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Finding God's Word in the 'Orchard'

What is the Jewish way of Bible interpretation?

There's a buzzword in the world of Jewish Bible interpretation. It's a Hebrew word, pardes, meaning "orchard". It's an acronym, but a dangerous one, as it derives from medieval Jewish mysticism, but we can still use it now that we have the knowledge of its origins. It's an acronym of four Jewish methods of Bible interpretation - p'shat, remez, d'rash and sod. It's the final component, sod, that provides the mystical element, delving into the area of secret meanings and numerical codes. Some of this is probably quite harmless and possibly even faith-building, but no-one is going to accuse me of leading folk astray, so out come the secateurs and, like any good gardener, my orchard has been well and truly pruned! Out goes the sod.

This leaves us with three methods of Biblical interpretation and we shall look at each in turn.

First we have p'shat, a word that means "simple rendering" and encourages us to first take the plain simple meaning of the Scripture you are reading. This is easy, no computers needed here. In fact this method is basically the same as the traditional Christian method mentioned in an earlier article, the Grammatical Historic method. In this you take the literal meaning of the text - the plain sense of what you are reading - with attention given to the grammar (the form of the words), the context (looking at the other verses before and after this one) and the historical meaning (who is talking, who is he talking to, where they are talking and when they were talking).

This is reading the Bible in the same way as we read anything, from a trashy novel to a motorcycle maintenance manual. We take the plain sense of what we are reading. When Lady Alice decides to take her butler Geoffrey on a cruise of the South Seas, we assume they are booking tickets on a liner rather than sharing some metaphysical vision. When you are warned against the engine oil of your motorbike falling below the minimum level, we are talking about a straight forward physical measurement, rather than an issue of the quality of the oil or making an allegorical statement about your moral standing. When God makes promises to Abraham about his descendants and where they will live, we can assume that is exactly what He is talking about, in its literal sense. That's how Jesus would have seen it.

The second method is remez, meaning "to hint". This goes a bit deeper and takes us into the areas of typology (where something in the Old Testament connects with something later on in the New Testament), symbolism (where something in the Old Testament represents something else) and allegory (which you have already met in an earlier article). Beware murky waters, because sharks and other predators lurk within, seeking to devour you. Because once we veer away from the safety of p'shat and its literal meaning we can fall prey to those (like some TV preachers) who claim special understandings. This is a mine-field, not only because of the charlatans of the Christian world but because of certain interpretations of Scripture that have been passed down from generation to generation, using the mind-set and tools developed by our Greek philosophers and their Christian devotees.

But let's look at Jesus. He made good use of remez. Along with all observant Jews of his day, he would have been thoroughly acquainted with Holy Scripture, which at that time was what we call the Old Testament. Much of it was committed to memory from an early age, particularly as most Jews did not have access to parchments of the written words. There was great zeal for the word of God. Of course they didn't have the distractions that face us today, competition from the television, radio, internet, books and other printed material. We fill our brains up with so much nonsense and trivia these days, it's a wonder that there's room left for God's word to settle, marinate and inspire.

There are some people today, known by some as aficionados, by others as nerds, who have such an encyclopaedic knowledge of some piece of entertainment that reminding them of just a snippet of dialogue would trigger a deluge of recollection. For example, mention tribbles to a Trekkie or the Ogron to a Dr Who fanatic and they will provide you with programme details, first viewing date, cast members and selective dialogue for the relevant episode. Believe it or not Jesus and his contemporaries were of the same ilk. For example, when Jesus was castigating the religious leaders in the Temple and called the place "a den of robbers", his listeners' minds immediately latched onto a piece of Scripture in the Book of Jeremiah, which spoke of "a den of robbers", and the full significance of the words would have been drummed home.

Jesus made use here of a technique called allusion. He alluded to, or made reference to, other known Scriptures in order to make a point. Because there was such a familiarity with Scripture, he only had to quote a few words from a verse to trigger whole passages of Scripture into his listeners' minds, from which the teaching point will be made. This is remez in action.

Next week we are going to explore this even further ...

Steve Maltz
July 2012

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