By Randy Limbird
Last month I talked about how, after decades of reading the Bible, there is still so much more that I don’t know than what I know. I mentioned a podcast, found at bemadiscipleship.com, which has been exploring the Bible through weekly episodes since 2016. Every so often they detour from the main text to discuss some broader topics, and recently I heard their message about “Jewish hermeneutics.”
Hermeneutics has to do with how we interpret text. The podcast leader, Marty Solomon, listed four main “levels” of Biblical interpretation in Jewish religious teaching, using the Hebrew words:
• “P’shat” refers to the literal reading of the text. It’s the approach most of us take when we start reading the Bible. We read the words on the page and acquire basic knowledge of what’s going on. It’s a surface level way of understanding Scripture, but it’s also essential. It’s not much different from how we read a newspaper, textbook or manual.
• “Remez” is about looking for hidden treasures in the text, and requires broad familiarity with Scripture. In Jesus’ day, people memorized vast amounts of sacred text, and a teacher would rely on that knowledge to lace his teaching with tacit references and allusions.
Nearly everything that Jesus taught and did contained imagery from the Hebrew sacred texts. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as when he referred to the “sign of Jonah.” But sometimes it’s very subtle.
For example, when Jesus is asleep in the boat while a storm rages over the lake (Mark 4), there’s a striking correspondence again to Jonah, who also was sleeping on a boat during a storm (compare Mark 4:35-41 to Jonah 1:4-6).
Are they related somehow and what’s the meaning if they are? In Jewish teaching, the search for such connections and their significance was open-ended. These “remezes” are pointers telling us to dig deeper.
Other examples include the use of various numbers, which in Jewish tradition almost always carried meanings besides quantity (such as the number 7, which signifies completeness); and literary devices such as inverted parallelism, in which the climax of the teaching is usually found in the middle, not the end.
• “Drash” is the story within the story, the deeper truth being taught. Go back to Mark 4, but the first part of the chapter where Jesus concludes the parable of the sower with “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (verse 9). Jesus did not expect people to get it; he was planting seeds of truth just like in the story he was telling. Truth has to take root and grow before it can become productive.
We live in an impatient society, so if we set aside time to read the Bible we expect instant insight. But in Jewish rabbinic teaching, knowledge was not the ultimate goal. Knowledge was valuable only insofar as it led to godly character. And that takes time.
In Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Revelation, the person receiving a vision is instructed to eat a part of a sacred scroll. Likewise we should seek to fully digest Scripture and let it become part of us.
• “Sod,” the final level of Jewish hermeneutics, refers to the supernatural mystery of God’s truth that we cannot arrive at on our own but only by revelation. It cannot be taught, but good teaching will prepare the earnest student to someday arrive at that deepest understanding. This level of truth cannot be understood by the mind alone, nor can it be objectively described. It is the truth that transforms us and forever alters not just how we understand the world around us but who we are as persons.
Randy Limbird is editor of
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