by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Summer 1996

THE temptations of Jesus rank among the most puzzling and inspiring stories of the Gospel. What do they mean? Did the Devil literally appear to Jesus and talk to him? Did he physically lift Jesus up onto the outside wall of the Temple and transport him later to the top of a high mountain? See Matthew 3:1-11; Luke 4:1-13.

To understand the story, we have to know that it is a “narrative reflection” – a form of instruction the Jews called midrash. A midrash is constructed by weaving a story around a historical fact. It is such an unusual form of teaching that we had better stick to its Jewish name, in spite of it sounding so foreign.

One famous midrash used by Jewish teachers described the three temptations of Abraham. You will remember how God had commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. It is true that when Abraham lifted his knife to kill Isaac, God stopped him just in the nick of time. But Abraham did not know this in advance. He had travelled for three days to Mount Moriah believing that God expected him to sacrifice his son. (Read Genesis 22: 1-19.)

The Jewish teachers reflected on this. They asked themselves, “What went through Abraham’s mind during those three long terrible days while he was escorting his beloved son Isaac to the mountain of sacrifice?”

Would Abraham not be tempted to rebel against God’s command with thoughts such as, “Did not God himself forbid us to kill? How can he now expect me to kill my son? Did not God promise that I would have innumerable offspring through Isaac?” and so on.

To make the temptations even more dramatic, the same story was re-told as a threefold encounter between Abraham and Satan. “Satan” actually means “tempter” and each time Satan or Abraham spoke, their words were phrased as quotations from Scripture.

The midrash of Abraham’s temptations ran something like this:

While Abraham was on his way, Satan met him and said: “You’ve always been so faithful to God. Why has this unfair burden been laid upon you?” (Job 4:2-5). Abraham answered, “I will walk in my integrity” (Psalm 26:11).

The second day Satan appeared again and said, “God told you, you shall not kill (Exodus 20:13). Tomorrow he will blame you for having shed Isaac’s blood.” Abraham replied, “All the same I have to obey” (Samuel 13:13).

On the third day Satan said, “Did not God promise ‘In Isaac shall your offspring be called’?” (Genesis 17:19). Abraham simply said, “I am like a dumb man who opens not his mouth” (Psalm 38:13).

Now no Jew who heard this story would ever think that Satan had actually appeared to Abraham and made those remarks. They knew that the meaning of the midrash lay in bringing out Abraham’s unwavering commitment to God, in spite of the natural turmoil

he must have felt in his mind and heart.

The midrash of Abraham’s temptations became so well known and had so many forms that soon similar temptation stories arose about other saints and heroes of the past – the three temptations of Moses, David, Samson and others. The midrash always reflected on people who achieved great things despite natural objections.

The story of Jesus’ temptations has the same origin. I am convinced that the earliest version of the story was an instruction Jesus gave to his disciples. Jesus was going to bring salvation through spiritual means. This was a decision he had taken during his retreat in the desert when he had started his mission. But the disciples would have preferred Jesus to further his cause by using human tools – money, influence, power.

Jesus took his disciples aside and, I am sure, told them the midrash of the three temptations about himself. “When I was preparing myself for my mission,” he may have said, “I was wondering how I could save the world. And the Tempter came and advised me to accumulate material goods (“turn stones into bread”), to grab publicity through miracles (“throw yourself down from the Temple”) and to acquire political power (“See these many nations? I will give you all this power”). But I decided against it”, Jesus said.

By narrating the midrash story about himself, Jesus told his disciples, “I have a very difficult task! Do not put obstacles to the purity of my mission by trying to make me use worldly means, such as money, publicity and political power. Like Abraham I received a difficult mission from my Father and like Abraham I must be faithful to it.”

The disciples understood the meaning of the midrash. They did not take the Tempter’s words or deeds literally. They knew the story brought out Jesus’ reliance on his Father’s word and Jesus’ total commitment to the Father’s work. It is only later when the story was translated into Greek for the Greek readers of the Gospels that it began to be misunderstood. For the Greeks, like ourselves, had never heard of a midrash.