Midrash: Ancient Bible Study for a Postmodern World – Part 3

Part 3: Drash and Sod – Investigation and Mystery

In Part 2 of our continuing discussion of Midrash, we began to work our way through the four steps of the process, applying them to the “jot and tittle” passage from the Gospel according to Matthew:

Think not that I am come

to destroy the law,
or the prophets:
I am not come to destroy,
but to fulfill.
For verily I say unto you,
Till heaven and earth pass,
one jot or one tittle
shall in no wise
pass from the law,
till all be fulfilled
– Mt. 5:17-18 – KJV

In Step 1, Peshat (or Simple), we established the literal definitions of key words and phrases, so that we could understand what words the Hebrew words for “destroy,” “The Law,” “The Prophets,” “fulfill,” “jot,” and “title” literally meant.

In Step 2, Remez (or Hint), we looked for surprises: seeming contradictions/textual errors that might be God’s hints to us that we must dig deeper in order to seek broader, more transcendent. paradoxical, and/or mystical understandings of the text. We found a number of the remezim (or hints) in the text, both within the passage, in the direct context of the passage, and in comparison to other related passages.

Within the Passage. These include:

  • Mt. 5:17 – Jesus lists only two of three parts of Hebrew Scripture: The Law and The ProphetsThe section of known as The Writings (ha-Ketuvim) – roughly equivalent to what Christians know as the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the books of Wisdom – is omitted.
  • Mt. 5:18 – Jesus lists only The Law, dropping any reference to The Prophets.
  • Mt. 5:17-18 – The words translated as “fulfill” and “fulfilled” have different meanings:to fill to the full” and “to bring into existence or being,” respectively.
  • Mt. 5:18 – The literal meaning of “tittle” is unclear. We do not know its equivalent mark in the Hebrew and Aramaic with which Jesus and the Gospel writer were familiar.

In the Context of the Passage. Despite appearing to rule out making the smallest of changes to any text, Jesus immediately appears to do exactly that:

  • Mt. 5:21-22: You have heard it said…that you shall not kill…but I say…
  • Mt. 5:27-28: You have heard it said…that you shall not commit adultery…but I say…
  • Mt. 5:33-34: You have heard it said…that you shall not make false oaths…but I say…

Compared to Similar Passages. Despite his apparent “no changes” statement in Matthew, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus overturns the Kosher laws.

  • Mk. 7:19: Thus [Jesus] made all foods clean.

Step 3 – Drash (or Investigation)

So are we to make of these apparent contradictions? That’s where Drash (or Investigation) comes in. So let’s dig into them with imagination and creativity and see how they might lead us deeper and to greater understanding:

Not one jot or tittle” vs. “You have heard it said…but I say.” At first glance, it seems obvious that one of these statements must be in error. But if we assume both statements to be true, how can we interpret the passage in such a way as to make both meanings possible?

  • Could it be that Jesus believed that strengthening a prohibition didn’t count as a change? All of the “you have heard it said…but I say,” statements make the rule in question more strict. One possible interpretation of the passage might be that in making these prohibitions more specific and strict, he was clarifying and strengthening them rather than changing them. (On the other hand, this interpretation would not explain his “repealing” of the Kosher laws).
  • Could it be that “jots” and “tittles” don’t mean what we think they do? We tend to interpret these as words metaphorically, understanding them to mean the smallest article of The Law. But what if we took them more literally? What if we assumed that “jot” literally meant “yod,” the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which before the “invention” of Hebrew vowel points was used – along with a few other Hebrew letters – to indicate a where a particular vowel sound should be made? And what if the word “Tittle” referred a different Hebrew letter or mark that served as a similar vowel pronunciation helper? If so, another possible interpretation of the passage might be that Jesus calling on people to study even the texts of The Law in a midrashic manner: starting with the most literal meanings of words and text, treating apparent contradictions or errors as hints of deeper meanings, and exploring multiple layers of meaning.

Jesus’ progressive omission of the sections of the Bible. What is the significance of Jesus omitting “The Writings” from his first sentence (v. 17), then additionally omitting “The Prophets” in his second sentence (v. 18)?

  • Could it be that the teachings found in The Writings were meant to be taken as less prescriptive than those found in The Prophets?
  • And could it be that the teachings found in The Prophets were meant to be taken less prescriptive then those in The Law?
  • And could it be – taking this a step further, along with Jesus’ “you have heard it said…but I say” comments – that those teachings found in the part of The Law often referred to as the Priestly Holiness Code were meant to be taken as less prescriptive as those found in the Ten Commandments?

“Fill to the full” vs. “Bring into being.” Readers of this passage in English detect no difference between the word “fulfill” in v. 17 and the word “fulfilled” in v. 18, except for the tense, but in the original Hebrew, they are different words, from different roots, with different meanings. In v. 17, the Hebrew word for “fulfill” means to “fill to the full” (as in pouring a glass of wine). But in vs. 18, the Hebrew word for “fulfill” means to have “fully created something” or to have “bought something fully into existence.”

  • Could it be that in v. 17, Jesus is saying that his purpose in coming among us was to give the law its deepest, broadest, and most expansive meaning, while in v. 18 he was telling us that at its heart, The Law as given to us by Go was not a set of rules etched in stone but living words deeply engaged in creating living “realm of God” and not stopping until that realm was fully brought into existence? This would be consistent with the Apostle Paul’s differentiation between the “letter of the Law” (literally, “Grammato,” as in a fixed letter inscribed on a page), which kills the spirit of the Law, and the “Spirit of the Law,” which brings the Law alive with creative purpose (Rom. 7:6).
  • Or could it be that Jesus was speaking in v. 17 of his humanity giving The Law its fullest meaning and in v. 18 of his divinity becoming giving The Law and driving it to its fullest creative purpose in bringing about the realm of God?

Keep in mind: the Drash (or Investigation) that we just completed is, at best, a cursory one. To call it complete would be an overstatement. A good Midrash can go on for weeks, entailing lively discussion and debate, and resulting in a plethora of opinions (in fact, the Midrash tradition is probably the source of the old joke that “Where there are two rabbis there are three opinions”). But what we have done will suffice for our purpose, which brings us to the final step of Midrash…

Step 4 – Sod (lit. Secret or Mystery).

This final step in the process of Midrash is as much discernment as it is application. In this step we are called to let ourselves steep in the mysteries of God that God has led us to discover, imagining ourselves into them and opening ourselves to where they would take us.

And so I invite you to do just that. Go back if you want and do some more Remez (Hint) and Drash (Investigation). Then sit with the Sod (mysteries) that God has opened up for you through your own creativity and imagination. Try each of them on for size. Walk in each of them for mile or two.

You may be surprised where you end up…


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