Midrash: How the questions we ask change how we see

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” - Exodus 3:1-4

Whether we picture Charlton Heston, or hear Val Kilmer, or have flashbacks to Sunday School flannel graphs, this is likely a scene from the Scriptures we have encountered at some point in our past. With the number of movies, sermons, and essays that have already been birthed from this passage, is there really anything more that could be found there?

It depends, perhaps, on what questions we feel permission to ask. Have you ever wondered how the questions you ask of a passage such as this one affects how we see it?

Enter midrash, a way of reading Scripture that dates back thousands of years. It roots deeply into the Text, and uses that foundation to expand into an expansive array of questions.

The first layer of practicing midrash is to examine the layer of the passage that is simple or plain (This layer is called peshat in Hebrew). This is the layer where many of us feel the most comfortable. We can look at names and places, study a little bit about what time in history this takes place, and wonder about the geography of the region it takes place in.

The peshat layer is good and necessary. And yet, if we stay there, does the Bible connect with us? Does it open our eyes to see more about God? Does it help us contend with the questions of the human experience?

Generally no. And sadly, this simple layer is all many people have been exposed to in the realm of religion. The Bible seems interesting perhaps, but not alive.

The remez layer takes things further. Remez means hint. We look for connections between passages, and ask questions about words that are being repeated. We wonder about what arcs of the Scripture are being drawn out for us.

So, in Exodus 3, we might notice…

  • Moses is in the midbar, which means “wilderness.” But the noun midbar is rooted in the word dabar, which means “to speak.” Moses is entering a long line of people to whom God speaks in the wilderness, including Hagar, Elijah, and Jesus. What is it about the wilderness that makes it the place for God to speak? Or for humans to hear?

  • Moses responds to the Lord’s voice by saying, hineni, often translated as, “Here I am.” Hineni seems to be used at key points of transition between the past and the future. Abraham says it before God calls him to travel up the mountain with his son Isaac. Isaiah says it when God is looking for a prophet for the people. What does it mean to say hineni? And why does it seem to be said before the assignment is given, not after?

Can we feel how the passage is opening up? How there may be more here than a quick reading or animated movie can show to us? And we haven’t even gotten to the last two layers of midrash yet!

What questions would you ask of Exodus 3? Are you seeing anything new?


40 Orchards gathers people into Scripture Circles inspired by these ideas of midrash. We believe we can approach the Bible in a way that roots in what is and expands into possibilities of wonder and wrestling. And that these kinds of questions go even deeper in the context of community. We gather together to hear one another’s voices, learn from one another’s experiences, and struggle through questions of life and faith that we hold.

We are excited to host a larger community conversation about how we read Scripture on Saturday morning, February 9.

A Morning of Midrash
with Alan Ullman and Stephanie Spencer and Lisa Adams 

Join us for a few hours of interactive study, music, and conversation that could open Scripture to you in ways you never expected. Alan and Stephanie will lead us in the ancient Hebrew practice of midrash (all 4 layers this time!). Lisa will moderate the conversation.

If you’ve ever wondered what 40 Orchards does, or how to have a more expansive conversation about the Bible, or whether there is anyone out there with the same questions you are holding, this morning is for you.

For more details and registration, click HERE.