To begin, here is the Golden Rule of Interpretation
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths indicated clearly otherwise.
“The Golden Rule of Interpretation is one of the most important principles governing us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. If we follow this rule, we shall never go very far wrong; but if we fail to follow it, we shall never go right.” – David L. Cooper
Four levels of interpretation:
Next we will look at the four levels of interpretation from a Hebraic mindset. These are:
- Parshat (plain historical meaning) – Biblical exegesis/Hermeneutics
- Remez (hint) – When referring to another scripture without quoting it.
- Drash (search) – like Midrash
- Sod (hidden) – meanings of letters
WARNING! For honest interpretation, the rule of thumb is to first master the parshat before moving on to other “levels” of the Scriptures.
We would even add that you should defiantly know Hebrew well enough to translate (without an interlinear Bible) before attempting sod! It is pride to search for “hidden” knowledge without going through the discipline of mastering the other levels. And before we go into the different types of literature in scripture and how to interpret it, we need to talk about the role of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).
The Role of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) in Interpretation:
The Ruach HaKodesh was obviously influential or inspirational in the formation of the Scriptures. This includes the writing and the collecting/preserving of the Bible. From this we get the following two terms: Infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. But what do these terms actually mean?
- Infallibility means that what the authors willed to convey with regard to matters of faith (doctrine) and practice (ethics) are true and will never lead us astray.
- Inerrancy means that what the authors willed to convey with regard to matters of fact (history, geography, science, etc.) are also true and will never lead us astray.
But is it necessary to have the Ruach HaKodesh to understand the Scriptures? In general, the understanding of any text is a matter of the intellect. For instance, can a non-believer understand the historical setting in which the author wrote? Can they understand the genre, keywords, and structure of the text?
In essence anyone can understand what the author meant when he wrote the Scripture. However, the Ruach HaKodesh works inwardly to illuminate the text and to convict us of its importance. In 1 Cor. 2:14 we see, that although the natural man can mentally grasp, or “understand,” the text, they then reject its value and significance. The Ruach HaKodesh illuminates the Scriptures to us and then convicts us of the changes that need to occur in our lives.
Let us first master the Parshat!
We are going to teach you the basic process of Biblical Exegesis or Hermeneutics. You do not interpret different genres the same way! You do not read a newspaper the same way you read novel.
There are different types of genres in the Bible:
- Biblical Narrative
- Poetry (Songs)
- Idioms (Jargon)
- Laws and Commandments
- Epistles (Letters)
When Reading a Biblical Narrative:
- Context! Context! Context! (A text without a context is a pretext!) What is the context of the story in the Bible? Also look at Historical and Cultural background.
- NO UNESSARY DETAILS! Dates are important, feasts are important, genealogies are important, idioms and customs are important (this is where people tend to gloss over and miss Hebraic insights).
- Repetition – As you see above, repetition stresses importance. There are different levels:
- Key words
- Motif, repeated elements (phrase)
- Theme, moral idea (sentence)
- Sequence of action (paragraph)
- Type Scene (Story) occurs over and over, like meeting one’s wife at a well. (Gen 24, Gen 29, Ex 2, I Sam. 9, Ruth, John 4).
- What does a name mean? In 1 Sam. 8, the children of Israel asked for a king and rejected God. Interesting that Saul means “asked for.” 1 Kings 78.21, Elijah takes on the prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel to see who the true God is. Interesting that Elijah means, “my God is YHWH.”
- Boaz calls Ruth, “my daughter” (a title of endearment), but when he speaks to the closer relative he calls her, “the Moabitess” to sway the relative against redeeming her and Naomi so that he could do so.
- Gapping – important information that may be filled in later to help understand the story. Gaps in a story are to arouse a question. When there is a gap ask, “Why?” In Sam 8:20′ the story of David and Bathsheba, it starts, “when kings go out to war.” The question to ask there is, “Why is King David not at war?”
- Narrator and God are always right. (Job didn’t do anything wrong to cause his suffering; to say otherwise is to end up like his friends!)
- First speech reveals character of person
- Compare dialogue to dialogue and narrator. A character could be lying!
- When none ask why. (Gen. – when God speaks to Abraham, Abraham never speaks back but does what God tells him to do. This shows INSTANT obedience). All this can be summed up with the following: Constantly ask yourself “Why am I being told this and why in this way?”
When Reading Biblical Poetry:
When modern poetry is read we can usually recognize it by its rhythm and its rhyme, not so with Biblical Poetry. The poetry of the Scriptures has the following characteristics: parallelism, terseness, equal sentence length, disinclination to use conjunctions or particles and an inclination to use figurative speech. (Two examples are: Exodus 14 vs. 15 and Judges 4 vs. 5, note how the first chapter is a narrative and the second is poetic) Most modern translations of the Bible show a distinction between Prose and Poetry.
Types of Parallelism: Parallelism is the most important feature of Biblical poetry, and can be divided up into four different types.
- Synonymous Parallelism: The various lines express a thought that is similar to what has preceded (Matt 7:7-8).
- Antithetical Parallelism: the second line contrasts with the first (Pro. 10-15).
- Step-like or Climatic Parallelism: each successive line builds on the previous, often repeating it (Matt. 5:17; 10:40).
- Chiasmas: A B C // C B A (Matt. 6:24, 23:12, Mark. 8:35)
Movement of Parallelism: There are five different types of movement to parallelism.
- General to specific (David – Israel)
- Specific to general
- Concrete to abstract (kiss – love)
- Abstract to concrete
- Mundane to literary (hammer – workman’s tool) dramatization
When Reading Idioms or Jargon:
As with any literary work, idioms are used throughout Scripture. Here are several of the most common:
- Love – Hate imagery: this demonstrates preference not actual hatred (Mal. 1:2-3, Rom. 9:13, Deut. 21:15-17)
- In Ps. 137:8-9 the writer has a desire for G-d’s justice. This horrific account was understood to represent the overthrow of an empire. In fact there are several ancient illustrations of a king with his son, and under the feet of the son are the defeated people.
- “Our hearts melted” means a loss of courage (Josh 2:11, 2 Sam. 17:10, Is. 13:7, Nah. 2:10)
- “Sun, moon and starts not giving light” represents a divine intervention into history for either blessing or judgment. It also made the point that the G-d of Israel ruled over the sun, moon and stars (Is. 13:9-11, Eze. 32:7-8, Joel 2:10,31, 3:15, Amos 8:9)
- “As numerous as the stars in the sky” refers simply to a large number (Gen. 22:17, Ex. 32:13, Hab. 3:16)
- “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” refers to experiencing sever sorrow and loss (Lam. 2:16, Matt. 8:12, 24:51, Luke 13:28)
- “Not a man was left” represents the winning of a great victory (Josh 8:17, 2 Kings 10:21)
- “Plucking the eye” is an Aramaic idiom for “stop envying” (Matt. 5:29)
- “Cut off the hand” is an Aramaic idiom for “stop stealing” (Matt. 5:30)
- “Turn the cheek” is an Aramaic idiom for “Do not start a quarrel of a fight” (Matt. 5:38-39)
When Reading Hyperbole or Exaggeration:
The use of hyperbole and exaggeration is perfectly acceptable as long as both the author and the audience understand it is being used. When it is used in this way it can communicate emptions and feeling, not just facts and it is used in proverbs, prophesy, poetry, and idioms. There are two different types of exaggeration: the overstatement for where the statement is literally possible and the hyperbole when the statement is literally impossible (Matt. 23:24 which is actually an Aramaic idiom, Mark 10:24-25, Psa. 22:14). We use hyperbole when we seek to convey a truth that we consider important. There are three primary ways to recognize when hyperbole is being used:
- When a statement is literally impossible (Gen. 22:17, 2 Sam 1:23)
- When a statement is interpreted in another place as non-literal. (Matt. 10:34 vs. Mark 7:9-13 and Luke 12:51 ; Jer. 50:23, 51:25,41 ; 1 John 5:19 vs Rev. 12:9 ; Micah 5:5 vs. Rev 16:14)
- When a statement used universal language like “all”, “everyone”, “no one” (Jer. 6:13, Mark 9:23, Luke 6:30)
We need to continue to ask, “What is the author saying, and why in this way?”
When Reading Covenants:
In the ancient world there were two different types of covenants, the “parity” and the “suzerain.” The parity referred to two equal parties but since the covenants in Scripture are between G-d and man they are of the suzerain type. With the suzerain covenants, the lord would establish the terms and conditions for the subjects who would then either accept or reject the terms. The suzerain covenants were typically divided up as follows:
- Preamble – identifies the parties
- Historical Prologue – describes the relationship between the parties prior to the covenant
- Stipulations – the obligations and responsibilities of the lesser party to the suzerain
- Provisions for Continual Reading –to ensure familiarity to successive generations
- List of Witnesses – since G-d had no one greater, he called heaven and earth to witness
- Blessings and Curses – contingent on the obedience or disobedience of the subjects to the covenant
- Oath – the subjects pledge obedience to the covenant
Examples of these in scripture are: Gen. 12:1-3, Gen 17:1-14, Ex. 19-24, Deut. (all), Josh. 24:1-33. There are two very important facts about suzerain covenants that bring a lot of clarity to the Biblical narrative.
- Suzerain covenants all originated in the free will or choice of the greater party and were therefore based solely and completely on grace.
- The stipulations were not requirements to initiate a positive relationship with the suzerain, but rather were to preserve an already existent covenantal relationship. They were about maintaining the relationship and continuing in the suzerain’s blessing.
When Reading Laws and Commandments:
There are primarily two different types of commandments:
- Laws of Causality – “if . . . . then” These mostly applied to the secular and civil action.
- Laws of Declaration – prohibitions, commands, and instructions.
Scripture does not actually make a distinction between civil, ritual, and ethical commands. These divisions have to do with the content of the rules, but there is a lot of overlap. Many of the laws are the stipulations of the covenant to which it falls under (see above section). Outside of that covenant, the stipulations, though possibly true in principle, are not necessarily applicable. Many of the laws and commandments are applicable to only a certain group of people or “in the land”, however, these laws reflect G-d’s character and guidance, and most have an underling principle that should be followed. Since in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) Yeshua reiterates many of the commands and states that He did not come to abrogate (do away) with them, it is best to assume that the laws in the Torah and Prophets (Tanakh) are still binding to the believer unless otherwise specifically stated. These commands are the stipulations (see above section) of the Brit Hadassah (New Covenant) as is talked about in the book of Hebrews.
When Reading Prophesy:
Most of the prophetic literature revolves around a proclamation of where the people have come from, where they are, and where their actions are taking them. There is a distinction between the gift of prophesy and the office of the prophet. A good definition is as follows:
The word in the original Hebrew meaning a prophet simply indicates a spokesman for God. If he was looking back into the past, he was interpreting for the edification of his hearers and readers the facts of the history. Often times the prophet looked at the present and, realizing that the past, present, and future are linked together by the law of causation, pointed out the salient, outstanding facts of the present and then delineated the future and interpreted its significance for us.
Prophetic literature uses prose and poetry, idioms and hyperbole (as described in the above sections). It also uses a variety of symbols. However, the golden rule of interpretation still applies, and most prophesies should be taken literally. Where there are symbols, they are clearly defined by the usage of literal words. Also the symbols are consistent throughout Scripture. For instance, a “mountain” in prophesy refers to a “nation” in both the Tanakh and the Brit Hadassah. Scripture interprets Scripture.
Prophetic Lawsuit – One of the types of prophesy is the prophetic lawsuit, which follows the following pattern:
- Introduction – Calling of the audience to hear and often appealing to heavens and earth as witnesses
- Questioning the Witnesses – this also includes the statement of the accusation
- The Prosecuting Attorney’s Address – the statement will be made to the court contrasting the people’s sins with G-d’s saving acts
- Description of the Atonement – this refers to the inability of the cultic ritual to atone for such wrong acts
- A warning – a call to turn back to G-d and obey Him
Oracle Against the Nations – Another of the types of prophetic literature is the Oracle. This includes many of the judgment prophesies to foreign nations. This follows the following form:
- The Messenger Formula – “Thus says the L-rd!”
- The Indictment
- The Announcement of Punishment
- Concluding Messenger Formula (Optional)
Also what may or may not be explicitly stated, but is always true is that with all judgment prophesies, G-d reserves the right to relent. This is shown in several places, and in Jonah 3:4-10, we see that based upon the response of the people of Nineveh, God forgave. Also we see this explicitly stated in Jer. 18:7-10. Some other examples include: Eze. 33:13-20, Mic 3:12 as it relates to Jer. 26:16-19.
When Reading a Parable:
- A comparison between two different things – the picture part and the reality part
- A parable teaches one basic point of the speaker or author
- Ask: Who are the main characters? What occurs at the end? What occurs in direct conversation? Who gets the most space?
When Reading Proverbs:
- Proverbs teach general truths, not absolute laws (there are exceptions)
- They are observations from a wise and careful look at life
- See the book of Job as an exception from the rule
When Reading Epistles (form of the ancient letter):
The most important rule for epistles is that the words are defined by the author in the author’s time and usually in the common language of the day. To understand what an author like Sha’ul (Paul) meant by a word or phrase, see his other letters, then look at the other authors from the same time, etc.
The basic setup for the letters is as follows:
- Salutation – reference to the sender and receiver along with a greeting
- Thanksgiving and/or prayer – All except the book of Gal.
- Body – largest part i.e. Rom. 1:18 – 11:36; Gal 1:6 – 4:31; 1 Cor. 1:10 – 4:21
- Exhortation & Instruction
- Conclusion – a wish for peace, kiss or concluding autograph and benediction
Also see how the clauses and sentences are related using different conjunctions.
- Cause – “because”, “for”, “since”, “on account of”
- Result – “so that”, “as a result”, “therefore”, “ so as”
- Purpose – “in order that”, “to”, “lest”, “rather”
- Condition – “if . . . . then”
- Concession – “despite”, “though”, “yet”, “even if”
- Means – “by”, “with”, “through”
Cooper, David L., Rules of Interpretation, Biblical Research Monthly, 1947.
Stein, Robert H., A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Baker Books, 1994.