In addition to the the seven general principles of interpretation set forth by R. Hillel, it is understood by the rabbis that a single passage usually has more than a single valid interpretation: “There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Num.R. 13:15). In the middle ages, the rabbis created an acronym as a mnemonic to describe four possible levels of interpretation: Pardes (a garden or orchard, i.e., “Paradise”). This acronym describes the four main ways of interpreting the Scriptures:
Pashut (“to spread out” or “make a road”): This is the simplest and plainest interpretation. For example, in the Akedat Yitzchak, the narrative of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac that we spoke of earlier in this blog, the pashut is simply what the story says: That God tested Abraham’s faith by having him offer up his long-promised son in sacrifice, and that Abraham passed the test. The Pashut of Scripture must be understood first to provide a “road through the wilderness” that will keep one from getting lost as one goes deeper.
Remez (a “hint” or allusion): A remez is a hint of something deeper in the text, usually marked by something unusual, like a strange action, a misspelled word, or some other anomaly that can’t be explained in the P’shat. In the Akedat, we see that hint in Abraham’s confident statement to Isaac, “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8) as well as in his naming of the place of sacrifice, “HaShem Yireh; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mountain the Lord is seen” (v. 14). Abraham knew that he was acting out prophecy. And indeed, two thousand years later, God offered His own Son as an offering on that very same plot of land, offered Himself as a Lamb in Isaac’s—and everyone else’s—place, and on the Mount of the Lord the Holy One was indeed seen and our redemption was provided. That prophetic fulfillment is an example of a remez. We can understand it only by cross-referencing the key words wherever they appear in Scripture: The Lamb of the Akedat brings to mind the Passover lamb, the one who is silent as a lamb in Isa. 53:7 . . . and ultimately, Yeshua, the Lamb of God.
Derash (“to follow,” “to dig,” or “to seek and ask”) or midrash (“teaching” or “learning”): This is the homiletic meaning, the way the passage can be applied to our own lives. In the Akedah, the midrash of the story is that we can trust God completely. Abraham knew that the Eternal One had made a promise that through Isaac a great nation would be born (Gen. 17:19), so if He commanded Isaac to be killed, then He would just have to resurrect Isaac to fulfill His promises. Abraham was so certain that God would do exactly as He said that he was willing to trust Him even with the life of his son. “For he had concluded that God could even raise people from the dead! And, figuratively speaking, he did so receive him” (Heb. 11:19, CJB).
A midrash may be developed by building a story around a seemingly innoculous detail in the text. For example, in Exodus 20:18 typically reads, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings . . .” The actual Hebrew words mean “voices” and “fires (as if from torches)” respectively. The rabbis, asking why the people heard multiple voices, what it meant that we saw the voices, and what the fires were there for, envisioned the Eternal One speaking His commandments and covenant in all the languages of the world, His voice striking the mountain like a hammer on an anvil, and the sparks flying off to settle on each individual Israelite. The parallels to the account in Acts of the Shavuot (Pentecost) after Yeshua’s Resurrection are clear (see Exo.R. 5:9; b. Shabbat 88b; see also Lancaster, Mystery, pp. 128-135).
Sod (the mystical meaning): This is esoteric interpretation, the mystical conjecture, the hidden meaning. The sod is almost always found in a coded form, like the oft-abused equidistant letter sequences (the so-called “Bible codes”) or in comparisons between the numerical value of different words.
There is a danger in pursuing the sod interpretation if one abandons the plain text in pursuit of mystical conjectures. A true sod would never contradict the plain Scriptures, nor will a true remez or drash—they will only deepen our understanding and will be confirmed by a pashut elsewhere, just as the prophetic type of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is confirmed in the plain interpretations of the latter prophets, and fulfilled by the plain interpretation of Messiah’s work on the cross. For the most part, one is far better off seeking the plain meanings, the hints of deeper things (e.g. the prophetic types), and the personal applications of the Scriptures than in seeking non-confirmable mystical conjectures, and those are what we will focus on in this volume.
Understanding that a given Scripture can have multiple levels of meaning brings a fresh insight to the discussion about which view of Revelation is correct. A few years ago, this author had the pleasure of interning at an internationally-known apologetics ministry. Those within came from a wide variety of theological opinions and backgrounds, from pre-millennialist to amillennialist, Arminian to Calvinist. During a casual conversation with one of the senior members, a well-known speaker in his own right, the subject of prophecy came up, and he said something that rang true long before I learned anything of Jewish hermeneutics: “Michael, to be honest, I think that when Christ finally does come back, we’ll find that all three viewpoints will have turned out to be true.” Perhaps he was just trying to avoid an argument, but his words struck me and still strike me as profound.