Dueling Midrash: Satan vs. Jesus in the Temptation in the Wilderness (Part 1)


Read the series.

(Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13)

Most Christians do not think of Jesus’ wilderness temptation as including extensive debate between two rabbis who were arguing over midrash (appropriate interpretation). The debate between Jesus and Satan could well have been an extensive debate; perhaps many Bible passages were hurled back and forth with only a few summary examples mentioned.

Applying Scriptures to our decisions (based upon a Scriptural principle) is an example of midrash. This differs from the straightforward commands (mitzvah) of Scripture where the text itself directs us in concrete situations. So when Satan urges Yeshua to leap off the temple pinnacle because God promises in the Psalms to protect the righteous—his argument is nothing less than midrash, albeit inappropriate midrash. Nonetheless, there is a certain logic to it.

How did Matthew, Mark and Luke hear about the temptation event, since no others were present? The best answer is that Jesus Himself informed them, perhaps during the second set of 40 days between His resurrection and ascension.

Allusions to Eden

When dealing with the 40 days of fasting and temptation of Christ, we have already noted parallels to the lives of both Elijah and Moses. Others find parallels to the 40 year wilderness wandering experiences.1 I would like add another consideration: the contrast between Jesus’ temptation and Adam’s.

Adam enjoyed a luxurious garden while Jesus wandered in desolate wilderness. Mark’s brief account (1:12-13) highlights two other contrasts:

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

Adam was carefully fashioned from the dust of the earth and animated by the very breath of God (Genesis 2:7); Jesus was “flung” (or “driven”) by the Spirit into the wilderness. Adam named the animals, all presumably tame at the time; Jesus was endangered by wild animals, according to Mark. In Eden, the angels guarded the Tree of Life while angels ministered to Jesus after His temptation (Matthew 4:11). Most importantly, Adam surrendered to temptation while Yeshua surrendered to the Father.

For Jesus, the temptation experience may have served a dual purpose: it was certainly a time of testing but probably also a time of preparation as Yeshua communed with the Father.

The Midrashic Debate Between Satan and Yeshua

The gospel accounts are brief summaries; the authors included or excluded details to suit their purposes. While we can only be certain of that which is recorded, we know much is left out.2 Reminding ourselves that truth is not necessarily whole truth will help us avoid simplistic narrowness. Satan and Jesus obviously spoke more words than are recorded in the synoptics. Mark records none, while Matthew and Luke record the gist of the three temptations and their rebuttals.

Shakespeare astutely observed, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” What the Great Bard may not have realized was that Satan does more than cite Scripture, he is also a master of midrash. And midrashic debate could get intense.3

The Matthew and Luke accounts are similar to one another, in that they present three distinct temptations. We can note at least one midrash by Satan and three by Jesus. The main difference between these accounts is sequence.4

We will use Matthew’s order for our comments. Since Jesus dismisses Satan after Matthew’s final temptation, Matthew likely presents the actual sequence.

The First Temptation: Turning a Stone into Bread

The first temptation—turning a stone into bread—may not sound like a midrash. But if Jesus truly was the Son of God and greater than even Elijah, He ought to be able to do what Elijah did. Notice this passage from 1 Kings 19:4-8 (CSB) with all its parallels:

…but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my fathers.” Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.

Suddenly, an angel touched him. The angel told him, “Get up and eat.” Then he looked, and there at his head was a loaf of bread baked over hot stones, and a jug of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. Then the angel of the Lord returned for a second time and touched him. He said, “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.” So he got up, ate, and drank. Then on the strength from that food, he walked 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Although these similarities could be coincidental, I think not.

If Elijah could eat miraculously produced bread to sustain him for 40 days (the logic goes), surely Jesus was entitled to a loaf of bread after 40 days. Whether the devil used this argument or not, we can be confident he applied some justification for this temptation.

Jesus’ response is more than a mere recitation of Scripture (as potent as that might be); it is an answer to an argument. The full verse from which Jesus quoted (and He may have quoted the whole portion) reads:

He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

The Torah text itself teaches that fasting’s purpose was to promote dependence upon God and—more particularly—His Word. Turning a stone into bread would be an act of independence and thwart the entire purpose of fast in the first place. Being hungry could be in the will of God and, in fact, promote humility. The Son was not about to act independently of the Father, but He would wait for the Lord’s timing.

Yeshua expressed His laser-sharp perspective in John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Notice in this first temptation, Satan wasn’t asking Jesus to do something that was not directly condemned by the Torah. There is no mitzvah (commandment) against turning a stone into bread. The temptation was not proven sinful until Yeshua argued the case based upon the nature of fasting itself. It is not until the final temptation that Satan discards midrash and unmasks his utter contempt for God’s Word.

We will address the last two temptations in the next installment.


1 G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, pp. 14-18.

2 John 20:30-31 reminds us there is much we do not have, but that we do have enough information to believe and have eternal life: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

3 “The students of Beit Shammai stood below them and began to kill the students of Beit Hillel. It was taught: Six of them ascended and the others stood over them with swords and lances.” Quoted from the Jerusalem Talmud, 4:1 by Rabbi Gavin Michael of Kotzk Blog, https://www.kotzkblog.com/2018/02/165-did-beit-shamai-murder-some-of.ht…, accessed 3-22-23.

4 “Some of the material is organized along thematic lines, some according to a loose chronology, still other pericopes are linked by some combination of catchwords, themes, OT attestation, genre, and logical coherence. The result is not exactly a history, biography, theology, confession, catechism, tract, homage, or letter—though it is in some respects all these. It is a ‘Gospel,’ a presentation of the ‘good news’ of Jesus the Messiah.” (D.A. Carson, “Introduction to Matthew”, Expositors Commentary, Vol.8. Zondervan, 1984, p.38, 39).

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at edvasicek.com. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.