Midrash is the Anglicisation of a Hebrew word that means “story” or “explanation” and refers to the Jewish literary practice of using a story for illustration, illumination or edification. It is also used to refer to the technique of interpretation of the allegorical imagery that is used in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament; in that sense, it is an allegorical interpretation, or homiletical application, of a text, following the Jewish literary traditions.
Midrash includes the use of types where, for example, Egypt is a “type” of sin or the world, and the Pharaoh, who was worshipped by the people as a god, is a “type” of Satan. Other examples include the Messiah’s vicarious atonement, which can be found in the sacrificial system that God ordained for the Jews.
The Lord’s Supper, too, is rooted in the Jewish Passover, and Christ Himself is the Passover Lamb of God, in whose blood, salvation can be found. Baptism was a Jewish custom to do with ritual cleansing, but its origins can be found in the flood, God’s righteous judgement on sin, and in the drowning of Egypt, (a Biblical “type” of sin) in the Red Sea.
An example of the application of Midrash in the understanding of scripture can be found in the story of Moses. He was forbidden by God to enter into the promised land of rest. He came up to the borders of the land and the Lord showed it spread out before him, but said; “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there” (Deuteronomy 34:4).
In the Bible the Law is referred to as the Law of Moses. Jesus even referred to it that way Himself. Thus, Moses was the personification of the Law and became inseparable from it, in the same way that Jesus is the personification of grace and inseparable from it.
Now by refusing Moses entrance into the land of rest, what God is showing midrashically is that the Law, represented by Moses, can take you up to the borders of the land of rest, but cannot get you in. Moses, remember, was seen in the transfiguration with Jesus and Elijah, so there is no suggestion that he was in any was rejected by God; on the contrary, Hebrews 3 talks of Moses as a man honoured by God.
So his end in the land of Moab, rather than in the promised land of rest, is intended to teach us something other than the literal and obvious truth of his exclusion; that is, that the Law will not bring us into the promised land.
Wordplay figures frequently in Hebrew scriptures. This makes it hard to understand for non-Hebrew Bible students; e.g, “He shall be called a Nazarene” does not appear in the Old Testament anywhere. It is Hebrew wordplay and really means “righteous branch”. We can ignore these things, they are not important. Wordplay is used merely to emphasise a point.
The word “allegory”, or allegoreo in Greek, comes from allos, meaning “other” and agoreuo “to speak”, thus “other speaking”, signifying to speak, not according to the primary sense of the word, but so that the facts stated are applied to illustrate principles. The allegorical meaning does not do away with the literal meaning and there may be more than one allegorical meaning from the one statement with one literal meaning. The use of allegory in interpreting scripture is not meant to replace scripture, but merely to illustrate it. In the absence of literal translation, allegory has no place in Biblical interpretation.
In writing to the Galatians, Paul says;
“This is speaking allegorically…….” (Galatians 4:24) because he is using a midrash on the two covenants, showing that one leads to the bondage of the Law and the other to the liberty that is found in Christ Jesus. To illustrate his point he used an allegory based on the two sons of Abraham; one from Hagar the bondwoman and one from Sarah, the freewoman.
A metaphor (the same word in Greek) is a figure of speech in which a descriptive term is transferred to some object to which it is not properly attributable. Whereas a simile expresses the likeness of one thing to another, a metaphor draws attention to their difference. It is used to illustrate and in the passages that follow it illustrates the difference between real conversion and superficial conversion.
Circumcision was given to Abraham before the giving of the Law. Thus, it is included in the Abrahamic covenant in which all of the faith are partakers. To Israel, circumcision became part of the Mosaic covenant that God made with His people. Just as the Jews derived their cultural and national identification by way of circumcision, so the Catholic and Reformed protestant churches induct infants into their culture through infant baptism. But, like circumcision, infant baptism is cultural, not spiritual.
Paul spelt out what circumcision really means;
“For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:28 – 29).
Jeremiah also had something to say on this subject;
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised– Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Ammon, and Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart” (Jeremiah 9:25 – 26).
Jeremiah doesn’t distinguish between the circumcised Jews and the gentile nations. Judah is right up there with Egypt; they will all be punished for their uncircumcised hearts.
Now circumcision is a metaphor for conversion as it is applied to the unbeliever and sanctification in respect of the believer, and what these Jewish writers are saying is that being converted outwardly means little unless there is an inward manifestation of the fruit of such a conversion. Claims to heavenly citizenship cannot rely on externalities or professions or assertions of faith on the part of Jews or Christians. They depend utterly on the internal work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to what God has done.
Another example of metaphor is John the Baptist foreshadowing the inclusion of the gentiles into the new covenant when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees sent from Jerusalem;
“And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
Here John the Baptist is denying that salvation is cultural, but spiritual. In choosing to say that God can make Abraham’s children from the stones, he is using a metaphor for the gentiles. And of course, that’s exactly what He did. Jesus made the same use of the term in Luke 19:40 when the Pharisees wanted Jesus to rebuke His disciples for greeting Him on Palm Sunday with the Messianic verses from Psalm 118;
“And He answered and said, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!’” And, of course, once again that is exactly what happened.
Peter puts the stones metaphor into context when he writes;
“You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, into a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
Types and Symbols
A Biblical symbol is generally a representation of one thing standing for another, such as the candlesticks in Revelation 1:20 representing the seven Churches being addressed. A Biblical type, on the other hand, is a prophetic representation, where one thing prefigures another, as in Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac prefiguring God’s sacrifice of His Son, Jesus.
The difference between types ands symbols can be conveniently illustrated by referring to the story of Hosea, whose life story is both typical and symbolic of the spiritual relationship that God had with Israel. God instructed Hosea to marry Gomer, a “wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2) and from their union were born three children. The first was a son who was named Jezreel, which means “God will scatter” or “dropping of the friendship of God” and is a name symbolic of the scattering of the house of Israel. The second was a daughter who was named Lo-ruhamah, which means “not having obtained mercy” and was symbolic of the casting off of Israel into the Assyrian captivity. The third child was a son who was named Lo-ammi, which means “not my people” and is symbolic of God’s rejection of Israel.
While the individual names are symbolic, the whole story is a Biblical “type” of God’s relationship with Israel. Hosea is “type” of God, Gomer a “type” of adulterous Israel, Hosea’s putting Gomer away for many days is a “type” of God divorcing Israel for many years and Hosea’s buying her back is a “type” of God’s redemption of Israel through the blood of His Son.
God’s revelation generally consists of a type or pattern, and then a fulfillment of that type. In that sense, Solomon was a type of the Christ, in that he was the “son of David” in the flesh, known for his worldly wisdom, glory and riches. Jesus, the “Son of David” in the spirit, was the fulfilment of that type, and a manifestation of spiritual wisdom, glory and riches.
Other “types” of Jesus in the Old Testament were Joseph, who was betrayed by his Jewish brothers into the hands of the gentiles, and David, the king who ruled the kingdom on God’s behalf. We have already seen that Egypt is a “type” of sin, the Pharaoh a “type” of Satan and the Ark a “type” of Christ. An important aspect of Old Testament history is the laying down of Biblical types and patterns, which are later fulfilled in the New Testament.
Understanding these Biblical types and patterns is important and involves scrupulous study of the scriptures. Misinterpretation of Biblical types led to Israel failing to recognise the Messiah. They had accepted the false interpretations of their leaders relating to prophetic scriptures concerning the coming of the Messiah. Thus, they believed that Israel itself was the suffering servant of prophecy and that the coming Messiah was to restore the kingdom of David.
This teaching fell on welcoming ears and gave comfort to a people burdened with occupation by Rome. But it was not true, being a distortion of what the prophetic scriptures had to say, which was that there was one Messiah, but two comings.
“And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:23).
Paul taught of Christ from both Moses and the prophets. There are two scriptural types of the Messiah, one in Moses and one in the prophets, both of Whom are fulfilled in Christ.
Firstly, from Moses, there is Messiah the son of Joseph, to Whom the “suffering servant” prophecies of Isaiah 53 refer and which are pre-figured in the Book of Genesis.
For example, we see in Genesis that Joseph was beloved of his father (Genesis 37:3), as was Jesus. Joseph was betrayed by his Jewish brothers into the hands of the gentiles for 20 shekels of silver (Genesis 37:28) whereas Jesus was betrayed by his Jewish brother Judas into the hands of the gentiles for 30 shekels of silver.
Joseph’s coat was taken from him and he was thrown into a pit (Genesis 37:23,24) and the Roman soldiers cast lots for the cloak of Jesus and His body was placed in a tomb. Joseph was condemned with two criminals, of whom one would live and one would die (Genesis 40:20-22) as was Jesus.
The outcome of the betrayal of Joseph by his brethren proved to be a way of salvation for Israel and, in the same way, the people of God are offered salvation in the crucified and risen Christ.
Joseph was taken from the place of condemnation and became the ruler of the kingdom of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:40-43). Jesus too, was exalted from the place of condemnation to be the ruler of His Father’s kingdom.
On his first coming Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognise him (Genesis 42:8) and on His first coming, the Jews didn’t recognise Jesus. On his second coming, Joseph’s brothers recognised him and there was much weeping (Genesis 45:1-3) just as at the Second Coming of Jesus, Israel will recognise Him with much weeping (Zechariah 12:10).
Thus, Joseph was a “type” of Jesus, prefiguring the “suffering servant” Messiah and Jesus fulfilled all of the prophecies pertaining to that “type”.
However, the prophets also speak of a Messiah of a different sort, Messiah the Son of David, the conquering king who would restore David’s kingdom to Israel. The Jewish Messiah has to fulfil all of the relevant Old Testament prophecies and many of the prophecies concerning the conquering king Messiah remain to be fulfilled. This Jesus will do when He returns as prophesied.
The fundamental error of the Jews was that they expected the Messiah to be the “Son of David” Messiah who would restore David’s kingdom and establish the prophesied Messianic kingdom. This was the longed for event that was in the forefront of the Jewish psyche and, moreover, it had become the “doctrines of men” and the tradition of the elders.
That is why even John the Baptist sent his disciples from prison to ask Jesus “…are you the Coming One, or should we look for another? (Matthew 11:3)”. So ingrained in Talmudic Judaism was this interpretation that the coming Messiah was to be the Son of David “type”, that even after His resurrection, His disciples asked Jesus “…..are You restoring the Kingdom of Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6).
Jesus dealt with Israel’s error in its expectation of the Messiah when He walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus;
“And He said to them; ‘O foolish and slow in heart to believe all that the prophets spoke. Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter in to His glory?’ And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27.
Jesus, like Paul subsequently, interpreted the scriptures from both Moses and the prophets. From those scriptures he was able to show the disciples that the first coming of Messiah was to be as the “suffering servant”, through Whom the gates of the kingdom would be opened for all believers, Jews and gentiles.
Whereas the “first coming” of Joseph to his brothers brought salvation, the second coming brought peace between them. In the same way, the First Coming of Jesus ushered in salvation and the Second Coming will bring peace.
That, in a nutshell, is the prophetic picture of the Messiah painted in the scriptures of the Old Testament. And it is in this sense of Biblical typology that Israel is the type and pattern of God’s people and the Church is that type fulfilled.
Dangers of Allegorical Interpretation
Midrashic interpretations are meant to supplement the literal understanding, not replace it. The deceiver comes to deceive and he is well able to do so if believers are led to deny a literal meaning of scripture and replace it with an allegorical meaning. This is a great danger and was one to which the Jews succumbed.
As the Jews became more Hellenised, for example, their approach to the scriptures became more philosophical. They began to realise that there was a fundamental contradiction between their philosophy and the literal interpretation of their scriptures. In order to reconcile the two, they began to interpret scriptures so that they meant something other than what they actually said.
Throughout the generations, allegorical methods of interpreting scriptures have been used to enable religious views to reflect the zeitgeist, or the prevailing spirit of the world. In recent years, this lawless practice has reached epidemic proportions, as seen in modern definitions of “grace”, “faith” and other important Biblical words.