The Three “I”s, Part 3: Interpretation in Judaism

The Rabbi Reads the Torah
Image by drurydrama (Len Radin) via Flickr

An old Christian adage states, “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest you end up with nonsense.”  This sounds like good advice on the surface; the only problem is that it’s not Biblical.  There are numerous instances in the New Testament where the Apostles very deliberately interpreted passages from the Tanakh in ways that defy a “plain sense” interpretation.

For example, Matthew 2:15 ascribes Hosea 11:1 as a Messianic prophecy even though a plain-text interpretation that takes the context into account makes it clear that the prophet had the whole nation in mind, even pointing out our later idolatry.  Does this mean that Matthew was in error?  Not at all!  Rather, he was looking beyond the surface of the text to make the point that Messiah’s life encapsulates all of Israel’s history, even to the point that He too went down to Egypt before being called out again—only where Israel sinned and failed, Yeshua succeeded in perfection!

The Rabbinic ways of interpreting the Scriptures are deeper and, to the Western mind, less intuitive that Christian hermeneutical rules. The rules that the rabbis have followed have been variously ennumerated, expanded, and reordered, from R. Hillel’s Seven Rules, to R. Ishmael’s Thirteen, to the Thirty-Two Rules of R. Eliezer b. Jose ha-Gelili. R. Hillel’s probably best describe the methods of First Century Pharisaic Judaism, and so are listed here:

  1. Kal V’chomer (Light and Heavy) – This is what is known in Latin as an a fortiori (“from greater strength”) argument. That is, something that applies in a lesser case will have all the greater strength in a more important case.  Yeshua often used this principle often saying, “How much more . . . ” to present the “heavy” side (cf. Mat. 7:11, 10:25, 12:12; Luke 11:13, 12:24 and 28; Paul also uses this argument in Rom. 11:12 and 24; 1Co. 6:3 and 9:9).
  2. G’zerah Shavah (Equivalence of Expresions) – What applies to a word, root, or phrase in one passage applies equally to it in another, even when they are not thematically or contextually linked.  To understand the book of Revelation it is vital to understand G’zerah Shavah. The author of Hebrews also makes use of this rule in establishing the continuance of the Sabbath in chapters 3-4, equating “rest” in Psa. 95:11 with the Sabbath rest.
  3. Binyan Ab Mikathub Echad (Building up a “family” from a single text) – When a principal is found in several passages, what applies to any one of them applies to all.  For example, from the repeated requirement for blood sacrifice in the Torah, the author of Hebrews notes, “apart from shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22).
  4. Binyab Ab Mishene Kethubim (Building up a “family” from two or more texts) – A principal derived from relating two texts may then be applied to other texts.  Matthew may be the master of using this rule, as noted earlier, discerning a Messianic prophecy out of the fact that both Israel and the Messiah are called God’s Son.
  5. Kelal Uferat (General and Particular) – A general principle may be restricted by a particularization of it in another text; conversely, a particular rule may be expanded into a general principle.  For an example of the former, Yeshua restricts the principle of resting on the Sabbath so that it does not prevent showing mercy by noting that David was allowed to eat the Bread of the Presence and that the priests continue their ministry of intercession for Israel even on the Sabbath (Mat. 12:1-7). For an example of the latter, Yeshua expanded love for one’s neighbor to include even one’s enemies in numerous instances, including the Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
  6. Kayotze Bo Mimekom Akhar (Analogy made from another passage) – Two passages may seem to contradict until interpreted through a third, which may have general if not specific points of similarity with the original two.  This rule is actually employed regularly by Christian scholars when, for example, reconciling the various accounts of Yeshua’s life and especially the last week.
  7. Davar Hilmad Me’anino (Explanation obtained from context) – This one seems obvious, but to the rabbis this meant the total context of all of Scripture in addition to the specific context of the passage.  It also means that the proximity of two passages to each other can affect our understanding of them.  The most important part of this principle for the New Covenant disciple is that every quote and allusion from the Tanakh by an Apostle or Messiah Himself must be looked up and studied in its original context in order to properly understand the author’s point.

In Romans 3:1-2, Rabbi Sha’ul writes, “Then what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the profit of circumcision?   Much in every way! Because first of all, they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  In other words, only by studying the Scriptures with Jewish eyes can we really understand them.  This is not a genetic advantage, but a cultural one that can be learned by one of Gentile birth or forgotten by the assimilated Jew.

In our next post, we will look at the multilayered nature of Scripture, and how a given passage may have many meanings rather than just one.


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