(Author’s note: This is the updated and rewritten version of an article that I wrote in the early 2000s. The information contained therein is based largely on the booklet entitled, Hermeneutics: How to Understand the Scriptures by James Scott Trimm [http://www.nazarene.net or http://www.lulu.com/shop/james-trimm/nazarene-jewish-manifesto/paperback/product-403845.html], although I have added many of my own fresh insights and some new information to the original material.)
In this article, we will cover the concept of peshat, remez, drash and sod or the plain or literal, the hint or suggested, the allegorical, and the hidden or mystical meaning of Scripture.
Five Basic Principles For Understanding the Scriptures
The Literal Principle
This is very similar to a rule of Jewish hermeneutics which states that “no passage loses its simple, plain or literal (in Heb. pashat) meaning.” This principle involves understanding a passage first in its plain, literal sense, according to the normal meaning of the words and phrases used unless there is evidence (within the text itself) to interpret it in an allegorical, symbolic or non-literal (in Heb. drash) sense.
The Cultural or Historical Principle
It is important to understand a biblical passage in its cultural-historical context or in the light of the culture and history of the person who wrote it. The Bible was written by Hebraic people living in the Middle East with an agricultural background and who thought differently and spoke a language with idioms and phrases completely different than ours. To view the Bible through a Greco-Roman, western cultural and linguistic lens, for example, as opposed to understanding it through the Hebraic and eastern culture in which it was written is to miss much of its richness and truth.
The Grammatical Principle
This principle involves understanding the text in accordance with its proper grammar. Just what do the nouns and prepositions refer to? What are the idioms of the original language? What are other peculiarities of the original language in which the text was written?
Anyone who has studied foreign languages, especially non-European ones that are different from English, will immediately understand the significance of this point. Each language is unique to itself, and to properly understand that language, one must have a basic understand of it.
The Bible, for example, was written in three ancient languages. It is, quite frankly, the epitome of ignorance and arrogance to the think that a simple knowledge of English will yield the full richness of these ancient languages to the cursory reader. Sometimes there are no English words or phrases even to convey the intended meaning of some biblical words and phrases. There are, however, a plethora of excellent resources written in English that will aid the serious Bible student in understanding the richness of biblical idioms, Hebraic linguistic and literary genres and devices. A literal treasure trove of revelation awaits the spiritually hungry Bible student!
The Synthesis Principle
This principle tells us that if we understand two biblical passages in a way that they contradict each other, then we are misunderstanding one or both of them. Usually as we dig deeper into Scripture and gain more understanding on a subject, then the confusion will clear up and the ostensible contradictions between scriptures will resolve themselves.
The Rule of First Principle
This rule of biblical interpretation states that the first time a word, phrase or concept appears in Scripture establishes a precedence as to the meaning of that word, phrase or concept in all future usages in Scripture. Moreover, this rule in biblical hermeneutics states that the first place the Scriptures mention a word, subject or idea, then this is to be viewed as a foundational truth upon which all subsequent Bible passages are based. A future principle or truth cannot nullify or abrogate a previous one. If it does, then the fault is with the interpreter and not with Scripture.
Ironically while claiming to adhere to the law of first mention, many Bible teacher in the mainstream church have blatantly and perpetually violated this law by asserting that the truths revealed in the New Testament take precedence over and abrogate those of the Old Testament, especially when it comes to the YHVH’s Torah-law or the law of Moses. Over the millennia, the church has devised many circuitous and circumambulatory philosophical theologies to get around many simple truths. We see this in Christian theologians attempts to explain away the Torah-law, the Sabbath, the biblical feasts and dietary laws, a Hebraic-centric understanding of Scripture and the accompanying lifestyle that goes with it.
Because the church has replaced so many biblical truths with the unbiblical traditions of men, more and more people are realizing that the church has, in many cases, lied to them and as such are returning to the biblical or Hebraic roots of the Christian faith. They are returning to their spiritual foundations, the bedrock or the first principles of their faith.
Of interesting note is the fact that when the apostolic writers penned what became known as “the New Testament,” there was no “New Testament” yet. All Christians of the first century had was “the Old Testament.” When in their writings the apostles referred to Scripture, they were speaking of the Tanakh or Old Testament (e.g. 2 Tim 3:16–17; Acts 17:11). So everything we read in the Testimony of Yeshua (or New Testament) must be understood in the light of the Tanakh (or Old Testament) and can never contradict it. This is how the early first century church would have approached biblical truth, and we would serve ourselves well to follow the example of those who sat at Yeshua’s feet.
The Practical Principle
This principle of logical interpretation of Scripture involves taking into consideration the practical application of the text. We activate this principle when we ask ourselves to whom is the text speaking and who is the speaker. For example, there are 613 commandments (or mitzvot) listed in the Tanakh. Not all of them are for everyone. Some are specifically for the priests, for women, for soldiers, for the king, for farmers, children, warriors, kings and so on. Similarly, in the Testimony of Yeshua there are some 1050 direct commands. While many are generally applicable to everyone, not all are.
PaRDeS (a Garden or Orchard)—The Four Levels of Biblical Understanding
When it comes to discovering the hidden golden nuggets in Scripture, one must be willing to become a spiritual hardrock miner who is not averse to the difficult work of picking away at the seemingly unyielding and implacable rock and soil to uncover the mother lode of hidden treasure underground. Like digging for gold, the deeper one digs into Scripture and the more time and effort one invests in the process, the more likely one is to pull the unspeakably valuable treasures out of the spiritual bedrock of the Bible. I have been digging into this Rock of Ages daily for more than fifty years, and my heart and mind still tingle and pulsate with enthusiasm (please look up the meaning of the word enthusiasm for a cool nugget of truth that reveals why I purposely chose this word) when I discover new treasures therein.
To uncover these nuggets that lay below the surface words of Scripture, it is critical to understand an important fact: There are at least four layers of understanding to be found buried in the Word of Elohim. Let’s discover and briefly explore what these are.
To do this effectively, we need to understand the four levels of biblical truth that is hidden in the written word of YHVH. This understanding revolves around biblical Hebrew and Aramaic words pardes and is spelled in Hebrew and Aramaic without vowels as PRDS. Our English word paradise etymologically derives form this ancient biblical word.
Before we launch into the four levels of biblical interpretation for which PRDS is an acronym, let’s do a brief word study on the Hebrew word pardis.
The biblical Greek word paradeisos (in English, paradise as found in Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 12:4 and Rev 2:7) is of Oriental (likely Persian and Assyrian) origin. The biblical Hebrew equivalent of paradeisos is pardes—a word that occurs twice in the Tanakh (Song 4:13 and Neh 2:8) and is translated into English as “orchard” (Song 4:13) and “forest” (Neh 2:8).
As noted just above, the Hebrew word pardes or, literally, PRDS was used by the ancient Jewish biblical scholars as an acronym standing for the four levels of biblical interpretation. They are:
- Peshat—the Hebrew word meaning “simple”
- Remez—the Hebrew word meaning “hint”
- Drash—the Hebrew word meaning “search”
- Sod—the Hebrew word meaning “hidden”
or PRDS for short.
Each layer represents a subsequently deeper and more intense level of biblical understanding than the previous one.
Laying on the surface of Scripture, we find the peshat or the plain and literal, simple, basic meaning of the text. It is understanding Scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the words that are written. The peshat is the keystone of scriptural understanding. If we discard the peshat we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding. If we ignore the plain or literal meaning of a biblical text and allegorize it away, we are left with a no-hold-barred game of pure imagination in which we are no longer objectively deriving meaning from Scripture (i.e. exegesis), but are reading our own subjective meaning into the Scriptures (i.e. eisegesis).
An example of a peshat meaning of Scripture is the fact that a literal man named Noah built a literal ark of wood that floated on a literal flood of literal water, Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and Yeshua was a carpenter’s son from Judea who lived in the first century. On a moral or philosophical level, the ten commandments, for example, are literal rules of righteous conduct that apply to our daily lives.
Here are some additional guidelines to remember when considering the peshat level of biblical understanding:
- When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is figurative. For example, in Proverbs 18:10 we read that, “[th]he name of YHVH is a strong tower…” (see also Isa 5:7).
- When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is figurative. This is the case in Isaiah 55:12 which states, “the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (see also Zech 5:1–3).
- When an expression is out of character with the thing being described, the statement is figurative. An example of this is Psalm 17:8 where we read that the psalmist asks YHVH to “[k]eep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of your wings…”.
Digging deeper into Scripture, we come to the next level as we drill down deeper into the Word of Elohim. This is the remez or the hinted at, implied or suggested meaning of a scriptural passage leading to a deeper truth than just the peshat or literal surface meaning. Remez is a method of textual interpretation whereby the student’s mind is set in the “search” mode, but ends up discovering something more. While studying Scripture, he finds a remez or a hint, a symbol, or something hidden in a specific word or passage, that is connective in types. Does a word or phrase really have a second meaning different from it’s literal meaning?
An example of a remez is where the Torah refers it “an eye for eye” when it comes to criminal justice (Exod 21:22–27; Lev 24:19–20). This may be taken literally to mean that if you injure someone’s eye, your eye is to be similarly injured as payment for your crime, thus evening the scales of justice. Not only that, but this principle applies to other parts of the body that are injured as well. Additionally, an injured eye does not require the death penalty, while the crime of murder requires more than a slap on the wrist. So what this verse is really saying or hinting at beyond its literal or peshat level meaning is that the punishment for a crime must fit the crime.
Another example of a remez understanding of a Scripture can be found in Proverbs 20:10 dealing with different weights and measures. Diverse weights and measures on the part of a seller for the purpose of cheating a buyer is an abomination to YHVH. The peshat interpretation here would be concerned with dealings between merchants. The remez interpretation goes beyond this and implies that YHVH requires fair and honest dealings in all of one’s business and trade practices.
Here are some additional areas of Scripture in which one might find of a possible remez understandings include:
- Examine numbers as symbols to convey hinted at meanings in Scripture.
- Examine words used as metaphors, e.g., bread as Bread of Life, water as Living Water.
- Examine the Hebrew meaning of people’s names, place names or tribes in the Bible.
- Closely examine the true definition of words in Scripture, especially figures of speech.
- Note that the biblical stories are often indications of repetitive cycles in human history. They are types of what may happen again, for as we read “what has been before, will be again” (Eccl 1:9–10).
Drilling down deeper into the bedrock of Scripture, we next come to the drash (the Hebrew word meaning “search”) level of Scripture. This is the allegorical, typological (antetypes and types) or homiletical application of Scripture. On the drash level, creativity is used to search the text in relation to the rest of Scriptures, other literature, or life itself in such a way as to develop an allegorical, typological or homiletical (teaching) application of the text. This process often involves eisegesis (reading ideas into the text) of the text, but should be constrained by having some foundation in sound exegesis as well.
Moreover, a drash understanding of Scripture can involve taking two or unrelated verses of Scripture and combining them to create a verse with a third meaning. This is called sermonizing or homiletics.
The Hebrew term midrash generally refers to a commentary which is built upon drash-level understanding of Scripture.
We can use Noah and his ark as an example of a drash understanding of Scripture. Even though Noah built an ark and survived divine judgment against men’s wickedness in it, there is an allegorical understanding to this story as well. Noah can be viewed as a Messianic figure who saves those who believe his message of repentance and righteous living, and are thus accorded an escape from divine judgment, even as Yeshua the Messiah does the same for those who believe him and place their trust in him.
At this point, it must be noted that although many scripture passages that have a peshat-level meaning can also be translated allegorically, some scriptures were written only with an allegorical meaning. For example, Elohim in several Scriptures is described as a having wings under which the saints can take refuge, or as a rock or fortress for his people. Similarly, Yeshua is likened to a door, and the saints are to be the salt of the earth. Obviously, these descriptions are not to be taken literally, but to be viewed as similes and symbolic metaphors.
Some other examples of Scriptures that are to be understood at drash and not a peshat level include:
- The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3–9) where Scripture itself defines the components of an allegory (vv. 18–23), when it defines what the seed is and the various types of ground on which the seed fell.
- Revelation 1:12–16 mentions seven candlesticks and seven stars. Verse 20 tell us what they allegorically represent.
- Revelation 17:2–8 mentions seven heads, seven mountains, a beast with ten horns, a woman and waters. Verses 9–18 explain what all these elements refer to.
- Sometimes different scriptures will attach different drash meanings to the same thing. In Hosea the peshat meaning of son is referring to Israel. However, Matthew 2:14–15 allegorically likens the Messiah to Israel.
Here are some guidelines to consider when applying a drash meaning to Scripture:
- A drash understanding cannot be used to strip a passage of its peshat meaning, nor may any such understanding contradict the peshat meaning of any other passage.
- Scripture will interpret Scripture. Scriptures themselves will define the components of an allegory.
- The primary competence of an allegory represent specific realities. We should limit ourselves to these primary components when understanding the text.
Here are some examples of one scripture engaging in a drash understanding of another scripture:
- Matthew 2:14–15 gives a drash understanding of Hosea 11:1.
- Romans 5:14 gives a drash understanding of Genesis 3:1–24 comparing Adam to Messiah.
- “Puffed up” in 1 Corinthians 4:6 implies a drash understanding of unleavened bread (see Exod 12).
- Galatians 4:24 gives a drash understanding of Genesis chapters 17–22 comparing Sarah and Isaac with the Torah and comparing Hagar and Ishmael with “the under the law” heresy.
- Colossians 2:17 indicates a drash level meaning to the biblical festivals.
- Hebrews 8:5 gives a drash understanding which compares the Levitical priesthood with the priesthood of Messiah.
- Hebrews 9:9 and 24 gives a drash on the Tabernacle of Moses and compares it to the heavenly holy of holies.
In the following examples we see how Scripture applies both peshat and drash meanings to the same word: In Romans 9:7, Paul takes “seed” to mean Isaac, Abraham’s son (the peshat interpretation), while in Galatians 3:16 he midrashically applies “seed” to Yeshua. In Romans 4:13 Paul uses “seed” to refer to Abraham’s physical offspring, and in verse 16 (and in Gal 3:29) to his spiritual offspring.
- Hebrews 11:19 gives a drash understanding of the events of Genesis 22:1–19.
- 1 Peter 3:21 gives a drash understanding of the events in Genesis 6–9.
The fourth or final level of scriptural understanding is the sod or hidden or mystical level. The book of Revelation, for example, contains many drash and sod level passages.
- First Corinthians 2:7 alludes to this level of understanding.
But we speak the wisdom of Elohim in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which Elohim ordained before the ages for our glory…
- The 666 mark of the beast passage of Revelation chapter thirteen is an example of sod. To this day, biblical scholars are still trying to unveil the meaning of this mysterious verse. Is it literal or symbolic? Is there a numerological meaning to 666? If so, how and what does it apply and to whom? Many theories have been proffered, but the exact meaning still remains a mystery.
Other examples of sod passages in Scripture include:
- Yeshua’s words in John 6:54–56 where he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This passage can yield both a drash and a sod interpretation.
- Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:10–22 is highly mystical in its understanding and can also be understood at both a the drash and sod levels.
- The book of Revelation is full of mystical, hidden or secret understandings such as the dragon, the whore of Babylon, the various beast creatures, the New Jerusalem as well as the 666 mark of the beast previously mentioned.
This has been the briefest introductory overview to the four levels of biblical interpretation. Suffice it to say, when one reads the Scriptures, to better discover the deep treasure hidden therein, it is beneficial to keep these principles in mind.
To my mind, as in hardrock mining in search of a vein of gold, only after hours or even days of quiet, prayerful, meditative reflection, while at the same time keeping the principles of peshat, remez, drash and sod in mind, will the Scriptures yield their priceless treasures of divine revelation—YHVH’s manna from heaven, so to speak.