Introduction to Midrash/Parable

As we approach the End of the Age, many things are being restored to the Church, among them an understanding of our Hebrew root and, in particular, an awareness of midrash.

Some Christians feel very uncomfortable with the sudden appearance of the word midrash in the contemporary Christian vocabulary; it sounds like another extra-biblical concept being added onto our traditional Christian heritage.

A Bible word: The first thing to note is that midrash is a Bible word. It is used twice in the Old Testament — Strong’s number 4097 — and is translated as "story" by the KJV, "treatise" by the NASB, "commentary" by the RSV, and "annotations" by the NIV.

And the rest of the acts of Abijah, and his ways, and his sayings, are written in the midrash of the prophet Iddo (2 Chronicles 13:22).

Now concerning his sons, and the greatness of the burdens laid upon him, and the re-pairing of the house of God, behold, they are written in the midrash of the book of the kings. And Amaziah his son reigned in his stead (2 Chronicles 24:27).

The primitive root of the word midrash is darash — Strong’s number 1875 — which literally means "to tread out" and, by extension: "question", "investigate," "seek for," "diligently inquire," "study," or "search out."

For Ezra had set his heart to study (darash) the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10).

Seek (darash) the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near (Isaiah 55:6).

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search (darash) for Me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).

Seek (darash) from the book of the Lord, and read (Isaiah 34:16).

The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks (darash) Him (Lamentations 3:25).

Alfred Edersheim tells us that, in the period following the Babylonian Captivity, the word darash gave rise to the title Darshan, meaning "preacher" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, Eerdmans, 1981, p. 11).

What does it mean? Drawing on these ideas, midrash is "therefore, a study, a homiletical exposition" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible, Vol. 4, Zondervan, 1975, p.222). Indeed, the term Beth-Ha-Midrash (Midrash House) was used for a "theological acad-emy" (Edersheim, ibid, p.23).

There are two types of midrashim (plural of midrash): Halachah, "law," "rule," "tradition," which sought to explain more fully the Biblical law, making application of the principle of the Biblical legislation to particulars; and Haggadah, "narration," which sought to interpret the Bible in terms of ethics and devotion. The latter is more like homiletics in that it seeks to exhort rather than legislate (Zondervan, ibid, p.223).

The earliest midrashim were designed to be told, but were later preserved in written form. They are in the category of Haggadah, whose basic meaning is "storytelling."

A particular midrash can be utilized to take on different meanings for different people and different times, depending on the one giving the midrash, and what viewpoint of Scripture they are trying to relate to the hearers. They can be used for quite diverse situations.

Midrash is intended to teach a moral lesson, rather than an historical lesson.

Wise and Foolish: The ancient rabbis taught a midrash concerning some wise and foolish servants:

Both were given garments, which the wise servants ironed, folded and stored properly. The foolish servants wore their garments at work. When the King requested the servants return the garments, the wise were prepared, and the foolish were not ready.

The application of the midrash was: the spirit will return to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Jesus taught a midrash with the same "wise and foolish" motif, but used it to point us toward preparing for the soon-coming Bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).

Parables: The English word "parable" means ‘a placing beside; a comparison; a similitude, a resemblance.’

In the Old Testament, mashal is used in various ways. It can mean a parable or comparison (Numbers 23:7, 18; 24:3), a riddle or an allegory (Ezekiel 17:2), satire (Habakkuk 2:6), a proverb or a wise saying (Proverbs 10:1), or an enigmatic [seemingly inexplicable] saying (Psalm 78:2; Proverbs 1:6).

In the New Testament, parabole "signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison… It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson" (Vine, W.E. 1978, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Oliphants, p.158).

Parabole can mean a proverb (Luke 4:23) or a parable (Matthew 15:15; 24:32; Mark 3:23; Luke 5:36; 14:7). The word is only used twice outside the gospels (Hebrews 9:9; 11:19) where it refers to spiritual lessons conveyed by a "symbol" or a "type."

Instruction by midrash/parable has occurred from the earliest times. Approximately one third of our Lord’s recorded public teaching is parable.

Jesus used parables (Matthew 13:13-15; Mark 4:11,12; Luke 8:9,10) as a ministry tool to Believers, rather than as an evangelistic tool toward unbelievers.

When the meaning was not immediately clear, Jesus explained the parable to the disciples (e.g., Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13- 20; Luke 8:11-15).

A parable is a form of speech, either a story or saying, used to illustrate a point the speaker is trying to make; a comparison of earthly with heavenly things, "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning."

Midrash and parable both contain a metaphor [ordinary word or phrase used for one thing, and applied to another] and an object.

In studying these, we must take care to understand that the metaphor and the object are not one and the same. The picture is not the reality.

Reality is dramatized in word-pictures, to give us a representation of the truth being expressed.

Jesus used parables to present a spiritual reality in pictures.

A Modern Midrash: Imagine the following scenario which employs two hands, an iron, a decal (transfer), a t-shirt and an ironing board.

One hand applies the pressure to the iron which, supported by the ironing board, applies heat to the decal, transferring it onto the t-shirt. Elohim [one hand] writes [iron] His Law [decal] upon our hearts [t-shirt].

None of this could be accomplished without the solid foundation of His Word [ironing board ].

The second hand in this picture — the one that holds the material taut, or holds the transfer in place — is the hand of flesh.

If the hand of flesh inadvertently comes in contact with the iron, while applying the decal, the flesh will be burned.

Keep the flesh out of the work of God! Do not let it get in the way of God-appointed blessings in our lives. Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made complete in the flesh?

But the flesh is also a necessary part of this midrash, as how could we get the job done precisely, without the other hand/flesh being a participant?

See that this earthly flesh/mishkan [tabernacle for the indwelling of God] is used for God’s glory.

The actual decal is not left on the t-shirt, but the picture of the decal remains, thus we are left with the imprint of what was applied.

This can only be accomplished with the co-operative working of all of the objects: the hands, the iron, the decal, the t-shirt and the ironing board. Without the proper working of any one of these objects, the final task could not be completed.

This modern midrash illustrates the following scripture:

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 10:16).

Summary: Midrash is an ancient form of illustration, used for teaching purposes. Both midrash and parable communicate a single message, urging a decision from the hearer, and they take the abstract [world of spiritual values] and enable the listener to visualize them in concrete terms [reality].

A midrash or parable is an artistic portrayal, a picture of life which tells a story about God, and invites the listener to respond to Him.

The creative illustrations employed by a midrash or a parable will elicit different responses within different hearers.

In the same way, a particular passage of Scripture can take on different meanings and depths for us individually, dependent on where we are in our walk of life.

The focal point of a midrash or parable should always lead us to follow the ways of God, rather than our own.

May God always show us His Reality, rather than just the picture!


"Introduction to Midrash" was published by:
Yad b’Yad Ministries

Questions or comments on this article? Contact the author.


This paper may be freely copied and distributed.
1999 Anna L. (Robinson) Schwery

Yad b'Yad Articles