I did not know what to expect when we arrived at Genesis Land. I was incredibly excited at the prospect of riding a camel and became even more excited when I saw a sign reading “Beit Bereshit” – it was the one time that my biblical Hebrew education did me any good in modern Israel. What I certainly did not expect was a man with an Australian assuring me that he was Abraham. Nor did I expect a man purporting to be his servant Eliezer to collect us and escort us to a camel ride that “would take us back 3000 years in time.” Honestly, it was a bit corny. Regardless of my expectations and the real product, I would say that genesis Land was a very instructive experience. The food was likely the best that I had had in Israel and despite my revulsion at the corniness of the entire endeavour, I learned some very interesting things. As a student who has studied the books of the Tanakh as a primary source, I was shocked to learn at Genesis Land that the name of Abraham’s father was Terah, that he was an idol-maker in Babylon in the court of King Nimrod, and that Abraham had fled West in order to avoid having to take up his father’s trade! As Abraham nodded at us encouragingly and said “right?” after every new fact he shared with us, I was horrified. I had read my Torah all wrong. In English and in Hebrew I had completely missed all of these passages about Abraham’s early life and knew absolutely none of what this man was talking about. The delicious date-honey chicken was little consolation. Back on the bus, one of our professors calmed me down and assured me that all of the details that Abraham had shared with us were midrash – not a part of the Torah that I had read. Midrash? I vaguely remembered being very confused as I learned about Mishnah, Talmud, Gemara, and all of those elements of post Second Temple Jewish writings that keep me a safe different from the study of modern Judaism and focused on the ancient world. Some research was in order. The site Chabad.org was very helpful – filling me in on all of these details about Abraham’s birth in 1897 BCE and his subsequent concealment because King Nimrod of Babylon felt that he was a threat to his throne. I was fascinated. Even more helpful for my questions about midrash was the article “Filling in the Gaps” by Rabbi Iscah Waldman from MyJewishLearning.com. Waldman offers a very concise and informative description of midrash, presenting it as rabbinic interpolation that helps to bring out various nuances in biblical stories. Her article offers a variety of midrash on the Cain and Abel story which really brought home to me the important function of midrash. Interpretation of the text really brings other aspects of the text to life by demanding that one think critically about the gaps and then attempt to fill them in by reading various interpolations and deciding which is best suited to one’s personal interpretation of the text. The midrash on the Cain and Abel story ranged from a fight over a female twin to a comment on Cain’s part about God as the keeper of humanity. Whatever the interpretation, the thought involved a new look at the text that could put people’s mind at ease by offering fruitful new thought and interpretation.

This lesson on midrash opened my mind to a whole new genre of religious text. As a student in a program that emphasizes primary sources, it seemed entirely counter-intuitive to me to build upon the primary text by adding a framework of interpretation based on textual hints and personal understanding of what had been read. The midrashim were all very subjective and it was jarring to me to think that the Tanakh did not fully represent Judaism – that its words were not enough. But it’s not really that the text is insufficient. Veneration of the Torah and Torah study is a pillar of Judaism and their midrashim do not denigrate this pillar in any way. Rather, the need to build on the Tanakh confirms my understanding of the biblical texts: they’re old. They don’t necessarily speak to a modern person of faith who believes in God but whose modern consciousness causes them to be significantly troubled by the fact that they don’t really know why Cain killed Abel – someone who is insatiably curious about the early life of Abraham, a time not really addressed very thoroughly to a modern reader in the Book of Genesis. The books of the Torah need to be built upon because they reflect a group of people who understood them, knew them, and created them a very long time ago. Modern readers are bothered by certain passages and require more. Midrash steps in to answer this need, a more current text that reflects the concerns of the modern audience and allows readers to engage more meaningfully with the text and the tradition.

Genesis Land was not the only site that gave me cause for concern regarding textual history and tradition. Qumran, for example, presented some interesting Christian traditions that are not necessarily textually-based. Firstly, as indicated by the debate in the Biblical Archaeology Review between Atkinson, Kenneth, Eshel, Hanan, Magness, and Jodi, the group of people who inhabited this site continues to be mysterious. Some scholars maintain that we ought to rely on the recordings of Josephus and accept that a community of sectarians called the Essenes likely lived there. Pieces of evidence such as the stone vessels found there for purity purposes and the large number of bowls for communal meals seem to fit with Josephus’ description and could point to the area as having been inhabited by the Essenes. Other scholars hold that we simply cannot know what group used to live in the elaborate complex of houses, halls and ritual baths, claiming that we just don’t know enough. Considering this heated debate in the academic community, it would seem risky for a site to portray itself as the historic home of the sectarian Essenes who fled Jerusalem due to perceived corruption in the Temple’s political structure and in defiance of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the site presents itself as such to a large number of visitors and even goes so far as to include John the Baptist in its opening video, suggesting that John might have attempted to become a part of the community before fleeing and beginning his baptizing campaign in the Judean desert. L. Michael White writes about the Essene community but states flat-out in his article on the Dead Sea Scrolls that it cannot be proven that John the Baptist or Jesus of Nazareth ever had any interactions with this community. So why include these two figures in the site’s public message? Why explicitly state to be the historic home of a group that scholars still fight about? Again, my mind goes back to midrash. The addition of John the Baptist to the history of Qumran is very similar to the addition in Jewish tradition of Abraham’s elaborate birth story, his idol-making father, and the actions of the furious King Nimrod. In both instances, later writers are adding something to the story that archaeological facts and primary sources do not necessarily support. Again, I feel that the reason must come back to a structure similar to midrash. When a primary text leaves you with questions – and when a historical site is so conveniently there – it becomes easy to satisfy modern believers by adding some creative interpretation. I imagine that the idea of John the Baptist in a Jewish sectarian is an immensely enriching one for those who desire more answers about his life. Just how did he come to be in the Judean desert carrying out his ministry? The traditional understanding of this Christian figure as a part of the Qumran community would fill in some gaps in the baptizer’s life and could even lead to a fruitful character study. One can imagine a frustrated John leaving the community and seeking further spiritual purification alone in the desert, calling on others to be baptized in this new understanding of God that would become Christianity.

Reflection on this day concludes with some valuable lessons. Traditional interpretation is a part of every religion and until now it has been a part that I like to ignore. To understand Judaism, I would turn to the texts of the Tanakh and to gain a knowledge base on Christianity, I would likely consult the New Testament. These texts are not enough to fully understand a religion though. The texts represent a society that is long past and they were designed for an audience that had different societal concerns than a modern Jew or a modern Christian. Age cannot be the entire basis for a text’s authority. To really understand where a religion stands today, you need to look at texts that are slightly less dated. Modern forms of interpretation like Jewish midrash are not less valid than primary texts like the Bible. Rather, they demonstrate the differences between our own modern worldview and the worldview of the people that produced these texts. Even more than demonstrating these key differences, interpretive texts can show us how we are still the same. No midrash will ever tell you that there is no God and neither will the Tanakh. Interpretation can be compared with primary sources in order to understand how a religious tradition has changed and grown. I may still prefer the Bible as my primary source of choice – nothing can beat the insight it can lend into the very different mindset of a society long gone – but interpretive texts deserve their own fair share of merit as texts that demonstrate new societal concerns and that bridge the gap between the old and the new. Without these interpretations, the modern person would surely struggle with religion far more than they already do.