Basic Rules for Torah Interpretation

I thought we’d take a different path this morning and talk about the mechanics of Torah interpretation. I am constantly telling people to read the Manual, yet I haven’t really helped anyone in understanding how to read the Torah.

The following suggestions are from a Bible study class I used to give on interpreting the Torah. I hope it is useful to you.

Essentially, when reading the Torah (or any scripture) we need to look at what the text says, then we need to look at how it says it.

There are 4 different levels, if you will, of interpretation:

1. P’shat- the plain meaning of the text, i.e., what you see is what it means

2. Drash- the homiletic meaning (from which we get the Midrash)

3. Remez- the esoteric meaning

4. Sod- the hidden, Kabbalistic meaning

These levels may not all be present, and generally the Ruach will be the driving force in understanding the Drash and deeper meanings.

One of the keys to working within these levels is to observe and review how well the meanings fit and make sense with regards to the other writings in the Bible. This is called Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means that there is continuity of meaning. We are told that God is the same now, before and in the future- He never changes. The meanings and statements made in the Bible should also have this sameness about them- if you interpret something in a way that goes against other, established understandings then you should review what you’re thinking. If something in what you read in Leviticus seems to be totally against what you read in Romans, then there is something wrong, or missing, in that interpretation.

That may not be the best example, since Romans is historically used as a polemic against the Torah when, in fact, it is an apologetic, but the point is that the Bible is the same from start to finish and the interpretations should all be hermeneutically aligned.

You need to always use (what I learned as) Circles of Context. This means to know who wrote what and to whom, and to incorporate both textual and cultural context when forming your interpretation.  Don’t assume that the slave talked about in Leviticus is the same type of slave we had in America. At that time, being a Jewish slave to another Jew was more like being an indentured servant than the horrible torture and misuse that the slaves in America during the 16th through 19th Centuries had to endure. Also, words had different meanings. For example, in Mattitayu 5:17 when Yeshua said He came to fulfill the law, the word “fulfill” did not mean to “complete” something but to interpret it correctly. When you look at the surrounding text, He goes on to say nothing will change. Yet, poor interpretation has constantly led people to teach that His “fulfillment” of the law was to complete it, thereby doing away with it forever. Wrong-o!

Another biblical form of writing is the use of repetitive statements, and you need to review these very carefully. When the tribes of  Reuben and Gad asked to remain east of the Jordan, they said they would build pens for their cattle and homes for their families. Later that is repeated by Moshe, but he tells them to build homes for their families and pens for their cattle. Moses reversed the order of possessions. The Kumash tells us that this was on purpose to show that Moses wanted the leaders to understand that family is more important than possessions. By carefully reading the repetitious statements and stories you can gain a better understanding of what was happening. The same thing can be seen in the story of how Abraham’s servant found Rachael. The story has subtle changes between the first narrative of the event and then, later, what the servant tells Laban.

Finally, I would like to offer some tools that I use. Of course, the main tool in your shed should be the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to lead you in your understanding. But, besides that, it couldn’t hurt to have a few other tools.

Extra-biblical writings are useful, but I offer this with a caveat- don’t forget that what you are reading is someone else’s interpretation and you have to verify it against the original text. One that I trust is Strong’s Concordance (you may need to do some weight-lifting to get in shape to carry that book); you can also use a good Hebrew-Greek-English Dictionary and selected commentaries from established biblical experts (again- they usually repeat what they have been told so verify verify verify.)

There are many different Bibles- the Complete Jewish Bible, the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, the NIV, the KJV, interlinear bibles, and many, many other Bibles, all with their own interpretations found in what the text says. I am not against reading different versions; in fact, I think it will help to identify the differences and that will help you to find the interpretation you are most comfortable with as being the correct one.

The Kumash is a great tool. I use it over and over. The one I have is the Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs: the quintessential Bar Mitzvah present. In fact, the one I have is from my Bar Mitzvah, and it’s still in good shape. Embarrassingly enough, that’s because I never even opened it until I came to know Messiah Yeshua, but (at least) I kept it.

Ultimately, however you do it,  you need to study the Word of God. All of it, from Genesis to Revelations. Heck- you should even take a gander at the maps, now and then, if for no other reason than to be able to picture in your mind where these events are taking place.

Read the Word, study the Word, and get to know the Word, intimately. It is the sword of God, and without knowing what God has told us, through human writings, you can’t possibly be prepared for what is coming.

When you go to a baseball game, they tell you, “Get your scorecards- you can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” If you don’t know what God is telling us about the Messiah, what God is all about (He tells us all about Himself in the Bible) or what evidence there will be of the coming Acharit HaYamim (End Days, Judgement Days), you will not know how to protect your soul from the Enemy.

The Enemy will not come right out and announce himself- he will sneak in behind someone else and slowly, carefully lead you into taking the mark and being forever cursed. If you don’t know the warning signs, you won’t know how to avoid damnation. It’s that simple.

Take your Bible and read it; study it; know it; otherwise, you better have a good supply of Coppertone.

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