If You Don’t Know The Text, You Can’t Play

Earlier today I heard a fantastic sermon message online about the subject of remez, an aspect of Jewish interpretation that relies on hints and implications [1]. Being a person who is famous, perhaps even infamous, for my implications, and being someone deeply interested in biblical methods of interpretation, I found the message to be wonderful. Particularly important is the fact that the Bible contains a great deal of cases where there is a passage being mentioned in passing without a reference where an understanding of the deeper significance depends on a knowledge of the biblical verse or passage in question. A key aspect to remez is that if you don’t understand the text, you can’t play. If a reader does not accurately understand what is being referred to, either the reader gets caught up in speculations that have no basis in fact, or the references simply go over their head and are unrecognized.

I found quite a few of the remez passages in the sermon to be of great interest. Perhaps the most poignant one was where John the Baptist, who is frustrated and imprisoned, sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus Christ with a carefully coded question about whether Jesus was the “Coming One,” where Jesus Christ replies with hints to three passages that show that while the Messiah was healing the sick and giving hope to the brokenhearted, that John the Baptist was not going to be freed from prison, but that he should not lose hope anyway. Another particularly interesting example of remez is in John 8, in a hotly disputed passage I have discussed at least a couple of times about the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus’ writing in the dirt is a hint about a passage concerning the fate of God’s enemies, and a particularly fierce (if silent) rebuke to the self-righteousness of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus Christ and sought to entrap him.

Speaking personally, the principle of remez is a useful one for anyone who is attempting to figure out the deeper meanings of my own texts, which are generally full of hints and clues that are keys to insight for those who are aware of what I am referring to as well as traps for the unwary. First, it is important to recognize that my writing regularly contains hints and implications to other matters that I do not have the time to discuss or that I do not wish to discuss openly but cannot help mentioning at least obliquely. Sometimes what I consider an oblique reference is what other people consider to be a terribly obvious reference, and sometimes those references are appreciated and sometimes they are not, depending on how they feel about what is said about how private they are as individuals. What is subtle to me, being a pretty bluntspoken person, generally not very subtle to those who are not quite as open as I am, so there are some differences that result from the meaning of hinting and subtlety based on personality.

Even taking that potential issue aside, even if one knows that a given text is full of hints and implications, it is a serious and important matter to understand the right implications that are being made, so as to avoid being unnecessarily offended. After all, our intitution is often faulty, and there have been quite a few people who have taken offense to what was not even directed at them personally, even though in retrospect the shoe fit and sometimes one has to wear them. Generally speaking, when one is dealing with hints, and the author of the text is available, it is a good idea to ask what is meant by the text if one can assume (as is the case with me) that the author will be willing to explain the matter personally. Even when someone is being referred to, it is worth an honest question as to what sort of reference is intended so that one does not read the wrong conclusions into one’s interpretation of the text. Since we are not infallible beings, we need to make sure that we know what is being referred to in a hint or implication rather than running wild with our guesses, which may add incorrect inferences and tone that make a text much more offensive than it really is.

Nonetheless, sometimes a remez can be very pointed and intentionally so, though I must say that as a human being I generally do not write what is designed to be a personal insult. Generally speaking, the most harsh message that I intend in an implication is a warning to others to reform their character, or by pointing out what I find bothersome myself. An example of this is in one sermon message I gave in Thailand [2]. In that message I talked about the beginning of Esther as follows:

“But it is not only the property of the common people or the freedoms of loud-mouthed prophets that the rulers of the heathen do not respect, though, but even the privacy and dignity of their own wives. Respecting and honoring people means giving them the honor as it is felt by them, and not only how we ourselves would define respect. This is an area I know I struggle with myself. But a ruler of the heathen does not even attempt to show consideration and respect for the feelings of the others because of their own selfishness. We see this, for example, in the treatment by the Persian emperor Ahasuerus of his wife Vashti in Esther 1:10-18. Esther 1:10-18 reads: “On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him. Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice, those closest to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom): “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahaseurus brought to her by the eunuchs?” And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahaseurus. For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, ‘King Ahaseurus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath.”

Let us understand exactly how disrespectful King Ahaseurus treated Queen Vashti so that we understand how it is that heathen rulers are often governed by their own selfish lusts and not by any sense of decency and honor. After seven days of partying, when King Ahaseurus was drunk, he demanded that his wife come and show off her body, probably dressed only in her crown, to the officials and the ordinary people so that they could praise the king for his good taste in women. He had no concern at all for the privacy or dignity of his wife, only in his own pride and arrogance. Nowadays such a wicked ruler would show off his wife nearly naked at the birthday party for his French poodle or something like that. When the Queen refused the drunken request of the king, the King and his advisers, instead of accepting the rebuke and recognizing the honor and respect for privacy that was due to his wife as Queen, thought that this single act of disobedience would lead women all over the Persian empire to disrespect and dishonor their husbands. Although God providentially used this incident to make Esther the Queen of Persia, we cannot condone the wicked behavior of this king. After all, let us not forget how hypocritical it is for a king with a large harem of wives and concubines, and who felt no obligation to honor and cherish his chief wife, to demand his wife to be at his beck and call without any respect for her wishes. Let us be sure to show more respect ourselves as godly leaders for the wishes and privacy of others, even if it is sometimes difficult for us to do so.”

Here we see that in speaking about the subject of respect, as is generally the case for me personally, I openly admitted my own struggle to make people feel honored and respected, regardless of my feelings for them, as my lack of competence in this area is something that is brought to my attention over and over and over again. Likewise, the issue of respecting the privacy of others is something that there is considerable disagreement about my performance, as what I consider extreme restraint in discussing is what others consider to be unacceptably public discussion of what they deem to be private matters. Again, much depends on perspective, and to the extent that we are sensitive to the personalities of others, we be less easily offended when they do not live up to our own standards of behavior. Beyond having made the hint about my own code of conduct and my admission of struggles in living up to what others would expect in terms of love and respect, this passage contains a very particular hint to the behavior of the crown prince of Thailand, a perhaps incautious hint given the fact that I lived in Thailand at the time: “Nowadays such a wicked ruler would show off his wife nearly naked at the birthday party for his French poodle or something like that.”

Now, the crown prince of Thailand actually behaved just like King Ahaseurus did. He threw a birthday party for his French poodle and then had his wife parade nearly naked in front of guests, putting her away when one of the guests had videotaped the proceedings and put it on youtube (I haven’t seen the video myself, and have no interest of looking it up, but it became the subject of considerable controversy among foreign reporters of Thailand who have used the incident to prove the lack of fitness of the crown prince to rule over Thailand as a successor to his father.) In this particular case, the hint was a biblical reference to contemporary events, only a hint, without an explanation of who it referred to, to show the applicability of biblical standards of morality to the behavior of even heathen rulers. Without any hostility to the person himself, there is a clear holding of leadership to moral accountability, and a rebuke of ungodly conduct by drawing parallels.

What is one to do when the implication is meant to apply to someone specifically but is taken to apply to others who are not intended to be a part of the rebuke? For one, we have to realize what is intended, so that we do not feel personally attacked by something that is not meant personally (assuming that we are dealing with honest people, that is, who are not going to lie to us). For another, we have to understand that if we are an accidental (or even intentional) subject of a hint and implication, that the fact it is given in an implication ought to be a sign of respect as well as a caution to reform our conduct while there is yet time. Any sort of rebuke, even from enemies who have no love for us or fond feelings, is a chance to receive a warning and to correct our conduct before we must give an account of ourselves before the judgment seat of God. We therefore ought not to refuse the excellent anointing oil of the righteous that comes from their rebuke, as painful as it may be at times.

The essential lesson, though, is that the proper use of the technique of remez requires us to understand the text of what is being referred to. To the extent that we are ignorant of an author’s true target and true meaning, we will draw the wrong implications and come to the wrong conclusions. If we want to play the game of remez, of following an author’s trail of hints and clues, we must first make sure to understand their context and their texts. In so doing we will find a rich appreciation of inside references without being unnecessarily offended by texts, recognizing that if something applies to us, that we ought to take advantage of the subtle warning and gentle rebuke and see it as an opportunity for learning and growth. For this world is full of hints and implications, and we need to be able to play the game of remez in such a way where we preserve our relationships with others, while recognizing that all of us have plenty of room for improvement, a task that is easier to accomplish when we accept correction gracefully and admit our struggles openly and honestly.

[1] http://members.ucg.org/sermon/remez-key-understanding-several-gospel-puzzles

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/two-approaches-to-government-part-one/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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