The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Last "Live" Post of THQ

Walk Into the Text

Bounce a bit. Explore some gaps. Argue. Embrace.

When the Rabbi’s read they walk into the text. They bring themselves to it and step across the edge of the scroll, jump up onto its body, bouncing a little, believing it will hold their weight. And then on hands and knees, they crawl through the furrows of words, examining, brushing away dirt, not like an archeologist hoping to unearth some dead, hardened thing but like a botanist examining growth patterns and evidence of the soil’s mineral content, water content or whether there is deep clay. And then they look for the cracks in the soil from which the word emerged. It is the cracks, the gaps that will allow them a way in.

The midrash is the exploration of those gaps. Stories and parables, proverbs and legal case studies prove their skill at mining those gaps. The text is changed by their having been there, there are footprints left behind, indentations, great hollowed out places, and covered over, smoothed out, portions.

Once an oral wisdom, that required a speaker—and what is an individual speaker if not a unique interpreter— midrash kept the text from hardening into stone. It was kept alive and fertile, even malleable but with deep and unknown roots. That, however, is not how I was taught to read our holy book. I was taught to search for answers, the calculable, defendable, the un-contradictable truth, but to the Rabbis it is not a book of monolithic answers it is a porous book of brilliant questions.

The Ancient Rabbis read the sacred text as questions and then answer the questions with questions and provide answers with stories of possibilities. The tents of opposing camps are set upon the text side-by-side, conclusions leaned up against refutations, some decaying some flourishing. All interpretations are partly wrong and partly right, which is why many need to be included so that something like truth can be glimpsed or gotten close to.

When the Talmud talks about the Rabbi’s students it doesn’t say there were 24,000, it says there were 12,000 pairs of students because the text is best studied with someone else, with a partner, someone to fight with, so through debate and challenge, disagreement, argument and wrestling the questions can be refined.

The Talmud interprets the phrase, “enemies in the gate” from Psalm 127:5 as referring to people studying Torah together, “Even a father and a son or a teacher and his student who are studying Torah together in one gate become enemies of one another, but they do not move from there until they become devoted friends.”

The study of the Christian scriptures needs the kind of midrashic inquiry that The Hardest Question attempted every week. With out a kind of deep, playful, lively digging into the text it is left to atrophy, we are left with a thing barely alive.

Thank you for engaging. I invite you to continue the wrestling at the gate at


Russell Rathbun




The Rev. Russell




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The Second Last "Live" Post of THQ

Seas between us Broad have Roared

A farewell to trusty friends.

THQ has entered a state of suspended (as in no new posts) animation (as in what been archived is still quite lively!)

I must admit, perched on the cusp of a new year as I am in this moment, that my personality is not well suited for nostalgia, Auld Lang Syne notwithstanding.

Maybe it’s because my memory is so pathetic. That’s something I would attribute to too much Testor™ model glue and paint—as I was an avid kit builder growing up—were it not for my dear mother’s propensity to be thinking about so much stuff all the time that some things just get pushed aside. Kind of like that monkeys jumping on the bed nursery rhyme.

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