Problems of the four levels of interpretation

In my post titled the mystery of the Vav (part 1) I used the rabbinic method of interpretation called mystery (סוֹד, Sod). This method is the one used by the mystic/esoteric branch of rabbinic Judaism called Kabbalah. And I feel like I should take a clear stand as to why I used the method and what my opinion about it is.

My only reason for using the Sod level of interpretation was to show that even with the rabbinic methods, Yeshua can be proven to be the Messiah. A modern Jew would accept the way I used the method, even if he disagreed with my conclusions. But do I really agree with the method myself?

The answer is no. Using the Sod and Derash methods of interpretation, single words or sentences can be taken out of context to construct a meaning.

A good example of this is Exodus 23:2 which says:

“You shall not go after the majority to do evil, neither shall you testify in a matter of strife to incline after the majority to pervert justice.”

Exodus 23:2

The rabbinic interpretation of this passage given in the Talmud allows to only keep the part in bold, and thus states that the majority of Rabbis is to be listened to. An excellent overview of the problems of rabbinic Judaism is given in Nehemia Gordon’s book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus1.

So how should we interpret the Bible?

In Old Testament times, the entire Bible would be read to the people of Israel every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13). Even children would be present. Therefore, the main message of the Bible should be understood by a child who was embedded in the culture. For us nowadays, it becomes slightly more difficult: We need to cross a language barried and understand the culture of the time.

However, this leaves only two of the four levels of interpretation as valid: Peshat (פְּשָׁט) and Remez (רֶמֶז), i.e. the literal meaning and the symbolic one. A child would easily understand literal statements. As to the symbolic ones, they are merely hidden to the modern readers who do not celebrate the feasts or understand linguistic expressions commonly known at the time. A child would easily understand them as well or get the clues himself as he grew up.

An example of our lack of understanding of the culture and instructions of the Torah is illustrated in the prohibition to cook a goat in its mother’s milk (Deut.14:21). Here, rabbinic interpretations transformed this into a literal dietary law. However, it is known nowadays that the practice of cooking a goat in its mother’s milk was a pagan fertility sacrifice, i.e. the Torah forbids pagan sacrifices, not mixing meat and milk.

This becomes clear through the Menorah design of the text: (A) First comes how not to treat God’s sacrifices meant to thank God for the fertility of the land, then (B) the central theme of the text, namely what sacrifices to bring to thank God, and (C) finally not to follow pagan fertility sacrifices. Archeological finds have indeed uncovered clues to this pagan practice.

(A negative) Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast. The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.

(B positive) Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

(C negative) Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
Ex. 23:18-19

So what part of the article about the ‘Mystery of the Vav’ can we take seriously?

Most parts of the article about the Mystery of the Vav are still valid, even if the Sod level of interpretation is ignored. The question is, what would a child embedded in the culture hear and understand?

  • Single words that sound similarly due to their common roots are easy to pick out. These word puns do carry meaning, like the fire of God in humans. However, as opposed to the rabbinic methods, single words or parts of sentences should not be randomly recombined with others, but rather treated as single items or reflected in their context. This is simply Remez (רֶמֶז).
  • The generations were indeed broken, but the text itself says so, no missing Vav is needed to show it: When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image (Gen. 5:3a).
  • A parallel between Phinehas and Messiah can be made without the broken Vav: Blood needs to be shed for atonement, and Messiah would bring it to restore peace. This is simply the symbolic meaning of the text, as often used when applying Remez.

Paul’s use of the methods of interpretation

Paul often used Peshat (פְּשָׁט) and Remez (רֶמֶז), even though he was a Pharisee. He seemed to reject the other methods of the Oral Law, just like Yeshua rejected it. And yet, he seems to allude to the use of Sod when he speaks about mysteries he reveals in his letters. However, after a close scrutiny, these mysteries are revealed to merely explain symbolism (Remez). For example, he talks about the mystery of gentiles being grafted in (Eph. 3:6), but in fact, he merely expounds on Isaiah 56:6-8. Other mysteries he reveals are the exact identity of Messiah, as before Yeshua came, it was unknown (e.g. Col. 1:26-27). And finally, he mentions the mysteries of the evil one who tries to hide his actions and agenda (e.g. 2 Thess. 2:7).


1 Nehemia Gordon, The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus (on; Nehemia Gordon’s blog