Although the Bible has impacted the West like no other writing in history, a strictly Western approach to interpreting and understanding the Bible presents obstacles which may limit our understanding and even deprive of us a much deeper and richer meaning that is present within the Scriptures. I would like to offer up another approach to Biblical hermeneutics that I hope might serve to open the door to a richer understanding of God’s Word and also provide another useful tool for personal study. The exegetical method is encapsulated in a Hebrew acronym, PaRDeS, which is presented in more detail below. The following has been compiled, adapted, and summarized from a variety of Hebrew sources. Although there is a lot to consider, this is a basic introduction and an example of one approach to Jewish exegesis.
Pardes is rooted in a Jewish tradition that conveys the Sages’ vision of paradise as spending eternity sitting near the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden learning Torah. PARDES is an exegetical approach to understanding the Scriptures in their proper context which employs four “levels” of interpretation:
Peshat = Literal or plain meaning; the contextual, philological level
Remez = Allegorical meaning; cross-reference to other texts
Derash = Moral or homiletic meaning
Sod = Secret or mystical meaning
The initial letters of these four words form the acronym ‘PaRDeS‘ which, when translated, means ‘garden’ or ‘walled garden’ or ‘Paradise’.
P’shat, the Safe and Sure Road
P’shat literally means “to make a road.” It is the simplest level of interpreting Scripture: What it says is what it means. P’shat is also the most important level of interpreting Scripture. As its name suggests, it is like a road winding through the wilderness. To the side of the road are the other levels of interpretation, there to be explored, and as long as we always keep the road in sight and return to it when we are done with our excursion, we’re safe.
But when we forget the road, the plain meaning of Scripture, then we get into trouble. Therefore, doctrine should never be made solely on a perceived midrash, remez, or sod, but always on the plain meaning of Scripture. In other words, it is critical that the p’shat, the plain meaning of the text, is never compromised in our exegesis. It forms the foundation of all of our exegesis and understanding.
P’shat entails the understanding of the Scriptures in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the words being used, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. The p’shat is the cornerstone of Scriptural understanding. If we compromise the p’shat, we will fail to accurately understand and no longer objectively derive any real meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis), but rather will find ourselves subjectively reading meaning into the scriptures (eisogesis). The Sages are careful to emphasize that no passage ever loses its p’shat:
Rabbi Kahana objected to Mar son of Rabbi Huna: But this refers to the words of the Torah? A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning, he replied. (cf. Talmud Shabbat 63a)
Within the p’shat several types of language may be employed: figurative, symbolic, and allegorical. The following generic guidelines will help determine whether or not a passage is figurative and, if so, also figurative even in its p’shat:
When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is figurative.
Example: Isaiah 5:7 – “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.”
When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is figurative.
Example: Zechariah 5:1-3 – “Then I turned, and lifted up my eyes, and looked, and behold a flying scroll. And he said to me, what do you see? And I answered, I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits. And he said to me, this is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth; for everyone who steals shall be cut off henceforth, according to it; and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off henceforth, according to it.”
When an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement is figurative.
Example: Psalm 17:8 – “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of your wings.”
Remez: Following the Hints
The second level of Biblical interpretation is the remez, literally the “hint” of something deeper. This “hint” can be something as simple as the name of a place, as subtle as a misspelled word, or as obvious as a prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled.
One example of a remez is found in the account of Isaac’s “sacrifice” (i.e. the akeidah, the binding of Isaac) by his father Abraham. The p’shat meaning is that God was testing Abraham’s faith. However, there is also a hint of something else in the narrative: “Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (cf. Genesis 22:14).
Both the prophetic name and the expectation in the time of Moses was that this prophetic name would come to pass in that same place. And indeed, the Lord did provide on that very same mountain a Son for a sacrifice in place of Isaac, and in place of all of us. This “hint” of a prophetic name is our clue pointing beyond the simple test of Abraham’s faith to the Messiah.
Another example is when the Israelites in the wilderness complained against the Lord and He punished them with venomous serpents. When the people cried out to Moses, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, that all who might look on it should be healed (cf. Numbers 21).
This oddity is our “hint” of something deeper going on, and this “hint” is explained by Yeshua (Jesus) Himself in John 3:14-15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
Just as the serpent represents sin, so the bronze serpent represents sin judged on a stake, just as the Messiah became sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21) and accepted our judgment on the execution stake, the tree, in our place.
There are remezim of the Messiah in the Tanakh (Old Testament). A Christian equivalent of remez might be “types.” Some of these types are midrashim, only visible to us because we can look backwards through the lens of the Messiah’s life; others are “hinted” at by oddities in the text itself, as with the two examples above. Let’s consider another remez expounded by Matthew:
“[Yeshua] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (cf. Matthew 2:23).
For centuries, Christian commentators have been confused by Matthew’s statement; where in prophecy was the Messiah ever called a Nazarene? Many have taken this to refer to some sort of Nazerite vow (cf. Num. 6), but Scripture does not record the Messiah taking such a vow, let alone explain how it would be related to the town of His birth. The answer is found in the proper spelling of Nazareth: Natzeret (נצרת), coming from the Hebrew word netzer (נצר), meaning branch, not nazir (נזיר), a nazarite. Matthew seems to be reading a “hint” of a Messianic prophecy in the very name of Jesus’ hometown:
Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch (נצר) from his roots will bear fruit. (Isa. 11:1)
Note that no remez can ever override the p’shat of Scripture. If we think we have found a hint of something deeper, but this deeper thing violates any plain meaning of any passage, then we have wandered off the road of p’shat.
Midrash: Digging Deeper
The word drash literally means to “dig” or “search,” while midrash means “teaching” or “learning.” This digging deeper into the Scriptures can take several forms:
A homiletical approach to Scripture, reading back into the text one’s own situation in order to apply them to that situation. Stern writes, “The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.”
Creating a fuller story around the Biblical text to illustrate a Biblical truth. For example, the rabbis developed stories about Abraham’s hospitality in general in expounding on his specific hospitality to the three visitors in Gen. 18.
A comparison between words in seemingly unrelated texts.
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 (the Apostle 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 God 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 God cares about much more than oxen, carrying out the Lord’s work.
For another example, in Matthew 2:15, Matthew cites Hos. 11:1 as a Messianic prophecy predicting the Messiah’s return from Egypt. The problem arises when we look at Hosea in its original context:
When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. The more they called them, the more they went from them; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in My arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, and I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; and I bent down and fed them. They will not return to the land of Egypt; but Assyria–he will be their king because they refused to return to Me. (vv. 1-5)
It is obvious that Hosea was referring not to an individual Messiah as God’s Son, but to the whole of Israel (cf. Exodus 4:22). Indeed, we see that the passage is an accusatory one, convicting this “son” of turning to idolatry despite his Father’s love until He had no choice but to punish him. How could this possibly apply to the Messiah, Who never rebelled against His Father and was without sin?
Matthew is building a midrash: Israel is called God’s son, and so is the Messiah (2Sa. 7:14, Psa. 2:2ff). Matthew, looking back at Jesus’ early life, sees that Jesus indeed also came out of Egypt, and therefore applies this passage to Him. The unspoken implication is that where Israel went astray after coming out of Egypt, Jesus walked perfectly in God’s ways. A similar case could be made for Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness which parallels Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Others may argue that Matthew is not making a drash, but a remez instead:
Thus the Son equals the son: the Messiah is equated with, is one with, the nation of Israel. There is the deep truth Matthew is hinting at by calling Jesus’ flight to Egypt a “fulfillment” of Hosea 11:1.
This fact, that the Messiah stands for and is ultimately identified with his people Israel, is an extremely important corporate aspect of the Gospel that is generally neglected in the Western world. The individual who trusts in the Messiah becomes united with him and is “immersed” into all that the Messiah is; in other words, the Messiah personifies or is identified intimately with Israel and it is because the Messiah is one with Israel and vice-versa that non-Jews who trust in Him can be grafted into the olive tree of Israel as well (cf. Rom. 11:16ff).
There are three rules to keep in mind when utilizing the d’rash interpretation of a text:
A drash understanding cannot be used to strip a passage of its p’shat meaning, nor may any such understanding contradict the p’shat meaning of any other scripture passage. As the Talmud states, “No passage loses its p’shat.”
Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Look for the Scriptures themselves to define the components of an allegory.
The primary components of an allegory represent specific realities. We should limit ourselves to these primary components when understanding the text.
Just as with the remez, no midrash may ever violate the least word of the plain text. The purpose of midrash is to expound upon the text and to cross-reference various passages into a composite whole, not to create new doctrines that cannot be arrived at by the p’shat.
The Secret of Sod
What is the sod? This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. Sod also may involve the mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like, implying that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters and spaces between the words.
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.
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