When the Bible attempts to make analogies, they tend to be impressively badly done.
A prophet tells David an allegory about a rich man stealing a poor man’s beloved sheep. Then David (who isn’t in on the metaphor) declares that the rich man must die, and also must repay the poor man four times over. Since the prophet’s story was really about what David did to Uriah, this would mean that David has to kill himself and then give dead Uriah four new wives.
It’s the prophet’s fault that David had that nonsensical idea about repaying a dead person. The prophet had the sheep die in the story instead of the poor man, which doesn’t match what had really happened.
When Amaziah challenges Jehoash to battle, Jehoash responds with a bizarre and seemingly pointless story about a thistle that tries to arrange a marriage with a cedar and then gets squashed by a passing wild animal. After over 20 years of reading the Bible daily, I think I’ve just now finally found a coherent point in that story. Let me know whether you can figure it out too.
Isaiah says a man’s work will become a spark, and it will be burned along with him, with no one to rescue it. Oh no, the spark is on fire! And there’s no one to save the spark from burning up! That would have made a lot more sense if he’d just left out the spark metaphor.
God tells Ezekiel a story where he calls Sodom Jerusalem’s younger sister, even though Sodom is probably supposed to have been destroyed before Jerusalem became a city. And certainly long before Jerusalem became an Israelite city.
And in that allegory, God constantly calls Jerusalem a prostitute… one who pays others for sex, and doesn’t get paid herself. So… not a prostitute, then. But even after basically admitting that he chose the wrong metaphor, God insists on continuing to use that wrong metaphor.
God wants to try to justify destroying a certain nation (he can’t decide which one). So he tells Ezekiel a story about punishing a tree for being tall and beautiful, as if that was a bad thing. The story ends with all the other trees dying too, for some reason.
God tells the prophet Zechariah about people slaughtering sheep that they own. Which was a totally normal thing to do, and was something that God’s own law required people to do… And God acts like they’re doing something wrong. If this was a metaphor, it was a poorly-chosen one.
Then Zechariah claims that he became a shepherd of those sheep, and “got rid of” the other shepherds who were supposed to be tending them. And then he got tired of the sheep and decided to leave them to eat each other’s flesh and die. Is this supposed to be some kind of metaphor? If it is, it’s making a lot less sense than it would have if he had just said what he meant.
Mark says the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus “like a dove“. Is that something doves normally do? Do they descend on people?
Jesus told his disciples to watch out for “the yeast of the Pharisees”. Why yeast? How can he expect anyone to understand him when he talks like that and doesn’t explain himself?
In the parable of the fig tree, is the character who doesn’t want to be too hasty about getting rid of a fruitless fig tree supposed to be God/Jesus? If so, it seems kind of unrealistic, considering Jesus’s behavior in this other fig tree story.
In the parable of the lost son, the father, who presumably represents God, keeps insisting that his son was dead. Even if he doesn’t mean it literally, that shows that he didn’t know what had happened to his son. The whole point of the parable depends on the father not knowing he was going to get his son back. So either God doesn’t know everything, or this parable is pointless.
The parable of the scary widow portrays as a good example someone who uses harassment and threats. That’s not good advice whether you’re dealing with God or humans.
Paul says Jesus appeared to him “as to one abnormally born“. How does Jesus normally appear to “abnormally born” people? I don’t know, so this comparison tells me nothing.
Paul says underage heirs are no different from slaves. But then he makes an analogy about people going from being underage slaves to being children and heirs. Which, according to what he had just said, should make no difference. (Unless by “children” he means adult offspring, which he didn’t specify.)
Peter tries to make a parallel between Noah’s flood and baptism, but those really aren’t alike at all. Noah wasn’t saved by being immersed in water; he was saved from being immersed in water.
Weak arguments by analogy
Most of the analogies in the Bible are so bad, they don’t even qualify as weak analogies. But here are some of the Bible’s weak attempts at reasoning by analogy:
Isaiah says people shouldn’t be proud, and they should give God all the credit for their achievements, because people should act more like tools and weapons do. Tools and weapons know their place. You can tell, because tools and weapons don’t pick people up and boast that they’re better than the people who want to use them. Because tools and weapons are humble. Yeah, that’s why tools and weapons don’t do those things.
God says he poured out his wrath on his people for shedding blood, because he thought what they were doing was “like a woman’s monthly uncleanness”. This implies that God gets angry at women for “shedding blood” each month.
Jesus claims that if salt “loses its saltiness“, which is not a thing that happens, then it can’t become salty again. What he doesn’t mention is that salt can’t become un-salty in the first place. What’s his point, anyway? That people can change, but they can’t change back, for some reason? And why choose a metaphor based on a made-up phenomenon that no one has ever actually experienced?
Jesus can’t understand why anyone would ever worry about getting food. God gives birds food whenever they need it, doesn’t he? So God is definitely going to always make sure all humans always have all the food they need. So why would anyone ever worry about food? Why would anyone think they have to work for food? Birds don’t do that. Don’t people know that birds exist?
Jesus can’t understand why anyone would worry about getting clothes, either. God gives grass fancy clothes, doesn’t he? Or at least he makes it look kinda like the grass has fancy clothes. That’s just as good, right? So God is definitely going to always make sure all humans always have all the clothes they need. So why would anyone ever worry about clothes? Don’t they know that flowers exist?
Jesus says you should take the plank out of your own eye first. Then you can try to get the speck out of your brother’s eye. But I don’t think you’d be able to see clearly enough to do that, after having a plank in your eye.
Jesus claims that if you clean only the inside of a cup or dish, then the outside will magically be clean too. Maybe that’s true of whatever he was really talking about, but it’s not true of cups and dishes. So that was a stupid metaphor to use.
The parable of the cancelled debts involves forgiveness leading to love, but what Jesus was trying to make a point about involved love leading to forgiveness. So that’s not a good illustration of what he was trying to say.
Jesus tells a parable where one man goes to heaven and another goes to hell. Jesus seems to think that with this story he’s warning people to repent and obey God. But the story doesn’t actually say the fate of these men was determined by anything they did. It says it was determined by what happened to them throughout their lives, by whether they experienced good lives or bad lives, which wasn’t really in their control.
Paul tries to convince his followers not to hate their wives, using an analogy based on the false premise that no one has ever hated their own body.
The book of Hebrews says a will can only be in effect when the person who made it has died, and that’s why God’s covenant could only be put into effect if Moses killed some calves. The calves would have to be the ones who wrote the covenant for that reasoning to even begin to make sense.
Ignoring relevant differences
God kept watch when his people needed him to help them get out of Egypt… therefore his people should keep watch, when no one actually needs them to, and they’re not helping anyone by keeping watch.
A woman makes up a story, claiming that one of her sons killed the other, and now everyone wants her to hand over her only remaining son to be killed. When King David agrees with her that her murderer son should be protected, she accuses David of hypocrisy, just because he’s banished his own son. Which is nothing like the situation in the woman’s story.
For David to actually be hypocritical here, there would have to be people trying to kill David’s murderer son, which no one was at that time. And that son would have to be the only one David had left, which he wasn’t.
God says a potter’s clay never criticizes the potter’s work, therefore humans shouldn’t criticize their maker, either. Because humans are inanimate objects that lack the sapience to realize how badly designed they are, and lack the sentience to be affected by that poor design in any way that matters, just like clay pots! God says there’s no reason he shouldn’t just destroy humans when he accidentally makes them wrong. Because humans are morally irrelevant objects just like clay, and God is a fallible human being just like a potter!
God points out that Jonah didn’t want God to destroy a helpful shade plant, therefore Jonah should also not want God to destroy a wicked city.
A centurion, based on the fact that there are people who do what he tells them, comes to the conclusion that somebody else is capable of telekinesis.
The parable of the weeds seems like it’s trying to explain why God doesn’t deal with all the evil people immediately. But the explanation given in the story doesn’t apply if you’re all-knowing and all-powerful. And Jesus says the harvest represents “the end of the age”, but what’s different about that time that makes it okay for him to kill everyone then, but not now?
The parables of the buried treasure and the pearl make the point that it’s worth giving up a lot to get into the kingdom… Except you don’t actually have to do that, given what Jesus said about how easy it is to be his follower. So why is Jesus making it sound like you do have to give up a lot? And the Bible says you can’t buy the gift of God with money. So why is Jesus making it sound like you can buy the gift of God with money?
In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the king points out that he forgave the servant’s debt, therefore there’s no reason the servant shouldn’t have forgiven the other guy’s debt. But the debt the servant had owed was a hopelessly huge one. The debt the servant was owed was way smaller. I would think that should make a difference. Or does this king think everybody should always be required to forgive every debt they’re owed? That would amount to legalizing theft.
Jesus says people can tell that summer is near by looking at what’s happening to the trees, which is based on patterns that we’ve repeatedly observed before. Therefore people should also be just as confident that the end of the world is near when they see certain things that he claims are signs of the end. Even though we don’t have any empirical data on whether those things are actually correlated with worlds ending. Jesus thinks if you can predict today’s weather, but you can’t predict the end of the world, that somehow makes you a hypocrite.
The point of the parable of the unmerciful servant seems to be that if you don’t forgive people who wrong you, you can’t expect God to ever forgive you for the things you do. But that’s not really comparable, since nothing you do has any effect on God.
Paul thinks God’s law no longer has any authority over someone once that person dies. He tries to convince his followers of this by giving an example scenario where someone dies, and then someone else is no longer bound by certain restrictions that the law had previously required of her. This is not an example of what he was saying at all.
The release from certain restrictions is part of what the law says, so this is all within the law, not a case of being released from the law. The law is saying one person’s death makes another person free from certain requirements, not the person who died. And this is a real death, while what Paul really had in mind was a figurative “death”, which the law says nothing about. You can’t get out of obeying the law just by calling yourself dead.
James tells his followers they should wait patiently for Jesus to return and set everything right, the way a farmer patiently waits for the rain to come and his crops to grow. But nothing like what the Christians are waiting for has ever been known to happen, so that’s a little different.
At one point in the book of Judges, God doesn’t even realize he’s comparing things that are alike. He attempts to make a contrast, apparently not realizing that he’s actually doing the opposite, and refuting his own point. He says the reason he’s not going to rescue his people this time, as opposed to all those other times they were oppressed, is that this time, they have abandoned him and served other gods… just like they did all the other times. So no, he has no excuse for reacting differently this time.
Solomon tries to make an analogy to make adultery seem undesirable, and ends up sounding like he’s trying to promote selfishness as a virtue. If anything, he’s inadvertently making a more convincing case that opposing adultery is selfish and wrong. Then he goes on to compare one’s own wife to an animal, and to draw attention to another married woman’s breasts, and to ask what’s so desirable about those. This guy is unbelievably unconvincing.
When an army is coming to attack Egypt, Jeremiah warns that there’s a gadfly coming to attack Egypt. That’s probably not the best choice of metaphor if you want to sound threatening.
God tries to comfort his people with a very poorly-chosen simile: He says they’re going to be as numerous as the flocks of sheep that they bring to God’s festivals to be slaughtered as offerings to God. Another time, he tries to describe a coming punishment by using metaphorical food imagery that could just as easily be taken as an encouraging promise of abundance.
God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks and somehow make them become one stick. That doesn’t even sound like something you’d be able to do for real. So what does that say about what it represents? At best, that was another very poorly-chosen analogy.
In Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus concludes that God isn’t willing to let any of his people perish. So why did he try to illustrate that by portraying God as a shepherd who abandons his whole flock after finding out that they’re not securely contained?
The message of the parable of the selectively generous employer seems to be that if you want God to reward you, you don’t need to put any more than the minimal effort into it. You’ll get the exact same reward regardless of how many good things you do.
Jesus tries to convince people to always be ready for his return… using an analogy that makes that seem like a completely unreasonable thing to expect people to do. It’s like staying up all night, every night, for the rest of your life, so no thieves can sneak up on you while you sleep.
The parable of the tardy bridegroom portrays Jesus’s character as a hypocrite, arriving late and then locking other people out for arriving late. Jesus claims the point is that you should keep watch, yet nothing bad happens to half the people in the story who failed to keep watch.
Jesus tries to justify not helping foreigners, using a metaphor comparing them to dogs. His analogy is so weak, even he is easily convinced that he was wrong.
The parable of the cancelled debts implies that people who love Jesus are evil. The more you love Jesus, the more evil you must be, according to this analogy.
Jesus attempts to convince people that they should give up everything they have… using stories about people who clearly would be even worse off if they did that. The people in the stories need more of what they have, not less. So Jesus is saying you should give up everything you have “in the same way” that these people shouldn’t??
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector gives the impression that God doesn’t actually care whether people sin or not.
Jesus “threatens” to spit the Christians of Laodicea out of his mouth. But why would you want to be in his mouth anyway?
Unflattering divine comparisons
God tells Isaiah an allegory about a failed attempt to grow a vineyard, in order to try to justify destroying his chosen nation. But he just makes himself look incompetent and unreasonable, on top of being genocidal. God can’t figure out what he did wrong, so he decides it must be the grapes’ fault. Nothing about that story is consistent with the attributes God supposedly has.
Then he tells Ezekiel a nonsensical story about two eagles gardening. God seems to want the second eagle to be the bad guy, but he forgot to say anything that would actually make that eagle look bad. Instead, it seems like the real villain in this story is whoever came and uprooted the vine at the end. Which would be… God?
Ezekiel 23 is a metaphorical story where God marries two sisters who are prostitutes. Even though he hates prostitutes, and thinks no one should be married to two sisters at the same time. Eventually he gets both of his wives killed, on purpose. This whole parable is meant to make his people look bad, but God mostly just ends up making himself look bad.
God still wants to try to justify destroying his chosen nation, so he also tells Ezekiel an allegory about a failed attempt to clean a pot. (He even tries setting it on fire!) As with the vineyard story, God only succeeds in making himself look incompetent. And since he admits he knows that even using fire isn’t going to work, this story doesn’t actually justify his actions at all.
In Ezekiel 33, God makes an analogy to unconvincingly try to make it look like it’s Ezekiel’s fault if somebody sins and dies. But the analogy he chooses only makes God look even more responsible for those deaths than he already is. He compares Ezekiel to a watchman who has to warn people that the enemy is coming to kill them. If the watchman fails to warn people, God says it’s the watchman’s fault that they died.
But really, if the enemy is killing people, that would be primarily the enemy’s fault. And who’s taking the role of the enemy in this case? God. God is the killer here that Ezekiel has to warn people about. And the killer wants to put all the blame on Ezekiel for the killer’s own actions, when he could instead have just chosen not to kill people? That’s hardly reasonable.
If the parable of the sloppy farmer is supposed to be about God/Jesus, you’d think he’d be able to put all his seeds exactly where they need to be. It’s a fitting description of him, I suppose, but why is Jesus drawing attention to his incompetence?
Jesus says you shouldn’t worry, because God will keep you safe. You can tell, because even something as comparatively worthless as a sparrow never falls to the ground unless God wants it to. But are we expected to assume that nothing bad ever happens to sparrows? That’s the only way this would actually support Jesus’s conclusion. Given the fact the sparrows and humans actually do die all the time, the logical conclusion to draw from this would be that God doesn’t care about sparrows or humans, or that he wants them to die.
Jesus attempts to insult the people of his generation by comparing them to children who complain that nobody’s playing along with the different moods of their songs. But when Jesus further explains the meaning of his simile, it turns out that he and John the Baptist are actually the ones acting like children. He did not think this through.
Jesus tries again to make the people of his generation look bad. He thinks he can do that by talking about what happens to formerly demon-possessed people. It seems like it’s supposed to be some kind of analogy? I can’t tell what his point is, though. All he’s really doing is making himself look bad, since he’s the one driving demons out of people, which he says only makes them worse off in the end.
In the parable of the two sons, one son actually does what the father says to do, while the other just says he will, but doesn’t. Jesus makes it clear that God prefers people who actually obey everything he says, like the first son. Guess which of the two sons Jesus is more like…
The parable of the violent tenants makes God sending Jesus look like a stupid mistake. It makes God look like an idiot who has learned nothing from the deaths of all the people he’s sent before. So he decides to send his son next, and he’s surprised when his son gets killed too.
The parable of the greedy master portrays the character representing God/Jesus very unflatteringly, as a spoiled, unjust mass murderer. And it has him rewarding people for doing something that God says is detestable. Something God says people should be killed for doing. Yet the character representing him here punishes people for failing to do it. I have no idea what point Jesus was trying to make with that one.
Jesus uses a metaphor about someone (representing God) beating his slaves. Apparently this metaphor is supposed to convince people to be sure to obey God or whatever. But the logical conclusion to draw from what Jesus says here (besides that God is evil) is that you should remain ignorant of what God wants you to do. That way your unavoidable punishment will at least be less severe.
Jesus says everyone who sins is a slave to sin, but a slave has no permanent place in the family, unlike a son. And he refers to himself as the son here. So it sounds like Jesus is saying he’s going to be part of the family of sin forever. And he wants to free other people, so they can join him.
Anyone who climbs into the sheep pen in an unusual way, rather than entering by the gate like you’re supposed to, is a thief and a robber… says the guy who entered the world in a way no one else ever did.
Continue reading Bad analogies in the Bible