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The Bible Doesn't Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings

The Bible Doesn't Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings

by Joel M. Hoffman


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The Bible Doesn't Say That explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years.

Acclaimed translator and biblical scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman walks the reader through dozens of mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings about the Bible. In forty short, straightforward chapters, he covers morality, life-style, theology, and biblical imagery, including:

*The Bible doesn't call homosexuality a sin, and it doesn't advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed "biblical."

*The Bible's famous "beat their swords into plowshares" is matched by the militaristic, "beat your plowshares into swords."

*The often-cited New Testament quotation "God so loved the world" is a mistranslation, as are the titles "Son of Man" and "Son of God."

*The Ten Commandments don't prohibit killing or coveting.

What does the Bible say about violence? About the Rapture? About keeping kosher? About marriage and divorce? Hoffman provides answers to all of these and more, succinctly explaining how so many pivotal biblical answers came to be misunderstood.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250059482
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

JOEL M. HOFFMAN, PhD, is the author of In the Beginning, And God Said, and The Bible's Cutting Room Floor. He is the chief translator for the series My People's Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People's Passover Haggadah. He is an occasional contributor to The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post and has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He lives in Westchester, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Bible Doesn't Say That

40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings

By Joel M. Hoffman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Joel M. Hoffman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6456-6



Does the Bible start with "In the beginning"? Not really.

A book's opening words set the stage for everything that follows.

Charles Dickens's famous first lines of A Tale of Two Cities — "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" — point the reader in the direction of division, which, of course, is a major aspect of his work. Even more immediately, the words "it was the worst of times" mean something completely different after "It was the best of times" than they would on their own.

Similarly, Leo Tolstoy foreshadows his theme of power by beginning his War and Peace with the words "Well, prince," which aren't even in Russian in the original. They are in French (Eh bien, mon prince), because that was the language of the upper class. With just a few words, Tolstoy frames his work.

So the nuance and detail of the first words of the Bible are important not just for what they mean, but for how they set the stage of what follows in Genesis. And unfortunately, the standard translation, "In the beginning," doesn't quite get it right.

The Hebrew there is the one word b'reishit. The prefix b- means "in" and reishit means "beginning," so the word itself does mean "in beginning" or "in the beginning." But the impact of the word comes from its placement in the sentence.

Hebrew phrases normally start with a verb. So in Hebrew, the ubiquitous "God spoke unto Moses" begins with the verb "spoke" (vay'dabeir). When something comes even before the verb, it indicates a combination of emphasis and an answer to a perhaps unasked question.

This may seem like a picayune detail to English readers, one merely of minor emphasis. But emphasis is important, and the misemphasized translation ends up as wrong as mixing up "When?" and "What?" To see how, we look at an English example, from a hypothetical court case.

A bank robber on the witness stand is asked, "When did you rob First National?" The safe answer is the neutral "I robbed First National on Tuesday." That simply answers the question. By contrast, the thief might respond, "I robbed First National on Tuesday." That is a dangerous answer, because the emphasis automatically creates an alternative set of circumstances in the mind of English speakers who hear it. Now the guy is robbing other banks on other days. He is no longer simply answering the question of when he robbed First National, but answering the broader question of which banks he robbed when.

Similarly, the English sentence "I like mustard" is neutral. Some dialects allow another, similar, sentence, "Mustard, I like." (Interestingly, while some English speakers find this a perfectly normal phrasing, others are equally convinced that it has no place in English.) Among the speakers who accept the sentence, it means the same thing as the neutral "I like mustard," but it also emphasizes "mustard" and creates a contrast. The unmistakable implication is that the person who likes mustard is ranking the condiment over something else — ketchup, perhaps.

These are the important kinds of implications that the usual translation "In the beginning" misses.

Better would be "It was in the beginning that God created ..." or "In the beginning God created ..." Or, with less pithiness, something like "In the beginning — and not any other time — God created ..." Or, "Let's talk about when God created heaven and earth. It was in the beginning."

Obviously, these last two options don't work as translations, but they illustrate the point. Genesis in Hebrew starts by answering the question "When?" — and, in particular, when certain things happened. The English is neutral, but its most likely interpretation by English readers is that it answers the question "What?" — specifically, what happened.

The text of Genesis assumes that God created everything. In the mind-set of the day, after all, who else could possibly have done it? Of course it was God. And because the then-standard cosmological view divided the world into "earth" and "things above earth," of course God created what we now call "heaven and earth." Similarly, there was obviously a difference between land and sea, just as there were obviously three kinds of lights in the sky. (We now count at least four: sun, moon, planets, and stars. Genesis doesn't distinguish between planets and stars.) And so on.

In this light, the book of Genesis, and, therefore, the Bible, starts less with a statement about what God created than with an enumeration of the timing of events.

The question has not lost its relevance. Scientists and laypeople alike continue to be intrigued by issues surrounding the creation of the universe. To many, however, the biblical answer of "In the beginning" is particularly unsatisfying. On the other hand, though, the modern scientific answer is that the universe came into being at some point and there was nothing before that because there was no time before that. It takes longer to say (and, obviously, goes into more detail about the process afterward), but doesn't really offer more information about where everything originally came from. In both modern cosmology and Genesis, first there was nothing, then there was something.

And at any rate, we can't even probe the merits of the ancient answer of "In the beginning" without first realizing that it is indeed an answer to an unasked question. And to do that, we have to see past the standard, misleading, translation.

Another misleading translation competes with "In the beginning God created ..." That competing suggestion is that the first verse of Genesis ("In the beginning God created heaven and earth") isn't a sentence on its own, but, rather, modifies the second verse ("The earth was without form ..."). One instance of this is in the NRSV translation. (That is, the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, which is what we'll generally use here as our baseline English translation. We'll also use the English King James Version — KJV — from the seventeenth century and some others. In addition, from time to time we'll refer to an ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint.) The NRSV adds the word "when" into Genesis: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was ..." The editors even add a footnote, suggesting the alternative "when God began to create."

Unfortunately, this revision moves even further away from the original thrust of Genesis. Where the standard translation "In the beginning" is neutral, and fails to reflect the original emphasis on this phrase, the wording "when God began to create" actually deemphasizes the phrase "In the beginning."

To see exactly how, we again return to English. We start with the question "When did God create the world?" "In the beginning, God created ..." works as an answer. "When God began to create ..." does not.

This alternative phrasing with "when" is a perfect example of mixing up tradition with the original text, which is one of the five ways we noted in the introduction that the Bible gets distorted.

In this case, the misleading phrasing comes from an eleventh-century Jewish Bible scholar named Solomon, son of Isaac. His Hebrew name forms an acronym by which he is best known: Rashi. Rashi left his birthplace of Troyes, France, to study in Worms (in what is now Germany) with the great Jewish scholars of his era. Then he returned to France, just in time to avoid the destruction that the Crusaders wrought on the Jewish community of Worms. All of his teachers were killed. Most of their accumulated wisdom would have been lost to time, too, except that Rashi had already left.

Rashi turned out to be extraordinarily prolific. And though he didn't always make it clear when he was conveying information he had learned and when he was providing his own opinions, it didn't take long for people to realize that Rashi preserved many hundreds of years of accumulated tradition.

Among his many writings, Rashi provides a running commentary on the Five Books of Moses. And in the context of Genesis 1:1, Rashi comments on a detail of Hebrew, even noting that the verse, as it is written, "cries out 'interpret me!'" Rashi's interpretation is based on a potential Hebrew anomaly. The word we have been translating as "the beginning" (reishit) looks like it actually means only "beginning," not "the beginning." If so, the full word b'reishit doesn't mean "in the beginning" but "in beginning," which, by itself, doesn't make much sense. Furthermore, Hebrew has a way of saying "at first," and it's not b'reishit but rather the related b'rishonah.

Rashi has a suggestion for reconciling the seemingly odd Hebrew. The details of why his suggestion solves the problem of the missing "the" are too complex to include here — readers who are interested should start by learning about a Hebrew grammatical form called s'michut — but Rashi's conclusion is easy to understand. The verse should be understood, he writes, as though it says "In the beginning of God's creating."

To make this work, Rashi has to change the verb "created" into the noun "creating." For many, this already undermines his analysis, because, after all, what advantage is there to a better understanding of the first word if it relies on completely changing the second?

A more substantial objection to Rashi's analysis comes in his own explanation of it. For Rashi, the problem is that the purpose of Genesis couldn't be to explain the order of creation, because the second verse refers to God's spirit on "the water." What water, Rashi wants to know? According to the text, it hasn't been created yet. Therefore, Rashi concludes, the point of the text can't be to explain the order of things, because, after all, water was created before heaven and earth.

And for that matter, Rashi adds, heaven was created from fire and water, so water had to have been created before verse 1:1 in Genesis. How does Rashi know that heaven was created from fire and water? Because the Hebrew for "heaven" is shamayim and the Hebrew word for "water" is mayim. The word for "water" is right there in "heaven." Take the mayim ("water") out of the shamayim ("heaven") and you're left with the consonantal sound sh, which is the sole consonantal component of the Hebrew eish, "fire." "Heaven," in Hebrew, is literally composed of "fire" and "water."

While this kind of wordplay forms the foundation of the kind of interpretation upon which religion is built, and while it's exactly the sort of thing that Rashi himself says the verse demands, it also demonstrates the contrast between traditional interpretation and the original text. The Hebrew word for "water" inside the Hebrew word for "heaven" doesn't demonstrate that water was created before heaven any more than we can conclude that animals were created before the earth because the English word "earth" contains the word "ear."

Furthermore, Rashi's way of reading "In the beginning, God ..." as "When God began to create" is the second interpretation he offers. He first connects the "beginning" here to Proverbs 8:22, "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way." The Bible is, therefore, according to Rashi, the beginning of God's way.

Both of Rashi's analyses belong firmly in the arena of traditional interpretation. In fact, it is only in comparison to the original text that we can fully appreciate what Rashi — and many others like him — have done. We hide the evolution of Genesis when we gloss over the way that Rashi reinterpreted the text.

So to look at the fuller picture, Genesis, even according to Rashi, should no more be translated as "When God began to create ..." than it should "In the beginning — and speaking of beginnings, the Bible is the beginning of God's way...." Nor should it necessarily be translated simply as "In the beginning ...," because that misses the focus of the original text.

Rather, through either italics or rewording, the most accurate way to capture the original Hebrew that starts the Bible is to note that it answers not the question "What?" but rather the unasked question "When?"

For some, this makes it easier to accept the fact that the question "What?" often has contradictory answers, as we'll see next.



Does Genesis contradict evolution? No.

God created the world in six days. Everyone knows the Bible says that. And it does. The day-by-day stages of creation are also well known: "the heavens and the earth" on the first day, as we just saw, along with light and darkness. Then sky and water on the second, continents ("land") and plants on the third, and so on, culminating with God's pièce de résistance on the sixth day: humans, created in the very image of God.

Just as familiar is the theatrical manner in which Eve was created from Adam's very rib.

But here we have a problem, because the account regarding the rib comes in Genesis 2:21–22: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into woman and brought her to the man." But by Genesis 2 Adam and Eve had already been created. God created "male and female" in his image in Genesis 1:27. And to compound the confusion, Genesis 2:2 is clear that "God finished all the work that he had done." The woman who was created from Adam's rib had already been created several verses earlier. How is that possible?

A closer look at the details reveals even more confusion: Both "male and female" people had already been created in Genesis 1:27, and God had completed the work of creation by Genesis 2:2. But sixteen verses later in Genesis 2:18 the sole man of the earth was still "alone," which is why God had to "form every animal" in Genesis 2:19. It was in this context of a single male human with only animals for companionship that God created woman from man's rib.

In short, God took six days to create the world, including first the animals, and, finally, man and woman. Then, having finished creating everything, God rested. Then once God had rested after creating everything, man was alone with no women or animals. So God created animals. But man was still lonely, so God created woman. What's going on?

The answer is that there are in fact two separate creation stories. The first is generally the more familiar: God created the world in six days, resting on the seventh after creating everything. In the second, man comes first, then the animals, then Eve from Adam's rib. The NRSV translation acknowledges the second creation story by giving each one its own heading. The first story is captioned "Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath," and the second, "Another Account of the Creation."

The wording of the second caption is subtle. By calling it "another account" of, presumably, the "same creation," the NRSV suggests that there was only one sequence of events, even though we have two descriptions of it. And the NRSV is not alone in suggesting this solution to what seems to be a pretty fundamental problem.

Two thousand years ago, the historian Josephus summarized the first "account," as the NRSV calls it, and then characterized the second account as Moses's philosophical reflection on the first. (Josephus says that Moses wrote Genesis.) For Josephus, then, the first account is what happened; the second is what Moses thought about it.

Similarly, the Rabbis who created rabbinic Judaism, in response to this and to other apparent contradictions, declared that "there is no before and after" in the Bible. If so, it doesn't matter that Genesis 2, which obviously comes after Genesis 1, describes a state of affairs before the events in Genesis 1 were completed.

These are traditional answers. And there are others. But just as with Rashi's traditional answer about "In the beginning" in the last chapter, we don't want to confuse tradition with the original text. In this case, it doesn't take too careful a reading to suggest that there are two separate stories, not two accounts of the same story. The differences are simply too striking. There's no vegetation on the earth in Genesis 2:5, even though plants were created in Genesis 1:11–12. Adam is specifically alone without any animals in Genesis 2:18, even though Genesis 1 is equally clear that the animals were all created before Adam. (This very point was raised by the defense in the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — that is, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Scopes was accused of teaching against the Bible by teaching evolution, and thereby violating the state's Butler Act. The defense noted that "There are two accounts in Genesis of the creation of man. They are not identical and at points differ widely. It would be difficult to say which is the teaching of the Bible.")


Excerpted from The Bible Doesn't Say That by Joel M. Hoffman. Copyright © 2016 Joel M. Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

1. In the Beginning
2. Evolution
3. Noah’s Ark
4. Lifespans in the Old Testament
5. David and Goliath (and Elhanan and Goliath)
6. Jesus’s Lineage
7. Jesus’s Death
8. The Ten Commandments
9. Commandments
10. God So Loved the World
11. The Truth Will Set You Free
12. Healing a Withered Hand
13. God’s Name
14. Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword
15. Dust and Ashes
16. Psalm 23
17. Heart and Soul
18. Unicorns and Dragons
19. Kings
20. Nations, Swords, and Plowshares
21. If Not by Bread Alone, Then by What Do People Live?
22. Who Is the Voice Crying in the Wilderness?
23. Old Testament Prophecies Fulfi lled in the New Testament
24. The Virgin Birth
25. Moses’s Horns
26. The Apple from the Garden of Eden
27. The Jubilee Year
28. The Son of Man and the Son of God
29. Keeping Kosher
30. The Rapture
31. Slavery
32. Marriage
33. Divorce
34. Prosperity
35. Violence
36. Justice
37. Men and Women
38. Killing
39. Homosexuality
40. Abortion
Bible Citation Index
General Index

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