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Hinting at meanings in the Hebrew Scriptures

What is the remez method of Bible interpretation?

Last week we moved into the area of Bible interpretation. We looked at remez, "to hint", taking us into the areas of typology, symbolism and allegory.

Here's another example. Consider this passage in Matthew, Jesus' escape to Egypt.

"When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." (Matthew 2:13-15)

Perhaps you have been confused by the last few words, "Out of Egypt I called my son." It seems to be referring to Jesus, already described in the Nativity narrative, in Matthew Chapter 1, as God's son.

The passage in Matthew Chapter 2 states that this is a fulfilment of what the Lord said through a prophet. The prophet in mind is Hosea, who quoted God in the words:

"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." (Hosea 11:1)

Matthew stated that Jesus' return from Egypt fulfilled Hosea's prophecy, yet it clearly doesn't read that way - Hosea is speaking about Israel, not Jesus! So the p'shat, the plain reading of the Hosea verse does not square up with Matthew's words. So, instead we look at remez and ask whether a truth is being hinted at.

Jesus and other First Century Jews would have known that there are places in Scripture where Israel is seen as God's son:

"Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son,'" (Exodus 4:22)

"They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel's father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son." (Jeremiah 31:9)

So, when Matthew described Jesus' return from Egypt as "Out of Egypt I called my son", his readers would see the connection with Hosea 11:1, the link being the idea of "God's son". It is a remez, a hint. By stating Jesus' return as a fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy, Matthew is reinforcing Jesus' role as God's real flesh-and-blood first-born son.

Another form of remez would be going a little deeper and using the technique we have already heard about, allegory. We have seen these techniques when we looked at Origen and Augustine and how they derived their allegorical methods from the teachings of Plato. So is all allegory bad? There's a real danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water, as there is good allegory and bad allegory. In a nutshell, good allegory has been put there by God to give us a deeper truth and a bad allegory is the product of a human mind that either rejects the literal reading of the text and/or feels that they have a "special revelation" to interpret the text in a certain way.

Here is a good allegory. Jesus being referred to as the Lamb of God, or referring to himself as the good shepherd. These can be backed up by Old Testament Scriptures, from Isaiah and Ezekiel and connections can be made.

"He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)

"'My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.'" (Ezekiel 37:24)

Then there is bad allegory ... and we stumble into a minefield. Of course, this is just my opinion and I will now state categorically that I'm a p'shat man. I believe that, in common with Jesus and the First Century Jewish Christians, the Bible is to be understood, in the first instance, in its literal sense, as p'shat. For those who disagree, the only refuge is allegory. Either you believe in the clear narrative of certain Bible passages, or you don't believe them and spiritualise them as allegory. But there are consequences. I will now briefly rush through just three scenarios.

Creation: Either you believe in the literal six days of Creation or you see it mostly as poetry. The consequence of a literal reading is usually ridicule by the scientific community, the media and other Christians. The consequences of an allegorical reading are an unwillingness to believe that God could create the Universe with such ease and intricacy and an acceptance of secular scientific explanations as promoted by our educational system.

The Fall: Either you believe in a literal Adam and Eve and serpent scenario or you believe that it's just a spiritualised story. The consequence of a literal reading is usually ridicule by the scientific community, the media and other Christians. The consequence of an allegorical reading is a confused theology that can't see Jesus as the "Last Adam", as the first never physically existed.

"So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven." (1 Corinthians 15:45-47)

Israel: Either you believe that Jews are still literally God's people (along with the Church) and the literal promises regarding the Land of Israel still stand or you don't and allegorise the Scriptures to imply God's "spiritual" people have replaced God's "natural" people (shades of dualism here, please note). The consequence of the latter position, known as Replacement Theology, has fuelled 1500 years of Christian anti- Semitism, leading to genocide, though it must be stated that not all who accept this theological position are Jew-haters.

This has just been a simplification of three areas that are hot topics in today's Church. All that I ask is that you re-examine your position on these topics and ask yourself if these are inherited beliefs or whether you have sincerely and prayerfully worked through the issues.

Steve Maltz
July 2012

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