Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Distinguishing Midrash from Historical Realities


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

The Feminist professor, Vanessa Lovelace, defines midrash as "a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line". This approach lends itself well to Jewish mysticism, but it is not helpful for those who employ an empirical, data-seeking approach to the Bible.

Midrash is the rabbinic method of interpreting events that took place thousands of years before Judaism emerged. The centuries-long process of Midrashic accounts began with the redaction of the Bible around 450 B.C. That means that Genesis has a narrative overlayer that comes from anonymous sources dating to nearly 1700 years after the time of Jacob. 

Midrash has influenced on the shaping of the Jewish narrative more than the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider the book of Malachi, written c. 430 B.C., well after the emergence of Judaism. Here it is asserted as "divine revelation" that God loves Jacob but hates Esau (Mal. 1:2). The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to this discrimination against Esau's Hebrew people by stating that Esau was godless and immoral (Heb. 11:1). However, the same writer later contradicts himself by claiming that Esau was blessed (Heb. 11:20).

Both Esau and Jacob were Hebrew, and their descendants were Hebrew. Their lines intermarried, as did the lines of Cain and Seth, and Ham and Shem, and Abraham and Nahor. Though these were brothers, their descendants often were in competition. The Hebrew kinship pattern and hierarchy of loyalties reveals segmentary lineages. The first loyalty is to the lineage of the father and his principal wife and their son, the proper heir. The second loyalty is to the father and his second wife (usually a cousin) and their son who belongs to the household of his maternal grandfather. The third loyalty is to the household and clan of the cousin. A Bedouin proverb summarizes the philosophy behind segmentary lineages:

I against my brother

I and my brother against my cousin

I, my brother, and my cousin against the world.


Knowledge of the social structure of the Hebrew ruler-priest caste explains why many things happened the way they did. However, the midrashim in the Old Testament often give a different explanation for events that took place before Judaism. 

Midrash is characterized by some narrative devices such as famines that drive the Hebrew people into other lands. Famines in Caanan are a device to explain why Abraham went to Egypt and why Noami and her family went to Moab. The rabbis are anxious to disguise the fact that there were Hebrew living in Egypt and in Moab. The earliest known Hebrew clans lived in the Nile Valley, and the Moabites and Hebrew share a common ancestor in Terah, Abraham’s father.

Another device of Midrash is jealousy among brothers. Though the Genesis story does not explain why Cain killed Abel, midrash supplies the explanation that he was jealous. Likewise, Joseph’s treatment by his brothers is explained as an act motivated by jealousy.

Midrash employs the ghastly practice of slavery to explain why Joseph is in Egypt, why Daniel is in Babylon, and why Mordecai and Esther are in Persia. In the sixth century B.C., many Judean noblemen were taken to Babylon, and Babylon was conquered by the Persians who took captives to Susa. These events have been historically verified. Midrash embroiders historical events to convey a theological message.

Midrash tends to point to God or supernatural intervention as an explanation for why things happened. An example is Joseph’s declaration to his brothers: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Genesis 45:5-7)

Another example is Mordecai’s declaration to Esther: “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12-14)

Sermons from countless pulpits draw on midrash to make theological points. An example is Genesis Rabbah, a collection of Jewish homiletical interpretations of the Book of Genesis. Those who attend church and synagogue are more familiar with the Jewish narratives in Genesis than with the actual social structure of the biblical Hebrew.

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