Character Consolidation I
Interactive Learning Module
לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו
One of the techniques often employed by Midrash is the
of different Biblical characters one with another, a method which can be termed the "
Law of Conservation of Biblical Characters
In many cases, an
character (or even objects, places, and dates) is identified with a named and more famous figure. In other instances, two
are identified as the same person.
What drives this desire to consolidate Biblical figures? Why
two or more ostensibly distinct characters?
This module will explore several examples of this phenomenon, in each case questioning
what motivates the identification
and how it affects our understanding of the narrative.
Many examples and further discussion of the technique can be found at
2. Case I: Who is Yiskah?
We'll begin by looking at an example where a
is identified with a more famous one.
Access the Mikraot Gedolot on
which provide background regarding Terach's sons, Avram (Avraham), Nachor, and Haran.
records that Avram married Sarai, while Nachor married
"Milkah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milkah and Yiskah"
. Compare what the Torah tells us about Sarai's lineage with what it records about Milkah's. Can you account for the difference between them?
Why does the Torah tell us the name of Milkah's father? Is there a relationship between this
(the father-in-law of Nachor) and the aforementioned Haran (the brother of Nachor)?
Once the verse already noted that Milkah is the "daughter of Haran", why does it need to repeat that Haran is
"the father of Milkah and Yiskah"
? What must this be coming to teach us?
3. Yiskah is Sarah
The phrase "אֲבִי מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה" in verse 29 would be superfluous unless its point is to
. Who, though, is Yiskah and why does the verse find it important to mention her? Do we know her from elsewhere in Tanakh?
Click on the name
to access the
One Click Concordance
and see where else she appears in Tanakh. What do the results show? [To exit the concordance, click outside of the popup or on the corner x.]
Our findings compound the question. As Yiskah
appears nowhere else
in Tanakh besides our verse, and apparently plays no role either here or later, why is she mentioned at all?
On this backdrop, we can now better appreciate the comment of
Rashi on verse 29
Bavli Megillah 14a
). With whom does he
Yiskah? How does this account for her inclusion in the story?
4. Questioning the Identification
Rashi posits that Yiskah is merely another name for Sarah, thereby explaining her mention in the chapter.
Yiskah and Sarah
are really one and the same, why refer to her by two names? How does Rashi attempt to address this question? Does his answer suffice?
does the conflation of Sarah and Yiskah need to make about the identity of Haran, the father of Milkah?
note in the second sentence of his second commentary to
5. Exegetical Motivations
Given the textual difficulties mentioned above, it seems that the desire to identify Yiskah with a
Biblical figure is not the only issue motivating the identification. As Shadal points out,
also play a role.
Let's turn to
. Scan the chapter for context and then focus on
. How does Avraham
when speaking to Avimelekh? Is there any prior evidence that Avraham and Sarah are
in this manner?
How does identifying Yiskah with Sarah serve to verify Avraham's claim that Sarah is his
(and not only his spouse)? What, though, is still
given Avraham's description of the relationship?
explain why Avraham refers to Sarah as "my sister, the daughter of my father", if she is really only his
(as assumed by Rashi)?
6. Yiskah: Shadal's Position
R"Y Kara points out that Tanakh is somewhat fluid in the terms used for relatives, and the word "אֲחֹתִי" might refer also to a niece or other relatives.
, though, is still troubled by Avraham's reference to Sarah as specifically his sister, leading him to a
of the verse.
According to him, how are Avraham and Sarah related?
What would Shadal say about the
identity of Yiskah
7. Avot and Mitzvot
Shadal suggests that Avraham's words should be understood
, and that despite the earlier silence of the text, Avraham and Sarah were, in fact,
, while Yiskah was a totally different person.
likely made Rashi reject Shadal's approach? How does Shadal respond?
What assumption about the Patriarchs'
observance of Torah law
is each side making? See
Avot and Mitzvot
for further discussion of whether the Patriarchs observed the commandments.
might there be in positing that Avraham married his niece? How does
Bavli Sanhedrin 76b
evaluate such a marriage? Given Haran's death, why might Avraham's choice of wife be viewed as even more meritorious?
8. Yiskah: Ibn Ezra's Position
Let's return to the Mikraot Gedolot on
to see a third reading of our story.
, like Shadal, rejects the identification of Yiskah with Sarah, but he explains Bereshit 20 differently.
In his second commentary to
, how does Ibn Ezra explain
Why might Rashi be hesitant to adopt this reading of the story? Is it not
to suggest that Avraham might have lied?
[See Ibn Ezra's first commentary on
for other examples where he suggests that prophets might employ duplicity and how he justifies this.]
According to both Ibn Ezra and Shadal, if Yiskah is not Sarah and plays no role in Torah,
why is she mentioned
at all? What does Shadal on
9. Case II: Datan and Aviram
Let's move now to a
of character consolidation, one in which a variety of
found in several different stories in Tanakh are consistently identified by Midrashim as the same two known figures.
. With whom does Rashi identify the unnamed people in each verse?
precede Rashi in making these connections. Cf.
Shemot Rabbah on 2:13
(regarding "שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים"),
Shemot Rabbah on 5:20
Shemot Rabbah on 16:20
What prompts the Midrashim and Rashi to consistently make this specific identification?
10. Textual Connections
Rashi and the Midrashim identify
Datan and Aviram
as the individuals responsible for many wicked deeds, including: informing Paroh that Moshe killed the Egyptian, confronting Moshe after his failed negotiations with Paroh, and violating the prohibition of leaving over from the manna.
In each case,
tie the stories to the rebellion of Datan and Aviram in Bemidbar 16.
and click on the word
to access the
One Click Concordance
. Where else in Torah does the word appear?
Now, look at Rashi's comments to
to the later rebellion does he draw here?
Click on the word
in the verse to access the
here as well. Is the word unique enough to
support the identification
Finally, what parallel does
Shemot Rabbah on 16:20
note? Is this word unique?
11. Fleshing Out Characters
Rashi and the Midrash draw
between the various stories in Shemot and the rebellion of Datan and Aviram, but not all of these seem strong enough on their own to warrant the identification.
Is there some other
between all four stories which might explain the choice?
Let's access the library to see
Tanchuma Shemot 10
. With which
does the Midrash identify Datan and Aviram?
What does the Midrash says these stories prove? What does this imply about the
goal of the identifications
12. Case III: Bilam
By presenting Datan and Aviram as individuals with a
history of animosity
and rebellious actions, the Midrash fleshes out their character, providing
to understand Bemidbar 16. The resulting
blackening of their character
is further consistent with the Midrashic tendency to
augment the faults
of evil characters and
amplify the merits
of righteous figures.
Let's now look at another example of the phenomenon, one in which the two figures who are equated are
both known characters
Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan)
on Bemidbar 22:5. [For an English translation, press the E in the upper corner.] Which
two characters are being identified
Is there any exegetical difficulty which the identification is intended to address? What, then, is
the Targum to conflate the characters?
13. Historical Continuity
As there is no obvious exegetical difficulty and both Lavan and Bilam are known figures with
, it seems, at first glance at least, that the identification is meant simply to
exacerbate the evil character
Why, though, might specifically
have been chosen as
Bilam's alter ego
exist between the two stories? [For some examples, see
How is this example similar to the case of Datan and Aviram? Where, though, do the two
? Are both identifications
What is gained by identifying characters from
different time periods
? What statement about history is this type of Midrash making?
14. Explore Further
between Bilam and Lavan serve to connect them, with the conflation of their identities serving to further
the character of each. This example, though, goes further than the earlier one, as it
bridges historical periods
, implying a
continuity of anti-Semitism
throughout the ages.
To explore similar identifications, but of
, see the identification of
Shifra and Puah
with Yocheved and Miryam or Elisheva in
Bavli Sotah 11a
How does this identification help develop the characters? How does it compare to the identification of the various rebels with Datan and Aviram? In this case, were there any
to associate with Shifra and Puah? [For discussion, see
Who are the Midwives
Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan)
on Shemot 6:18 and its identification of
Pinechas and Eliyahu
. How is this example similar to the identification of Bilam and Lavan? What
exist between the stories of the two zealots? What is served by identifying them as the same person?.
We have explored several examples of
, noting how the Midrash identifies anonymous, little known, and even famous figures one with another.
In many cases the initial impetus stems from the Midrashic understanding that every word in Torah, and thus every figure, must be
. Thus, through the technique, Midrash attempts to flesh out the identities of minor and unnamed characters who otherwise appear to play no notable role.
At times, as in the case of Yiskah and Sarah, character consolidation serves to
resolve exegetical difficulties
. At other times, it contributes to
, amplifying a figure's positive or negative traits.
When people living centuries apart are identified, the technique also serves to
, demonstrating continuity throughout the ages, somewhat similar to the concept of "מעשה אבות סימן לבנים".
between stories play a role in the identifications, but these may be secondary to the above considerations.
of this module, we will examine several more examples, seeing how the method addresses issues of Divine providence, apparent misdeeds of the Avot, and more.
16 . Additional Reading
For further discussion of this topic, see:
For Part Two of this module, see
the beginning of this module
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