12 Most Terrible Stories from the Old Testament

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, contains many narratives that portray complex moral issues, divine judgments, and the human condition.

Below, World History Edu presents some of the most intense and challenging stories from the Old Testament:

The Fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3)

The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve is one of the most seminal and iconic narratives in the Old Testament. Found in Genesis 3, it sets the stage for many of the theological, moral, and existential themes explored throughout the Bible.

In the story, Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden, a paradise created by God where they enjoy perfect communion with Him. They are free to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

A serpent, traditionally understood to be an embodiment or agent of Satan (though this is a later interpretation, and the text itself doesn’t explicitly make this claim), approaches Eve. It questions God’s command regarding the forbidden tree, asking, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).

The serpent tempts Eve by telling her that she will not surely die, as God had warned, but instead, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise, fresco painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City (1510–1564)

Eve, seeing that the fruit was desirable for gaining wisdom, took some and ate it. She also gave some to Adam, who was with her, and he ate.

By this act, they disobeyed God’s sole command, introducing sin and its consequences into the world.

After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened, and they become aware of their nakedness. This symbolizes a loss of innocence and the acquisition of knowledge or self-consciousness.

They sew fig leaves together to make coverings for themselves, indicative of the human tendency to cover up or hide from one’s wrongdoings.

God comes into the garden and, noticing they are hiding, calls out to Adam. Adam admits they hid because of their nakedness.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, by French painter Natoire, 1740

When questioned further, Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit, and Eve blames the serpent for deceiving her. This blame-shifting is a potent symbol of human nature’s tendency to deflect responsibility.

The serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly and is set in enmity with the woman’s offspring.

Eve is told she will have increased pain in childbirth and will desire her husband, who will rule over her.

Adam is told that because he listened to Eve and ate the fruit, the ground is cursed. He will toil and labor to produce food, emphasizing the hardship and struggle that will now define human existence.

English painter and poet William Blake’s color printing of God Judging Adam original composed in 1795.

To prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life and living forever in their sinful state, God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Cherubim and a flaming sword are placed to the east of Eden to guard the way to the Tree of Life.

The Fall of Man by Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1628–29

The story of the Fall is foundational for many Christian theological constructs. First of all, it explains the origin of sin, suffering, and death in the world. Secondly, the narrative introduces the concept of original sin, the inherent sinful nature passed down through all of humanity due to Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience. Next, the story highlights humanity’s free will, the capacity to choose, and the consequences that come with choices. It can also be said the story foreshadows the need for redemption and the eventual coming of a Savior to rectify the broken relationship between God and humanity.

Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the earliest and most tragic narratives in the Old Testament, emphasizing themes of jealousy, rivalry, sin, and divine judgment.

In the story, Cain and Abel are the firstborn children of Adam and Eve, the original human couple. Cain becomes a tiller of the ground (a farmer), while Abel becomes a shepherd.

Both brothers bring offerings to God. Abel offers the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions, which pleases God. Cain, on the other hand, brings an offering from the fruits of the soil.

For reasons not explicitly detailed in the text, God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Some interpretations suggest that Abel’s offering was given in a more sincere spirit of reverence and thanksgiving, or that the nature of Abel’s sacrifice (a blood offering) was more acceptable. Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that the disparity in reception was rooted in the attitudes and intentions of the brothers.

Seeing that his offering was not favored, Cain becomes very angry, and his countenance falls.

God, noticing Cain’s disposition, warns him: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7). This warning underscores the idea that humans have agency over their actions and that they must actively resist sinful inclinations.

Cain leadeth Abel to death, by French painter James Tissot, c. 1900

Disregarding God’s warning, Cain invites Abel out to the field and, overcome by jealousy and resentment, kills him.

God confronts Cain, asking him where Abel is. In a defiant response, Cain says, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Creator, knowing the truth, tells Cain that Abel’s blood cries out to Him from the ground.

As punishment for his crime, God curses Cain. The ground, which once yielded produce for him, will no longer do so. Cain is condemned to become a restless wanderer on the earth.

Cain, fearing for his life, tells God that anyone who finds him might kill him. God promises to protect Cain by placing a mark on him, ensuring that no one would harm him, lest they suffer a sevenfold vengeance.

Despite his wrongdoing, God’s action here shows a degree of mercy and protection. Cain departs from God’s presence, settles in the land of Nod, east of Eden, and starts a family. The narrative moves on to describe his descendants and their contributions to early civilization.

Basically, the story showcases the intensification of sin: from the initial disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden, human wrongdoing progresses to murder in just one generation.

Also, the narrative underscores the dangers of jealousy and the devastating consequences it can have on relationships.

Cain’s defiant “am I my brother’s keeper?” highlights humanity’s frequent reluctance to accept responsibility for wrongdoing.

The story also demonstrates God’s dual nature of justice and mercy. While Cain is punished, he’s also protected.

In Genesis 4, Cain, out of jealousy, murders his brother Abel and is marked by God for his sin. The story of Cain and Abel is one of the earliest and most tragic narratives in the Old Testament, emphasizing themes of jealousy, rivalry, sin, and divine judgment. Image: Cain slaying Abel, by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600

The Flood (Genesis 6-9)

In Genesis 6-9, due to the wickedness of humanity, God sends a global flood, sparing only Noah, his family, and a pair of each animal species. Image: The Flood of Noah and Companions (c. 1911) by French painter Léon Comerre. Musée d’Arts de Nantes

Seeing the immense wickedness of humanity, God decides to cleanse the Earth with a great flood, intending to wipe out every living creature.

However, Noah finds favor in God’s eyes due to his righteousness. God instructs Noah to build an ark and to bring aboard his family, along with a pair (male and female) of every animal species to preserve life after the flood.

Building the Ark (watercolor c. 1896–1902) by French painter James Tissot

After Noah complies, rain pours for 40 days and nights, submerging the Earth. Eventually, the waters recede. Noah, his family, and the animals disembark, and God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood again, symbolizing this covenant with a rainbow.

The story emphasizes God’s judgment on human wickedness, His mercy on the righteous, and the promise of new beginnings.

1896 illustration of the symbol of the rainbow, which God created as a sign of the covenant

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)

Sodom and Gomorrah afire by Dutch Golden Age painter Jacob de Wet II, 1680

According to Genesis 19, Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities notorious for their wickedness and sin. God decided to destroy them but sent two angels to investigate first.

These angels arrived in Sodom and were hosted by Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house, demanding to have the angels brought out so they could harm them. Lot, trying to protect his guests, even offered his own daughters in their place, which the mob refused.

Recognizing the depth of the cities’ depravity, the angels warned Lot to flee with his family. As they escaped, the angels instructed them not to look back.

However, Lot’s wife did look back as the cities were being consumed by divine fire and brimstone, and she turned into a pillar of salt as a consequence.

Similar to the Great Deluge in Noah’s time, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah serves as a powerful warning about the consequences of extreme wickedness and the importance of obedience to divine instructions.

These cities are destroyed by God because of their wickedness. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt for looking back. Image: Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in the background of Dutch painter Lucas van Leyden’s Lot and his Daughters (1520)

The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22)

In a profound test of faith, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Without questioning God’s command, Abraham prepares to obey and takes Isaac to the designated mountain.

Abraham is tested by God and is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, God provides a ram as a substitute. Image: Mosaic “Sacrifice of Isaac” – Basilica of San Vitale (A.D. 547)

As Abraham binds Isaac and raises his knife, an angel of the Lord intervenes, stopping him at the very last moment.

The angel commends Abraham for his unwavering obedience and faith. Instead of Isaac, a ram caught in a nearby thicket is provided by God as a substitute for the sacrifice.

This narrative, which is found in Genesis 22 of the Old Testament, is foundational in Judeo-Christian theology, symbolizing unwavering faith, obedience to God, and the concept of substitutionary sacrifice.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (1603), in the Baroque tenebrist manner

The Plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7-11)

In an effort to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage, God inflicts ten devastating plagues upon Egypt.

Each plague intensifies in severity, yet Pharaoh continually hardens his heart and refuses to free the Israelites.

The First Plague: Water Is Changed into Blood, Painting by French painter James Tissot

The plagues include turning the Nile River into blood, infestations of frogs, lice, and flies, livestock disease, painful boils, hailstorms, locusts, and prolonged darkness.

The final and most severe plague is the death of every Egyptian firstborn. To protect the Israelites from this last plague, God instructs them to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood, leading the Angel of Death to “pass over” these households.

The Seventh Plague by English painter John Martin (1823)

This event is commemorated in the Jewish festival of Passover. After this devastating loss, Pharaoh finally relents, allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt.

However, he soon changes his mind and pursues them, leading to the famous parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptian army.

God sends ten plagues upon Egypt, culminating in the death of the firstborn, to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Image: Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt by Charles Sprague Pearce (1877)

The Levite’s Concubine (Judges 19-21)

The Levite of Ephraim, A. F. Caminade (1837)

In this harrowing episode from the Book of Judges, a Levite and his concubine travel through the town of Gibeah in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.

Seeking refuge for the night, an elderly man offers them hospitality in his home. As night falls, wicked men from the town surround the house, demanding the Levite be sent out to them.

A Levite’s concubine is gang-raped and left for dead. In retaliation, her body is divided into twelve parts and sent to the tribes of Israel, sparking a devastating inter-tribal war. Image: The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep – by French painter Gustave Doré, Circa 1880

To protect his guest, the host offers his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to appease the mob. The men seize the concubine, brutally abusing her throughout the night. By dawn, she is found lifeless at the doorstep.

The distraught Levite, horrified by the crime, cuts his concubine’s body into twelve pieces and dispatches them to the twelve tribes of Israel as a macabre testimony of the atrocity. This act provokes outrage among the Israelites.

The tribes unite and demand justice from the Benjaminites. When the culprits are not handed over, it ignites a violent conflict, leading to a catastrophic civil war and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin.

Found in Judges 19-21, this narrative reflects a period of profound moral degradation and the consequences of a society without centralized authority.

Outrage at Gibeah, the Levite carries his dead concubine away – by Gustave Doré, circa 1890

The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11)

Jephthah, a warrior of the tribe of Gilead, is called upon to lead the Israelites against the Ammonites. Before going into battle, he makes a rash vow to God: if granted victory, he will offer as a burnt sacrifice whatever first emerges from his house upon his return.

To his horror, after a successful campaign, it is his beloved and only daughter who joyfully runs out to greet him. Bound by his vow and, according to the text, her own sense of duty, she asks only for two months to mourn her impending fate among the mountains with her friends.

After this period, Jephthah fulfills his tragic promise. The story ends noting a tradition among Israelite women to annually lament the fate of Jephthah’s daughter.

This tale underscores the consequences of reckless oaths and the complexities of honor, faith, and duty in the biblical narrative.

Jephthah makes a vow to God that he will sacrifice whatever comes out of his house first if he is given victory in battle. Tragically, his daughter is the first to greet him. Image: James Tissot, Jephthah’s Daughter, c. 1896–1902.

The Story of Job (from the Book of Job)

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat (1880)

Job is a wealthy and upright man who lives in the land of Uz. He is known for his unwavering faithfulness and righteousness. Without Job’s knowledge, a conversation takes place between God and Satan in the heavenly realms. Satan challenges Job’s piety, arguing that he is righteous only because he has been blessed with prosperity. Satan posits that if Job were to face suffering, he would undoubtedly curse God. To test Job’s integrity, God permits Satan to inflict severe misfortunes upon him, but he is not allowed to harm Job’s life.

Consequently, Job experiences a series of devastating calamities: his livestock is stolen (Job 1:13-15), his servants are killed (Job 1:16), his ten children die in a disaster (Job 1:18), and he himself is afflicted with painful sores all over his body (Job 2:7). Despite these tragedies, Job does not curse God, but instead mourns his fate and seeks answers for his suffering (Job 1:20-22).

Job and His Friends by Ukrainian-born Russian painter Ilya Repin (1869)

Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—visit him to offer comfort, but they end up engaging in lengthy theological debates. They argue that Job’s sufferings must be a punishment for some hidden sin, upholding a traditional belief that suffering is always a direct result of individual wrongdoing (Job 4-32). Job rejects this, maintaining his innocence and questioning the nature of divine justice.

Job even resisted his wife’s advice, trusting in God’s wisdom and enduring love, even amid immense challenges, much like David expressed in Psalms.

The climax of the story arrives when God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. Rather than offering direct answers, God emphasizes (Job 38-39) His own power, wisdom, and the vastness of His creation, suggesting that human beings, with their limited understanding, are not in a position to question the ways of the divine.

Ultimately, the story concludes with God rebuking Job’s friends for their misguided views and restoring Job’s fortunes. Job’s wealth is doubled, he has another ten children, and he lives for another 140 years. The Book of Job grapples profoundly with questions of suffering, righteousness, and the nature of divine justice, challenging simplistic notions of retribution and human understanding of God’s ways.

God: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8 NIV)

Satan: “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:9-11 ESV).

God: “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” (Job 1:12 NIV).

Job Restored to Prosperity by French painter Laurent de La Hyre (1648)

The Golden Calf (Exodus 32)

Worshiping the Golden Calf

The Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32 is a significant episode of apostasy by the Israelites. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people grew impatient and asked Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make them gods to lead them. Aaron complied by collecting gold earrings from the people and fashioning them into a golden calf idol. The Israelites then held a festival and worshiped this idol.

While Moses is on Mount Sinai, the Israelites create and worship a golden calf, leading to severe punishment from God. Image: Moses with the Tablets of the Law (1624), by Italian painter Guido Reni

When Moses descended the mountain and saw what had occurred, he was so angered that he threw down and broke the stone tablets inscribed with the commandments. He then took the calf, burned it, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and made the Israelites drink it.

Moses confronted Aaron about his role in the debacle. Subsequently, Moses stood at the camp entrance and called, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” The Levites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, rallied to him. On Moses’ command, they went through the camp and killed about three thousand men, which served as a punishment for the idolatry.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt, 1659

Afterward, Moses returned to God to plead for the forgiveness of the people’s sin. While God relented from His intention to destroy the Israelites entirely, He still sent a plague as punishment for their idol worship.

The Golden Calf story serves as a cautionary tale about faithlessness and the dire consequences of turning away from God’s commands.

Moses with the Tablets of the Law (1624), by Italian painter Guido Reni

David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12)

David and Bathsheba’s story in 2 Samuel 11-12 is one of the most notable accounts of a biblical figure’s moral failing and its dire consequences.

While his army was at war, King David stayed behind in Jerusalem. From the rooftop of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman bathing. He inquired about her and learned she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his loyal soldiers. Despite knowing she was married, David sent for her and committed adultery with her. She later informed David that she was pregnant.

Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah. King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and arranges the death of her husband, Uriah, to cover up the sin. Image: “Bathsheba” Painting by Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi

To conceal the affair and the resulting pregnancy, David summoned Uriah from the battlefield, hoping he would sleep with his wife, and the child would be assumed to be his. However, Uriah, out of solidarity with his comrades on the battlefield, refrained from going home and being with his wife.

Seeing his plan foiled, David resorted to a more sinister method to hide his sin. He ordered Uriah to be placed in the front line of the fiercest battle and then abandoned, ensuring his death. Uriah was killed as a result.

King David in Prayer, by Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter de Grebber (c. 1640)

After Uriah’s death, David married Bathsheba, and she gave birth to a son. However, God was displeased with David’s actions. The prophet Nathan was sent by God to confront David, using a parable that made David recognize and confess his sins. Nathan prophesied that the sword would never depart from David’s house and that his own household would rebel against him. He also declared that the child born to David and Bathsheba would die as a consequence of David’s sin.

Indeed, the baby became ill and died seven days later, despite David’s intense prayers and fasting. David’s later years were marked by familial strife, including the rebellion of his son Absalom.

While David deeply repented for his sins (as expressed in Psalm 51), the events surrounding Bathsheba serve as a testament to the severe repercussions of moral failings, even for someone described as “a man after God’s own heart.”

The Stoning of Achan (Joshua 7)

The Slaying of Achan is a story from the Book of Joshua that underscores the importance of obedience to God’s commandments and the severe consequences of disobedience.

After the Israelites miraculously conquered the city of Jericho, God commanded them to destroy everything in the city but to refrain from taking any of the spoils for themselves. The spoils were considered “devoted” or “accursed” items, meant only for the Lord.

However, Achan, a member of the tribe of Judah, secretly took some of the forbidden items, including a beautiful robe, silver, and gold. He buried them beneath his tent without anyone’s knowledge.

The Israelites, unaware of Achan’s transgression, then attempted to capture the city of Ai. Expecting an easy victory given their recent triumph at Jericho, they were stunned when they suffered a crushing defeat, with many Israelites killed in the attempt.

Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, was deeply distressed and prayed to God for understanding. God revealed to him that someone had taken the accursed spoils from Jericho, which was the reason for their defeat. The sin had brought guilt upon the entire community.

Through a process of elimination by tribe, clan, family, and individual, Achan was eventually identified as the culprit. When confronted, he confessed to taking the forbidden items.

As a punishment for his sin, which had brought calamity upon the entire nation, Achan, along with his entire family and possessions, was taken to the Valley of Achor. There, they were stoned to death by the community, and their bodies were burned. A large pile of stones was erected over their remains as a lasting memorial and a grim reminder of the consequences of disobedience to God’s command.

Following this, God’s favor returned to the Israelites, and they successfully conquered Ai in their next attempt.

Achan takes forbidden spoils from Jericho, resulting in Israel’s defeat at Ai. Upon discovery, he and his family are stoned to death. Image: The Stoning of Achan by French painter Gustav Doré.

Humanity’s struggle with sin

These stories, among others, present moral lessons, divine judgments, and are foundational to understanding the religious, cultural, and ethical framework of the ancient Hebrews.

The Old Testament recounts God’s creation of the universe in six days, culminating in the creation of Adam from the earth and Eve from Adam’s rib. Their act of disobedience, eating the forbidden fruit, resulted in their banishment from Eden. This event establishes a central theme of the Old Testament: humanity’s struggle with sin, yielding to temptation, and the repercussions from a frequently stern God, a motif echoed in many of its tales.

READ MORE: 13 Creation Myths From Around The World

The narratives in the Old Testament that portray complex moral issues

the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, is not merely a collection of historical records, laws, and prophecies but is deeply interwoven with narratives that delve into profound moral questions, the nature of humanity, and the divine-human relationship. These stories, while set within an ancient context, are timeless in their exploration of human nature and morality.

  1. Complex Moral Issues:
    • Abraham and Isaac: One of the most powerful stories in the Old Testament, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham’s willingness to obey this command until the last moment, when an angel intervenes, raises complicated questions about faith, obedience, and morality.
    • David and Bathsheba: King David, seeing Bathsheba bathing, is overcome by lust. His desire for her leads him to orchestrate the death of her husband, Uriah. The narrative delves into issues of lust, betrayal, abuse of power, and the consequences of one’s actions.
    • Job: The story of Job grapples with the problem of human suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? The narrative doesn’t offer easy answers but instead presents a complex dialogue about faith and suffering.

      Abraham and Isaac (oil on canvas), by Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt, 1634

  1. Divine Judgments:
    • The Flood: Due to the wickedness of humanity, God decides to wipe out the human race and start over, saving only Noah and his family. This story presents the theme of divine judgment and mercy.
    • Sodom and Gomorrah: These cities’ wickedness leads to their divine destruction, with only Lot and his daughters escaping, though not without traumatic events following their escape.
    • Exodus: The plagues upon Egypt serve as both judgments against the gods of Egypt and as a means to free the Israelites from slavery.

      The Deluge by French painter Gustave Doré (1865)

  2. The Human Condition:
    • Adam and Eve: The first humans’ fall in the Garden of Eden represents humanity’s inherent tendency towards disobedience and the subsequent consequences.
    • Cain and Abel: The first murder, driven by jealousy, showcases the destructive nature of envy and the spiraling consequences of sin.
    • Jacob and Esau: Their rivalry, stemming from birthright issues and parental favoritism, reveals the complexities of family relationships and the long-lasting repercussions of deceit.

      Cain and Abel, 16th-century painting by renowned Italian painter Titian

  3. Divine-Human Relationship:
    • Throughout the Old Testament, the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites is a central theme. From Abraham’s initial covenant to the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, these divine-human pacts underscore God’s commitment to His people and the expectations He has of them.
    • The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea, often serve as intermediaries between God and the people, calling for repentance, warning of divine judgment, but also offering hope and consolation.

These narratives, and many others, reveal a tapestry of human strengths and weaknesses, divine interventions, and the ongoing struggle between right and wrong. The Old Testament provides a rich foundation for theological reflection, moral instruction, and insights into the human psyche and society.

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