What would it mean to read the Bible as if its words were actually speaking to us? Following the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), the ancient rabbinic sages believed that Scripture could speak to every generation anew. They taught new ways of coming close to God. In place of sacrifice, they offered prayer, study and deeds of loving kindness. In place of the Temple, they focused on the home, the synagogue and the academy. It was in those academies that the rabbis developed new ways of interpreting Scripture. They read the biblical text in the light of their time. They created a vast body of legal and narrative commentary that was eventually collected in the Talmud (550 CE) and Midrash (400-1200).
Judaism is not merely the religion of the Bible, but the heritage shaped by these ancient rabbis. Jews read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of this rabbinic interpretation, just as Christians read it through the lens of the Second Testament.
Midrash is both a body of classic literature that lets us enter into the mind of our ancestors as they read Scripture and a process that invites us to continue to read our lives into the Bible’s holy words. Midrash can be either legal (prescriptive) or homiletical (narrative). My primary interest is in the narrative midrashic tradition.
There is a compelling midrash on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that serves to illustrate the power of this literature. The rabbis wonder what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah actually was. The biblical text is ambiguous. Clearly it was a sin so heinous that it called forth total destruction. Often the sin of the two cities is identified with homosexuality, but, in truth, the Genesis text doesn’t tell us. It simply says: Then the Lord said, ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.’ (Genesis 18:22-23) What then is the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Midrash fills in the gaps. The rabbis imagine what deeds might have been so grievous that they doomed the two cities. Various midrashim describe a community so greedy with its wealth that it does not welcome the stranger, that it actually punishes those who show kindness to wayfarers. The rabbis never mention homosexuality. For them, Sodom and Gomorrah is a tale about the sin of selfishness and lack of hospitality. Thus, through midrash the rabbis let us know what their generation saw as outrage, destructive for community life. They offer wise counsel: if you don’t want your cities to self-destruct, welcome the stranger and practice generosity.
Midrash gives us names where there are none. Who was Lot’s wife? The Bible doesn’t say. We know her only as the disobedient woman who turns into a pillar of salt. The midrash gives her a name. Lot’s wife was called Idit. Idit comes from the Hebrew word for witness. It is she alone who witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Could the pillar of salt be her tears?
Who was Noah’s wife? She spent all those long days and nights on the ark, but we know nothing about her, not even her name. Midrash tells us Noah’s wife was called Naamah because her deeds were ne’emim—pleasing. What pleasing work might she have performed?
Midrash asks questions. Where was God when Cain killed Abel? Why didn’t God intervene and stop Cain from murder? About what did Cain and Abel argue? Midrash attempts to resolve theological difficulties and gives us a glimpse into the arguments and concerns of its authors’ generation.
Midrash gives us stories where there are none. Serach, daughter of Asher, is a woman named twice in the Bible. She is said to have gone down to Egypt (Genesis 46: 17) and to have come out of Egypt (Numbers 26:46). We know nothing about her but her name. The rabbis imagine that Search was the people’s minstrel, a storyteller able to inform Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive. She carried her people’s history with her and when the time came to leave Egypt, she was the one to tell Moses where Joseph’s bones were buried.
Classical midrash opens up the rich world of the rabbinic imagination. Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, reminds us to appreciate the storytelling dimension of the Bible. That is what midrash does. Through its narratives we are privileged to eavesdrop on a conversation between our ancestors and the biblical text. We are invited to see and delight in the multiple and sometimes contradictory ways in which the text is read and interpreted.
Midrash teaches us that God delights in the human imagination. It encourages us not just to listen in on an ancient conversation, but to participate in it, here and now; to become part of the story that is passed on to the next generation. No one person can claim to hold the key to unlock what God intended, because what God intended was for each generation to read its own story into the text.
In February of 2012 in Grand Rapids, we will be entering the world of rabbinic storytelling. I hope as we explore the ways that the rabbis wrestle with the text, we will be encouraged to listen more deeply not only to the ancient sacred story but also the story that speaks within us and is still waiting to be told.
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is senior rabbi of congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis where she has served since 1977. She is an internationally known children’s author who has published 11 children’s books, four of which have also been made into board books. She has authored one book for adults, God’s Echo–Exploring Scripture with Midrash. There are more than 400,000 copies of her books in print. She continues to be a sought-after speaker in both Jewish and Christian settings, addressing major religious conferences