The Old Testament in Hebrews

One cannot help but be impressed by the knowledge of the Hebrew Bible displayed by the writer of Hebrews.  What is more, he handles scripture in a subtle way which brings out nuances of meaning which are not obvious to the casual reader.  George Guthrie’s article on the Old Testament in Hebrews gives three uses of scripture in the book of Hebrews.  Chain Quotations and Example lists are fairly straightforward, so I will focus on midrash here.

Midrash is a method of interpretation which uses key words to make connections between texts.  These connections are often surprising.  Texts are connected on the basis of similar vocabulary and similar themes.  Guthrie points out that in Hebrews 10:5-7 the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 39:7-9 (LXX) and builds his argument around the words “then” and “will.”  In fact, then word “then” is used to imply that “the old order has been set aside” and has been replaced by a new order in Jesus (Guthrie, 843).

Hebrews 7 does some remarkable things with the text of Genesis.  Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood because he was the “King of Righteousness,” he has no genealogy, and Abraham tithed to him.  He is therefore an eternal priest who is superior to Levi, since Levi was present in Abraham when he gave a tithe to Melchizedek.  I think that if your pastor tried to do this sort of exegesis next Sunday Morning, you might have some objections! Yet here in Hebrews we have a sort of exegetical maneuver which argues Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood, employing a method recognized by Jewish scholars of the day.   Read Genesis Rabbah, 43:6, 56:10 for similar comments to Hebrews.

Midrash-like techniques are found in Paul and Jesus as well some of the apostolic fathers.  If this was a legitimate method of interpretation in the first centuries of the church, why do most Christians reject it as an inappropriate way to read the Bible? Perhaps we do not reject it as much as we like to think.

Frequently midrash is described as a form of intertextuality.  Intertextuality is a bit of a buzz word in biblical studies a the moment, perhaps because it sounds a bit like trendy post-modern literary hermeneutics.  Many have pointed out that scholars who describe their method as “intertextual” are really working with the same sorts of principles as Jewish midrash and are not at all doing post-modern intertextual studies.  This is a valid criticism, although most New Testament scholars will stop short of creating a midrash.  Most of us are content to find the method used in Hebrews.

I suspect that it is the pastor  who “does midrash” as he seeks to explain the text of the Hebrew Bible to a congregation, although I doubt many pastors consciously try to create new meaning from a text by finding key words and connections between texts.  While some may be legitimate, most of the time they do not bear up to close study.

Bibliography: G. Guthrie, “Old Testament in Hebrews,” pages 841-850 in The Dictionary of Later New Testament (Downer’s Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1997).

14 thoughts on “The Old Testament in Hebrews

  1. Having such a short time to discuss the meaning of “the Midrash” in class, I believe it would be beneficial to develop a deeper definition. “The Midrash,” as Neusner states, can refer to a collection of interpretations of a scriptural passage, a compilation of interpretations as in the title of a collection of documents (Midrash Rabbah), or the method of approach to interpretation (ix, The Midrash: An Introduction). Judaism did not use “the midrash” as a method for systematic theology because they do not use the scripture like we do. Scripture but formed a part of the Torah; “they did not write about Scripture, they wrote with Scripture” (x). Neusner goes on to describe scriptures use in “the Midrash” of which I will quote in full:

    “Scripture served as testimony and testament. It accomplished important purposes in the formation and expression of a larger, wholly cogent statement. But it constituted a subordinated and merely instrumental entity; not the court of last appeal and final judgement, not the ultimate source of truth and validation, except-of course-after the fact” (x).

    In light of this, scripture was another tool to develop a moldable faith subject to articulation. The Torah is not set in stone like the ten commandments but is developable by the rabbis which as seen up through 6th century c.e. The Sinaitic experience could hardly be described in Exodus and Deuteronomy when the law was given; the rabbis, through their own unique faith, are describing that experience more and more with each “Midrash.”

    • Keith, you say “scripture was another tool to develop a moldable faith subject to articulation.” I know this is going to be a problem for the modern, western, especially evangelical Christian. Scripture is solid and unchanging, Neusner is saying that the rabbinic method allowed later generations to transform the text to meet the needs of the present generation. This means that the articulation of a new interpretation becomes the *real* meaning of the text. Repeat that every 100 years or so as the situation changes.

      What does that do to the absoluteness of the original text? Is the text of the HB only a “testimony to the truth” or is it the truth itself?

      • The difference in the interpretation of scripture between an evangelical and a rabbi is its purpose and use of scripture. An evangelical uses scripture as the final say in authority limiting the creative exegesis. A rabbi uses scripture as a reference to develop the Torah itself. The rabbi’s midrash is a continuation of the law not just an attempt to state some timeless truths to apply to recent events. For a rabbi, the scripture needed to be renewed and developed; whatever the rabbi drew out of the text was a new addition to the Torah. The Torah grew and evolved, as if the Torah given to Moses was an outline to be developed orally and through letter. Is there anything we can take from this even if it strikes some evangelical nerves.

      • The evolution of Scripture and Scriptural application does not necessarily mean that truth is warped or even distorted. Rabinnic Midrash can ease the application of The Torah but I decline to accept that it could ever bend or null the Truth of the Scriptures themselves. A good way to look at it would be that the words may change or the “surface value” or appearance may change. But the conceptual and idealogical Truths contained within the texts will not change. The western Evangelical may default to saying that changed words are changed truths, but that is too broad a statement to hold any ballast in regards to the interpretation and application of The Word of God.

    • Keith you mentioned that the Tora is not set in stone like the Ten commandments. To respond to this I would like to ask you if changing certain words in the Ten Commandments would change the Truth of the Ten Commandments. If so, which words woud be subject to that? The way I look at it; it is the idealogical and conceptual truth of the Torah, the entirety of the Scriptures for that matter, and the Ten Commandments that hold the sway in matters. I would find it folly to lean heavily on wording for Truth. Granted, I do agree that the words chosen for the Hebrew Bible and the original Biblical Texts is very important. What are your opinions?

  2. I thought you might like to know why Firetrucks are always red:

    Firetrucks are always red because…

    They have 8 wheels and 4 men
    8 + 4 is 12
    There are 12 inches in a ruler
    Queen Elizabeth was also a ruler
    The Queen Elizabeth was also a ship
    Now, ships sail on seas
    Seas have fish
    Fish have fins
    Now the Fins fought the Russians
    Russians are always red
    Therefore, since firetrucks are always rushin’
    Firetrucks are always red!

    As humorous as this train of logic is, it is interesting that, where in today’s world it is frowned upon, it was a popular method of presenting one’s point for Rabbis of biblical times. This is definitely something that makes me wish I was more fluent in both Greek and Hebrew. I have a very logical mind, and I love to analyze things and figure out the connections between them. I love plays on words, and other things that make people try to figure out what the meaning meant. As far as the reference to Levi being in the loins of his ancestor when the tithe was made, and therefore being inferior to Melchizedek, it strangely makes sense. But like P. Long says, that is not something that most, if any, pastors could get away with today.

    • Casey – I know I made the Firetruck analogy to midrash first, but I will try to back off of that a bit by saying that it is just possible that the rabbis understood these intertextual connections better than we do. While I find it puzzling to draw two texts together on the basis of a few common words, it is remarkable how often that sort of juxtaposition of texts creates some sort of illumination of both texts. Frankly I stop short of saying that this method “creates meaning,” but some midrashic exegesis certainly finds things I would have missed.

      The Firetruck poem is funny because there are no *real* connections between the lines; midrash assumes that the connections made are in fact real and (perhaps) intended by God or the original writers (or both, I suppose!)

      • “The Firetruck poem is funny because there are no *real* connections between the lines; midrash assumes that the connections made are in fact real and (perhaps) intended by God or the original writers (or both, I suppose!)” P. Long

        This is exactly the area that I was going to make my comment on. We may frown upon midrash today because we think about the firetruck poem, but it was different for the rabbis back then. They devoted their lives to the scriptures and knew the meanings more back then than we may know now just because of the cultural changes. I do like the part of the Levi tribe being under the Melchizedek tribe because they were in the loins of Abraham and although most people could not get away with saying this nowadays it makes logical sense. God knows who is going to be born to whom. This could go along with the thought that the tribe of Levi was in the loins of Abraham, although we could not get away with that God could because he knows all.

  3. I find Hebrews extremely interesting. I think that the author of Hebrews was a very smart person. For Hebrews to use midrash, to me, must mean that the author knows a bit about what they are talking about and their history. We see so many references to Old Testament scripture or Old Testament stories. I think Hebrews is a very unique book in itself. I do not think that we should neglect Hebrews when we are studying. Some Christians may overlook midrash or not want to acknowledge that method of study, but I think that we should. If you are reading and you do not see it, like me, than we may need to dig deeper. I think it is very interesting to see how the whole bible is one cohesive book, which was written by different people in different places at different times.

  4. FTTE gives a good working definition of midrash; “a kind of interpretive activiy by which the write attempts to apply insights from historical examples of the past to present realities [FTTE 38]. Author goes on to talk about the differences in opinion regarding what constitutes as a midrash, but that its purpose is “to make a text relevant by means of “creative historiography” or “creative philology” [FTEE 38].

    Something that I thought was interesting was that we at NT Christians look at the OT through the lens of “Christology,” meaning that we see the OT as its central purpose is to point us [Christians] to the character of Jesus Christ [FTTE 37]. The importance of Hebrews then, is extremely crucial in one’s understanding of theology, mainly Christology.

  5. The midrash technique used by the writer of Hebrews definitely makes for an interesting read. I believe there are certain ways to study scripture that are more productive. Although, sometimes I would much rather interpret scripture intertextually. Verse 16 of chapter 10 quotes Jeremiah 31 which focuses on the a once-for-all-time sacrifice that results in both the inner transformation of the believer and forgiveness of sins. The writer’s interpretation of this Old Testament passage determined what he wrote. Of course he wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit. So this chapter clearly reinforces the practice of midrash style interpretation.

  6. Nick said “Of course he wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit” This to me is the big difference between what I do in a sermon ( or class room presentation) and the exegesis demonstrated by Hebrews –the writer of Hebrews is inspired by the Holy Spirit, I am (hopefully) yielded to the Holy Spirit and guided by the Spirit, but I can never claim to be *inspired* by the Spirit.

    • I have that on pre-pub. I have used these in the library a few times and they are quite inexpensive in the Logos format.

Leave a Reply