Midrashim & History

When I was young, I automatically categorized stories in the Torah as historical fiction. Perhaps I understood precociously the concept of allegory and parable, or something. Or maybe I didn’t believe in miracles.But most likely, it was the way my teachers never bothered to translate the stories into a historical context.  So  when I found out — possibly in third or fourth grade — that “Mitzrayim” was actually Egypt and “Yam Suf” was the Red Sea and the “Nilus” was the Nile, it was an epiphany. The stories in the Torah happened in real places?! Now I had to blend the Egypt of DK books with the story of Yetziyas Mitzrayim. It was difficult but interesting. The main difficulty was finding support for midrashim. Like, was there really a sheep-god of Egypt? 

It seems one of Esther’s teachers had the same sort of questions, and came up with a definitive answer… 

In sixth grade we had a writing assignment based on shoes: we got a paper filled with various kinds of shoes and we had to choose one and write a story about it. I chose an Egyptian sandal.

My story was about an Egyptian Prince who finds out his father just died and has to deal with emotions of grief but also euphoria because now he’s king. At one point I referenced something we learned in Chumash class: that the doorways in the royal palace hall were low, to force visitors to bow to the gods. (But there was a nes and they were tall enough for Aharon and Moshe to get through without bowing even though they were so tall.)

The teacher whited out the entire line.   I was quite confused as to why I couldn’t use that piece of information in an English story.

Story by Esther

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Midrashim & History

9 thoughts on “Midrashim & History

  1. Esther Bernstein says:

    After I sent you this story, I realized I forgot to mention that I wrote the story in first person. I have a feeling the teacher objected to the line “as I passed through the doors, I bowed low and gave thanks to the gods…” because it was too much like me talking about being oved avodah zara myself. Still, this was fiction, and I was writing very realistic historical fiction! I had to be true to the facts!!

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  2. BYGrad says:

    I remember when my elementary school teacher taught us about הפרת והחידקל, and mentioned that these were the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. We had just learned about these rivers in ancient history, and burst out laughing – our teacher couldn’t understand what we found so hilarious. For us, it was an epic collision of two different worlds – stories in the Chumash and the history we learned existed on two different alternative realities. No one had ever bother connecting our world and the world told in the Chumash before.

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  3. I had the opposite problem. I took the stories I learned in Chumash as literally true, and then I had problems when I got older trying to fit those stories into the world I knew.

    The lack of historical context when teaching limudei kodesh, is what leads to absurdities like the widespread belief that the Chashmonaim defeated “the Greeks.”

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      1. The Chashmonaim were fighting the Assyrians, not the Greeks. The Seleucid Empire was one the successors of Alexander’s empire, but they weren’t “the” Greeks, they were one of several Hellenistic states whose ruling class was Macedonian/Greek. By the time of the Chashmonaen revolt, the Seleucid Empire had lost its Greek territories to Rome. And the Chashmonaim defeated them in the same way the American colonists defeated the British, by making it too expensive for the Seleucids to bother with them, not by destroying “the Greeks” as many people seem to think.

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    1. Michal H says:

      I believe you meant to write the Syrians, not the Assyrians. The Assyrian Empire is what we know from Tanach as Ashur, and that civilization collapsed hundreds of years before the Chanukah story.

      The Seleucids are also referred to as Syrian-Greeks, so while “Greeks” might not be accurate it’s hardly an absurdity.

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  4. Elon says:

    Amon, the main god, was represented by a ram or as having horns. This is why those fossilized spiral shells are called Ammonites, as they resembled the ram horns of Amon.

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