THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Taking a ‘Sharp Knife’ to the Talmud. Daf Yomi: Interpreters of ancient Jewish law ‘often give the impression of doing whatever needs to be done to make the Bible mean what they want it to mean.’ The title (for which I imagine Mr. Kirsch is not responsible) is a little off. The issue in the essay is how the Talmudic sages "take a sharp knife" to the scriptures.
Scriptural interpretation in Second Temple Jewish texts and the Talmud sometimes gives the appearance of arbitrary eisegesis. Nevertheless, these exegetes worked with a clear set of rules that made perfect sense to them. They belived that all scripture was revealed by prophetic inspiration. Therefore every word was meaningful and nothing was accidental. And any scriptural passage could potentially be used to interpret an obscurity in any other passage. A favorite way of doing this was to take a difficult word in one passage and interpret it in light of how it is used in another passage (the "catchword" principle.
Some of their conclusions seem ill-founded from our historical-critical perspective today, but they believed that they were being logical and rigorous in their exegesis.
We spent quite a bit of time looking at the exegesis of scripture in my course on Ancient Jewish Literature from 1 Enoch to the Mishnah this semester.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.