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…

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