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What is Midrash?
Midrash and the Bible
In 1874 Albert Goodwill Spalding sought to bring the wonder of Baseball to England, which was received with mixed reviews, but for the most part, the idea of grown men playing what looked to most Brits like a sized-up version of a children’s game called Rounders was not only funny but a tad embarrassing. What’s more, in our records, one of the only instances of Baseball came from a Jane Austen Novel, Northanger Abbey, played not by men, but by women. What had, in one culture, been all but universally loved, couldn’t make even the slightest dent in the cultural consciousness of another. A tarnish on Baseball’s historical legacy, the incident is unlikely to receive even a footnote in English history books, but does that mean it wasn’t important? Are we, the British, correct that Baseball isn’t even worth a mention?
Torah, Talmud, and Midrash, these three collections of texts form the basis for all Jewish law and literature. The likelihood is that you’ve heard of one of these, Torah, and you may have also heard of the Talmud, but Midrash? Like Baseball, the importance of this literary form holds little to no weight in the context of Christian literature and to an extent that makes some sense, we don’t hold the Talmud or extra-biblical Midrash to be authoritative or inspired, but on the flip side, given how much time we give in Christian literature to who the Pharisees or the Sadducees were, it seems odd that we wouldn’t give equal weight to understanding what they believed. What’s more, the form of exegesis known as Midrash isn’t only found outside the bible, but throughout its pages. Frequently the Old Testament Prophets expound on earlier Scriptures in this narrative form, and the New Testament authors continue the practice also (Hebrews 11, 1 Peter 2:4-10, Jude), and in 2 Chronicles Midrashic texts are referred to deferentially as sources (2 Chronicles 13:22 & 24:27.) Given the frequency with which this form comes up and the importance it played in Israel and the broader Jewish culture in the world of the New Testament, we ought not to act like the British with Baseball and banish it to long-forgotten footnotes.
To understand what Midrash is and why it takes such an important place in Jewish Literature we can turn, helpfully, to a Midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud:
When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.
Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b, 4
Simply put, God told Moses after he arrived in heaven that another would come—one of many—who would derive from the texts of the Torah “mounds upon mounds of halakhot.” Halakhot means laws, ordinances, and teachings. This is not to say that he or others would add to scripture—according to this view—but that in expounding upon scripture with the inspiration of God, he would crown the letters and words of the Torah with further glory. As you’re likely aware the Hebrew language is incredibly important in Jewish culture and history, while the English-speaking world has spent the past few generations beating our language within an inch of its life the Hebrew language has seen an unbelievable resurgence and recovery. Rabbi Ari Lamm explained this on the Jane and Jesus podcast with Karen Swallow Prior a few weeks ago, saying that the reason Hebrew perseveres where Greek and Latin have failed to remain relevant is that while Athens captivated people’s minds, the Holy Land and language have gripped people’s hearts. To say that God would make alterations to the Hebrew in the Torah then seems mad and it seems Moses agrees. That’s not what’s happening here though, in this story God takes the words in the Torah and attaches to them crowns which reveal and make clear the meaning of those words. As Christians, we believe that the final and ultimate end and meaning of the words in Scripture are found in Jesus Christ, but that’s not what Jews believe. The Torah stands as the final and authoritative text for life, and the Talmud and Midrash help to open those texts up to help Jews know how to live and how to honour God with their lives.
There are two categories of Midrash which form the basis of that foundation:
Midrash Halakhah deals with the law and expounds and expands upon the laws in Torah, either contextualising them or widening their scope.
Midrash Aggadah deals with ethics, narratives, characters, and events, expounding on them in the following ways:
Explaining that which is not found in the text of the Torah (i.e. Abram/Abraham’s Life before Gen 11:27)
Clearing up details of dispute
Teaching on a particular text, drawing on it in a way that is relevant to the present day.
All of these utilise, to one extent or another, a narrative form of literature in order to do this. While this might seem odd to us, especially in academic circles in which bibliographies and rigid arguments are necessary for passing an exegesis class—or really any class. What we must remember is that this is coming out of a culture deeply invested in the oral tradition and Midrash, like Scripture, wasn’t meant to be a dead academic endeavour, it was meant to be understandable and relatable to the youngest to the oldest member of the community. Midrash is more akin to Preaching in the Reformed Tradition, not to essays in the classroom. This is certainly true of the book of Jude, Richard Bauckham writes:
The body of the letter…is more like a homily than a letter: it consists of a midrash on a series of scriptural references and texts (vv 5-19) and a paraenetic section (vv 20-23). The work closes with a doxology (vV 24-25), a conclusion more appropriate to a homily than to a letter.
Richard Bauckham, Word Biblical Commentary, Jude 1-2 Peter, 50
“To establish such a piece of writing as a midrash, one has to find three things: the basic scriptural text on which the midrashic interpretation has been placed; the particular notion and meaning of the text contained in and established by that interpretation; and, finally, the special hermeneutical technique by which the interpretation has been achieved.”
Midrashim In The New Testament, M. Gertner
Journal Of Semitic Studies, Volume 7, Issue 2, Autumn 1962, Pages 267–292
It’s probably clear that one of these two forms of Midrash holds more weight for us as Christians than the other. While we would certainly expound on Scripture and apply it to our lives today, often using narratives to help us do so, we shouldn’t seek to create new laws or ordinances as a result. With that in mind, the form of Midrash found in Jude, as well as in the rest of the new testament would fit roughly under the heading of Midrash Aggadah. If you’ve ever performed or taken part in a Pessach or Passover meal, you’ve probably held in your hands a Haggadah, or the narrative, story, and teaching which are performed on the day, along with the physical representations of that story, the food.
If not, essentially there are two parts to the Passover meal, teaching and participation. By experiencing the sweetness and bitterness of certain foods and the sharing of that food with one another, alongside teaching, the story comes to life in a way that simply hearing cannot do. This is common in many feasts and festivals throughout Jewish culture. The words Haggadah and Aggadah are closely related and they share the general meaning of “drawing out.”
Gertner mentioned three parts of the Midrashic form we should be looking out for as we study Jude:
The basic scriptural text on which the midrashic interpretation has been placed
The particular notion and meaning of the text contained in and established by that interpretation
The special hermeneutical technique by which the interpretation has been achieved.
Aa Midrash Aggadah seeks to viscerally draw out the meaning of Scripture, give us an understanding of the author’s interpretation, and do so by utilising a special form of narrative interpretation. Keeping this in mind will help us to piece together what’s going on when it seems that Jude is speaking in a way, or quoting sources which don’t seem to align with our exegetical or theological methodologies.
I hope that this short introduction has given you a good introduction to what Midrashim are and the role they play in Jewish culture and the culture of the Jews of Jude’s day. Over the next few weeks we’ll be diving further into the wider use of Midrash around the time of the New Testament, and then what it looks like to garner a better understanding of Midrash and perhaps even utilise it today.
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Grace and Peace,
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