In the second semester of my seminary career I took a course on Emergence Christianity led my now Jedi Master, Mike Stavlund. During this course Mike introduced me to the Jewish practice of Midrash. It is hard to believe I went through an entire year of Hebrew Bible without diving into these commentaries. A year after Mike’s introduction I took a course at Virginia Theological Seminary led by Rabbi Elianna Yolkut throughout my time with Rabbi Yolkut I came to realize that a) Midrash should not be limited to use exclusively by Hebrew students and b) most Christians have no idea what they are missing. So I am brushing off my Tanakh and moleskin notes to share with you (some of) what Christians need to know about Midrash.
Rabbinic Midrash was created and smoothed over centuries of rabbinic commentary. Midrash flows from the ambiguity of the Hebrew Bible, and was written as well as accepted by the communities where the texts were written. Rabbinic Midrash were not codified by a publisher and bounded into a commentary series. These writings were produced and edited over time, by the rabbis who authored them and by the communities who used them.
The Hebrew Bible was a cornerstone in Judaism throughout the Temple Era but when the temple was destroyed rabbis needed to assert their rabbinic authority as well as create maintain order within the community. When Judaism moved away from a fundamentalism, the opportunities for scriptural interpretation and application were limitless. Midrash seeks to examine what is missing from the Hebrew Bible as well as provide rabbis who were moving from a sacrificial-temple religion to a religion that was scripturally based. Midrash began as one generations interpretations were handed down to the next, eventually gaining authority that was established by the wearing smooth of the writing by “time and tradition” (Kugel). The purpose of Midrash is to make sense of where Hebrew Bible might contradict itself or makes no sense. According to James Kugel, “midrash is anything but literal – it is often wildly imaginative.” (Kugel)
For the Christian reader who has never read a Midrash (or Christian commentary for that matter) there are three things the reader must be aware of. First, what is redundant or shocking in the text? What sticks out like a sore thumb when reading both the cited scripture as well as the Midrash. Second, what is it about God’s character that is being questioned or explained in the text? Are the rabbis questioning God or affirming God’s actions? Finally, the reader should determine what is actually happening in the text. If the Midrash is about Isaac and Abraham, is the text focusing on Abraham’s actions or Isaac’s role in the story?