Friday, March 30, 2012

Levels of Biblical Interpretation

Found this while trolling today, a simple summary of an ancient concept.



The modern manner of interpreting Biblical text is commonly called exegesis. This method concerns itself mostly with the literary and grammatical context of Scripture verses. Practitioners of exegesis sometimes view anything beyond the literal text as "isogesis" and often pay it little heed to it, or regard it with suspicion. This is an unfortunate error, a result of a backlash against improper allegorizing of the Scriptures, resulting in a case where "the baby is thrown out with the bathwater."

With regard to the proper understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures in their proper context, including the "New Testament" books, there are in fact "levels" of interpretation that must be taken into consideration. This was the method used to write and interpret Scripture by the authors themselves as well as the audience of their time and culture.


The four level of interpretation are called: Parshat, Remez, D’rash & Sud. The first letter of each word P-R-D-S is taken, and vowels are added for pronunciation, giving the word PARDES (meaning "garden" or "orchard"). Each layer is deeper and more intense than the last, like the layers of an onion.

P'shat (pronounced peh-shaht' - meaning "simple")

The p'shat is the plain, simple meaning of the text. The understanding of scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the word’s being used, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. The p'shat is the keystone of Scripture understanding. If we discard the p'shat we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding and we are no longer objectively deriving meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis), but subjectively reading meaning into the scriptures (eisogesis). The Talmud states that no passage loses its p'shat:

Talmud Shabbat 63a - 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.

Note that within the p'shat you can find several types of language, including figurative, symbolic and allegorical. The following generic guidelines can be used to determine if a passage is figurative and therefore figurative even in its p'shat:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 (pronounced reh-mez' - meaning "hint")

This is where another (implied) meaning is alluded to in the text, usually revealling a deeper meaning. There may still be a p'shat meaning as well as another meaning as any verse can have multiple levels of meaning. An example of implied "REMEZ" Proverbs 20:10 -Different weights, and different measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the Lord.The p'shat would be concerned with a merchant using the same scale to weigh goods for all of his customers. The remez implies that this goes beyond this into aspects of fairness and honesty in anyone's life.

D’rash (pronounced deh-rahsh' also called "Midrash," meaning "concept")

This is a teaching or exposition or application of the P'shat and/or Remez. (In some cases this could be considered comparable to a "sermon.") For instance, Biblical writers may take two or more unrelated verses and combine them to create a verse(s) with a third meaning.

There are three rules to consider when utilizing the d'rash interpretation of a text:

  1. A drash understanding can not 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."
  2. Let scripture interpret scripture. Look for the scriptures themselves to define the components of an allegory.
  3. The primary components of an allegory represent specific realities. We should limit ourselves to these primary components when understanding the text.

Sud (pronounced either sawd, or sood [like "wood"] - meaning "hidden")

This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. An example most people are familiar with is Revelation 13:18, regarding the "beast" and the number "666."


Examples of the Remez, D'rash and Sud, can be found in Matthew as follows. (Of course the p'shat is throughout the text.) Without knowledge and application of the rules of PARDES, these verses would either not make sense or indicate an error on the part of the author:

Matthew 2:15 - "Out of Egypt I called my son." This is a quote from Hosea 11:1 that Matthew is applying to Yeshua. If we stuck to a literal exegesis only and researched the quote, we would have to accuse Matthew of improperly using Scripture, as Hosea is clearly speaking of the nation of Israel, and not the Messiah. Matthew however, is hinting (a remez) at the relationship between Israel and the Messiah, in this and other verses he uses.
Matthew 18:18 - "... Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" This is a verse that has been interpreted in numerous (incorrect) ways due to a lack of understanding that this ad'rash concerning decisions one makes in their personal "walk with God" (called your"halakha" in Hebrew/Judaism).
Matthew 26:28 - "Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them saying, Drink from it all of you, This is my blood ..." Taken literally this verse verse would not only be a violation of the Torah commandment against consuming blood, but along with other verses about eating Yeshua's flesh (John 6:51-56), could be grounds for accusations of cannibalism. There is a far deeper, more mystical meaning here however(the sud), even one that those who heard Him did not understand (John 6:52).

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