Midrash: Ancient Bible Study for a Postmodern World – Part 1

by Ken Howard

Part 1: The Need for a Deeper Method of Bible Study

A number of you have asked me to expand on comments I made in Paradoxy commending the ancient Jewish method of Bible study and interpretation known as Midrash as well-suited to the post-modern world in which the Church finds itself today: a world in which both science and theology have discredited Enlightenment Modernism’s promise that human reason could arrive at objectively certain, universal truths in all areas of human knowledge, including religion.Inscience, what caused the death of certainty was the developing field of Quantum Physics, including the Observer Effect and the Werner Heisenberg’s infamous Uncertainty Principle. As a result, science no longer seeks absolute certainty of truth but rather increasing verisimilitude (i.e., something approaching truth – by triangling in on the truth through repeated observations, so that errors related to observer bias are statistically reduced.

Meanwhile, theology has come to a renewed realization that our modern attempts to achieve certainty of religious truth through appeals to Biblical inerrancy (conservative) or Biblical text-critical analysis (liberal) will most certainly fall short as well. Both rest on the same flawed assumption that human subjectivity can be eliminated: the former from the reader’s understanding of the inerrant Word and the latter it from the scholar’s critical analysis of Scriptural texts. This could only be the case if the human mind were somehow less fallen — less affected by sin — than other human faculties, a presumption that flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian understand of human nature.

In Chapter 3 of Paradoxy (“Reality Ain’t What It Used To Be”), I suggested that the Church, faced with a similar inability to eliminate human error from Biblical interpretation, needed a method of Bible study that would similarly achieve increasing verisimilitude by counteracting its own observer effect, through a similar kind of triangling in on the truth. Providentially for us, I noted, such a method had already been developed long ago by our Jewish brothers and sisters: a method known as Midrash.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given my own Jewish roots, Midrash is my own preferred method of Bible study.

What is Midrash?

Black Fire and White Fire

As Rabbi Rami Shapiro points out in his eponymous article, the ancient rabbis spoke of the Torah as “black fire on white fire,” the black fire being the printed letters and white fire being the spaces around and between. Both kinds of fire must be read and interpreted if anything like a full understanding of God’s Torah (literally, “instruction”) is to be reached. God gave the Torah without the vowel marks or punctuation that would enable us to pin down a single, absolutely literal translation, so that even the mere act of reading Scripture requires creative interpretation. Since God does not make mistakes, God must intend for us to bring our creativity and imagination to the task of reading and interpreting Scripture.

Multiple Meanings – Multiple Perspectives –Multiple Levels – And It Was Good

Multiple Meanings. As an example of multiple legitimate meanings, Rabbi Shapiro points to Leviticus 19:18.  The most common verbalized reading of this passage is “Ve’ahavta et, rayecha k’mocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). However, it can also be vocalized as “Ve’ahavta et, rahecha k’mocha” (“Love your evil as yourself”). Both are legitimate readings. Both must be considered to fully understand the text.Multiple Perspectives. Midrash also recognizes that each person who reads the Torah cannot do so without bringing his/her own perspective to bear, each resulting in a slightly different understanding of the text, all of which are legitimate. Therefore, the more of the perspectives we take into account, the more complete is our understanding of the passage.

Multiple Levels.  Finally, Midrash recognizes that any passage of Scripture must have multiple levels of meaning – from the surface-level meaning of the literal words, to deeper/metaphorical meanings, to life applications, to hidden mysteries waiting to be revealed.

And It Was Good. To use the language of quantum physics, Midrash tells us that achieving the highest level of verisimilitude about any passage requires us to consider all meanings, all perspectives, and all levels of meaning about the text.  Jewish tradition regarding the giving of the Torah at Sinai holds that while all the people present received the same text, each person present received a slightly different understanding of it based on his/her unique perspective.

By multiplying the number of literal readings by the number of adult men and women present by the number of levels of meaning, the ancient Rabbis arrived at the conclusion that there must be at least 345,600,000 different legitimate interpretations of any letter, word, or verse of the commandments. And as Rabbi Shapiro notes, this figure doesn’t even count the kids.Jewish Pedagogy Values Paradoxy.  Midrash places a high value on the ability to entertain seemingly contradictory ideas without choosing between them.  By encouraging us to seek out and wrestle with the paradoxes of Scripture, Midrash pushes us to transcend our own limited perspectives, with their inherent blind spots and biases, and move towards broader and deeper understandings that are closer to a “God’s eye view.” As Rabbi Shapiro points out, the governing principle in Midrash is “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim, Chayyim,” which roughly translated, means “these words and those words (no matter how contradictory) are both the words of the Living God.”

How is Midrash Done?

The process of Midrash can be remembered by the mnemonic PRDS, which is pronounced PaRDeS, which means Paradise. The four steps of Midrash are:

  1. P’shat (lit. Simple).  Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning. For example, if the Torah says God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, we are not allowed to say God spoke to Moses through an exploding cigar. It is also known as the grammatical level.
  2. Remez (lit. Hint).  Rather than avoiding what appear to be contradictions or textual errors, or trying to explaining them away, this step calls us seek them out as hints of deeper meaning. This is sometimes called the allegorical level.
  3. D’rash (lit. Investigation).  In this step, we use our imaginations (and the imaginations of others) to explore all possible meanings and applications of the text. This is sometimes called the parabolic or homiletical level of Midrash.
  4. Sod (lit. Secret).  Finally, we are called to open ourselves to the mysteries revealed to us through creative imagination of Drash. This level of meaning is sometimes referred to as the mystical level.

Take Leviticus 19:18, for example.  If we were to hold the two meanings in paradoxical tension rather than dismissing one of them as incorrect, we might come to the conclusion that the deeper meaning the passage is that we cannot fully love our neighbor until we learn to love ourselves despite our own shortcomings.

It is interesting to note that in the early Church, the more literalist schools of Biblical interpretation similarly insisted on treating apparent contradictions as hints to go deeper.

As Rabbi Shapiro says, when you bring all for levels of meaning together, “you are in PaRDeS, Paradise.”

But What about Greek?

I know what some of you are thinking…

“Okay,” you say, “It’s all well and good to use Midrash to interpret Hebrew, since it lacks vowel points and such. But what about Greek?  Aren’t Greek words much more precisely written, leaving little room for alternate word readings?”

Good question.

Lack of Punctuation.  There are no commas, periods, or other forms of punctuation. Therefore, a passage like Luke 16:14 could be legitimately be read as either, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and ridiculed him,” or “The Pharisees who were lovers of money heard all this, and ridiculed him.” The first reading condemns all Pharisees as lovers of money; the second only those who loved money. The first could be taken as a political statement: that the party of the Pharisees, as a whole, had become corrupt. The second could be taken as a statement about the morality of individual Pharisees.  Both are legitimate translations. Both might be true.

Yes. Greek words are more precisely written, so on a word-for-word basis, the meanings are significantly clearer. However, there are several characteristics of Koine Greek (the version of Greek in common use at the time the Bible was written) that can give rise to alternate, yet legitimate, interpretations.Multiple Word Meanings.  Just as in English the same word may have different meanings depending on context, the same is true in Greek.  And it is nearly impossible to translate a word from one language into another while retaining all of the word’s various connotations.

Non-Linear Sentence Construction.  Because the Greek language is based on case-endings of words, word order does not hold the same meaning it does in non-case-ending languages like English.  For example, the English translation of 1 John 4:18 is “Perfect love casts out fear.” However, in the original Greek, the words in the sentence can be read in either direction or even both directions at once.  So it also could be legitimately read as “Perfect fear casts out love” or even as “Love and fear are inversely related: The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.”

In Summary, Let’s Not Fool Ourselves

Much is often made of the difference between translation and interpretation.  But let’s not fool ourselves, okay?  There is no such thing as Biblical translation that does not involve interpretation.  All languages are culturally bound.  The idioms, metaphors, nuances of connotation (the double, triple, or quadruple entendres) of one language are more often than not simply lost in simple word-for-word translation. If we are to express the anything approaching a full and complete understanding of what God wants us to learn from Scripture, interpretation is not optional, and to be faithful interpreters of God’s word, we must bring to bear our imagination and our creativity. At the same time, we are not free to use the biblical text merely as a pretext: a mere jumping off point for creative expression or imaginative theological navel gazing. If we to arrive at anything close to an accurate expression of what God is trying to communicate to us through any text, we must never allow ourselves to become disconnected from the literal text.

To summarize, this is why I think Midrash is such a wonderful Bible study: because it keeps us anchored to the Words of God while harnessing our God given creativity and imagination in order to achieve an increasingly complete understanding of the Word of God.

“Midrash” – by Charles Bragg


This article originally published July 23, 2012 on the blog, “Paradoxical Thoughts”