How should people understand strange midrashic tales?

                                                                                         By Israel Drazin

 

The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a, tells a tale that is not even hinted in the Torah. Before enslaving the Israelites, Pharaoh asked Balaam, Job, and Jethro whether it is advisable to do so. Jethro, according to this story, protested, and God rewarded him by having Moses become his son-in-law. Job was silent, and God punished him with many inflictions, the lose of his wealth, and the death of his children. Balaam told Pharaoh that he thought his plan was good, and God punished him by having him killed after the Israelites exited Egypt. This midrashic tale presents many problems.

 

The story implies that Balaam lived an extraordinary long life. He was a mature man before the Israelite enslavement and lived for some years after the Israelites were freed. This doesn’t seem reasonable. More significantly, why would God force Moses to marry the daughter of a pagan priest because the priest protested the enslavement? Why would God inflict such a dire punishment on Job; it doesn’t seem to fit the crime of silence? Furthermore, this midrash conflicts with the book of Job which gives a totally different reason for Job’s afflictions; God was testing Job. Also, this midrash conflicts with one in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b, which states that Balaam was 33 years old when he was killed. How should people understand the Sotah midrash and its conflict with the one in Sanhedrin?

 

Maimonides wrote in his essay called Chelek that midrashim are parables designed by rabbis to teach lessons. People who take them literally, he writes, are fools. People should not dwell on the details of the tales, but on their message. This lesson is also contained in a Yiddish proverb, auf a maaseh fregt min nished kein kashes, one should realize that a story is a story and not ask questions about bizarre details in it. Midrashim were composed by different rabbis with different agendas, they tell different things and frequently, one midrash contradicts another.

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