch.

Or it's just to give the wife a break. ;)
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This is all taken out of context. The laws which are being cited and made fun of are laws for Jews only. They are not to be followed by non-Jews unless someone wants to gain merit in the world to come but one cannot live as a Jew because that is forbidden. Making fun of these laws which apply to Jews is antisemitism and I don't believe people who are uniformed and do not understand the context and the law for Jews which is known as Halacha want to make fun of Jews.

If you do not understand something ask, it is so much simpler to do and saves people from being uninformed. It is about context and we do know what happens when people take things out of context and misinterpret them.

Rabbi Kaplan

Rabbi J.
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I demand an explanation for this one rule in Deuteronomy 25:11:

If two men are fighting, and the wife of one of them grabs the other man's testicles, her hand is to be chopped off. There is no penalty if a male relative were to grab the other man.

Women, when dudes are fighting, hands off the junk! But male relatives are a-okay!
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All religious arguements aside, I think it's about time someone went ahead and re-translated the bible. I will be the first to admit that I am not religious at all and may not understand all there is to understand about the bible, so please take no offense if I sound ignorant. Because I am. But it is my understanding that the bible was translated from Latin into old English by King James. Isn't it about time that we went back to the original Latin version and translated into modern English? Like I said, I'm not religious, but I've tried to read the bible numerous times and just can't understand a word that is written. Anyone else feel this way?
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My take on the first 2, the others just seem like common religious stigmas that were used to control or otherwise placate unknowns of the time.

Rule 1: shaven and untouched for a month would get rid of foreign lice, other parasites, and possibly show any STD's so as to not infect the whole army/population.

Rule 2: Possibly to keep people from eating unknown and possibly poisonous insects.
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On #2, why did you avoid discussing the 4 legged flying critters? Those do not exist. The flying creatures that exist are 2 legged or 6 legged. The best you can do is pull a couple of legs off of an insect or wait for a birth defect in something from the 2 legged variety.

Something I find interesting, is that a lot of people will say these laws no longer apply because they are in the OT. However, I have never really seen anyone provide the part of the NT that says to ignore the OT or to not follow specific laws from the OT.
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I don't think there is anything funny about the practice of making the female survivors of war into sex slaves of the men who slaughtered their people. Oh, they got to mourn the deaths of their families for a whole month first? Well, that makes it OK, then. :/
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Most "bugs" have six legs, not four. And birds have two legs. What "flying, creeping things" have four legs? Bats, I guess, but that's about it.
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First, I don't see any mockery made of these laws as presented. Rather, there is an earnest attempt to explain some of these apparently "odd" (to our modern sensibilities) religious laws. (I agree, it would be good to read an explanation of Deut. 25:11.)

Second, there are modern English translations of the OT and NT. Try _The Message_, which is a recent modern translation in contemporary English.

Third, regarding Christians and their lack of observance of these Jewish laws, I point the reader to the Epistle to the Galatians. That letter deals precisely with that topic. Also, there's a portion of Acts (Acts 15) that states the requirements of the law are not to be expected from Gentile believers.
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nice try on the respect for a potential lost life thing when a woman is menstruating. these scientifically illiterate yokels from the bronze age had no idea what menstruation was or how it related to pregnancy.

and as was mentioned above, insects have 6 legs and 6 feet, not 4. and what about arthropods and arachnids?

these mostly arbitrary rules were solely set up to separate the jewish tribe from the other tribes in the area which they were also taught to hate with racist and genocidal zeal by the writers of the bible who ultimately gave the credit to yahweh or elohim, depending on where the original verses were written.
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Are you kidding, ron? Women don't have to be literate or modern to know that a period means she is not pregnant. The connection was made tens of thousands of years before the Bible --IF you are a woman, that is.
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@Patm

"This is all taken out of context."

Could you please provide the context which makes taking female prisoners of war as your wife an OK thing to do?

"Making fun of these laws which apply to Jews is antisemitism"

And I suppose some notable Jews, say, Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld would NEVER make fun of these laws, as that would make them semite-anti-semites?

And what difference does it make? all us Goy are going to hell anyways, right?
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Bwahahahahaha - trying to make sense out of thousand year old myths is a complete waste of time.

Might as well try and figure out why Rudolph's nose glows red instead of white (did santa invent infrared goggles?).

Rub some brain cells together people - religion (of any flavour) is the biggest scam since man evolved from primordial sludge.
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the bible was written about 300 years after the supposed time of christ, so thats the equivalent of people today writing about the 1700's like they had a first hand account of the events that happened....
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it's kind of sad actually that even these days there's so much discussion over this massive religion that ruled the western world. check out other religions too... they're as (un)interesting. And some of them even don't instpire violence. This christianity thing gets kind of tiresome after hundreds of years
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I will be the first to admit that the ethics in the Old Testament may seem too much for the modern world - but the rules really had sustained the Semitic populations in the Middle East during such a harsh time period 2000 years ago.

@Vonskippy: As for religion being the largest scam ever, I'm not exactly sure what you are pointing at. I am A Catholic because I believe in Jesus Christ's teachings, and consider myself extremely accepting to all races, sexualities and religions (and I am aware other Catholics may not approve of my stance). But simply lambasting religion for an outdated cultural sham is rather insulting to millions of people out there.

Anyways, we all know that Mr. Madoff's Ponzi scheme is quite possibly the largest known scam in the world
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"But simply lambasting religion for an outdated cultural sham"... wow. Bringing religion into any conversation or a blog ends up in absurdities very fast.
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Erock,

Oh, and P.S. the original languages of the Bible were Hebrew and Greek (with a little Aramaic mixed in).

The KJV translators used manuscripts in these languages, but that was 400 years ago, and English has changed a ton!
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Pragmatically, allowing a captured woman who has just lost her family, security, and home as well as possibly seen loved ones die, might make for a happier 'marriage' if you allow her a little time to grieve and get closure before you rape her and force her into a 'marriage' that she had no choice in. ...just saying.

Maybe it wasn't such a dumb thing after all.

And, btw, the Hebrews certainly weren't the only ancient culture to take captured women as wives. In fact, I think their captives had a little more rights as spelled out in the OT than other cultures of the same period. (But I'm not a historian and may be wrong about that.) I'd think that just naming them as wives gave them more status than that of sex slave/drudge. Women didn't have a lot of choices. Or girls as we consider them now.

BTW, I like Coyote's pragmatic view on #1 as well.
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Pragmatically, allowing a captured woman who has just lost her family, security, and home as well as possibly seen loved ones die, might just make for a happier 'marriage' and better mother for future children if you allow her a little time to grieve and get closure before you rape her and force her into a 'marriage' that she had no choice in submitting to! (...just saying.)

Also, if she's going to martyr herself/commit suicide, she's had her chance. After that month's time, you're looking at a Survivor.

Maybe it wasn't such a dumb thing after all.

And, btw, the Hebrews certainly weren't the only ancient culture to take captured women as wives. In fact, I think their captives had a little more rights as spelled out in the OT than other cultures of the same period. (But I'm not a historian and may be wrong about that.) I'd think that just naming them as 'wives' gave them more status than that of sex slave/drudge. Women didn't have a lot of choices. Or girls as we would consider them now.

BTW, I like Coyote's pragmatic view on #1 as well.
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@ WOW
If you are going to spout facts, please make sure they are in fact accurate. The New Testament is (by secular and biblical scholars) now dated to have been written between 50CE and 150CE. Your assertion of "300 years after" is almost 200 years old itself in thought and has been disproven. Even taking into account that Jesus was most likely born 3-4BCE, someone writing in 50CE who was born the same year would be mid-50s. Also, for dating purposes, we are looking at the earliest existing documentation. It's entirely possible that more manuscripts will come to light or that the current oldest manuscripts are not the first time those words were committed to written word.
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Juylians, were you expecting serious dialogue about the big questions from VonSkippy? He thinks typing in his own laughter is a salient point to make for his argument. He's a pretender who acts as if he figured out the big secret that we've all been lied to, when really he's just going with the flow with some cloistered poseur intellectual group, going through the motions and repeating the catechisms that he thinks he though of himself.
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Also, I love everyone's use of the word pragmatic! It's like one person said it and then everyone was like "well, pragmatically... well I would say that pragmatically speaking... ah yes, how pragmatic of u sir..." haha! It seems like it should be a monty python sketch!
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Daggum! My first post didn't work and it was super long! Gah! Well, essentially I said that I was saddened by the ignorance of biblical principles swirling around and through this conversation. I won't go back and list the errors again (:/) but mostly no one was making fun of ot law, as mr. Jacobs was simply attempting to understand the religious customs old from the confines of modern culture and thinking (which can be humorous). But honestly, ot law was ridiculous. It was given by god much the same way a set of rules would be given to a kindergarten class. The rules r meticulous and excrutiatingly detailed and obvious (wait to speak ur turn, wash ur hands b4 lunch, keep ur clothes on...) but to the kkindergartener they are foreign because he has not yet developed a paradigm that encompases those ideas. Its the same with us and god. He knows what's best. But when christ came he gave us life and the ability to have a personal relationship with our creator and by that relationship we gain the understanding necessary to free us from the rigidity of the law. The whole point of jesus' coming was to release us from the law and usher us into a relatipnship versus a religion. Vonskippy is right. Religion is a scam. It is nothing more than humans in our contrived understanding attempting to reign in the divine. But God is not a scam. And his love is not and it vannot be contained. That's all I'm saying.
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Erock: Try the New English Bible, the NIV, or any interlinear translation. *Lots* of people have done translations since the KJV, which is admittedly flawed by scribe's notes, and biased according to the worldview of its day.

WRT to the idea that the bible loves segregation of things, I'd make a couple of points: the first is that the words 'sacred' and 'sin' both have their origins in the word for 'separation'. That which is holy is that which is set aside as having special value. The root of 'sin' goes back to the concept of unnecessary separation. The second is that the kosher law regarding separation of meat and dairy is stated as 'don't cook the calf in the milk of its mother.'

These observances are symbolic, and a lot of them don't make sense unless you actually know the historical context. One of the best illustrations I can think of is in Kyle Baker's _King David_, where Saul is telling his son about the point where he lost God's favor. He says something to the effect that he staged a raid on a neighboring village/country and killed everything down to the last woman and child.. the only things he left alive were the cattle. His son says something to the effect of "Oh wow," and Saul says, "I should've killed the cattle."

Baker does a great job of explaining why that makes sense, and I heartily recommend _King David_ to anyone who can find it. Otherwise, ask a rabbi.

Face it, most people in the US can't even give a decent explanation of the sociopolitical forces behind the Revolution or the Civil War. Hell, most can't even explain the net of political alliances that led to WWI, or how the humiliation of Germany made WWII more or less inevitable. Don't presume to expect immediate and transparent understanding of events from two or three millennia ago, in a culture whose mindset was decidedly different from our own.

Do *not* go up against people who've spent the past few thousand years arguing over exactly what all the laws of Judiaism mean om the strength of thirty seconds of not knowing Jack about it. It's a gross discourtesy if nothing else. Do something more constructive, like joining in the YouTube commentary over the authenticity of the moon landing videos.
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Many of the passages in the Bible are there are rules for living in the context of the time. Some things, such as "swine are unclean" and forbidding the consumption of shellfish are still common rules followed by Jews.

However, if you look back at the time it was written, you realize that these rules made sense.

In regards to not eating pork (swine), the chances of getting trichinosis was probably pretty high. So, to prevent the spread of disease, just ban pork.

In regards to not eating shellfish: anyone ever eaten bad shellfish? The common way, in biblical times, to preserve fish was to leave it out to dry in the sun. You can't really do that with shellfish.

I would agree with the commenter that stated the Bible should be re-translated from the original manuscripts. Many translations of the Bible are actually translations of translations. Just like making copies of copies on a xerox, errors can be introduced that change things subtly but will add up over time. There is an interesting diagram in the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible showing how the different translations came to be.

To those that may mock the beliefs of others: why? Just because someone believes in a God or divine being does not make them any less intelligent than someone who doesn't, and vice versa. To each their own!
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The "Holey" Bible is the worst book of fiction ever written. It should be classified Horror/Fiction; not suitable for under 18. It should come with a warning sticker on the cover:
"Reading this book will result in severe mental problems"
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To all who want to know about a new translation of the Bible: Artscroll publications, which is run by Orthodox Jews, has been translating every sacred text that the Jews have from their original language for the past 25 years. The Bible was their very first project. Here is a link: http://www.artscroll.com/
I find it amusing when I see all these forums which talk about the Bible and quote from the KJ Bible which has lost a whole lot in translation. Also, I am not trying to prove or disprove Judaism to anybody, but the literal text is meaningless without the Oral Law. There is no such law that a Jewish man can't shave his beard. The Bible actually states that he cannot shave off the CORNERS of his beard. There has been debate in the time s of the Talmud over exactly what that means, but people agree that it just means the sideburns. Also, there is no law in the Bible that says that you have to maim another or cut off their hand. Eye for an eye means that you have to pay the value of the eye. What I'm saying is that every individual has the right to think for themselves and can criticize or make fun of the Bible as being old and outdated. I think its only fair though, that you first analyze exactly what the Bible means when it says something before making a statement about it (something which is completely impossible to do without going through the Oral Law). Finally, I want to say that it is a normal human reaction to want to find reason and order in things. This is why people try to find the reasons for the commandments in the Bible. However, every Jew knows that there is only so much a human is capable of understanding. We believe that we were given the ability to understand SOME of the reasons for SOME of the commandments. In no way has any Jew ever believed that they could understand the reasons that G-d has for the things that he does. There is a very simple reason for this. Once you state that you can understand G-d then that means that you have just reduced the concept of G-d from something that is almighty and all-knowing/infinite into something that can be grasped by the human intelligence. That kind of lowers G-d's ranking doesn't it? I am open to all criticism about this comment but I ask that you please be mature about it. Thanks.
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@VonSkippy "Rub some brain cells together people - religion (of any flavour) is the biggest scam since man evolved from primordial sludge."

You mean to tell me that religion was invented by folk who didn't believe it was true? What do you call those folk?
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@notofthisworld "Also, I love everyone's use of the word pragmatic! It's like one person said it and then everyone was like "well, pragmatically... well I would say that pragmatically speaking... ah yes, how pragmatic of u sir..." haha! It seems like it should be a monty python sketch!"

THAT is funny!
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Those are not confusing ones.

How about explain for instance these - according to Bible all these are ways to go to Hell.

Basically, you are going to Hell if...
* eat fruit from a tree less than five years old. [Lev. 19:23]
* cross-breed animals. [Lev. 19:19]
* grow two different plants in your garden. [Lev. 19:19]
* wear a cotton-polyester blend T-Shirt. [Lev. 19:19]
* read your horoscope. [Lev. 19:26]
* consult a psychic. [Lev. 19:31]
* cut your hair. [Lev. 19:27]
* trim your beard. [Lev. 19:27]
* are tattooed. [Lev. 19:28]
* plant crops for more than seven years. [Lev. 25:4, Ex. 23:10-13]
* bear a grudge. [Lev. 19:17]
* collect interest on a loan. [Ex. 22:24]
* insult a leader. [Ex. 22:27]
* spread false rumors. [Ex. 23:1]
* drive a Mercury. [Ex. 23:13]
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4. THE RULE: “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15: 19)

I might be wrong, but wasn't 'issue' another word for offspring? So we're talking about a week to recover after a miscarriage.
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@Charlie Bluefish

That's the problem. There is so much room open for interpretation, yet there are so many yahoos out there that "know" the true answer. That's why there are so many sects inside these religions, they can't come to an agreement with their difference of opinion, when both sides declare themselves as being right.

@Ben Eshbach

Actually religion is found to be a defense mechanism for those who suffer from delusions caused me mental illnesses or childhood trauma to help them cope with the unexplained that only they can see. We have better ways of helping those people today, but that's all they had back then.
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dude; rule 1: i get.. it's just "true love"

but rule #4.. c'mon that's gross yes but it feel's 10x better when your "makinglove" :]

and the wink.. CREEPERRRRRR
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The month waiting before sex with a woman captured in war makes sense from a lineage perspective. I'm somewhat dubious of explanations purely in terms of mental health.

But after a month, you'll know whether or not she was already pregnant from before her capture (and whether the child is from someone not of the clan), or whether she is not with child. Whereas if the victor started having sex with her from day one (regardless of whether he was raping her or whether she was consenting, though consent when you've just been captured as a spoil of war is understandably not really happening to start with) he wouldn't be able to tell whether the baby was his or someone else's until the baby was born and started showing a family resemblance.
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