The text I’ll be dealing with is over there on the right. It’s a compilation of Biblical writings from the Tannaitic rabbis. Midrash is a form of Biblical hermeneutics, or interpretation. Midrash are devoted to either aggadah, interpretation of the story, or text, or to halakah, legal interpretation. (You may have seen haggadah for Pesach or Passover in book stores. That is the ritual and texts for the seder. Don’t confuse aggadah and haggadah.)
Midrash is a method of querying the text, and asking what does this mean, why is this said? The Tannaitic Midrash has its origins in an oral tradition that started sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple and was finally set down in writing about the 10th century. This particular group of sages does not seem to have said anything about Genesis, so we miss commentary on incidents such as that in Genesis 24: 22 et seq. (Abraham’s servant sees Rebecca. In the Anchor Bible and New American Bible translations he puts a gold ring through her nose, and golden bracelets on her arms. Was this the custom in those days? Did strange men just go up to a woman and put a ring through her nose? Other translations simply mention rings, or they say there was a nose ring and bracelets.) This particular selection begins with Exodus 12, so we also miss any speculation on where Aaron was when Moses saw him coming.
What is the significance of Midrash for us today? What is its significance for us who are not Jews? I’m a Catholic, and I write for what I imagine is an audience within the US, so there’s a 90%+ probability that my audience is largely Gentile. I have gotten visits from Israel, and from China, but most of them come from the US. So the statistical probability is Christian, or curious internet acquaintances. What can we hope to learn? Well, as the translator points out in his introduction, midrash is antagonistic to fundamentalism. It reads the text through associations with other texts from the scriptures that serve to open it up and expand its meaning. The text is read on a symbolic level. At the same time reading the text in a wholly symbolic way can wrench the text and distort it in completely unacceptable ways (42). The symbolic and the literal must be held simultaneously so that everything is not just symbolized away. I’ve argued something similar in the first chapter of my unfinished book on the opponents of Darwinism. The Augustinian view was that scripture was accommodated to the people of the time, so that the important truth of creation was conveyed, not the less important, religiously speaking, truths of quantum mechanics. On the other hand, if you accommodate too much of the text, you risk losing it all. Another thing that we can learn is to associate texts with one another to see what light they throw on each other.
This edition puts scriptural citations in ALL CAPS, and the sages’ comments in mixed case. I’ll be following that if I do any extensive quotations. I think that for the most part I’ll try to summarize the discussions. The book is a little over 500 pages long, so rather than trying to do the whole thing, I’ll cover the aggadah on Exodus, and possibly the halakah. I may also look at a couple of other things, such as the shema.
Exodus 12:29 Mekhilta Pisha 13, I 98—Here’s the whole verse in the KJV: “And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.” The text in the book uses a different translation, and focuses on the captives.
“TO THE FIRST BORN OF THE CAPTIVE.” The sage then asks how the captive had sinned. The answer he gives is that it was to prevent the captive from asserting that his god had done this to the Egyptians. This however is not the final answer. Whenever Pharaoh inflicted suffering on Israel the captives rejoiced. This is supported by texts from Proverbs, Ezekiel, and Exodus.
“AND ALL THE FIRSTBORN OF THE CATTLE.” This was to prevent the Egyptians from saying that their gods had done this to them.
Exodus 13:17, Mekhilta Beshalah 1, I 169. “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:” (KJV). This leads into an interesting passage about Moses and Joseph’s bones. Two stories are recounted about how Moses found Joseph’s bones. In one the bones of Joseph are buried under water, and Moses writes the name of God on a gold tablet, casts it into the water, and calls to Joseph that the time has come for the Lord to redeem his people. The casket floats to the top, and Moses retrieves it. In another the version the casket is in the royal mausoleum.
Joseph is not portrayed in what I’ve read so far as anything other than a great and holy man. Some today consider Joseph and Moses to be contrasts. Joseph assimilates, and Moses remains separate. This may be a more modern interpretation though.
Of Exodus 13:19, “GOD WILL BE SURE TO TAKE NOTICE OF YOU,” it says:
“He will take notice of you in Egypt and He will take notice of you at the sea. After taking notice of you at the sea, He will take notice of you in the wilderness. After he has taken notice of you in the wilderness, He will take notice of you at the rivers of Arnon. After taking notice of you in this world, He will take notice of you in the world to come.”
Exodus 13:21, Mekhilta Beshalla 1, I 184—This is on the cloud by day and the fire by night. There is a story inserted into the Midrash that tells of an encounter of Rabbi Judah the Prince with Antoninus. (Antoninus may have been Antoninus Pius, predecessor of Marcus Aurelius.) The story goes that Antoninus would be holding court when darkness came, and that he would take a torch and light the way for his children. When members of the court volunteered to carry the torch, he declined, and said that was how he showed his affection for his children. The Holy One demonstrated His love for Israel to the nations of the world by being their light.
Exodus 14:15, Mekilta Beshalla 4, I 216—The Lord asks why Moses cries out to Him, and commands Moses to tell the Israelites to go forward. There are several comments made on this verse. Some rabbis attribute it to a mitzvah (deed) performed by Abraham, or another patriarch, or to a mitzvah done by the people as a whole. Others, such as Rabbi Judah the Prince, attribute it to faith. R. Jose the Galilean says that during the march through the sea Mount Moriah was uprooted from its place. God tells Moses that his people are in distress. When Moses asks what he should do “He said to him ‘LIFT UP YOUR ROD (Ex. 14:16). Lift up—glorify, praise, utter song and praise, greatness and glorification to Him who is the Master of War.’”
The translator has a comment here on “rabbinic virtuosity,” but what leaped out to me was that the strands of works, faith, and praise were also present in Apostolic Christianity. You find the tension between Paul (faith) and James (works) paralleled here. (Praise is to be found in Paul too, but I think it comes in as part of faith.)
Exodus 15:1, Mekhilta Shirata 2, II 21—This is a midrash on “HORSE AND DRIVER.” The problem under consideration is why God punished both the horse and the driver. This leads to another story involving Antoninus and Rabbi Judah the Prince. Antoninus asks “When a person dies and the body ceases to exist, does the Holy One make it stand trial?” The rabbi replies by saying that rather than asking about the body he should ask about the soul. He then gives a parable. A king has a beautiful garden, and places it in the charge of a blind guard and a lame guard, and goes away. The lame guard sees some figs, and tells the blind guard. The blind guard carries the lame guard to the tree. When the owner discovers the figs are missing, he questions the guards. The lame one asks if he has legs to get to the figs, and the blind one asks if he has eyes to see them. So the owner places them on one another and judges them as one. Body and soul will be judged as one by the Holy One.
Here we have an analogue of the Body-Mind dichotomy that has been part of Western philosophy for centuries. Descartes is usually credited as being the father of this dichotomy, though traces of it can be found earlier.
Exodus 15:3, Mekhilta Shirata 4, II 30—THE LORD, THE WARRIOR—LORD IS HIS NAME. The commentators recognize that the Lord is imagined with various implements of war such as a sword, a cherub, a coat of mail, a helmet, a spear, a bow, and a shield. One of the rabbis says:
“I might think that He is in need of these implements, therefore the verse says THE LORD, THE WARRIOR—LORD IS HIS NAME—He fights with His name and is in no need of any of these implements. If that is so, why does the Scripture bother to mention each of these specifically and individually? To emphasize that should it be necessary, God will make war for Israel and woe unto the nations of the world! Let them heed carefully with their own ears that He Who Spoke and the world came into being will yet fight against them.”
Isn’t that last bit lovely? “He Who Spoke and the world came into being.” That so beautifully conveys the opening of both Genesis, “In the beginning God created…,” and John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word….” If you’re of a modern turn of mind, and think the universe was born of a quantum flux, you can even think of the flux as the Word spoken by God.
Exodus 15:11, Mekhilta Shirata 8, II 63—AWESOME IN SPLENDOR. This leads to a consideration of how various things are impossible for men, such as bringing shapes out of water, but not for “He who spoke and the world came into being.”
Update November 30, 2009 It’s been a while since I wrote anything on the Midrash. There have been a number of reasons, one being the lack of response and interest by the members of my community, but I try to eschew the emotional and the negative, at least as it applies to real people (politicians and celebrities don’t count as real people), on this blog, so I won’t go into any details.
I asked how the midrash was applicable to Christians. So I would like to suggest a midrash on Genesis 1:1. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section.
In the beginning (Gn 1:1). We learn that there was a beginning. What was there before the beginning? Augustine is supposed to have said that God was preparing hell for people who asked that question, but what we know is that there was a time before the beginning, that time itself had a beginning and that there was no time before that. Later we resume the beginning. In the beginning was the Word (Jn. 1:1). What is the nature of this Word? John tells us that it created the universe. The Word is God. 1 Jn 4:8 tells us that God is love. What is love? Is love a cosmic gooey marshmallow into which we fall, or is it something else? Solomon tells us in his song (8:6) that Love is as strong as death. Not stronger, but as strong. It is from this love that the Lord spoke and the world came into being.