How To: Go Deep with Your Bible Study

Ken Howard | OnFaith Voices By on

Having set forth the principles and the process of Midrash in my last post, I would like to invite my readers to participate in applying them. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll walk through the steps of Midrash with time in between each of the steps for your observations, comments, and questions.

The text I have in mind is very familiar — the “jot and tittle” passage from Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18, KJV). Let’s dive in.

Step 1: Peshat (Simple/Literal)

Since the first step of Midrash is examining the simple meaning of the text, let’s establish the literal definitions of a few key words:

  • Destroy: From the Greek katalu’sai. Literally to dissolve, to disunite, or to break down into component parts.
  • The Law: From the Greek nomon. Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Torah. Literally, Law or Instruction. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures known as The Law (i.e., the five books of Moses).
  • The Prophets: From the Greek propheta. Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Navim. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures know as The Prophets.
  • Fulfill: From the Greek plarosai. Literally to fill completely.
  • Jot: From the Greek iota. Smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. Corresponds to the Hebrew yod, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Tittle: From the Greek keraia. Literally little horn. Often translated as the smallest stroke of a letter (e.g., a serif, a breathing mark in Greek, the dot on the “i” in English). Corresponding mark in Hebrew is unclear.
  • Fulfilled: From the Greek genatai. Literally brought into existence or being.

Step 2: Remez (Hint/Suggestion)

Our familiar exegetical methods tend to assume that a specific Biblical text must have a single, definitive meaning. Therefore, when we come upon what looks like a contradiction or textual error, depending upon where we fall on the conservative-liberal theological continuum, we are predisposed to make one of two choices.

Those of us on the conservative side tend to ignore or rationalize contradictions in order to harmonize them, while those of us on the liberal side tend to discount the authenticity or authority of the passage.

Midrash considers such choices as a false dichotomy and avoids them both. Rather than seeking to avoid or rationalize apparent contradictions/errors or discount the text because of them, Midrash assumes that God meant them to be there as hints to make us dig deeper.

So let’s track down a few of those “contradictions,” shall we?

Within the passage

There are several apparent inconsistencies within the two verses we are examining:

  • 5:17 — Jesus lists only two of three parts of Hebrew Scripture: The Law and The Prophets. The section known as The Writings (ha-Ketuvim) — roughly equivalent to what Christians know as the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the books of Wisdom — is omitted.
  • 5:18 — Jesus lists only The Law, dropping any reference to The Prophets.
  • 5:17-18 — The words translated as fulfill and fulfilled have different meanings. To fill to the full and to bring into existence or being, respectively.
  • 5:18 — The literal meaning of tittle is unclear. We do not know its equivalent mark in the Hebrew and Aramaic with which Jesus and the Gospel writers were familiar.

In the context of the passage

After making a statement that appears to rule out making the smallest of changes to any text, Jesus appears to do exactly that, making them more specific and strict.

  • 5:21-22: You have heard it said . . . that you shall not kill . . . but I say . . .
  • 5:27-28: You have heard it said . . . that you shall not commit adultery . . . but I say . . .
  • 5:33-34: You have heard it said . . . that you shall not make false oaths . . . but I say . . .

In comparison to related passages

In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus appears to go even further in amending the Law, overturning the entire section dealing with kosher food laws.

  • 7:19: Thus [Jesus] made all foods clean.

Examine the passage yourself

You may well find other apparent contradictions, omissions, or errors that I overlooked. If you do, I hope you will include them in any comments you care to make.

Step 3: Drash (Investigation/Insight)

This is your chance to fully engage the passage. Here we are called to use our imagination and creativity in order to explore all possible meanings of the text.

Here are your instructions:

  1. Review all of the apparent contradictions/omissions/errors identified above, along with any you have spotted yourself.
  2. Assume that every apparent contradiction/omission/error is inspired, that God caused them to be placed there as hints to spur your curiosity and imagination, and to drive you toward a deeper, broader, and more complete understanding of God’s word.
  3. Using your imagination and creativity, brainstorm all of the possible meanings of the text.

So take a break from reading this post, and do a little investigation. Come back after you have gained some insights, and we’ll compare notes. After all, Drash is at its best when it is done as communal dialogue.

*   *   *

Ready to compare notes? Okay . . .

What are we to make of the apparent contradictions we have found? Let’s dig into them with imagination and creativity and see how they might lead us deeper and to greater understanding:

“Not one jot or tittle” vs. “You have heard it said . . . but I say.” At first glance, it seems obvious that one of these statements must be in error. But if we assume both statements to be true, how can we interpret the passage in such a way as to make both meanings possible?

  • Could it be that Jesus believed that strengthening a prohibition didn’t count as a change? All of the “you have heard it said . . . but I say” statements make the rule in question more strict. One possible interpretation of the passage might be that in making these prohibitions more specific and strict, he was clarifying and strengthening them, rather than changing them. (On the other hand, this interpretation would not explain his “repealing” of the Kosher laws).
  • Could it be that “jots” and “tittles” don’t mean what we think they do? We tend to interpret these metaphorically, understanding them to mean the smallest article of The Law. But what if we took them more literally? What if we assumed that “jot” literally meant “yod,” the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which before the “invention” of Hebrew vowel points was used to indicate where a particular vowel sound should be made?
  • And what if the word “tittle” referred to a different Hebrew letter or mark that served as a similar vowel pronunciation helper? If so, another possible interpretation of the passage might be that Jesus is calling on people to study even the texts of The Law in a midrashic manner — starting with the most literal meanings of words and text, treating apparent contradictions or errors as hints of deeper meanings and exploring multiple layers of meaning.

Jesus’ progressive omission of the sections of the Bible. What is the significance of Jesus omitting “The Writings” from his first sentence (v. 17), then additionally omitting “The Prophets” in his second sentence (v. 18)?

  • Could it be that the teachings found in The Writings were meant to be taken as less prescriptive than those found in The Prophets?
  • Could it be that the teachings found in The Prophets were meant to be taken less prescriptive then those in The Law?
  • Could it be — taking this a step further, along with Jesus’ “you have heard it said . . . but I say” comments — that those teachings found in the part of The Law often referred to as the Priestly Holiness Code were meant to be taken as less prescriptive than those found in the Ten Commandments?

“Fill to the full” vs. “Bring into being.” Readers of this passage in English detect no difference between the word fulfill in v. 17 and the word fulfilled in v. 18, except for the tense. But in the original Hebrew, they are different words from different roots with different meanings.

In v. 17, the Hebrew word for fulfill means to fill to the full (as in pouring a glass of wine). But in vs. 18, the Hebrew word for fulfill means to have fully created something or to have bought something fully into existence.

  • Could it be that in v. 17, Jesus is saying that his purpose in coming among us was to give the law its deepest, broadest, and most expansive meaning, while in v. 18 he was telling us that at its heart, The Law as given to us by God was not a set of rules etched in stone, but living words deeply engaged in creating the living “realm of God” and not stopping until that realm was fully brought into existence? This would be consistent with the Apostle Paul’s differentiation between the “letter of the Law” (literally, “Grammato,” as in a fixed letter inscribed on a page), which kills the spirit of the Law, and the “Spirit of the Law,” which brings the Law alive with creative purpose (Romans 7:6).
  • Or could it be that Jesus was speaking in v. 17 of his humanity giving The Law its fullest meaning and in v. 18 of his divinity becoming The Law and driving it to its fullest creative purpose in bringing about the realm of God?

Keep in mind that the Drash (or Investigation) that we just completed is, at best, a cursory one. To call it complete would be an overstatement. A good Midrash can go on for weeks, entailing lively discussion and debate, and resulting in a plethora of opinions.

Step 4: Sod (Secret/Mystery)

This final step in the process of Midrash is as much discernment as it is application. In this step we are called to let ourselves steep in the mysteries of God that God has led us to discover, imagining ourselves into them and opening ourselves to where they would take us.

And so I invite you to do just that. Go back if you want and do some more Remez (Hint) and Drash (Investigation). Then sit with the Sod (mysteries) that God has opened up for you through your own creativity and imagination. Try each of them on for size. Walk in each of them for mile or two.

You may be surprised where you end up . . .

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

  • bakabomb

    The concept of applying the processes of Midrash to NT passages is an intriguing one. I’ve always shied away from insisting on one particular exegesis as over against other possible meanings, preferring to try to hold the possible meanings in a dynamic tension — with precisely the same intent as West describes, namely to examine the possibilities thoroughly for whatever insight each might provide.

    Certainly one of the keys to this process is a proper grasp of the meaning of the original language, and West does a fine job of highlighting this need by choosing a difficult passage that includes words that are similar in English but quite different in their original language. It demonstrates the usefulness of both parallel and interlinear Bibles when undertaking this. Nicely done.

  • Zuleykha

    Studying doesn’t improve understanding. It might actually have reversed effect because it fosters the ego.

    Logical and reasonable analysis is of very limited help. It doesn’t have any effects if one lacks of knowledge and if one is biased.

    For example: At one point it was very reasonable that the sun circles around the earth. Logical thinking could not compensate the lack of knowledge. Another example: When we knew only the taste of sour and someone would explain us the taste of sugar, we would always connect sweetness with sour. We were always wrong because we were biased.

    To study really deeply the Bible one must start fighting his ego. Fighting ego is what brings understanding. Meaning one must start to live like Jesus. Never caring for what happens tomorrow. Someone who cares for a life insurance did never understand humanity.

    “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword..” means don’t expect that when you come my way, you will find comfort. My way is fighting comfort, my way is a 24 hours fight against ego. Ego wants comfort and security. My way is the way of trust. Meaning one always finds himself lost in a vacuum. If you are not lost in a vacuum how can you learn to trust?