One can almost hear the roars of
disbelief and outrage that the title of this article will spur in many of the
opponents of the Hebrew Roots movement and Messianic Judaism. One vocal
opponent has referred to midrash as just the “camel’s nose” in the tent
that needs to be shoved back out before the whole camel of “the newest attempt
at Judaizing Christianity by the exponents of the Hebrew Roots Movement.”
Why is this article called “The Way
of Paradise”? Well, first off, notice what I didn’t call it: The Way
to Paradise. I agree completely that Yeshua HaMashiach, Jesus Christ if you
prefer, is the only way of Salvation. This is not an article about salvation,
but about interpretation, hermeneutics, how we understand the Bible.
It is also not a unique article by
any stretch. This topic has been explored by many others, including Chuck
Pattern, not Just Prediction: Midrash Hermeneutics, and
Midrash by Jacob Prasch. It is also discussed in numerous places in David
Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary, and nearly all of D. Thomas
The title is a take off of an old
rabbinic mnemonic: Pardes, which means “paradise” or “garden” in Hebrew,
is an acronym for four Hebrew words: P’shat, remez, drash, 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 road back to this most Biblical
of interpretive methods is not one that has only been undertaken by those of us
in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic movements, but one which has been explored for
hundreds of years at least. As Missler writes in the aforementioned article,
But it was also tragic for the
Church as it 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 Old Testament 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.
As a personal aside, my family traces
its lineage back to the Mayflower. It is with a sense of honor, therefore, that
I continue exploring this Paradise that my ancestors re-discovered (though
centuries behind my Jewish brethren) over four centuries ago.
P’shat, the Safe and Sure Road
P’shat 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.
P’shat 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
midrash, remez, or sod, but always on the plain meaning of Scripture.
Not that seeking the P’shat is
in itself a trivial exercise.
Apologist J.P. Holding lists the “various fields of knowledge a complete
and thorough (not to say sufficient for intelligent discourse, though few
even reach that pinnacle, especially in the critical realm) study of the Bible
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 Yeshua 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
Let us then look at these other
levels and examples of their use from the NT:
Remez: Following the Hints
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
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 p’shat 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
There are too many remezim of
the Messiah in the Tanakh to list. Christian commentators speak of
“types” of the Messiah. Some of these types are midrashim, 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.
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 Yeshua’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 drash.
Note that no remez can ever
override the p’shat 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.
Midrash: Digging Deeper
The word drash literally means
to “dig” or “search,” while midrash 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
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 midrash.
As we can see, midrash 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
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, midrashically
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
Far from it. Rather, Matthew is
simply building a midrash: 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 drash, 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 Mattityahu 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
midrash may ever violate the least word of the plain text. The purpose of
midrash 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 p’shat.
The Secret of Sod
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 p’shat in pursuit of our mystical conjectures.
What is the sod? Stern
defines 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
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
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 New Testament, discovering that over
and over again, the number 7 was imprinted all over the text.
For example, we find in the genealogy of Yeshua in the opening chapter of
·The number of words which are nouns is exactly
56, or 7 x 8.
·The Greek word "the" occurs most frequently in
the passage: exactly 56 times, or 7 x 8. Also, the number of different forms
in which the article "the" occurs is exactly 7.
·There are two main sections in the passage:
verse 1-11, and 12-17. In the first main section, the number of Greek
vocabulary words used is 49, or 7 x 7.
·Of these 49 words, the number of those
beginning with a vowel is 28, or 7 x 4.
·The number of words beginning with a consonant
is 21, or 7 x 3.
·The total numbers of letters in these 49 words
is 266, or 7 x 38
·The number of vowels among these 266 letters
is 140, or 7 x 20.
·The number of consonants is 126, or 7 x 18
·Of the 49 words, the number of words which
occur more than once is 35, or 7 x 5.
·The number of words occurring only once is 14,
or 7 x 2.
·The number of words which occur in only one
form is exactly 42, or 7 x 6.
·The number of words appearing in more than one
form is also 7.
·The number of the 49 Greek vocabulary words
which are nouns is 42, or 7 x 6.
·The number of words which are not nouns is 7.
·Of the nouns, 35 are proper names, or exactly
7 x 5.
·These 35 names are used 63 times, or 7 x 9.
·The number of male names is exactly 28, or 7 x
·These male names occur 56 times or 7 x 8.
·The number which are not male names is 7.
·Three women are mentioned - Tamar, Rahab, and
Ruth. The number of Greek letters in these three names is 14, 7 x 2.
·The number of compound nouns is 7.
·The number of Greek letters in these 7 nouns
is 49, or 7 x 7.
·Only one city is named in this passage,
Babylon, which in Greek contains exactly 7 letters.
Another sod that few would
fear leading us into Kabalah explains a supposed error in the value of
pi given in 1Ki. 7:23. In essence, the difference in value between a
misspelling of the Hebrew word for “line” and the correct spelling (קוה
vs. קו, respectively)
provides the key to a formula which gives the correct value of pi to the
fourth decimal point, as explained
While we should certainly be
extremely cautious with sod-level interpretation—as the rabbis, who argue
that only one over the age of 40 and well-versed in the first three levels of
interpretation should even delve into sod, would agree—nevertheless we
see that the Bible itself verifies digging into it by providing sod which
simply stand to prove the inspiration of the text!
In presenting such examples of
different levels of interpretation in the Scriptures to my Sunday-brethren, I
have run into four major threads of opposition. The first is to object, in
essence, that such interpretive methods are simply too Jewish to be valid
(e.g., the aforementioned “Camel’s Nose” article). Frankly, such an argument
makes no sense, and is more indicative of a knee-jerk reaction or deep-set
theological anti-Semitism (not to be confused with a personal anti-Semitism, or
hatred of the Jewish people) than a well-reasoned argument: On what basis can
one argue that one shouldn’t study a Jewish book (the Bible) using Jewish
interpretive methods, especially when we see the Apostles doing just that?
The second is to argue that the
Apostles were not using Jewish hermeneutics, but were inspired by the Spirit
when they made their “illogical leaps” (as in the case of Mat. 2:15, for
example). However, this amounts to saying that the Apostles were inspired in
their interpretations, but not inspired in the example they set as to how they
reached those interpretations. It says that we should do as the Apostles said,
but not do as they did. Such an argument makes nonsense of the NT, and
truthfully amounts to either the aforementioned knee-jerk response to anything
“too Jewish” or pure intellectual laziness.
The third is to argue that such
interpretive methods are Gnostic, occultic, or both, due to their affiliation
with Kabbalism. However, one could just as easily point to Westernized
interpretive methods as leading to quasi-Christian cults or spiritual deadness.
“But those only happen when one ignores the plain meaning of the Scriptures!”
one may argue. Likewise, I would argue, one can only arrive at occultic
conclusions via Pardes by ignoring the p’shat.
The last objection, which I only
recently encountered, is to claim that the use of rabbinic hermeneutics
undermines a belief in the inerrancy of the NT. Nothing could be further from
the truth. On the contrary, by using the same interpretive methods that the
Apostles did and demonstrating that they are the same that the rabbis used long
before the Messiah came, we uphold the NT record against those who would charge
the Apostles with error in how they quoted the prophecies!
Jargon on First-century Lips,” David Bivin objects to attributing use of
Pardes to Yeshua or His disciples. He rightly points out that neither the
acronym Pardes nor an enumeration of four interpretive methods is found
in the earlier rabbis. Rather, Pardes was developed by the medieval
All this is true—up to a point. However, we need to be
careful with confusing the formalization of a system with its origination. For
example, the 2nd-4th Century Church fathers systemized the
system of the Trinity as a model for understanding the Godhead—this does not
make the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all Echad (One)
God foreign to the Bible. For another example, various formalized systems for
understanding the inter-relationship between God’s Divine Sovereignty and the
freewill of Man have developed over time (e.g., Calvinism) precisely because
such a tension does exist in the Bible.
Bivin lists several hermeneutical rules systemized by
rabbis closer to the time of Yeshua:
Hillel, a contemporary of Herod the Great, compiled a
list of seven hermeneutical principles. A century later, Rabbi Yishmael
expanded this list to thirteen, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean
further expanded the list to thirty-two. None of these lists includes
remez, or for that matter, the other three modes of kabbalistic
scriptural interpretation included in the acronym Pardes — peshat,
derash and sod.
Now, because these rabbis sought to formalize
interpretation of the Scriptures, does this mean that their formalizations are
not implicit in the Scriptures themselves or invalid?
David Stern writes a response appended to Biven’s original
article. Here he says,
But even though these four ways of dealing with a text
were systematized by the kabbalists, they existed long before. A computer
search of early rabbinic literature — Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, Mekhilta,
Sifra, Sifre and the like, a good deal of which dates from the first century
and earlier — yielded dozens of examples of the rabbis pointing out a
remez in just the senses in which Bivin and I have used the term.
Therefore I think he is wrong in writing that "Israel's ancient sages never
included remez among their methods, modes or principles of Scripture
interpretation." . . . Likewise, I have never said that when the New
Testament was written PaRDeS constituted a hermeneutical system like
the principles of Hillel, Ishmael and Eleazar ben Yose the Galilean.
More relevant for my approach is what has happened to
PaRDeS in more recent times: it has become part of the standard
equipment of Jewish biblical interpretation without having
kabbalistic overtones. Any student at a yeshiva will encounter the
four terms of PaRDeS in the normal pursuit of his studies, even in
institutions which eschew kabbala. In these settings "PaRDeS"
is only a mnemonic; and its meaning, "garden," is used only to help
remember the acronym.
Rev. John Fieldsend, whose article “Pardes” Bivin likewise
criticizes, also responds in an appendix to Bivin’s article. He states that he
does not believe that Bivin properly comprehended his main point, which he sums
The "inter-testamental period"…were rich and fertile
in the development of Jewish thinking, writing and understanding…Their
importance does not just lie in what they tell us regarding the history of
the period, important as that is; their importance lies rather in helping us
understand the nature of the development of thinking and writing in that
period. For the thought forms of the New Testament writers would have been
developed in the literary milieu of that period. ("Hermeneutics and the
Significance of the Acronym 'Pardes,'" Pardes 3.1 [Feb. 1999], 11-12)
Is Pardes innately kabalistic? As a formal acronym,
yes; but nevertheless, all four methods of interpretation can be found used in
the Bible itself, particularly in the NT.
Update: Hillel’s Seven Principles
Rabbi Hillel listed seven principles
of interpreting Scripture which are recorded for us in the Talmud (y. Pesahim
33a; cf. Tosefta, Sanhedrin 7:11). These principles, as listed by Bivin, are
listed here for the reader’s convenience:
Kal v’chomer (simple and complex): inference
from minor to major case ("how much more so";)
Gezerah shavah (equal commandment): two
biblical commandments having a common word or phrase are subject to the same
regulations and applications;
Binyan av mikatuv echad (a sweeping principle
[derived] from one scriptural passage): one scripture serves as a model for
the interpretation of others, so that a legal decision based on the one is
valid for the others;
Binyan av mishne ketuvim (a sweeping principle
[derived] from two scriptural passages): two scriptures having a common
characteristic serve as a model for the interpretation of others, so that a
legal decision based on the two is valid for the others;
Kelal uferat uferat ukelal (general and
particular, or particular and general): one scripture, general in nature,
can be interpreted more precisely by means of a second scripture that is
specific, or particular, in nature, and vice versa;
Kayotse bo bemakom acher (like that in another
place): the interpretation of a scriptural passage by means of another
passage having similar content;
Davar halamed me'inyano (a thing that is
learned from the subject): an interpretation of a scripture that is deduced
from its context.
Note that these principles are consistent with forming a
midrash or remez, as they form a basis for identifying two passages
which are linked by language even when they are not thematically, and for
identifying oddities in the text.
When all of the layers of Biblical
hermeneutics and all of the ways in which they present to us the Messiah and
proof of God’s Inspiration on literally every page of the Torah, the Prophets,
the Writings, and the New Covenant are stacked against the meager weight of the
critics’ objections, it is like trying to counterbalance a brick with a
Someone once said, “The Bible is
shallow enough for a child to wade in it, but deep enough for an elephant to
immerse in it.” Indeed this is true, and the hour is far too late for mature
believers to stay splashing in the kiddie pool. There is a depth and richness
to the Scriptures that we have but barely scratched the surface of; we complain
that we want more milk when the Eternal One offers us a steak dinner. Let us
then obey the Bible and the example of the Apostles:
Therefore, leaving behind the
initial lessons about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying
again the foundation of turning from works that lead to death, trusting God,
and instruction about washings, s'mikhah (laying of hands), the
resurrection of the dead and eternal punishment. And, God willing, this is
what we will do. (Heb. 6:1-3, CJB)
 “The Camel’s Nose,” by Richard Engstrom. I’m
going to forego linking to the page, since I really don’t want to send
him more traffic. Suffice to say that the information given here is
more than sufficient to Google the page for those who wish to.
 I have elsewhere written in support of an original
Hebrew edition of Matthew’s Gospel account and of the value of
reconstructing the Hebrew to understand some of the difficult sayings of
Yeshua. Finding such a treasure-trove of verification in the Greek text
does not disprove the existence of a previous Hebrew edition at all,
though it does serve to confirm the inspiration of the Greek text as
well. It is possible that this level of inspiration proves that the
Apostle Matthew in fact translated the Hebrew into Greek himself.