Three suggestions for how not to read the Bible

The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part One

Catherine Cowell
8 min readApr 17, 2023
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

I am a Christian and have been for as long as I can remember. And a pretty dedicated one at that. The Bible has been a constant companion for the whole of my adult life. I’ve read it, studied it, memorised bits of it, taken it with me on holiday, been inspired, comforted and changed by its words. But, I expect like many people, for most of my life I have read it through a certain set of filters, evangelical-tinted spectacles, that have allowed its more troubling features to pass under my mental radar largely unnoticed.

I wasn’t completely oblivious. I’ve always known that there are ‘difficult bits’ that I didn’t quite know what to do with. There has been a rumbling discomfort about some of the contents of the Bible, but until recently, I haven’t addressed it properly. It has been surprisingly easy to ignore or sugar coat the difficult bits, allowing me to find wisdom and solace within.

And then suddenly that changed.

For me, the trigger was looking at the Bible, very deliberately, from my perspective as a woman. Given that I am a woman, you might wonder why I hadn’t done that before. I think the answer to that, to be honest, is that I joined Christian tradition where faith and scripture have been interpreted through a male gaze for centuries. We tend to look where our culture and our teachers point us.

This is an interesting journey to be on. I have discovered treasures I didn’t know were there. This series of articles will introduce you to some of them, if you’re interested:

I have also found horrors.

Although I spent decades not noticing it, there is quite a lot of sexism in the Bible. Women are treated appallingly and largely ignored.

In my last series, I explored honestly the misogyny in the Bible. The stuff that doesn’t find its way into Sunday School stories and memory verses:

So what to do? Having taken the blinkers off, I can hardly just ignore what I’m reading and put them back on again. Not with any integrity, at any rate. I also don’t want to turn my back on it. For better or for worse, the Bible is part of my life. For all its inherent difficulties, the Bible has been helpful and precious to me for decades. It still is.

So how do we approach this highly complex, difficult library of ancient books? How can we be honest about what the Bible is actually like and still relate to the Bible as a sacred text? That’s what I’m going to explore in this series. And I’m going to start by looking at some ways not to read the Bible.

1. Moving Swiftly on — Just ignore the awkward bits

Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

Pretending the difficult bits in the Bible don’t exist, is a very common approach. I think most of us have probably done this to a greater or lesser extent over the years. We meditate on the verses that make good fridge magnets:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

not the ones that sound like a rallying cry for a terrorist organisation:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will … make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth… For they have not listened to my words.” Jeremiah 29:17–19

Photo by Emma Leigh on Unsplash

Sunday school stories are awash with violence but we manage to focus on the positives. We’ll tell the story of Joshua and his army marching around the city of Jericho with their trumpets and put a lot less emphasis on the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. Noah and his Ark provides us with a nice story about rescuing animals, appropriate for even very young children. Who hasn’t played with a wooden ark or sung about the animals coming in two by two? Never mind the total destruction visited upon everyone and everything that didn’t make it into the ark. Purveyors of Christian tack everywhere offer stickers and pencil cases portraying rainbows and declaring that “God keeps his promises” tactfully omitting the fact the promise the rainbow represents is the one about God vowing never again destroy all life in a global flood.

I made a bit of a parental error a few years back. Like many parents, I love reading with my kids at bedtime. So when I found a book in the children’s section based on the story of Noah I thought it would be just the thing. It was called Not the End of the World (in case you need to avoid it) and it had jaunty pictures of animals on the cover. It had even won the Whitbread prize for children’s literature. I was excited to start reading it.

It was only when we were a couple of chapters in and my son was really enjoying it that I realised that this could only be described as children’s fiction in the same way that The Exorcist might be called a children’s film. I repeatedly suggested that maybe we could find a different book to read, as this one wasn’t very nice, but he liked it and wanted to keep going to the end. I thought it was awful.

This particular retelling of the story was unrelentingly grim. It depicted Noah and his sons as frightening religious fanatics, shoving desperate drowning people off the sides of the ark because they were sinners and it was God’s will that they died. Two of the younger family members secretly rescued a small boy and his baby sister but had to keep them hidden lest they were found by Noah and his sons, thrown off the boat and left to drown.

It was a stark reminder of what the Noah story is actually about. I would have preferred to maintain my mental picture of a cosy ark as designed by Playmobil resting on a hill beneath a rainbow rather than have it replaced by images of a murky sea where the ark floats amongst the bloated carcasses of the dead.

More often than not, I think we apply a ‘moving swiftly on’ approach to the awkward bits that we come across. Not quite acknowledging the implications of what we’re reading, we move onto something less difficult and more palatable.

I am not suggesting that we should give equal time to every part of the Bible. It is absolutely right to concentrate our reading on the bits of the Bible that are actually helpful. Trying to work out what laws about mildew might have to say to us today or meditating on the bits of the psalms where David is asking God to smash people’s heads in is very unlikely to be spiritually useful. But we can’t, in all conscience, ignore what the Bible actually contains forever. We can view some bits as more helpful and edifying than others, but we do need to at least acknowledge the fact that the difficult bits are in there and allow that fact to impact how we view and understand and the Bible.

2. Justifying the Unjustifiable

More disturbing than ignoring the difficult bits is taking it all literally and making God the cause of all the atrocities. And then explaining why God was entirely justified in authoring oppressive legal codes and committing appalling misogyny, violence and genocide.

I have heard lots of these justifications over the years and they all leave us with an appalling image of God. Often it’s God’s holiness that is cited as the reason for all the violence. God can’t look upon evil, so has to eliminate the people responsible for it. But what is holiness, if it is not all that is good? And what is goodness if it isn’t love, kindness, peace, joy and beauty?

If Jesus came to show us what God is like, then that pretty much eliminates misogyny and violence from God’s play list. Because if Jesus looks like God, then God looks like Jesus.

I realise this raises more questions than it answers. But if I am left with a choice between a simple Bible that comes with a cruel and violent God or a complex, question raising set of sacred scriptures and a God who looks like Jesus, I’ll take the questions any day.

3. Treat it all as metaphor

A subtle variation on the ‘just ignore the unpalatable bits and pretend they’re not there’ approach is to simply treat everything as metaphor.

A few years ago, my husband and I read through large parts of the Bible with some friends who had come along to an alpha course and wanted to explore further. They didn’t fancy starting with one of the gospels, which is the usual recommended approach for someone who isn’t familiar with the bible but wants to know more. Instead, they wanted to start at Genesis and see how far we got. So we read huge portions of the Bible together over quite a number of weeks and got as far as the Song of Songs. I don’t know, ultimately, how much they gained from the experience. I learnt lots.

The first thing I realised was that I had spent so long listening to sermons and reading books that saw the difficult stories as metaphors that I had become blind to what they actually said. Our friends, however, were coming to the Bible completely fresh. They read of God commanding the Israelites to conquer the land by defeating the natives in battle and then killing every last one of them and they were appalled. It didn’t occur to them to view such stories as a picture of us needing to be ruthless with the sin in our lives or God being faithful. To them it was just God sanctioned genocide. They also weren’t terribly impressed by the number of people God slaughtered during the trek across the wilderness for what looked like fairly minor offences. I realised how blind I had become to the actual Biblical narrative. It is pretty gruesome. While there is often some benefit to looking for the metaphors in the stories, it’s not honest to do so at the expense of completely ignoring the stories themselves.

The issue of metaphor obscuring what’s going on happens with regard to the women in the bible quite a bit. In the next part of this series, I’d like to look in some detail at one example where this happens; namely, the story of Esther. As we will see, there is far more to be gained through taking seriously what actually happens in this story and seeing what it can teach us than there is through turning it into a sanitised metaphor.

If you enjoyed this, you might like my Loved Called Gifted podcast, available on most podcast platforms, or you can find it here.

I offer spiritual direction and coaching. The Loved Called Gifted course, available online and in person, will help you to discover your life calling. Discover these things and other bits and pieces on my website.



Catherine Cowell

Adoptive parent, follower of Jesus, spiritual director, coach, writer. Lover of coffee shops, conversations and scenery. Host of the Loved Called Gifted podcast