- One of the techniques often employed by Midrash is the identification of different Biblical characters one with another, a method which can be termed the "Law of Conservation of Biblical Characters".
- In many cases, an anonymous or lesser known character (or even objects, places, and dates) is identified with a named and more famous figure. In other instances, two well-known personalities are identified as one and the same person. Sometimes, a person might even be connected to numerous other figures.
- The method stems from the Midrashic belief in the omnisignificance of Torah, leading it to develop the identities of unknown figures whose presence in the text is otherwise not understandable.
- The technique is often employed to resolve exegetical or theological questions, to amplify the merits of the righteous and the faults of villainous figures or to mitigate seeming sins of the Patriarchs, and to demonstrate historical continuity.
- Often, textual links and contextual parallels further motivate and / or bolster the identifications.
Consolidation of Characters
Below are many examples of character consolidation with sources and links for further discussion.
I. Identification of three or more different names as the same person:
- Moshe – Vayikra Rabbah 1:3
- Yitro – Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Shemot 18:1. For discussion, see Yitro – Names
- Beor and other evil doers – Bavli Sanhedrin 105a
- Sichon and other Canaanite kings – Bavli R"H 3a
- Shelomo – Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:1
- Nevat and other evil doers – Bavli Sanhedrin 101b
- Sancheriv and other Assyrian kings – Bavli Sanhedrin 94a
- Koresh and other Persian kings – Seder Olam Rabbah 30, Bavli R"H 3b
II. Identification of two characters with different names as the same person:
- Yiskah as Sarah – Seder Olam Rabbah 21, Bavli Sanhedrin 69b
- Malkizedek as Shem – Bereshit Rabbah 56:10
- Keturah as Hagar – Bereshit Rabbah 61:4. For elaboration, see: Avraham's Many Wives.
- Lavan as Bilam – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan).1 For discussion of the parallels which might lead to the identification, see Bilam.
- Shifrah and Puah as Yocheved and Miryam/Elisheva – Bavli Sotah 11b, Shemot Rabbah 1:13. For discussion, see: Who are the Midwives.
- Efrat as Miryam – Shemot Rabbah 1:17
- Ivzan as Boaz –Bavli Bava Batra 91a
- Pinchas as Eliyahu – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) Shemot 6:18
- Malakhi with Mordechai or Ezra – Yalkut Shimoni Malakhi 1:1
III. Identification of characters with the same or similar names as the same person:
- Haran the father of Yiska with Haran the brother of Avraham – Bavli Sanhedrin 69b
- Potiphar and Potiphera – Bavli Sotah 13b
- Hirah and Hiram – Bereshit Rabbah 85:4
- Calev the son of Chetzron with Calev the son of Yefuneh – Yerushalmi Yevamot 10:7, Bavli Sotah 11b (Cf. Ibn Ezra First Commentary Shemot 24:14)
- Yoel the son of Shemuel with Yoel the prophet – Bemidbar Rabbah 10:5, Midrash Shemuel
- Ovadyah the steward of Ahav with Ovadyah the prophet – Bavli Sanhedrin 39b
- Danel of Yechezkel 14:14-20 with Daniel of Sefer Daniel
IV. Identification of anonymous people with known personalities:
- Naamah as Noach's wife – Bereshit Rabbah 23:3
- Og as the fugitive from Sedom – Bavli Niddah 61a
- Eliezer and Yishmael as Avraham's servants – Bereshit Rabbah 48:13, Vayikra Rabbah 20:2
- Dinah as Shimon's wife and Asenat's mother – Bereshit Rabbah 80:11. For more, see Did Yaakov's Sons Marry Canaanites.
- Menashe as Yosef's steward – Bereshit Rabbah 91:8
- Datan and Aviram as the sinners in Egypt and the wilderness – Shemot Rabbah 1:30, Tanchuma Shemot 10, Tanchuma Buber Beshalach 24
- Zipporah as the Cushite whom Moshe married – Sifre Bemidbar, Tanchuma, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer. See also: Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage
- Calev and Pinchas as Yehoshua's spies – Tanchuma Buber Shelach 1
- Yonah as the boy brought back to life by Eliyahu – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 33. See Eliyahu and Yonah for other connections between the two figures.
- Eved Melekh HaKushi as Barukh – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer
V. Identification of anonymous people one with another:
- Paroh in Shemot 1-2 with Paroh of Bereshit 37-50 and Paroh of Shemot 3-15 – Bavli Sotah 11a. See discussion in New King or Dynasty
- Paroh of the Exodus with the King of Nineveh of Sefer Yonah – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, (see also Hardened Hearts), Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 5:1
- The officers of the nation in Egypt with the princes or seventy elders – Shemot Rabbah 5:20, Bemidbar Rabbah 12:16
Consolidation of Objects
I. Identification of objects with other objects:
- Esav's clothing and the leather garments of Adam and Chavah – Bereshit Rabbah 63:13
- Yaakov and Yehudah's staff with Moshe's staff – Yalkut Shimoni Chukat 763
II. Identification of places:
- Beit El and Yerushalayim –
III. Identification of unknown dates with known ones:
- Angel's visit to Lot – 15 Nisan
- Giving of the Decalogue – 6 Sivan
- Moshe's descent with the 1st Tablets – 17 Tammuz
- Moshe's descent with the 2nd Tablets – 10 Tishrei
- Night of the return of the spies – 9 Av
I. Why does the Midrash identify characters?
- Omnisignificance – As Midrash views every word in Torah as significant, it finds the presence of anonymous or unknown figures who play no other role elsewhere troubling. By identifying such figures with known characters, it can explain why such details are mentioned – See Ramban Shemot 6:23.
- Textual links – Often, textual links and content parallels2 between stories will motivate a certain identification. People with similar or identical names3 or those who play similar roles in different stories will be connected. Uncommon words4 shared by two stories might lead to other associations.
- Solve exegetical problems – At times, an identification serves to solve exegetical difficulties. See, for example, Shadal's discussion of the Midrashic identification of Sarah as Yiskah and the discussion of Yitro's names in Shemot 18.
- Addressing theological issues
- Apparent misdeeds of the righteous – Giving a Jewish identity to an idolator or Canaanite can obviate problems of apparent "intermarriages" or other undesirable unions. See, for instance, the identification of Shimon's Canaanite wife with Dina at Did Yaakov's Sons Marry Canaanites or the identification of the Cushite whom Moshe married with Zipporah at Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage.
- Demonstrate reward and punishment – Nechama Leibowitz5 suggests that in certain instances, such as the identification of the officers whipped in Egypt with the seventy elders, the technique serves to demonstrate Divine providence and how good deeds are rewarded and suffering compensated.6
- Character development – Identifying villains with other wicked individuals or the worthy with similarly righteous people serves to further blacken or whiten their characters. This fits the Midrashic tendency to augment the faults of evil characters and amplify the merits of righteous figures. See, for example, the identification of Shifra and Puah with Miryam and Yocheved at Who are the Midwives.7
- Bridge history – When Midrash connects figures who live centuries apart, its goal might be to bridge history and show continuity over the generations, similar to the concept of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.
II. Difficulties with method:
- Why would Tanakh use different names in different places?