The Eastern Mind #3 — Layers of Interpretation

The Jewish people have layers of understanding to any passage. Start down this road and you will begin to see that nothing written in the Bible means what it says — only. There is a surface interpretation, but there are layers and depth and interconnectedness that open up the passage in profound ways.

Westerners see the Bible with a certain close mindedness in the way we read. We are looking for “the” truth of the passage, which is often relegated to the truth of how it hits me where I am. And that is not wrong, but in the Jewish world, this is only one piece of layers of deeper and more insightful truth that opens up whole new worlds of understanding for us about who God is and how we function in the world and how we are supposed to see other people — even enemies.

There are four distinct layers of interpretation for any passage that allow us to see various angles of what God is trying to convey to us as we understand what He is up to in the passage.

Layer 1: Pshat. This is the surfaced layer of meaning. As you read, what does it mean to you? What is the basic, straightforward meaning of what is being said? How is it hitting you? What can we learn from that?

Layer 2: Remez. While it was not called remez at the time of Christ, this practice certainly exists in the first century. Remez means “hint.” The author will often drop a hint into the passage that anchors the passage to another passage. It is within the second passage where we find the bigger meaning of what is being written. This is true especially with parables.

An example: In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus speaks of birds resting in the branches of the tree. Why do I need to know of these birds? What value do they bring to the story? In fact, they give us the meaning of the whole thing.

Another example: The temptation of Jesus is framed by three different tests. Did you notice that Luke’s account is in a different order than Matthew’s? Matthew is writing a Jewish gospel to a Jewish audience, and he is a Jewish author. What we might find as we pull apart Matthew’s account of the story is that he is dropping clues in his account to help us see the larger story of what is happening in this specific story.

Layer 3: Derash. This is the metaphorical meanings that could be understood from the second passage. This is where midrash fits into the interpretation process. In Derash, we begin to see how this passage could relate to many different areas of our lives. It gives us a way to take a passage about war, for example, and apply that passage to a struggle at work. Although it is not a real war, the struggle of the passage still crosses the context.

Layer 4: Sod (pronounced with a long “O”). This level is the deepest truth, and the most insightful. This can only be given by God. It is insight that impacts at deep levels. Here is an example from Matthew 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

The statement Peter makes is so insightful that only God could have given him that level of understanding. Only God could allow Peter to see the truth of who Jesus really is, and perhaps even a glimpse of the implications of that truth.

As we wrestle with this kind of approach to Scripture, we begin to see that each passage offers us living water and encouragement again and again at many different levels. Consequently, biblical study is not a destination, but a lifelong pursuit that deserves our utmost effort.

May we always be people of the Text.