Paul used an “allegory” to communicate to non-Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua. But is allegory the same as midrash? In this post, I will show the difference between Jewish midrash and the popular Greek genre called allegory.
In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul said, “I speak allegorically”, so his non-Jewish audience would know how to properly interpret his story. Allegory is a genre that preserves the literal meaning of a story, but the meaning is transformed; The allegory burdens and strains the literal meaning of the text with new abstract subjects that transform the meaning of the text (Halivni, 6). The surface words become symbols for something else and the story’s new conclusion forces the reader to make a moral/ethical choice based upon it.
The Galatians allegory’s literal meaning is a paraphrase of Genesis 21:8-16. Abraham had two sons. Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Sarah, is the mother of Ishmael. Sarah is the mother of Isaac, whom she miraculously bore to Abraham. Ishmael was mocking Isaac, so Sarah banished him and his mother Hagar. The Egyptian slave was sent away, but the promised son Isaac remains. The allegory adds symbolic meanings to the people and places. They represent these abstract concepts: Mt. Sinai Covenant, Jerusalem, slavery and freedom. The simple story is transformed to present Jerusalem as enslaved to the nations and also exiled while the promised future Jerusalem remains. Paul offers them this moral choice: Do you convert to be Jewish? Even though that does nothing for you concerning the world to come, and it also enslaves you to the nations now in this world?
The reader must not read the allegory’s symbols back onto the literal story: Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar or Sinai are not like the allegory, rather, they are carrying the burden of the allegorical moral point made for the reader. The literal story is not changed by the allegory, but the literal story does inform the meaning of the allegory.
Midrash, on the other hand, is an intertextual pursuit. It uses parables, which are several texts placed alongside each other, to compare and contrast. Luke 3:21-4:14 is a good example of a midrashic parable. Yeshua is immersed in the Jordan river and then the Holy Spirit descends upon him. Interestingly, it is HaShem Himself who commences the discourse, “You are my beloved son, etc.” Psalm 2 is a prophetic Psalm about Messiah and it is used as our primary parallel text to make sense of Yeshua’s story to follow.
The genealogy is here to get to the final words of 3:38, “Son of Man, Son of Elohim.” This line demonstrates a word connection in Yeshua’s story to Psalm 2’s story. The genealogy goes from Yeshua backwards to Son of Elohim for the effect of saying, “That is the pedigree of the Yeshua I’m referring to”(Compare Ezra 7:1-6).
Chapter four continues “that” Yeshua’s story. That same Spirit brings him out into the wilderness, a circumlocution for exile, which is prophetically a time of searching for the Word of HaShem, for example, Amos 8:11:
“Behold, days are coming”
—declares my Lord Adonai—
“when I will send a famine on the land
—not a famine of bread
nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of Adonai.’
With exile in mind, the midrash continues to list off other temptations from the satan. Most interesting is the similar wording of satan to HaShem’s words in psalm 2:8, “I shall give to you the nations…”, while satan says, “to you I shall give all of these kingdoms.” Likewise, satan takes Yeshua and sets Him atop the Temple, while in psalm 2:7 says, “But I have installed my king on Zion, etc.” finally, the midrash concluded in 4:15 with Yeshua teaching all the people and receiving praise, comparing Psalm 2:11-12.
Midrash is an intertextual activity that asks the reader to compare and contrast several texts to enlighten a new understanding of an event in Scriptures, while allegory strains the simple meaning of a text with abstract symbols layered onto it in order to evoke a moral response in the reader.
In conclusion, Midrash and allegory are different.
Halivni, David Weiss. “Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis”. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.