[For the entire article, of which this is only the last few pages, see John C. Reeves, “Scriptural Authority in Early Judaism,” in Living Traditions of the Bible: Scripture in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Practice (ed. James E. Bowley; St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 63-84].
In order to illustrate some of the ways whereby the Sages interact with a literary corpus that has finally achieved ‘canonical’ status; i.e., the Bible, a few words should be said about the exegetical process termed ‘midrash.’ The Hebrew word ‘midrash,’ often mislabeled a distinct literary genre, is better understood as a type of interpretative ‘activity’—the English word ‘exposition’ perhaps best captures its essential meaning. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of midrash: (1) midrash halakhah, or halakhic midrash, wherein explicit precepts or guidelines for conducting one’s life in accordance with God’s mandates are deduced from biblical discourse; and (2) midrash haggadah, or haggadic (or aggadic) midrash, wherein explanatory comments, expansive additions, illustrative anecdotes, and legendary stories are generated from what are perceived to be pregnant, yet silent, aspects of the biblical text. Common to both categories of midrashic activity—halakhic and haggadic—is its bibliocentric basis: midrash does not transpire in a textual vacuum; the Bible always serves as the point of origin or the ultimate court of appeal for midrashic formulation and argumentation. Hence midrash necessarily presupposes the concept of an authoritative text.
Some actual examples of how midrash ‘works’ may prove useful here. An excellent illustration of halakhic midrash occurs in the initial discussions of the Mishnah in tractate Berakhot regarding the mechanics of prayer, a topic upon which the Bible provides almost no guidance, even though it is a form of pious behavior clearly valued by God. In m. Ber. 1:3, we read: ‘The School of Shammai taught that everyone should stretch out (prone) and recite (the Shema) in the evening, but should stand (and recite the Shema) in the morning, for Scripture says: ‘in your lying down and in your rising up’ (Deut 6:7).’ Since the Bible refers to these two bodily postures in the very portion of Scripture which serves as the first part of the Shema recitation, the School of Shammai concluded that the Bible was hinting how the recitation was to be physically performed: one assumed a prone position in the evening (‘in your lying down’) and an upright stance in the morning (‘in your rising up’). A behavioral norm is thereby deduced from the literal wording of the biblical text.
The very same mishnah demonstrates however that the Shammaite deduction is in fact flawed: ‘The School of Hillel responded, (If your interpretative logic is followed), everyone may recite (the Shema) in whatever posture (lit. ‘way’) they happen to be in, for (the same) Scripture says, “in your proceeding on the way” (Deut 6:7).’ In other words, if at least two phrases of the referenced clause in the verse signify the physical posture to be assumed when engaging in the recitation, it is reasonable to conclude that the other syntactic components of that clause (‘while you sit in your house and during your proceeding on the way’) also encode a similar message. But the messages are in fact contradictory—therefore the opinion of the School of Shammai must in this instance be wrong. ‘If so,’ the mishnah continues, ‘why would the Bible use the language of “in your lying down” and “in your rising up”? (It actually means) at the time of your lying down, and at the time of your rising up.’ The Shammaite attempt to generate halakhic midrash from this verse, although undermined at the level of an overly literal understanding, is in fact affirmed by the Hillelites. The verse, however, does not teach about bodily posture, but instead uses this language metaphorically to serve simply as temporal markers for the occasions of the Shema’s recitation—at the time one normally goes to bed, and at the time one normally gets up.
Haggadic midrash, like halakhic midrash, also displays a heightened sensitivity to the various interpretational nuances of the biblical text. The goal of haggadic midrash, however, is not the derivation of behavioral guidelines; rather, it seeks to probe certain intriguing aspects of the biblical text in order to uncover hidden cultural ‘data.’ For example, in b. Hag. 12a we read: ‘Why (did God name the firmament) “heavens” (šamayim; see Gen 1:8)? R. Jose bar Hanina taught “(the word šamayim means) for there (šam) was water (mayim).”’ According to this Sage, God’s phonetic articulation of the word for ‘heavens’ embeds within it the biblical teaching regarding its original function; viz., to serve as a barrier for separating and restraining the primeval chaos-waters (Gen 1:6). The same source continues: ‘A baraita teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, brought fire (eš) and water (mayim) and mixed them together and thereby made the firmament.’ This is an alternative haggadic explanation for the vocable ‘heavens,’ observing that the primal elements from which the ‘heavens’ were apparently made (fire and water) are still visible as separate vocalic components of the divine designation (Gen 1:8: ‘and God named the firmament “šamayim“’). According to this latter midrash, a careful study of God’s language, as recorded in the Written Torah, may possibly shed unexpected light upon the elemental structure of the created order, a point further underscored by God’s very use of the spoken word to fabricate the physical universe (Genesis 1 passim).
A lengthier example of haggadic midrash can be illustrated from the Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, a Tannaitic midrash keyed to a large portion of the biblical book of Exodus. Therein we read: ‘R. Nathan taught: From where (i.e., from what Scriptural passage) can one learn that God showed Abraham our ancestor (the future events of) Gehenna, the revelation of the Torah, and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds? Scripture states: “when the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven …” (Gen 15:17)—this was Gehenna, for Scripture confirms: “(the Lord) has an oven in Jerusalem” (Isa 31:9; cf. 30:33)—”… and a flaming torch …” (Gen 15:17)—this was the revelation of the Torah, for Scripture confirms: “all the people witnessed the thunderings and the torches” (Exod 20:15)—”… which passed between those pieces” (Gen 15:17)—this was the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, for Scripture confirms: “who split the Sea of Reeds into pieces” (Ps 136:13). He (also) showed him the Temple and the sacrificial service, as Scripture indicates: “He (God) answered, Bring me a three-year old heifer, a three-year old she-goat, a three-year old ram, etc.” (Gen 15:9). He (also) showed him the four empires who were destined to enslave his descendants, for Scripture says: “As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread fell upon him” (Gen 15:12). “Dread”—this is the empire of Babylon; “dark”—this is the empire of the Medes (and Persians); “great”—this is the empire of the Greeks; “fell”—this is the fourth empire, wicked Rome. But there are some who reverse the interpretation: “fell”—this is the empire of Babylon, for it is written “Fallen is Babylon” (Isa 21:9); “great”—this is the empire of the Medes (and Persians), for it is written “King Ahasuerus made great (Haman)” (Esth 3:1); “dark”—this is the empire of the Greeks, for they darkened the eyes of Israel with fasting; “dread”—this is the fourth kingdom, for Scripture says “fearsome and dreadful and very powerful” (Dan 7:7).’
This passage succinctly illustrates the primary way by which the Sages extracted additional levels of meaning from what was ostensibly a straightforward narrative recountal of the cementing of Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God, the so-called ‘covenant of the pieces’ (Genesis 15). As the ceremony unfolds in its biblical telling, Abraham falls into a trance, wherein God reveals to the patriarch the future Egyptian subjection and eventual liberation from that bondage of his descendants (Gen 15:13-16). But just how much of the future did God actually display before Abraham? Surely He did not limit Himself to just the Exodus experience? Since He revealed to Abraham the event of the Exodus, is it not reasonable to assume that He would also reveal His miraculous acts associated with that event, especially the crossing of the Sea and the gift of the Torah? And would God not also show Abraham the eventual fate of those who rejected this gift; namely, the fires of Gehenna? Would God not show the ancestor of Israel the glories of the future Temple on Zion? And if the Egyptian oppression was explicitly signaled, a misfortune that transpires while Israel is absent from her Land, what about the other equally grievous experiences of subjection and exploitation that Israel was destined to endure while dwelling in her promised inheritance when she would be ruled by successive world empires? The quoted midrash demonstrates that such ‘cultural data’ is indeed encoded within the biblical text of Genesis 15, provided the reader possesses the biblical literacy and exegetical ingenuity required to detect it. Certain terms and locutions can be correlated with identical or analogous expressions in the other biblical books to establish a conceptual identification. In other words, an essential presupposition of midrash is the notion that biblical terminology is never arbitrary; it is deliberately polyvalent and consciously intertextual. Any biblical book can be used to interpret any other biblical book, regardless of age, genre, or authorial intention.
The examples of midrash provided above thus demonstrate that rabbinic midrash, generally speaking, is an ‘expositional’ enterprise: there is normally a clear internal distinction made between the text being exposited (the Bible) and the exposition itself (the midrash). This holds true even for later midrashic compilations that appear at first glance to be ‘compositional’ enterprises—works like Pirqe de-Rabbi Eli‘ezer or Sefer ha-Yashar, whose flowing narrative styles exhibit a relatively seamless movement between canonical text and midrash, but without casting suspicion upon the primacy of the canonical Scriptures. This sort of narrative structure may be indebted in part to that of the Targum, the expansive Aramaic rendition of the biblical text, particularly as exhibited among the so-called Palestinian versions such as Pseudo-Jonathan.