Prolegomena – Hermeneutic 2

Section I.1 – Talmudic Hermeneutic

There are more ways to express our study of Scripture than just one. Each branch of the church has a different way of studying, and here I’m going to begin even with Judaism. It might surprise you how similar some of the Christian principles of hermeneutic are to the Judaist principles. Below is a quick list of these principles:

-Grammar and exegesis

-The interpretation of certain words and letters, along with missing words or letters, and prefixes and suffixes

-The interpretation of the letters in a word according to their numerical value

-The interpretation of a word by dividing it into two or more words

-The interpretation of a word by transposing its letters or by changing its vowels

We’ll start with grammar and exegesis. The rabbinic interpretation of a text or passage requires that you read the text or passage in Hebrew. If you read the Tanakh (Jewish Old Testament) in English, you are not reading the Bible. The Scripture is only the Scripture when you are reading it in Hebrew, and therefore those that don’t know Hebrew must go to the Rabbi to learn what the Bible says. Now, there are English Tanakh available, and anyone is welcome to read them. Yet, that English version should not ever be taken as authoritative. Likewise, I would also say that our English versions of the Bible are not to be taken as absolutely authoritative.

Notice what this means, though. This in no way would require us to learn Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible. Instead, it requires us to be compassionate to our English versions. We must recognize that when you translate from one language to another, the phrase “lost in translation” truly does apply. So we should have enough of an open mind to at least search out other versions to see how they have worded various passages. For example, Daniel 9:27 is extremely complex Hebrew. When you read it in the English version, very often it makes little or no sense. So we need to check out multiple English versions to identify what it might be that the translators were going for.

When we do come to the Hebrew or Greek of our Bibles, we need to not only know what the words mean, but we need to also understand the nuances of the grammar. For example, when we read in Greek Χριστος Ισους, we know that this is Christ Jesus. But, if we read in another place Ισους Χριστος, we know that this is Jesus Christ. This is an extremely basic example, and there are more in-depth examples to choose from. But the question we can ask is why does the writer use Christ Jesus in the one passage, but Jesus Christ in the other passage?

In Genesis 1:2, we find that the darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit hovered over the waters. That word for “deep” is speaking of an abyss, like a deep sea. It is sometimes used as a synonym for sheol, the place of the dead. The waters that the Spirit is hovering over are being cross-referenced with this abyss. If the deeps and waters are being considered similar, then we must also conclude that the darkness and the Spirit of God are being likened to one another. What implication does that bring?

When you see patterns and repetitions in the text, you know that an irregularity is purposeful. It would be more likely for the scribe to go into default mode and write something they’re commonly seeing in the text than to write something distinct and different. So when we come to passages like Ephesians 5:23-31, we should notice the nuances in the text. Why does Paul use κεφαλη when saying the husband is the head instead of using αρχη?

This brings us to our next point, actually. The next aspect of the Talmudic interpretation of the Old Testament is to ask the questions of words. What does this word mean? It isn’t enough to simply say, “Well, I know that nephesh means soul, so I’ll put down soul.” Instead, we need to search deeply for the full expression of this word. What are the connotations? What are the implications? What specifically is this word saying as compared to neshama? Why did the writer use nephesh when neshama could have been used? We could spend a lifetime simply seeking out the original context and purpose of these individual words, and this is why our understanding should not be governed by our own knowledge alone.

The third means of interpretation is to translate the words according to their numerical value. There is a tradition in Judaism that gives a numerical value to the letters. For example, the letter aleph has a numerical value of one. The letter vav has the numerical value of six. So when we take the word (we’ll make up the word) aleph vav, we know that it has a numerical value of seven. This comes in handy when we compare words with other words. For example, God is one. One of the Hebrew words for man is adam. Adam starts with the letter aleph. Aleph is one. One is always a representation of God. Elohim starts with an aleph. The second part of adam is the word dam, which means blood. Why? When you take the aleph, God, and mix it with the dam, blood, you get man. Man is both physical, represented by the blood, and spiritual, represented by the aleph. This actually gets much deeper. I’m unqualified to be able to give too much further comment, however. This study is both fascinating and eye opening.

The fourth means of interpretation is to seek to understand the interpretation of a word by seeing other words inside of this word. This is something that is easily seen in names. But, we can also find this in the example of davar. Davar is the Hebrew word for “word”. If we made it feminine, we add the hey ending to get devarah, or as we would know it, Deborah. Deborah is the name of a prophetess, but it means “bee”. We also find the word davar in the word for wilderness: midvar. What is it that davar, devarah, and midvar all have in common? Each of them speaks of order. Words are letters put together in specific order. If I were to change the word runway to wayrun, it no longer has meaning. The specific order of the letters is important. Likewise, if you look in a beehive, you find a lot of order in both the hierarchy of the bees as well as the physical structure of the hive. The wilderness is the place where humanity has not come in to create chaos. Where God has established the natural order, there is no chaos.

The fifth means of interpretation is to seek to find other words similar to it, and thus by switching either vowels or consonants within that Hebrew word, come to greater conclusion about the interpretation of that word. For example, you can examine another word for man, ish, and the word for woman, ishah. Ish has a yod in it. Ishah has a hey. Ish does not have a hey, and ishah does not have a yod. But, when you put ish and ishah together in marriage, the two become one. So, we have the yod and the hey coming together to make yod-hey, or yah, the name of God. Another example using the word ish is that the word for fire is esh. Esh is what we get when we subtract the yod. When we take God out of the equation, we get fire. When a man without yod comes to a woman without hey, the result is two fires coming together to produce greater devastation. I heard one rabbi say, “This is the reason for the high divorce rates.” He might be right; he might be wrong. You understand, however, how this interpretation works.

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