Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Daniel's Pesher; a Proto-Midrashic Reading of Genesis 40-41

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Daniel's Pesher; a Proto-Midrashic Reading of Genesis 40-41

Article excerpt

Dreamers fill the Hebrew Bible. From Jacob's night vision of the angelic ladder bridging the gap between the heavens and his rocky pillow in Genesis 28 to Solomon's oneiric conversations with God in 1 Kings 3, the Bible recounts numerous instances of transcendent experiences mediated through dreams. Yet despite these many dreamers and dreams, only two Israelites engage in actual interpretation of dreams--Joseph and Daniel. In vitually every other instance in which the Bible relates a character's reveries, the meanings of the images are so manifest that no explicit textural explanations in the form of human interpreters are offered. The stories of Joseph and Daniel, however, place unusual emphasis on the act of interpretation; indeed the power to decipher dreams plays a central role in the elevation of these two biblical characters to political power. It is no wonder, then, that Daniel and Joseph have figured prominently in many literary and artistic reworkings of biblical narratives. But before any modern refashioning, the Masoretic Text itself presented reinterpretations of some of its most compelling stories. This essay will examine the first six chapters of the Book of Daniel precisely as such a reinterpretation, a creative and polemical re-reading of the Joseph narrative of Genesis 37-49.

Proto-Midrashic Typology

The Book of Daniel is transitional form of Jewish writing. The chasm which increasingly separated humanity from the divine sphere was becoming a crucial obstacle to the dicernment of God's presumed role in history. In the biblical past a patriarch or prophet served as a direct conduit for the word of God. Even during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Israelites possessed numerous means by which they might gain insight into divine will--the prophets, the priests, or the Urim ve-Tummim, the High Priest's breast plate. During the historical time posited by the Daniel writer, in the Babylonian Disapora, any divine message required the assistance of some interpreter or medium in order for it to become meaningful. Daniel's midrashic function relates especially to the conditions of its own development. In other words, as a provisional reworking of the Joseph story, which itself is about the power of the interpretation, the first six chapters of the Book of Daniel make the story more relevant to a Diaspora audience--or to a Jewish audience under siege by increasing pagan political and relgious influence--not only because of these chapters' greater emphasis on the divine role in secular history but also because of the weight they place on the interpretations of dreams and texts as a means of discerning the celestial will. Joseph serves as a typological model for Daniel, but the Daniel writer's version of the wise courtier in the foreign land emphatically underlines its own midrashic method of reading earlier biblical texts.

Perhaps the most important analysis of later biblical texts interpreting earlier bibilcal narratives has been formulated by Fishbane. His description of the range of "inner-biblical aggadic exegesis" demonstrates the breadth of models within the Hebrew Bible which later became available to the rabbis.(1) Typically, aggadic exegesis in its early and late forms does not simply supplement gaps in the earlier text (the traditum, as Fishbane calls it), but rather extracts latent meanings from it, thereby actualizing the full potential of the biblical text. As we might expect, the identification of an inner aggadic exegesis is facilitated where we find a number of lexical linkages, "and where the second text (the putative traditio) uses a segment of the first (the putative traditum) in a lexically reorganized and topically rethematized way" (285). Since most of the Daniel text is written in Aramaic, whereas Genesis is composed in Hebrew, lexical linkages do not posses the same value for my analysis as they might in other instances, although we shall see several key moments in the Daniel text which do resonate with linguistic similarities. …

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