Friday, January 11, 2013

Christian Medrashim

I’ve been reading James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible.” In it he goes through tanach and provides a basic introduction to biblical criticism, which he contrasts with the traditional interpretations. He’s a good writer, and manages to make what is an inherently dry subject, if not exactly exciting, at least very readable. I highly recommend it.

One thing that I found interesting is that, in addition to the traditional Jewish interpretations of the text, the midrashm and meforshim, here and there he also cites Christian exegesis, particularly how episodes in the Old Testament were interpreted to be foreshadowing Jesus.

Akeidas Yitzchak is seen as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus. Yitcahk is Avraham’s son, just as Jesus is God’s son. Yitzchak carries the wood for the korban on his back, just as Jesus carried his wooden cross. The ram was a substitute sacrifice for Yitzchak, just as Jesus was a substitute sacrifice for humanity. The ram’s head was caught in thorns, just as a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head. All these similarities can’t be coincidences, right?!

When the Bnei Yisroel were fighting with Amalek, Moshe stood on a hill and lifted his arms. While his arms were outstretched, they were winning, but when his arms dropped, they began to lose. To keep his arms in the air, he had Aron and Chur help hold them up. This episode is explained by the midrashim as Moshe reminding the people to think of Hashem, which in turn made them victorious. But really, did they need the visual reminder? The Christian interpretation is better. Moshe wasn’t pointing to Heaven, he was making the sign of the cross with his outstretched arms. He even had a follower on each side, just like Jesus during the crucifixion. Moshe wasn’t reminding the Bnie Yisroel to think of God, but was invoking the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, which caused God  to help them win.

It’s fascinating is how plausible the Christian interpretations are. As much or more than many midrashim I’ve heard. Yet I have no doubt that if I had told these interpretations to my rabbeim way back when, they would have been dismissed as, at best, some clever people picking out a few things that they could twist to fit their agenda. But midrashim, those are all the Truth!


  1. All these similarities can’t be coincidences, right?!

    This is actually a great point to pick up on.

    Sometimes of course these things are nothing but coincidence. There are tons of stories and tons of little details out there, and some of those disparate details are bound to match up. It's like the "eerie" similarities between the Lincoln and JFK assassinations.

    What you tend to hear less about of course is the statistically less romantic side - the zillion more details that *didn't* match up. Same thing with "miracle" stories of people getting healed ("because" of davening, etc.) - we don't tend to talk about the 99% who weren't "zocheh".

    But that doesn't mean that the Akeida-crucifixion similarities are 100% pure coincidence either. It would have been completely reasonable for the legend of the crucifixion to incorporate references from the Akeida, since that's the "go-to" Biblical story for making a human korban in accordance with God's will.

    Re: the Amalek-cross "drash", personally I think it's a bit forced, but then again so are most midrashim - and it DOESN'T MATTER! Because the point of a drash is NOT to give pshat! It's to take a preexisting teaching and package it in a way that it can be attached to a piece of text. A "good" midrash is one whose teaching resonates with people, and which has one or more good (i.e. clever) "hooks" onto the text. I actually just posted about this topic if you want to check it out. I'd be interested in your feedback.

    I agree that Christian interpretation is interesting and worth looking at, both in its own right and also because it helps put our own interpretations in perspective!

    Best, AJ

  2. G*3, mea culpa! I should've specified that the post I was speaking of is on my other (more regularly updated) blog:

    1. Should I not have read your other one? :)

    2. No, that's quite alright - thanks for the comments!

  3. Prof. Shaye JD Cohen at Harvard gives a great course podcast in ITune U. The course is called something like "The Hebrew Bible in Judaism and Christianity". Among many interesting subjects the theme of Christian interpretation is dealt with in depth. Very worthwhile listening.