Scholar And Advocate: The Stories Of Moses In Midrash “Exodus Rabbah” -- By: Michael Graves

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 21:1 (NA 2011)
Article: Scholar And Advocate: The Stories Of Moses In Midrash “Exodus Rabbah”
Author: Michael Graves

Scholar And Advocate: The Stories Of Moses In Midrash “Exodus Rabbah”

Michael Graves

Wheaton College

Like any form of interpretive writing but in its own distinctive way, rabbinic midrash functions both as a response to elements of the text (exegesis) and as a medium through which the interpreters speak to their own context (cultural expression). One notable feature of aggadic midrash is the practice of telling extrabiblical stories about biblical figures. Even the telling of these stories represents both exegesis and cultural expression, as seen in the presentation of Moses in midrash Exodus Rabbah. In non-rabbinic Jewish portrayals of Moses from the Greco-Roman world, Moses was often an important vehicle for the expression of the Jewish appropriation of cultural Hellenism. In the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, the figure of Moses is elaborated only modestly, but he is clearly depicted within the framework of rabbinic thought. Exodus Rabbah follows and develops the trajectory of the Mekhilta but also highlights features of Moses that were prominent in earlier sources in light of shared cultural experiences and their common text (that is, Exodus). In Exodus Rabbah, Moses is depicted through numerous aggadic tales as a rabbinic scholar of Torah and as the advocate who successfully mediates between Israel and God. Although these stories freely describe Moses in anachronistic terms as though he were a sage from the era of the rabbis, they also reflect genuine responses to actual points of tension and meaning in the text. This approach enabled the sages of the midrash to appreciate the meaningfulness of the text as they saw their own situations acted out in the text through Moses, although this came at the expense of recognizing fully the points of difference between the world of the text and the world of the interpreters.

Key Words: Exodus, Moses, midrash, aggadah, Exodus Rabbah, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Torah, scholar, advocate, mediator


It has often been pointed out that rabbinic midrash functions both as exegesis and as cultural expression.1 One may justly look at midrash and ask

questions of a hermeneutical sort, with the understanding that the midrash is responding to certain features of the biblical text. At the same time, although it is difficult to identify specific historical events that generated specific midrashic interpretations, it is possible to use “recurring patterns” that are found in numerous rabbinic texts to uncover the social-historical contexts to which the rabbis were responding.2 One of the most engaging aspects...

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