Friday, April 11, 2003

Gleanings from Hebrews

Getting the Most out of Hebrews (3)

This is the third post in a series that will help you get the most from reading the book of Hebrews. To start at the beginning, click here.

Hints, Allegories, and Hidden Meanings

This post is a summary of a paper that I have published online. You can read the full paper by clicking here. The full paper gives more details and analysis and proposes a hermeneutic that could provide common ground for dialog among dispensational and covenant theologians.


Yesterday's post showed some of the challenges presented by the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Before I explain what I believe to be a resolution, I would like to present two more examples. I do this to show how broad the issue is and to help connect those who will not go back and read this series from the beginning. You should at least read the prior post.

The following pair of quotes is a classic example of the issue at hand:

He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” (Matthew 2:15, NASB)  

When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. (Hosea 11:1, NASB)

Matthew has related the story of Joseph escaping the wrath of Herod by traveling to Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph returns to his Galilean home of Nazareth. Matthew wrote that this return journey fulfilled Hosea 11:1. However, Hosea 11:1 clearly speaks of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. No stretch will make it become a prediction of Joseph's flight to and return from Egypt.

Here is a pair from Paul:

I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10, NASB)

“You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing. (Deuteronomy 25:4, NASB)

Note Paul's comment, "God is not concerned about oxen, is He?" Well, I might suppose that He is, and the translation might do well to include the word "only." Nevertheless, Paul quickly moves to use this verse as a reason for ministers of the gospel to make a living from those they teach.

Rabbinic Hermeneutical Methods

One promising avenue of research toward resolving this issue emerges when we realize that the authors of these quotations were Jews writing and living in a Jewish context. This becomes especially apparent when we observe that the preponderance of the problem quotations exist in those books that have a distinctly Jewish focus. It is generally acknowledged that Matthew’s highlights Jesus as the King of the Jews. The gospel of John is increasingly regarded as a Jewish book. The writer to the Hebrews clearly wrote to the first century Jewish believers. These are the books that contain the most problematic of the New Testament quotes of the Old.

If one examines the Jewish roots of Christianity, one discovers that there is a long standing “rabbinical” hermeneutic that can explain the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Dr. David H. Stern, a Messianic Jew and translator of the Jewish New Testament, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, describes four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation. According to Dr. Stern, the Jewish authors of the New Testament both understood and used these four modes. In his words:

We must understand the four basic modes of Scripture interpretation used by the rabbis. These are:

(1) P’shat (“simple”)—the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars  mean by “grammatical‑historical exegesis,” which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. Modern scholars often consider grammatical‑historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text; pastors who use other approaches in their sermons usually feel defensive about it before academics. But the rabbis had three other modes of interpreting Scripture, and their validity should not be excluded in advance but related to the validity of their implied presuppositions.

(2) Remez (“hint”)—wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.

(3) Drash or Midrash (“search”)—an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis—reading one’s own thoughts into the text—as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting from the text what it actually says. 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.

(4) Sod (“secret”)—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. For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called “bisociation of ideas.” The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters.

The presuppositions underlying remez, drash and sod obviously express God’s omnipotence, but they also express his love for humanity, in the sense that he chooses out of love to use extraordinary means for reaching people’s hearts and minds. At the same time, it is easy to see how remez, drash and sod can be abused, since they all allow, indeed require, subjective interpretation; and this explains why scholars, who deal with the objective world, hesitate to use them. These four methods of working a text are remembered by the Hebrew word “PaRDeS,” an acronym formed from the initials; it means “orchard” or “garden.” (Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications,  1992) 11, 12)

Here, then, are the tools to understand the New Testament’s uses of the Old Testament and to derive their intended meanings. There is even an English word, like the Hebrew “pardes”, that can help remember these strange terms: p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. That word is “PaRaDiSe,” in which the consonants provide a mnemonic for the four terms. Interestingly, both words can mean “garden.”


The writer of Hebrews uses all four rabbinical modes of interpretation. Taking the examples from yesterday:

  1. Although 2 Samuel 7:12-14 has a simple meaning that applies to David and Solomon (p'shat), the author of Hebrews noted correctly that once Jesus came as God's son it was no longer possible to read the passage without also thinking of God and His Son. In this way 2 Samuel 7 contains a remez or a hint of the greater truth.
  2. Although the p'shat of Genesis 2 speaks of God's rest at the end of creation and the p'shat of Psalm 95 speaks of the generation of those who would not enter the promised land, the author of Hebrews allegorically connects the promised land with our eternal rest. Thus these passages present a drash or an allegorical truth.
  3. Although the p'shat of Genesis 14 is a story of Melchizedek's blessing of Abram, Hebrew's author noted the translation of Melchizedek (King of Righteousness) and the translation of Salem (Peace). He took other elements of the tale as having a hidden message (sod) and brought it to light.

And so as you read Hebrews during this study and afterwards, go back often to the Old Testament references and note whether the writer of Hebrews used the p'shat, remez, drash, or sod sense of the text.

You might ask whether it is ok for us to use such devices. The answer is, "Yes," but I would urge you to read the complete paper on this subject before you do so. The p'shat of any text will always be the primary path of truth. It is left-brained, objective, logical, and deductive. It is subject to analysis and controls. The other three provide a supplemental path of truth. You would never base a doctrine on a remez, drash, or sod. But you might illustrate a doctrine using them (cf. Galatians 4:21-31). These three are subjective, right-brained, and associative. But they must also be subject to analysis and controls.

Monday: Important things to know when reading Hebrews.

<>< Test Everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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