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Mormons and Midrash: On the Composition of Expansive Interpretation in Genesis Rabbah and the Book of Moses

TitleMormons and Midrash: On the Composition of Expansive Interpretation in Genesis Rabbah and the Book of Moses
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsShannon, Avram R.
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsBook of Moses; Joseph Smith Translation; Midrash
One of the intriguing things about religious texts is how long of a life and how long of an afterlife they have. Once a text becomes a part of a “canon,” once it becomes in a way fixed, it becomes open to further discussion and elaboration. Different groups and religious traditions create different genres of interpretation to work with and understand their scriptures according to the needs of their traditions. One form of interpretation involves reopening the Bible and expanding on the narrative of the already canonized text, such as is found in the rabbinic genre of midrash and in Joseph Smith’s New Translation (JST) of the Bible.
In fact, some scholars have compared Joseph Smith’s revisions and expansions of the biblical text to rabbinic midrash and targum. This may be a helpful comparison, but it derives in many ways from a value system where the original intent of the authors equals good, while interpretation, of whatever stripe, equals bad. The use of this comparison seems often to be a sort of soft pejorative against both the JST and Jewish interpretation, prioritizing historical-critical readings of the Bible over these kinds of interpretation. These scholars have also misunderstood midrash in the context of rabbinic literature. It should be noted that the trend of comparing everything to midrash is a fairly common one, even outside the world of Mormon studies. There is a tendency in scholarship to label any kind of interpretive work “midrash.” Doing so without attention to the rabbinic character of this genre of literature tends to create more problems than it solves. Part of the difficulty that arises in this endeavor comes from a certain laxness of usage in applying the term midrash to any kind of expansion or retelling of the biblical narrative, which does not fully express how midrash actually works. Related to this difficulty is that, in general, the JST has been compared to midrash but not really with midrash. That is to say, these comparisons have involved a superficial contrasting of broad genres, rather than actually comparing the two literatures. Evaluating the content of these literatures shows that there are places where comparison can be productive but also places where key formal differences can be found.