Genesis Rabbah as Scripture Testing the Bounds of Theory, Text, and Event

Ryan Quandt
Claremont Graduate University

A group’s take on their own scripture does not suffice for detailing what their scripture is. In fact, the nature of scripture blurs from such a narrow approach. While a group’s views cannot be ignored, conceiving scripture requires a broader theory. This paper sketches the rudiments for such a theory with an eye to the first aggadic midrash, Genesis Rabbah. Scripture is, I argue, a body of symbols that a group enacts to reveal a non-public reality, and orients a community to that reality and/or is taken as a site of its manifestation. This definition leads to two claims concerning the status of Genesis Rabbah: first, an argument is needed for why this midrash is or is not scripture (we cannot assume it is not); second, for the Palestinian Jews in Late Antiquity, Genesis Rabbah records practices and sites that are scriptural.

A Beginning

For a community, there should not be many surprises about what is or is not scripture, if that community has a role in deciding for themselves. But scripture is not a monolithic block; it is dynamic and dimensional. The texts, artifacts, practices, and images that can be considered scripture, and the hold that they have over groups, vary across time, places, and people. Scholars tend to these details using concepts, tropes, and theories of scripture to illumine what makes scriptures unique; how symbols become scripture, remain so, or cease; how communities handle, store, and use their scriptures.[1] Scholars explain scripture, that is, as a widespread religious phenomenon.[2]

The risks of seeking one, unifying concept for a phenomenon like scripture are well-known: oversimplification, ignoring exceptions, neglecting distinctions of grammar, common sense, or groups, etc. Facing these dangers, some scholars are happy with a loose bag of traits for a loose set of religions. Their claim is of the form, “Whatever scripture happens to be for this community, it must have x, y, z characteristics.” This route, too, has a cost—namely, reifying scripture according to certain properties.[3] Even if these properties apply in the study of one group (or even a few), we have little reason to think that these properties can or should generalize to other groups. A larger theory or argument is required to enable generalized conclusions across cases. It sets the threshold of similarity and difference, and it charts them. So, we can account for the dangers of a unifying theory of scripture by acknowledging that any unifying concept for scripture is defeasible—wider evidence and deeper thought may upend it.

To begin to look for a definition of scripture, one may look to its force over, within, and around communities and individual lives. Scripture forms identities. Like a magnet, it attracts some people and repels others. This is why scripture can be a touchy subject; asking about it pries into who people take themselves to be. Thus, scripture is not a mere tool, guide, or moral code.[4] More is at stake, which is all the more reason to think hard and long about what scripture is. But many objects, writings, and institutions have force over others in this sense. What, then, is the unique force of scripture?

Scholars face a tricky problem: they can decide the force of scripture neither from within a religious group, nor apart from one. Within a group, the answer changes according to the group’s notion of revelation. Scholars hear about inspiration, miracles, prophets, transcendence, and so on, and these claims should not be ignored. But they are more or less unique to the group, and scripture is not the same as revelation. Apart from the group, though, scholars risk distorting the group’s own beliefs and rationale by imposing their own assumptions and predetermined categories. Yet adherents have an essential role in what is or is not scripture for them, so scholars must craft a theory that moves within and apart from religious communities.[5]

And that is what I will do. My chosen body of symbols, or text, is Genesis Rabbah, the first Hebrew commentary, or midrash, on Genesis. My question is whether Genesis Rabbah obtained the status of scripture for the Jews of late antiquity, and my claim is that this question cannot be settled apart from theory.

Since the Tanakh closed years before, the canon of scripture seemed to have been settled. There was a fixed, canonical text that God revealed in an ultimate historic moment: Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai.[6] This is the divine event that the Tanakh records and echoes. Whether the word “Torah” refers to the Pentateuch alone, or to the Nevi’im and Ketuvim as well,[7] the rabbis give pride of place to the books closest to God’s revelation on the mount. These writings distinctly express an ultimate, divine reality. Midrash as a style of exegesis also privileges the Tanakh. In fact, Fishbane ties the emergence of midrash to the prior closure of the canon: “The closure of the scriptural canon…changes matters fundamentally. It is a transformative event…since God’s Word (speech) is deemed comprehensive and sufficient for human culture…it is only within the existent divine words that new meanings can arise…Everything must be found in it,” that is, the Tanakh.[8] By definition, then, midrash is not scripture because it acts on, or enacts, scripture. A popular definition of midrash bears this out:

Midrash is a type of literature, oral or written, which has its starting point in a fixed, canonical text, considered the revealed word of God by the Midrashist and his audience, and in which the original verse is explicitly cited or clearly alluded to.[9]

Other definitions follow suit.[10] Midrash interprets a “fixed, canonical text,” a scripture; it enlivens scripture, reveals its depth and breadth, renews, discovers, emboldens, yet is not itself scripture. Torah is not the work of human hands.

But the argument can be turned inside out. The Tanakh’s closure does not fix scripture. Rather, the living form of scripture changes. The Judaic community recognized that divine revelation exceeds words on a page. “Torah” includes the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash, which make up the Oral Torah.[11] This should not be diminished. Visotsky remarks, repeating claims made by ancient rabbis, “Without both the written Mosaic Torah scroll, and its oral Torah of midrash on pinax, there would be no universe.”[12] The oral is as essential as the written. Tradition holds that God also revealed the oral traditions on Mount Sinai, including those in Genesis Rabbah.[13] What is more, Torah is not only written and oral; it is a “living aspect of God” that can be experienced here and now.[14] Midrash attunes the exegetes and larger community to the living wisdom of divine revelation—the revelation of God in the present. Fishbane affirms, “Every scriptural interpretation,” or midrash, “is a reenactment of the revelation at Sinai.”[15] Midrash is the event of scripture ushered in with human hands.

The midrash of Genesis Rabbah declares itself a beginning, “a pioneer and archetype for expressing the divine will.”[16] It was compiled between the 4th and 6th centuries of the common era—distressing times for Jews in the Land of Israel. Julian frustrated plans to rebuild the temple; Christianity became the official religion of Rome, sanctioning Christian scriptures and interpretations; Hellenism swayed culture and thought. All in all, the Jews’ identity was threatened.[17] In response, the rabbis returned to the beginning, and they brought “to the written Torah the deepest anguish of the age…[to] allow the Torah to speak to us here and now.”[18] 

Is Genesis Rabbah scripture? To ask this question, scholars must go beyond the community (though not too far). A theory of scripture is needed, but with some provisions. Scholars must take a view wider than any given group or time period, but without floating in timeless universals. We cannot assume that every religious group self-consciously avows their scripture as scripture according to a larger theory of what scripture is and why their text fits. This is the work of scholars, but a religious group’s own views and practices are a good place to start.[19] And so, I will first propose a theory of scripture with Genesis Rabbah in mind; then I will lay bare what was in mind all along. The crux of my theory and argument lies on the force of scripture, or how scripture holds together a group and distinguishes it from others with respect to a higher reality.

Some may immediately object to my assumption that the theory will have purchase beyond this one case. If not, what use is it? One can presume any text to be scripture, then spawn a theory that backs it up. This objection marks my argument’s defeasibility, but various conditions qualify it. I am not asking about present communities, but Jews of late antiquity. Nor is Genesis Rabbah arbitrarily chosen. It prompts scholars to think anew about scripture by testing the limits for conceiving scripture. This is because of what it was as midrash. The theory does not fully emerge from the midrash, though, because it borrows from present scholarly views. So the argument cuts with a double edge. On one side, a theory within and outside a given community is needed to place their scripture as such. Adherents lack the final say. On the other, the community resists a theory as it parts from their views and practices, so theorists do not have the final say either. The question lingers, does this theory illumine scripture for adherents? In this way, I aim to define scripture’s bounds.[20]

A Theory

“Scriptures are scriptures,” Levering claims, “because of the ways they are received, and because they can sustain and repay those kinds of receptions.”[21] She then catalogues “modes of reception,” or the various ways a community interacts with a privileged text. This approach reorients scholarship from a focus on sacred writing to a focus on the actions, habits, and thoughts of people.[22] But a lot rests on Levering’s “because,” or how modes of reception make scripture what it is. Where is the line between scripture and its reception? Creating, organizing, compiling, telling, transmitting, praying, interpreting, translating, reading—are they all parts of scripture? I think so. Scripture bleeds outside of a fixed, sacred canon to the ways in which people handle, hear, speak, or read a text. But if modes of reception are what constitute scripture as such, we must sound out how deep, wide, and unified these religious phenomena can become.

Levering amends a common view, a Protestant relic of which we can dispose. It holds scripture as written, fixed, and unchanging, “a free-standing source of religious doctrine, authority, and inspiration, whose meaning could be grasped without too much reference to original or later contexts.”[23] While this view poses problems in terms of scholarship, criticisms should not be aimed at Protestants’ belief in a crystalized revelation in the Bible. It is a problem, however, when imported to other faiths. This view is also problematic in that it overlooks the oral, aural, and tactile dimensions Levering points out. Apart from how scripture is received, definitions narrowly center on a group’s own understanding of revelation. Thus, there can be no basis for comparison across groups. Furthermore, even if revelation is atemporal and eternal, scripture is not. A text persists through time, place, and people. Only when it is enmeshed in these contexts do we witness its force—how a text marks, distinguishes, and holds together a group.

Besides contextualizing and historicizing, we need a concept, tropes, and theory to flesh out scripture. This is what Levering leaves us wanting. A concept directs us to the right phenomena. A trope, like analogy or metaphor, helps us pick out similarities and differences between groups, texts, and times. A trope bridges ideas and the texts, practices, and events that embody them. A theory explains this bridge, as well as phenomena and their significance. A definition, trope, and theory are mutually informing, none being formed in isolation. As Tweed puts it, “Definitions…imply theories and employ tropes,”[24] and I will leverage Levering’s modes of reception to sketch a larger theory.

Folkert distinguishes two forms of scripture, which I will take as my model: Canon I and Canon II.[25] Since ‘canon’ is a Christian term dating back to Athanasius—a word denoting closure, a fixed set of books, and, as a result, constancy—I will use ‘scripture’ instead.[26] Despite the tweak, Folkert suggests some handy tropes. A vector is “the means or mode by which something is carried,” which we can take as referring to an action or event.[27] Think of a vector as a trope for Levering’s modes of reception. Scripture I describes a text constituted by a vector. Scripture II describes what constitutes vectors. When people use symbols in a ritual—when they read aloud at a fast or feast, for example—their use falls into Scripture I.[28] It is the ritual that carries the force of the scriptural text. When someone justifies their decision, say, by citing symbols, the symbols fall into Scripture II. The force of the decision comes from the symbols, not vice versa. In sum, there are two directions of normativity: scripture is either carried or it carries.

Folkert’s model teases us with a more comprehensive theory, but it is incomplete as it stands. One metaphor (‘carrying’) explains another (‘vector’). Without more detail, though, the theory includes too much. Law, literature, myth, popular sayings, cult films—almost anything with normative force over time for a community—can be described as scripture, as actions and events that couple with symbols. No doubt, law, literature, myth, et cetera, may be scripture and cannot be ruled out categorically. But something is lost if we reduce scripture to normative symbols tout court. And even if normative symbols are scriptural in interesting ways, we need more theory to define the scale. Force over a people is not enough. Nor is longevity. Though I obey American law (or try to), the legal code is not my scripture. So Folkert helps, but more legwork is needed.

Some philosophers also give clues. Austin describes language, whether spoken or written, as speech acts, or explicit performatives.[29] An act is performed by uttering words or writing them. A speaker makes a promise by saying, “I promise”; an agreement is made with a signature. The insight here is that language forms a dimension of human action. Words take on effects. Paired with Levering’s shift, scripture opens up to actions or enactments rather than static words on a page. And Folkert, too, points out how acts may enforce or be enforced by their symbols. A second clue bares this out. Davidson argues that metaphors do not signify a non-literal meaning.[30] Metaphors, and perhaps other tropes, are distinct uses of words. Brought to the language of scripture, the content of the words (their “literal” meaning, if you will) matters less than the ways people use them.[31]

As Levering and Folkert observe, scripture is a dynamic process, not a thing. Scripture is scripturalizing, and philosophers clue us in to what that means. Going further, then, we can examine scripture according to actions and events that reveal a non-public reality, a revelation which grips a community. Scripture is made up of actions, events, and revelations, and a definition of each stakes out my commitments. The first is best defined by what it is not. An event is a happening that cannot be reduced to a predicate relation.[32] In other words, an event is not a logical relation that holds between subjects and objects. It is something more, a happening, an occurrence, something that takes place. Take the sentence, “Brutus stabbed Caesar with a knife.” As a predicate relation, the sentence has three places: Brutus, Caesar, and the knife. The event being inferred from this sentence is that Brutus stabbed Caesar, and the relations between Brutus, Caesar, and the knife merely describe that event.  Better to think of an event as a category of its own. Then the sentence, along with other sentences, describes the event, and inferences can be drawn about the event itself. Our original sentence asserts that an event has occurred (a stabbing) and that it has certain properties (accomplished by Brutus, done with a knife, Caesar was the target).[33] An action is a subclass of events. Specifically, an action is done by an agent that is intentional.[34] Pouring coffee and reading the newspaper are actions; tripping on the rug and spilling the coffee is not. A revelation is also a type of event: it occurs when an otherwise non-public reality (at least not available to outsiders) is revealed to a community. It may or may not be the result someone’s action, human or divine, but if it is done by someone (a prophet, say), its significance goes beyond whatever that person thinks they did or its local effects. This is because, if a community considers something a revelation, its meaning has not been exhausted; when a revelation’s meaning has been exhausted, it no longer grips the community. Here, then, are the blocks for a definition.

We can fit these pieces into our original model, Scriptures I and II. One is carried by vectors, the other carries vectors. Scripture II may worry us, since it entails that symbols have force in isolation. It is as if the symbols transparently and universally hold a transcendent force, or the revelation of scripture can and should be self-evident to all, as if any who experience the symbols are gripped (unless they are spiritually blind or deaf, have an impure heart, bad motives, et cetera). These beliefs assume that there is one true scripture—a move we should not make. A theory like mine cannot decide which scriptures are true or false. This is where action comes in. Scripture II assumes an enactment or effects over people’s actions. There is no scripture without human hands, eyes, mouths, ears. There are no scriptures apart from modes of reception. Scripture eases the pain of loss or failure, increases the joy of love and success, and reveals in a way that results in some actions and not others. Scripture, in short, does not have force apart from action.

But if action is all there is to scripture, there would be no room for belief in divine or suprahuman revelation. We would fall into the same trap of rejecting a religious community’s beliefs, and so the focus on action is too narrow, always supposing the stuff of earth behind scripture’s force and blurring a group’s own views.[35] While we can leave aside the merit of any one religious belief, my stance should leave the otherworldly undecided, yet in play. Here is where events come in. Religious communities form around events—God’s revelation at Mount Sinai, the incarnation of Christ, Muhammad’s visit by the angel Gabriel, and the golden tablets Joseph Smith was shown. Their significance goes beyond a human act, practice, or description. Their persistence and hold over a community evince their force, and they reveal a non-public reality insofar as these events make sense of the day to day, the past, and the future. Scripture I, then, becomes the actions that respond to and enact the event that is Scripture II, both of which involve a body of symbols that gives form and stability to their mutual exchange.

Revelation completes the picture. Symbols are scripture according to their reach, the extent to which they encompass religious action and founding revelations. Unlike Folkert’s model, my distinction is not a conjunction or disjunction; rather, it names two sides of the same process. Along with measuring degrees, this model also separates scripture from non-scripture. The revelation on Mount Sinai is arguably the founding event of the Jewish community. In itself it is not scripture until a body of symbols stand for it. Even then, it is not scripture until it results in certain actions and habits by which a community identifies itself through the event. On the other side, actions must enact or be disposed toward a revelatory event to be scripture. Words said in prayer are not scripture until their recitation orients the speaker to the founding event and again reveals its presence. This is also how scripture differs from law, literature, and myth. The force of scripture requires actions, events, and revelation, and that revelation sets adherents apart from others and founds their identity. The religious are situated in the larger cosmos, a higher, invisible reality. So Scriptures I and II stand together—apart, scripture ceases. It is the process of scripturalizing that counts.

Before moving on, I want to make a few hypothetical objections to clarify the theory. A result of my view is that thinking of scripture as an object—a book, a scroll, a canon—distracts from what makes scripture, scripture. Thinking of scripture as fixed words on a page or recitations also leads us away from the broader process that sets scripture apart. But what about the book on the table, the scroll, or recitations? How does this theory make sense of common views? And why expect this theory, general as it is, to offer insight in single cases? Fair questions.

The first objection worries that the importance of the artifact—that which is handled, read, prayed—falls out of my account. That would be amiss. Symbols are essential to scripture. They are often encoded, and their encoding has significance. My theory takes this into account by giving a holistic gloss of the artifact’s significance. When and how certain words are said, where the book or scroll is placed, when and how it is handled, read, heard, seen, and so on, makes scripture what it is. By definition, an artifact is something that is made, and the making is essential to the product.[36] Scripture cannot be taken in isolation as an object, as it even lacks fixed physical form. Scholars cannot assume scripture is a modern book without threatening the codex, scroll, or papyrus. To say that scripture is written or inscribed also excludes too much.[37] Instead, scripture is a confluence of actions and events—a node in a larger pattern. A scripture comes to the fore within the habits, practices, and beliefs of a group. As a result, scholars cannot define the form of scripture simply as text.[38] Two people may own the same book, but for only one is that book scripture. A theory must explain the difference. 

This definition and theory are general. I am after one conception of scripture, defeasible as the theory may be. Form is given to scripture by a process, and there is the risk that the form will blur the process. This risk threatens any project like this, but the theory’s success or failure hinges on how it illumines select cases. What is more, the theory and definition are incomplete until some religious community is engaged. Revelation, I said, completes the picture, but the content of revelation hinges on a specific group, an event, and how the group relates to the event. So until we have a specific revelation in mind, the theory cannot be filled in. It may look very different across peoples, times, and places, and it is meant to be fluid. Theory goes hand in hand with practice. So now let me turn to Genesis Rabbah for the Jews of late antiquity, the text I have had in mind all along.

A Case

Genesis Rabbah is scripture if it meets the following definition: a body of symbols that a group enacts to reveal an invisible and/or ineffable, non-public reality (Scripture II), and orients a community to that reality and/or is taken as a site of its manifestation (Scripture I). The symbols grip a community insofar as they localize and channel an identity-forming revelation. Because the higher meaning of the revelation is non-public, it singles out a group.[39] The symbols encode a founding event in actions, be it reading, viewing, hearing, memorizing, speaking, translating, or interpreting. Thus, scripture marks a reciprocity with, around, and through symbols. If scripture, Genesis Rabbah must encode a founding revelation and actions which reenact that revelation. If not scripture, then the aggadic midrash records practices that make up scripture, while the text itself may not be.

Genesis Rabbah is a midrashic compilation, which seems to mark it as secondary or adjacent to scripture right off the bat. Genesis, the book on which it comments, is scripture; interpretation is not. In this final section I will make two attempts: first, to dismiss the seemingly obvious secondary status of Genesis Rabbah; second, to argue that, for the Jews of late antiquity, these midrashim were on the same scripturalizing vector as Genesis.[40] Here are my reasons.

  1. From within the Judaic community, the status of Genesis Rabbah is undecided.[41] The Tanakh was settled centuries before, yet “Torah” names more than just this text, but the oral traditions that follow from it. While the Pentateuch records the founding event(s) of the text, these events echo through history (and the Tanakh, for that matter), and the sages reenact them through midrash. The Tanakh, as Written Torah, requires the Oral Torah. Only then does it have meaning for the present. And, on one influential reading, Genesis Rabbah refers to itself as a pioneering beginning, an archetype for expressing the divine will.[42] The distinction of written from oral evinces the fluidity of a central body of symbols. Although inscribed symbols hold their own meaning, their vocalization, associated acts, and interpretations inflect this meaning. Fishbane describes the written symbols of the Tanakh as a closed set of possibilities that are ceaselessly realized in midrash.[43] His portrayal suggests that the closed canon stops being scripture if local midrash stops. A closed, fixed canon is a dead letter. Still, this does not preclude defining the Tanakh as closed, written scripture that depends on adjacent practices that fall beyond the category of scripture.                                                     
  2. Many midrashim were written before and after Genesis Rabbah.[44] Some comments on this collection of writings will situate our text and set it apart. Midrash, as said, is part of the Oral Torah. Shinan writes, “In the creation of aggadah and targum, a central place was afforded the oral component: they were created by heart, performed orally, and memorized from generation to generation.”[45] In fact, there were prohibitions from writing them down.[46] All midrash shows an “intensive preoccupation” with exegesis,[47] and its orality cues us in on how rabbis acted on, or used, the Tanakh. Rabbis preached via midrash, discussed it in houses of study, and taught it in the open market and schools.[48] Any written compilation holds strands of “traditions” formed, articulated, and spread through preaching, discussion, and teaching. They were recorded more as programs of study than books, which underlines their orientation.[49] Midrash occurred within distinctly Jewish social institutions and practices,[50] such as the synagogue and house of study, which were central to Jewish life and set the community apart.[51] In the synagogue, Jews gathered to study the Tanakh, pray, and hear sermons, and scholars gathered in the house of study. Midrash spanned these institutions as part of distinct activities: preaching, discussion, and teaching.

Due to the popularity of aggadah, a grab-bag category for all non-legal or non-halachic teachings,[52] the prohibition on writing down midrashim was lifted. Editors likely compiled them for two reasons: to collect traditions for ease of access and reference—that is, to better enable their use in preaching, discussion, or teaching—or for expressing a theological message.[53] If the latter, called homiletic, the editor fit various traditions into a rigorous, well-formed argument with sensitivity toward sequence and overall coherence. Homiletic aggadah revolved around a central theme. Though similar content appears throughout many midrashim, there are often slight changes that inflect meaning according to the editor’s (or rabbinic teacher’s) intent.

Genesis Rabbah is the first aggadic midrash, exegetical instead of homiletic.[54] While homiletic midrash groups around a theme, exegetical moves verse by verse. Genesis Rabbah is the first of this style and the first to employ petihah, an interpretive mold.[55] Popular in sermons or homilies, a preacher would interpret a target verse by first citing an apparently unrelated verse. The intent was to expand on and interpret the target. After the first citation, interpretations and citations would follow until the preacher returned to the original verse, illuminating its meaning. Petihah was used throughout aggadah. Since it was used in the synagogue, that is where aggadah was developed and practiced.

The aggadic midrashim were never tabulated or formed into a corpus in late antiquity. Because of this, Lerner suggests that “the circulation of these works was sporadic and incidental” and, lacking an overall framework for organizing them, “no such official corpus or ‘canon’ ever existed.”[56] What is more, the name “Genesis Rabbah” was not officially given until the Middle Ages. It was referred to by various names throughout the Geonic period, and its exact bounds leading up to its fixed form are unclear.[57] As such, the compilation records dynamic interpretative traditions within the community. It is more like an anthology than a treatise, wherein the editor-compiler sought to preserve and organize traditions. The written form, then, serves its uses. These traditions were formed through preaching, discussion, and teaching, and they were recorded for the sake of them. Since they were not crafted to form a coherent whole, consistency or conflict take on new meaning. There is a glimpse of overlapping or conflicting strands of interpretation throughout the community—a staccato of voices. And this should give us pause over the strong claim with which Genesis Rabbah begins.[58]

Aggadic midrash held together Palestinian Jews in late antiquity.[59] For one, midrash permeated the two main social institutions of the day. Moreover, aggadic midrash became prominent in the Amoraic period, when Genesis Rabbah was compiled.[60] Shinan supposes two reasons why.[61] First, aggadah was central to debates and polemics between Judaism and surrounding cultures. In Lerner’s words:

It is…logical to assume that the numerous polemics of the Jewish Christians and various heretic groups against the Palestinian Amoraim also served to enhance the volume of aggadic interpretations and the preoccupation of the Palestinian sages in this literary venue.[62]

So aggadah emerges to engage the surrounding threats of Christianity and Hellenism. Genesis Rabbah was the first loose grouping of traditions to do so. Arguably, aggadah set the Jews apart, unified them, and enabled them to persist in a hostile world. Its interpretations of Genesis were powerful in this respect.

This brings us to Shinan’s second reason: aggadah consoled the community during economic-political hardship. Two homilies in Canticles 2:5 support this point:

Yitshak said: In the past, the Torah was held in general esteem and the participants [in the Sabbath lectures] were interested in hearing teaching from Mishnah and Talmud. But nowadays [id est, the latter half of the third century] the Torah is not held in popular esteem, and they seek to hear instruction in Scripture and in aggadic [homily].[63]

Rabbi Yitshak voices a changed “general” or “popular” attitude toward Torah. It is no longer held in general esteem, and so the people need to be encouraged and exhorted. Rabbi Levi makes a similar comment:

In the past, people had enough money to make ends meet, and a person desired to hear teaching in mishna, halakha and talmud, but nowadays [same period as before], when money is hard to get, and especially since they are sick from the subjugation,[64] all they ask to hear is instruction in the benedictions and words of comfort [aggadic homilies].[65]

From economic and political hardships and “a general decline of Torah acumen,” people struggled to concentrate in the synagogue.[66] Striking in the above passage is that both reading the Tanakh and aggadic homilies consoled and strengthened the Jews. The hostile social setting was not conducive for theological or philosophical reflection, yet aggadah met present exigencies.

Genesis Rabbah was the first rabbinic midrash after the christianization of Rome, after the empire legitimized the Christian scriptures.[67] In the case of Sabbath observance, Gribetz shows how our text directly responds to Roman (and Christian) accusations and polemics.[68] Genesis Rabbah encourages Jews to continue observing Sabbath, while the Babylonian Talmud contains warnings, punishments, and blame.[69] This is a consistent distinguishing element of the traditions compiled in Genesis Rabbah: a positive defense and affirmation of Judaic culture, practices, and community. As such, there is a weighty sense in which Genesis Rabbah records a scripturalizing process. It identifies the community and sets them apart—sharply distinguishing the Tanakh and its Christian appropriation along the way.

Enacting the Model

Genesis is not scripture without the traditions compiled in Genesis Rabbah of preaching, discussion, and teaching on Genesis. The Torah (and universe) is lost without the socially guided activities within the synagogue and house of study. Aggadic midrash enacts the revelation on Mount Sinai (Scripture I) and Genesis Rabbah orients a community to the proper sites of its revelations (Scripture II). The recorded traditions supplement the symbols collected and organized in Genesis. And so, to recall Folkert’s language, Genesis Rabbah forms along the same scripturalizing vector as Genesis. Let me test this hypothesis with the opening lines of the midrashim.

The  reading for that day in synagogue was Genesis 1.1. Opening his strand of interpretation, Rabbi Hoshaya cites Proverbs 8.30:

I was with him as a confident
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before him at all times.

The audience grew expectant at how the rabbi would lead this citation back to Genesis. Depending upon how aware they were of rival Christian interpretations, they may have realized that the role of wisdom as Torah excluded the “Word” of the Gospel of John.[70] In the citation, wisdom personified speaks. She stood in God’s presence before he created the world and “fixed the foundations of the earth.” This first citation makes a bold claim: all of creation begins with wisdom; Torah is wisdom; so creation begins with Torah.[71]

After citing Proverbs, the rabbi gives an analogy between an artisan and God. Recall that Torah here has its most inclusive sense as divine wisdom, given the first citation. The passage continues,

Amon means artisan. The Torah said, “I was the instrument of the Blessed Holy One’s artisanship.” It is the custom of the world that when a king builds a palace, he does not build it of his own knowledge, but has an artisan. And the artisan does not build it of his own knowledge, but has scrolls and codices to know how to do the mosaics. Thus the Blessed Holy One looked into the Torah to create the world.[72]

Visotsky interprets the passage from a key insight into mosaics (not ‘wickets’ as other translations have). In laying mosaics, an artisan referred to scrolls where standard patterns were recorded. This parallels the scrolls of the written Torah. For less permanent sketches, artisans used tablets that were bound in codices. Since the tablets could be easily erased, students also used these codices for school exercises and notes. Rabbinic pupils wrote down their master’s decisions with comments. Portions of the Torah scrolls could be transcribed on the codices for liturgical purposes, too, though they could not be used for public readings.[73] These provisional forms of inscription mirror the Oral Torah.

Another take away from the opening: “Closely interpreting the biblical text,” Gribetz and Grossberg gloss, “is the first step to making sense of God, the created world, and history.”[74] Rabbi Hoshaya affirms the primacy of the Torah and its study. Since both scrolls and codices are referenced, the rabbi signals that the Written and Oral Torah are both equally essential.[75] Together they fold into Torah as divine wisdom. There is reason to believe this analogy has a polemic edge, since the claim is that, without the Oral Torah (midrash, among other writings), wisdom is lost. In other words, the Christians’ Genesis is not Torah insofar as they lack Oral Torah.[76] By breaking from the synagogue and the house of study, Christians have lost the activities of and sites for divine revelation, and so they lose scripture.[77]

Rabbi Hoshaya’s analogy centers Torah on action and site. He begins with describing Torah as God’s instrument, used for a given purpose. The role of Torah is given through the divine act of which it is a part, a description which previews the analogy between God’s relation with Torah and relations between a king, an artisan, and written materials. We are not told whether Torah is the artisan or the materials for writing. Perhaps Torah as divine wisdom is the artisan, while its written and oral forms couple with the scrolls and codices. Or the artisan defines the role of the faithful Jew as the intermediary between God and revelation. Setting the question aside, the Written and Oral Torah are subservient to an all-encompassing end (creating the world/building the palace). Torah also reveals this higher end. The analogy concludes by stating that God created the universe by looking into the Torah. It is the site of revelation after joining the Written and Oral Torah under divine wisdom. Referencing the Torah merges with the activity of creation. In short, Rabbi Hoshaya affirms the primacy of Torah as divine wisdom. If God turned to the Torah before creating the world, and he created the world through its designs, then his people should consult the Torah.

There is much to consider in this short passage, but it is only one in an anthology-like compilation. It is not a theological treatise, so the passage is one tradition preserved among others. Nor is its written form our main concern. The written is a placeholder for activities and sites that evolve and supplement a body of symbols. Yet Gribetz and Grossberg suggest that this opening passage has wider scope: “It is to this interpretative enterprise,” that is, the making sense of God, the created world, and history through Torah, that Rabbi Hoshaya proclaims, “to which the remainder of Genesis Rabbah devotes itself.”[78] If they are right, these lines declare the task of the whole compilation—more precisely, the role of the dynamic traditions that were preached, discussed, and taught among Palestinian Jews. Though rabbis disagree in the compilation, they unanimously affirm the priority of Torah as divine wisdom. There is shared purpose, and so its traditions are far-reaching: “Genesis Rabbah…may be a new midrash, but its wisdom is as primordial and generative as the Written Torah.”[79] And, again, this midrash, “like the Torah itself, is a beginning, a pioneer, and an archetype for expressing the divine will.”[80] With a theory of scripture in hand, we can approach this text and the Tanakh anew. And a strong case can be made that Genesis Rabbah names practices, symbols, and sites that form scripture for the Jews in the Land of Israel in late antiquity.

It is not that the text of Genesis Rabbah itself, compiled after late antiquity, is scripture. Rather, the anthology-like record offers glimpses of the aggadic practices that enacted the founding revelatory event and oriented the community to that reality (Scriptures I and II of the theory). Sharper lines remain to be drawn that incorporate the larger Judaic traditions in which aggadic midrash emerged. For the present purposes, I chose to focus here on aggadic midrash because of the significance Jews placed on it in late antiquity, which compels more in-depth study. These practices uniquely met the exigencies of their day. Unseen, though, is how these practices shift other practices and symbols, redefine them and founding events, and how the community’s identity changes or is maintained. Jews in the Land of Israel in late antiquity differed from those in Babylon, for example. A persuasive theory of scripture carries insights on these scores.

On the proposed theory, there are a few consequences for scriptural reasoning: (i) a text taken as scripture differs from the same text that is not taken as scripture (they are not the same object); (ii) a text taken as scripture is only partially so when divorced from the practices, events, and circumstances that make it scripture for a community; (iii) an otherwise identical text scripturalized according to different practices, events, and circumstances is not the same scripture for two (or more) communities; (iv) scriptural reasoning (with caveats) may in fact be a scripturalizing practice for a given community. A benefit of scriptural reasoning, on this theory, is that in a diverse religious setting, everyone must navigate the distinction between adherent and outsider by at least recognizing inherent beliefs and enactments of a (non-public) revelatory event, as well as think about them apart from such a communally-staked event. This requires the courage to risk the meaning of scripture.


[1] See Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), ch. 2.
[2] Last year, I had the privilege of attending Professor Tammi Schneider’s seminar, “What is Scripture?” This paper is the culmination of discussions begun in her seminar. I am thankful for her facilitation of the course, and her comments on an earlier draft of this paper, as well as the seminar participants, some of whom are cited below.
[3] Said differently, necessary and sufficient conditions have metaphysical assumptions that may or may not map onto scripture.
[4] As stressed by W. C. Smith in What is Scripture? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
[5] See Tweed, Crossing, 71.
[6] Barbara Holdrege, “The Bride of Israel: The Ontological Status of Scripture in the Rabbinic and Kabbalistic Traditions,” in Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, ed. Miriam Levering (Albaany: SUNY Press, 1989), 185; Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 10.
[7] Holdrege, “Bride,” 183.
[8] Fishbane, Exegetical, 12.
[9] Gary G. Porton, “Defining Midrash,” in The Study of Ancient Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner (New York: Ktav, 1981), 1:62.
[10] See Neusner, What Is Midrash? (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1987), 16; Shaye J. Cohen, “The Destruction: From Scripture to Midrash,” Prooftexts 2, no. 1 (1982), 18-39.
[11] Holdrege, “Bride,” 183.
[12] Burton L. Visotsky, “Genesis Rabbah 1,1—Mosaic Torah as the Blueprint of the Universe—Insights from the Roman World,” in Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine, ed. Steven Fine and Aaron Koller (Berlin: De Gruiyter, 2014), 140.
[13] See Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 1-2.
[14] Holdrege, “Bride,” 185.
[15] Fishbane, Exegetical, 18.
[16] Sarit Kattan Gribetz and David M. Grossberg, “Introduction: Genesis Rabbah, a Great Beginning,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, eds. Sarit Kattan Gribetz, David M. Grossberg, Martha Himmelfarb, and Peter Schafer (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016),  2.
[17] Neusner notes that many Jews converted to Christianity after Julian frustrated plans to rebuild the temple (see Jacob Neusner, “Genesis Rabbah as Polemic: An Introductory Account,” Hebrew Annual Review 9, no. 1 (1985), 265). It is also during this time that the heart of Judaic life slowly recentered in Babylon. Shinan gives three possible reasons for the shift: the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the christianization of the Roman Empire, and the strengthening of Babylonian Judaism and its institutions (see Avigdor Shinan, “The Late Midrashic, Paytanic, and Targumic Literature,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. IV, ed. Steven T. Katz [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006], 678-679).
[18] Jacob Neusner, Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis: An Anthology of Genesis Rabbah (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 11. Neusner writes elsewhere, “So we may take up the possibility that Jews, reaching conclusions familiar to us from Gnostic writings of an earlier period, expressed by appeal to an evil creator-God, who bungled whatever he did, the total despair of the age—the triumph of Christianity, the fiasco of rebuilding the temple (Neusner, “Genesis,” 265).
[19] I am grateful to Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz for stressing this.
[20] Further bounds can be set that go beyond the present essay. For example, how do communities across religions take the same object (in a broad sense that includes actions and events) as scripture? How do communities within the same religion take the same object as scripture in differing ways, or one take it as scripture, the other not? How do communities across religions engage with an object, though one holds it as scripture, the other not? And what about past communities and present ones with respect to the same object?
[21] Miriam Levering, “Introduction: Rethinking Scripture,” in Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, ed. Miriam Levering (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 13.
[22] “On close inquiry, it emerges that being scripture is not a quality inherent in a given text, or type of text, so much as an interactive relation between that text and a community of persons (though such relations have been by no means constant)” (Smith, What, ix).
[23] Levering, “Introduction,” 3. Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s two essays in the collection expand on this.
[24] Tweed, Crossing, 42.
[25] Kendall W. Folkert, “The ‘Canons’ of ‘Scripture,’” in Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective, ed. Miriam Levering (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 170-179.
[26] See Armin Lange, “Canon/Canonization,” in Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume 1, A-E, eds. Robert A Segal and Kocku von Stuckrad (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 200-204. Scripture has the sense of written in its etymology, which pulls against my definition. Still, I agree with Levering that ‘scripture’ is a more pliable term (see Levering, “Introduction,” 6-7).
[27] His distinction is open to interpretation since his contribution unfortunately was incomplete (see Levering, “Introduction,” 15).
[28] As for “symbol,” I follow Geertz: a symbol is “any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception—the conception is the symbol’s ‘meaning’” (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture [New York: Basic Books, 1973], 91). But my argument does not hinge on this definition.
[29] See Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), Lecture I. Fishbane describes the work of midrash with this notion (see Exegetical, 12). See Mitchell Green’s entry for “Speech Acts” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a summary of Austin’s work and its reception today.
[30] See Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Essay 17.
[31] On this, see Hans Frei’s works on biblical hermeneutics, especially, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
[32] There is much debate on the nature of events. My bland definition is meant to leave as much undecided as possible, pending more argument. For a recent summary of the debates, see Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi, “Events,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2020).
[33] See Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), Essay 6.
[34] See Davidson, Actions, Essay 3. Wilson, Shpall, and Glasscock note that many philosophers agree that actions are a subclass of events which are intended, so here we are on firming ground (George Wilson, Samuel Shpall, Juan S. Pineros Glasscock, “Action,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016).
[35] Glorianna Tillmann-Dick made this point, steering me away from a thoughtless mistake, for which I am very grateful.
[36] See entry n., 1a., in Oxford English Dictionary.
[37] William Graham’s contribution to Rethinking Scripture, “Scripture as Spoken Word,” and book, Beyond the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) underline this point.
[38] Their definitions are more or less sympathetic to some texts, but what I mention is violated when scholars treat scripture confessionally (one text is the true scripture, that is, the only one).
[39] The interpretation of the event and resulting actions do the same, so two religions can share the same founding event (to an extent).
[40] This is not to say that Genesis and Genesis Rabbah are scripture in the same sense or with the same strength.
[41] Not that Jews have yet to agree about, or decide, the status of Genesis Rabbah. Rather, depending on the theory of scripture, Genesis Rabbah may or may not be scripture. My theory assumes a given community alone does not suffice for conceiving their scripture.
[42] See footnote 6.
[43] See Fishbane, Exegetical, 12-13.
[44] Lerner claims that, gathering complete and fragmentary works, there are well over 150 midrashim (Myron B. Lerner, “The Works of Aggadic Midrash and the Esther Midrashim,” in The Literature of the Jewish People in the Period of the Second Temple and the Talmud, Vol. III: The Literature of the Sages, eds. Shmuel Safrai z’’l, Ze’ev Safrai, Joshua J. Schwartz, and Peter Tomson [Leiden: Brill], 139).
[45] Shinan, “Late,” 680. As Heinemann seconds, “Aggadah is inextricably bound up with the idea of speech” (Joseph Heinemann, Aggadah and Its Development, trans. Marc Bregman, [Jerusalem: Keter, 1974], 41).
[46] Lerner, “Works,” 144-145. Though this ban was lifted in the case of aggadah, which I will come to.
[47] Lerner, “Works,” 139; Fishbane, Exegetical, 12-13; Shinan, “Late,” 681.
[48] Shinan, “Late,” 680.
[49] Martin S. Jaffe, “Rabbinic Authorship as a Collective Enterprise,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaaffee (Cambridge: Caambridge University Press, 2007), 17-37.
[50] Scholars distinguish their origins according to the cycles of readings in the synagogue, which differed in the Land of Israel and Babylon, and structure aggadah (Lerner, “Works,” 140).
[51] See Shinan, “Late,” 680.
[52] Including, Shinan lists, “interpretations of the Bible and homilies on its texts; stories about the Rabbis; parables and fables; proverbs; discussions of medicine and astrology; biology and geography; oaths and magic; messianic promises and words of comfort; historical documents and historiosophical reflections; folk tales and mystical traditions; the interpretation of dreams; discussions on theology and ethics; humor, and all else that may flow from the imagination” (“Late,” 681).
[53] Shinan, “Late,” 685-686.
[54] Lerner notes that these categories are hardly neat; compilations often include both (“Works,” 138-139).
[55] See Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 4.
[56] Lerner, “Works,” 136.
[57] See H.L. Strack and Giunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. and ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996),  276-277; Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 6.
[58] Visotsky’s reading of its opening, that is, which I will treat shortly.
[59] Though not exclusively.
[60] See Lerner, “Works,” 140-146.
[61] And Lerner also stresses that this was not incidental (“Works,” 142-143).
[62] “Works,” 143. If right, we do well to reject Visotsky’s claim that, concerning the opening words of Genesis Rabbah, “There simply is no polemic and no Christian matrix that has any bearing whatsoever on this particular Genesis Rabbah text” (“Mosaic,” 135). His reasons include that Rabbi Hoshaya would not have met Origen, they likely did not live at the same time, and their interpretations were wholly neutral with respect to one another. These are very unconvincing given the situation of Palestinian Jews at the time.
[63] Lerner, “Works,” 143.
[64] Likely referring to harsh tax levies of Rome (Lerner, “Works,” 143 ft.).
[65] Lerner, “Words,” 143, and Shinan, “Late,” 680.
[66] Lerner, “Works,” 143.
[67] See Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 7.
[68] See Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “Between Narrative and Polemic: The Sabbath in Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud,” in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, Eds. Sarit Kattan Gribetz, David M. Grossberg, Martha Himmelfarb, and Peter Schaefer (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 33-61.
[69] Gribetz, “Between,” 59-60.
[70] “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). So argues Maren R. Niehoff, “Creatio ex Nihilo Theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” Harvard Theological Review 99, no. 1 (2005): 60-63.
[71] See Niehoff, “Creatio,” 60-64; Holdrege, “Bride,” 194-195.
[72] Visotsky’s translation (“Mosaic,” 134).
[73] Visotsky, “Mosaic,” 130-131.
[74] Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 2.
[75] See Visotsky, “Mosaic,” 140.
[76] Though Visotsky opposes this reading, I think there is abundant evidence through the compilation to suggest that the traditions were highly aware of rival Christian and Hellenist views.
[77] Put differently, Christians no longer read, teach, or preach Tanakh as Hebrew scripture. The text has become something else.
[78] My italics. “Introduction,” 2.
[79] Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 2.
[80] Gribetz and Grossberg, “Introduction,” 2.