Archives: Bible Commentary

Rehabilitating Aaron

Rehabilitating Aaron

The ceremony to induct Aaron and his sons into the priesthood worried the expositors of the Midrash. It was Aaron who had made the Golden Calf, the worst of all the offences committed by the Israelites in the wilderness. Even though he was Moses’s brother, and stood alongside him in the confrontation with Pharaoh, to give him the high priesthood after such an event seemed wholly inappropriate. It looked, heaven forfend, like nepotism: Moses giving the most important job, after his own, to his brother.

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When a Soul Sins

When a Soul Sins

In biblical Hebrew the word nefesh, which we usually translate as ‘soul’, is often used to mean ‘somebody’ or ‘a person’.
The midrash illustrates the point it wants to make with a well known parable, about a king who appoints two watchmen to guard his orchard. One is blind and the other lame. The king warns them not to steal the fruit in the orchard.

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Moses’s Leadership Challenge

Moses’s Leadership Challenge

The authors of the Midrash were fascinated by the dialogue between God and Moses after the episode of the Golden Calf. They were intrigued by the fact that Moses succeeded in persuading God to forgive the Israelites and give them a second chance, rather than carrying out his threat to wipe them out in the wilderness.

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When Words Defeated Haman

When Words Defeated Haman

The instruction to Moses to ordain Aaron and his sons began with the statement “And this is the thing which you shall do to them to sanctify them…” (Ex 29,1). It is not the most economical use of language and the unusual phrasing caught the eye of the ancient bible interpreters, the compilers of the Midrash. What extra meaning, they wondered, is added by the apparently superfluous words “this is the thing which you shall do”? Why not just say “this is what you shall do?”

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Daylight Robbery

Daylight Robbery

One of the aims of the early biblical commentators was to explain how the biblical text was relevant in their own times. This was particularly important when it came the legal passages of the Torah. The law represented the framework within which one should live; if the law as stated in the biblical text made little sense, or was confusing, then the commentators needed to clarify it. Even if at times the clarification involved ideas not implied in the plain meaning of the text.

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In Praise of Suffering?

In Praise of Suffering?

Lacunae in the biblical text give the Midrash the opportunity to insert its own ideas. Frequently these insertions, instead of trying to clarify the biblical text, reflect matters of concern in their own time. The Mechilta, the earliest commentary on Exodus, attaches an idea to the phrase “you shall not do with me” which is far removed from the plain meaning of the text.

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Suffering for Love

Suffering for Love

As far as the ancient rabbis were concerned the crossing of the Red Sea was an even greater event than the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus had removed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grasp, but as long as they were still on Egyptian territory, they could still be captured and brought back. It wasn’t till they crossed the sea, a barrier that proved impenetrable to the Egyptian army, that the Israelites could be truly certain that they were safe.

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Liberation of the Mind

Liberation of the Mind

The great moment of national liberation, the event upon which the whole of Israelite history depends is the Exodus from Egypt. Yet preparations for this nation-changing event are introduced in the Torah by the seemingly inconsequential announcement to Moses that “this month will be to you the first of the months.”

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The Fourth Plague

The Fourth Plague

According to medieval Jewish bible commentators, the fourth plague suffered by the Egyptians was an invasion of destructive herds of wild animals. Yet Christian, and indeed many modern Jewish translations , believe the plague was an inundation of flies. The disagreement between the two opinions of the plague’s nature is highlighted in the Midrash.

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