Jewish Interpretation

Jewish interpretation of the Bible emphasizes the commandmentsIn ancient Judaism there were basically three approaches to the interpretation of the Bible, associated with different groups of teachers: (1) The Palestinian-Babylonian school associated with the Pharisees; (2) the allegorizing Hellenistic school as represented by Philo; and (3) the sectarian and prophecy-oriented school associated with Qumran and the Essenes. This article will briefly describe the methods used by the first group, the Rabbis associated with the Pharisees.

The techniques of interpretation employed by these Rabbis are collectively referred to by the Hebrew word Midrash, meaning "exposition." These techniques are very hard to describe or characterize in a few words. The Rabbis would often interpret the text in a straightforward literal sense (sometimes in a very severely literal sense!) but they also employed some methods which we might call imaginative or creative. In general, these methods all involve focusing very closely upon details of the text, and interpreting them in some unusual way, usually by relating them to similar details from remote contexts. I will give four examples to illustrate these techniques:

1. A Rabbi might notice that someone's name is repeated in a narrative, as when God calls to Moses by saying, "Moses, Moses." He will also notice that Moses and some others whose names are repeated are called "perfect" in some place or other. He interprets this word "perfect" in a technical sense meaning "circumcised." He then proceeds to draw the conclusion that anyone whose name is repeated in a narrative must have been circumcised. And so by this train of associations he takes a text in which a name is repeated and makes it into an occassion for talking about circumcision (a favorite topic). The artificiality of this is obvious enough, but the Rabbis seemed to have had a strong desire to relate very word of the Scripture to some commandment, and they seem to have especially delighted in doing this in ways which demonstrated their cleverness or their mastery of the verbal details of the Torah.

2. The words I will be glad and rejoice in thee in Psalm 93:3 are under discussion. A Rabbi notices that the Hebrew consonants which spell "in thee" (bk) have a numerical value of 22 (the Hebrew letters being used for numerals, as in the Roman numerals familiar to us). And because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, he goes on to interpret the phrase as if it might mean, I will be glad and rejoice in that which is written in an alphabet of 22 letters, that is, in the Torah. Again, it is a highly artificial handling of the text, which brings attention to the commandments, and in such a way that a "hidden meaning" is drawn out by cleverness.

3. In the phrase, the fool has said in his heart, There is no God, a Rabbi wishes to identify this "fool" (Heb. nabal) with a biblical character in order to illustrate and discuss such foolishness. And so he asserts that nabal is an anagram for Laban, the brother of Rebekkah, and goes on to talk about the folly of Laban. This sort of treatment of the text takes many forms in the rabbinic literature.

4. A Rabbi wishes to see in the phrase In the beginning God created, a reference to the Torah. And so he interprets the affix be in bereshith ("in the beginning") as meaning "for the sake of" instead of "in." And so the phrase is to be understood, "For the sake of the beginning God created." For the sake of the beginning of what? Not of the world, but of the Torah, which in another place is called "the beginning (reshith) of His way" (Proverbs 8:22). And so the world was created for the sake of the Torah.

Many more examples of this kind of treatment of the text, called rabbinic exegesis, could be given from almost any page of the ancient Jewish literature.

It may be wondered whether such cleverness really played such a large role in the teaching of ancient synagogues as we might think by examining the rabbinic literature. Probably not. It is likely that the preaching and teaching in the synagogue more often focused on the literal sense and then employed what we would call sermon illustrations, in which the biblical text is expounded through imaginary dialogues, parables, legends about the biblical characters, etc. There is much material of this nature in the rabbinic literature also. (1) Legendary stories about Adam and Eve, Abel, Abraham, Moses, Ezra, etc., often served to build a context for interpretation or indicate a traditional application. Much of this legendary lore is very entertaining and interesting. In the following example a legend gives one reason for the creation of Eve. Adam, being created in the image of God, was at first mistaken by the other creatures to be God Himself:

... even the angels thought Adam the lord of all, and they were about to salute him with "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts," when God caused sleep to fall upon him, and then the angels knew that he was but a human being. The purpose of the sleep that enfolded Adam was to give him a wife, so that the human race might develop, and all creatures recognize the difference between God and man.

Once again we can see that the tendency is to draw attention to a commandment, in this case the commandment which prohibits idolatry. Other interesting stories of Adam and Eve which were used in the synagogue may be read here.

Some miscellaneous rabbinic material has come down to us embedded in Aramaic paraphrases of the Bible which were used in the synagogues. One of these, the Targum Jonathan, (2) includes some interesting examples of rabbinic lore. In Genesis 1:27 it reads:

"And the Lord created man in His Likeness: In the image of the Lord He created him, with two hundred and forty and eight members, with three hundred and sixty and five nerves, and overlaid them with skin, and filled it with flesh and blood. Male and female in their bodies He created them."

Here the Targum Jonathan incorporates a rabbinic tradition which enumerates 248 positive and 365 negative commandments in the Torah, for a total of 613. The corresponding number of bones and nerves posited for man is intended to teach that man was made to observe the 613 commandments of the Torah with every bone and nerve of his body.

Miscellaneous lore such as this, and the traditional stories mentioned above, are also included in the term midrash when such material is used in the exposition of the Torah.

Are Jewish biblical scholars of our own day occupied in such fanciful expositions? No. for the most part, modern Jewish scholars use the same principles of grammatico-historical exegesis used by Christian scholars (though of course in ways that are deliberately non-Christian). In fact, the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century were largely indebted to Jewish scholars of the middle ages, such as Rashi, in their "plain sense" exegesis of the Old Testament. But the story-telling form of midrash is alive and well in the modern synagogue. For an example, I will reproduce the following "sermon outline" which was once given to me by a Jewish woman. I do not know who wrote this, because it was given to me as a detached page (signed only "M.N.S."). I have reason to believe that it is from the newsletter of a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Sabbath Pulpit

In this column THE TEMPLE BULLETIN presents a series of Sabbath sermon outlines. This sequence of summaries based upon the interpretation of the weekly Scriptural portion will provide our readers with a series of Biblical lessons throughout the season.

October 19, 1991
"Chosen and Choosing"

The story of Abraham being asked to leave his land and seek out a new place is one which raises a problem for us. It is clear why Noah was the one individual "chosen" by God to endure. "Noah was a righteous gentle man in his generation." The Torah tells us nothing of Abraham and why he had a unique relationship with God. For Christianity, Abraham is "chosen" by God though Abraham was not particularly deserving. This fits wonderfully with the Christian concept of grace. God, because of love, extends a special opportunity for a relationship with some individuals. Judaism, of course, rejects this concept and two Midrashim about Abraham help us to understand how Judaism approaches the selection of Abraham.

I. Finding God: One Midrash tells us that immediately following Abraham's birth, he was placed in a cave. Though an infant, Abraham could walk and talk and so, wandering through the cave he became frightened and asked, "Who is the Master of the Universe that will protect me?" He looked outside the cave and saw the sun. He speculated that the sun must be the ruler of the universe, but when night came Abraham was again frightened. He speculated that the moon must have gobbled up the sun, but in the morning he realized this could not be the case. Through this Abraham came to understand that God was the Supreme Maker of Heaven and Earth and thus even more powerful than that which is created. Abraham's coming to understand this monotheistic theology is what some Rabbis believe was the reason for Abraham's selection.

II. Abraham the Iconoclast: One Midrash tells us that Abraham's father was a manufacturer of idols. Abraham, believing that idols were useless, but being a good son, found a way to teach his father of the uselessness of idols. Abraham brought the evening offering to the idols. Instead of distributing it among each of the idols, he placed it all in front of one large one, destroyed the others and placed a mallet in the hand of the largest. When his father came to see what happened, Abraham said, "The big one destroyed the small ones and took their offering." His father, outraged, said "Don't be silly. Idols can't move or destroy each other." Suddenly his father realized how silly the idols really were.

In Christianity, faith is a gift of God. It comes through grace and one has no control over it. In Judaism, faith comes through reason and Mitzvot. Doing that which makes the relationship between God and the individual real helps one's faith to grow.


Further Study

For further study, the student will do well to familiarize himself with the original sources. The following are English translations of ancient rabbinic literature:

H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah, Translated into English with Notes, Glossary and Indices under the Editorship of H. Freedman and Maurice Simon; with a Foreword by I. Epstein. 10 volumes. London: Soncino Press, 1939. (Pentateuch & Megilloth).

W. G. Braude, ed., The Midrash on Psalms. Yale Judaica series. 2 volumes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

I. Epstein, ed., Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. London: Soncino Press, 1971-87.

H. Danby, ed., The Mishnah. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.

J. W. Etheridge, ed., The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch: with the fragments of the Jerusalem Targum from the Chaldee. 2 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862, 1865.

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews. 7 volumes. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1909-1938.

Some helpful books on early Jewish interpretation of the Bible are:

Jacob Neusner, From Testament to Torah: An Introduction to Judaism in its Formative Age. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988.

John Bowker, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature: An Introduction to Jewish Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

J.L. Kugel and R.A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.

R.N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

T. France and D. Wenham, eds., Studies in Midrash and Historiography, vol. 3 of Gospel Perspectives. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.

The primary sources for study of medieval Jewish interpretation are the commentaries of Rashi, available in several English editions:

M. Rosenbaum and A.M. Silberman, eds., Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Prayers for Sabbath and Rashi's Commentary, Translated into English and Annotated. 2 volumes (London: Shapiro, Vallentine and Co., 1946). Recently reprinted in one volume as Chumash with Rashi's Commentary (Philipp Feldheim, 1985). This is a good interpretive translation that helps readers understand the commentary with a minimum of notes.

Abram Davis, ed., The Metsudah Chumash-Rashi. 5 volumes (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, 1983). Reprinted 1999. A literal "linear" translation with Hebrew and English side by side.

Israel Herczeg, ed., Sapirstein Edition Rashi: The Torah with Rashi's Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated. 5 volumes. (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1998). Gives a literal translation with generous annotations. Excellent edition. See some sample pages of this edition at the publisher's website.

Mayer I. Gruber, ed., Rashi's Commentary on Psalms Brill Reference Library of Judaism, vol. 18. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2004). This is too expensive for most people to buy, but it can be obtained on loan from major academic libraries.

Links to Jewish Resources on the Web


1. Louis Ginzberg has extracted many such legends from the rabbinic literature and presented them in English in his 7-volume anthology, The Legends of the Jews (1938).

2. Although this targum is erroneously attributed to Jonathan Ben Uzziel, a Rabbi of the first century A.D., the Midrashic material in it is generally agreed to be from that era, and typical of Palestinian targums of the time. The English translation here is taken from J. W. Etheridge, ed., The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel On the Pentateuch With The Fragments of the Jerusalem Targum From the Chaldee (1862)