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 In fact, then word “then” is used to imply that “the old order has been set aside” and has been replaced by a new order in Jesus (Guthrie, 843).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).