By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
Background to Edwards’ Midrash Discovery
Not many in years gone by gave much weight to the Jewish background of New Testament teachings, but that is not to say that nobody did. John Lightfoot, for example, began a set way back in the 17th century titled, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. Because there are so few works like this, Lightfoot’s is still in print. Unfortunately, Lightfoot was only able to complete his commentary through I Corinthians before the Lord called him home.
In the 19th century, John Gill completed his commentary on the Bible and often quotes the Talmud and other ancient Jewish literature. His set is available online for free (I downloaded the PDFs into my Kindle).
Although we do not usually think of Jonathan Edwards as a “Jewish Roots” aficionado, and although Edwards (to my knowledge) never spoke of the New Testament as including Midrash, he nonetheless does sometimes embrace the idea that Second Testament texts are derived from First Testament ones (beyond the obvious quotations).
As I was reading through his book, The Religious Affections, I was surprised to find an interesting Midrash I had never noticed before. The Midrash traces Jesus’ saying, “So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).
We tend to think of fruit as sweet juicy produce that grows on trees or bushes. But the Greek word, karpos, includes the idea of heads of grain. For example, the Gospels use the word karpos in this way in Mark 4:29, where it is translated, “crop.”
“But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Before we make the connection Edwards made centuries ago, we need to be familiar with a somewhat obscure passage (to us), Judges 12:5-7,
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim.
Because of dialect differences, the Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound of the letter shin (sh) properly (literally to save their lives), but they pronounced it as a samech (s). That is the point of this text.
But what does the word “Shibboleth” mean? It is used 16 times, and translated as “heads of grain” eight times and “grain” two times in the NIV.
Readers unfamiliar with older English need to understand that the term “corn” as used by Edward and the King James Version is not the maze we call corn, but an old term for “grain.” For example, the produce Americans call corn was unknown in the Old World until the time of Columbus. Thus when the KJV talks about disciples go through the “corn fields” (Mark 2:23, KJV), the term corn means grain.
The Discovery Itself
Edwards connects the Shibboleth incident in Judges to both the parable of the wheat and tares and the idea that one’s fruit (works) is the sign of inner conversion. Although allegorizing in ways consistent with Reformed interpretation, Edwards writes:
As it is the ear of the fruit which distinguishes the wheat from the tares, so this is the true Shibboleth, that he who stands as judge at the passages of Jordan, makes use of to distinguish those that should be slain at the passages. For the Hebrew word Shibboleth signifies an ear of corn. And perhaps the more full pronunciation of Jephthah’s friends, Shibboleth, may represent a full ear with fruit in it, typifying the fruits of the friends of Christ…
[Source: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Eremetical Press, Vancouver, 2009 edition, p.75. Originally printed in 1745]
Edwards did not use the term “Midrash” for his suggestions, nor does he embrace my self-appointed role as the “Midrash Detective.” Nonetheless, he makes the point, one that led me to this conclusion:
When Yeshua spoke to his disciples (probably speaking in Mishnaic Hebrew), perhaps he actually said, “By their shibboleth you will know them.” The Gospel authors, writing in Greek, would have naturally translated this as “fruit.”
The basic meaning of recognizing true disciples “by their fruit” is not altered if I am right or if I am wrong. But, if I am correct, we were intended to have this imagery in mind. Even in the time of the Judges, one group could be sorted from another by their shibboleth, theirkarpos, their fruit.
As the Master said in Matthew 13:52,
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
Knowing others by their shibboleth is an old treasure!