Jewish Hermeneutics

The next parable Jesus tells will be the parable of the weeds in the wheat. This parable will be “explained” later by Jesus, so I’ll wait to unpack it until then. I believe this package of teaching is supposed to be heard in a particular order, so I will work hard to keep it in place. However, this does provide the perfect break to talk about the art of Jewish hermeneutics — especially with regard to parables — and bring a whole new understanding to how we read the parables and teachings of Jesus.

First, we need to state that a parable is not designed to make the teaching easier, but “harder.” This helps us understand why Jesus, when asked why He taught in parables, essentially answered, “So that people won’t understand.” Key to understanding learning in an eastern context is realizing that an easterner believes if something can be learned by DISCOVERY, it is understood so much better than through EXPLANATION. This means that a good eastern teacher is going to bury the truth in a process of discovery. This requires a certain level (and expectation) of work; not everyone will be willing to engage learning in this way. But for people who are willing to do the “digging,” they will unearth treasures the teacher has buried. And because of the process of discovery, those truths will do so much more work than they would as simple propositions.

To serve this end, rabbinical Jewish teaching has “levels” of interpretation:

P’shat is a surface-level reading. The p’shat meaning of a parable is the one that is the easiest to discern and has the shallowest depth. Most Christian Bible students are familiar with this level of teaching and nothing else. The truth that is found on a p’shat level can be incredibly profound and profoundly applied. There are many good preachers and teachers who can take p’shat-level teaching and make it come alive and dance in a way that is a blessing to others. This is a gift of the western world and we should rejoice in it. Such a statement brings up a couple of points:

There is nothing wrong with p’shat. Even though the learner on this level is swimming in the shallow end, there is nothing wrong with the meaning that can be mined from a p’shat reading of the Text. The deeper levels are not “more true” or “more inspired” than p’shat. The different levels will not contradict each other. As western Christianity has proven, we can spend centuries in this level and not exhaust the truths it contains.

If a person does not know their Text, p’shat is all they are left with. This makes the preceding paragraph even more of a blessing. Understanding Jewish hermeneutics does not make the student more “learned” or give them special access to special truths that aren’t available to the ignorant. This is a good thing, as 90% of Christian teaching, exegetical interpretation, and expository preaching are based on nothing more than p’shat.

However, for the Jewish student who has put their time into the Text — who has the Text memorized — the rabbi has hidden a special treasure that is unlocked with a familiarity of the Text. The rabbi buries what is called a remez into the teaching; remez is a Hebrew term that means “hint.” And the remez is going to link the student to a passage in the Hebrew scriptures that will give context to the deeper meaning the teacher is driving at. In short, once a student has interacted with the p’shat reading of the Text, their intimate knowledge of the Text allows them to follow the “treasure map” (the remez) to the…

Drash is the idea of “truth hidden in story.” Once a student has found the “hint” in the Text, they are given tools that are going to help them unlock and understand the deeper meanings of the rabbi’s teaching. It should be noted here that the remez in a teaching is always up for debate. Oftentimes, there might not be only one remez intended for the teaching. In light of this, it stands to reason that the drash is never a simple idea either. Please do not confuse these levels as some form of “Bible Code” — it is not. There is not some hidden proposition found by applying a code. In fact, Jewish hermeneutics demands the interaction of more than one student. The remez and the drash have to be discussed, examined, and critiqued as a group for the process of discovery to take place. That is why learning is done in the context of a havurah, or a group of disciples.

The parable is designed to confound and perplex. The parable is a form of teaching that is provocative and difficult. It is not a teaching method that is supposed to bring surface clarity to the material. In fact, the parable often confounds the reader into even more wrestling. But that is the point. All of these disciples, wrestling with the parable, are now wrestling with the Text. What more could we ask for?

While we won’t discuss this level at the moment, it also bears mentioning that the fourth and deepest level of Jewish interpretation is sod. Sod is connected to “mystery” and cannot be learned or taught. Sod is a supernatural gift from God (or we might even say the Holy Spirit). An example of this would be Peter’s great confession (Matthew 16) where Jesus remarks that “man has not revealed this to you, but only my Father who is in Heaven.”

This whole discussion is designed to help us realize there is so much more under the surface of Jewish teaching than we realize. There is still so much more to learn and so much more to hear. Again, we are confronted with the need to know our Text and greatly increase our familiarity with the Old Testament. I am not going to try to convince you of this in this post — I will let the parables themselves do the teaching and the compelling. But I will raise a question:

If we do not understand the deeper levels and ultimate intentions of Jesus’s teachings, how can we call ourselves His followers?

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