I am in the midst of teaching a seminar that considers, among other things, the (perceived and often undeniable) violence involved in Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. And I recently attended the feast of Purim at a conservative synagogue—quite a different experience from hearing an Esther reading at Christian liturgy on Thursday of the first week of Lent! Consequently, I would like to present a summary reminder of how ‘Judaism’ interprets today’s first reading.
When Jews interpret the Bible, they consider and consult not only the written biblical text but the genres of commentary around it: Mishnah, Talmud, legal and homiletic material, rabbinic commentary. There are four levels to consider: p’shat, the simple or plain reading; remez, the hint to other texts; drash, explication of how the passage fills in gaps; sod, the mystical meaning. In the passage Exod 3:1: at the p’shat level, we learn the particulars of Moses’ situation, working as a shepherd for his father-in-law, alone with his flock, near Sinai/Horeb. At the remez level, we ponder the relation between shepherding animals and caring for people, an equation used also for kings as well as for Moses here and also follow pathways generated by the words ‘Sinai’ and ‘Horeb.’ At the drash level, we are instructed to see God testing Moses (as also David later), to see how well he does with his flock. Will Moses be a good candidate for the job at hand? Finally, with sod we are prompted to the mystical elements of the text, the possibilities of the fire-that-does-not consume, the link to the fire experience later available at Sinai (Exodus 19), the relationship in both passages between fire and revelation.
Certain allegorical Christian procedures move as well from the literal or historical to the tropological or moral, to the anagogical or heavenly. Typology is similar, though with slightly different moves and assumptions. Common to all is the conviction that meaning is planted deep and must be sought carefully, and presumably by those living lives of holiness and discipline. We may note that other more modern kinds of critical methods (historical, literary, or reader-centered) supplement though without replacing these classic methods, though the newer methods need the ancient ones as well. Better still: We need them all to approach Scripture responsibly and fruitfully.
Barbara Green, O.P.