Introduction to Messianic Midrash

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At the time of this writing, I am currently teaching through the letter to the Hebrews for an organization called the “Coalition for Torah Observant Messianic Congregations” (CTOMC). Each Wednesday night at 8:00 Eastern Time, we spend about 90 minutes talking about the theme and literary style of this very important letter.

As I prepared for teaching through this letter, I found something remarkable in the text. Something that had evaded me for decades of Bible study. I had to ask myself how something so obvious could have escaped my notice for so long! My conclusion? Because we are all taught to ignore this particular detail through the methodology we are taught.

So, what is this critical detail that will radically alter how we perceive the meaning of this letter?

When we were all brand-new to Bible study, the vast majority of us attended Sunday school classes where we were taught to read the Bible through a special lens. This lens is meant to guide us into a proper perspective on the material, giving us a clear sense of direction as we interpret the text. Unfortunately, what more often happens is that this lens acts like a fun house mirror, distorting the image that is right in front of us, making it barely recognizable. This distortion has several elements to it, so the aspects I mention here may, or may not, sound familiar to you. Worse, they are most often taught subliminally, so we don’t even realize we’ve absorbed them! But I ask you to consider carefully what I describe here, and see if it doesn’t apply in some manner to your own early instruction.

For most of us, our early instruction in Bible studies included the following elements:

  1. Jesus is the whole point of everything in the Bible.
  2. The main reason for knowing the “Old Testament” writings is to identify Jesus through the prophecies included there.
  3. We read everything in the “New Testament” in a very literal manner—the writers of these letters were very precise and didactic in their teaching.
  4. On the other hand, everything in the “Old Testament” must be interpreted “spiritually” (turned into an allegory) so we can see the “real” purpose of the text—to foretell the coming of Jesus the Christ.

Does that seem reasonable to you? Have I said anything you consider erroneous or controversial? I want you to think carefully about that question, because I am about to make an assertion you may find upsetting.

For most of us, everything we were ever taught about interpreting the Bible is wrong.

What? How could I possibly make such an assertion? Well, let’s try stepping through those few points I just mentioned. See them there, a couple paragraphs above? Suppose we revisit them, modifying them so they reflect the standard rules for reading any other historical document?

  1. The Bible contains the historical record of Israel’s interaction with Hashem. Yeshua is only one of the major players in that history.
  2. The so-called “Old Testament” writings record the interaction with Hashem, and knowing the earlier writings well is the key to accurately understanding all that comes later.
  3. During the captivity in Babylonia, the Jewish sages developed a whole new approach to interpreting the Scriptures. This approach included new literary forms like “midrash”, and recognizing multiple levels of understanding that can be applied to any text. Jewish religious writings from the first century and later often make use of these non-literal forms.
    Guess what? What we call the “New Testament” is a collection of Jewish religious writings!
  4. What we need to do is start reading the Hebrew Bible for the literal history it contains, while recognizing the Messianic Writings as being full of non-literal language intended to preach well, but not necessarily be taken in a woodenly literal manner.

If you compare these two lists, you will see that the usual approach to Bible interpretation involves viewing the Bible as a collection of puzzle clues. We are taught to look for the puzzle pieces, and force them to fit the picture we wish them to depict. On the other hand, if we adopt the principles in the second list, we find ourselves approaching the Bible with a completely different outlook. This allows us to stop trying to “find Jesus” everywhere, and we will begin to approach the texts from a much simpler perspective—allowing the words on the page to tell us their tale without forcing preconceived ideas upon what we read.

Stay tuned as we start illustrating the difference in perspective that comes from applying proper principles of Biblical interpretation. Next time, we will start looking at the first chapter of Hebrews together.

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