An Introduction to Christian “Midrash”

The Bible is a conversation. Soon after my ordination, I tried to illustrate this during a sermon by having two Drama majors who were sitting in the pews read out the conflicting statements about faith and works held by Paul and James. A student who was sitting in the balcony of the little college chapel was greatly offended, and took to sending me long, convoluted emails that tried to prove that Paul and James’s disagreement wasn’t really a disagreement at all. He thought that if I were taken through the right series of arguments, I would come to see that they were really saying the same thing. This encounter has troubled me over the years, since I’ve never really understood what was at the root of his fundamentalism. Perhaps he was just tired of the confusion of thought that college brings, when all your old ideas are exploded and you’re left drifting between the vociferously expressed and contradictory opinions of your friends, classroom antagonists, and professors. I remember walking back from a philosophy class during my first year of college, my head spinning with ideas, and saying to myself, “I can’t figure it all out right now — I’m just going to go party.” I dealt with the displacement of my previously held beliefs by seeking oblivion in stuporous, bad-smelling dorm rooms. Can I really claim that this was better than clinging tightly, even angrily, to those beliefs? I tell you this story because I don’t want to sit in judgment on fundamentalists, but the understanding of the Bible that I’m about to articulate is about as contrary to fundamentalism as one can imagine. And because if I truly believe that scripture is a conversation, and a model for Christian community, than I must make space for the Christians I disagree with within that conversation.

The first followers of Jesus didn’t meet in a college chapel, of course. They met around dinner tables in private homes, on riverbanks and lake shores, in graveyards, reclaiming the cities of the dead in a way that was scandalous to everyone else, in catacombs that they dug during times of persecution, and, eventually, of course, in churches. At all of these gatherings, they told stories (some of them very funny), read letters from prominent fellow Christians such as James and Paul, and argued. Many of them were Jews, and they were used to arguing over the Torah, the Prophets, the Histories, and the Wisdom writings, and supplementing these texts with stories. Those arguments and stories were eventually collected into the Talmud, and were read alongside the primary sacred texts, a process that told everyone that it was okay to approach scripture from different angles, to see it through different lenses, and to learn wildly diverse things from it. The poet Alicia Ostriker, in her lovely little book For the Love of God:The Bible as an Open Book, points out that

An extraordinary wealth of alternative ideas and possibilities exists, scattered throughout the biblical texts — ideas and possibilities that either question divine authority, or re-define it, or ignore it altogether…If we remember that the Hebrew Bible was composed by multiple (mostly anonymous) authors during a period of about one thousand years — something like the time between Beowulf and T.S. Eliot — and compiled and edited during another four hundred or so, it is not surprising that scripture is a wildly composite set of documents, and arena of mysteries, gaps, and inconsistencies. We can find in it dogma and resistance to dogma, faith and submission but also doubt and challenge, law and subversion of law, promises of safety and meaning but also assurances of utter chaos. Subliminity, but also comedy. The abstract and the deliciously sensuous. A Father God, certainly, but also hints, here and there, of the Divine Mother who was edited out of historical memory.(1)

The Christian scriptures were, of course, composed in a much shorter amount of time, yet they were composed by people who were accustomed to encountering all of these diverse and jangling voices in their religion, and who had no problem with allowing that diversity into the key texts of the new faith that they were helping to develop. That is why the story of Jesus’s life is told by four Gospels instead of one, why Paul is balanced by James, why the Acts of the Apostles is full of stories of people haggling and negotiating over what was acceptable to the church and what was unacceptable, and why a text as strange and upsetting as the Revelation to St. John got into the canon at all. 

A few years ago, I had the very good fortune of hosting a podcast with Rabbi Daniel Bogard. Every week for forty weeks we recorded a chevruta scripture study of the Book of Exodus.(2) Chevruta is simply the process of slowly reading through a passage of scripture with another person and pausing to ponder, comment, ask questions, express opinions, and tell stories. During that time, Daniel taught me about the Talmud, and about the midrashim found within, those little stories that attempt to explain something that is seemingly missing from the text. Marjorie Sandor describes midrash in this way:

the midrashist would locate a gap, an entrance point, and dive down, metaphorically speaking, expanding the brief episode from within, giving voice to the submerged characters and complexities brimming beneath the unforthcoming surface of a biblical episode. No wonder some midrashim read like short stories, complete with dialogue and scene. No wonder they tend to bring to center stage marginal or obscure figures barely mentioned in the biblical narrative, or reopen the closure of a given episode. At the heart of this exercise in interpretation, in its original incarnation, was the desire to deepen the connections between the ancient biblical text and the urgent concerns of the midrashist’s own historical moment. Nor did these early close-readers see themselves as making anything up, or in any way changing the sacred text. Far from it. For them, Torah was a living thing, a gift of teachings as rich in the unspoken as the spoken. They saw themselves as participating in that gift by making these interpretations, by filling in the gaps for themselves and their congregations.(3)

Christians have never collected our midrashim in any kind of codified way, yet we’ve created midrash throughout our history. Poets have written poems, composers have written cantatas, novelists have written novels, artists have created art, filmmakers have made films, all in response to some question that scripture evoked in them, some lacuna in the text that they couldn’t make sense of, some hint of more meaning lurking behind the words on the page. My approach to scripture is to gather a metaphorical Talmud that includes these different voices, that expands the conversation. I believe that doing so honors the very conversational nature of scripture itself, and offers us a way of encountering the sacred texts with all of our hearts, minds, and souls.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing the midrashim that I refer to when I’m preparing to preach. Often, these are quotes from authors in the contemplative tradition. Often I refer to poems or paintings or movies. In order for these to be as close to true midrashim as a Christian can get, they can’t simply comment on the scriptural text. They have to expand it in some way, to give voice, as Sandor says, to an obscure character, or obscure thought. In other words, they have to acknowledge that scripture is trying to say something to us, in this moment, and also acknowledge that we, ourselves, can say something back to it.


(1) Alicia Ostriker, For the Love of God, p. 3

(2) Lost in the Wilderness Podcast

(3) Sandor’s essay, “The Ram in the Thicket,” was published in the October/November 2018 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, and isn’t available for free online. But you should still check Sandor out at her website.