Midrash and the Foundations of Jewish Law

During the exile, a feeling of patriotism and the desire to preserve the Israelite literary heritage in the wake of the destruction of the ancestral homeland were probably responsible for a new emphasis on the study of Israel’s scriptures. When Ezra returned to Judea, he devoted himself to making the Torah the center of the religious life of his people. But the Torah had one deficiency as a legal text. There were apparent contradictions and inconsistencies between the legal rulings in its various sections. Now something new was called for. How were the contradictions between laws on the same subject to be handled? How were the multiple presentations of the same material to be

The duplications in the Torah begged to be interpreted. Thus was born the method which later Hebrew termed midrash. Essentially, the exegetical (interpretative) technique of midrash can be defined as the explanation of one biblical passage in the light of another. In its earliest forms midrash dealt with matters of Jewish law, what the rabbis later called halakhah. In the early Second Temple period, the new dependence on the written law stimulated the development of the method of legal midrash. Its earliest record is in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

An example of the use of this technique in our period is the decision attributed to Ezra to expel foreign wives. Returning exiles had married non-Israelite women of “the people of the land” and children had been born to them. Ezra 9-1 presents a list of the nations with which Israel had intermarried. The list is itself evidence of a midrashic interpretation. Included are some nations with which the Torah had prohibited marriage unconditionally and other nations that could marry Israelites only after a specific number of generations according to other biblical sources. The technique of analogical midrash led to the conclusion, based on Deut. 7-3 and 23-8–9, that the nations were all to be treated alike; marriage with any of them was to be eternally proscribed. The expulsion of the foreign wives was based on this exegetical conclusion.

Another example relates to the proper observance of Sukkot (Tabernacles). Leviticus 23 commands the building of the sukkah, and dwelling in it during the seven-day festival. There is no mention of pilgrimage to the sanctuary. Deuteronomy 16 does not mention the obligation of dwelling in sukkot but describes the festival as a pilgrimage. Legal midrash led to the decision that the entire people was to assemble in Jerusalem and build sukkot there. Thus it was possible to fulfill the commands of both codes and in this way resolve the inconsistency.

Other decisions based on this technique are recorded in the covenant of Nehemiah 10. These show beyond any doubt that the use of the midrashic method for the determination of Jewish law in cases where the Pentateuch was either unclear or apparently contradictory became the norm in the Persian period. It remained in use for the derivation of new conclusions until well into the Middle Ages, and at the same time, as we will see, often served as a means of justifying legal rulings already practiced on the basis of ancient tradition.

To avoid confusion one point should be made very clear – the term midrash designates both an exegetical method and a collection of literary materials based on midrashic exegesis. Later on we will have occasion to discuss various midrashim of the latter sort. It would be incorrect to conclude from the early dating of the technique of legal midrash that the contents of the collections to be examined later are of similar antiquity.

The Literature of the Period

The literature of the Persian period is primarily a continuation of the genres and traditions of First Temple times. Chronicles continues the historiographical method established in the books of the Former Prophets, and adapts much material from them. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi embody the classical forms of the literary prophets; only the issues are different. In Ezra and Nehemiah we meet a strange mix of the historiographic spirit of the First Temple period with a tendency, not previously seen in biblical writings, to copy documents from royal correspondence and quote them as such. The inclusion of documents and edicts was typical of Hellenistic historiographical methods and is also found in the books of the Maccabees discussed in chapter 7.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles

Foremost among the historical compositions of this period are the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Many scholars see these books as a single work, redacted by the “Chronicler.” However, despite some similarities in language and ideology, Chronicles is so radically different in structure and emphasis from Ezra and Nehemiah that it is difficult to accept this theory. In any case, all three books represent a continuation of the biblical historiographic tradition. We shall first consider Ezra and Nehemiah, which were known to the translators of the Septuagint and to the rabbis as one book, Ezra.

The Book of Ezra tells about the two groups of exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonia in the early days of the Second Commonwealth and the events connected with them, as well as the arrival of Zerubbabel and, later, of Ezra. The book describes the building of the altar, the celebration of the rebuilding of the Temple, and the expulsion of the foreign wives. From a close study of the text it appears that the author utilized the memoirs of Ezra or some other collection of documents concerning him as a basis for this composition.

The Book of Nehemiah discusses the appointment and arrival of Nehemiah, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the northern opposition to the project, the repopulation of the city, the covenant renewal and public reading of the Torah, and the various efforts of Nehemiah to reinforce and preserve Jewish observance in the Judean community. The book is based on Nehemiah’s own account, written in the first person. An editor or author has, however, reworked the material at many points and added the account of the covenant renewal and material from other sources.

The Book of Nehemiah must have reached its final form after the Book of Ezra, since it can be shown that it was not utilized by the author of Ezra. Since the last high priest that the author of Ezra knows of is mentioned in an Elephantine document from 408 B.C.E., Nehemiah must have been finished during the reign of Darius II (423–404 B.C.E.) or shortly thereafter. Ezra must be dated slightly later and would have been completed in the reign of Artaxerxes II (403–359 B.C.E.).

The Book of Chronicles (Hebrew Divre Ha-Yamim), known in our Bibles as I and II Chronicles, is actually one book. I Chronicles begins with a genealogical survey of the generations from Adam up to the time of the monarchy and then deals with the history of King David. II Chronicles takes up the career of Solomon and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. It then recounts the history of the kings of Judah up to the exile and concludes with the decree of Cyrus in a version only slightly different from that with which Ezra opens. In essence, Chronicles is a review of the history of Israel as described in the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets, with distinct emphasis on the Davidic period and the Davidic dynasty.

The genealogical lists at the beginning of the book are in some cases based on the Pentateuch, and in other cases on sources which are no longer extant. The lists are much more detailed for the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon than for the other tribes, showing the book’s bias in favor of the Davidic house and the Kingdom of Judah. The lists also provide important information about settlement patterns in ancient Israel and the absorption of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land. Extensive information regarding the priestly and levitica1 clans and their settlements is given as well. It has been suggested that one of the aims of the author was to substantiate the Judean territorial claims of the returnees from exile.

In order to emphasize King David’s contribution, the author provides detailed information on the organization and administration of the Davidic Empire. Chronicles adds greatly to the account in the books of Samuel, even attributing to David the organization of the sacrificial worship at Jerusalem and the priestly and levitical courses (twenty-four groups of priests that ministered at the sanctuary in one-week rotations). The centrality of the Zadokite priesthood, descended from Zadok, who served as high priest during the reign of David, is also stressed throughout the book.

The author often adapts the narratives in Samuel and Kings to bring them into accord with his understanding of religious law. In this respect, he constitutes an early example of the “rewritten Bible,” a literary genre that we will encounter again in the Hellenistic period. On the other hand, he adds many details that must have been taken from extrabiblical sources. His description of Solomon’s reign focuses on the building and dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. In describing the divided monarchy he emphasizes the religious reformations of Hezekiah and Josiah.

Chronicles is, in our view, to be seen as an independent work which was not written by the author of Ezra and Nehemiah. It should be dated to shortly after the time of Ezra, composed by the first half of the fourth century B.C.E., probably by the beginning of the century. Chronicles shows how the ancient past of Israel remained at the center of Judean consciousness as the Persian era drew to a close.

The Last of the Prophets

Against the background of the last years of the biblical period, as the returning exiles were struggling to reestablish Jewish sovereignty over their ancestral homeland, three prophets delivered their messages. These three men were the last of the prophets of Israel, for as the Talmud would later state, prophecy came to an end with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The reason for this is not hard to discern. The phenomenon of prophecy was part of Judaism’s Near Eastern heritage. It depended on the feeling of the immediacy of God and His presence that is so much in evidence in the religion of the Hebrew Bible. As Greek and other foreign cultures came to exercise greater influence on Jews, such ideas began to seem odd. With the coming of Alexander the Great and the sweeping changes that followed in his wake, prophecy ceased altogether.


The prophet Haggai prophesied in Jerusalem in 520 B.C.E. The book is written in clear and simple language and testifies to the prophet’s having seen the Temple before its destruction in 586 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that advanced age accounts for the short duration of Haggai’s prophetic career, at least to the extent that it is documented in the book as preserved for us. Evidence points to Haggai’s having been an influential prophet, and it is therefore possible that other prophecies of his were delivered earlier but were not preserved.

Haggai’s basic message was for the people to complete the building of the Temple, which had been started years before. The new Temple was destined to outshine the glory of its predecessor. He directed his message to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the governor, himself of Davidic descent, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and only then to the people at large. If the Temple was not completed, he warned, poverty, famine and, drought would continue to afflict the nation. Haggai’s prophecies make clear the importance of priestly purity laws in the life of the people at this time. Apparently convinced that the weakening of the Persian Empire was an opportunity for the House of David to take up its old role in Jewish affairs, he prophesied that Zerubbabel would be the first of the restored Davidic monarchs. Idolatry would come to an end and the kingdom of Israel would be renewed.

Haggai’s prophecies make use of the Torah and earlier prophets, often embodying interpretations of this literature. In this respect his book is a bridge to the new emphasis on exegesis in the literature of the Second Temple period. His prophecies were presumably edited by his students. The Talmudic sages attributed the editing to the Men of the Great Assembly, a group of sages said by rabbinic tradition to have continued the work of Ezra and Nehemiah.


Very little is known of the prophet Zechariah, one of at least a dozen people so named in the Hebrew Bible. He began to prophesy in 520 B.C.E., around the same time as Haggai, and the last prophecy attributed to him is dated some two years later. Evidence points to his having been a priest, and he was apparently young when he began his career. Like Haggai, he primarily taught the importance of rebuilding the Temple, and Ezra testifies to his having helped, along with Haggai, Zerubbabel, and Joshua, to rebuild the sanctuary. At the same time, Zechariah fought against the pessimism of those Judeans who were impatient regarding the fulfillment of earlier prophecies, promising them that ultimately all the visions would be fulfilled. Jerusalem would be greatly expanded and God’s presence would return to it. There the Jewish people would be reunited. His prophecy likewise shows evidence of the developing notion of dual leadership for the renewed Israel, with the Davidic monarch and the Aaronide high priest assuming the temporal and religious responsibilities respectively, a concept that gained importance in the Hellenistic period, particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Zechariah saw strange visions and related them to the people along with his interpretations of these experiences. His visions helped to shape the later apocalyptic texts of Judaism and Christianity. Interesting is his allusion to the fast-days connected with the destruction of Jerusalem (8-19), which were already being observed in his time. Ultimately, in Zechariah’s view, the fasts would become times of rejoicing when the nations would join in recognizing and worshiping God.

Most scholars see chapters 9–14 as a later addition to the prophecies of Zechariah, although some date them to First Temple times. The extremely late Hellenistic dating must be rejected, since the scanty evidence cited in its behalf can just as easily support an earlier dating. In all likelihood, these prophecies were authored in the later years of the Persian period.

The second part of Zechariah deals with the same issues as the first, but its literary form is different and there are certain inconsistencies of content. It prophesies the destruction of the neighboring nations and the coming of the messianic king. Israel will be gathered to its land, and God Himself will rule over His people. Jerusalem and Judea will be purified of all ritual defilement after their victory against the enemies of Israel. The influence of these eschatological and apocalyptic prophecies on Jewish literature in the Second Temple period is marked. Indeed, seen from this vantage point, the Book of Zechariah is an important transition from the prophecies of the biblical period to the apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple era. In this respect it resembles the Book of Daniel, the dating of which is likewise under debate.


The question of whether Malachi is a proper name or a Hebrew designation for a prophet, literally “messenger” (mal’akh, cf. mal’akhi, “my messenger,” in Mal. 3-1), has always been a subject of controversy. In any case, Malachi is the name of the last book in the Prophets. It was written in the Persian period, after the completion of the Temple, but opinions are divided on whether it was written before or after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The prophet speaks of the destruction of Edom, in Transjordan, which is known to have been taken over byArab tribes toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E. Among the central topics treated in Malachi are God’s love for Israel, the sacrificial
ritual and the priests, intermarriage, the Day of the Lord, and the end of days. The book is written as a series of dialogues between the prophet and his audience, or between God and the nation. The priests are excoriated for offering sacrifices with blemishes, and the people for profaning God’s name by presenting freewill offerings from blemished animals. Because the people do not offer the priestly gifts and tithes, various natural calamities befall their crops. The ideal priest is described. The emphasis on sacrifice and priesthood fits well the period of the early Second Temple. The prophet sees intermarriage as a profanation of God’s name. He also opposes the divorcing of one’s first wife to marry a younger woman.

The prophet asserts that a day is coming when justice will be done to evildoers, and God’s angel will purify the sons of Levi (the priests). The book closes with a call to remember the Torah of Moses. Elijah will come to reunite fathers and sons so that the earth will not be destroyed on the Day of the Lord. Some see these verses as a later addition to Malachi, since they seem to constitute a fitting conclusion to the entire corpus of prophetic literature. In any case, the image of Elijah here was to have momentous influence on the subsequent history of Jewish messianism and folklore.

The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures

The close of our discussion of the Persian period is an appropriate point to take up the question of the biblical canon, or corpus, and how and when it was defined. This problem will take us somewhat afield, since the process of canonization, defining the scope and contents of the Bible, spans several historical periods. Nonetheless, the implications of the process are crucial to the history of Judaism as it will be described in the following chapters.

The term “canon” refers to the closed corpus of biblical literature regarded as divinely inspired. The Hebrew biblical canon represents a long process of selection, as testified to by the Bible itself, which lists some twenty-two books that have been lost to us, no doubt, among other reasons, because they were not included in the canon. Books were only included if they were regarded as holy, that is, divinely inspired.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts, Torah (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Writings. This division is not strictly one of content; it derives from the canonization process in that the three parts were closed at separate times. “The Torah of Moses” was already the name for the first part in the various postexilic books. We will not attempt here to deal with the complex questions regarding the history and authorship of the Torah. Suffice it to say that a unified, canonized Torah was available to Ezra for the public reading which took place in approximately 444 B.C.E. Further, the various legal interpretations (midrashim) found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are themselves a result of the issues raised by a Torah in which there are apparent contradictions and repetitions. It can therefore be stated unquestionably that the canonization of the Torah was completed by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Later rabbinic tradition asserts that prophecy ceased with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. In effect, this meant that books composed thereafter were not to be included in the prophetic canon, the second of the Hebrew Bible’s three parts. This view can be substantiated by the absence of later debate about the canonicity of the prophets, the lack of Greek words in the prophetic books, and the inclusion of Daniel and Chronicles in the Writings rather than in the Prophets. (The debate about Ezekiel recorded in talmudic sources concerned its place in the school curriculum, not in the Prophets.) It must be the case, therefore, that the Prophets were canonized late in the Persian period, probably bythe start of the fourth century B.C.E.

The Writings are a diverse collection. Some of the books included in this corpus are earlier than the canonization of the Prophets and were placed in the Writings because of their literary form or because they were regarded as having a lesser degree of divine inspiration. Other books appear in this collection because they were authored after the canon of the Prophets was closed. As already mentioned, this was the case with Daniel and Chronicles. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are regarded by some scholars as of Hellenistic origin, but rabbinic tradition attributes them to Solomon. Daniel is widely regarded by modern scholars as having been written in the Hellenistic period. There is no evidence at all for the oft-repeated view that the Scriptures were formally canonized at Yavneh. While virtually all the Writings were regarded as canonical by the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., arguments continued regarding the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, and these disputes are attested in rabbinic literature. Second Temple literature indicates that a collection of Writings existed as early as the second century B.C.E. but was not yet regarded as formally closed. We shall have occasion later on to speak of the Hellenistic Jewish Bible, or Septuagint, which included in its canon several later books avowedly authored in the Hellenistic period.

The unfolding of the history of Judaism, and indeed of Christianity and Islam as well, takes place against the background of the interpretation of a revealed, authoritative body of literature. For Judaism this corpus is the text of the Hebrew Bible. The notion of a canon provides a fixed consensus on the contents of this body of sacred literature and, therefore, helps to give unity to the diverse interpretations proposed by the varieties of Judaism encountered throughout history. It was the decision of the Christians to reopen the canon for a moment, and to place the New Testament within it, that created one of the basic disagreements separating Judaism from Christianity. The Hebrew biblical canon drew the lines within which Judaism was to develop and provided grist for the mill of a long and varied history of exegesis. The concept of a canon, with the attendant notions of authority and sanctity, endowed the Hebrew Scriptures with their enduring place in the history of Judaism.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.