Joel M. Hoffman’s book “The Bible Doesn’t Say That” is certainly correct that people read ideas, teachings, commands and whatever else they want to find into the biblical words and events that the words do not say and which is not at all explicit in the biblical events. Since religion, or at least some religious concepts, have a significant part in people’s thinking and impact their behavior, these wrong ideas lead to irrational ways of thinking and acting. Examples include the Christians and Jews, both accepting the importance of the Hebrew Bible, but seeing the passages saying radically different things, such as the Christians understanding that scripture is teaching about Jesus, while there is no clear statement that supports their reading. Another example is how mystically-minded people see the Bible saying one thing while rational people see something else in the biblical words. Still another instance are the sermons of Christians, Jews, and Muslims that the clerics insist are based on biblical texts, but invariably a close reading reveals that the cleric is seeing what he wants to see, something that is not biblical, such as the belief in a world to come, that people have souls, are rewarded in heaven and punished in hell, and the like.
People may think that the wrong ideas are not so bad, but this is not so. The Hebrew Bible, for example, does not have the concept of a soul or an after-life or punishment and reward after death. These were ideas that entered Judaism and later Christianity around the fourth century BCE. But although not endemic to religion, although God did not reveal them in the Torah, people base their behavior on these and other concepts that are not in the Bible. They read biblical verses in synagogues, churches, and mosques and think what the rabbi, preacher, or imam says is true, that the holy book says is what he says, when the truth is that the holy man, like other people, has been misled, the book does not say it. Recognizing this phenomenon should prompt people to think about what they read.
Hoffman discusses forty such ideas, but there are hundreds more. I reveal many of them in my “Unusual Bible” series. Hoffman’s book is very readable and is filled with humor such as, when an economist was asked by a reporter to describe the economy in one word, he answered “good.” When asked to use two words, he responded, “not good.” The following are some of the forty ideas that he mentions with some of my parenthetical comments.
- Rashi notes that Genesis 1:1 states that God created the heaven and earth, but 1:2 states that God’s spirit hovered over the water. Rashi concludes that the water must have been created before the heaven and earth. (He ignores that when scripture speaks about the earth, it includes the water.)
- Rashi adds that heaven was created from fire and water. He sees this in the Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim. This word can be read as comprising sh and The sh is the sole Hebrew consonantal component of eish, “fire,” and mayim means “water.”
- There is a disparity between Genesis 6:19 which states that Noah should bring “two of every kind” of “every living animal” and 7:2 states that Noah is told to “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean.” (It is possible to read 7:2 as the details of 6:19, but not a contradiction, for the Bible frequently makes a general statement and clarifies it later. An example of this is Genesis 1 which states that God created man and woman, which could be understood, and is understood by many to indicate that God created both sexes at the same time, while Genesis 2 give the details, how it happened: Eve was created after Adam out of his side.)
- The Ten Commandments are not given this name in the Bible. They are called Aseret Hadibrot in Hebrew and Decalogue in Greek, both meaning “Ten Statements” in English. Exodus 20:2’s and Deuteronomy 5:6’s “I am the Lord your God” is considered today as a separate command, but the ancient Jewish Masorites of the first millennia CE, who among much else divided the Torah, considered it an introduction to 20:3 and 5:7, “You should have no other gods.” The Masorites divided what Judaism today considers the tenth statement about coveting into two statements.
- The tenth statement, or ninth and tenth according to the Masorites, states that one should not “covet” a neighbor’s house, wife, male and female servant, ox, ass, nor anything that belongs to the neighbor, but does not define covet. Adherents of all the religions interpret the word differently. Some state that it refers to mentally desiring what belongs to another, while others understand it to mean an act, taking what belongs to another. (The consensus in the Talmud is the latter.)
- Leviticus18:22 warns a man not to “lie with a man as with a woman.” Some people read the verse to apply to men and women alike, but the verse only mentions men.