The Remez Hinge
Opening the door to the Bible’s internal network.
Back in Jesus’s day, there was a particular practice common among rabbis (Jewish teachers) and their talmidim (students or disciples) that has come to be known as remez. A remez is a hint to a broader context that relies on the ability of the listener to make associative connections between words and concepts.
For example, if you were in an unexpectedly weird situation, you might say to your friend, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Even if you were never in Kansas in the first place, it still makes sense to your friend (provided he or she has actually seen The Wizard of Oz). The point of saying, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” is to relay contextual awareness that this place is weird, not to relay a specific message that this place is not, in fact, Kansas.
There is a song by Reliant K called Part of It. It’s on the Forget and Not Slow Down album, which is about personal growth and learning from difficult situations. Specifically, the album is about a romantic relationship coming undone.
A lyrical excerpt:
“It’s not the end of the world,
Just you and me.
We’re a part of it, everyone.
We’re a part of it, everything.
And if a nightmare ever does unfold,
Perspective is a lovely hand to hold.
It’s been forever since I’ve gone
But I’m the Cusack on the lawn of your heart
Maybe forever ’til I go
But before then you should know
That I could tear that place apart,
I could tear that place apart.”
What does “I’m the Cusack on the lawn of your heart” mean?
Well, there is this movie, Say Anything, about an awkward romance. At one point, the two lovers are not on speaking terms. So the lead character (played by John Cusack) stands on the lawn in front of his girlfriend’s house and holds a boombox above his head. The boombox is playing a song which has meaning established earlier in the movie.
So, the subtext of “I’m the Cusack on the lawn of your heart” is something like I’m the guy who upsets the neighbors in an annoyingly grand gesture of affection for you when we are not speaking. The reason it has poetic depth of meaning is that insiders know what is being said without it actually being said. People listening to the song, having previously connected with the movie, get a warm-fuzzy right in the feels.
Remez — A Call-Out to Insider Knowledge
In the first century culture of the Jews, all the rhythms of life were based on the Text — the Scriptures. How people worked, rested, spoke, worshiped, debated, and thought was informed by the Text. And Jesus was masterful at leveraging knowledge of the Text to inform, illuminate, and offend his listeners. There are many examples of this; here are three to serve as introduction.
1. The Great “I Am”
[John 8:57–59] “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
Jesus is speaking “to the Jews who had believed him” (John 8:31) when he says “before Abraham was born, I am.” They immediately get the hint. Because they disagree, they intend to stone him as a blasphemer. By saying “I am”, he was implying his own divinity. I am was the way God referred to himself when Moses asked how he should respond if the Israelites challenged his claim of being sent by the God of their fathers in Exodus 3:14.
Most Christian commentators that I have read have been in consensus on this interpretation of Jesus’s words — that he was claiming unity or equality with the Father. And the immediate, visceral reaction of Jesus’s Jewish listeners is evidence that they also understood his claim this way.
“Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
At this, they picked up stones to stone him…”
The plain meaning of the text is almost nonsensical — Jesus claiming to be older than Abraham. But, it makes perfect sense when you realize that the subtext — the deeper meaning implied by the words and not the words themselves — is the point. Jesus was hinting at his meaning and depending on the ability of the listener to make associative connections between words (I am) and concepts (the divinity of God).
2. The Voice in the Desert
[Matthew 3:1–3] In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
Here, Matthew is identifying Jesus’s cousin, John “the Immerser”, as the voice who calls about preparing a way for the Lord in the desert. And, you may already know that some scholars associate John “the Dunker” with the Essene group, who were basically Jewish monks who lived in the desert.
It seems that John “the Holy-water-super-soaker” took the passage literally! He went to the desert to prepare a way for the Lord. He preached a baptism of repentance and said that someone greater was coming after him.
Here’s the hint part:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In Isaiah’s prophecy, after the way is prepared, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” And what happens after Johnny Swim prepares the way for the Lord? The Lord comes!
This, I think, is why Matthew associated John “the Dipper” with “he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah” — because the one spoken of was not only preparing the way, but immanently expecting the arrival of the glory of the Lord.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”
3. The Camel Hair Prophet
[Matthew 3:4] “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist…”
I remember reading this and thinking, What a strange detail to include in describing a man. Who cares about his fashion choices? Later, I discovered that this is a remez.
They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”
The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”
“On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive.”
According to Second Kings, the prophet who wore a garment of hair and a leather belt was Elijah. According to the book of Zechariah, a garment of hair was associated with a prophet. I suppose that the association of a garment of hair and a prophet could have come about because of Elijah’s notoriety. Just conjecture on my part.
So, Matthew wrote a few words to tell the listener that John is not just any prophet — he’s a prophet like Elijah! You know — the guy who killed all those prophets of Ba’al after the mountain showdown, the guy whose God answered by fire (proving power) and then rain (ending drought).
By giving these details about clothing, Matthew is making a strong comparison between John “the reverse lifeguard” and Elijah. Jesus also compared these two, but that remez can be discussed in a later post (or see for yourself).
“John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist…”
My interpretation: John was a prophet with the passion of Elijah — he wore his heart on his camel-hair sleeve.
Finding Remezim For Yourself
Why I like remez is because they reveal the cleverness of Jesus and those who loved him. I find it easier to relate to these real people who express insight, humor and passion by cleverly weaving their history into conversation. And gaining some insight into the culture and way of conversing draws me into it. It also clarifies things that have been taught in a destructive way, some of which I plan to address in a later post.
But there are many remez to find, and several ways to find them.
THE HARD WAY
I suggest that you become thoroughly familiar with New Testament words — even if the meaning of the words is not always apparent. Then, read through the Old Testament and note when a passage reminds you of something in the New Testament. Then, look for explanations about the link.
THE EASIER WAY
I recommend using any Bible with cross references in the margins. When you get to a cross reference, stop reading the New Testament. Turn back to the Old Testament quote or reference and read seven chapters — three before the reference, then its chapter, then the three after. Doing this will usually give enough information on the immediate sense of the Old Testament passage that you can figure out how the New Testament writer associated them. Of course, you could read less or more — seven is an arbitrary choice. Note that doing this will make reading the New Testament take a long time, but you will gain a kind of Scriptural fluency because of it.
THE EASIEST WAY
Ask Rabbi Google. Search out things using the internet and follow rabbit trails. Read articles and maybe get the books that inspired them. When you put faith in Jesus, you became a new creation. As a new creation, you have the mind of Christ, so exercise your best judgment and always trust that Holy Spirit will enjoy guiding you into all truth.
Links to Get You Started
- An article about Matthew’s use of “fulfilled” in relating Scripture to Jesus.
- Ray Vander Laan (RVL) is the teacher who introduced me (by recording) to so many new and invigorating concepts. He has a great passion for communicating the heart behind the Text.
- Revealed Wonders, is a collection of tenuous connections and cross references. Some are remezim (hints), some might be duds, but they were compiled while I was reading through the Bible and specifically looking for relationships within the text. Whenever I saw something that reminded me of another thing, I added a link. Though the blog is outdated, the list may still prove useful.