I pointed out many times that virtually the entire Bible is either obscure or ambiguous. This not a criticism. Some scholars and I have noted that all very good literature is obscure or ambiguous. This enhances what is written. It gives the reader an opportunity to interpret what is being read. It is as if there are two writers of what is written both the original author and the reader. As a result, the reader gets more out of the writing than the writer composed. In addition, in regard to biblical law, it gives the religious leaders of the Jews an opportunity to reinterpret the obscurity to correspond to modern times
While it may stun many readers, this phenomenon applies to both the Torah narratives and its laws. An example of a law is “an eye for an eye,” which on its face seems to mean that if a person injures another by hurting one or both of the victim’s eyes or blinds him, the punishment is the damaging or blinding of the eye or eyes of the assaulter. The rabbis read the law differently. They explained that the Torah means that the person who assaulted another must pay monetary compensation.
An example of a narrative is the first nine verses in Genesis 11 which tell the tale of the building of a tower. On March 18, 2021, American Jewish University held its 17th annual biblical trial, which they called “Shinar City Council verses Babel Builders.” The object of the trial was to decide whether the builders of the tower violated the Shinar law.
In the biblical story, people gathered in the land of Shinar, decided to make bricks and mortar, build a city and a tower “with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be scattered over the earth.” God was displeased and caused the builders to speak different languages and dispersed them throughout the earth.
Three very articulate people gave their opinion on how to interpret the story at the annual biblical trial. A rabbi explained that the story is obscure and we have no idea what the people did that was wrong in deciding to build a tower, why did they want to build a city and tower, why God was displeased, what did God mean by saying by doing what they are doing “there will not be hidden from them anything they want to do,” why God inflicted the builders by causing them to speak in different languages, why God scattered the builders throughout the earth, and even whether this divine act was good or bad for humans. The rabbi offered the audience some ideas he had as to the meaning but admitted that these were just suppositions that are not clearly in the nine verse.
The prosecuting attorney gave a very articulate imaginative argument charging the builders for violating the law. She argued that we can assume that the builders were not allowed to build a tower. They did not have a permit to build the tower, they caused noises and were a nuisance, they built condos very high above the ground and this was dangerous, and the builders did another half dozen anti-social acts.
The defending attorney in essence took the view of the rabbi that the entire story is obscure and there is nothing in the Bible’s nine verses to show that the builders did anything wrong, and there is nothing to show why God or the people of Shinar would be displeased with the building. He complimented the prosecuting attorney for the cleverness of the assumptions she made but stressed that while what she suggested is interesting her assumptions have no support.
After the rabbi and the two attorneys finished, the audience watching the show was given the opportunity to vote whether or not the builders were guilty. The audience agreed with the prosecuting attorney and found the builders guilty. They accepted the assumptions she made even though there was no evidence that they were true.
What does this trial say to me?
I see the story as the rabbi and defending attorney saw it. The story is obscure. We do not know why the builders wanted to build the tower and what displeased God. We do not even know if God’s dispersion of the people was a punishment or an act that helped humanity. The story is an example of the many biblical tales that are obscure, which leaves readers the opportunity to read into the tale what they want to see.
This is the style of Midrashim which are interesting despite being untrue, and they are accepted by many people just as the prosecuting attorney’s clever imaginative assumptions were accepted as being true.