Midrash

Midrash is a way of extracting the meaning of a passage in the bible, a type of exegesis. The bible is full of Gaps, things god or the human authors didn’t think to tell us. What did Eve think? What did Isaac think? The bible tells us that Abraham & Isaac went up the mountain. Isaac wasn’t sacrificed, but he didn’t come back from the mountain with Abraham. What did he do for the three years before he resurfaced?

Sometimes the gaps are seemingly small, but the consequences are large. In Judges 11, Jephthah makes a vow to “sacrifice whoever comes out of the doors of his house, as a burnt offering to the Lord.” Whoever can also be interpreted “whatever.” Why is “doors” plural? And nowhere does Jephthah say the first thing that comes out of his house. Later, his daughter (who is unnamed) requests two months to be in the mountains (wilderness) with her friends to “bewail her virginity.” What could possibly have happened in that time?

Traditionally midrash was the turf of rabbis and sages mainly (though not exclusively) between 500 & 1500 CE. In May, I took a class at Earlham School of Religion (ESR) on writing midrash. While there are several styles, mine are mostly in the form of storytelling. I’ll post them here over the next few weeks.

Gathered or Mourned

We were gathered at Roscoe’s for our usual Friday edition of Happy Hour Heretics. I posed the question: why do you think the men of Genesis were “gathered to their people” when they died, while the women were mourned?

“Well,” said Ben, “while it’s nice to go home again, Thomas Wolfe aside,[1] I’d rather be remembered by those around me than stuck with a bunch of stuffy old fuddy-duddies, if even only briefly. Think about it. Abraham dies. Great man that he was, there’s no mention of weeping or mourning in his obit.[2] And it wasn’t because the men of the First Testament were afraid of looking un-manly because they had tears running down their faces. It is written[3] of Sarah’s death “and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”[4] And of so great a man as King David, it is written “Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept, until they had no more strength to weep.”[5] Sarah, of course, wasn’t around to weep for Abraham. But it’s plain from the text that people just didn’t cry when the cranky old men croaked. See, it’s written time and again, so-and-so was gathered to his people.”[6]

Xenia[7] said “Ben. You’re like Trump. You never answered the question. The question is, if I heard it right, why do women get the tears & the mourning, and the men get gathered back to their people.”

Ben interrupted. “Yeah I did. Nobody was sad to see them go.”

“Ah,” said Xenia. “Buried that in the text, did ya? See, I got a different take on the whole thing.”

“As if I’m surprised,” sniped Ben. “Let’s hear it. This’ll be good.”

“Yeah. So, the other night, I’m sittin’ in my Barcalounger watchin’ Survivor when Maggie comes in with a legal pad and she’s got the whole front and back of the page filled with ‘honey-do’ stuff and she asks me if I know what I’m doing on Saturday, sort of one of those leading lawyer-type questions like on CSI. I’m supposed to know the answer. I made the mistake of saying ‘tell me.’ And then boy it really hit the fan.” [8]

Ben interrupted. Again. “And this has what to do with the question on the floor?”

“Well, doggone it, if you’d let me finish, it’d be clear as the air in Gary IN in 1968.[9]What I’m saying is that the women were calling the shots. Nothing’s changed in 3000 years. They want a little fuss, they get a little fuss. There’s nothing we can do about it. Think of all those poor old guys getting perpetual exile to Sheol where there’s nothing to do but play golf. Sounds like hell to me. I can’t stand golf.”

“That’s your answer?” said Ben. “The women ran the show and let the men think they (the men) were in charge?

“Yep.” Said Xenia. “Deborah said ‘I want to be buried under that oak,[10]’ and that’s what she got. Rachel said ‘stick Jacob in that cave over there. He can have that kin-thing if he wants.[11] Me, I’ll take the tears.’ And that’s how it turned out, isn’t it?”

[1] Notable for his novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” published posthumously

[2] Genesis 25:8

[3] My original idea was for Ben & Xenia to be rabbis & debate why the difference in treatment of men & women. “It is written” is in the style of such debate. Then Xenia went off in a completely different direction.

[4] Genesis 23:2

[5] 1Sam. 30:4

[6] For Example, Abraham (Gen. 25:8), Isaac (Gen. 35:29) and Jacob (Gen. 49:29).

[7] A town in Ohio which sounded like a good name for a character having a beer and talking theology at Roscoe’s.

[8] I’m trying to riff on the idea that the men held the image of power, while the women actually held (much of) it.

[9] The blast furnaces were still running at that time. The sky tended towards orange. On a bad day, you couldn’t see a mile. I recall this from when I was a child.

[10] Ah translation. There are (at least) 2 large, long-lived tees common in the near east: Terebinth is not an oak but is often translated as that. There is a true oak, Quercus Calliprinos, the other large, long-lived tree of the region.

[11] Gen. 49:29

Isaac and Ishmael

This story is often used to validate the conflict between Chrstianity & Islam. With God, all things are possible. Peace, reconciliation, are “things.”   ###

Abraham, the man we called dad, died last week.[1] There’s nothing like weddings and funerals to bring people together. The notices went out: kids, relatives, the twelve tribes, even that other nation. Come together. Celebrate the life of our patriarch. Praise god. Speak of our past, pray for our future. Sometimes they come together in peace. Sometimes it’s more like fireworks. Or sodium and water. Va Voom!

His will named me, Isaac, as executor. Ishmael got in on the late camel. At first, things were a little prickly.

Ishmael burst into the tent without even knocking, dagger drawn.[2] “Well. Nice to see you after all these years in exile (not). I hear dad went and made you executor. You always were his favorite. Now I suppose you’re going to hold it over me, some kind of fraternal ransom.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Did I say any of those things? I didn’t ask to be executor. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Let’s sit and call on God to be present with us as we grieve. He was father to both of us.” Isaac yells “Rebekah, hon. Did you see who’s here? Will you get us some kumquat tea, please?”

The breath of YHWH descends[3] on them. They sit in reverent silence. After a bit, Ishmael asks “Can I give you a hug, brother?” His eyes fill and he bursts into tears. He falls into his brother’s arms and weeps years of grief. They embrace.  “God I’ve missed you. It’s good to be home.” After he collected himself, he continued. “For a long time, it seemed like mom & me got a really raw deal, what with dad kicking us out of the house on those trumped up allegations. We were just supposed to go into the desert and die, I guess. But you know, the human spirit has an incredible will to survive. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I guess some ways that’s true. It made me tough. It made me able to fend for myself.[4] Word on the street is that, like you, I’m destined to be the father of a great people. There are those who don’t want that to happen. Divide and conquer, they say.

Isaac thought for a while. “I’d like to know you better before I commit to anything. We really haven’t had anything to do with each other since we were little. You used to put scorpions in my bed. Of course, I returned the favor in my own ways. Maybe we’ve grown out of that. Maybe not.

“Life around here hasn’t been all that easy, though nothing like what you’ve been through. Sheep and keeping the books and managing the shepherds. It’s enough to make a fellow go bald before his time. There’s no end to it.

“I had a dream. We chose not to get along. The result was almost constant warfare. Many thousands of lives lost. That’s not the way God created Adam and Eve. We were created in Her image.[5] The commandment reads “Thou shalt not kill.”[6] Then, a week later, I had another dream. This time, we managed to get along. Our peoples traded and flourished. There was long lasting peace. We all worshiped YHWH, though we often called Her by different names[7]. We owe it to the people to give it a try.

In the end, Ishmael wasn’t the wild ass looking for a fight that he’d been painted as[8]. He seemed to realize that the problem was his father[9], not his brother. While there were places they had to agree to disagree, they managed to exist peacefully as neighbors. Isaac put aside his pride. Their kingdoms grew and prospered. Far in the future, they even produced a couple of notable prophets.

Reflection

I believe God wants us to be reconciled, both with Her and with each other, and will give us the means to accomplish that. It won’t be easy. Give and take, listening to varied positions and offering our own in humility, just as the rabbis did, are important steps.

There is a fatalist strand in the debates about the Mid-East conflict these days. The conflict seems intractable. Yet those same fatalists were never shy about saying that with God, all things are possible. “And the people cried out to god, and god remembered them.”[10] The noise of bombs is not what gets Her attention. It is the almost silent prayers of Hannah.[11]

I have been Ishmael, the wild hare.[12] I have been Isaac, who in this case, is seeking peaceful way forward. I have heard the voice of God as I’m pulled in the opposite direction.

[1] Gen. 25:8

[2] While I think there was likely some procedure for asking permission to enter, I doubt it was knocking. Nonetheless, the entrance was abrupt.

[3] I’m thinking here of ruah.

[4] Gen. 16:11-12

[5] Gen. 1:26

[6] Exod. 20:13

[7] Allah and YHWH. The dreams are after the manner of Pharaoh’s dreams of the fat cattle and the thin cattle in Gen. 41.

[8] According to Nancy Bowen, a “wooden” (literal) translation doesn’t hint at violence between their nations. A literal reading is “his hand in all…he shall live alongside his kin.”

[9] Sarai actually, Gen. 16:9 Ishmael is not yet born, but is aware of the conflict.

[10] E.g. Exodus 2:24

[11] Bronner, p. 95

[12] Onager, actually.

Mrs. Job

The text in the Book of Job tells us very little about Job’s wife. Who was she? how was she? Here’s a little trip behind the scenes.

I like to think I’m as god fearing as my husband. Something’s going on here, and I’m not sure what. The house fell on the kids. It killed them all.[1] What’s up with that, God? You’re so righteous. You know Job puts you first in everything you do[2]. So, Mr. “I’m the omnipotent ruler of the universe,” where are you when we need you? Why? Why have things gone south? I really liked our cushy lifestyle[3]. Now I’m childless, there’s no money for groceries, and I’m in rags out begging for bread. I know in marriage we’re in it together, but whatever kind of deal he cut with you, I want no part of it.

You know I love him, but what can I do for him when he won’t take action to help himself? He just sits out there on that dung heap[4] and does this Eyeore imitation, and I have to say he’s pretty convincing. Wounded male syndrome, I call it. He gets a sniffle and wants me to believe he’s at death’s doorstep. Well, he looks to me like he’s actually at death’s doorstep[5]. Won’t you give me some insight into how to at least give him some comfort? I offer him a blanket. He refuses it.

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. He wouldn’t help himself, so I started to pray. And I prayed so hard I sweated blood. I prayed like Huldah when she was barren. And God responded. Imagine that.

He said (for he was in a “he” shape at that moment) “Yeah. Well. I was playing rummy with Satan the other night. You guys were the pot. And wouldn’t you know it, the little bugger cheated. I knew the cards dealt, and he still got gin before me. So man up[6] and deal with it.”

“Oh, really,” I said. “So that’s how you roll. You give me a crack at Satan & I’ll knock him out of the park. Just work with me here, will ya, Lord?” Next thing I know, there’s a vacuum cleaner salesman knocking at the door. Polyester suit, straw-brimmed hat, like he was from a barbershop quartet. He was the first attempt. I put up a sign “No Solicitors[7].” Only I guess it should have said “No solicitation.” That was quickly followed by phone marketers. I got on the “Do not call” list. Plainly the frontal attack was a war of attrition. Something creative was needed. Play to his weakness, they said. Which was… deception. I hatched a plan.

“Satan’s plumbing,” a pleasant voice answered. “How may we help you?”

“My kitchen sink drain is plugged. It’s a disaster. Poor little ol’ helpless me, I can’t do a thing with it. Can you send the boss right over?” I simpered.

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact he’s in the shop right now. But he’s not cheap. He only takes payment in souls,” replied the sweet voice. “No credit. Payment at the time services are rendered. You sure a plugged drain is worth that?”

I pretended to consider for a moment. “Yes. Yes, we used to have so much, but now a plugged drain is the only thing we have left. It’s cheap at half the price. Yes, please send him over. It’s 316 John[8] Pl., downtown.” And after a bit, the doorbell rang and there he was. Dressed as a plumber. I put on my best helpless act and took him to the kitchen. He burrowed in under the sink and started right in, tearing things apart. It was then I gave him a quick shove in the butt with my heel, slammed the cupboard doors shut and slid a spatula through the door handles. He’s there for the ages.

“There ya go, God. Thanks for the inspiration. Tell Job it’s all going to be OK.”

[1] Job 1:19

[2] Job 1:8

[3] Job 1:2. Job was a wealthy, powerful man. It is easy to become accustomed to the perks that go along with that.

[4] Testament of Job

[5] Job 2:4-7. All that people have, they will sacrifice for their lives.

[6] Job 38:3 and 40:6. Really, God?

[7] i.e. lawyers

[8] For God so loved the world….

Dinah (Based on Genesis 34)

It’s been a long time since my mother, Dinah, confided to me why it was that she went out to see the women of the land[1] on that fateful day. It was a way of making things right, things that had their beginning years before.

Grandpa told me about how he met Rachel at the well one day, and moved the stone so she could water her father’s flock[2]. He worked seven years to earn the right to wed her[3], and then her sneaky father[4] substituted Grammy for Rachel and he had to work another seven years because he still wanted Rachel and he wasn’t crazy about Grammy[5]. Grammy’s a sweet, wise, caring woman but somehow Grandpa couldn’t warm up to that, no matter how she tried. She gave him sons, three of them[6]. And Mom[7]. Surely he should have loved her for that: kids are a blessing, are they not? She never really asked for more than that, to be loved. Even that was too much, I guess.

Somehow mom could never do anything “right enough” and either Grammy or grandpa or both  of them would give her a cuff on the noggin. And sometimes Grandpa would hit Grammy. It seemed to be how they solved their problems. It seemed to Mom that there must be a better way. Maybe it just started as getting away from the toxicity of home life. By the time she was 12, she’d put on her head scarf. Grammy would ask her where she was going. She always answered with one word: “out.” So it almost became one of those inside jokes families have. One of her brothers would ask where Mom was and the response was always “Dinah went out.” Mom told me where she went, once I got old enough.

There was something about her eyes[8] that allowed her to see how people really were, what was in their hearts. She knew how Grandpa treated Grammy, and how they both treated her (Mom). And she saw it in her friends and their parents. She saw it whenever she went out. So she prayed about it. “Elohai![9] what I see around me is not the way you will us to live together. Am I really to be the dutiful, obedient daughter in such conditions? And since I have a hunch that the answer is ‘no,’ what would you have me do about it? I am just a young girl. How can I change the world I live in?” She prayed because that was what was in her heart; I don’t think she really expected a response.

Then one night an old woman, dressed in rags, appeared to her in a dream. The woman was stooped with age. Many of her teeth were missing. Dream woman spoke in a foggy voice like breath, that coated what it touched: YHWH. She told mom to go out, to talk to the women in the community. To tell them that women were created equal to men. She was to start a grassroots organization to respond to family violence, to collaborate with each other for, said the old woman, isolation is deadly. There is no lack of work for the brave woman, Dinah. And you are that woman. Next morning Mom went out.

###        ###        ###

Activists are often threatened and/or intimidated. Mom was attacked by a stalker named Shechem. She became swept up not only in family violence, but cultural violence as well. She found herself with child and named me Hamor[10].

 

[1] Gen. 34:1

[2] Gen. 29:10

[3] Gen. 29:18

[4] Laban, Grandpa Jacob’s uncle. Gen. 29:10

[5] Gen. 29:23-27

[6] Gen. 29:32-36

[7] Gen. 30:21

[8] 29:17. The text says “lovely.” The footnote to the text says “Heb.: meaning uncertain.”

[9] My god. (Thank you Nancy.)

[10] My grandfather on my father’s side. I had hoped to work more of Mom’s rape into the story & then have it be part of her motivation in this work of education & solidarity she’s been given. Perhaps a future midrash.

Snake (Genesis 3) Posted 6.12.17

It has been said that the snake is the craftiest of animals[1]

That it was the deception of the snake

Which led to the expulsion of the humans from paradise

I am said serpent, here to clear my name from slander.

For it was the sloth of the humans,

The ease with which they were tempted

Which caused their so-called fall.

The world, even at the beginning, was an inherently dangerous place.

Temptation lay in the soil, waiting to sprout

Perhaps I served as a catalyst

But a catalyst only serves to speed a reaction which would occur naturally on its own.

There is more to the story than has yet been told.

I will admit to a mischievous streak, which a certain angel was able to tap into.

He came to me on a hot summer afternoon as I lay sunning myself on a slab of stone

And proposed a wager: if I could get them (the man and the woman) to eat the fruit of a particular tree, he would grant me legs upon which to walk.

And I? How could I refuse such an offer? For slithering is so slow and limiting.

What could the downside possibly be? We would have some fun.

The humans would get wise (so he said), his boss would cut him a nice bonus, and I’d get legs out of the deal.

I approached the woman first, though she stood together with the man[2]

She seemed the kinder and gentler of the two. Perhaps more curious and open to new ideas, as well

We raptly gazed at the tree in the center of the garden.

The long rays of the evening sun filtered through the leaves and gilded the branches.

Silver etched the margins of the leaves.

The fruits were like none anywhere else in the garden.

A particular ray of sunlight struck a particular fruit in a particular way.

They later called the fruit an apple.

It winked.

I nudged the woman. “Did you see that?”

“See what?” she queried

“That fruit, the one struck by the golden rays of even’ time, it winked at me,” I said.

“No way,” she said.

I was about to make counterpoint when It[3] spoke.

We were startled. The woman heard it too. The man, though, was looking at his reflection in a mud puddle, picking at a bit of mango fiber between his teeth.

We paid full attention.

“You know that you were created in the image of Me[4],” It said.

“You have a choice to make. You may eat of this shining fruit that is Me. Your lives will be miserable but you will come to know my consort, Sophia, and I will live in your hearts[5]. Or you can choose to be like him (and the apple nodded toward the man). Forever.”

If you’re reading this, you know which was chosen.

So, you see, my plan with the angel never even got to unfold.

Claiming contract non-fulfilment, the angel refused to grant me the promised legs

And, like me, the woman gets a disproportionate share of the blame.

There is more than enough to go around.

[1] Gen. 3:1

[2] Gen. 3;5

[3] “It” was the start of a sentence. Editing moved the clause “It spoke.” Capitalized, in this instance, It implies that God has a hand in this acquisition of wisdom. I.e., “It” wanted us to gain wisdom and was actively involved in getting us to accept this gift.

[4] Gen. 1:26

[5] Jer. 31:33