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The Midrash Mishmash

The Bible As It Was

by James L. Kugel
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 680 pp., $35.00

The interpretation of Scripture, as practiced by learned rabbis from the first century of the present era, is called midrash. Midrash concerned with the Law was called Midrash Halacha; the other kind, which dealt with nonlegal parts of the Bible, was called Midrash Haggadah. The terms are properly used only for rabbinical interpretation after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the earliest extant examples date from the second century; but the haggadic way of interpreting had roots deeper in the past. Some scholars refer to these earlier interpretative practices as “proto-midrash.”

Both midrash and proto-midrash were imaginative ways of updating, enhancing, augmenting, explaining, and justifying the sacred text, which was often obscure or contradictory or ambivalent or troubling. What the passage of time had made unintelligible or offensive could be rewritten in conformity with later ethical standards and notions of plausibility. In one form or another midrash did much to shape the Bible, including the New Testament, as we have it.

Some years ago I was bold enough to take part in a discussion of midrash at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I wanted to understand how this fascinating and complex mode of biblical commentary might be related, in its methods and assumptions, to other types of exegesis and interpretation—whether it was possible to speak of some general conditions applying to them all. Was there, for example, anything in common between midrash and Hellenistic commentary, and, more important, was there any sort of resemblance between rabbinical and modern ingenuities, such as William Empson’s analyses of ambiguities and complex words?

But I was told right away, kindly but firmly, that midrash—and the concept can be extended to include Jewish interpretative methods that anticipated midrash as it was practiced after 70 CE, or were in spirit like midrash, without exactly answering the stricter definitions—is literally incomparable. It is like nothing else whatever. Its combination of imaginative freedom and pious restraint, its variety, even its humor, are unique. Midrash is, as James Kugel has written, “an overwhelmingly broad field of inquiry, for at heart midrash is nothing less than the foundation stone of rabbinical Judaism, and it is as diverse as Jewish creativity itself.”1

James Kugel has dedicated his new book to a study of the transformation of the Hebrew Bible by midrashic interventions, concentrating on the state of the Bible at a particular period, “roughly speaking, from about 200 BCE through the first century or so CE.” He draws his evidence from many sources: the Septuagint (the third-century BCE Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, made by Hellenized Jews, which differs in many respects from the original and includes interpretations and additions); the Dead Sea Scrolls; some apocryphal works like Jubilees; the New Testament; the Jewish historian Josephus; and the Targums, or Aramaic versions of Scripture.

One gets a clear idea of his method from the earlier study I have just quoted. Kugel there offered a peculiarly neat instance of the midrashist at work. Psalm 145, a psalm in praise of the Lord, his glory, his kingdom, and his mercy, is alphabetical—each line or group of lines begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet; but the sequence is broken by the omission of the letter N. The reasonable explanation that a verse or group of verses simply got lost in transmission was not of the kind that the rabbis were likely to consider. Instead some rabbis argued that the letter N was excluded from the psalm because it is the first letter of a very dark verse of the prophet Amos, which prophesies the fall of Israel, here represented as the Virgin (“The Virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise…there is none to raise her up,” Amos 5:2). David, it seems, had advance knowledge of this prophecy, which was made in the eighth century BCE, roughly two hundred years after he died, and felt that it had no place in the context of his psalm; so he omitted the letter N, and in the next verse as it were cancelled Amos in advance by declaring that the Lord will lift up all that fall.

Kugel calls this “wonderful midrash,” not least because it presupposes the unity and timelessness of all Scripture, so allowing the verse to be read as applying directly to any present state of Judaism, a main object of midrash being this perpetual aggiornamento of Scripture. He then describes another rabbinical way of dealing with Amos’ pessimistic verse, namely resourceful punctuation. The texts under examination were not punctuated at all, so the prophecy of Amos, usually read as “she has fallen and will no more rise, the virgin of Israel,” could be read as saying “She has fallen and will no more; rise, O virgin of Israel.” This solution presented an apparent grammatical difficulty, in that the word meaning “rise” could not properly be read as a feminine imperative. But the problem was got over “by repronouncing the same words in such a way as to get them to say exactly the opposite of what Amos intended.” What Amos did intend is evident enough from the context, since he goes on to elaborate his lament for Israel’s fall. But this kind of interpretation is not about context, however plain and ostentatious; it is about something hidden between the lines or behind the words, something cryptic that must be there and has to be researched.

For here, as everywhere, the rabbis got at the truth by “searching,” which is the root sense of the word “midrash.” There is a kind of humor in their procedures, as well as a desperate hope. Their promise, Kugel writes, was that “divine words have an existence independent of circumstance and immediate intention,” and must be applicable to whatever the situation of Israel may be, rather than to the historical circumstances under which they were written.

Since the revised reading of Amos has a joke-like structure, Kugel is reminded of the old Latin teacher’s trick sentence: Mea mater sus est mala may seem to mean “My mother is a bad sow,” but the right interpretation has to be “Go, Mother, the pig is eating the apples.” At the heart of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, Miles offers a more tortured instance of the schoolroom Latin joke: Malo malo malo malo, “I would rather be/ Up an apple tree/Than a naughty boy/In adversity.” Of course the meaning of malo upmost in the mind is “evil,” as in the Lord’s Prayer: Libera nos a malo, “Deliver us from evil.” But we can’t avoid catching in this fundamentally trivial line the other associated senses of malo: “I prefer” (the choosing of evil) and the apple tree which provided the fatally chosen fruit.

The point is that, as Kugel remarks, “there is often something a bit joking about midrash,” and the joking is founded on

the dissonance between the religion of the Rabbis and the Book from which it is supposed to be derived—and…more precisely the dissonance between that book’s supposedly unitary and harmonious message and its actually fragmentary and inconsistent components. Midrash…is thus bound to be at the same time somewhat ironic and yet terribly in earnest. Qum betulat yisra’el [Rise, Virgin of Israel] is indeed amusing, the gallows humor of the prisoner of the Text; and it is the heartfelt hope of a people.

It might seem that only their precarious historical situation, their need for saving interpretations, however desperate, distinguishes the rabbis’ manipulation of Hebrew from the manipulation of Latin in Britten’s libretto, or from the ingenuities required by William Empson’s ambiguity types. But this is just the sort of inference that my mentors in Jerusalem declared irrelevant. I think I can infer from his new book that James Kugel, their equal in learning, might be more permissive. However, his concern is less with modern interpretative practices than with the progressive transformation of the Bible, by supplementary comment and revision, into what it became in the last centuries before, and the first century after, the change of eras.

The process had begun long before the text had reached its final form. Already in the period following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon during the late sixth and early fifth century BCE, the Scriptures had been revised and augmented. Interpretation involved not only the explanation of difficult words or apparently unacceptable senses and the resolution of apparent contradictions, but also the addition of what might appear to have been suggested though for some reason omitted from the Bible as it had come down. These elaborations and explanations intruded, over the years, into the text of the Bible; some that did not do so survived in later writings that were not admitted into the canon, but that still influenced the interpretation of Scripture and continue even now to affect our notions of what the Bible is about. In other words, the sense of the Bible was continually changed by its expert readers. Since it was regarded as a whole, interpretation might involve the bringing together of verses remote from one another in the text and in time (as in the collocation of Amos and the psalm). The assumption that the Bible was timeless, a seamless garment, persisted far into the Christian era, as one sees from George Herbert’s poem “The Holy Scriptures”:

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie…

Certainly this idea was commonplace in the period Kugel is concerned with. It has complex and sometimes apparently contradictory implications; for example it was made consistent with the idea that earlier incidents could be prefigurative of later ones, a theory well known to the rabbis but intensively developed by the Christians in the same period and later, for example in the development of the Passion narratives from Old Testament types and prophecies. In the period Kugel is talking about, there were natural affinities between Jewish and Christian assumptions about interpretation.

It was this interpreted Bible—not just the stories, prophecies, and laws themselves, but these texts as they had, by now, been interpreted and explained for centuries—that came to stand at the very center of Judaism and Christianity.

Kugel’s aim is to show what the interpreted Bible was at this critical period. As we have seen, the habits of interpretation that shaped it had been formed long before, after the return in the sixth century from the Babylonian exile, but they were by now much developed. Both rabbinical and Christian interpretative lore, here reconstructed mostly from apocryphal writings (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), had achieved levels of extraordinary subtlety and freedom.

Much has been written by others, for instance Geza Vermes, in Jesus the Jew (1973) and Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (1961) and Michael Fishbone in Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, about the initial family likeness of Christian and Judaic interpretation. The paths were later to diverge, but Kugel’s conviction that an understanding of the history and tradition of the Bible as one of continuous rewriting is echoed in some modern Christian scholarship, such as that of Brevard Childs, author of Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979). Kugel argues that to see the Bible in this light is more important than to try to get back to what it originally was or may have been before all the redactions and interpretations began. He has concentrated on a relatively brief period because it is reasonably accessible and because by that time the events of the Pentateuch called for more explanation than they might have done earlier. The world was different: old enemies—Assyria, Chaldea, Babylon, Syria—no longer threatened, and Palestine, like most of the world, was under Roman rule. Social and political institutions, and the language itself, had changed. In 70 CE Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and Judaism was more than ever the religion of a book, its text ever more passionately studied.

  1. 1

    James L. Kugel, “Two Introductions to Midrash,” in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, editors, Midrash and Literature (Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 77-103, p. 92.

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