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).

Reference

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

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The Menorah Design

This post is about the textual writing style called the Menorah Design, not about the design of the actual lampstand.

Short Introduction to the Menorah

The rebuilt MenorahThe Menorah for the next temple, rebuilt by the Temple Institutea

The Menorah (מְנוֹרָה) is the golden lampstand built for the temple. It has 7 branches with 7 flames when lit. The lampstand symbolises the burning bush witnessed by Moses1 (Moshe, מֹשֶׁה).

You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. […] And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it.[…] You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it.
Excerpt from Exodus 25:31-40

The New Testament (New Covenant, B’rit Hadashah, הברית החדשה) references to the Menorah standing in the temple before of God by calling the 7 flames a symbol of the 7 spirits who are before the throne of the Almighty.

From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.
Revelations 4:5

Textual Design

The Menorah design of texts works similarly to the looks of a Menorah, with the most important part of the passage being in the middle. Alternatively, it can be illustrated with a hamburger: Around the most important part in the middle, the meat, there is cheese on each side, then salad, followed by bread. This is how many texts were written in the Old Testament (Tanakh).
There are two possibilities to achieve such a design: Either by using word counts or alphabetical markers, or by using topics/themes. A good example of the Menorah Design is Psalm 67:

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.

2 That your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us.

7 God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

This Psalm uses both design methods. In the Hebrew original, it consists of seven verses, with 7, 6, 6, 11, 6, 6 and 7 words respectively.2 Additionally, the themes are repeated like the layers of a hamburger:

blessings for us,

blessings on the earth,

worship of the nations,

God as a righteous judge,

worship of the nations,

blessings on the earth,

blessings for us

This type of textual design is often used to emphasize the middle of the text, i.e. the meat of the hamburger or the middle branch of the Menorah. Note, however, that the Menorah Design often does not follow verse numbers. Furthermore, it can span entire biblical books. The method is also commonly used by Paul (Sha’ul, שאול) in his letters (Example: 1 Corinthians 12-14 with the spiritual gifts spanning the central message of love).

References

1 Robert Lewis Berman; A House of David in the Land of Jesus; page 18 (Pelican, 2007). ISBN 978-1-58980-720-4
2 Shubert Spero; The Menorah Psalm (PDF)
Images
a The Menorah for the next temple rebuilt by the Temple Institute, Wikisource
Additional Resources
Wikipedia article about the Menorah

Woven Text

In ancient Hebrew writings, emphasis was often shown by giving the text a specific shape which I like to call woven text because it resembles the weaving of fabric. This writing style is first found in the Torah, but it also appears in other books like the Talmud. It was considered to be beautiful while at the same time conveying more meaning with more depth.

The creation narrative

The creation narrative is an example of order created from chaos, just like what happens when a weaver takes single threads and gives them a shape by creating a piece of cloth.1

The narrative starts with a prologue, showing the initial situation

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Gen. 1:1-2

When God spoke His word, order was brought to the formless void earth. And not only did He bring order, but the way he did it was cleverly designed and ordered. The following table depicts the way he did this.

# Dividers/Vessels
motionless, singular
“And God called”
Population
moving, plural
unnamed
#
Celestial 1 Light & Darkness Sun, moon, stars 4
Middle divider 2 Waters above & below Fish & birds 5
Terrestrial 3 Land mass & waters
Plants
Land animals
Humans
6
7 Rest

During the first half of the week, God created vessels that were populated during the second half. These vessels were created through the separation of different elements, while they were populated during the second half of the week.

  1. Gen. 1:3-5: On the first day, light and darkness were separated. Before that, there were no days. As such, this is also the beginning of time measurement.
  2. Gen. 1:6-8: On the second day, the waters above (the sky) were separated from the waters below.
  3. Gen. 1:9-10: On the third day, God separated the water masses (oceans, lakes, etc.) from the dry land.Gen. 1:11-13: God finished this first 3-day cycle, the separations, by perfecting it through the creation of a first type of life: plants.
  4. Gen. 1:14-19: On the fourth day, God populated/filled the light and darkness by creating sun, moon and stars, and He specifically made them with the purpose of knowing the date and time.
  5. Gen. 1:20-23: On the fifth day, God filled the skies and the oceans by creating birds and fish.
  6. Gen. 1:24-25: On the sixth day, God populated the land mass with land animals.Gen. 1:26-31: He then finished the second 3-day cycle of creation by perfecting it through the creation of mankind.
  7. Gen. 2:1-3: On the seventh day, God rested. This is how He introduced the day of rest, the Shabbat (שַׁבָּת‎, Saturday).

On a symbolic level of interpretation, it is interesting to note that according to the creation narrative, there has never been an end to the Shabbat. As such, we are still living in the day of rest, as the words depicting a new day (“And there was evening and there was morning”) are missing at the end of the narrative.

After the first account, the story of the creation is told a second time from a slightly different perspective (Gen. 2:4-25), with a more detailed on the creation of humanity, while other parts that were told in the first account (Gen. 1) were deliberately left out here.

The plagues in Egypt

The usage of woven text becomes much clearer in another story of the bible, the account of the 10 plagues in Egypt.2 Here, the woven creation is systematically undone by countering the creation narrative.

To show it more easily, I numbered the plagues and coded them: the numbers 1-10 show which plague it is, the letters L, M & R describe the wording used and the letters A-C describe the level or place the plague comes from.

Announcement L
Public;
Changes in natural order
M
Public meets personal;
Changes in animal kingdom
R
Personal experience
Trigger Affected „Go to Pharaoh in the morning…“ „Come to Pharaoh!“ Nothing
A – Aaron points staff towards the earth Everyone 1-LA
Ex. 7:14-25

Blood
2-MA
Ex. 7:26-8:11

Frogs
3-RA
Ex. 8:12-15

Gnats (lice)
Plagues from the bottom up
B – Middle, no pointing
God
Only Egyptians 4-LB
Ex. 8:20-32

The mix (often translated as flies)
5-MB
Ex. 9:1-7

Death of livestock
6-RB
Ex. 9:8-12

Boils (skin sickness)
Plagues from the middle
C – Moses points towards the sky Only Egyptians 7-LC
Ex. 9:13-35

Hail
8-MC
Ex. 10:1-20

Locusts
9-RC
Ex. 10:21-29

Darkness (depression)
Plagues from the top down
God Only Egyptians 10
Ex. 11-12:32

Death of the firstborns, Pesach

More information could be added to this table, considering how deep the text is. However, it makes more sense to list some of the additional insights separately:

  • After plagues 1 to 5, Pharaoh decides to harden his own heart. After five plagues, it seems as if God is saying: “If you want to have a hardened heart, you can have it.” Knowing everything, God had announced to Moses that this would happen (Ex. 4.21), but he still gave Pharaoh a chance to change it.
  • Pharaoh’s magicians manage to duplicate plagues 1 and 2, but they can not undo them. Starting with plague 3, they can no longer duplicate them, while the text explicitly states they are affected by plague 6. Similarly, the devil always tries to fake God’s work but never truly manages to do so.
  • God systematically unweaves the creation story: He starts on the ground (Line A: Aaron points towards the earth) and ends in the sky (Line C: Moses points towards the sky). The signs not only invert creation, but negate it. The goal is to bring chaos upon Egypt:
L
Dividers/Vessels mix
M
Additional plagues
R
Attacks on the populated vessels
A – Earth (below) 1-LA
Ex. 7:14-25

Waters turn to blood
2-MA
Ex. 7:26-8:11
3-RA
Ex. 8:12-15

Earth produces gnats (lice)
B – Middle 4-LB
Ex. 8:20-32

The divider (above/below) becomes a mix (often translated as flies)
5-MB
Ex. 9:1-7
6-RB
Ex. 9:8-12

Moses & Aaron mix above and below: Boils (skin sickness)
C – Sky (above) 7-LC
Ex. 9:13-35

Hail (lights mixed with ice) falls from the sky
8-MC
Ex. 10:1-20
9-RC
Ex. 10:21-29

Darkness replaces light
10
Ex. 11-12:32

Death of the firstborns, Pesach

To illustrate the undoing of creation, these are a few examples:

  • The water that was separated from the earth on the third day of creation is transformed into blood during the first plague, therefore making it impure.
  • The earth from which land animals were created on the sixth day attacks them during the second plague.
  • The separations between the above and below (creation day 2, and population on day 5) are destroyed by mixing them again.
  • In Hebrew, the word used for “hail” (plague 7) is a mix between lights and ice. When those lights fall down, it is like an undoing of the creation of sun, moon and stars (creation day 4)
  • Darkness (plague 9) replaces light (creation day 1)
  • Finally, using a Sod level of interpretation, Jewish Scholars are saying the following about the 10th plague:1
    At the very end, God killed all the firstborn sons of the unbelieving Egyptians. This opposes the wording of creation’s prologue (Genesis 1.1: “In the Beginning, …”) by describing the end like an epilogue.
    The word for the firstborn son in Hebrew (Bakur בכור, from the same root comes “first fruits of the crop” בכר) is a synonym of “the beginning” (ראשית, ruashit). Jewish scholars claim that Genesis 1.1 could therefore be read as “Through the firstborn, God created the heavens and the earth”.1 As such, the death of the firstborn sons inverts the prologue of the creation narrative.

As the writing style of woven text shows, God is a God of order. He creates order to replace chaos, which he does systematically, in an ordered way.
Similar structures can be found throughout the bible, be it on the level of a few verses up to entire books. Finding them can be tricky, but they can help to show the intent of the message (e.g. the plagues are meant to undo creation).

References

1 Moshe Kline, The Lord Spoke to Moses in Tables: Part 1, Part 2

2 Chaver.com; The Ways of Holiness (Chapter 4: The Nine Plagues)

Emphasis

In western cultures, in order to emphasize something, a person who is speaking raise their voice. In written text, an important passage is often emphasized by underlining it or by using a bold typeface.
In Hebrew culture however, the same meaning is either repeated in a slightly different way or contrasted through its opposite meaning.

Repetition

It seems that the Hebrews knew thousands of years ago what we are learning now: Repetition makes it easier for us to remember something. Repetition is what everyone uses to memorize any type of information. In Hebrew, it is used as an emphasis.

Examples

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.
Gen. 1:27

In this next example, keep in mind that the word for spirit, in Hebrew, can also mean breath:

The Spirit of God has made me,
and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Job 33.4

Here, the the exact same Hebrew word was repeated, not only the meaning:

To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
Psalm 22:5

These repetitions occur as much in the Gospels, which again shows how deeply rooted this Hebrew mindset was even in the first century. In this case, the idea, i.e. the concept of influencing the surroundings, is repeated:

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Mat. 7:13a&14a

Contrast

The contrast shows the importance of a certain statement through the opposite meaning. For instance, you will only notice that bread needs salt if you have tasted unsalted bread before.

Examples

The book of Proverbs is probably the one where this method of emphasis is most used:

Blessings are on the head of the righteous,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,
but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.
Prov. 10:6,9

Yeshua (Jesus) uses this method in his teachings as well:

[The kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Mark 4:31-32

Hebrew word puns

The Hebrews love word plays. They are part of Hebrew poetry. Someone with a western culture background (Europe, North America, Australia & New Zealand) would say (for example):1

The artist painted the canvas.

In western (Greek) culture, we try to avoid this these repetitions since they are perceived as boring. In Hebrew, however, word puns are something they loved to do. So they would write something like:

The painter painted the painting.

Examples

Then the Lord God formed the man (adam) of dirt (adama) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Gen. 2.7

This kind of word plays are found everywhere in the Hebrew Old Testament (Tanakh, תַּנַ”ךְ). And interestingly, they are also found in the New Testament, as soon as the Greek text is translated back into Hebrew:1

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones (ebenim) to raise up children (benim) for Abraham.
Mat. 3:9

And directing the crowd to sit (yashav) down on the ground (esev), he took the seven (sheva) loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke (shavar) them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied (seva), and seven (sheva) baskets full of the broken pieces left over.
Mat. 15:35-37

This can not be a coincidence. The authors of the gospels deliberately chose their words to reach out to people with a Hebrew culture.

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man (adam) should scatter (zara) seed (zera) on the ground (adama).”
Mark 4:26

Another common Hebrew technique is shown in this example: The two middle words (zara zera), the center of the message, are encased in adam and adama.

References

1 Benner, Jeff A., Ancient Hebrew Research Centre in Semitic Origins of the NT

The four levels of interpretation

The rabbinic methods of interpretation are based on what they call four levels, abbreviated as PaRDeS.1 PaRDeS is an acronym of the following words:

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט): meaning plain or simple. It is used for the most obvious and simple meaning or a text.
  • Remez (רֶמֶז): meaning hints. It is used for the allegoric (hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond the literal sense.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ): meaning inquire or seek. It is used for the comparative (midrashic) meaning, looking at similar occurrences of a word.
  • Sod (סוֹד): meaning secret or mystery. It is used for the esoteric and mystical meaning, as often used in the Kabbalah.

The following chapters will take a closer look at these methods.

A closer look at the PaRDeS

Peshat – פְּשָׁט

Peshat refers to the plain text in its context in the scriptures. A chapter can only be fully understood in its context, and that context might include the entirety of the bible. Many biblical prophets quote other books in the bible. A simple example is Peter’s quote of the book of Joel in his sermon (Acts 2).
The Peshat (or Pshat) is therefore the most basic literal meaning of the Torah. Rabbinic beliefs claim that it is not necessarily identical to the apparent plain meaning of the text, but is an explanation of the text based on the tradition as it has been handed down in the Oral Torah (Mishnah and Talmud) following closely the literal meaning. Most traditional Jewish editions of the Torah are published together with Rashi’s commentary, which is the classic example of Pshat exegesis.1

The Jewish commentary that deals with the peshat level is called the Mishnah, meaning second to the Torah. It offers simple explanations of the various Mosaic Laws and rituals. Coupled with the [Gemara], the two commentaries make up the Talmud. The [Gemara] is the commentary used in the Remez or hint level of interpretation.2

Remez – רֶמֶז

The Remez is the hint level, and it uses allegorical hints. For example, if an author explains his interpretation of a biblical text without quoting a verse literally, a person with sufficient knowledge of the bible can still understand the meaning of the interpretation and the symbolic allusions.
The Remez is also an allegorical and philosophical level. It goes beyond the mere elementary knowledge which can be applied to our daily lives.
Many parables and poetic texts are included in the Tanakh, like the psalms or prophecies, that have a deeper, a Remez, meaning. Even Yeshua (Jesus) uses parables in his teachings to convey deeper meaning.

Derash – דְּרַשׁ

The commentary for the Derash (or Drash) level is called Midrash. The term comes from the process of thrashing grain – separating the kernel from the chaff. […] Remez may be allegorical, but drosh deals with parables or riddles. […] Allegories (see Remez) are simply metaphoric stories that teach a practical lesson. Riddles, on the other hand, are far more difficult to understand.2

The Drash includes moralistic parables as well as derivation of rabbinical legal rulings based on the text. This includes the usage of gematria (number codes) and similar methods to relate texts that are otherwise unrelated. There are two types of Midrashim, Aggadic and Halakhic Midrashim:3

  1. Midrash Halacha – Scriptural sources for Jewish Laws.
  2. Midrash Aggada – blend of history, parables, and poetry.

Sod – סוֹד

The fourth level, Sod, literally means secret, because of the esoteric interpretation used in the Kabbalah. Another Sod level, the Sod of Sod, or secret of secrets, is sometimes used for the innermost meaning of the Torah as it is expounded in the philosophy of Chassidism.1
Prophecies are sometimes called as being part of the Sod level, as they are deeper revelations, which are not of this world.

The rabbis describe it as one standing in the darkness of the early morning and seeing the finger-like radiance of the sun that announces its imminent rising. Once the sun lifts above the eastern horizon, the radiance disappears. It is the radiance or aura that speaks of [Sod] – the secret level. It can best be seen if one does not look directly at it, but rather catches it out of the corner of the eye.2

Conclusions

Both the rabbinic methods of interpretation called Drash and Sod are problematic for several reasons:

Word counts & Gematria

Considering how often the ancient biblical texts had to be copied in order to safely transmit them, it is surprising that only some minor errors were introduced in the texts.

And Cain said to Abel his brother. And it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slayed him.
Gen. 4:8, Masoretic text

Here, the words “Let us go into the field” are missing. They were re-introduced in many translations based on the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh) that contains them.
In some cases, letters were simply doubled, or left out. The text can still be understood and therefore, these errors can not be seen in modern translations.
Nevertheless, the result of these errors is that it becomes difficult to believe interpretations based on word counts, or sometimes gematria. This does not have an influence on etymological analyses of single words though.

Other

Many interpretations based on the Drash and Sod levels are difficult to comprehend, and are sometimes erroneous. Sometimes, single words are taken out of context in order to convey a certain meaning, even so far as to contradict the Pshat (simple, obvious) meaning of the text.4

Examples

The parables of Yeshua (Jesus)

The riddle aspects of the Remez can be seen in Yeshua’s parables. In Matthew 13, the disciples ask him why he uses these riddles. They ask Jesus to speak more plainly so that the multitudes might understand. To this, Jesus replies that the parables were designed so that the blind might not see. Expanding on this passage goes beyond the scope of this post though.

Paul’s interpretation of Hagar and Sarah

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul uses the Remez level of interpretation for its symbolism, which is why it seems a quite unusual to people unfamiliar with it:

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Galatians 4:24-26

Considering that Paul was educated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a grand-son of Hillel, the respected Jewish rabbi.” about Jewish religious law Acts 23:3. Therefore, he was used to the Jewish methods of interpretation, and his mention of allegories most probably referred to the Remez.

References

1 Article on Chabad.org
2 Article on Prophecy In The News
3 Article on Bet Emunah
4 Nehemia Gordon in The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus, starting at 29:00

Additional links

How can I know that a biblical text is symbolic?

There are several ways to tell that a text is not to be understood literally. Indications are:

  • Symbolic numbers: 3, 6 (meaning: mankind1), 7, 12 (the number of tribes of Israel), 1000 (meaning: many, a lot)
  • A genealogy that is out of order: When a genealogy is out of order, relate it either to the meaning of the names given or to prophecies about these people.

Example

Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
Rev. 7:2-8

There are several reasons why this text is not to be taken literally:

  • The genealogy is out of order. Ruben is the oldest son, but he does not come first.
  • The tribe of Dan is missing. This does not mean that descendants of Dan will not be in the kingdom of God.
  • Ephraim and Manasseh are both sons of Joseph and they both have a piece of the territorial inheritance like Isaac’s sons. As such, usually, only Joseph (as an umbrella term for both Ephraim and Manasseh) or his sons are usually mentioned. Here though, both Joseph and his son Manasseh are mentioned, but Ephraim is missing.
  • Since Levi has no territorial inheritance, when he is mentioned, Ephraim and Manasseh are usually put under the umbrella term of Joseph so that there are 12 tribes. But Joseph is mentioned differently in this passage, and Dan is omitted so that there are 12 tribes.

Meaning of the numbers

The numbers in this passage are easy to interpret: 12 is the number of the people. Here, 144’000 (12×12×1000) symbolises the people multiplied (12×12) and many of them (1000). This means not just many people, but something like so many that they can not be counted. And each tribe constitutes a people of many (12×1000).

Meaning of the names of the tribes

My strategy to further understand this text was to have a look at the meaning of the names given here, in this order. If no meaning had emerged, I would have gone back to Genesis 47 and 48, and tried to put the blessings of Jacob in the order they are mentioned there. However, simply following the meaning of the names of the tribe patriarchs showed clear evidence for a prophetic meaning of the list.
The following table shows the order of names as given in Rev. 7, along with their meaning. In the ancient Hebrew culture, names were given because of their meaning, and this meaning was often explained by the parents. In order to understand the name, the explanation was listed here as given in the book of Genesis.

Birth order Name Hebrew Meaning Explanation by the parents
4 Judah (Yehuda) יְהוּדָה to thank or praise Leah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” (Gen. 29.35)
1 Reuben (Ruben) ראובן “See, a son” Leah: “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” (Gen. 29.32)
7 Gad גָּד Luck or good fortune Leah (for Zilpah): “Good fortune has come!” (Gen. 30.11)
8 Asher אָשֵׁר Happy or blessed Leah (for Zilpah): “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” (Gen. 30.13)
6 Naphtali נַפְתָּלִי My struggle or wrestlings Rachel (for Bilhah):“With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” (Gen. 30.8)
(13) Manasseh (son of Joseph) מְנַשֶּׁה To forget Joseph: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” (Gen. 41.51)
2 Simeon (Shimon) שמעון “He has heard” Leah: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” (Gen. 29.33)
3 Levi לֵּוִי‎ Attached or joined Leah: “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” (Gen. 29.34)
9 Issachar יִשָּׂשכָר Reward or recompense Leah: “God has given me my reward because I gave my servant to my husband.” (Gen. 30.18)
10 Zebulun (Zvulun) זְבֻלוּן Gift or honour Leah: “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” (Gen. 30.20)
11 Joseph יוֹסֵף “May the Lord add.” Rachel: “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen. 30.24)
12 Benjamin בנימין Son of the right hand Jacob names Benjamin (Gen. 35.18). Rachel had first called him “Ben-Oni”, meaning “Son of my suffering”.
  • Note 1 (as stated above): Dan (Jacob’s 5th son) is missing (Dan means “judge”, which Rachel – who names the boy her servant Bilhah had – explains: “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” (Gen. 30.6))
  • Note 2 (as stated above): Ephraim (Joseph’s 2nd son) is missing (Ephraim means “to make fruitful”, which Joseph explains: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Gen. 41.52))

The interpretation of the Revelations 7 passage becomes clear by looking at the combined meanings of the names in the given order (Note: Words not in italics were added to improve legibility.):

I will praise the Lord for look: A son of good fortune was given. Happy am I because my wrestling God is making me to forget. He has heard me and has given me a reward: Yahweh will add to me the Son of His right hand.

Possible interpretation of the complete passage about the 144’000

This passage gives praise to our God for sending the son of his right hand, Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. As stated previously, the number 144’000 symbolises God’s multiplied people (12×12×1000) who will give praise to Yahweh for giving His son. They are the sealed ones.
In fact, looking at Revelations 6 gives further insight. The kings of the Earth are hiding from God’s wrath, and are asking: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6.16-17). God’s answer are His sealed people who can stand before him, made righteous by the son of His right hand (Rev. 7). John does not use a chronological order in Revelations. He rather uses themes and ancient hebraic methods of emphasis.
Furthermore, God’s sealed people are probably to be sealed before the beginning of God’s punishment, because the angels who are holding together the earth (symbolised by the angels holding the 4 winds: These symbolise the four directions, i.e. north, south, east, west) are to hold back any spirits (“Wind” in Hebrew can also mean “spirits”) from attacking the Earth (or from blowing against it; Rev. 7.1).
Also, the 144’000 appear a second time in Revelations 14:

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144’000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
Revelations 14.1-5

In order to prevent married people from being worried: The women with which the other people have defiled themselves are probably the gods of the nations. In Revelations, these are termed with “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (Rev. 17.5) and her consorts. There is no reason for this passage to be inconsistent with the language of the rest of the book of Revelations.

Some things remain open, however, as this interpretation was a Remez (רֶמֶז) interpretation, which means it uses allegorical clues. There is a possibility for some of these things to happen literally (on a Peshat (פְּשָׁט) level): For example, it is possible that God chooses the physical descendants of Jacob (nowadays called Jewish people) to do a great work in the end times, as explained by Paul in Romans 11.12: “Now if their blindness means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” This in no way means that the non-jews that were adopted (or grafted in) into God’s people will not be used as well. Ultimately, God will show His will and way of fulfilling His prophecies.

References

1 Derived from the fact that humans were created on the sixth day.