"Wisdom is granted by God to him who already possesses knowledge, not to the ignorant."
"The Bible, or written law, contains unexplained passages and hidden sentences, which can not be fully understood without the help of the oral law."
AMONG the thousand odds and ends of wisdom and fantasy stored up for us within the Midrash is the statement that all of the Jewish law would have been written out for the people, as was the Torah, or Five Bible Books of Moses, only "God saw that the Torah would eventually be translated into Greek, and published as though it were the law entrusted to Greeks," meaning Gentiles. Hence the Talmud and Midrash, "the oral law, the key to and interpreter of the written law, being entrusted to Israelites only, the Jews alone have the whole of God's word with the interpretation in full."
This will make clear, at least from the Hebrew viewpoint, the value of the Midrash. It is the last and final word given as "explanation" of the Holy Scriptures. Some Midrashim, or explanations of the Bible, have of course always existed among the Hebrews. The Talmud, as pointed out in the preceding volume, consists of such early explanations as were accepted as authoritative and incorporated in the Jewish faith before A.D. 500. During the Middle Ages a large number of such Midrashim were written. Most of these deal with some particular book of the Bible. A studious rabbi would resolve to write a Midrash upon Genesis or upon Exodus and would collect all he had learned upon the theme from earlier teachers. Some studious successor would copy this book and enlarge it, adding a few points culled from another Midrash. Sometimes the new work became known by the reviser's name, sometimes it retained that of the earlier writer. In that way we have often several very different forms of a Midrash, all going under the same name.
Through this medley of books built upon books we have no
clear guide, no lines of separation; and gradually the whole mass of repeated traditions, legends, explanations, layer piled upon layer, has come to be known collectively as the Midrash. The present Midrash, therefore, is a loose collection of commentaries, said to be founded on traditions as old as the Bible and Talmud. Some of its books are reputed to have originated with noted rabbis of the third and fourth centuries. But we can not trace any of its known books of to-day back to such a high antiquity, and where one still retains some antique writer's name we can be sure that it has been changed and changed and changed again, until very little of the reputed author's work remains.
Perhaps the oldest of the surviving Midrashim is that known as the Mekilta; but the Mekilta is almost wholly a textual commentary. That is, it confines itself to explaining the exact shades of grammar and meaning in the Bible text. As Christian scholars wholly reject these elaborate textual commentaries, modern readers will find far more interest in the oldest Midrash, which, going beyond mere definition of the text, illustrates its points with examples and thus recalls some vision of the past. This still vivid and living Midrash is the Tanhuma. It is so called because its origin is attributed to a learned Palestinian rabbi, Tanhuma, who lived in the fourth century; but our present Midrash Tanhuma can not have been composed before the seventh century. It is still, of course, chiefly concerned with grammar and text, so that only the essence of its more living spirit is given here.
After this we print, in the same concentrated form, the living items or bits of still interesting information gleaned from the most celebrated of the later Midrashim. These are the "Rabba," or a collection of commentaries on ten of the most sacred of the Biblical books, more especially on the five books of Moses. Among these the Genesis Rabba, which is known as the Bereshith, is regarded as particularly venerable, and sacred.
No part of the Rabba, however, seems likely to have been written before the ninth century, and most of it is of about the twelfth century. Only, when we speak of such comparatively
recent dates, we must again remind the reader that Hebrew lore regards the time of the writing down of our present Midrash as unimportant, since its writers are trusted to have preserved only genuine traditions, each reaching back to the event of which it tells or the authority whom it quotes.
In illustration of what is still being done by modern Hebrew scholars with the mass of the Midrash, we close our section on its books with the story of the king of demons, Ashmedai. This has been put together by a modern rabbi, who, going carefully through the Midrash, collected all its references to Ashmedai and so built up the life-story of the demon-king.