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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

Rabbinic Interpretation

There is a final, crucial assumption of the classical rabbinic world, which is best represented by the Mishnah (codified ca. 200 CE), the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 500), and the slightly earlier Talmud of the Land of Israel, as well as the various Midrashim (commentary or homily collections) from these periods: The Bible is divine speech, and as such should not be limited to the normal rules of human speech. The interpretation of Jer 25.11 in Dan 9 (see p. 473 ES) indicates that this idea, which would encourage extensively creative philology, did not first develop with the rabbis. Indeed, it was greatly fostered already by the creation from various sources of a “unified” Torah. How else but through the assumption that God‐talk is fundamentally different from humantalk can we explain, for example, why the two versions of the Decalogue (Ex 20, Deut 5 ) are different? God, and only God, can speak two things simultaneously! How else can we explain the fact that there “seems” to be a contradiction between various texts concerning slavery, about whether a Hebrew slave may remain a slave forever, or must be released at the jubilee (see below)? Obviously, this apparent contradiction must be reconciled by creative reinterpretation, based on the assumption that God does not use words in the same way we do.

The rabbis, in expressing this assumption, typically insisted that there is a superconcentration of meaning in the Bible as divine word. This meant for them that it cannot be interpreted as a “normal” text which might have a stable meaning; rather, it has seventy (an indeterminate, but large, number of) faces or meanings. Interpretation for the rabbis is like striking a rock with a hammer: Many different types of pieces, each of which is a legitimate part of the whole, are broken off. Also, as divine speech superendowed with meaning, there are no extra words in the text; nor, for some, are there even extra letters— all is significant as the word of God.

Not all rabbis subscribed to these views to the same degree, and it might even be possible to isolate a group that saw the Bible as composed in more normal language. As a result, a tension developed between the desire to take the text at its face value and the desire to see it as overendowed with meaning. This tension continued throughout later Jewish interpretation. Yet all agreed that as a divine text, the Bible may not be interpreted just like any other text. This is true whether the rabbinic comments are found in a Midrash (plural: Midrashim), where they are organized around a particular text, or whether they are found in the Talmud and thus are organized (more or less) according to legal topics.

A particular interest of classical rabbinic interpretation was reconciling divergent legal traditions found in the Torah, and “expanding” the Torah through creative interpretation. This “expansion” allowed ambiguities to be clarified and the text to be contemporized despite its antiquated nature. For example, a Midrash to Ex 21.6 , which states that the Hebrew slave under certain circumstances shall stay with his master “for life,” is glossed “until the jubilee year.” “Life” ordinarily means “forever,” or at least until death; the Midrash, however, is “forced” into this reading, using creative philology, because Lev 25.40 says: “They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.” The Torah, as the unified word of God, cannot contain different ideas of when a slave is released, so it is “obvious” that the “forever” of Ex 21.6 must “really mean” until the jubilee. Again, though this interpretation might seem forced to us, it is almost natural within the framework of a society that reads the Torah as a unified, divine work.

As noted earlier, the rabbis also often extend and clarify biblical laws. Thus, the biblical text states that “work” is prohibited on the sabbath day, and anyone who works has committed a capital offense (e.g., Ex 31.14–15 ). But what is work? The problem is the same as that discussed above in reference to the festival of booths, where Lev 23.40 says that you must “take” certain branches but does not explicitly say what is to be done with them (see p. 471 ES ). In the case of the branches, the context was used to provide the answer, and thus Neh 8.15 suggested that the branches should be taken to build booths, most likely based on the fact that the booth legislation (Lev 23.42 ) immediately follows the branch legislation. Similarly, Ex 31.12–17 , which concerns the general sabbath prohibition, is found immediately after the instruction to construct the tabernacle; the classical rabbis adduced from this juxtaposition that “work” is any type of labor involved with the construction of the tabernacle. This is a reasonable, though not fully compelling, interpretation, which takes the text in its final form very seriously. Not only is every letter significant, but even the juxtaposition of adjacent units yields meaning.

The vast literature of the classical rabbinic period is replete with examples of creative historiography, many of which are based on overly careful readings, what we might consider overreading the biblical text; but of course a divine text cannot be read too carefully. For example, the binding of Isaac opens with the phrase, “After these things God tested Abraham” (Gen 22.1 ). Modern, critical commentators might see the phrase “After these things” as a type of filler, or paragraph marker, but this was an unlikely choice within the rabbinic mindset. This created a problem, since Gen 22 is not obviously, causally related to the previous chapter. Thus, “these things” must be discovered through creative historiography. As is typical, there is no single rabbinic answer to what “these things” were. Various Midrashim, preserved both in Midrashic texts like Genesis Rabbah and in the Babylonian Talmud, create a dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael in which Ishmael boasts that he endured the pain of circumcision at the age of thirteen (Gen 17.25 ), while Isaac was circumcised at eight days; Isaac counters by saying that Ishmael just gave an organ to God, whereas he, Isaac, is willing to give all of his organs to God. It is, according to this view, “after these things,” namely after Isaac expressed his willingness to be sacrificed, that God tested Abraham. Another view creates a dialogue between God and Satan, in which God says that Abraham would even be willing to sacrifice his son. This brings Genesis closer to the dialogue between God and the Satan (adversary) in Job 1–2 ; indeed, it is common for the rabbis to use one canonical story to fully explore the meaning of another. Finally, it is noteworthy that these two stories are not merely silly, nor do they simply “fill in” the details lacking in the story. They both help to explain the major problem of the text: How could a good God make such a request of Abraham?

Although the Midrashic inclination was deeply attuned to the text, its meaning as the Bible, and its connection to the life of community, it accomplished these goals with a certain amount of violence to the context of the text. Thus, many rabbinic interpretations concentrate on the meaning of the individual word and the significance of the single letter (for example, the comments in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah which explain why the Bible opened with a bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), so that the broader contextual story is often lost. The eleventh century saw a reaction against this type of interpretation in the development of the peshat school of interpretation.

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