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Pardes - Hebrew Interpretation

Pardes refers to (types of) approaches to biblical exegesis (exposition, explanation; especially: an explanation or critical interpretation of a text). Examples of in rabbinic Judaism or to interpretation of text in Torah study. The term is an acronym formed from the name initials of the following four approaches:

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "simple" (straight forward) or the literal (direct) meaning.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints" or "suggestion" (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: "midrash" ("seek") — the comparative (Derashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences (teaching or learning).
  • Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in "sore'd") — "secret" ("mystery") or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning. The Peshat means the plain or contextual meaning of the text. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, and Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a "hint" is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word.

Pardes, which means "paradise" or "garden" in Hebrew, is an acronym for four Hebrew words: Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sod. These are the four levels of interpretation which the rabbis tell us can be applied to every passage of Scripture. Let us see what they mean, and see if we can find the Apostles using these same levels in their own interpretations of the Tanakh.

The road back to this most Biblical of interpretive methods is one which has been explored for hundreds of years. It is also tragic for the Church, by and large, abandoned its Jewish heritage and understanding. The increasing influence of the Greek worldview began to redefine Biblical truth on the basis of the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, instead of the context that produced it.

Centuries later, the early Puritans recognized the limitations of Protestant hermeneutics, as did the later Plymouth Brethren who sought a proper understanding of Biblical typology. In the 19th century the Plymouth Brethren tried to construct a model of Biblical interpretation that emphasized typology from the viewpoint of Tanakh foreshadowings of the new covenant. This may have been the closest that the predominantly Gentile Church has ever come to returning to its Jewish roots in the area of interpretation. . . . The Puritans John Robinson and John Lightfoot were among the first to recognize the need to restore a Jewish approach to Biblical interpretation along Midrashic lines with its sensitivities to typological patterns.

Peshat - "Simple" (straight forward) or the literal (direct) meaning

Peshat literally means "to make a road." It is the simplest level of interpreting Scripture: What it says is what it means. When the Bible says that God tested Abraham's faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, it means that God tested Abraham's faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. When God told the Israelites to keep certain Appointed Times (mo'edim) or Feasts during the year, they were supposed to literally keep those feasts. When Yeshua said that He had to be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, it means just that: He had to be lifted up on a wooden pole so that we could look to Him.

Peshat 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 Derash, Remez, or Sod, but always on the plain meaning of Scripture.

Not that seeking the Peshat is in itself a trivial exercise. Apologist J.P. Holding lists the various fields of knowledge a complete and thorough study of the Bible requires: · Linguistics/language · Literature · Textual criticism · Archaeology · Psychology · Social sciences · History/historiography. · Theology/philosophy · Logic

In some cases, understanding the plain meaning involves noting where a single unusual word-choice is made rather than the usual vocabulary of the author, or in finding out how the meaning and connotation of a word evolved over time. In other cases, a knowledge of a personage from secular sources reveals a different character than a shallow reading of the Scriptures would suggest. For example, a shallow reading of the Passion narratives often paints Pilate in a good light, a decent appointee who only crucified Y`Shua because of the railing of "the Jews," when a deeper examination of the event in light of what we know of Pilate's character reveals quite a different story, that of "a tough-minded Roman governor, contemptuous of his subjects and their leaders , resentful at an attempt to manipulate him for their own ends, cleverly, maliciously, turning the tables." Many well-meaning Christian commentators would agree with the above, but object that only the plain meaning of a passage should be followed: "When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense." However, as we will see, this is not the way the Apostles interpreted Scripture; are we to understand that we should follow their teachings but not their example as how to arrive at those teachings?

Let us then look at these other levels and examples of their use from the NT:

Remez - "hints" or "suggestion" (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense

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 as yet unfulfilled elements.

One example of a Remez is found in the Akkedah, the account of Isaac's "sacrifice" by his father Abraham. As we mentioned before, the Peshat 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" (Gen. 22:14). Note both the prophetic name and the expectation in the time of Moses (who wrote down the account) that this prophetic name would come to pass in that same place. And indeed, Adonai 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.

For another example, when the Israelites in the wilderness complained against Adonai, He punished them with venomous serpents. When the people cried out to Moses, God told him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, that all who might look on it should be healed (Num. 21). Given the Eternal One's explicit instructions against making "graven images" to worship—not that the people worshipped the serpent then, but they nevertheless looked to it for salvation, which came close in many respects—this seems a very odd thing for Him to tell Moses to do. This oddity is our "hint" of something deeper going on, and this "hint" is explained by Yeshua 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 our Lord became sin for us (2Co. 5:21) and accepted our judgment on the execution stake, the cross, in our place.

There are too many remezim (hints) of the Messiah in the Tanakh to list. Christian commentators speak of "types" of the Messiah. Some of these types are Derashim, only visible to us because we can look backwards through the lens of our Lord's life; others are "hinted" at by oddities in the text itself, as with the two examples above. Let us look at another Remez expounded by Matthew before moving on: "[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'" (Mat. 2:23).

For centuries, Christian commentators have been confused by Matthew's statement; where in prophecy was the Messiah called a Nazarine? Many have taken this to refer to some sort of Nazrite vow (cf. Num. 6), but Scripture does not record our Lord taking such a vow, or 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 Y`Shua's hometown:

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch (נצר) from his roots will bear fruit. (Isa. 11:1)

So then, we see that the Remez level of Scripture is indeed used by the Apostles. In our next section, we will look at another example that may be regarded as either Remez or Derash.

Note that no Remez can ever override the Peshat 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 are on the wrong track.

Derash - "insight" ("seek") — the comparative meaning, as given through similar occurrences (teaching or learning)

The word Derash literally means to "dig" or "search," while Derash 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." This form has long been understood and used by Christian commentators and pastors, though not by that name—we refer to it as an "application" of Scripture. 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. Likewise, Christian authors have written stories and novels expanding on the Biblical text about the lives of the people of the Bible for centuries. Such stories can only be used to illustrate, not to create new doctrine, of course. A comparison between words in seemingly unrelated texts. This again is not foreign to Christian studies—many of my Sunday brethren are familiar with the concept of doing "word studies," especially when interpreting prophetic symbols. The "law of first mention," in which the first place a particular concept, item, or place is mentioned in Scripture is usually very significant in setting the tone for that subject thereafter, would also fall under this manner of Derash. As we can see, Derash is not a concept far from Christian hermeneutics; the difference is primarily one of degree, not of fact: The rabbis, for example, will often go much farther to connect two concepts in Scripture than their Christian contemporaries. So will the Apostles.

For example, in 1Co. 9:9 and 1Ti. 5:18, Paul quotes Deu. 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. Paul, a disciple of the famed Rabbi Gameliel, Derashically 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 much about, carrying out Adonai's ministry!

For another example, in Mat. 2:15, Matthew cites Hos. 11:1 as a Messianic prophecy predicting Yeshua'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 (per Exo. 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. Never in a thousand years would any Western Christian commentator, using "plain sense" hermeneutics, apply this passage to the Messiah—yet that's exactly what Matthew does! Is he mistaken? Is the NT flawed?

Far from it. Rather, Matthew is simply building a Derash: Israel is called God's son, and so is the Messiah (2Sa. 7:14, Psa. 2:2ff). Matthew, looking back at Yeshua's early life, sees that Yeshua 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, Yeshua walked perfectly in God's ways.

Stern states his belief that Matthew is not making a Derash, 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 Yeshua's flight to Egypt a "fulfillment" of Hosea 11:1.

This fact, that the Messiah Yeshua stands for and is ultimately identified with his people Israel, is an extremely important corporate aspect of the Gospel generally neglected in the individualistically oriented Western world. The individual who trusts Yeshua becomes united with him and is "immersed" (baptized; see 3:1&N) into all that Yeshua is . . . [T]he Messiah personifies or is identified intimately with Israel . . .

It is because Messiah is one with Israel and vice-versa that we Gentiles who trust in Him can be grafted into the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11:16ff).

Just as with the Remez, no Derash may ever violate the least word of the plain text. The purpose of Derash 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 Peshat.

Sod - "secret" ("mystery") or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation

This final, deepest level of meaning is one that we have to treat with the utmost caution. It did indeed give rise to Kabalah, and more than any other level of interpretation has the potential to lead us astray. However, it can only lead us astray if we abandon the road of the Peshat in pursuit of our mystical conjectures.

What is the Sod? I define it as "a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like. . . The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters."

The most obvious example of a Sod in the NT is the famous Number of the Beast. 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 (666) 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.

There are probably other, better examples however. For example, Ivan Panin devoted over fifty years of his life to exploring the numerical structure of the B'rit Hadashah, discovering that over and over again, the number 7 was imprinted all over the text.

In Judaism Sod-level interpretation requires 'semicha lerabbanut' (rabbinical ordination) who is well—versed in the first three levels of bibical interpretation as a precursor to Sod-level interpretation. However, for spirit-filled Bible believing Christians who have a good understanding of the first three levels the Bible itself verifies digging into it by providing Sod (revelation by the Holy Spirit) which simply stands to prove the inspiration of the text!

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