Playing with Scripture – Midrash

[Guest article by Jacob Rose]

The Jewish tradition of midrash offers something rich to the practice of scriptural interpretation that is too often forgone in the Christian tradition. Rachel Held Evans, author of Inspired, writes: “While Christians turn to Scripture to end a conversation, Jews turn to scripture to start a conversation” (24). Often, the understanding of the infallible and inspired Word of God is used as the final authority in discussions concerning morality, purity and even metaphysics. This outlook tends to box in ideas and is restrictive without the acknowledgement of dynamic cultural differences and progression. Midrash, commentaries on Hebrew scriptures by Judaic scholars, is encouraged and practiced by many who see the dynamic nature of scriptural works and the limited capabilities of the individual before study. The exegesis of the text, in dialogue with others, allows for an interaction that is both thoughtful and playful. Midrash offers the opportunity to explore and ask questions about meaning in a collaborative context that fosters reasoning for understanding.  This essay will identify contrasting Evangelical Christian and Judaic attitudes towards scripture interpretations and will elaborate on midrash as an alternative to a literal hermeneutic.

        In Evangelical branches of Christianity there is the conception that Scripture is written literally. This idea is linked to the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, a text whose writers experienced divine inspiration free from error, and whose reader is able to interpret without mistake. This is a bold claim and a dangerous responsibility to place on Scripture. In N.T. Wright’s lecture “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” he stresses that any authority that exists lies with God. Essentially what occurs is that the Bible is expected to answer Enlightenment questions it was not intended to answer. “But to treat the Bible like that is,” Wright writes,

simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules … [this problem goes back] to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture (4).

(To further understand what Wright means, check out his article here)

        The Bible is an ancient narrative text not to be read as a manual. It is composed of various literary genres: “mythic; narrative; prescriptive; oracular; apocalyptic; hymnal; sapiential” (LaCocque, et al.).  This is not to say that Scripture is unable to impact us in the present. The challenge is learning and understanding the types of questions it is prepared to answer and becoming familiar with the language it responds with.

For many Christians, the Bible plays a fundamental role in their lives to the point that it is intrinsically woven into identity. To rattle the cage, to compromise the integrity of faith, is something that unveils significant fear of identity and truth. Placing total authority on Scripture (and in the faith of individual interpretation) is not a strong foundation for a healthy faith life. It hinders the journey rather than leading it.  In her chapter on origin stories, Evans supportively writes “Spiritual maturation requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction (or, more precisely, truth from untruth), and embracing those stories that move us towards wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm” (17). So how is this done with scriptural interpretation? Wright suggests that “Scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like” (Wright 19). A solution can be found by looking to the Jewish tradition. Midrash is a method of “imaginative explorations and expansions of scripture” interpretation (Evans 22).

Before delving into the topic of Midrash just yet, an important distinction should be made in regards to scriptural interpretation and that is between hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is understood as “the methodology of interpretation is concerned with problems that arise when dealing with meaningful human actions and the products of such actions, most importantly texts” (SEP). The intent of exegetical papers on the other hand are to “coherently, succinctly and sensitively to open-up the meaning of the text in such a way that it reflects the particularities (e.g. "feel", plain sense, problems, ambiguities, context, potential theological sensus plenior, etc.) of that text alone” (Trinity College). The distinction here is that exegesis is concerned with interpreting Scripture whereas hermeneutics is an understanding of the human response to the interpretation of texts. Midrash engages with both exegesis and hermeneutics, the exploration of the text and its context, and the relation to the individual.

To engage in Midrash is to engage in a form of literary theory that dates back centuries. Daniel Boyarin, author of Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, writes that “contemporary [literary] theory opens up possibilities for reunderstanding midrash … Among other contributions, Derrida (20th century theorist and thinker) has demonstrated that the conception of univocity and transparency of meaning is none other than a philosophical possibility … not a logical necessity. I would say that this questioning of the [Enlightenment] understanding of language makes possible a space for a more sympathetic reading of midrash as an interpretive act, because it puts into question all interpretive acts” (Boyarin x). What Boyarin suggests is that the perspective of a localized and centered meaning carried over from the Enlightenment period that pervaded scriptural interpretation is not the only option for interpretation.

Midrash offers an alternative process of engagement with scriptural texts. The challenge that presents itself to many Christians is that a definitive conclusion of certainty is not the goal of midrash. Boyarin says that “critics convinced that we know exactly what is meant by texts and that there are sound methods for getting at their meaning will have no use for a sympathetic study of midrash as an interpretive model” (ix). For those who are willing to explore and to go deeper into scriptural interpretation, Midrash offers an exciting opportunity. “For Jewish readers”, Evans explains, “the tensions and questions produced by Scripture aren’t obstacles to be avoided, but rather opportunities for engagement, invitations to join in the Great Conversation between God and God’s people that has been going on for centuries and to which everyone is invited” (23). It provides a secure space to ask “what if this means something different?” Midrash offers the opportunity for an individual to be involved and interactive with Scripture. Midrash interprets the text before the reader “but also the text behind and beyond the text and the text between the lines of the text. In rabbinic thinking, each letter and the spaces between the letters are available for interpretive work” (Evans 23). Midrash serves as a chance to play in the scriptural sandbox of meaning. Midrash expects questions; it entices wonder and curiosity.

Works Cited

Boyarin, Daniel. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Indiana Studies in Biblical

Literature). Indiana University Press, 1990.

Evans, Rachel Held. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.

Nelson Books, 2018.

Lacocque, Andre, et al. Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies. University of

Chicago, 2001.

Mantzavinos, C. “Hermeneutics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 22

June 2016, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hermeneutics/.

Taylor, Glen. “Guidelines for Writing an Exegetical Paper.” Trinity College: University of

Toronto, Trinity College, Nov. 2012, https://www.trinity.utoronto.ca/library_

archives/theological_resources/theological_guides/exegetical.html.

Wright, N.T. “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” NTWrightPage, Vox Evangelica, 1991,

http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative/.

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