As noted previously on this site (quoting Mail-Jewish), there's a general tendency in midrashim to claim two persons in Tanach are the same. This is familiar to anyone who has studied Rashi's commentary on Chumash: for example, Lot is not only Avraham's nephew but also his brother-in-law, and the man who told Avraham of his capture later reigned in Bashan.

While there is doubtless a good reason for this every time it's done, I'm trying to understand the reason for the general tendency. Why do midrashim tend to identify people? What philosophical or religious or textual or rhetorical or other ideal does it further?

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    Could it not simply be a statement of fact? I've seen a source from chazal that explicitly says Hirah the Adulamite lived almost 1200 years and was Hiram king of Tyre who helped Solomon with the Temple. – Baby Seal Mar 24 '14 at 15:17
  • @BabySeal מעשה לסתור?? Is your second sentence supposed to be a support for your initial suggestion? I don't see how it does so. In fact it seems to disprove it. – Double AA Mar 24 '14 at 16:00
  • @DoubleAA The midrash says that Hira the Adulamite was Hiram king of Tyre, and then it goes on to explain Hira's unnatural lifespan. so it could be that the midrash is simply stating that a certain person in tanach was another – Baby Seal Mar 24 '14 at 17:54
  • 85:4 tsel.org/torah/midrashraba/vayeshev.html, in this case there is a lesson being taught, but the identification is simple enough to understand. Hirah was Hiram. – Baby Seal Mar 24 '14 at 19:52
  • my Bible teacher referred to this as The Law of Conservation of Personalities – הנער הזה Dec 31 '14 at 0:32

R' Tzvi Hirsch Chayos in Mavo HaTalmud writes about various midrashic methodologies employed by Chazal in the Gemara and Midrash. In the twenty-first chapter, he discusses this tendency to identify a person mentioned in Tanach with someone else in Tanach, or to equate two names as belonging to the same person (e.g. "הוא מלאכי הוא עזרא").

Chayos treats this as a subcategory of the more general genre of attributing righteous actions to tzaddikim even with only slight prompts from the text and/or mitigating what seems to be their negative actions or qualities even when they are explicit (think, for example, of Chazal's treatment of David and Bathsheva). This works in the reverse as well; Chazal tend to attribute bad deeds to otherwise known resha-im and to downplay their "seemingly" redemptive qualities. He discusses examples of this and the reasons for these exegetical methods in the previous (twentieth) chapter.

Based on this, Chayos writes, Chazal often equated two people as the same individual for the purpose of bringing out their similar qualities or specific similarity. They may identify a certain personality as "identical" to another to emphasize the (good or bad) quality in the former that is apparent and known in the latter. This way, in the case of a righteous individual, they are heaping upon them praise by associating them with another righteous individual with additional great qualities. The same is true in the reverse (for the unrighteous).

Another approach is seemingly taken by more modern parshanim. (I can't seem to find a good source for it, but Josh Waxman over at ParshaBlog uses it from time to time.) That is the "closed canon" approach of the Midrash, as opposed to the "open canon" approach. The closed canon approach holds that everything necessary for the interpretation of Tanach is included somehow in the Tanach itself. There is nothing that cannot be understood without reference to external sources. What seems to follow from this is that if we are introduced to a figure in Tanach without background on who s/he is, we must be able to identify them as someone who is mentioned elsewhere whose background is given. The "open canon" approach, on the other hand, would hold that this is just a reference to someone who we do not otherwise have any information about.

The particulars of the above distinction seem ambiguous and may not be considered constant. What is considered enough information about a person for them to be considered "known" in Tanach, versus the references to "unknown" people that need to be identified? I'm not sure that rigid boundaries for something like this necessarily exist.

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    The latter one is actually whom I think. – Double AA Apr 4 '14 at 22:39
  • @DoubleAA, Wasn't sure. When in doubt, I go with with "who". – jake Apr 4 '14 at 23:05
  • "with 'who'" hehe – Double AA Apr 6 '14 at 4:58

Chazal in many places say something like "the real name of x is y", followed by the question "so why was he called x?" - "to teach you something important about him that cannot be learned from his given name".

The explanation of all this is that a person's given name is supposed to reflect his essential being, but some people do not 'live up to their name' and so their essential being is better expressed by an alternative name (or names).

And some people do live up to their names but their given names are not sufficient to fully describe what they achieved in their life. So, for example both Moshe and Yisro had many names, each one describing a different aspect of who he really was.

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