Benjamin Franklin’s Midrash
Benjamin Franklin produced an extraordinary array of writings in his long career as printer, civic leader, lobbyist and philanthropist, including a few that no one quite knows what to do with: a pair of mock chapters of Genesis, which he waggishly interleaved with the family Bible. Franklin liked to spring his creations on guests who called for a chapter of the Bible to be read aloud after dinner; he would tease the bewildered auditors that they must not know the Bible very well if they had never heard those chapters before! He distributed copies of the chapters among friends in Britain and America and amused himself greatly with his parlor trick until London acquaintances spoiled Franklin’s fun by publishing them in the early 1760s.
In short, Benjamin Franklin, inventor of bifocals and the lightning rod, seems also to have invented fanfic. In his new biography Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (2017), Thomas S. Kidd notes that while early Americans often spoke and wrote with Biblical cadences, no one else was quite so gutsy as to present something that emanated from his own pen as an authentic chapter of the Bible. Probably Franklin didn’t expect his auditors to be fooled for long; rather, like fanfic authors today, he extended a beloved text in a direction that fulfilled his vision of it, that satisfied his questions and fired his imagination. In other words, he wrote midrash.
Construing Franklin’s faux Bible chapters as midrash is not farfetched. Franklin, who had a conventional Puritan upbringing in early 18th-century Boston, knew the Bible inside out. In his teens he began to question Puritan orthodoxy, dashing his father’s hopes that he might train for the ministry, and turned to Deism. Eventually he settled into what Kidd calls “a doctrineless, moralized Christianity.” But Franklin never forgot his early Bible lessons, and Kidd’s biography testifies almost as much to Franklin’s love of the Bible as it does to his skepticism of Christian doctrine.
The better known of Franklin’s Bible chapters depicts Abraham entertaining a guest and then, upon learning he is an idolater, driving him into the wilderness; when God rebukes Abraham, Abraham relents, seeks the man out, and sends him off again in a more becoming manner. God, watching over Abraham, responds with both a curse—400 years of slavery in Egypt—and a blessing—the Exodus. Franklin’s other chapter depicts Jacob’s sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah squabbling over an ax that Reuben has purchased from the Ishmaelite merchants. Ultimately, the three younger brothers purchase axes of their own, Reuben loses his and Judah comforts him by offering to share his ax—thereby earning Jacob’s blessing: “…the Heart of Judah is princely. Judah hath the Soul of a King.”
Though his knowledge of Judaism was meager, Franklin may have realized that his Biblical writings were situated within a Jewish intellectual tradition. He once bragged to a friend that “the hint” on which the “Chapter of the Ax” was based was “taken from an ancient Jewish tradition,” and indeed it was—from the Talmud, via Maimonides, and probably filtered through Georg Gentius’ 1640 Latin translation of part of Maimonides’ Code. Franklin’s chapters filled the same need that midrash often does, serving as convenient back-explanations of later events in Hebrew Bible: the reasons for the Egyptian slavery and the Exodus, in one case, and the reason for fourth-born Judah’s ascent over his brothers in the other. Franklin was thinking like a Jewish Bible commentator in identifying these as crucial events that needed to be explained and putting forth midrashic interpretations.
It’s anyone’s guess how Franklin got the idea to do this: Did he pick up a notion of midrash from his reading, or did the sermons he heard as a child inspire him, an inventor by nature, to imagine stories to bridge the gaps in the plot of the Book of Genesis? It’s easier to see what Franklin was trying to accomplish in the midrash he wrote. As Kidd argues, Franklin was skeptical of most religious doctrine but saw religion as valuable insofar as it instilled virtue. Franklin’s midrashic writings preach generosity, neighborliness and toleration, mixed with a strong dose of common sense. These were the values Franklin wanted to see in the Bible, and Franklin the inventor and autodidact was not above writing them in.
Franklin’s Bible isn’t quite mine, and probably it isn’t quite yours; that is the nature of fanfic and of midrash. What intrigues me is that Franklin, having veered away from orthodox religious belief in adolescence, continued to read and study the Bible—even to the extent of reading a Latin translation of Maimonides—and to engage with it in his own eccentric, creative way. Intriguing, too, is the friendly reception that greeted Franklin’s midrashic experiments. His skeptical friends did not scoff; his Christian friends were not offended. Love of the text proved a bigger tent than doctrinal orthodoxy.
When you practice the art of midrash, you are in Franklin’s company.