Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

10 Introduction. Preliminary Considerations

1. Although a historically laden term, aggadah may nevertheless serve aptly to denote that category and range of inner-biblical exegesis which is strictly speaking neither scribal nor legal, on the one hand, nor concerned with prophecies or futuristic oracles, on the other. For the ancient rabbis, who first used this term, aggadah was similarly comprehensive in scope, and applied to moral and theological homilies, didactic expositions of historical and folk motifs, expositions and reinterpretations of ethical dicta and religious theologoumena, and much more. 1 In brief, the aggadah of the ancient rabbis encompasses 'all scriptural interpretation which is non-halakhic in character'. 2 At times, this aggadic exegesis is intimately related to fixed Scriptural lemmata, as in the homilies and expositions on the Pentateuch preserved, for example, in the great Midrash collections of late antiquity; at other times, florilegia, or anthological text-tapestries, are woven from older texts in order to produce a teaching which, in fact, is quite independent of the teachings which comprise its warp and woof. As distinct from the process of halakhic exegesis, which is concerned with developing and expounding the law, aggadic exegesis was at once theological and reflective, moral and practical. It was a mode of textual interpretation thoroughly charged with the religious ethos of Judaism. And further, for all its apparent naivety and topical freedom, the ancient rabbinic aggadah was the product of sophisticated rhetors and teachers, and was replete with its own established hermeneutical canon of procedure and style. 3 To be sure, the inner-biblical precursor of this great exegetical tradition obviously did not benefit from centuries of hermeneutical

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