midrash and the hebrew bible

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  • 2008 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Religion Compass 2/5 (2008): 754768, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00101.x

    Midrash and the Hebrew Bible

    Rivka Kern-Ulmer*Bucknell University

    AbstractMidrash is the particular mode of interpreting the Hebrew Bible that was developedby the rabbis of late antiquity in the Land of Israel. Midrash rendered Scripturerelevant to the needs of a specific period in time. Definitions of midrash, the scopeof midrashic activity, and its applicability to multiple interpretive strategies are widelydisputed among scholars. This essay examines inner-biblical interpretation, defini-tions of midrash, midrash scholarship, classifications of midrash, the boundaries ofthe genre midrash, midrasic exegesis, and various theological assumptions of midrash.


    Midrash is the particular mode of interpreting the Hebrew Bible that wasdeveloped by the rabbis of late antiquity in the Land of Israel. Midrashrendered Scripture relevant to the needs of a specific period in time.Definitions of midrash, the scope of midrashic activity, and its applicabilityto multiple interpretive strategies are widely disputed among scholars. Therewere three major approaches to the Hebrew Bible in late antiquity thatare often overlapping: (1) translation; (2) commentary of the text; and (3)midrash. One might want to add a fourth approach, the appropriation ofa text that is in the possession of one group by other groups. Midrash iscertainly a sub-genre of rabbinic literature; the difference between someBible commentaries and midrash is in the spatial arrangement. Commentaryis line-by-line, whereas midrash weaves its exegesis of single biblical lemmatainto coherent statements. Rabbinic midrash as a literary genre is dependentupon formalistic and socioeconomic features as well as upon the creatorswho embody its practice; these conditions determine the limits of midrashin its halakhic, aggadic or homiletical expressions.

    This essay examines inner-biblical interpretation, definitions of midrash,midrash scholarship, classifications of midrash, the boundaries of the genremidrash, midrasic exegesis, and various theological assumptions of midrash.

    Inner-Biblical Interpretation

    Midrash is often viewed as the exploration of Gods plan for the Jewishpeople as recorded in the written text of the Hebrew Bible since Gods

  • 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/5 (2008): 754768, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00101.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Midrash and the Hebrew Bible 755

    speech is no longer audibly communicated (Fishbane 1989). The assumptionthat midrash exists in the Bible relies upon the occurrence of the term darash(e.g., Gen. 25:22; Ezra 7:10), which has the twofold meaning of seekingand interpreting. Although this term is related to the noun midrash, itsmeaning shifted over time and within different Biblical books. After theExodus from Egypt, God and his voice dwelled in a sanctuary that sub-sequently evolved into the First Temple in Jerusalem. After the destructionof this temple in 587 bce the direct access to the words of God was largelylost. Instead, the text was found in a portable document, the Torah scroll(Neusner 1988). Ezra, the scribe, who was sent by the Persians from exilein Babylonia to Jerusalem in order to re-establish Judaism, did not receivedirect communication from God but interpreted the scroll text. The originsof rabbinic midrash may actually lie in the enactment of laws during theensuing Second Temple period, since Ezra was the paradigm of a sofer, some-one interpreting and teaching the law as well as being a priest. The termdarash in the Second Temple period denoted instruction rather than herme-neutic interpretation (Mandel 2006).

    Two passages in the Hebrew Bible contain the term midrash: writtenin the midrash of the prophet Iddo (2 Chr. 13:22) and written in the midrashof the Book of the Kings (2 Chr. 24:27). These passages have led to specu-lation that the Bible contained or utilized interpretations that are com-parable to rabbinic midrash. The term midrash as utilized by the Chroniclerrefers to an extra-biblical source. However, we have no certainty what typeof historical or interpretive source this may have been. Inner-biblical inter-pretation occurred and was carried out within the biblical canon; theseinterpretations did become part of the Hebrew Scriptures in the form ofcomments, revisions, and rewritings of the text from one textual genre (thelaw codes) into another genre (psalms or prophecies). However, there is nomidrash within the Bible (Teugels 1998); later rabbinic midrash is merely oneof the ancient texts that demonstrate an interpretive relationship to theHebrew Bible.

    Pre-rabbinic Jewish Bible Interpretation

    One may note interpretive activity in the community at Qumran as well asthe allegorical interpretation of the Bible by Philo of Alexandria. In par-ticular, the genre of rewritten Bible (e.g., the Genesis Apocryphon and theTemple Scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls) has been compared with midrash. Inthis parabiblical literature, the line between Scripture and its interpretivereading is fluid and, according to Fraade, the heuristic construct of com-mentary is needed to unite midrash and the rewritten Bible of the Dead SeaScrolls under one canopy (Fraade 2006). The beginning of midrashic activityis marked by a shift from priestly to non-priestly (i.e., rabbinic) authority.

    Further comparisons between pre-rabbinic and rabbinic interpretation, onthe one hand, and between the so-called tannaitic and amoraic midrashim,

  • 756 Rivka Kern-Ulmer

    2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/5 (2008): 754768, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00101.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    on the other hand, have demonstrated how certain characteristic features ofmidrash developed at specific times and in specific contexts. For example,the term midrash rarely appears in another rabbinic document, the Mishnah;on the few occasions the term appears that it denotes a teaching (Gruber2007). The problem of distinguishing between the meaning given to anancient Hebrew term such as midrash and the meaning it may have hadin other texts has not been fully explored.

    Midrashic Interpretation of the Bible

    The term midrash that denotes the rabbinic method of Bible interpretationhas its starting point in the canonical Biblical text, and the Bible is cited inmidrash. Alternatively, midrash may refer to individual exegetical pericopaeand to the anthologies or works containing rabbinic exegetical statements(Porton 2005). Thus, we find an ostensible midrash on a biblical book, suchas the midrashic compilation Genesis Rabbah, which is a work that containsa well-structured collection of exegetical rabbinic statements on lemmata fromthe Biblical book of Genesis. Furthermore, midrash may also be found inworks of rabbinic literature that are not called midrash, notably the Targums,the Talmuds, and medieval Bible commentaries. The term midrash denotesmultiple phenomena; it may refer to the process of interpreting Scripture,the theology of its interpreters as well as the results of the interpretations(Neusner 1992). Most scholars concur that midrash consists of more thana random application of methods and the products of their application(Goldberg 1999; Porton 2002). Midrash is uniquely and distinctively rabbinic,finding its fullest expression in the interpretations collected in the classicalmidrashic works compiled by rabbis.

    A major characteristic of midrash is lemmatization (segmentation) of thebiblical texts. Rabbinic interpretation focused upon meaningful parts, suchas a word, a letter, or any string of meaning within a verse. Whether themultiple meanings of a sign of Scripture are part of the indeterminacy of thetext (Stern 1988) is a debatable proposition. An example of lemmatizationand of rabbinic theology in midrash is found in the following text that fousesupon the lemmata in the beginning and amon:

    Genesis Rabbah 1:1In the beginning [bereshit] (Gen. 1:1). Rabbi Oshaya commenced: Then I was withHim as a nursling [amon], a source of delight every day, [rejoicing before Him at all times](Prov. 8:30).Amon means tutor (pedagogue).Amon means covered.Amon means hidden.And there are some who say, Amon means great.Amon means tutor, as in the verse, as an amon carries the suckling child (Num.11:12). Amon means covered, as in the verse, those who are covered in scarlet(Lam 4:5). Amon means hidden, as in the verse, and he hid Hadassah (Est. 2:7).

  • 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/5 (2008): 754768, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00101.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Midrash and the Hebrew Bible 757

    Amon means great, as it says, are you better than No-Ammon (Nah. 3:8)? This wetranslate: Are you better than Alexandria the Great, which is situated in the[Nile] delta? Another interpretation: Amon means artisan [uman]. The Torahdeclares, I was the artisans tool that the Holy One, blessed be He, used [whenhe practiced His craft]. It is customary, when a human king builds a palace, hedoes not build it out of his own head, but he employs an architect [uman].Even the architect does not build it from his head, but he uses plans andblueprints in order to know how to plan the rooms and the doorways. So, too,the Holy One, blessed be He, looked into the Torah and created the world. Thusthe Torah said, By means of the beginning did God create (Gen. 1:1). And the wordfor beginning refers only to the Torah, as it says: The Lord acquired me at thebeginning [reshit] of His course (Prov. 8:22).

    This midrashic passage contains several different interpretations of oneBiblical lemma, amon. The representation of the content of the lexicalitem amon utilizes some knowledge from other scriptural verses, and itenab