Midrash is not a term familiar to most Christians, though Jewish people who have trusted in Jesus as their Messiah might recognize the term. My latest book, The Path to the Cross, uses midrash to explain Matthew 1–2. The purpose of this post is to define midrash so that you will understand what is said about it in the upcoming series on The Path to the Cross.
Midrash is an ancient exegetical technique — where “exegetical” relates to the critical interpretation of a text — and it was used by the ancient rabbis. Midrash is based on certain assumptions about the biblical text. According to Charles T. Davis, the ancient Jewish interpreters believed: “The ultimate goal of midrash is to ‘search out’ [from Hebrew darash “inquire about,” “examine,” “seek”] the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.” Davis adds: “Since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.” I make extensive use of this last idea in explaining the presence of five women’s names (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary) in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (The Path to the Cross, chapters 1–3).
Because they believed every word expressed by the Divine Voice had purpose and meaning, the ancient rabbis would earnestly seek connections between various texts of the Old Testament. They did this by comparing texts that seemed to share common themes or similar patterns of events. By their assumptions, such similarity would have meaning intended by God.
James Kugel explains some of the principles of early Jewish biblical interpretation by using the following ideas:
- The biblical text is basically cryptic. It has subtle nuances.
- The biblical story contains a lesson for today.
- The Bible is not only internally consistent, but it also allows for confirmation of the interpreter’s beliefs and practices.
- Questions about the Scriptures may be resolved via a scrupulous examination of the precise wording of the biblical text sometimes using a verse, a phrase, or even a single word.
Of course, the bulk of Matthew’s Gospel is narrative, and his genealogy of Jesus gets it started. Two Jewish experts on midrash say, “In the narrative portions of the Bible, on the other hand, there was always a curiosity about what was left out of the story.” This encouraged informed speculation about the missing facts. They further explain: “There is more to the Bible than initially meets the eye. In each sentence, word, and letter, there was either a direct message from God or an opportunity for the Rabbi to elucidate what God wanted from the Jewish people. Therefore, the text couldn’t just be read; it had to be studied. It could not be perused; it had to be deciphered.” In my opinion, Matthew was encouraging such decipherment by inserting the names of the five women.
Further insight into Matthew’s methods may be gained by considering the methods used by ancient synagogue teachers. Katz and Schwartz describe this teaching by saying that the speaker would display his skill by using a distant verse of Scripture and employing a germ of an idea to connect that verse with the Bible passage scheduled for congregational reading on that day. The audience would be held in suspense to see how the speaker intended to connect the two by some form of midrashic comparison. The germ of an idea Matthew uses to suggest this distant connection is the five woman’s names that he inserts into the genealogy of Jesus. In The Path to the Cross (chapters 1–3), I explain how the distant connections illuminate and supplement the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
As useful as midrash was in illuminating the meaning of the Old Testament writings, a danger always presented itself. Charles Davis describes this danger by saying, “The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the [biblical] text with an outpouring of personal reflection.” Careful use of midrash can lead to profound discoveries in the biblical text, but careless use of midrash is simply the fanciful product of a human mind. At best, midrash is the skillful comparison of Scripture with Scripture; at worst it is invention.
In what may seem like a shift of topics — but is not! —midrash is roughly like the technique employed by some translators involved in publishing English Bibles that are based on the method called dynamic equivalence. The NIV 2011, for example, is very good, but it has a potential flaw. The Committee on Bible Translation says, “The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.]” Clearly, the key word is “experience.” The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess. On a good day, that will make certain parts of NIV 2011 like the positive form of midrash — illuminating and helpful. In less favorable situations, NIV 2011 may be more like the speculative form of midrash. How much guessing is too much?
Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.
 Charles T. Davis, “Midrash,” based on Rabbi Burton Virotsky’s “Reading the Bible.” 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.
 James L. Kugel, “Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation,” The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eds. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2010) 131–137.
 Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 9.
 Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 11.
 Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 22.
 Davis, “Midrash.” 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.
 “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 1.