Saturday, December 05, 2015

Below the Surface

A few thoughts for our Christian readers that I’ve condensed (and hopefully not distorted too badly) from R’B’s excellent series on interpreting scripture via the Jewish perspective. The original posts may be found here, here, here and here.

Orthodox Judaism seeks to understand the first five books of our Old Testament (for them, the Torah) on four levels. These principles may also be applied to the rest of the scriptures.

Having read about schools of thought like Kabbalah, which originated in Judaism, I feared rabbinical exegesis might be a bit wacky and mystical. For the most part that does not appear to be the case.

The PaRDeS Approach

In many ways the PaRDeS approach is similar to the disciplines some groups of evangelicals bring to the study of the word of God. PaRDeS is an acronym for:


These are the four accepted Jewish levels of scripture interpretation.

 Peshat or p’shat = Literal or Plain Meaning

P’shat means “to make a road”. It is the simplest and most important way of interpreting the word of God. It forms the foundation of all scriptural understanding. It involves reading the scriptures in their natural, normal sense, retaining the customary meanings of words, acknowledging literary style, recognizing historical and cultural setting and respecting context. I say “literal”, but the first-level meaning of the text may also include figurative language, metaphor and so on, as in:
“The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.”
Though Isaiah uses imagery here (making it non-literal in its strictest sense), the most obvious reading of the text is that God’s earthly people may be compared to a vineyard.

The church tradition in which I grew up (along with a number of this blog’s regular readers, it seems) prizes an equivalent to the p’shat called literal interpretation. Most evangelicals have been taught to approach the scripture searching primarily for this level of meaning, seeking to understand how the text of scripture would have been understood by its original readers (or the words of a preacher by his original audience).

I am convinced this is the most critical level of meaning to be uncovered when sharing the Bible with a general audience. Even when specific, personal application of a passage is overlooked, provided that the p’shat is clearly laid out then the Spirit of God is free to apply his truth as needed to the hearts of those who hear. But if the literal meaning is unclear, all manner of confusion may result. You cannot build well on a faulty foundation.

Thus finding the p’shat is Job One. But other levels of meaning do exist, and the writers of scripture attest to these.

 Remez = Allegorical Meaning

Remez means “hint”. It is the suggestion of something deeper than the literal meaning that has been intentionally embedded in the text.

Typology is the Christian equivalent of the remez. As a young Christian, I loved this allegorical way of looking at the word of God and did a great deal of Hebrew and Greek word study seeking these sorts of “hints”. But my enthusiasm for study of the remez (beyond the instances in which Christ and the apostles plainly engage in it, of course) waned considerably after struggling with a series of interpretations concerning the gates of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem that seemed to me more fanciful than factual. I have found studies of typology in the tabernacle and Old Testament sacrifices alternately edifying and perplexing. Wherever speculation exists, there is always a chance of whimsy overwhelming truth.

Still, truth in scripture is revealed by means of remez over and over again. We cannot afford to ignore the fact that this level of meaning exists. Our studies and our teaching will be the poorer if we do.

I think of Abraham telling Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son”. In a literal sense this is untrue. Isaac, the intended sacrifice, was not a lamb, and neither was the ram caught in a thicket that became his immediate replacement that day on Moriah.

There is a powerful spiritual hint here of a Lamb to come millennia down the road from Abraham. John the Baptist picks up on this when he declares “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Would you wish to be deprived of such an interpretation in the interests of remaining slavishly literal? I would not. The intent is clearly there in the mind of God, and we are the richer for having it shared with us.

The danger of remez is that we may introduce into our interpretations our own fancies rather than genuine seeds planted by the Spirit of God. Thankfully, we are preserved from too much frivolous exegesis by the sheer number of “hints” in the Torah which are picked up on and expounded for us by the Lord Jesus and the apostles.

There is plenty of genuine remez to contemplate without me introducing my own goofy take.

 Midrash = Deeper Meaning or Personal Application

The concept of midrash is interesting. It means to learn by digging (drash is literally “to dig”). This digging can take several forms, not all of which are equally legitimate or authoritative. Like remez, this method of interpretation exposes the student to the potentially derailment of his own whimsy. But also like remez it is clearly in use in the scripture on numerous occasions.

One example of a NT midrash is Paul’s use of the commands in the Law respecting oxen as the basis for the general principle by which the servants of Christ are to be cared for. R’B says:
“For example, in I Corinthians 9:9 and I Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and applies it to himself in his ministry. How does he do so? In both cases, the issue is one of withholding needed support (food/supplies) from the one doing work.

R’Sha’ul (Paul), a disciple of Rabbi Gamliel, midrashically connects the concepts and builds a kal v’chomer (‘light and heavy’) argument, what we would call an a fortiori (‘from [even] greater strength’) argument: If G-d commanded that not even oxen, which He cares relatively little about, could be withheld from support (food) when working, how much more should we give support to the men, whom G-d cares much about, carrying out the L-rd’s work.”
All personal applications of scripture are considered by the rabbis to be variants of the midrash.

Now, personal applications are exceedingly common in evangelical circles. In fact, we’re constantly complaining that the study of scripture is not practical enough for us, meaning “not personally relevant to me, here, right now”, and therefore somehow deficient. Sometimes we leap to individualistic interpretations in our studies before we have fully understood or even considered the original, literal reading of a passage (p’shat). We seize upon something in the word of God that appeals to us and extract whatever we can get from it.

Naturally all applications of scripture are not equally legitimate or edifying. I am particularly taken with the idea that the more legitimate Old Testament midrashim find their fulfillment in the person of Christ. It would explain his words on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Many of the things which the prophets spoke less opaquely concerning Messiah were commonly understood within Judaism at the time of Christ, though of course there were differences of opinion extant. So I suspect much of what the Lord revealed to his disciples on the road to Emmaus that day was midrashic rather than literal. Note that he began “with Moses” in his exposition, not just the prophets. That would be the Law, the tabernacle, the offerings and so on.

There is much, much more to the midrash, and much to be careful of in its use, but recognizing the technique when you see it is the first step to understanding it.

 Sod = Secret or Mystical Meaning

Sod is the search for scriptural meaning at the equivalent of the atomic level.

I have heard about the sod level of interpretation in evangelical circles, but never too credibly. Sod may involve mystical or hidden meanings reached by calculating the numerical values of Hebrew letters, by letter transpositions or even unusual spellings. The idea is that the smallest details of scripture are invested with spiritual meaning. R’B says this:
“The most obvious example of a sod in the Greek Writings (i.e. New Testament) is the famous Number of the Beast. An example most people are familiar with is Revelation 13:18, regarding the ‘beast’ and the number ‘666.’ As early as Irenaeus, it was understood that the name of the Antichrist, when rendered into Hebrew and/or Greek letters, would add up to the number of six hundred and sixty-six according to the numerology of those alphabets. And while the text comes out and states this to be the number, many authors nevertheless regard this as a sod.”
Assuming it actually exists anywhere other than in the minds of its students, the sod would be the deepest level of meaning to the scriptures, but also the least accessible and profitable for life and godliness.

Since parsing scripture for the sort of meaning that may be ascertained by way of sod would have been utterly impossible to most believers at most times and in most places throughout human history, I cannot believe sod is of significant value to the Christian today, let alone in the church.

In Summary

That said, we have an infinite God who is perfectly capable of providing us his word in a way that contains instantly accessible surface meaning along with layers and layers of truth beneath it such that all of eternity would not allow us to explore it to its limits. For all I know, every letter of scripture may be riddled with sod, and if it is there, it is surely there for good reason.

Perhaps it is for the angels to read. 

The sad thing is that for so many in this world, even the surface meaning of the scripture is inaccessible.

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