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The Way of Paradise:
Rabbinic Hermeneutics

by Michael Bugg

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.”[1]

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 Missler in 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 Lancaster’s books.  

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 Tanakh.

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 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 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 teachings?

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 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 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 our place.

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. 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 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)[2]

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:

  1. 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.”[3]  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 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, 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 flawed?

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 . . .[4]

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.”[5] 

The most obvious example of a sod in the NT is the famous Number of the Beast.  As early as Irenaeus,[6] 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 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 New Testament, discovering that over and over again, the number 7 was imprinted all over the text.[7]  For example, we find in the genealogy of Yeshua in the opening chapter of Matthew[8] alone:

·         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 4.

·         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

here and here

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!

The Counter-Arguments

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!

Update:  Use vs. Formalization

In his article, “

Medieval 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 kabbalists.

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 Pardespeshat, 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 up thus:

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:

  1. Kal v’chomer (simple and complex): inference from minor to major case ("how much more so";)
  2. Gezerah shavah (equal commandment): two biblical commandments having a common word or phrase are subject to the same regulations and applications;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. 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;
  6. Kayotse bo bemakom acher (like that in another place): the interpretation of a scriptural passage by means of another passage having similar content;
  7. 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 feather. 

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)



[2] Our thanks to Lancaster’s King of the Jews (FFOZ, 2006), pp. 60f for this insight

[3] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (JNTP, 1988), p. 12

[4] ibid., pp. 12f

[5] ibid., p. 12

[6] Against Heresies, Book V, chapter 30.2

[7] Our thanks to Chuck Missler’s Beloved Numerologist for this information.



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