On Wednesday, July 26, we will begin a study on Judaism. I have been fascinated with all I’ve learned in preparing to lead this study. What I found most interesting, though, is how the Jewish tradition approaches scripture. The Jewish emphasis is not about searching the scriptures to find ancient answers that speak to life matters for all time. Rather, the focus is more on asking questions about the text in understanding its relevancy for a particular time, or more to the point, for the present time, and to learn how the Divine becomes evident through the text.
While at Annual Conference this summer, I purchased a book written by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso entitled Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks. Sasso states that rabbis interpret a verse from Jeremiah, “Is not My word like…a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29), by saying: “As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings (BT Sanhedrin 34a).
For an example of how this works, Sasso uses Exodus 2:5: “The daughter of Pharaoh
came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it.”
There is the plain and simple interpretation of this verse. It is nothing other than noting the details of the verse—the characters, where it happened, what was taking place, etc.
Another interpretation is to look at connections with other scriptures. The Hebrew word for basket is the same as the Hebrew word for ark. Noah’s “ark” saved humanity from complete destruction and the “ark” (basket) that saved Moses made possible the redemption of the Hebrew people.
A third interpretation is finding what may not be immediately apparent in the text. This is where questions begin to arise about the text. Why would a princess need to bathe in the Nile? One response is that she needed to cleanse herself of her father’s idolatry.
And a fourth way of interpreting the scripture is understanding the mysticism of the
text. What in the text points to God? How is God known in the text? One thought is
that when Pharaoh’s daughter sees the weeping child, she is filled with compassion, a God-like quality.
Pulling all of these interpretations together, then how does the text speak to us in our day, for our day?
The Jewish approach to scripture is more complex than the description I shared in this brief article. But it highlights the importance of asking questions to glean deeper and more relevant meaning. I find this a wonderful methodology of studying scripture, and one I hope to employ more fully.