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Bible interpretation

Method 3 of 4: Interpreting
the Bible as midrash.

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Method 3. Interpreting the Bible as midrash:

This is a method of looking at the Bible from a totally different perspective. As explained by retired Episcopal Bishop J.S. Spong: 3

"Midrash is the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past...It is the means whereby the experience of the present can be affirmed and asserted as true inside the symbols of yesterday."

Bishop Spong illustrates Midrash by citing four stories in the Hebrew Scriptures which involved a common miraculous theme: the parting of waters in a sea or river:

bulletThe first story is found in Exodus 14:5-28. The Hebrew people were trapped between the Red or Reed Sea and the approaching Egyptian army. Moses cried out to God who parted the sea so that the Israelites could pass in safety.
bulletThe second story is found in Joshua 3:14-17. Joshua was the successor to Moses. He commanded that the ark of the covenant be carried to the Jordan River. As the priests carrying the ark reached the river, God stopped the water and caused it to pile "up in a heap a great distance away." (NIV) The priests found themselves standing on a dry river bed.
bulletThe third story is found in 2 Kings 2:7-8. In the presence of Elisha, Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water of the River Jordan. "The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground." (NIV) At this point, Elijah was taken in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses up to heaven. Elisha was left behind.
bulletThe fourth story is found next in 2 Kings 2:13-14. Elisha picked up Elijah's cloak, struck the water with it. Again, "it divided on the right and to the left and he crossed over." (NIV).

According to a Midrash interpretation, the purpose of the parting of the Red/Reed Sea was to show the Israelites that God was on their side and that Moses could call on him for protection. The purpose of the second, third and fourth stories was to show that God continued to work through his chosen prophets in later times. They also show that the history of Israel is continuous, containing repetitive themes that link back to earlier events.

It is not useful to ask whether the partings of the waters actually occurred. A proper question is:

"What was the experience that led, or even compelled, the compilers of sacred tradition to include this moment, this life or this event inside the interpretive framework of their sacred past?" 4

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Other examples of Midrash:

There are many events in the Christian Scriptures that mirror events that appeared in earlier passages of the Bible and are prime candidates for a midrash interpretation. Some are:

bulletThe guiding stars involved in the births of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus
bulletThe local rulers ordering that Jewish babies be killed, placing both Moses and Jesus at risk.
bulletThe temple experiences of Samuel and Jesus.
bulletThe feeding of 100 men by Elisha and Jesus' feeding of 5000 men plus women and children.
bulletBoth Elijah and Jesus bringing dead people back to life.
bulletThe ascension of both Elijah and Jesus towards heaven.

References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Richard Muller, "Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology," Baker, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. From the "Decrees of Council of Trent," Session IV, and "Dens Theo.," Tom. 2., N. 80 and 81.
  3. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper Collins (1994), Page 8-9. Read reviews or order this book
  4. Ibid., Page 11.
  5. Alan Dundes, "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore," Rowman & Littlefield, (1999). Read reviews or order this book.
  6. Ibid, Page 2.
  7. Scot McKnight, "The Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and what you tend not to see," Leadership Journal, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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