Midrashic Reading and the Temptation of Christ in Luke

Ilya Repin “Follow Me!”
One of the most famous stories in the Gospels is Satan’s testing of Christ in the wilderness (Luke 4.1–13).

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from his baptism at the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, so when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.”

So the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, this will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”
So the devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4.1–13).
The story sticks in our minds because it reminds us of other stories that we know almost as well. Even if we can’t verbalize the exact story or passage, we probably recognize the wilderness is a place for testing. It’s the wilderness that is the abode of demons and demoniacs, a place for the dead and the dying, a place far away from the comforts of home, family and protection (e.g., Lev 16; Isa 34.10–14; Luke 8.27ff). So it does not surprise us that Jesus would go here, first, to face Satan’s power and invade his own realm.
It probably doesn’t surprise us, either, to read that he is there for forty days, because we recognize that forty is the number of testing. It rains for forty days in the flood (Gen 8.6); the Israelites are tested for forty days while Moses is on Sinai (Exd 24.18) and then when their spies enter Canaan (Num 13.25) and while they spend the years in the wilderness (Num 14.33–34). Goliath tested Saul for forty days before David answered his challenge (1 Sam 17.16) like Nineveh who repented, prolonging her forty days (Jon 3.4), and Elijah—another Moses—spent forty days being tested by God on Horeb (1 Kgs 19.8).
And we expect that it is Satan—or, in Luke, “the devil”—who does the testing. For it was the Serpent who tested the First Adam in the Garden (Gen 3), who made a case against the innocent Job in the Heavenly court (Job 1–2), and who tempted King David at the census (1 Chr 21.1). The list is long of those he had defeated and he has faint reason to believe that he will not prevail here, as well.
But something that we might not expect are the comments we read that this happened at a “moment in time” (4.5) and that, after, Satan retreats until “an opportune time” (4.13). This minor note invites us to read the passage a little differently than we probably are used to. It invites us to read this specific temptation in a broader sense, as representative of all of Jesus’ temptations and demands that we  read Satan into all of Jesus\’ temptations throughout the Gospel. So, what I want to consider is how the three temptations of Christ in Luke 4 echo and are echoed in how Luke portrays temptation throughout, starting with the first. This is a sort of Midrashic Exegesis, a type of reading that was very popular in and around the first century and that considers individual stories as mere chapters in a broader, unified story (I’m planning on having a few posts on this phenomenon later, but for now you can just see it in action!). When we read stories this way, it can help highlight details and make connections that we might not otherwise make.
Jesus is concluding his fasting and he is hungry and Satan comes and first tempts him with that hunger. “Why should the Son of God be hungry? Turn the stone into bread!” This temptation is not really about hunger, although hunger is what it plays on, but on his status as the Son of God. Why should the Son hunger? It might not be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (Mat 15.26), but certainly the children could turn stones into bread! And if God could raise up children of Abraham from these very stones (Luke 3), surely a little bread would be ok? Turning stone to bread would be no issue for the Son of God who multiplied the fish and the loaves (Luke 9.13). Jesus is tempted to act as more than just the Son of Man, tempted in every way as we are, he is tempted to act differently because he is someone special. Here, he would not have to follow the command he provides to the limited commission when he tells them to “take nothing with you on your journey, neither staff nor bag nor bread nor money” (Luke 9.3). Instead, he answers by looking at a different mindset:
“Nah, bro. I’m good.” -Jesus (probably)
And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger but fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Dtr 8.2–3).
And by this quotation we understand the type of Savior, the type of man, and the type of Son of God Jesus not only is but will be. A Son who abuses his power to remove the temptations of his earthly existence is not the Son who could later be able to teach his disciples to pray “give us this day only enough bread for today” (Luke 11.3). And, more importantly, not the type of Son who could take a loaf of bread and—after giving thanks—break it and give it to his disciples and say “This is my body, which is given for you.” Jesus does this not because he must—the son does not have to pay tax to the king (Mat 17.25)—but because he did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counted others as more significant than himself, who—even though he was in the form of God—did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man, humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross (Phil 2). And it is the cross that should always be in view when we read about the temptations of Jesus.
When we read the text this way, it brings up several points: Jesus is the Better Adam, the Son of God who resists the temptations of the Serpent when put to the test and refuses to set himself against God through the gifts of the serpent. Jesus is the better Israel, who trusts in God to provide his daily manna rather than complaining in the wilderness. Jesus is the better Moses, who does not strike the rock nor turn it to bread and thus does not have to gaze on the promised land from afar.  Jesus is the better Elijah, who—while being sustained by God—does not ask to be removed from the power of earthly tyrants, but says thy will be done. Jesus is the better David, a king who dies for his followers rather than sacrificing his own Uriahs to his whims.Satan’s influence may have cursed man to eat bread by the sweat of his face (Gen 3.19), but now the Son of Man comes to be our curse (Gal 3.13), refusing to break bread made from stone (Luke 4.3), but instead to be broken as bread in our place (Luke 22.19).

“Law and Gospel” (note the comparisons to Adam and the Serpent)

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

2 thoughts on “Midrashic Reading and the Temptation of Christ in Luke

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