Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has published a remarkable new book Mikra and Meaning (Maggid Books, 2012) in which he demonstrates his tremendous fluency with the Biblical text and his mastery of the rabbinic tradition surrounding it. Each chapter takes the reader on an adventure exploring the intricate and varied ways of understanding the narratives presented in Tanach and plumbing the depths of the tradition for layers upon layers of meaning.
I had the distinct privilege of studying under Rabbi Helfgot for four years when I was a rabbinical student. It was thus a joy to begin reading his new book as the words became alive for me with the memories of his unique and captivating pedagogical style and methodology. I would like to present an example from his latest book that reflects well his approach to the study of the Hebrew Bible.1
Rabbi Helfgot starts with a well known Midrash from Bereshit Rabbah2 about a young Abraham as destroyer of idols, standing up for the one true God even to his father, the local proprietor of idols in town. While this account in the Midrash is inspiring and provides background to the pre-story of Abraham, it does not reflect the account offered in the Biblical text at all. Indeed, as R. Helfgot points out the entire narrative of Abraham in Genesis does not have him confronting idolatry or grappling with the multiple religious philosophies present in the world at the time. Yet the early rabbis dedicate much space to cultivating the image of Abraham as iconoclast.3
It is with this question central in our minds that R. Helfgot draws our attention to another narrative later in Tanach; that of the formation of the young Gideon, Judge of Israel as presented in the Book of Judges.4 The text there presents a remarkably similar account of Gideon as iconoclast as the rabbis did of Abraham in the Midrash. Gideon is described as having taken ten men with him to destroy an idolatrous altar dedicated to the idolatrous god Ba’al his father had built and the accompanying ashera tree on top of it. He does so in the middle of the night and when the residents of the town discover the desecration of their altar they attempt to abduct Gideon from his home and murder him. However, his father – the same man who built the altar, comes to his son’s defense and mocks the power of the idol. Rabbi Helfgot points out the textual comparisons between this story of Gideon and the Midrashic account of Abraham and concludes that the Gideon story was indeed the model narrative by which the rabbis constructed the account of Abraham in the Midrash.
This is not the end of the story though for Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates that this intertextuality, in fact, goes in both directions. It was not only Gideon that served as a model for the pre-story of Abraham but it was Abraham who was a model for Gideon as he forged his life as recorded in Tanach. Rabbi Helfgot lists numerous similarities between the entire narrative arc of Gideon with that of Abraham. I won’t list them all but just mention a few: Gideon is the only judge to have a direct communication with God through an angel while under a tree as did Abraham in Genesis 19 while he was sitting under a tree; Gideon offers food to the visiting angel as did Abraham offer food to the angels who visited him and Gideon challenges God utilizing the same exact Hebrew formulation as Abraham did when he challenged God in Genesis 15.
Thus, Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates that the weaving of these two narratives, that of Abraham and Gideon, is one that flows both ways. He writes:
“Given the deep and rich connections between the Gideon and Abraham narratives, we are now able to resolve the original dilemma described at the outset of the essay. It appears that the rabbis of the Midrash, in their close reading of the text, recognized that the book of Judges clearly presents Gideon in the image of Abraham. The language, type-scenes and imagery are meant to evoke in the reader the sense that this great hero is following in the footsteps of his great ancestor. Gideon, in effect, is presented as “Abraham redux.” Given this reading, I believe the rabbis engaged in simple intertextual logic. If the text compares Gideon to Abraham, that means that there is an intimate connection between the two figures. Thus, if Abraham can teach us about Gideon, then Gideon can, in turn, teach us about the figure of Abraham, especially in areas where our text is silent.”
For anyone who is looking to be exposed to a style of Torah study that is highly sensitive to the literary nuance of the text and the manifold ways that each element of Tanach connects to each other then this book is an incredible window into that world. This mode of study has become popular in yeshivot and seminaries in Israel such as Har Etzion, Ma’aleh Gilboa, Midreshet Lindenbaum and others and this book affords the reader an opportunity to delve into this method eloquently presented by one of the original thinkers in this school of Torah study.
1. Mikra and Meaning, ch. 3
2. Bereshit Rabbah 38:13
3. See for example the Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, ch. 1
4. Judges 6:25-32