Walking Through the “Orchard” of Scripture

 Encountering a Rabbinical Tradition of Biblical Reading with Christian Eyes

Premise: Searching for Meaning

One of the basic notions that we must take into consideration when reading Scripture is the complexity of meaning(s) “words” can communicate. Why? The divine revelation manifested in the written word resides in its message, embracing different levels of comprehension depending on the spiritual sensitivity of the reader. Written music, for example, is dead and mute until a musician takes the partiture and reproduces the pleasant melody written in it, generating a beautiful tune that awakens feelings, memories, and some kind of spiritual pleasure within the person of the listener.

Analogously, the written text of the divine Scripture produces all kinds of spiritual and psychological experiences when the faithful reader approaches it through a prayerful reading, allowing the voice of God to be heard that, like a melody, can lift up the soul of the one who is listening to His message. For this reason, the Scripture does not limit itself to one unique level of meaning; quite the contrary.

Each word embraces different semantic levels of communication, speaking a diverse and new meaning into a person’s soul each time it is read and heard. This basic principle was very clear in the practice of lectio divina among the ancient Christian Fathers. Through the exploring and discovering of the different layers of meaning, they could delineate the messages within the word of God who was speaking to their own historical and personal circumstances. Finding spiritual nourishment in the divine message motivated the continuation of their intellectual and pastoral reflections.

The Orchard of Scripture

The Jewish tradition has always demonstrated a special attentiveness when scrutinizing the word of God, with a unique focus to the meaning of YHWH who expresses his Will through the revelation of the sacred text. Since early times in history, the rabbis read the Scripture of the First Testament with the faithful conviction of the multiplicity of semantic levels of the divine text. This conviction is based on the same holiness and mysterious nature of YHWH, who expresses His divine truth through different level of meanings hidden behind the literal sense of the text.

In the environments of rabbinical exegesis, the Jewish scholars developed the notion of PaRDeS which is an acronym that summarizes the manifold meanings of the inspired text of Scripture. The term Pardes is a Persian loanword that literally means “orchard” which, during the rabbinic period, acquired a spiritual meaning as the orchard or garden of the word of God that needs to be protected (e.g., bChagigah 14b).1 In the thirteenth century the word PaRDeS became an acronym that alludes to the fourfold senses of the Scripture which are according to the rabbinic tradition: Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sôd.2

Peshat is considered to be the direct meaning of the written text. It is the equivalent of the literal or plain semantic connotation since it signifies the straightforward meaning of the written words. The peshat is so important that the literal sense remains as the solid ground upon which the other interpretations of hidden meanings find their own roots of meanings.3

Remez literally means “hint” which corresponds to the hidden meaning behind the literal sense. In Christian tradition the remez may be equivalent to the symbolic, figurative or typological meaning of the sacred text. Ramban, or Nahmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, applies the typological exegesis (remez) of the biblical texts. By applying the hermeneutic reading of the remez, Ramban was able to read within the episodes of the lives of the patriarch notions and images that symbolize or represent circumstances and events in the future as if the episodes of the patriarchs were predicting forthcoming events (e.g., see his commentaries on Gen 12:6;4 32:26; Ex 1:1).5

Derash is the homiletical (spiritual) and legalistic interpretation of the sacred text. The term derash derives from the verb dārash which means to seek, to seek with care, to enquire, or to search.6 From this verb derives the noun “midrash” which is essentially the biblical interpretation that is based in the continuous searching of meanings within the sacred text in order to live a righteous life according to God’s Will. Therefore, the midrash that come from the spiritual and intellectual motivation of dārash, is a very distinctive manner of doing explanations or elucidations of the sacred text, according to the Hebrew tradition.

The rabbis found many nuances in the Scripture that serve as ways to bring out the different connotations or levels of meaning conveyed by the text. Some of the interpretations (midrashim) have a homiletical, pastoral or spiritual meaning that help to expand the spiritual life experiences of the people of God. This kind of midrash developed into the collection of the Haggadah: i.e., “telling” (its plural is Haggadot) which is the interpretation-exegesis that is not connected to the Law. On the other hand, the interpretation (midrash) that explains, develops, and illustrates the statues (mitzvot) of the Law is called Halakah which explain the ethical and nomistic implications of YHWH’s Will.7

In their constant search (dārash) for meaning in the Scripture, the rabbis began to develop exegetical techniques that helped to advance in their midrashic reading. Among them, it is important to mention the seven middot (or rules) of Hillel Ha-Gadol as one the earliest rabbinic attestation of exegetical method applied to the first Testament texts.8  We must keep in mind that the seven middot were not invented by Rabbi Hillel; they were practiced long before him. Hillel, as a sage and scholar, had the merit to write this exegetical Jewish tradition into a more organized and systematic manner in order to preserve this particular methodology among his talmidim (disciples or students) in the eponymous rabbinical school.9 Interestingly, Hillel’s exegetical tradition greatly influenced the Pauline writings. Since Paul was educated at the feet of Rabban Gamaliel, a grandson of Hillel, as the apostle of Tarsus states in Acts 22:3, he mastered these biblical techniques that are used to explain the mysteries of God manifested in Christ, as one can see in Rom 5:12–21.10

The biblical meaning identified with the word sôd corresponds to the most inner semantic level of the Scripture. It is the true profound “secret” conveyed by the word of God. The rabbis saw in this meaning a mystical or hidden connotation that God transmits to the one who reads His words with faith and love. In the Jewish spiritual tradition, the sacred Scripture is considered to be an inexhaustible source of divine wisdom that cannot be limited or finite. So, the continuous search cannot be stopped because there is always a sôd to be uncovered. This notion of Scripture is an axiom of faith that is splendidly stated in the Bereshit Rabbah 10:1:

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array (Gen 2:1). It is written: “I have seen that all things have their limit, but Your commandment is broad beyond measure” (Psalm 119:96). To everything, there is an end. Heaven and earth, they have an end. Except for one thing that has no end, and that thing is Torah, as it is said “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:9).11

It is this bottomless nature of the divine Word of God which motivates the reader to continuously drink from the well of the divine Word as a duty for the one who wants to know more and more the mystery of the Creator of the universe. This profound spiritual conviction is already expressed in Psalm 119:96 (118:96 according to the LXX) when the psalmist affirms: “I see the limits of all perfection, but your mitzvah has no bounds” (CJB). Hence, no word(s) of Scripture exhausts itself in one single meaning. Such a notion is proven in the continuous chain of interpretations and explanations done by an endless number of rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries. Consequently, it is important to reaffirm — as the Mishnah Eduyot already states — that it is useless to insist on teaching only one interpretation of Scripture because it is a source of everlasting meaning.12

The multiple meanings of Scripture through the Christian tradition

The rich tradition and devotion implied in the notion of Pardes became a treasure of intellectual and spiritual practice inherited among the writers of the New Testament, like Paul, and among the first Christians writers and Fathers of the Church. Through the Christian eyes of the faith, the early Christians began to develop the sensibility and perception of the multiple meanings of God’s written word.

One of the first explicit written manifestations in Christianity of the understanding and organized application of the multiple semantic levels of Scripture, can be found in Origen of Alexandria. The Alexandrian scholar developed this notion, in his own way, based on (neo-) Platonic and Biblical analysis, creating a synthesis between the Jewish tradition with the Western Hellenistic ways of interpretation. His influence continued through the patristic period, but the subsequent written manifestations of this notion are not as systematic and evident as in Origen’s own writings. Through his allegorical application of exegesis, Origen perceived the spiritual meaning of the text that is rooted in its literal semantic manifestation. In this manner, he constructed his notion of spiritual aesthetics taking into consideration pericopes like the text of Hebrews 5:14 as one of his theological axioms: “But solid food is for those who are full grown, who by reason of use have their senses [perceptions: tá aisthéria] trained by practice to discern good and evil.”

The Alexandrian thinker makes a clear distinction between the different semantic levels hidden in the Scripture which are equivalent to the Rabbinical notion of Paredes, and the capacity to read and discern them through the spiritual capacities of the intellect. The ability to understand the profound meanings hidden within the Scripture is interconnected with the awakening and development of the spiritual perceptions of the reader-believer. Regarding this notion, Origen establishes it in one of his meditations:

Anyone who looks into this subject more deeply will say that there is, as the Scripture calls it, a certain divine sense which only the man who is blessed finds on this earth. Thus, Solomon says: ‘Thou shalt find a divine sense.’ There are many forms of this sense: sight which can see things superior to corporeal beings, the cherubim or seraphim being obvious instances, and a hearing which can receive impressions of sounds that have no objective existence in the air, and a taste which feeds on living bread that has come down from heaven and gives life to the world. So also, there is a sense of smell which smells spiritual things, as Paul speaks of ‘a sweet savor of Christ unto God,’ and a sense of touch in accordance with which John says that he has handled with his hands of the Word of life. The blessed prophets found this divine sense, and their vision and hearing were spiritual; in a similar way they tasted and smelt, so to speak, with a sense which was not sensible. And they touched the Word by faith so that an emanation came from him to them which healed them.13

It is important to indicate the intrinsic dynamic of the spiritual path of the prayerful reading of Scripture (lectio divina) which implies a gradual development, like climbing up a ladder, toward the most elevated of meanings in the biblical messages that are hidden or contained in the littera or peshat. The devout reader-believer constantly seeks (dārash) the meaning beneath the literal sense of the biblical text, excavating the surface and facing the hermeneutical challenges of the biblical passage (remetz). However, it is essential to indicate that these senses do not exclude each other. Once the reader-believer perceives the spiritual sense or the hidden voice of God (sôd) that elevates the soul (anagogy), one realizes that all the senses (Pardes) are intertwined among themselves, each one of them being an intrinsic part of the other. Origen proposed this classification in an organized manner to indicate the complex reality of the semantic levels that one may find in a biblical text since it is impossible to exhaust the inspired Scripture by using only one interpretation.14

When we read the Scripture, the most obvious levels of meaning discovered are the literal and spiritual meanings of the sacred text. But the biblical Tradition of interpretation, since the patristic era, began to speak of four senses of the Scripture, a notion that had been predominating in the biblical and patristic circles outside of Origen. The fathers of the church, especially those between the third and the fifth century, were more than scholars and theologians. For them the study of Scripture was a way of life in which they gave themselves in a total manner to the mystery of God. Therefore, the biblical exegesis, life of prayer, and the resulting theological elucidations were ways to express and explain their own experiences of faith in the mystery of God.

They were true expositores in sacra pagina, namely, true expositors and masters of the sacred text. From their own theological and pastoral experiences, the fathers developed important hermeneutical methodologies of Scripture in order to make more actual and operative the divine message of God according to their own historical circumstances and needs.15 These diverse methodological approaches were eventually summarized under the expression of the “four senses of the Scripture,” as one can see in the quadruplet interpretation of biblical terms offered by Rabanus Maurus during the ninth century.16

It is logical to deduce that there is a strong correlation with the four senses of Pardes established during the Jewish exegetical tradition of the rabbinical schools. With great probability, the development of the multiple semantic levels of Scripture adopted by Christianity had been influenced by the earlier practice of rabbinical exegesis that permeates the New Testament. The application of the seven interpretative rules (middot) of Hillel Ha-Gadol present in the Gospels and the corpus paulinus are excellent examples of this strong connection between the Jewish and Christian way of reading Scripture. Consequently, the Christian writers since the patristic times began to borrow the nuances and basic connotations of the multiple semantic levels of Scripture (Pardes) that were found already expressed in the canonical texts of the New Testament.17 Following the flow of the Pauline spirituality, for example, one Christian reader would notice that beyond the literal sense of a text appears allegorical, typological, tropological, and spiritual meanings that reveal aspects of the mystery of the Trinitarian God that are helpful to all the dimensions of the pragmatic and spiritual life of a Christian.

Thomas Aquinas, knowing this ancient hermeneutic practice, summarized and defined the four senses of the Sacred Scripture in his Summa Theologica, making a classical emphasis in two semantic levels: the literal and the spiritual sense. He affirms that “the first meaning, according to which the words signify things, pertains to the first sense, which is the historical or literal sense, while (the other) meaning, according to which the things signified by the words again signify other things, is called the spiritual sense, which is based upon the literal sense and presupposes it.”18

Thus, he points out that the Bible is a special collection of books like no other, inasmuch as it has more than two or more senses expressed in the very same words. Here the most obvious aspect of the spiritual sense is the symbolic or typological dimension embraced in the biblical texts (equivalent to remez and derash), which pertains to what is called the allegorical sense. Hence, the literal sense would be the meaning expressed immediately and directly by the words of the sacred writers, while the allegorical sense “is based only indirectly upon the words and directly upon things, events, or persons (either individually or collectively) used to express something else on a higher level and to foreshadow some great truth.”19

As an example of this semantic level, we can read the expression of Hosea 11:1: “I called my son out of Egypt” as a literal reference to the descendants of Jacob brought out of Egypt under Moses, which also would signify allegorically the Infant Jesus returning to Palestine from Egypt. In this manner the episodes and heroes of the Old Testament become “types or figures” (τύπος: túpos) of the event of Christ. Therefore, the incarnate Logos embraces the sensus plenior of the sacred texts of the first testament which could be one equivalent notion of the hidden meanings of Scripture, sôd, made explicit by Christ’s event.20

At the same time, inside of the complex and rich levels of understanding, it is possible to discover the moral meaning of the sacred text, or tropological sense which could be the equivalent of the halachic meaning of the midrash. Such semantic level guides the believer to act according to God’s Will, imitating the pattern of behavior and attitude of YHWH and important figures of the Old and New Testament narratives, that ultimately lead us to appreciate and assimilate the thinking and way of living of Jesus, the Son of God, within our context of life.

Augustine of Dacia summarizes this ancient doctrine, capturing it in a spectacular verse: “The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”21 Through this poetic statement of Augustine, it is significant to emphasize that these fourfold senses of the Scripture cannot be understood as four different isolated meanings as if they would be disconnected, loosely or insecurely juxtaposed to each other. The truth found and experienced by a reader is exactly the opposite of that. Each sense is imbedded in the other as an essential substance that serves as a platform to discover the other semantic levels entrenched in the sacred text. For this reason, the literal sense becomes the essential platform where it begins to be unveiled the diverse mysteries of God in the sacred text through three other intrinsically related dimensions of meanings, i.e., allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses. In other words, each semantic level leads to the other, being intertwined to the point of becoming a unity of source, and a unity of convergence.22 Therefore, using a simplistic understanding found in a “fundamentalist literalism” of the Scripture would be a theological and methodological mistake at the moment of cultivating a profound encounter with the mystery of the divine Word.

This kind of attitude or biblical approach becomes an obstacle to the rich semantic levels of the Divine word that conveys manifold ways of communicating the message of the living God. The literalism’s approach becomes a limitation for the voice of God who wants to transmit His message through different channels that maintain a unity of source and a unity of convergence into the only God who is permanently speaking.

One of the greatest problems that we have in the history of the biblical exegesis consists in the marginalization or ephemeral disregard for the crucial notion of the fourfold sense of Scripture which had been at the heart of countless theological and spiritual reflections since the patristic era. Any effort to delve into this ancient and rich tradition is significant because at the moment of applying the practice of lectio divina, the reader-believer needs to navigate between the gradual and dynamic movements of multiple meanings used by God’s voice written in the sacra pagina of the Bible. De Lubac stresses this dimension with clear statements when he affirms:

On the other hand, if the method of the “fourfold sense,” considered in the strict meaning of the term, had only an ephemeral ascendency in theology, the doctrine of the “fourfold sense,” which had, from the dawn of the Middle Ages, been at the heart of exegesis, kept this role right to the end. But it must be conceded, after having been right at the center of things in the realms of both thought and Christian life, this doctrine, once its strength had been sapped, survived too long outside the pale of living exegesis, not to mention living theology and spirituality. For this reason, it ended up losing its connection with these areas, even in cases where it was still, practically speaking, a going concern. No longer the place where these vital elements met, or rather, the place where they achieved union, it became no more than a lifeless shell . . . A new effort, therefore, to grasp its authentic significance and, as much as possible, to express its deep purpose cannot be superfluous.23

Consequently, it is important to consider the doctrine of the fourfold sense as an essential platform of the biblical hermeneutics that should permeate the spiritual exegesis and the prayerful reading of Scripture. However, such ancient tradition is the result of the inheritance of the love for the sacred text manifested already in the Jewish tradition. The constant effort for searching the multiple dimensions of Biblical meaning only demonstrates the depth and everlasting richness of the Word of God that communicates God’s Message and Will through multiples tonalities and nuances. This reader-response approach cannot be exhausted throughout the human history, because the Word of God is an endless ocean of meaning through which each believer must navigate with the trust of the divine guidance of God Himself.

  1. Cf. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria. Digital format accessed 2/22/2018: https://www.sefaria.org/Chagigah.14b.8?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  2. Cf. Robert Harris, “Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis,” in A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2: The Medieval Though the Reformation Periods, ed. by Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 159. Hebrew emphasizes the consonants in words and for this reason the consonants are in capital letters, because each one of them signifies a specific semantic level of Scripture: P, R, D, S.
  3. Cf. Wilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, “Peshat,” Jewish Encyclopedia IX, 653.
  4. Cf. Ramban, Genesis 12:6 in Sefaria. Digital format accessed 2/22/2021: https://www.sefaria.org/Ramban_on_Genesis.12.6.1?lang=bi.
  5. Cf. Robert Harris, “Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis,” 159.
  6. Cf. Wilhelm Bacher, Kaufmann Kohler, and J. Frederic McCurdy, “Bible Exegesis,” Jewish Encyclopedia III, 162.
  7. Cf. Wilhelm Bacher, Kaufmann Kohler, and J. Frederic McCurdy, “Bible Exegesis,” 163.
  8. Cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible (Roma, Città del Vaticano: Editrice Vaticana, 2002), n. 12.
  9. Cf. Shaul C. Kook, “The Seven Middot of Hillel,” HaSofe LeHokhmat Yisra’el 13 (1929): 90–91; Hermann Leberecht Strack and Günther Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 19–23; Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 20–21.
  10. Cf. Paul Barnett, Paul, Missionary of Jesus: After Jesus, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI – Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008), 34–36.
  11. Cf. Bereshit Rabbah 10:1, in Sefaria Library. Digital format accessed 2/22/2021: https://www.sefaria.org/Bereishit_Rabbah.10.6 lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  12. Cf. Mishnah Eduyot 1,4, in Sefaria Library. Digital format accessed 2/22/2021: www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Eduyot.1.4 lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  13. Cf. Origen, Contra Celsum I:48, trans. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge ‒ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 44. See also Origen, De Principiis IV, 7–10.
  14. Cf. Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 39, 45–46.
  15. Cf. Mario Masini, La Lectio Divina. Teologia, spiritualità, metodo (Milano: Edizione San Paolo, 2002), 314–315.
  16. Cf. Rabanus Maurus, Allegoriae in universam sacram Scripturam, PL 112.850–1088.
  17. Cf. Robert A. Harris, “Medieval Jewish Biblical Exegesis,” 159–160; Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 14.
  18. Thomas Aquinas, STh part I, quest. 1, art. 10.
  19. Cf. John E. Steinmueller, Companion to Scripture Studies, in John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies. Revised and enlarged edition (New York – Houston, TX: Lumen Christi Press, 1969), I, 256–257.
  20. Cf. Kevin Storer, Reading Scripture to Hear God: Kevin Vanhoozer and Henri de Lubac on God’s Use of Scripture in the Economy of Redemption (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2015), 28–29. Sensus plenior can be defined as “the additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text . . .” Raymond E. Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture (Baltimore: St. Mary’s University, 1955), 92.
  21. Agostino di Dacia (1282): “Littera gesta docet quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas quo tendas anagogia.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 188. This exegetical doctrine of the four senses can be found in the summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 109–119.
  22. Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Volume 2. The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. E. M. Maclerowski (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 26.
  23. Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Volume 1. The Four Senses of Scripture, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 74.
Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD About Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD

Father Dempsey Rosales Acosta attained his Baccalaureatus in theology (STB) from the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome in 1998. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1999, he graduated in Exegesis and Biblical Languages at the Pontifical Biblicum Institute of Rome (SSL) in 2004, and achieved his doctorate in Biblical Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2009. Since 2008, he has worked as a peritus and collaborator for the Presidential Liaison for Roman Catholic Ministries at the American Bible Society (ABS), and since 2010, he has been a full-time faculty member of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX.

Comments

  1. Avatar G. Poulin says:

    What happens when the theologian proposes a meaning for a Scriptural text that flatly contradicts the original intent of the passage? I have seen this more times than I can count. We need to restore the literal sense to its proper position as the governing authority and source of the other meanings. Otherwise we are just using the Scriptures to advance our own theological agendas.

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