painting of Judah and Tamar

4 Horrifying Bible Stories They Probably Didn’t Teach You in Sunday School

Dear Josep,

My formal education took place exclusively in religious Jewish institutions–from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s “Tiny Tykes” program at age 3 to my brief stint in the theater program at Emunah College. So my earliest memories from school include snippets of activities related to Bible stories: making Noah’s ark out of a milk carton, or Jonah’s whale with movable jaws; watching my nursery teacher tell the story of Jacob and Laban using a felt board; and putting on a play in kindergarten with my best friend at the time, who played his namesake Abraham to my Sarah.

The thing is, the Torah is not a children’s book. As we circled back to these same stories years later in school or independently, we discovered that in between the classic, ostensibly innocent stories we enacted in kindergarten classes, there were some that were… not innocent at all.

Lot & His Daughters

Lot was Abraham’s cousin, and there are two stories we were taught about him as children. The first is the story of how and why Abraham and Lot parted ways–because Lot’s shepherds were letting their sheep graze from other people’s grass, which Abraham considered immoral. The second story is that of the destruction of Sodom, where Lot chose to live; Lot’s wife famously ignored the advice not to look back at the city being destroyed, and turned into a pillar of salt.

Up to here, everything sounds G-rated, right?

So. A couple details our preschool teachers kinda glossed over.

Genesis chapter 19. Two angels of God came to Lot disguised as humans to warn him about Sodom’s imminent destruction. Lot, who was trained by Abraham to be a gracious host, invited them in and insisted that they stay the night. After he took them in, all the people from the city of Sodom came to his door and demanded that he hand over his visitors. For what purpose? Well, this is Sodom, after all, right? To rape them, of course.

Now, Lot is supposed to be the righteous man in this scenario, right? So he comes out and says, “My brethren, please do not do evil…” So far so good… “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.”


LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. Lot nobly protects his guests–perfect strangers who he has never met before in his life–by handing over his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead?!?!

Because these two guests have “come under the shadow of his roof”, but the two young women who have lived under his roof for the duration of their lives–his own flesh and blood–handing them over to be raped is A-OK?!?!

Wait, wait, it gets worse!!!

Fortunately for the daughters, the crowd isn’t pleased with this offer and starts to threaten to rape Lot instead. The angels-disguised-as-people pull Lot into the house and shut the door, and the citizens of Sodom are struck with temporary blindness and are unable to continue their attack. The angels tell Lot that he needs to get the hell out of the city because God’s going to destroy it. So Lot gathers his things and his family and they leave. Yadda yadda yadda, don’t look back, pillar of salt, blah blah blah.

Fast forward to verse 30. Lot and his daughters are now camping out in a cave in the mountains. Now, the daughters are concerned. They had both been betrothed, but their fiancees had laughed off Lot’s warning and invitation to flee the city with him before the destruction, and had subsequently died in the whole fire and brimstone thing. It seems to me from the text (and I’m pretty sure the commentators extrapolate this) that the daughters believed they were the last three humans alive–that the whole world had been destroyed together with Sodom. They felt an obligation, therefore, to carry on the human race, and the only way they could do that was… not IVF, if you take my meaning.

Each daughter in turn got their father drunk, slept with him, and conceived a child. And that, dear children, is how the great nations of Moab and Ammon came to be.

Lot's Daughters painting by Marcantonia Franceschini
HOW CREEPY IS THIS PAINTING? (Franceschini Marcantonio, “Lot and His Daughters”, circa 1677)

Judah and Tamar

Oh, we hear plenty about Judah, don’t we? The fourth son of Jacob and Leah, who inherited the role of leadership after his three older brothers–Reuben, Simeon, and Levi–all failed in one way or another. Ancestor of the Davidic line, from whom the majority of Jews today are descended and whose name has become our name. The brave brother who offered to take Benjamin’s place in jail when Joseph planted the royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Yes indeed, a very noble character in the Bible.

Except for that one time…

Okay, actually, this story is an integral part of Judah’s rise to his role of leadership. Unlike in Islam, Judaism’s Biblical heroes and prophets are famously flawed; it is through their flaws, and their overcoming of their flaws and owning up to their mistakes, that they achieve greatness.

So. You know the story of Joseph and his brothers, I assume. Normally, when we tell this story, the narrative follows Joseph to Egypt, and we skip gracefully from chapter 37 to 39. But the Biblical narrative spends that one chapter in between focused on Judah in the land of Canaan. It tells us that he takes a wife, and she gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah finds a wife for him, by the name of Tamar. The Bible tells us that Er was “evil in the eyes of the Lord”–it doesn’t specify how–and that he died as a result of his sin.

Now, there is a Jewish law hearkening back to this period of the Bible that states that if a man dies while his wife is still childless and he has an unmarried younger brother, that brother must marry the widow “to carry on” the dead brother’s seed. I guess in the context of Biblical times this made sense, since the widow would need someone to provide for her, she may be considered “damaged goods”, etc. In order to get out of this obligation, the widow and brother need to perform an odd ritual called “chalitzah”, which involves the widow removing the brother’s shoes, spitting on the floor in front of him and berating him for not “building the house of his brother”. They need to perform this ritual before either of them can marry anyone else. (And yes, we still do this. People hardly hear about it because, thank God, in the modern world, it’s a relatively rare situation.)

So, according to this norm, Tamar was supposed to marry Onan. So she did, but Onan apparently didn’t like the idea that his children would be considered “his brother’s seed”, so he, uh, to quote the Bible: “wasted [his semen] on the ground” when he was with Tamar. God did not approve of this vindictive behavior and killed him too.

Now at this point, Judah was understandably a little spooked by Tamar’s record with his sons, and Shelah–his only remaining son–was still young. So Judah told Tamar to wait until Shelah was older before letting them marry. But a long time passed, Shelah came of age, and still Judah didn’t let them marry. His own wife died, and he went off somewhere to hang out with a friend, and Tamar–angry with Judah for not granting her her right to a husband–hatched a plan. She disguised herself and went over to the place where Judah was.

Judah didn’t recognize her, because her face was covered, and thought she was a prostitute, so he approached her and told her to prepare herself for him.  Tamar asked him what her compensation would be. He promised her a kid from his herd. (A baby goat, that is. Obviously, the entire problem here was that he hadn’t provided her with the means to have a human kid!) Not trusting his word for obvious reasons, she asked for deposit: his signet, his cloak, and his staff. He agreed to these conditions and slept with her. But later, when he tried to send the kid over and collect his stuff, she had mysteriously disappeared. (A.k.a., took off the veil and changed back into her widow’s garb.)

painting of Judah and Tamar
“Srsly Judah? How many years have I been living in your house and you still don’t recognize me?” (Ferdinand Bol, “Judah and Tamar”, 1653)

Three months later, people began to notice that Tamar was pregnant, and told Judah that she had been involved in prostitution. He ordered that she be burned to death. Tamar then announced that the man who had come to her was the one who had provided her with these three items: the signet, the cloak, and the staff. Judah recognized them as his, and declared that Tamar was more righteous than he was, and that he was the one who had sinned by not allowing her to marry Shelah. So she stayed in his household and gave birth to twin boys: Peretz and Zerah. Peretz was a direct ancestor of King David.

It was only after this episode that Judah exhibited his leadership qualities and willingness to take responsibility and stand up for what’s right; that’s his character arc during the book of Genesis. And I think the connection this story has to the very existence King David is not at all coincidental. It was these same qualities that made David fit to rule (and as we’ve discussed, King David had similar faults and a similar willingness to reckon with his mistakes).

Still, between the double standards regarding sexual behavior in men and women and the ick factor of Judah’s daughter-in-law willingly sleeping with him, it’s a pretty disturbing story.

The Concubine in Giv’a

And now, class, please open your Bibles to Judges 19.

So a guy and his concubine are traveling and they stop in Giv’a–a city in Benjamin–for the night. The narrative emphasizes that they decided to stay there rather then in Jebus (which would later become Jerusalem), because they were concerned about how the non-Israelite Jebusites would treat them. But they were disappointed with the lack of hospitality; they waited a long time for someone to offer them a place to stay, until an old man invited them in.

painting of the concubine of Gibeah
A painting of this event by Jan Victors. I guess he didn’t want to paint subsequent events, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

As they ate their meal, the people of the town surrounded his house and demanded that he hand over the guest. For what purpose? Well this is Sodom, right…?

NO. IT’S NOT. It’s a city in BENJAMIN. WT* PEOPLE.

The host begged them not to rape his guest and instead offered them his virgin daughter (WHY IS THIS A THING?!?!?!) and the man’s concubine instead. They refused, but the man grabbed his concubine nonetheless and tossed her out there.

That ended just about as badly as you can imagine.

The man discovered her dead on the doorstep the next morning.

He took her body, cut it into 12 pieces, and sent a piece to each of the other tribes to shock them with the horrible violence that had taken place in this city. The other tribes were appropriately horrified and went to war with the tribe of Benjamin, swearing not to let their daughters marry into the tribe. The tribe of Benjamin was almost destroyed, and hence the whole story of the women in the white dresses etc. that I described in the post on Tu B’Av.

Yep. That’s one of the stories behind Tu B’Av, the Jewish “holiday of love”.


Amnon and Tamar

(Women named Tamar seem to have pretty bad luck in the Bible…)

So this story is connected to another scandalous bible story that is far more widely known: that of David and Bathsheba. Truth is, King David’s reign was wrought with scandal, which was part of his punishment for his sin in taking Bathsheba.

What happened was this: Amnon, one of David’s sons, had the hots for his half-sister Tamar and admitted this to his cousin Yonadav ben Shama. Yonadav said, “Ewww, Amnon, that’s sick, she’s your sister! Snap out of it and find some other pretty lady to lust after! You’re a goddamn prince!”

HAHAHA KIDDING. (I really wish I weren’t.)

No. What he really said was, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick, and when your father comes to see you, say to him: ‘Let my sister Tamar come now, and let her give me bread to eat, and prepare the food before my eyes, that I may see and eat from her hand.'”

So that’s what Amnon did. And as Tamar fed him, he grabbed her and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, and begged him not to, but he overpowered her and forced himself on her.

painting of Amnon attacking Tamar
KNEE TO THE HEAD, TAMAR! You’re set up for it perfectly!!! Too bad they didn’t have self-defense instructors back then. (Venetian School, c. 1600)

When he was finished, he felt suddenly repulsed by her and kicked her out. Tamar’s brother Absalom ended up killing Amnon in revenge. (…And then leading a rebellion against David which involved sleeping with a bunch of David’s concubines. BUT LET’S NOT GO THERE SHALL WE.)

Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself:

Why Would a Holy Book Such as the Bible Contain Such Awful Stories?

Great question.

So here’s the thing.

These stories are part of the story of our people, and the Bible does anything but hide our darkest and worst moments. On the contrary, I think it makes a point of focusing on them. Why? Because the Bible isn’t a history book; every word preserved in its pages is meant to teach us something. And as many wise people have said, mistakes are the best teachers.

I believe that there are many aspects of the Bible that are meant to make us squirm. It’s not supposed to be a feel-good bedtime story. It’s supposed to make us question who we are and what choices we are making, and ask ourselves: how could they have handled this better? (Like, I dunno, how about NOT offering your virgin daughters to a crowd of rabid rapists?! JUST A THOUGHT.) What might I do in a similar position? What are the darker and uglier aspects of human nature this story is asking me to face, and what is it telling me to do about them?

We can’t fight evil unless we are willing to stare it in the face, and the first place we need to look for it is in the mirror.

Um, and on that cheerful note, Feliç Any Nou! Here’s to a 2019 full of good news and happy occasions. And, uh, none of the kinds of things we’ve discussed in this post.

Much love,


A couple announcements for those of you not following my author blog: I was interviewed on Radio Sefarad’s English Corner podcast about LtJ and the Moving Stones project! You can listen to the interview here.

Also, you may recall that a new edition of LtJ was supposed to be coming out in January;
the re-release has been postponed. I made this decision with the staff of Kasva Press because we want to make sure the new edition is as good as it can be and that they’ll give it the full benefit of their added value as a publisher, and we’ll need more time for that. I’ll keep you posted!

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