Jewish Bible Commentary
An introduction to the different ways in which Jews have read the Bible throughout history.
The Bible is a complex and self-referential text. In the period of the classical midrash (rabbinic homiletical interpretation of Scripture during the 2nd to 7th centuries), the sages wrote midrashim (plural) to connect the various biblical texts to each other, to the life of sanctification prescribed by halakhah (Jewish law), and to their own contemporary experiences. This midrashic approach was virtually the only way that Jews read the Bible until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century.
As Jews began to learn from Arabic scholars the principles of grammar and philology, a new model of Bible interpretation developed--the p’shat (plain) method. To its medieval practitioners, p'shat meant the search for the meaning of the text in its linguistic, literary, and historical context. Thanks to developments in Hebrew grammar, beginning with the research of Saadiah Gaon in the 10th century and continuing in Spain with rabbi-linguists such as Jonah Ibn Janach, the practitioners of the p'shat method had powerful tools to help them.
The p'shat method rejects the basic assumptions of the midrashic or d’rash (homiletical) method. Consider this verse reporting God's words to Moses prior to the revelation on Mt. Sinai: “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3). For Rashi, the pre-eminent biblical commentator who relied heavily on the d'rash method, the two halves of the verse must refer to different things. Rashi: “To the house of Jacob--these are the women, speak to them in a soft voice. And tell the children of Israel--explain the punishments and the details to the men." Apologists might argue that Rashi implies that God instructs Moses to lay down the law with the naturally rebellious men, while the women don't need threats, but however one understands Rashi, it is clear that Rashi is bringing a midrashic agenda to his reading of this verse.
On the other hand, Avraham Ibn Ezra, of the medieval Spanish school, presents two different p'shat readings. The first is based on philological analysis; "To the house of Jacob--this refers to the those who are here today as well as their descendants…and the word house I have already explained" referring to his commentary on Exodus 1:1, where he shows that "house" means one's descendants. He explicitly rejects the reading that "house" means wife, as Rashi had read it. Ibn Ezra's second reading is literary:
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