There are many interpretations of biblical event that people were taught to believe which are clearly untrue. The following are three examples.
Adam lied to his wife resulting in a catastrophe
Genesis 2:16-17 states that before Eve was created, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘You may eat of every tree of the Garden; except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may not eat of it.’” In 3:3, Eve tells the serpent who was seducing her, “God said: ‘You may not eat of it, nor touch it.’”
The widely-known interpretation of Eve’s idea that God commanded both a prohibition of eating the tree’s fruit as well as not touching it is that God did not forbid touching the tree, it was Adam who added this prohibition. He wanted to assure that Eve not eat the fruit, so he added the prohibition not to touch the tree; he was convinced that if Eve thought she could not even touch the tree, she would not give way to a temptation to eat the fruit.
There are many problems with this interpretation. What made Adam think Eve needed this extra caution? God did not think that Adam needed it. It is sexist. It assumes that Adam felt that Eve lacked self-control, and he needed to lie to her to protect her. The very first relationship between the pair was a lie.
Additionally, the interpretation is based on an unfamiliarity with biblical narratives. The biblical style of telling stories is that when an event is discussed later in the text, the Bible gives some information in the first telling and adds to that information when the event is later discussed. The best example of this is the story of Abraham in Genesis 24 sending his servant to Aram-naharaim to bring back a woman who would become his son Isaac’s wife. Details of the conversation between Abraham and his servant are given in the beginning of the chapter. Later, when the servant tells Abraham’s family in Aram-naharaim about his mission, there are additional facts. It is a mistake to think that the servant added untrue facts when he told about his conversation with Abraham. This is simply the biblical narrative style – adding details when the story is retold.
The idea in the tale that Adam added to the divine command is based on the rabbinical invention, mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers 1:1, “make a fence around (or, for) the Torah.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains in his Days of Deliverance and in The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur that “The whole concept of constructing a fence around the Torah is rooted in the notion of the vulnerability of spiritual man…. He is easily persuaded, indeed brainwashed, and quickly defeated…. Man sins because he is a weakling, because fate defeats him.” The rabbinic control to overcome this human problem did not exist during the days of Adam and Eve.
Moses hitting the rock to produce water for the Israelites
A similar situation exists in the story in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. It is about an event happening in a place later called Meribah, meaning “strife,” because the Israelites complained to Moses that they needed water and Moses enquired of God what to do. In both tellings of the tale, God instructs Moses to take his staff with him and go to a rock. In Exodus, God instructs Moses to hit the rock. In Numbers, God said speak to the rock. After Moses hit the rock twice in Numbers, God says to Moses, “Because you did not act properly to sanctify me before the Israelites, you will not bring them into the land that I gave them.”
Many understand that the Bible is relating two separate events, not a retelling of a single event. They interpret the Numbers version as stating that God punished Moses because he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as God instructed, ignoring that God told Moses to take his staff with him and presumably believing that speaking to the rock would have produced a more startling miracle than hitting the rock.
This is an error. There are not two stories but one. In both tellings, God told Moses to take his staff with him, obviously to use it to hit the rock. In the first Exodus telling Moses hit the rock and God does not berate Moses because he did what God wanted. It is baseless to presume that God was satisfied once when Moses hit the rock but not the second time in Numbers when God told Moses to speak to the rock. This is one event. In both versions, God told Moses to take his staff with him. The additional instruction placed in the second version is the common biblical narrative technique to add information when a story is repeated. We do not know what “speak to the rock” implies. It may simply be, tell the Israelites what you are about to do. We also do not know what Moses did wrong. It was most likely his calling the people “rebels” in Numbers 20:11, this lack of control, the outburst, showed that Moses in his old age was no longer fit to lead the people.
Abraham destroyed his father’s idols
Probably the most famous mistaken notion is that the Bible contains the story of Abraham as a youngster convinced that idols are not gods and that the true deity is unseeable. It is the story of Abraham taking advantage of his father’s absence from his store where he sold idols. Abraham, according to the story, took a hammer or ax, broke all the idols in the store except for one. He placed the hammer or ax in the hand of the remaining whole idol. When his dad returned and saw his goods destroyed, Abraham told him that it is clear that the whole idol with the destructing instrument in his hand must have destroyed the other idols because he felt he is the sole god of the world. The midrashic story was invented to belittle idols, to fill in what transpired in Abraham’s life during his early years, and to depict Abraham as a devout follower of God. The first mention of Abraham in the Torah is when he is about 70-years-old. The story enchants children most of whom never study the Bible after grade school and think that what they were taught as children is a mature vision of Judaism.
Sometime back, I heard a now retired Chief Rabbi of Israel claim in a sermon that the story is hinted in the Torah. Genesis 11:28 and 31 state that Abraham lived in Ur Casdim, translated as “Ur of the Chaldees.” The vowel sign indicates that Ur should be sounded as the English word “or,” as in black or white. It is clear in the context in which the word is mentioned that it is the name of a place.
However, the Chief Rabbi said that Ur should be pronounced as if the vowel was an oh, as in the statement “oh my God,” which would turn it into the Hebrew word for fire. He claimed that the Bible is saying that Abraham left the “fire of the Chaldees,” because King Nimrod of the Chaldeans sought to punish Abraham for destroying his father’s idols by tossing him into a fiery furnace, but God saved Abraham, and after being saved he left the land of the fire of the Chaldeans.