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New Covenant as Apostolic Midrash
by Marcus Booker
The apostles, in their textual references, employed midrash as a habit. They generally had no need to explain the original contexts, which were not in dispute. Indeed, they were not engaged in the exegesis of the Scriptures, as if writing modern commentaries. Instead, their purpose was to interpret their present plight in light of history and to thereby encourage and strengthen their flock.The apostles, in their textual references, employed midrash as a habit. They generally had no need to explain the original contexts, which were not in dispute. Indeed, they were not engaged in the exegesis of the Scriptures, as if writing modern commentaries. Instead, their purpose was to interpret their present plight in light of history and to thereby encourage and strengthen their flock.The experience of the brethren (in Christ), as detailed by the apostles, amounts to an extended midrash. Yet their midrash, being neither arbitrary nor unaccountable, consistently extols the new covenant over the old. Indeed, across-the-board their allegories reveal Christ and distinguish between the two covenants. They fit a running contextual theme. As I have noted in the article, “Did Apostles Follow Original Intent?” the apostles employed the history and text of the Law and Prophets to construct a case for the superiority of Jesus Christ. In application to Jesus and contemporary circumstances, they (more often than is recognized) *allegorically* utilized the grammatico-historical meaning of the text. Paul’s eisegetical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar is just one example of this method. Yet, as I will show, accurate grammatico-historical (exegetical) understanding is perfectly compatible with a responsible allegorical (eisegetical) interpretation/application.
But before continuing, I must define midrash.
Midrash is a Hebraic/rabbinical mode of interpretation often assuming the form of metaphor. Quite often, midrash is a teaching or lesson that addresses contemporary needs and circumstances by delivering a legal or prophetic text from the cold and distant confines of its historical setting/context and applying it to the present moment, unto the proximity of contemporaries. It’s usual intent, summarily, is to juxtapose the law upon the heart and thereby remove it from the high heavens, the nether-depths, and the out-of-reach and remote tablets of stone (where it does no good). In this way, it is thoroughly emotional and rhetorical. Midrash typically forms a meaningful link and a fitting connection from history to the present moment. In many ways, it bears a close relation to the English “allegory,” defined by Noah Webster as a device in which a “principle subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances.” Midrash is a heightened application, the revelation of a mystery. It is a practical tool for making past events relevant for today. It takes the form, “This is that!” or “You thought this…, but I tell you that….” Strictly speaking, midrash is eisegesis; it imposes a renewed meaning upon the text, emphasizing the spirit over the letter. Yet it is not inherently an abuse. Nevertheless, it’s usefulness depends entirely upon the inspiration of the rabbi who employs it, whose purpose is to make the text living and active. In this way, midrash is related to homiletics. If the teacher’s ideas accord well with the true spirit of law and prophesy, then his midrash will be apt and fitting. Otherwise, it will be garbage (or a bad, ill-conceived metaphor). Midrash is eminently historically-grounded. Good midrash, while not properly exegesis, is not at all at odds with the literal; it denies neither the original intent nor the grammatico-historical meaning of the text. On the contrary, it depends heavily upon the original context and thence makes use of it. It presupposes that hearers are well-familiar with the history from which it makes its allusions. Midrash actually capitalizes off of this history, all the while elevating it to new heights.
Midrash differs from parable in that parables form a teaching on the basis of a supposed or hypothetical history. The illustrations derived from midrash, on the other hand, have their foundation in factual history.
The examples of midrash is the Scriptures, and particularly in the apostolic writings, are numerous. It would be tedious and beyond the scope of this paper to be comprehensive in listing them. Moreover, it is unnecessary to do so in achieving the purpose of introducing this category into the minds of Scriptural interpreters, so that they may recognize the manifold use of midrash for themselves.
Before continuing, I must make note of what may arguably be the most widespread interpretative mistake both for today and in former times. This flawed methodology has caused unending confusion; it has disrupted the grammatico-historical interpretation of the prophets considerably. It has made the prophetic word both incoherent and incomprehensible in its original context. The mistake is this: reading midrash interpretation back into the original.
Most people, failing to recognize midrash, will hear an apostolic reference (in the form of “This is that”) and assume that the prophet, for his part, had in mind the new application. Interestingly enough, Thomas Ice is not far off in inserting the word “like” in the account of Pentecost, where Acts says, this is *like* what was spoken through the prophet Joel. Where Ice strays from the truth is in thinking that Joel’s prophesy relates primarily to yet-future events (rather than the prospective new covenant). This view makes prophesy into fortune-telling. Indeed, Matthew says, “This happened in order to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘out of Egypt I called my son.’”
By a false view, the casual reader might surmise, from this proclamation, that Hosea predicted centuries in advance what Matthew here relates concerning Jesus. This reader might fully expect to investigate Hosea and find that what the prophet and Matthew have in mind are in every way identical. This casual reader, who believes the Scriptures to be true, would be upset, shocked, and utterly disappointed to find it otherwise. He would be confused to discover the full context as saying, “when Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Yet he would insist very matter-of-factly that Matthew says that this is a prophesy [about the future], and he might attempt to somehow salvage the fortune-teller view. Yet this reader lacks a tool, and that tool is the understanding of midrash. He also has committed the hermeneutical blunder of reading the new back into the old (rather than understanding the new from the old). He has imposed allegory upon the original grammatico-historical (old) meaning rather than understanding the allegorical (new) through the grammatico-historical.
Matthew here makes a midrash. He says, in essence, “There is a nation in this man Jesus. He is Israel, the son of God.” He calls to mind the exodus and proclaims that something resembling that exodus of old is in the works. Yet the casual (read modern) reader, unfamiliar with the original meaning, would miss this point.
The implications of this view are far-reaching, but are disruptive to those who place their view of prophesy upon a false foundation. To ease this shift, it is important not to remove a foundation without erecting a new one. The needfulness of Christ is seen prevalently in the Law and Prophets. Abraham, who often is a figure for God, was to sacrifice his son. Yet the Lord said that he would provide. You may have thought that he referred to the ram, but I say instead that his reference was really to Jesus [Note: I'm using midrash]. Indeed, the ram itself is by no means the only begotten son of God but only a type of he who was to come.
Indeed, there is messianic prophesy in the Scriptures, but not as usually thought. If you look at the following prophesies in their original context, it will be easily apparent: vinegar and gall, the one eating bread with me and lifting up his heel, conspiracy against the Lord and against His Christ, casting lots for garments, etc. These are all allusions to well-known contexts. They are meant to call to mind the meaning of the original and to proclaim that something similar is about to be repeated, is occurring, or has just occurred.
Christ, for his part, said, “Well did Isaiah say of you….” Yet Isaiah *exegetically* speaks of his contemporaries, as is evident from the original context. Nevertheless, Christ remains true to the spirit of prophesy and likens the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in his own time to the wicked of yesteryear, who persecuted and killed the prophets. Inasmuch as his comparison is apt and well-made, it is a good and faithful reference. Indeed, it was precisely that type of brood against whom Isaiah prophesied. Christ’s assessments are accurate. Christ constantly employs this rabbinical method.
The apostles do so as well. Common themes are:
1. comparisons to the wilderness generation. The wicked in Christ’s time are called a “perverse generation” as were their forefathers, who God prohibited from entering his rest beyond the Jordan because they exchanged his glory for the image of an ox. Christ’s disciples, on the other hand, are regarded as those who enter the land with Joshua. Also, the murderous Jerusalem is viewed as Egypt, who receives its many plagues for not releasing God’s people.
2. comparisons to pre-exile Judah who made the temple a “den of robbers,” and who were destroyed by God along with Jerusalem and the temple in which they trusted.
3. comparisons to Judah in exile, who suffer under their captors (Babylon especially).
4. comparisons to promised new covenant which promised victory over adversaries, the restoration of Israel and Judah into their fatherland from the lands whither they were scattered, the reestablishment of the Davidic monarchy and the former glory of the law, the taking away of sins, and the reception of the presence and blessing of God.
Also fitting into midrash are comparisons between Noah and the flooded, Lot and Sodom, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, etc. The apostles employ these people, and the historical circumstances surrounding them, to delineate between the law (and its adherents) and Jesus Christ and his followers. John says, “the law through Moses was given, but the grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The true nature of this distinction (between law and grace) will not be dealt with here, except to say that it is the distinction between condemnation and life. This theme is pervasive.
Midrash, by its very nature, assumes that today is the most important day. Indeed, it is intimately concerned with the concerns of the present moment, all the while in-touch and in-synch with history. It is for this reason that Paul says of the destruction in the wilderness, “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” Paul hereby encourages his hearers in Corinth to be grounded in the moment and to be faithful TODAY. The epistle to the Hebrews make a similar point: “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called today.”
Paul makes a midrash when he says, “it is written in the law of Moses, ‘you shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is he? Or is he speaking altogether for our sakes?”
He does it again when he says, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “and to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “and to your seed,” that is, Christ.”
The apostles, in their textual references, employed midrash as a habit. They generally had no need to explain the original contexts, which were not in dispute. Indeed, they were not engaged in the exegesis of the Scriptures, as if writing modern commentaries. Instead, their purpose was to interpret their present plight in light of history and to thereby encourage and strengthen their flock.
It is to be noted as well that midrash completely destroys the charge that preterist teaching makes the Scriptures irrelevant for today. This charge itself is born out of a non-Hebraic (read anti-historical) mindset. He who makes such a charge isolates himself from the past. Unlike the Hebrew citizen, he believes in his heart that history itself is irrelevant to the present. To him, there are no lessons to learn from the past, nothing applicable to us. Yet, as we know, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, as long as there is midrash (call it whatever you will), there will be countless lessons and applications to draw from past events, not least of all the destruction of Jerusalem and the vindication of God’s holy ones (who persevered amidst affliction).