Academic journal article Shofar

Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash

Academic journal article Shofar

Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash

Article excerpt

EGYPTIAN CULTURAL ICONS IN MIDRASH By Rivka Ulmer. Studia Judaica, Forschungen zur Wissenschaft des Judentums 52 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), vii + 405 pp., 16 plates

A panel discussion of Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash took place at the 2011 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The following comprises a selection of these review discussions presented by an Egyptologist (Susan Hollis), a biblical scholar (Isaac Kalimi), and a midrash scholar (Steven Daniel Sacks). W. David Nelson, a midrash scholar, organized the session, and contributed a review of the book.


This opportunity to examine Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash has led me to a widened and deepened understanding of what midrash is and how it developed with its underlying view and presentation of Egypt as the Other against which thejewish tradition measures itself. While the theme of Egypt as the Other pervades Ulmer's discussion, what is not explicit in the discussion is the Egyptian perspective or role, nor should it have been, given the concern is midrash. Nevertheless, from the point of view of an Egyptologist, Israel was a nonissue during the pharaonic period: it was just not there.1 The very brief reference that occurs in the last lines of the nineteenth dynasty pharaoh Merneptah's so-called Israel Stela to "the people Israel," so beloved by biblical scholars, in fact represents no more than the ruler's note that with his victory over the Libyans, the reason for the stela, he now controlled not only the area to the west of Egypt, that is Libya, but also the areas to the northeast including various towns in the Canaanite area along with the people Israel,2 all this largely as a result of the conquests accomplished by his father, Ramesses II, and others before him.

That the rabbis responsible for midrash developed and strengthened Jewish identity by using and interpreting Egypt and Egyptian icons to present this civilization as the Other fascinates me as it led them to overlook ancient Israel's debt to Egypt, a topic of long-term interest to me. In fact, Ulmer's discussion took me to a whole new understanding the Other and its use in anthropological self-identification when she states, "To a large extent Jewish identity was formed in opposition to Egypt" (18), and "Egypt served as the absolute metaphor of'Otherness'" (18). This concept appears persistently throughout the book and helps to emphasize her observation that various mementos-by which one can understand icons, artifactual and verbal, and perhaps even ritual practice-have led to a persistent revisiting of the past, revealing "that there is no closure with the Egyptian experience" (247). Thus in Diaspora, the condition in which the majority of the community has lived and still lives, this measure against the Other is critical to the maintenance of the larger community.

A number of issues surface at this point. A critical one concerns the role of memory in midrash. Memory has a fluidity about it, playing a much larger role in historical studies than appears to be commonly understood and discussed, and Ulmer touches on this issue in many places, noting specifically that memory, notably about Egypt, was continually being reinterpreted by the rabbis (21). Complicating the issue of memory itself are those features of writing and other presentations explored in modern discussions of analytical theory with approaches through, among others, feminist theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Indeed, as Ulmer reiterates throughout the volume, both historic and cultural contexts play roles in understanding the ancient texts for the ancients themselves as well as for the modern reader and writer. Resulting questions that I thus ask of the many and varied midrashim include: who is the audience for these materials, how are the texts transmitted, what are other texts to which they may be related aside from the obvious biblical materials, and what is their reality? …

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