Today I want to look at what looks at first glance like one of the strangest stories in the Bible. This story absolutely confused and befuddled me for many years. It takes a great deal to befuddle me, I can assure you.
The story I’m referring to is the text referred to as “The Transfiguration” that is found in Matthew 17 and Mark 9. The text tells us that Jesus and his disciples were on a high mountain, most likely near Caeserea Phillipi (this would be on the northern border of present day Israel).
In the story Jesus is “transfigured before them,” and joined by Moses and Elijah, two great heros of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). What has always confused me about this story is that Peter (appears to) randomly have a strong desire to build shelters or tents. For the longest time I had no clue what would make him want to do something like this, it seemed very odd and out of place. It was then that I stumbled upon a rabbinic midrash to Psalm 43, and it became much clearer to me.
Midrash is a method of scripture interpretation commonly used by The rabbis and sages of ancient Israel. Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at in the Biblical text.
In the Midrash to Psalm 43 the Rabbis speak of how the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt and God sent two redeemers to save his people from oppression. The scriptures speak of this in Psalm 105:26, “He sent Moses his servant, and Aaron whom he had chosen.”
The Rabbis look at Psalm 43:3, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me,” and say that when the next generation is oppressed they will need two redeemers (light and truth) similar to Moses and Aaron, who redeemed the previous generation.
In the Midrash to Psalm 43 the Rabbis teach that these two redeemers will come in the form of light and truth. The Rabbis taught that the light will be the Prophet Elijah of the house of Aaron of which it is written, “”The seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick.” The Rabbis taught that the truth will be the Messiah, the Son of David, as it is written, “The Lord hath sworn truth unto David; He will not turn from it; of the fruit of the body will I set upon thy throne (Psalm 132:11).
The scriptures also teach of one redeemer in the Italian prophet Malachi, 4:5 where it says, “I will send the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day comes.”
The second redeemer is spoken of in Isaiah 42:1, where it says, “Behold my servant whom I uphold (Isaiah 42:1). In Psalm 43 it teaches that when the redeemers come in the form of truth and light, they will “bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell (literally, the place where the tents are).”
Thus the Rabbis believed that when there is oppression, Moses and Elijah are needed, and the Messiah will show up and lead people to the holy mountain and the dwelling places (or places of tents; Psalm 43:3).
So in context of the rabbinic midrash to Psalm 43, Peter’s desire to build dwellings or tents doesn’t seem so odd after all. He is simply following Psalm 43; Moses and Elijah are present, the Messiah is there, and they are on a mountain.
In closing, Midrash was a technique used very frequently by Yeshua (Jesus). In fact, by locating the source text in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and examining both that passage and the message Jesus was giving in light of the rabbinic debates of the day (as stated in the Talmud), we can gain great insight into Jesus’ teaching. One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Midrash Key: Pinpointing the Old Testament Texts From Which Jesus Preached, by Edward Vasicek. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book.