Is Your Bible as Incomplete as Mine?: Participating in a Midrashic Conversation

The Bible is (at the very least) a book of historical memory. It holds together a multiplicity of traditions, perspectives, thoughts and opinions, stretching across several thousand years.

We see this most clearly and profoundly in Old Testament scholarship and criticism. By way of (a couple of) example(s), JDEP are the four categories in what is known as Wellhausen’s “documentary hypothesis,” which is the touchstone of much Pentateuchal source criticism, finding four different traditions getting brought together (often awkwardly) throughout Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – time spent with the texts will present some major varying opinions. We may also note the vast differences and divergences between, say, Kings and Chronicles; or perhaps the conflicted and highly divided thinking in the OT wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes); the different voices in the Psalms; or, finally, the varying values, opinions, and critiques of the prophets we have the pleasure of reading.

That something is happening in this text that is hard to harmonise, that resists being flattened out, should hardly be surprising – the prophets, at the very least, would be sure to stop us in our tracks! What we have is a cornucopia of traditions and conversations being remembered and brought into dialogue, as something (anything) gets itself worked out – this collection of books was an important assemblage, if the Exile is understood to be as significant as it was for the Jewish people. That this collection lacks conclusion; avoids finality; hasn’t quite achieved catharsis; conveys something of a systematic theologic, philosophic, and ethical indeterminacy and incompleteness, shouldn’t surprise – life is much like this.

Where then does midrash fit into this? Well, midrash was an interpretive tradition in Judaism, coming to prominence following the Exile, that seizes upon the aforementioned nature of the text. It lives in the thought that there is not “one true meaning” in what is being read; that the text has never been able to communicate itself quite clearly; that there is still an openness in what is being read, to something (anything) “new.” The text, it is thought, gains its life in this gap, flux, ambiguity, and ebb and flow, which history instils in everything, as circumstance leads us to see the stories of the Scriptures – not as some unilateral assertion of what is and is not, but as – speaking and conversing with themselves (nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in books such as Job or Chronicles) and perhaps also with us, soliciting us to enter a new place, a new imaginative world.

In fact midrash, according to Daniel Boyarin, holds that,

gaps and indeterminacies in one part of the cannon may be filled and resolved by citing others.

The basic thought of this method (known as ‘Intertextuality’) is that the text harbours and allows for an internal conversation, which we, the reader, are (by virtue of reading) invited to be alive to and participate in (and, in actuality, are always already participating in). (For example, the gap, or lack, of justice provided by the dueteronomistic God lead the writer(s) of Job to assault and reassess such an understanding.)

Midrashic practice, however, is often known for its spectacular ability to ratchet these facts of the text’s nature up infinite numbers of notches and degrees, as whole new stories were born out of the indeterminacy and ambiguity of certain events the text speaks of, e.g. Moses’ birth – just why was Moses born even though all the children were threatened with death? Midrashim would soon help with the explaining. Many stories, presumably growing out of oral traditions, would involve a direct act of Divine revelation to Moses’ father (traditionally, Jochebed), or via Moses’ sister Miriam to his father, telling them that God would look after this child and put him to great use, were he born (such stories can be found in Psuedo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities, Targum Pseudo Jonathan, and Sefer ha-Zikhronot). (Borg and Crossan’s treatment of this in The First Christmas ch. 5 is fascinating)

In these gaps, in this indeterminacy, in this deep, unfinished, and openness we get to see that the Bible itself is not a peculiar monophonic, monologic, monologue telling a singular story, with a singular meaning. We see that the text harbours a multiplicity and plurality of competing (and compelling) “true meanings” and true perspectives, as St. Augustine once argued vigorously (before later changing his mind). And more than this, the text is open enough to sustain an extra-biblical conversation and life because not everything is quite accounted for.

The text and its “truth(s)” are deep, allowing for a multiplicity of, and variance in, content and accordingly many multilateral readings that speak in a whole variety of ways (e.g. is the Song of Songs to be read as a love poem or a religious allegory of some kind? While one may be historically more likely, does that make the other absurd in itself?). The text “means” too much, or rather, so much that to settle it down – or to not engage the text where it falls up short – is dangerous.

Midrash happens in the margins, encircling and surrounding the stories (many Rabbi’s like to note, for example, in classic midrashic fashion, that Genesis begins not with the Hebrew ‘a’ – aleph – but ‘b’ – bet – we do not have a zero-point origin but the imagined beginning of the work of ordering the pre-existent primordial materials) – these words are addendums and extrapolations, interpretations and reflections. Different people, in different times, will have different words that can begin to surround the text, and different reflections that may get said, because the text cries out “Interpret me!” (Rashi). (In this sense, the text lying beyond its context, no longer “belongs” to any context.)

To be clear, I am not necessarily meaning to advocate a return to recapitulating the practice of extreme creative, freestyle, midrashic interpretations and their ilk – though that may be fun. I do, however, desire to see the text opened up to, both, plurality and creative engagement – an approach that lives in light of the profound insights of historical criticism; but that also lets the text continue to live, letting it hold and birth more meanings and interpretations than can be counted.

What then am I suggesting? I am suggesting your Bible is as “incomplete” as mine appears to be to me. That the Scriptures are “gapped” because they “cry out” for a conversation partner to change, and be changed by. Something was getting said among the people as they wrestled by speaking, and then transcribing, what was happening in and among them; something was getting said in and around the text as it was canonised and interpreted; and, now, something is getting said, potentially, in and around us and the text, as we read and wrestle with this book of ancient memories.

(I apologise 1) for any offense my limited understanding of midrashic theory and history may cause any readers, and 2) for my limited use of examples. midrash itself was my vehicle to make a larger point – this I hope is more acceptable than any bastardisation or misrepresentation I may have carried out against or upon midrash.)