I have begun the task of reading the Babylonian Talmud. It is a monumental work spanning several centuries years and written in at least two languages.i Its importance to Judaism will never be overstated. To our interests as believers in the Messiah, it draws on a “long period of oral tradition ca. 450 B.C.E. To 200 C.E.”ii
I have been incredibly blessed by reading this work. Most of it is rather boring reading, to be honest. This rabbi says this, another says the opposite. And then three to four paragraphs of attempts to justify each rabbi’s position.
“Did David really know exactly when it was midnight? Now Moses, our master, did not know, for it is written, ‘At about midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt’ (Ex. 11.4). What is the sense of ‘at about midnight’ cited in the preceding verse? If I should say that that is language which the Holy One, blessed be he, said to him, that is, ‘At about midnight,’ is it possible that before Heaven there is such a doubt [as to the exact time of night? That is impossible.] Rather, [God] said to him, ‘At midnight,’ but Moses is the one who came along and said, ‘At about midnight.’ It follows that he was in doubt as to exactly when it was midnight. Could David then have known exactly when it was?”iii
I find several points of interest here. To begin with, in regards to the matter of inspiration, we find that God allows the individual author to shine through. When Moses wrote ‘at about midnight’ it seems that God allowed some freedom of expression. As the Rabbis conferred, if God should choose to be more specific he would have had Moses express it that way.
Another point that I find fascinating is that there is some ambiguity in the Scriptures. There are numerous times when estimations are given rather than exact numbers (Exodus 32.28; Joshua 7.4; Judges 15.11; 16.27; and Acts 2.41). This, in turn, can be applied to the rest of Scripture. It is important not to force exactness when exactness is not intended. We can find ourselves in much trouble when we attempt to force something that is intended to be taken loosely.
The last point that I get from this is to be comfortable with not having all the answers. In the context the Rabbis were discussing whether Moses knew when midnight was.iv But they were comfortable acknowledging that Moses didn’t know (or it was at the very least a possibility), and they were fine with that. There may some issues, some matters, that believers never fully grasp. Are we comfortable with not having all the answers? Are we honest to admit that we don’t know everything?
So the rabbis have much to teach us, if we would simply have ears to hear and eyes to see.
iJacob Neusener, The Babylonian Talmud, Volume I Tractate Berakhot (Peabody, Hendrickson: 2011), xv.
iiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, xxv.
iiiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, 10-11.
ivIt may seem such a trivial matter to discuss when exactly midnight is, particularly when we know when midnight is. But to the ardent follower of Judaism preciseness is a non-negotiable, specifically when regarding the recitation of the Shema.