Midrash Tanhuma Volume II: Exodus and Leviticus

Review of “Midrash Tanhuma Volume II: Exodus and Leviticus”

Translated into English with Indices and Brief Notes (S. Buber Recension)
Author: John T. Townsend. Hoboken, N. J.
Publisher: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1997.
Pages: 394 pp.
RRP: $79.50.

When John Townsend’s first volume in this set of translations, on Genesis, was published in 1989, it was so highly acclaimed critically that scholars of Judaica have been long anticipating the set’s continuation. They will not be disappointed with this second of three volumes.

The Midrash Tanhuma exists in several recensions, the most famous of which was edited by Shelomo Buber (grandfather of Martin Buber) in 1885. The date and provenance of this commentary on the Torah remains a mystery, though rabbinic authorities cited therein are mostly fourth century or earlier, and in general the scholarly community locates this compilation in southern Italy around the mid-eighth century.

Townsend’s rendering is smooth and elegant, somehow making the anxiety-producing job of rendering convincing translations of multiplex and permanently hypothetical texts look simple. The footnotes are minimalist but solid, offering observations on etymology, parallel sources, variant readings, cross-connections, and even an occasional note of humor. Both the English translation and the scholarly apparatus are invaluable to Biblical and rabbinic, classical and medieval scholars, for until Townsend’s work, this extremely important collection has not been available in a user-friendly English edition.

The commentary as a whole falls within the literary category known as “midrash”. As such it explores anomalies in the Hebrew text (interspersed with Greek and Latin loan words), fills in pieces missing in the narrative, and seeks the halakhic heart of narrative material as well as the narrative heart of halakhic material.

Readers comfortable with rabbinic commentaries can relax here and savor some of the most loved midrashim in the rabbinic corpus, including the Parable of Two Ships (p. 165), the Parable of the Blind Man and the Lame Man in the Garden (p. 196), and the Parable of Hadrian and the Old Man Planting (p. 307). Along the way we catch a glimpse of Pharaoh on the way to his morning toilet (p. 44), an ancient king who wore a wristwatch (p. 65), and instructions on why the faithful need to be sensitive to God’s many moods (pp. 110 and 280).

As was the case with the first volume, with this one I wish the indices were more extensive. Townsend promises a complete index at the end of Volume 3; I hope his publisher supports him in that desire. In the meantime, this volume contains only a simple index of rabbinic authorities cited, and a scripture index limited to Hebrew Bible citations in the body of the text, but not those cited in the footnotes. The corpus here is so dense that without a fuller index, pearls of wisdom seem only to pop up and then disappear again.

Review by Philip Culbertson
Published in Anglican Theological Review 80:3 (1998), 422-423.

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