Jesus in the Desert: A Midrash?

Jesus in the Desert

My community has been spending some time with Jesus in the desert for Lent.

We have relied upon Matthew’s recounting of the story in Matthew 4:1-11.  It is a powerful story of Jesus’ desert experience – fasting, hunger, spiritual experience, temptation.  I have tended to look at this story as a straightforward historical account, that Satan actually encountered Jesus in the desert in bodily form.  The more I study and meditate on the text, however, its story elements seem to point more toward parable or midrash.

Note the language: ‘Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.’  Why not say Jerusalem?    Did Jesus and the devil hitchhike to Jerusalem from the desert?  I can imagine Satan getting to ride the camel while Jesus is forced to lead it along.

Notice the final temptation: ‘Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.’  The language sounds very much like tale – ‘a very high mountain from which you could see the whole world’.  Did Jesus and Satan go mountain climbing together?  Is there a mountain anywhere with such a sweeping view?

NT Wright notes that he likes to think of these temptations as voices Jesus encountered during a very real (historic) desert experience.  In other words, temptations very much like you and I experience.  I tend to resonate with that.  (see the first sentence in this post – you probably didn’t take it literally, but that doesn’t make it untrue).

I pulled the following from an article about gospel and midrash:

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The temptation story: a midrash used by Matthew and Luke

The temptations of Jesus rank among the most puzzling and inspiring stories of the Gospels. What do they mean? Did the devil literally appear to Jesus and talk to him? Did he physically lift Jesus up onto the outside wall of the Temple and transport him later to the top of a high mountain?

To understand the story, we have to know that it is a “narrative reflection” -a form of instruction the Jews called midrash. midrash is constructed by weaving a story around a historical fact. It is such an unusual form of teaching that we had better stick to its Jewish name, in spite of it sounding so foreign.

The temptations of Abraham

One famous midrash used by Jewish teachers described the three temptations of Abraham. You will remember how God had commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. It is true that when Abraham lifted his knife to kill Isaac, God stopped him just in the nick of time. But Abraham did not know this in advance. He had travelled for three days to Mount Moriah believing that God expected him to sacrifice his son (read Genesis 22; 1-19).

The Jewish rabbis reflected on this. They asked themselves, “What went through Abraham’s mind during those three long terrible days while he was escorting his beloved son Isaac to the mountain of sacrifice?”

Would Abraham not be tempted to rebel against God’s command with thoughts such as, “Did not God himself forbid us to kill? How can he now expect me to kill my son? Did not God promise that I would have innumerable offspring through Isaac?” and so on.

To make the temptations even more dramatic, the story was turned into a midrash. That is: it was re-told as a threefold encounter between Abraham and Satan. “Satan” actually means “tempter” and each time Satan or Abraham spoke, their words were phrased as quotations from Scripture.

The midrash of Abraham’s temptations ran something like this:

While Abraham was on his way, Satan met him and said: “You’ve always been so faithful to God. Why has this unfair burden been laid upon you?” (Job 4:2-5).
Abraham answered, “I will walk in my integrity” (Psalm 26:11).

The second day Satan appeared again and said, “God told you, You shall not kill (Exodus 20:13). Tomorrow he will blame you for having shed Isaac’s blood.” Abraham replied, “All the same I have to obey” (Samuel 13:13).

On the third day Satan said, “Did not God promise ‘In Isaac shall your offspring be called’?” (Genesis 17:19). Abraham simply said, “I am like a dumb man who opens not his mouth” (Psalm 38:13).

Now no Jew who heard this story would ever think that Satan had actually appeared to Abraham and made those remarks. They knew that the meaning of the midrash lay in bringing out Abraham’s unwavering commitment to God, in spite of the natural turmoil he must have felt in his mind and heart.

The midrash of Abraham’s temptations became so well known and had so many forms that soon similar temptation stories arose about other saints and heroes of the past – the three temptations of Moses, David, Samson and others. The midrash always reflected on people who achieved great things despite natural objections.

The midrash of Jesus’ temptations

The story of Jesus’ temptations has the same origin. The temptation story had Jesus relive the experience of Moses and the Hebrew people in the wilderness.  Before Moses received the law, he fasted forty days and forty nights (Ex 34:28).  So Jesus, before delivering the new law (on the Mount), underwent a similar fast.  The story line follows the adventures of Moses in the wilderness.  The manna story (Ex 16) found expression in the temptation to turn stones into bread.  The story of Moses striking the rock in the wilderness at Massah/Meribah (Ex 17) was told as an act in which Moses put God to the test.  (You can hear the echoes in Jesus’ response: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God”).  The story of the Israelites building and worshiping the golden calf (Ex 32) in the desert is echoed in Jesus’ words “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

In all three episodes, Jesus is portrayed as quoting Deuteronomy (8:3, 5:16, 6:13), and each quotation reflected the Exodus desert experience of Israel.  The midrashic ability of the scribe who authored the Gospel of Matthew is clearly revealed in this episode.

It is also quite possible that the earliest version of the story was an instruction Jesus gave to his disciples. Jesus was going to bring salvation through laying down his life. This was a decision he had taken during his retreat in the desert when he had started his mission. But the disciples would have preferred Jesus to further his cause by using human tools – money, influence and power.

by Duccio, ca. 1310

Jesus conceivably took his disciples aside and told them a midrash of three temptations he experienced:

“When I was preparing myself for my mission,” he may have said, “I was wondering how I could save the world. And the Tempter came and advised me to accumulate material goods (“turn stones into bread”), to grab publicity through miracles (“throw yourself down from the Temple”) and to acquire political power (“See these many nations? I will give you all this power”). But I decided against it”, Jesus said.

By narrating the midrash story about himself, Jesus may well have told his disciples,

“I have a very difficult task! Do not put obstacles to the purity of my mission by trying to make me use worldly means, such as money, publicity and political power. Like Abraham I received a difficult mission from my Father and like Abraham I must be faithful to it.”

The disciples would have understood the meaning of the midrash. They did not take the Tempter’s words or deeds literally. They knew the story brought out Jesus’ reliance on his Father’s word and Jesus’ total commitment to the Father’s work (me:  isn’t this really the point?). It is only later when the story was translated into Greek for the Greek speaking readers of the Gospels that it began to be misunderstood. For the Greeks, like ourselves, had never heard of a midrash.

sources:  Handbook to the Gospels: A Guide to the Gospel Writings and the Life and Times of Jesus; Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes
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My sense is that it is a powerful and true story either way, just as the parables Jesus himself told.  The point is that Jesus never compromised in the face of very real temptations that he experienced in his life, even if some of those are reflected back to us in apocryphal form.  In either case, Jesus succeeds where we fail, he gets it right where we get it wrong, and he invites us to begin experiencing the freedom to choose the path of the kingdom rather than our proclivity to seek power, pride and possessions.

What do you think? Was this a literal, historical experience?  A midrash?  A mix of the two?  Does it matter?

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