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Midrash in the Second Temple Period
Midrash and the Bible Part II
This is a tweet from a few days ago, following the warm reception of my last newsletter, which I think stands as my most liked article ever, much to my confusion. Thank you for constantly surprising me!
This week we’re continuing on with our series in the book of Jude, if you didn’t catch last week’s article, we’re taking some time out from studying the book verse-by-verse to help us read Jude in context. We’re looking at a genre found in Jude which is rarely talked about today—at least not in Christian circles—called Midrash. The truth is that the book of Jude can sound odd to western Christians at times because it doesn’t follow the same “rules” we’re used to from other books in the new testament, and it also quotes from extra-biblical sources. If we take the time now to explore in detail something that is often glossed over, we’ll be better equipped to handle questions that come up along the way.
This week we’re looking particularly at why Midrash/im is found in the literature of the Second Temple Period. ‘Second Temple’ is a term that pops up in many books across the academic and theological spectrum, so even if you’re not interested in Midrash stick around because knowing about this will inevitably be useful again in the future.
Midrash in the Second Temple Period
Old Testament → 400 Years → New Testament
When we think about the Bible it’s so easy to think about it as one continuous story, our mind doesn’t feel the need to fill the gaps because history was a long time ago. On the other hand, much of history is compartmentalised in our memory from stories and collections of stories that we know fit together, but we’re not sure how. Samurai, the Victorian Era, the Wild West, Pirates. What if I told you they are happened at about the same time.
With regards to the Bible, we’re faced with a bigger problem, because though it’s not one continuous story, it is a complete one. We know how it began, we’re living now in the light of its pages, and we know how it will all end too.
For 400 years there was no such clarity, they knew the story would one day be completed, but they didn’t know how it would happen. The Old Testament was full of prophecy, full of hope, full of promises that a Messiah, a Saviour, would come one day. For four centuries though, the people of God were left to wonder how that would happen.
“David assembled all the leaders of Israel in Jerusalem…rose to his feet and said, “Listen to me, my brothers and my people. It was in my heart to build a house as a resting place for the ark of the Lord’s covenant and as a footstool for our God. I had made preparations to build, but God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my name because you are a man of war and have shed blood.’
“Yet the Lord God of Israel chose me out of all my father’s family to be king over Israel forever. For he chose Judah as leader, and from the house of Judah, my father’s family, and from my father’s sons, he was pleased to make me king over all Israel. And out of all my sons—for the Lord has given me many sons—he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the Lord’s kingdom over Israel. He said to me, ‘Your son Solomon is the one who is to build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever if he perseveres in keeping my commands and my ordinances as he is doing today.’”
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), 1 Ch 28:1–7
David. Solomon. Two Kings, one Father, one Son. The first received the desire to build a temple for the Lord, the second was given all the gifts needed to fulfil that desire. This isn’t where the story begins, but it’s vital for understanding the whole story of the Bible, as well as understanding our part in that story. For now, it should suffice to say that the Temple was built by two Kings, wealthy and wise, gifted and granted vision by God to complete the task. So what would you expect the Temple to be like?
When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and hand them over to the enemy, and their captors deport them to a distant or nearby country, and when they come to their senses in the land where they were deported and repent and petition you in their captors’ land, saying,
“We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked,”
and when they return to you with all their mind and all their heart in the land of their captivity where they were taken captive, and when they pray in the direction of their land that you gave their ancestors, and the city you have chosen, and toward the temple I have built for your name, may you hear their prayer and petitions in heaven, your dwelling place, and uphold their cause. May you forgive your people who sinned against you.
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), 2 Ch 6:36–39.
The previous passage from 1 Chronicles ended with the words, “I will establish [Solomon’s] kingdom forever if he perseveres in keeping my commands and my ordinances as he is doing today,” crikey, what a calling.
This passage begins with Solomon crying out to the Lord, shortly before fire filled the Temple, that he would provide a way of mercy and grace for his people, that when they turn and repent that they would be forgiven. Why? For no one is without sin. How and where? By turning to the Temple of the Lord.
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time you’re likely very aware that Solomon did not follow the commands and ordinances of the Lord all of his life, he took a multitude of wives and concubines, he opened Israel up to foreign religions and gods, he built temples in their names too. Though he did later repent, if the Kingdom of God were dependant on his sinlessness and not Jesus’ sinlessness, we too would be hopeless.
The Temple of the Lord was built to be a place of worship to God, and a reminder of his grace to his people. Needless to say, the Temple was awe-inspiring. If you want further details you should read 1 Kings 6-7, which serves as a whistlestop tour of the Temple, missing out nothing. Well worth the entry fee. Even the plants were exquisite. In a deck of cards, this is the Ace, it has the highest value of them all.
If heaven ever had an open day, this is what it would look like.
“On the seventh day of the fifth month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guards, a servant of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned the Lord’s temple, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down all the great houses. The whole Chaldean army with the captain of the guards tore down the walls surrounding Jerusalem.”
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), 2 Ki 25:8–10
If you didn’t already know, you’d probably guessed by this point that in order for there to have been a need for a Second Temple, something had to have happened to the first. So what do we know from the passages we’ve read which might make this an issue?
Where are the people supposed to turn to. There is no temple.
Fast forward to the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, which is two books in our Bibles, but like 1 + 2 Samuel, or 1 + 2 Chronicles, they are part of the same story and text. This doesn’t tell the story of two Kings, but the story of three lowly men, either born in or servants of the kingdom of Babylon, the very same Kingdom which burned the temple down in the first place. So were they rebel scum fighting the big guys? No, they did so with the blessing and even the resource of Babylon!
Zerubbabel built the Temple.
Ezra taught from the Torah and built up the people of God.
Nehemiah built the walls.
It would seem like they’d turned back time. Unless you looked at the Temple, the community, and the walls they built.
A prophet living at the time of Zerubbabel called Haggai turned to the people after it was built and said:
“Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it seem to you like nothing by comparison?”
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Hag 2:3
If the first temple was an ace, this one was the card its name suggests, a two. Unimpressive to the max.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this story, but hopefully, you’ve got the main point. At the time of the Second temple, things are bleak. Easton puts it:
“This second temple had not the ark, the Urim and Thummim, the holy oil, the sacred fire, the tables of stone, the pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod. As in the tabernacle, there was in it only one golden lamp for the holy place, one table of shewbread, and the incense altar, with golden censers, and many of the vessels of gold that had belonged to Solomon’s temple that had been carried to Babylon but restored by Cyrus”
So, you’re left in submission to a foreign power at the start of the intertestamental period, you end that period in submission to a different power. In between, you’ve got a sub-par temple, but promises like this:
“For the Lord of Armies says this: “Once more, in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations so that the treasures of all the nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,”v says the Lord of Armies. “The silver and gold belong to me”—this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies. “The final glory of this house will be greater than the first,” says the Lord of Armies. “I will provide peace in this place”—this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies.
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Hag 2:6–9
The story isn’t yet over, there’s still something to come, but through the darkly lit mirror you’re left with, you can only begin to imagine what that might be.
Boy am I glad that the Biblical record is closed now and no one is making lofty and ridiculous claims about the end times or such the like… Or not. Before I go on, it’s worth saying that though we do believe the story is now complete and Jesus has conquered—it is finished—that does not mean that we’re immune to what I’m about to describe. Here’s an example:
“All exegesis is eisegesis, simply because the selection of one verse, rather than some other, expresses a prior program of inquiry: different people talking about different things to different people.”
Jacob Neusner, Midrash as Literature: The Primacy of Documentary Discourse, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003)
That’s Jacob Neusner speaking, a Jewish expert on this period who recently passed away. If you don’t know what exegesis or eisegesis is, here’s a quick summary:
Exegesis - Drawing out the meaning from a text
Eisegesis - Implanting one’s own meaning into a text
Neusner is describing Midrash here, though not all Midrash, it’s true to say that some were done in a verse-by-verse manner (Perashim) the reality is that when we choose to take verses out of context and implant our own ideas, our own will, onto those passages, we get into real problems, just like the teachers in the Second Temple period. This is a huge reason why I hammer on about using Context, Comparison, and Consistency to do Bible study, but also Expository Preaching. Topical Preaching, like Midrash, doesn’t come out of a will to perform false teaching, but more often than not it comes out of a heart to serve people and serve the Lord.
Midrash existed out of a knowledge that the Scriptures spoke of what was to come and was not yet complete (or at least with regards to Midrash Aggadah, which we spoke about last week.) That is a good desire.
Did it lead people to recognise Jesus though?
In fact, when he came he answered the question this whole article has been expressing, what about the temple?
“He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a marketplace!”
And his disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me. So the Jews replied to him, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made.”
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Jn 2:16–22
In effect, Jesus is the greater Midrash, he is the story that explains the Old Testament, everything can be understood by and through him. He is the fulfilment of the law and prophets, and no one comes to the Father except through him.
Midrash came about for good reason.
We would have done no different, we would likely have followed our own path, sought to read into scripture our own interpretation, with a heart to serve the Lord and his people. Without the full understanding of the Gospel though, this is folly. Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot hope to understand the things which were hidden which were revealed in Christ. Thanks be to God that we have that now. Let it not lead us to pride, let us remember that we are still fallen in nature, that not one of us is without sin, but that any time we need we can and ought to turn to the Lord for forgiveness.
His body is the final temple. Turn to him.
Grace and Peace,
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