Columns > Published on October 19th, 2015

LURID: Bible Bloodshed - 5 of the Goriest Episodes in Scripture

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Decapitation, dismemberment, demons, dragons, rape (lots of rape), zombies, impalement, possessed pigs and flesh-eating worms all feature in Donald Trump’s favorite book, the Bible.  This well-loved horror classic also tops the reading lists of a diverse group of public figures, ranging from Hillary Clinton to Alice Cooper, Sarah Palin, and Mark Wahlberg. In fact, the most recent Harris Poll once again named the Bible as America’s all-time favorite tome (Gone With The Wind took second place). 

It’s no surprise that, as a nation, we find the Bible so appealing.  Despite originating more than 3000 years ago (and taking 1500 years total to write), it seems tailored to our zeitgeist.  The narrative is rooted in the same bloody cycle of violence and retribution that drives Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.  It contains tales of the supernatural that would chime perfectly as plotlines in American Horror Story or a low budget Blumhouse flick.  And, both words and deeds are framed within the rapiest of rape cultures, as Biblical patriarchs force themselves on both literal and metaphorical women.  Is this testament to the immutability of human nature, or evidence that we need to move on?

Is this testament to the immutability of human nature, or evidence that we need to move on?

Some parts of the Bible have aged better than others. The prohibitions in Leviticus against eating seafood, wearing blended fabrics, trimming beards, holding back the wages of an employee overnight or touching a dead cat are generally ignored.  “Love thy neighbor” and “Judge not, that ye be not judged” still work as words to live by, nonetheless.  Yet the Bible is much more than a series of self-help instructions.   Within its pages are epic adventures, fable and history, heroes and villains, nightmares and visions, with the dark side of the divine emphasized as much, if not more, than the light. No one’s going to buy into a religion if it’s boring.  Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe (John 4:48).

The men who sharpened their sticks and painstakingly carved Hebrew (the Old Testament) and Koiné Greek (the New Testament) phrases into wet clay knew full well the value of signs and wonders.  The more salacious, shocking or scary a story, the more likely it was to be remembered and passed on.  So they mixed moral messages with the macabre, legalese with the lurid, and tried to entertain as well as instruct.  The resulting religious texts are a glorious mix of the sacred and the profane: for every Blessed Virgin there’s a whore on the prowl for lovers “whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses” (Ezekiel 23:20).

Although the modern Bible is nothing but a crude facsimile of the source, it still offers a tantalizing glimpse into the horrors that obsessed our ancestors.  It also conveys some of the raw brutality of everyday existence back then, plus the sense of helplessness in the face of destiny.  Without science to provide convenient explanations, people scrabbled to interpret natural phenomena through myths, which evolved into Scripture.  Floods and earthquakes are caused by sin.  The mentally ill are possessed by demons.  Unbelievers are punished by divine retribution. For believers, the monsters are real.

In keeping with the rest of Scripture, much of the horror is coded, enigmatic, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion.  A prime example is the zombie invasion of Jerusalem glossed over in Matthew 27 ( "many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many"). Some of the horror is more explicit, designed specifically to demonstrate the almightiness of God when it comes to smiting His foes.  I’ve already written about the disaster movie scenarios of Revelation but there’s plenty more death and destruction where that came from. So, if you want to add some scares to your Bible study this Shocktober, look no further than the following five chapters:

1. Sodom And Gomorrah, Genesis 19

Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were populated by the unrighteous.  Genesis doesn’t go into specifics, just says “their sin was grievous”. Isaiah 1, on the other hand, gives a full rundown of the crimes: pointless blood sacrifices and feasts, murder, bribery, ignorance, rebellion and diluting wine with water.  Note that homosexuality isn’t on the list – that’s an 11th century addition.  God decided the only way to stamp out the iniquity was the ancient equivalent of nuking them from orbit, by raining fire and brimstone (sulfur) on the cities and surrounding plains.  Imagine the horror of a massive volcanic explosion, equivalent to a hundred atomic bombs, perhaps similar to Krakatoa which blew in 1883, killing 40,000 in the first few hours with fire, earthquakes, tsunamis and billowing clouds of ash.  With no warning or eyewitnesses, and no seismologists on hand to explain what happened, it’s easy to see where stories of divine wrath might plug the gap.

Then there’s the chilling footnote about Lot’s wife, one of the very few survivors, who glanced back as she fled and was turned to a “pillar of salt”.  Why punish this already terrified woman, forced suddenly from her home? Because she didn’t take the order “look not behind thee” literally enough? Because she actually saw God’s face or hand wreaking destruction? Or because she hadn’t had enough salt in her kitchen to cook a meal the night before, when angels paid an unexpected visit? Was she transformed from the feet up or the head down?  Whatever the reasoning, she’s still visible to this day, a rock pillar gazing mournfully over the Dead Sea at Mount Sodom.

The wholesale annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most dramatic and horrifying episodes in the Old Testament, and has captured the imaginations of artists as diverse as John Martin (his 1852 painting, above, evokes the terrible beauty of such destruction) and Robert Aldrich (do not miss the tacky 1962 movie) as well as prefiguring modern fears of nuclear devastation.

2. Leviathan, Job 41

Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.
His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.
One is so near to another, that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.
By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.
Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.

Some modern Bible commentators, anxious to prove that everything in the Bible is true, will tell you this is merely a hyperbolic description of a crocodile. Other commentators, anxious to prove that everything in the Bible is true and paleontology is a lie, will tell you these verses refer to a dinosaur (a Megalodon or Kronosaurus, maybe?).  Others read this passage and envisage a fearsome sea monster, close kin to the Naga of Buddhist lore or the Mesopotamian serpent goddess Tiamat.  The Leviathan has been rendered to spectacular effect in art (Gustav Doré’s engravings) and literature (Herman Melville drew heavily on Job when writing Moby Dick).

3. Massacre of the Innocents,  Matthew 2

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Herod earned his “the Great” title the hard way, through increasing the land he governed from Palestine to parts of modern Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and by undertaking ambitious building work, fortresses, aqueducts and amphitheatres.  Therefore, when soothsayers began to predict that a new King of The Jews would rise he understandably felt threatened.  His anger management skills were notoriously poor – he executed his wife and three sons on a whim —  so he immediately ordered the slaughter of any and all infants who might fit the profile of the new king i.e. two years old or younger. This incident is briefly reported in Matthew, and nowhere else (including the accounts of contemporary historians such as Josephus). This suggests it may not have happened, or the number of children involved (Bethlehem was a village) may have only been a dozen or less.  Still, even a handful of toddlers ripped from their family homes and butchered by soldiers makes for a gruesome story that echoes down the ages, one which has inspired some heart-breaking Renaissance paintings (Cornelis van Haarlem,below, Peter Paul Rubens and Pacecco de Rosa all painted a Massacre of The Innocents), and the haunting 16th century Coventry Carol:

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

4. The Decollation of John The Baptist, Mark 6

And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

This is a tangled tale of incest, revenge and unholy relics. John the Baptist was an outspoken kind of guy, who called out the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great), for divorcing Phasaelis and marrying his widowed sister-in-law, Herodias (a domestic arrangement expressly forbidden by Leviticus 20:21 And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless).  Herod probably would’ve let it lie, but he was drunk when his stepdaughter danced for him at his birthday party, and he offered her anything she wanted, and when she checked with her Mom, that was the severed head of John the Baptist served on a plate.  To pile insult on injury, Herodias disposed of the head in a dungheap when they were done partying.  Oscar Wilde was one of many artists and writers fascinated by this story, and turned it into a play, Salome, written in French to avoid the British censors (who banned it for forty years anyway).

John was destined for many adventures after his decapitation. Joanna, one of Jesus’ followers, retrieved the head and gave it a proper burial on the Mount of Olives.  The grisly relic would then be lost and found many times, carried from Jerusalem to Constantinople to Sukhumi to Damascus.  The Knights Templar supposedly had it in their possession in the 13th century: their initiation ritual revolved around kissing it.  Part (most of the face) ended up preserved on a golden platter in Amiens Cathedral where it was venerated for centuries, despite contrary claims that John’s final resting place was in Syria (at the Umayyad Mosque), Romania (in the Skete Prodromos) or in Italy (Church of San Silvestro in Capite).  The Italian claim was bolstered as recently as 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the withered relic as the one true head of John The Baptist.

5. Eaten Alive By Maggots, Acts 12, 2 Maccabees 9

And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.
And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.
And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.
But the word of God grew and multiplied.

Herod Antipas was an unlucky man. He wasn’t nearly as brutal as his father, but Fate positioned him as one of the main antagonists in the life of Christ, and consequently, he came to a grisly end – according to the Acts of The Apostles, a fourth century text that may or may not have been written to appease Roman doubts about the new religion.  The above account of a king sitting on a throne and claiming divinity sounds more like Herod the Great than Herod Antipas, but the event takes place after the death of Jesus (and after Herod has executed Jesus’ brother James and imprisoned Peter), when Herod Antipas reigned and Herod the Great was long dead. It’s entirely possible the author of Acts conflated the two Herods for dramatic effect, or drew on earlier stories, as historical accounts say Herod Antipas died in exile in France. 

And what a drama it is. The king, royally arrayed, appears in front of a crowd and speaks to his subjects who worship him as they would a god, not a man. Yet his moment of glory is fleeting.  As his oration swells, he is struck down (“the Lord smote”) and devoured, while still alive, by worms in front of the appalled multitude. This punishment for an arrogant king is not without Scriptural precedent — 2 Maccabees 9 relates the downfall of Antiochus, who God smote with "an incurable and invisible plague".  After writhing in torment, unable to walk, Antiochus is subjected to the ultimate horror:

 ...worms rose up out of the body of this wicked man, and whiles he lived in sorrow and pain, his flesh fell away, and the filthiness of his smell was noisome to all his army. And the man, that thought a little afore he could reach to the stars of heaven, no man could endure to carry for his intolerable stink.

“Eaten alive by maggots” is definitely a thing, according to YouTube (click on those links at your own peril), so these stories may be founded in fact. Herod the Great did become very ill before he died. Historian Josephus records his painful symptoms thus:

He had a fever, though not a raging fever, an intolerable itching of the whole skin, continuous pains in the intestines, tumors of the feet as in dropsy, inflammation of the abdomen, and gangrene of the privy parts."

Modern doctors have suggested that Herod may have suffered from gonorrhea, chronic kidney disease, hyper-thyroidism or a rare infection of the male genitalia, Fournier's gangrene.  Whatever caused the death of (whichever) King Herod, it was painful and debilitating enough to suggest to his subjects that he was being eaten from the inside out as punishment for his sins.

This selection barely scratches the surface.  Horror is embedded bone deep into Scripture – it generates awe, adds mystique, and makes us fear free-thinking and rebellion. The Biblical narrative, for all its talk of peace, love and understanding, is driven by violence.  And God is behind what can only be described as genocide – there are almost 2.5 million divinely-caused deaths recorded within the Bible’s pages (as opposed to less than a dozen attributed to Satan).  It’s also one of the most contested texts in history. Bible scholars bicker to this day about sources, translations, versions and canon, and lakes of blood have been spilled as one faction insists their interpretation is better than another.  The bloodshed described within its pages is more than equalled by the bloodshed it has caused without.

So next time you’re in the presence of a presidential candidate waxing enthusiastic about their best-loved book of all time, ask them about one of these passages, or one of your own choosing.  Remind them the Bible contains some of the grisliest stories known to humanity — and that the most gruesome methods of divine retribution are reserved for jumped-up princes and wannabe kings. 

What's your favorite Bible horror story? Please share in the comments below.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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