Midrash Hermeneutics

Pattern, not Just Prediction

The interpretation of Scripture is called hermeneutics. Our approach to hermeneutics will always be influenced by our worldview, our own culture, and the presuppositions we bring to the task.

The interpretations understood by Jewish rabbis like Jesus and Paul in the first century were largely based on something called Midrash. The basic principles of Midrash were listed in the original seven points, called midoth, of Rabbi Hillel.1 Hillel is regarded as the greatest of the Hebrew sages of the Second Temple period and was the grandfather of Rabbi Gamaliel, the tutor of Paul, who defended the rights of Jewish believers in the book of Acts.2

As the Gospel spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, the Church began to lose sight of its Jewish roots. This, of course, proved increasingly tragic for the Jews-the subsequent atrocities perpetuated throughout the centuries in the name of Christ are virtually incomprehensible to the modern Christian who hasn't done his homework.

But it was also tragic for the Church as it abandoned its Jewish heritage and understanding. The increasing influence of the Greek worldview began to redefine Biblical truth on the basis of the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, instead of the context that produced it.

Centuries later, the early Puritans recognized the limitations of Protestant hermeneutics, as did the later Plymouth Brethren who sought a proper understanding of Biblical typology. In the 19th century the Plymouth Brethren tried to construct a model of Biblical interpretation that emphasized typology from the viewpoint of Old Testament foreshadowings of the new covenant. This may have been the closest that the predominantly Gentile Church has ever come to returning to its Jewish roots in the area of interpretation.

In a similar manner, early Methodism, realizing the failures of Protestantism, attempted to restore mission to the Church, and the early Pentecostals tried to restore the charismatic gifts in their attempt to return to a New Testament Christianity. The Puritans John Robinson and John Lightfoot were among the first to recognize the need to restore a Jewish approach to Biblical interpretation along Midrashic lines with its sensitivities to typological patterns.

Since that time, most Judeo-Christian scholarship has generally focused on the Judaic background of the Gospels. This probably commenced with the Jewish Christians such as Franz Delitzche and Alfred Edersheim. Today the trend continues in the work of Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Yakov Prasch and others. Such scholarship is vital.

Pattern, Not Just Prediction

The western mind views prophecy merely as prediction and fulfillment. The Jewish mind saw prophecy as a pattern being recapitulated, where a pattern of events illuminates a thematic replay in the future. The "western" (Gentile) misunderstandings are crucial in understanding the errors of dominionism,3 restorationism, 4 and preterism,5 which continue to confuse current eschatology (the study of "last things").

Among the illuminating warnings are the attribution by Matthew of the return of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus from Egypt 6 to the quote from Hosea.7 There is no rational way to view the Hosea passage as Messianic in the traditional sense. The academic overemphasis on context seems to break down when viewed too narrowly. The answer is pattern, not just prediction. Matthew's allusion to Jeremiah regarding Herod's murder of the babies in Bethlehem is another example.8

The richness and understanding that accompanies the rediscovery of the Midrashic hermeneutic is one of the most exciting aspects of studying the Old Testament.

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.

Romans 15:4

Joseph as a Type

The life of the Messiah was prefigured by Joseph, the son of Jacob, in Genesis.9

As Joseph was betrayed by his Jewish brothers into the hands of Gentiles and God turned that betrayal around and made it the means for all Israel and all the world to be saved, so too Jesus was betrayed by His Jewish brothers into Gentile hands with the same - but more cosmic - result. Joseph was betrayed by his brother Yehuda (Judah) for twenty pieces of silver. Jesus, the son of Joseph, was also betrayed specifically by Yehuda (Judas) for thirty pieces of silver.10 

Joseph and Jesus were both condemned with two criminals - one of whom lived while the other died.11 Joseph was taken from a place of condemnation to a place of exaltation - after a three-day interval - as was Jesus in His resurrection.12 Upon his exaltation, every knee bowed to Joseph as every knee shall one day bow to Jesus.13

Upon his exaltation, Joseph took a Gentile bride - as does Jesus as the Bridegroom. Joseph was not recognized by his Jewish brothers at his first coming, but at the second they wept over him. Jesus was not recognized by His Jewish brothers at His First Coming, but at the Second they, too, shall weep.

Joseph was beloved of his father - as is Jesus. Joseph was despised for his prophetic gift; Jesus was despised for who He claimed to be. Joseph was falsely accused at an unfair trial, as was Jesus. Joseph's cloak was taken as proof that he was no longer in the pit, as Jesus' burial cloak was taken as proof that He was no longer in the tomb.

Coming Out of Egypt

Just as the descendants of Jacob ultimately come out of Egypt, Paul tells us we, too, have come out of Egypt.14 Pharaoh, worshiped as God by the Egyptians, becomes a metaphor for the Devil, the god of this world. Just as Moses made a covenant using blood sprinkled on the people, Jesus, a prophet like Moses, makes a new covenant in His blood covering His people. Just as Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea, Jesus leads us out of the world through baptism, etc.

The failure of Moses at Meribah in striking the rock the second time takes on an additional significance: he was to strike on the first occasion, but not on the second. Had he followed God's instructions more precisely it would have anticipated the First and Second Comings of "the Rock that was Christ."15

In the book of Revelation we see the same judgments against Egypt replayed in the final judgments of God upon a sinful world. Just as Pharaoh's magicians were able to counterfeit the miracles of Moses and Aaron, so the Antichrist and the False Prophet will counterfeit the miracles of Jesus and His witnesses.

The Song of Moses sung by Mirian in the Exodus narrative is sung again in Revelation, where the destruction of Pharaoh and his army are seen as a type of the judgment of Satan and his demon cohorts. Just as Joseph's bones were brought out of Egypt, so the dead in Christ will rise first when we come out of the world at Jesus' return.

The Exodus of Jesus from Egypt in Matthew's nativity narrative fits precisely into the same pattern following the same theme. A wicked king is again judged - this time Herod - and the Messiah comes out of Egypt where he had fled in time of trouble. Here Jesus is pictured as the embodiment of Israel, in much the same way as the Church is the Body of Christ.

Old Testament citations such as "Israel, My Glory" and "Israel, My Firstborn" may now be understood for what they are: allusions to the Messiah.

Approaching Matthew's nativity story from this Jewish perspective, instead of a western one, we can better understand how and why his words as found in the text of Hosea 11:1 apply to Jesus upon the death of Herod.

A Caveat

A serious caveat regarding the Midrashic hermeneutic stems from the misunderstanding and misuse of it by liberal theological writers. The Midrash never uses typology or allegory as a basis for doctrine, only as an illustration of it. Paul's Midrash on Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 16 and the Epistle to the Hebrews as a commentary on Leviticus are two examples.

Thus, Enoch, who was translated before the flood, was "pre-flood" in his eschatology, not post-flood or mid-flood! But we don't base our views on this illustration alone.

It really is a grand adventure, isn't it?

I am deeply indebted to the personal tutoring of Yakov Prasch and his book, The Final Words of Jesus, St. Matthew Publishing Ltd., Cambridge UK, 1999.


  1. R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, UK 1995; Cf. J. Bowker, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature, University Press, Cambridge, 1969; J. W. Doeve, Jewish Hermeneutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, Van gorecum, Assen, 1954. Also, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol 8, pp.366-371; 482f.
  2. Cambridge (Acts 5:34-39).
  3. The view that it is the Church's duty and destiny to take over the world as a preparatory step to the Second Coming.
  4. The view that the Church has "replaced" Israel in God's program of redemption (Cf. Revelation 2:9; 3:9).
  5. The view that the prophecies of Matthew 24 and Revelation were already fulfilled in the past.
  6. Matthew 2:15.
  7. Hosea 11:1.
  8. Matthew 2:17-18; Jeremiah 3:15.
  9. Arthur W.; Pink enumerates over 100 ways that Joseph is a "type" of Jesus.; See his Gleanings in Genesis, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago IL 1922, or our Expositional Commentary on Genesis.
  10. Jesus is in all things preeminent (Col 1:18).
  11. Genesis 40; Matthew 27:38; Luke 23:43.
  12. Genesis 40:12, 19; Matthew 12:40.
  13. Philippians 2:10; Zechariah 12:10.
  14. 1 Corinthians 10.
  15. 1 Corinthians 10:4; Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11-13.
  16. Galatians 4:22-26.