Have you ever had a conversation about the Bible and discussed a passage with someone and they have responded with, “Well that’s just your interpretation” as a get out of jail free card? Surely there must be some means to systematically approach Bible study, otherwise it becomes a free for all. With no reference whatsoever to context, another person blurts out, “Well that is what it means to me!” Interestingly enough, there is a peer reviewed journal called ‘Interpretation’ for the express purpose of helping pastors, scholars and theologians to study, preach and teach accurately from the Bible.
Traditional Jewish interpretation of the Bible employs the use of the ‘peshat’, ‘remez’, ‘drash’ and ‘sod’. Peshat refers to the plain meaning of the text in context. Remez refers to the hinting and there might be a spiritual meaning sometimes referred to as allegory. Drash involves using several texts that relate to each other to understand the deeper meaning and ‘sod’ relates to a much deeper and often esoteric meaning and until very recently was only used by those who had studied the former three methods extensively and aged over 40.
Firstly, the plain sense ‘peshat’ meaning of the text would be established before seeking further insights or drawing other conclusions. Then the ‘remez’ would follow to see if or whether there is a further spiritual meaning. ‘Midrash’ would be employed to understand how that text fits within that book of the Bible and the rest of Scripture to further examine the wider meaning. The problem with the ‘sod’ is that it is highly subjective and often looks for numerical values of words (known as gematria) and seeks to connect that with words of similar numerical value for deeper meanings. It is essentially a form of Gnostic interpretation.
Evangelical interpreters in many ways use similar interpretation to the traditional Jewish model though use different terminology. The starting point is to establish what the text is saying, not what you want it to say. This is known as ‘exegesis’ rather than ‘eisegesis’ where you are informed by reading what the text says in context.
So how can one establish context? By reading what comes before and after a passage and considering that passage within the book and the Bible itself. The old saying is that if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. Another adage is that a text without the context is a pretext for a proof text!
Some passages do have a spiritual meaning in that the life of Joseph was a foreshadowing of Yeshua (Jesus) and that becomes increasingly apparent as and when the numerous parallels between their lives are compared.
Comparing scripture with scripture is vital. If we looked at when Jacob wrestled with a mysterious guest in Genesis 32:22-32, we could go to Hosea 12:1-6 to obtain commentary and insight on the former passage. Some Jewish people may refer to this as ‘midrash’, some evangelicals as ‘comparing scripture with scripture’ and probably consider it one of the most fundamental rules of biblical interpretation. Messianics (Jewish believers in Yeshua-Jesus) will probably refer to both and use those terms interchangeably. At the end of the day it is not the name of the term, but the use of that method employed which is important. A helpful aid to this is using scriptures written in the margin or in footnotes in some study Bibles which are effectively helping you with midrash/comparing scripture with scripture.
To get to grips with a text it is important to read it through thoroughly and to be aware of the historical and grammatical context. Ideally knowing something of Hebrew helps with language and idioms though there are many useful study aids, commentaries, Bible dictionaries and lexicons are available. It helps to consider a portion of the Bible compared with other related parts of the Bible. Some parts of the Bible may have a spiritual meaning but that should not be forced without thinking whether it fits in with the rest of the Bible. It is unwise to constantly seek novel interpretations since that is using imagination to run wild rather than being informed through the Bible, by God when we ask Him to help us to understand Him and His word.
We can pray with the psalmist ‘Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your law (Psalm 119:18). ’We can ask the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to help us to understand it so that we might be justified by faith and come to know Him.