Pharaoh’s List: Midrash and Apophasis

Gustave Doré, Moses and Aaron Appear Before Pharaoh, 1866

In sketching genealogies of Jewish theology it’s become something of a trope, I’ve found, to attribute all traces of apophatic thought — that is, those modes of thinking and writing theologically through a process of negation or construction of absence, also known as writing via negativa: “by way of denial” — to an ambiguous Platonic or Neoplatonic ur-source. I do not deny that there’s plenty of merit to this argument, particularly if one reads Maimonides (“the most influential medieval Jewish exponent of the via negativa”¹) as one of the central precedents for the apophatic gestures that would become commonplace in later Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah. Indeed, the enormity of Maimonides’ influence was such that recent scholarship has gone as far to claim that apophasis as a theological strategy simply cannot be said to exist in Jewish thought until the late medieval or early modern period, before which it was an exclusively Greco-Christian phenomenon. Though this consensus can be defended on historical grounds I’d like to entertain the contrary notion that that there is tradition of apophatic theology indigenous to pre-modern Judaism — call it “pre-Maimonidean apophasis” — that has existed at least as early as the rabbinic period of late antiquity.

In defending this alternative genealogy, I turn to a midrash (commentary) drawn from that collection of exegeses attributed to Rabbi Tanchuma, an amora (Talmudic sage) of the fifth century.² The parsha or weekly Torah portion that the midrash in question is concerned with — Va’era — happens to fall on this week, auspices which I hope will merit my audacity and shield me from undue criticism. The midrash opens in the palace of the Pharaoh, seven chapters or so into the book of Exodus: Moses and his brother Aaron have come before the Egyptian monarch to compel him, in the Name [Hashem] of their God, to liberate the Israelites from their bondage. The Pharaoh responds:

“Who is Hashem, that I should hearken unto His voice? Does He not know me enough to send me a crown? With reference to the matter concerning which you have come, I know not this Lord.” R. Levi stated: He then took the list of gods and began to read: The god of Edom, the god of Moab, the god of Sidon, etc. And he said to them, “I have read the entire list, but the name of your god is not upon it.”

Rather than ignore Moses and Aaron outright, then, Pharaoh — perhaps with the assistance of his wise men and sorcerers (Exodus 7:11) — performs a consultation of what Aviva Zornberg astutely describes as his “encyclopedias of divinity,”³ codices of divine names native to Near eastern regions proximate to Canaan, in a search of the Name of the God of Israel.

There are three tones, at least, in which one might read Pharaoh’s reply. One reading, perhaps the most obvious, would suggest a tone of mock-naiveté or a cynical playing-at-curiosity. A second might indicate a tone of sincerity, even sympathy: seeking to aid the Israelite plea in its validity Pharaoh searches his occult tomes to establish a textual, recorded theological precedent to their claims. A third tone, the most attractive in my view, is one of fear. According to this reading Pharaoh has a nagging, prophetic suspicion that a failure to heed Moses’ command could result in some unspeakable tragedy. In order to dissuade himself of such anxieties he consults, as the best of us do in times of stress, his books of theology, hoping to find some record of the God whose threat underwrites the Israelites’ demand. Finding no record to speak of, then, we might ask: is he relieved? Or is his horror magnified beyond words?

If he had any wit about him, the rabbis concur, he wouldn’t have touched the lists to begin with (and here, I’ll add, is where it gets interesting):

R. Levi said: This [searching of the deity-lists] may be compared to a kohein [priest] who had a foolish servant. On one occasion, after the kohein had left the city, his servant went to the cemetery to seek him. He inquired of the men loitering about: “Have you seen my master here?” They replied: “Isn’t your master a kohein?” Indeed, he replied. “Fool,” they said, “who has ever seen a kohein in a cemetery? [As it is forbidden by Jewish law for a kohein to be near the dead]” Moses and Aaron likewise rebuked Pharaoh, saying: “Fool, these gods you mention are all dead, but the Lord, the true God, is living.”

The midrash continues with Pharaoh inquiring after Moses and Aaron about the might and territorial power of their God (“His strength and power permeates the world”) and subsequently rebuking them, countering that he, Pharaoh, is the true lord and creator of the world — a discourse which, in sum, amounts to a relatively standard admonishment of temporal, terrestrial power in favor of the timeless, celestial, and immanent authority of the one God. The cited midrash itself can, indeed, be read in somewhat formulaic terms as an allegory for the triumph of the monotheistic (more precisely, some will say, henotheistic) Israelite faith over a residual belief in the local pantheon. The gods of Moab and Edom are dead, forgotten, delimited to their resting place in dusty encyclopedias; the God of Israel lives, etcetera.

Read from the perspective of apophasis — with an eye towards absence, let’s say — a new meaning emerges. The essence of my reading is this: if we are to understand the Pharaoh’s lists as an analogue or precursor to theological writing, Moses and Aaron’s rebuke takes the form in turn of an apophatic denial; a denial, that is, that the living God of the Israelites might be understood in the logic and matrices of writing, of language. The God of Israel, they dispute, is supra-linguistic. He is greater than could ever be understood by human tongue or pen. The analogy of the cemetery in this reading relates not merely to the mortality of the pagan gods but the nearly magnetic resistance of divinity to language. Put again in analogical terms, God is to language as kohein is to cemetery: it is strictly forbidden, at risk of profanation, that the former should enter into the latter. This is not merely an indictment, then, of the incomplete nature of Pharaoh’s lists in themselves. It is, rather, a dual recognition of theology’s failure to effectively communicate the living God (Marion: “theological writing always transgresses itself”) and of Pharaoh’s failure to correctly read absence. Thus the object of the Israelites’ rebuke is not Pharaoh’s surprise at being unable to locate the God of Israel but rather his (distinctly pre-apophatic) inability to locate Him precisely in His absence. Pharaoh’s failure, which will lead to his eventual downfall, is one of reading: to him only that which is cataphatic is legible; he is blind to that which transcends language, he is blind to lack. Moses’ true rebuke of Pharaoh must be read, then, as such: “why look to writing in search of the living God? Don’t you know that He is, quite literally, outside-the-text?”

Without negating the importance of (paradigmatically cataphatic) myth to the Jewish canon—it is precisely the paradoxical synthesis of myth with monotheism (cf. Scholem, “Kabbalah and Myth”) that interests me—and without discrediting the influence of Greek philosophy on the rabbinic period of Jewish development, then, it’s my hope that we might be able to approach the question of a pre-modern Jewish negative theology with more generosity. Midrash, despite or because of its tendency toward vivid embellishment, was fertile ground in the rabbinic imaginary for a kind of playing with absence. It is through an investigation of these trends in Midrashic discourse that, I contend, we may come to form a more charitable understanding of apophatic thought in Jewish antiquity and, with Moses, come to understand the river of absence flowing beneath it.

  1. Fagenblat, Michael, ed. (2017), Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity, Indiana University Press, 4.
  2. R. Tanchuma’s actual involvement in the transcription or collation of these sources is, from a historical-critical perspecitive, unlikely: recent scholarship suggests that the earliest manuscript in the collection dates from the late eighth or ninth century (see: Berman, Samuel (1996). Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu With an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes. pp. 11–12). It’s almost certain that many or most of the midrashim themselves date from earlier oral traditions, hence their ascription to the amora, granted they were only transcribed in the early medieval period.
  3. Particulars of Rapture, 44.
  4. Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 5–6. From Samuel Berman’s translation with minor adaptations.

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J. N.

J. N.

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