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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.

Scope for interpretation was increased by the character of the Hebrew language. Not only were the texts (as we saw in the example from the Psalms) lacking in word division and punctuation; they were originally also without vowels. The Hebrew system is based on three basic consonants, and this means that differences of meaning are established by the choice of vowels to go with consonants. Consequently a word stem might be the basis of a noun or a verb, passive or active; according to the vowels supplied it could even signify several different words, which opens playful possibilities for ambiguity or even for punning. Thus the Bible became a “cryptic document,” full of esoteric messages calling for professional decipherers. If necessary, the sage could explain that a word actually concealed or stood for its opposite, so that when Dinah’s brothers speak “deceitfully” or “with guile” to the men of Shechem (Genesis 34:13), it was said that the offensive word really meant “wisely.”

This assertion,” Kugel comments, “reflects the belief not only that Scripture speaks or can speak, cryptically, but that Scripture’s very nature is such that it would scarcely seek to present Jacob’s sons as a bunch of liars. Something else must have been meant….” In the extreme form of interpretation practiced at Qumran the old texts were applied with minute and fanatical particularity to the situation of the sect. Prophecies concerning earlier enemies of Israel were applied to the Romans, and allusions to the Last Days were found in Scriptures to support the view that those days were imminent, and that the Qumran community were the elect who alone would be saved. The sectaries were extremists, but their method was not essentially different from that of more orthodox contemporary sages.

These sages had taken over the job of the prophets; the word of God no longer came from divinely chosen messengers but from the repository of wisdom represented by Torah, which it was now the sage’s job to explore. He was to do this work on the assumption that the Bible was never wrong, never wasted a detail or a repetition, was completely self-consistent, inerrantly prophetic. Of course this meant, whether or not he recognized the fact, that it accorded with the interpreter’s own assumptions, religious, ethical, or political.

Such an interpreter would maintain that the prophet Obadiah, though he ostensibly speaks of the destruction of Edom, is actually foretelling the fall of Rome, which Edom prefigures. For Christians working in the same tradition, the Crucifixion is prefigured in the sacrifice of Isaac. This matter of prefiguration, as I have already suggested, is especially important in the Christian tradition; Christianity, by extending what was originally a Jewish interpretative stratagem, eventually made the Torah over into a quite different book, since its prime significance was in its array of prefigurations of Christian history and belief.

Kugel calls such interpretations as these, in either religion, “ideologically motivated”—but with the reservation that interpreters, though never absolutely free of conscious or unconscious presumptions, remained capable of a disinterested desire to establish the full sense of the biblical text and to account for all its apparent peculiarities. Modern fundamentalist readers of Scripture make much the same assumptions as the interpreters of Obadiah or even of the sectaries at Qumran, and since their books are often huge bestsellers it is reasonable to believe that there is a tradition of hermeneutic naiveté still potent in the world, and not unconnected with strong ideological prejudices.

Even more sophisticated readers continue to assume that texts, especially poetic texts, are cryptic and require explanations that were probably not available even to their writers. It can be argued that an important point about The Tempest is that Shakespeare was dodging the strong colonialist implications of his story, and that Wordsworth”s “Tintern Abbey” should be read not as what it purports to be but as a cover-up for something more important that Wordsworth had reason to feel embarrassed about, namely the French Revolution, which the poem, with culpable craft, fails to mention. I take it that if we dismiss from consideration the sectaries who suppose they can explain Shakespeare in terms of ciphers or Masonic rituals, we still have to allow that in another and more respectable branch of interpretive tradition, strongly affected by Freud, it is still thought proper to seek occult or “symptomatic” senses.

The ingenuity with which this can be done remains one measure of critical achievement, especially among those who resist the reduction of highly wrought works of art to a degree-zero level of discourse, in the manner of some “New Historicists,” for whom a play by Shakespeare is entitled to the same kind of attention as a contemporary sermon or pamphlet. I mean that we continue to practice something like rabbinical ingenuity in the quest for the cryptic. It might be added that deconstruction, with its endless slither of signifiers, and its assumption that texts invariably somehow belie themselves, augments rather than limits the cryptic possibilities.

One difference between the modern and the ancient is that in the earliest instances the interpreter felt free to supplement or even replace the text on which he had fixed his attention, for instance writing conversations between Cain and Abel, who quarrel about the one woman available as a wife, which happens in a rabbinical commentary on Genesis. There was evidently a feeling that the original text, though sacred, was sometimes uncomfortably terse or reticent; or that there was something wrong with it that an alteration or augmentation could put right.

The establishment of a canon, and the development of the idea that every letter and every diacritical mark was sacred, meant that the interpreter had thenceforth to reconcile himself to commentary. This might explain away some difficulty, either by a maneuver of the sort performed on Amos 5:2—by repunctuation or exploitation of the semantic structure of Hebrew words—or (possibly later on) by means of typology (treating an older text as prefiguring a later text or outcome) or allegory. Such methods were well known to the Christian evangelists and Paul; and, with due respect to the experts, they were not wholly dissimilar from the mode of Hellenistic allegory as applied to Homer. (Philo Judaeus, the great scriptural allegorist, was Alexandrian, wrote in Greek, and was familiar with pagan modes of allegory.)

Kugel has decided, in this book, to concentrate not on large blocks of text but on what he calls “exegetical motifs” as the basis of expansions or alterations in the Bible as it was handed down. A small instance of an exegetical motif: Exodus says that the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the Red Sea so that none remained (14:27); yet Israel then saw the Egyptians “dead upon the sea shore.” The rather easy interpretation of this conflict of evidence was that the bodies sank and were then washed up on the beach; and thus was created the often repeated exegetical motif that Kugel calls “Ups and Downs of the Egyptians,” which recurs in other contexts.

Most of his book consists of twenty-five studies of such motifs, and of the changes their acceptance wrought in the understanding of the original text. By these means he hopes to explain what the Bible was in the period he is examining—a time when all the ancient texts were on the point of becoming the Bible. Another of his objects is to show how, despite all the age-old polemics, “rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged out of a common mentality.”

He begins at the beginning, with the Creation of the World, and carries on till the death of Moses, making his points clear by starting each entry with a plain account of the passage under inspection (say, the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 2:4-3:24) and ending it with another summary indicating the modifications of understanding introduced by commentary. For example, what might be called the plain fact of the story of Adam and Eve is that they were told they could eat the fruit of any tree but one, that a serpent tempted Eve to eat of it nevertheless, that she gave some to Adam, and that they were accordingly expelled from the garden. Adam was now obliged to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, while Eve was condemned to painful childbirth.

Sample commentaries from various apocrypha and from Philo, Josephus, and other sources add much to the story: the real punishment was loss of immortality (Adam and Eve, and indeed all created kinds, were to be made, as Milton richly expressed it, “unimmortal”). This doom was passed on to the descendants of the original couple, probably because they inherited sinfulness. The serpent became (and remained) Satan. Eve bore much of the blame for this outcome. The garden (a paradise) continued to exist, either on earth or transported to heaven, and entry to it would be the reward of the righteous.

One sees at once that the biblical tradition rests far more on this augmented version than on the plain version, and that sixteen hundred or so years later the learned Milton developed it in what might be called, though probably not by the Jerusalem experts, a poem that can be thought of as an enormous midrash.2 Kugel’s point is that the elaborated version was basically the work of the commentators. They argued over the concept of what would later be called Original Sin and invented the idea that the transgression in the garden amounted to the Fall of Man. That Satan “took the serpent as a garment” and that through his envy “death entered the world” was now established, though the plain text does not say so. The fault of Eve (“From a woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die”) may have been simply that she was a woman, as Philo supposed; without the stress of desire Adam would have given no offense (a persistent idea, echoed later by Saint Ambrose, and later still by Andrew Marvell, writing about “that happy Garden-state/While man there walked without a Mate”).

So serious doctrines grow out of exegetical finesse. Why does Adam, adding new words to those of God, tell Eve that God had prohibited not only eating of the tree but even touching it (Genesis 3:3)? She repeats these words to Satan. The moralizing Philo explains that the addition was necessary; since all the senses operate by means of contact, the ban on touching would have kept Eve away from the fruit. More subtly, it was pointed out that Satan exploited the extra prohibition in order to show Eve he could touch the tree without dying; and in the course of doing so contrived to dislodge some fruit for use in the succeeding demonstration that he could also eat of the tree without fatal consequence. And so on.

To mention one more of Kugel’s examples: Melchizedec is a mysterious figure in Genesis 14:17-20. After saving Lot from his captors, Abraham goes home and meets Melchizedec, king of Salem, “a priest of God most High.” Melchizedec blesses Abraham, then gives him bread and wine and a tithe of his possessions. That is all we are told about Melchizedec until he is mentioned in Psalm 110 as the founder of a priestly line. Yet no interpreter could accept that the episode was as inconsequential as it looked. There were problems: How could Melchizedec be a priest before a priesthood had been established, incidentally on a hereditary basis that connected it with Abraham, not with this “priest of God most High”?

Josephus, writing in the first century CE, says that not only Abraham but the whole army he had taken to liberate Lot were given food and wine, a kingly gesture. The name Melchizedec could mean something like “king of righteousness”—perhaps that is what he was. Perhaps “king of Salem” meant king of Jerusalem, first of that line also. Josephus has him rename the city, build the Temple, and serve there as priest. A Dead Sea Scrolls interpretation of the psalm, which treats Melchizedec not as the subject of a transient allusion but as the figure set at God’s right hand, makes him a heavenly figure charged with the punishment of the guilty, and possibly none other than the archangel Michael himself.

Probably the most impressive and lasting interpretation is in the Christian Epistle to the Hebrews, where Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, is a priest “after the order of Melchizedec.” On this view it was not a problem that Melchizedec wasn’t of the priestly line; neither was Jesus. So Melchizedec foreshadowed Christ, and his bread and wine the Eucharist. The Epistle to the Hebrews describes Melchizedec as “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” (7:3)

Thus the vague figure of Abraham’s host becomes not only first king of Jerusalem but a perfect type of Christ. It would be hard to find a better example of the imaginative rewriting and transformation of a Torah text. Kugel, of course, produces many others, like the justification of Lot’s daughters for their necessary and virtuous acts of incest; the demonstration of Jacob’s probity in his dealings with Esau and Laban; the wisdom of Jacob’s sons in taking revenge for the rape of Dinah; the conduct of Moses at many puzzling moments, and of the Israelites in making off with Egyptian property.

The passage of time created some ethical difficulties about the interpretation of some parts of the Law, for example the Sabbath prohibitions, the injunction “an eye for an eye,” and the apparently conflicting rules about divorce. These were not dry-as-dust scholarly inquiries, for they bore intimately upon the life and conduct of the entire nation. And the exposition of narrative and the exposition of Law were subjected to the same hermeneutic procedures.

Ancient biblical interpretation,” Kugel concludes, “survives ‘between the lines,’ as it were, of books like Jubilees, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other writings of the period…,” meaning roughly 200 BCE to 100 CE. Some interpretations did not catch on and were forgotten, but others survived, were assimilated, and, without achieving incorporation into the text, virtually became part of the substance of the Bible. Occasional contacts between Jewish and Christian interpreters in the Middle Ages served to reinforce them. The principles supporting them were questioned only with the onset of humanist scholarship at the time of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on sola scriptura—the text and nothing but the text—and a historicism which flourishes in much biblical scholarship to this day. But Kugel is attracted by a rival trend in modern scholarship which demands a new respect for the “pre-scientific” interpreters and their part in establishing the Bible that remains a “great, unitary, sacred corpus,” still central to both religions.

He is of course not the first to argue for a return to the Bible as the product of texts plus interpretation, and as a work that must be thought of as a whole, contributed to by centuries of readers, rather than as an assemblage of books that needs to be broken up so that the parts may be studied separately and on strictly historical assumptions.

Unlike my ecumenical efforts, mentioned at the beginning of this review, Kugel’s arguments would probably not be contested by my mentors in Jerusalem, yet I daresay he himself might allow one to argue that this development in biblical studies has certain secular implications. The tide of secular criticism is at present strongly set against the idea that there can be, even though less rigidly than in religion, canons, in which there is a relation between the parts (a relation perceived by educated readers) independent of the separate historical circumstances of those parts. Such a view is perhaps pre-scientific, but it may be that a new, post-scientific theory of interpretation will turn out to resemble it more closely than it does those theories which at present seek to exclude the kind of imaginative exegesis of canonical texts that this book handsomely illustrates. I mean, of course, those fashionable theories which condemn the study of integral works of art and instead break them down into historical documents that are no different from any other historical documents, interesting, if at all, because of what they reveal or conceal about historically located conflicts of power. So the kind of study represented by Kugel’s book should be of some concern even to entirely secular critics.

  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.

  2. 2

    Golda Werman, in Milton and Midrash (Catholic University of America Press, 1995), has argued that Milton was familiar with midrash, perhaps mostly from a 1644 Latin translation of the eighth-century Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. “[H]is epic is much like a midrash….” (p. 1)

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