Reading Bible: An Introduction to Midrash and Interpretation, Part I

by David Hawkinson

Reading the biblical text and its interpretation is as old as the text itself; in fact, this interactive process emerges out of the even earlier oral tradition. Midrash is the word that the Jewish biblical tradition uses to describe this ancient process. It continues to be the vital link in the living relationship between Jews and their primary texts. The Christian community has also used midrash, but it has taken different shapes and styles. In fact, much of Christian interpretation has been visual, expressed in painting and in stained glass. It is the recovery of the particular treasure of the Jewish literary midrashic tradition that is leading a renaissance of biblical inquiry in both communities of faith. (This is one of the great blessings of recent JewishChristian dialogue.) Wishing to encourage this renewal of good bible reading, we will probe this midrashic process as a way to nourish our own pietist roots — as did those who became known as "readers." But, first, let us return to the beginning. Much of the following was written by Earl Schwartz, teacher of bible in the midrashic tradition and faculty member of City Gates.

Bible, as a word, comes from the Greek, biblia, which means "writings." The Jewish community calls its collection of sacred writings the Tanach (a Hebrew acronym for "Torah, Prophets, and writings"), the Mikra ( Hebrew for "text"), Kitve ha—Kodesh ( Hebrew for "the Holy Writings/Scripture"), the Hebrew Bible, or the Jewish Bible. The Christian community has given this material the unfortunate designation of the "Old Testament," in order to distinguish it from its own articular texts, the "New Testament." This later material is divided into Gospel, largely the narrative and teaching of Jesus, and Epistles, the writings of the early church.

The historical roots of each of these biblical traditions lie in the formative experiences of the People of Israel. The Hebrew Bible preserves these experiences as a record of God's redemptive and revelatory relationship with Israel. The redemptive dimension of these formative experiences begins with Abraham's "exodus" from his land, birthplace, and father's household (Genesis 12). The centralredemptive act in biblical Israel is the Exodus of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah from Egypt. The exile/exodus of the two kingdoms of Israel brings this redemptive history to a climax, the saga concluding with the Judean "exodus" from the Babylonian captivity.

The revelatory dimension of Israel's early history begins with God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12-22). The central revelatory event in biblical Israel is the covenant-making revelation at Sinai. The prophetic movement brings Israel's revelatory experience to a climax through its reevaluation of the covenant. Ancient Israel's tradition of revelation concludes with Ezra's re-establishment of a covenantal community around a central revelatory document, the Torah of Moses.

This time frame, from Abraham to Ezra, forms the historical limits of the Jewish biblical tradition. The biblical texts that chronicle these events and aspirations make up the Jewish Bible. The Christian tradition calls these writings the Old Testament to distinguish them from the New Testament, which is a record of the core narrative surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and of the formative aspirations and experiences of the Church.

All communities of biblical faith look to their respective biblical traditions for guidance and inspiration. The assumption that the redemptive and revelatory experiences chronicled in the text have implications for its readers is made clear by the titles given various portions of biblical tradition, for example, Torah (Hebrew for "guide"), Euangelion (Greek for "good message"; source for the term "evangelical"),Epistle (Greek for "communication"), and so forth. This fact has pressed generation upon generation of Bible readers to require of the biblical text that it remain a source of contemporary revelation. This expectation, in turn, has led countless individuals and communities to attempt to interpret the biblical text in light of their own experiences and to interpret their experience in light of the text. Thus, the birth of biblical interpretation must be seen as virtually simultaneous with the birth of the texts themselves. The chain of biblical tradition is really twofold, woven both of the text and of the reaction it evoked at any given place and time.

The earliest layers of biblical interpretation are themselves witness to this phenomenon because, due to their antiquity and prestige, they eventually came to be considered as part of the Bible proper. Thus, the Book of Deuteronomy is a later interpretation of earlier traditions found in the first four books of Moses. Abraham Ibn Ezra, a brilliant and farsighted medieval Jewish Bible commentator, suggested well over 800 years ago that the version of the ten commandments found in Deuteronomy should be understood as Moses' interpretive paraphrasing of the original version found in the Book of Exodus. Though modern scholarship generally maintains that the length of time between the composition of Exodus and Deuteronomy was much greater that Ibn Ezra suggested, it confirms that his sense that Deuteronomy is derived from earlier biblical sources is essentially correct. Similarly, the Book of Chronicles is clearly a later retelling of the books of Samuel and Kings. A close examination of either of these examples demonstrates how, early in Israelite history, previously established sacred writings were used as a basis for a later account.

Sometime during the second temple period (from the fifth century b.c.e. to the first century c.e.) the process whereby one drew out the implication and nuances of the biblical text (evidenced in Deuteronomy and Chronicles) came to be know as midrash. Originating from the word, darash — to inquire — midrash became the process of exploring the inner life of the texts, of connecting one text to another, of relating them to the contemporary setting, and of turning the wheat of the text into living bread — as the following rabbinic parable illustrates.

This can be likened to a mortal king who had two servants. He loved both of them very much. He gave each of them a bushel of wheat, and a bundle of flax. What did the smarter of the two do? He took the flax and weaved a cloth, and he took the wheat and ground it into flour. Then he kneaded it and baked it. Then he set it on the table, spread the cloth over it, and left it in expectation of the king's return. The foolish one didn't do anything. After sometime had passed the king returned home and said to them, "My children, bring me what I gave to you." One of them took out the loaf of bread on a table with a cloth spread over it. The other one brought out the wheat in a box, with a bundle of flax on it. Oh, what a shame! Oh, what embarrassment! Now you tell me: Which one of them was the favorite?

ha-Arachim ha-Hinuchi'im shel ha-Tanach Zvi Adar Neuman Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1953

Midrash was, at first, a rather freewheeling and imaginative inquiry, but the evidence suggests that by the First century c.e. it had come to be assumed that midrash should be pursued in a systematic fashion, following rules which reflected the literary characteristics of the biblical text. In this sense, the very structure of the texts helped to give form to the rules for interpretation. The oldest preserved collection of rules of this sort was attributed to Hillel the Elder, an extremely influential first century Jewish thinker. Hillel's set of guidelines for interpretation of the biblical text included such principles as:

A word or phrase should be interpreted on the basis of its use in two similar contexts (to be used in cases where the meaning of a word or phrase is uncertain).

A law which is stated in general terms, then followed by a specific application of that law, and in turn by a general restatement of the law, should be interpreted according to the tenor of the specific limitation (to be used in formulating law for the Jewish community in the light of the biblical legal tradition). It should be noted how midrash can be employed in both narrative and legal texts. We will, in other issues, explore the midrashic process in greater detail as it bears upon the interpretation of specific texts, but, for now, we can only highlight its importance as the dominant method within the Jewish biblical tradition.

In light of this, we dare not forget that the primary texts of the early Christian community were themselves Jewish documents. Furthermore, these Jewish Gospels and Epistles of the Church were composed at approximately the same time as Hillel's rules of midrash were promulgated. One of the most important influences on both the style and content of these materials was the well-established tradition of midrashic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. This influence is most clearly evident in those passages of the Gospels which are themselves midrashic — the retelling of the Jesus story in the light of earlier biblical texts. The first four chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, make midrashic use of elements from the life of Moses, as Matthew leads us to the new "Sinai" — the Sermon on the Mount. (See also the near death of Jesus at the hands of a maniacal king who orders the mass slaughter of innocent children, the entry and exit from Egypt, the passage through the water (of Baptism), the period in the desert, etc.). Here is the evidence of a living textual tradition, as the community of Jesus seeks to understand his life in the context of prior experience. We should state here that, in the past two thousand years, several collections of Jewish midrash have been compiled as traces of these explorations into the text by succeeding generations. The mekhilta d've Rabbi Ishmael, Sifra, Sifre, and Midrash Rabbah are among the earliest of these collections. These have remained a vital source of commentary and inspiration within Rabbinic Judaism. One scull hears the midrash quoted, and the midrashic process engaged during services in synagogue or in Jewish schools. Midrash is really a way of reading the text, of living with the text.

Barry Holz, in Back to the Sources, Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, argues:

The Rabbis throughout Jewish history were essentially readers. The text was the Torah; the task, to read the text. We tend usually to think of reading as a passive occupation, but for the Jewish textual tradition, it was anything but that. Reading was a passionate and active grappling with God's living word. It held the challenge of uncovering secret meanings, unheard of explanations, matters of great weight and significance. An active, indeed interactive, reading was their method of approaching the sacred text called Torah and through that reading process of finding something at once new and very old. . . . We sit alone with a book as we read. It is important to remember that most Jewish "reading" occurs in a social context — the class, or the study session. Often in the world of the Yeshiva (Jewish school) Jewish learning is carried on in a loud, hectic hall called the bet midrash (study house) where students sit in pairs or threesomes, reading and discussing out loud, back and forth. Reading in the yeshiva is conducted in a room with a constant, incessant din; it is as much talk as it is reading; in fact, the two activities of reading and discussion are virtually indistinguishable.

Notice that the text which calls for this kind of interactive reading also creates community around itself. We learn from the text and we get to talk with each other. It is conventicle at its best!

Midrash is at heart a literary criticism. It begins in the text and follows its lead into the inner life of the passage. It is to be distinguished from a literal approach which builds upon the premise that the text should be read "raw," because all meaning rests solely in the words of the text. The assumption is that one should not interpret but rather accept whatever is said, as stated. Such an approach demands a text that is verbally inspired and unflawed, a companion doctrine, which assumes that at one time such a text actually existed. Furthermore, it assumes that it is possible to read the text without interpretation.

The midrashic literary approach should also be distinguished from the more recent historical/critical approach, which assumes that the key to understanding a given text is a thorough knowledge of its history: who wrote it, when was it written, under what historical circumstances, influenced by which social, political, and religious movements? Historical/critical research has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the growth and development of the biblical text, but it is limited in its objectives. It assumes that one must bring things to the text in order to plumb its meaning. In this context, biblical texts tend to remain documents to be studied rather than a continuing drama needing personal and corporate engagement and participation.

The literary approach has most fully come to grips with the artistic dimension of the Bible. Reading in this fashion assumes the text to be the artful creation of skilled communicators who, like all great artists, engage our attention through a well-crafted structuring of the message. Like the classical midrashists, the modern literary critics consider the Bible a many faceted, richly textured, and subtly nuanced text. Using ancient skills similar to those of the early rabbinic readers, these critics employ techniques such as the creative expansion of pregnant silences in the text, the piecing together of allusions, and the analysis of repetitive patterns. In his conclusion to the insightful work on reading biblical narrative, Robert Alter, writes:

As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a suprising subtelty and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. The human figures that move through this landscape thus seem livelier, more complicated and various, than one's preconceptions might have allowed. This, I am convinced was at the heart of the authors' intentions: . . . so they created an unexhausted source of delight for a hundred generations of readers. See The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter, pp.188-189.

Robert Sacks, Tutor at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico and insightful reader of primary texts, raises the question in its purest form: " . . .the principal task of the reader of any book is to attempt to discover how the author wished his book to be read." How can one tell the difference in the end? The story must come to life! The wheat must be transformed into fresh baked bread! That is the aim of the drama — to be a source of endless delight and interest, a drama infused with ultimate and urgent meaning. Reading is the very heart of discovering this delight — learning to read the text as the text asks to be read. This is the question raised by the classic midrashic process. It is the question that needs to be be asked by all those seeking to become "readers."

In subsequent articles we will make available bibliographic materials to encourage your own exploration of this domain. A good beginning point would be Robert Alter's, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books Inc., New York, 1981.

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

See all articles by David Hawkinson