One of the intriguing things about religious texts is how long of a life and how long of an afterlife they have. Once a text becomes a part of a “canon,” once it becomes in a way fixed, it becomes open to further discussion and elaboration.1 Different groups and religious traditions create different genres of interpretation to work with and understand their scriptures according to the needs of their traditions. One form of interpretation involves reopening the Bible and expanding on the narrative of the already canonized text, such as is found in the rabbinic genre of midrash and in Joseph Smith’s New Translation (JST) of the Bible.
In fact, some scholars have compared Joseph Smith’s revisions and expansions of the biblical text to rabbinic midrash and targum.2 This may be a helpful comparison, but it derives in many ways from a value system where the original intent of the authors equals good, while interpretation, of whatever stripe, equals bad. The use of this comparison seems often to be a sort of soft pejorative against both the JST and Jewish interpretation, prioritizing historical-critical readings of the Bible over these kinds of interpretation.3 These scholars have also misunderstood midrash in the context of rabbinic literature.4 It should be noted that the trend of comparing everything to midrash is a fairly common one, even outside the world of Mormon studies. There is a tendency in scholarship to label any kind of interpretive work “midrash.”5 Doing so without attention to the rabbinic character of this genre of literature tends to create more problems than it solves.6 Part of the difficulty that arises in this endeavor comes from a certain laxness of usage in applying the term midrash to any kind of expansion or retelling of the biblical narrative, which does not fully express how midrash actually works.7 Related to this difficulty is that, in general, the JST has been compared to midrash but not really with midrash. That is to say, these comparisons have involved a superficial contrasting of broad genres, rather than actually comparing the two literatures. Evaluating the content of these literatures shows that there are places where comparison can be productive but also places where key formal differences can be found.
It is, therefore, insufficient to simply say that the JST is like midrash without understanding both what midrash and the JST are and what they do. In this article, I will first briefly discuss the broad characteristics of midrash and the JST to provide a groundwork for understanding these two literatures. This process of comparing the JST with midrash will lay bare similarities and differences in the impetus behind their production, as well as how they were received by their respective communities. Both midrash and the JST interpret the text from within the world of the text, bringing forth new biblical narratives that live within that world. For the communities that read these literatures, these new narratives stand alongside the previous narratives and have as much normative power as the scripture from which they derive. In both of these literatures, it is the claim to Mosaic authority that makes this type of interpretation possible. This article, then, examines a few examples expanding upon the account of creation and Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 1–3, showing how the interpretation plays out in the JST and in an early midrash, both in terms of similarities and differences. This portion of Genesis affords rich material in both the JST and in the midrashic literature in about equal measure.8
Midrash involves a very close reading of the biblical text but does so in ways and following a logic that can sometimes be different from traditional post-Enlightenment modes of thinking.9 Therefore, rabbinic readings of scripture sometimes fly in the face of scholarly readings of the scriptures. In order to be midrash, a story or legal interpretation must be connected to the biblical text, which provides, then, the parameters for rabbinic interpretations.10 Generally speaking, midrash does not take on the form of the biblical narrative, and so the narrative units that comprise it are fairly small and discrete. This is a key difference between midrash and the Joseph Smith Translation. Even as the Midrash provides expanded narratives, it never loses the appearance of being commentary.
The rabbinic midrashic method produced commentary on both legal materials and stories because the rabbinic Sages were concerned with both kinds of exegesis. This highlights a difficulty that those who have previously compared the Joseph Smith Translation to midrash have not addressed. Making such a comparison without attention to the different kinds of midrash opens one to the possibility of misrepresenting both the Joseph Smith Translation and midrash. Scholars of midrash make a distinction between halakhic midrashim, which are midrashim on the legal books of the Torah, and aggadic midrashim, which are on the other books in scripture.11 The different categories of interpretation (legal and narrative) are not absolute in the midrashic corpus, but these internal divisions and complexities serve as warnings against too facile comparisons.12 Often when people suggest that a nonrabbinic text, such as parts of the New Testament Gospels or the JST, is midrashic, it is not because they follow the midrashic method, but because they produce a product that Old Testament scholars have tended to view as subservient to the biblical text.
In addition to the halakhic and aggadic division, midrash is also further divided by how the commentary is arranged: exegetical midrashim present the biblical interpretation as a running commentary of the Bible, verse by verse, while homiletical midrashim record a series of sermons on scripture.13 This article derives its examples from Genesis Rabbah, which is among the oldest of the aggadic exegetical midrashim.14 This text presents a running commentary on the Hebrew text of the biblical book of Genesis and is mostly composed in Aramaic. It is generally dated to the first half of the fifth century ce.15
The Sages themselves spoke about various hermeneutical principles that guided the formation of midrash.16 It seems that in many cases these principles were after-the-fact rationalizations of already extant midrashic exegesis.17 A few broad principles stand out. The first is the omnisignificance of the biblical text—every portion of the text has meaning for every other part.18 The next is that every word has meaning, and even when words are repeated by the biblical text, the rabbis will derive meaning out of the repetition.19 Thus, in Genesis 22:11, when the angel says “Abraham, Abraham,” the rabbinic Sages must address why the name is said twice. Both of these principles illustrate the notion that midrash is literature that is dedicated to divining meanings out of material that is already present in the text.
Joseph Smith Translation
From the Midrash, we move to the Joseph Smith Translation, which is the most common name for what Joseph Smith termed the New Translation.20 It was a revision and expansion of the Bible as Joseph Smith had it, and, therefore, worked from the King James Version of the Bible. It represents, in many ways, a specific response to that translation, since it sometimes addresses problems that do not exist in other translations or versions of the scriptures.21 Thomas Wayment has observed, “The JST restores, edits and changes. It restores original text that has been lost and restores what was once said but never became part of the Bible. . . . It changes the original text of the Bible from what was written by the original authors.”22 An individual unit in the JST may represent any one of these responses. Like most of latter-day scripture, the JST has only relatively recently come under scholarly review, and there is still work to be done in the process of understanding how it was produced and how it was conceived as part of Smith’s prophetic mission, although great strides have already been made.23
The changes to the biblical record that form the JST differ from Joseph Smith’s other major translation projects. The Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham are both, in spite of clear continuities with the biblical text, new scriptural accounts. We should thus be careful about grouping all of Joseph Smith’s translation outputs. The JST is, in its very formulation, a revision and expansion of the Bible—in other words, it never stops claiming to be the Bible, although it is clearly a Bible with a difference. The fact that the interpretations of the JST are placed within the text of the Bible is one place where it differs from the Midrash, which never stops presenting itself as commentary.24
This article uses the edition of the JST prepared by Kent P. Jackson in The Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation Manuscripts.25 This book contains a critical edition from Old Testament Manuscript 2 and represents a useful resource for examining the textual history of the present-day book of Moses.26
The JST and early rabbinic Midrash both come from a concept of scripture that, to paraphrase the epistle to the Philippians, does not think it robbery to expand upon the Hebrew Bible (Philip. 2:6).27 In this model of scriptural interpretation, the Bible itself is expanded. The resultant literature, instead of being set alongside the text, becomes text itself. These parallel readings can then be seen by Mormon and Jewish readers, respectively, as providing material that expands on the Bible. The narratives presented come from and within the world of the text. In fact, both of these traditions conceive of the interpretation as simply providing material that is as normatively important as the Bible and that is, in some sense, already in the Bible. Even though their specific authority claims differ in many ways, Jewish and Mormon notions of Mosaic authority create space for allowing interpretation to live within the text itself.28 In both communities, the authority of the interpretation enhances the Bible rather than supersedes it.
The relationship between the biblical text and its interpretation may, therefore, be described as symbiotic. By providing “correct” readings of the biblical text, these expansive units actually encourage the reading of the original text and enhance its prestige in the community while at the same time addressing the present needs of the community. Both midrash and the Joseph Smith Translation, in spite of making changes and expansions to the Bible, actually increase the profile of the Bible in their respective communities.
The very biblicality of the Midrash and the JST points to notions of rabbinic and prophetic authority but also to how the midrashic and translation enterprises were framed by their separate communities. In the case of both of these exegetical traditions, the producers of these materials were viewed by their religious communities not as adding extra interpretations to the biblical narrative but as explicating material that was already there. Both of these literatures were then able to be seen as restoring material to the biblical text that had been removed, or material that could be understood as simply not explicit.
To illustrate this notion, it is necessary to look at statements on authority and scripture in rabbinic literature and similar statements from Joseph Smith and the early LDS Church. The very beginning of the mishnaic tractate Avot29 establishes the chain of tradition for the rabbinic Sages:30 “Moses received Torah on Mount Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the elders and the elders to the Prophets. The Prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly” (m. Avot 1:1).31 The chain of transmission then continues through various Second Temple figures understood to be the ancestors of the Sages, including the famous Hillel and Shammai (m. Avot 1:12–15), through to rabbinic Sages such as Akiva (m. Avot 3:14–17) and Judah ha-Nasi, the traditional compiler of the Mishnah (m. Avot 2:1).
Thus, according to this very famous passage in the Mishnah, rabbinic tradition is Torah passed down from Mount Sinai, and the authority of the Sages is essentially Mosaic in character.32 It is “Torah in the Mouth,”33 which the rabbis did not view by any means as inferior to “Torah That is Written.”34 There were not, in fact, two Torahs, but instead two expressions of the same divine Torah. There is a famous story in the Babylonian Talmud about Moses and Rabbi Akiva, a Sage from the mishnaic period that illustrates this notion well:
When Moses ascended into the Heights, he found the Holy One, Blessed Be He, sitting and affixing crowns to the letters [of Torah]. He said to Him, “Master of the Universe, who waits at your hand [i.e. for whom are you doing this]?” He said to him, “There is a certain man who will be in the future, after many generations, and his name will be Akiva ben Joseph. He will interpret (Heb. lidrosh) from every penstroke mounds and mounds of halakhah.” [Moses] said to Him, “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat at the end of the eighth row, and he did not understand what they were saying. His strength weakened until they reached a certain matter and [Akiva’s] students said to him, “Whence do you derive this [halakhah]? He said to them, “[This] halakhah was to Moses from Sinai,” [and Moses’s] thought was eased. (b. Menahot 29b35)
Although Moses did not recognize what Akiva was teaching his students, he was comforted when Akiva indicated that what he was teaching was the Torah that Moses had received. There is a lot going on in this particular rabbinic story, but at the very least it shows that although the Sages were aware of differences between their laws and biblical laws, they saw themselves in continuity with Moses and his laws.36 For rabbinic Judaism then, the traditions of the Sages represent material that had been handed down simultaneously with the written law of Moses and so was equal in authority to it.37 Thus, for the rabbinic Sages, the midrashic exercise is not to introduce and invent notions that are not there but to clarify ideas that are already present in the text.
So also is the project of the Joseph Smith Translation. We have very little discussion of how Smith translated, although it is clear from places like Doctrine and Covenants 21:1 that translation, however it is to be understood, was an important part of Smith’s work as a prophet.38 As with the rabbinic midrash, Joseph Smith does not seem to view his New Translation as “adding to or taking away” from the scriptures, to use the famous words from Deuteronomy 4:2. The idea instead is that he is simply restoring or clarifying material that should have been there all along. As part of his prophetic claims, Joseph Smith claimed authority equal to the apostles and Old Testament prophets. In fact, in Doctrine and Covenants 28:2, he is explicitly compared with Moses: “But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.”39 For Smith and his followers, prophetic authority involves the constant process of receiving, making, and revising scripture. The narrative expansions in the JST are therefore part of the process of establishing and confirming Smith’s prophetic role. As with the rabbinic Sages, Joseph Smith’s work of exegesis by adding to the biblical text flows naturally out of his understanding of his prophetic mission.
This is, perhaps, part of the reason why neither Genesis Rabbah nor the Joseph Smith Translation pay any attention to the seams in the biblical text that appear so obvious to source critics.40 Both of these interpretive strands treat the biblical narrative as though it were a single whole, and both largely assume Mosaic authorship.41 The assumption of Mosaic authorship is part and parcel with how the two literatures create space for interpretation by the claim of Mosaic authority. In their respective expansions on Genesis, Moses actually plays a much larger role. He is inserted directly into narratives about the nature and coming of the text of Genesis. In particular, Moses’s interactions with God are brought to the fore.
As part of Genesis Rabbah’s interpretation on Genesis 1:26, it records a story similar in outline to Moses 1. For Genesis Rabbah, Moses served as a scribe for the preexistent Torah written by God, and when he comes to problematic verses, he dialogues with God:42 “When Moses was writing the Torah, he wrote the doings of each day. When he reached the verse that said, ‘Let us make man in our own image according to our likeness,’ he said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, why do you give an excuse to the heretics?’43 He said to him, ‘Write, and those who wish to err, may err’” (Gen. Rab. 8:8). Thus, in Genesis Rabbah, Torah comes from God, and was in fact written by him, and then transmitted to Moses, who transmitted it in writing and orally to the Sages. It is the very work of Moses that the rabbinic Sages are placing themselves in continuity with when they interpret scripture.
This same kind of activity can be seen in the JST, in the first chapter of the book of Moses. This passage, which has no direct parallel in the biblical record, is a theophany to Moses and a dialogue between him and God. As part of this, he asks God to explain the creation of the world: “And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?” (Moses 1:30). God then promises to give him an account of the world on which Moses lived (Moses 1:31–36).
The account of the creation of the world, the creation of humanity, and the fall of man that follows in the book of Moses and its parallels in Genesis 1–4 are thus presented as a first-person account of God speaking to Moses. Because of this, Genesis 1:3, “And God said, Let there be light” becomes “And I, God, said, Let there be light” (Moses 2:3). This has the effect of bringing the divine personality of God to the fore and making his interactions, whether with Moses or with Adam and Eve, even more immediate. This also increases the authoritative nature of the narrative. The narration that happens in Genesis is no longer simply the words of the Bible’s anonymous narrator but represents instead the very words of God. God himself is telling this story to Moses. This is one case where a very subtle change has far-reaching effects on how the entire biblical passage is read.
Use of Authoritative Space
Both of these literatures use the assumption of Mosaic authority to solve problems that arise from the nature of biblical narrative. The Hebrew Bible is written in a spare, laconic style that leaves many gaps and openings.44 It rarely includes either physical descriptions of personalities or their inner thoughts and motivations. As expansive interpretive literatures, both midrash and the JST solve apparent problems in the Hebrew Bible through the filling in of gaps present in the text. One place where this may be seen is through the JST and the Midrash’s understanding of the purpose and motivations of the serpent introduced in Genesis 3:1.
The conception and the motivations of the serpent highlight one of the key differences between the midrashic approach and the Latter-day Saint one. Both the JST and the Midrash reflect the theological notions of their respective communities. The fall of humanity is not a central issue in Judaism in the way it is in Christian, including Latter-day Saint, thinking. Because of this, although the serpent is a villain in Genesis Rabbah, he is not openly satanic, like he is in the JST. Genesis Rabbah 19:3 simply reads, “Rabbi Hoshia the elder says, ‘It [the serpent] stood upright like a reed and had feet.’ Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazer said, ‘He was a skeptic.’”45
Where Genesis Rabbah presents the serpent as a skeptical figure, the book of Moses introduces the figure of Satan into the story: “And now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field, which I, the Lord God had made. And Satan put it into the heart of the serpent, (for he had drawn away many after him,) and he sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world” (Moses 4:5–6).46 As noted, the narrative preserved in Genesis does not give any motivation for why the serpent seeks to have Eve eat of the fruit of the tree. It simply introduces the serpent, introduces its subtle nature, and proceeds with the dialogue. The JST here introduces a motivation for the serpent or for the supernatural being who is represented by the serpent in the JST. As subtle or clever as the serpent is, it (or Satan, since the text is a little ambiguous here) does not know the mind of God and is therefore trying to destroy the world. The motivation derives from a lack of proper knowledge.
The rabbis in Genesis Rabbah provide a more prosaic motivation for the actions on the part of the serpent: “Rabbi Joshua ben Qorha said, [referencing Genesis 2:25 and Genesis 3:1] ‘It is to inform you what sin that wicked [serpent] encouraged them to do. When he saw them occupying themselves with the custom of the earth,47 he desired her [and tried to kill Adam by encouraging him to sin].’” The motivation of the serpent is therefore very personal and, in some sense, more mundane than that attributed to it in the JST.
The desires of the serpent are further examined in a midrash to Genesis 3:14, describing God’s cursing of the serpent. This verse reads: “And the Lord God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed you will be more than any beast and above any wild animal. Upon your belly you will go, and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will set enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.”48 The passage in Genesis Rabbah, takes each of the aspects of the curse and attributes it to an action or desire on the part of the serpent:
Rabbi Isi and Rabbi Hoshiah said in the name of Rabbi Hiyya the Elder, “[God said to the serpent] four [things]: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him ‘I made you that you should be king, but you did not want it: “Cursed are you above all cattle and above all wild animals.”
“‘I made you to walk upright like a man, but you did not want it: “Upon your belly, you will go.”
“‘I made you to eat the sort of food that humans eat, but you did not want it: “And you shall eat dirt.”
“‘You wanted to kill Adam and marry his wife: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.”’
“Thus, what he wanted was not given to him, and what he had was taken away from him.” (Gen. Rab. 20:5)
Note the close association in this passage between the actions of the serpent and the curses sent against the serpent. For the Sages, the crimes of the serpent may be found and extracted from its curses. Thus, the information about the serpent and its crimes are already found within the biblical text. This close attention to the biblical text as a source of answers for the difficulties that it raises is characteristic of midrashic literature. In this midrash, the motives of the serpent are found within the text itself. It is not an extra interpretation but merely a clarification of what the text was doing all along.
Smoothing Out Difficulties
In the same way that the authoritative space allows the JST and the Midrash to provide information about motivations, it can also smooth out difficulties.49 One such difficulty may be seen when God speaks: to whom is he addressing these statements, and especially for whom is he speaking when he uses plural, first-person pronouns?50 The JST expands the Genesis account by introducing a dialogue between the Father and the Son.51 Thus, Moses 2:26, which parallels Genesis 1:26, reads: “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Reading this as the Father taking council with the Son is in continuity with the Latter-day Saint position on the premortal existence of Jesus and the planned nature of the history of the earth, although as Robert J. Matthews points out, many distinctive Latter-day Saint beliefs are actually first found in the JST.52 In fact, one of the major features of change to Genesis found in the JST is an increase in references to Jesus Christ and the notion of the establishment of the plan of salvation from the very beginning.53
The difficulty of God’s conversation partner in this part of Genesis was felt by the rabbinic Sages, and provided space for expanding the narrative of the creation of the world, as in the JST. The Midrash presents, in the names of various rabbinic authorities, a number of different possibilities of who it is that God is conversing with about the creation of humanity: the already finished heaven and earth (Gen. Rab. 8:3); the ministering angels (Gen. Rab. 8:3); specifically named angels representing Love, Truth, Peace, and Righteousness (Gen. Rab. 8:5, drawing on Ps. 85:11); and the preexistent souls of the righteous (Gen. Rab. 8:7). In several of these narratives, God must trick the angels who are opposed to the creation of humanity in order to bring it to pass. The number of these examples illustrates a key difference between midrash and the Joseph Smith Translation. One of the characteristics of rabbinic literature is its polysemy—there is not one authorized interpretation of the Bible.54 All of these options are present within the text, and, characteristically, the Midrash records them all. Where the JST brings forth one authorized interpretation, the Midrash records a conversation.
The interactions between Moses and God and between God and other heavenly beings show how these narrative expansions are an important part of the religious and theological identity of these groups. Just as the JST provides (and perhaps helped create) a very Latter-day Saint picture of the Father conversing with the Son and explaining notions of salvation to Moses, so also does Genesis Rabbah provide a rabbinic picture of a God who interacts with his angels, although he is also willing to go behind their back and create humanity over their objections, and who has Moses, as a faithful scribe, write down the Torah, which God himself authored. These narrative expansions show the nature and character of God, as understood in each of the respective interpretive communities.
Another place where the JST and Genesis Rabbah share similarities is in the idea that scripture represents a complete whole and that parts of scripture from one place can be helpfully used to understand other places. This derives from the notions of authority present in the individual communities. In Judaism, Torah (and therefore Moses) is at the base of the rest of scripture, and so all of scripture works together. Thus, in Genesis Rabbah, after Eve has eaten of the fruit and is attempting to get Adam to eat it, she quotes from Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Isaiah 45:18, noting that there will not be another wife created for Adam because “there is nothing new under the sun,” and that God “formed the earth to be inhabited.” The omnisignificance of scripture means that, like a rabbinic Sage, Eve is able to quote from scripture not yet written in order to prove her points. Much like the God of Genesis Rabbah is a rabbinic God, so also is its Eve a rabbinic Eve. As part of this, it should be emphasized once again that the answers that the JST and the Midrash provide to their respective communities are different, because the questions they are asking are different.
Thus, Eve in the Midrash is a rabbinic Eve, with knowledge of scripture not yet written, while Eve in the JST is a Latter-day Saint Eve with knowledge of the plan of salvation. In Moses 5:11, after Adam and Eve are taught about what the redemption the Son of God will bring to them and their descendants, Eve says, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” Here, as in Genesis Rabbah, Eve speaks after eating the fruit, and speaks in terms of a Christian salvation, including the importance of having children and eternal life, ideas with a very Latter-day Saint resonance. The very same notions of authority at play in the presentation of the relationship between God and Moses in the JST and Genesis Rabbah are also working in the expansion of the character of Eve.
In spite of the previous pejorative usage of midrash to describe the Joseph Smith Translation, it turns out to be a comparison that has some usefulness, despite their differences in structure and content. The two literatures are by no means identical. The JST is not midrash. To argue otherwise would rob the term midrash of its explanatory power in regard to Jewish literature. The social situations and religious questions that drove the creation of these interpretive literatures were varied and different. Nineteenth-century America is not fifth-century Roman Palestine. Some of the similarities that caused earlier commentators to draw connections do exist, however, and the chief of these is in notions of scriptural authority and the relationship between the interpreter and the scriptural text. Thus, it might be correct to call the JST, as some have, “midrashic,” but the inverse would be true as well, and it would be appropriate to call the ancient midrash “Smithian.”
Joseph Smith and the rabbinic Sages had different notions about the basis of their authority, but there is a certain similarity in their concepts of authority, which comes out in the JST and the Midrash. Both literatures are able to comment directly on the biblical text because they are produced in environments and by groups and individuals who claim Mosaic authority. Because these literatures are commenting on a text that they, and the communities they led, viewed as essentially Mosaic, a claim to Mosaic authority was an authorization to expand upon and explore the text. These explorations allow both the JST and the Midrash to highlight things that are left unclear in the biblical narrative, such as the motivations of characters like the serpent in the Garden of Eden story.
Thus, within their communities, the ideas and narratives that the interpreters are able to bring forth are not seen as new ideas but instead represent notions that were already present in the biblical text and that only needed to be discovered. The difficulties and gaps in the text, therefore, yield narratives that further explore and establish the character and narrative within the community. The process of discovery in rabbinic Judaism is framed as an intellectual exercise, while the process in the making of the Joseph Smith Translation is described in terms of revelation, but these interpretative strategies thrive because of the view that the changes are not changes to the essential meaning intended by the original biblical authors. Instead, interpreters possessing Mosaic authority are able to bring out to their communities the meanings already living within the text.