Whenever I hear or read about Hebrew Law or Torah, my mind immediately goes to the classic WW2 movie, Tora, Tora, Tora. I can’t help it – that’s how my mind works. 😬 Torah is a significant part of Jewish history and thus an integral part of the Christian tradition as well. I suspect that we (Christians) primarily don’t know what to do with Torah. How are we to view it, especially in light of Jesus saying…
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law [Torah] or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17, NIV)
So, what do we, as 21st-century Christians, do with Torah, the Law? I have oft stated that part of the value of writing a blog is to process and put to words my own theological wonderments and understanding. This is one of those times…
By definition, Torah is God’s law as revealed to Moses and captured in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). As I write this, I realize that “law” is singular, which I suspect might be significant.
I recently spent time in Psalm 19. After talking about the splendor of God’s creation, the psalmist included a section that consists of a series of adjectives describing the character of Torah, each accompanied by a verbal phrase revealing how it impacts the life of the faithful:
7 The law [Torah] of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
If Jesus has “fulfilled” or “completed” the law, does that mean the Hebrew Torah was some sort of defective system unable to accomplish what God intended? Gerald H. Wilson suggests otherwise…
Torah was God’s word for Israel. Jesus accepted Torah (and indeed the whole Old Testament) as God’s authoritative word for himself and his followers. Torah led those who related themselves rightly to it into a proper, restored relationship with Yahweh. This is not defective. It may not be the “fullness” of God’s revelation, but it rightly accomplishes what God intended it to do.1
I suspect, as the psalmist and Wilson suggest, there is a robust understanding of Torah that has been lost over time and is foreign to present-day readers. We tend to read scripture (both Hebrew and Christian) through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, missing the original intent. Consider the community that sang Psalm 19 in the temple as part of their worship. Unlike today, they did not have a very complete concept of eternal life or resurrection. So what did Torah do for them?
There is a common theme that permeates and threads through the entirety of the Bible, the scripture we possess today. It’s central to the narrative of God’s new creation project as he invites humans to participate in his restoration (think salvation) activity. That theme in some manner, shape, or form…
I will be your God and you will be my people.
Is this new information for you? It was to me when I discovered it years ago and it has forever changed my lens of Biblical understanding. Theologically, it’s known as the Covenant Formula. Through Moses, God communicated to the Israelites in Egyptian captivity, needing rescue (again, think salvation)…
“I am the Lord [Yahweh], and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Exodus 6:6-7, NIV
This theme, this Covenant Formula weaves throughout the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures, into and throughout the New Testament. What is somewhat fascinating is the bookend effect when we discover one of the last occurrences of the formula in the Book of Revelation…
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” Revelation 21:3, NIV
I suspect this concept that Yahweh is our God and we are his people is the lens through which the psalmist wrote and the people worshipped. Their focus was the giver of the Law. The adjectives the psalmist used to describe Torah (God’s Word to his people) also describe their God, distinguishing Him from all the other gods in their proximity. Torah revealed their God’s character, thus words like perfect, trustworthy, and righteous.
To the ancients, Torah was more instructive than prescriptive. Torah is formed from the Hebrew word yrh which means to instruct or teach. Rather than “law,” the term is more properly understood as “instruction” or “guidelines.” The psalmist and the Israelite worshippers understood Torah’s primary function to be one of guidance in right living as the people of God.
Right living, not living right.
This is not just wordplay. There is a significant difference between right living and living right. (You may want to visit Anything worth doing is worth doing right.) Torah guides people toward right living under God’s kingship. It described how people relate to Yahweh “as their God” and to each other (thus the strong focus on mercy and justice throughout the Hebrew writings).
The opposite is living right, focusing on the laws and the guardrails of right living. When driving at night, I want to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead, not the guardrails. They serve a significant purpose, but if I focus on them, I might find myself intimately acquainted with them. That’s what happened when Jesus arrived on the scene. The religious leaders had mainly taken their eyes off the intent of the Law, of Torah, and focused on the laws, concentrating on getting it right. And they got it all wrong.
Thus Jesus’ admonition to the “getting it right” Pharisees: Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). The religious leaders constantly did battle with Jesus over the correct application of Torah. In what I assume to be exasperation, they asked him which of the laws (commandments) were most important. As the personified fulfillment of the Law, he reminded them of the full intent of Torah…
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37–40, NIV)
Those are my musings on Torah. Process it as you wish (or as the Holy Spirit leads). In the meantime, when I get 2 1/2 hours to spare, I might watch Tora, Tora, Tora.
1Wilson, Gerald H. The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text…to Contemporary Life Psalms Volume 1. Zondervan Publishing House, 2002.
5 thoughts on “Torah, Torah, Torah”
Most sermons references I have heard to Torah denigrate it somewhat, or relegate it to history only, with little relevance to today. Jesus and Paul on the other hand treat it with the utmost respect. Your post follows this leading and is refreshing and touching.
The “right living, not living right” truth, illustrated with the guardrails image is eye-opening — a keeper! Thank you for that – can’t wait to share it with my family.
Two ideas I had while reading — (1) Most NT uses of “fulfilled” do not carry an implication of “completed” in the way we might today use “fulfilled” to describe a contract whose obligations have been fully met. Instead, the most common NT usage describes filling something up to it’s appropriate measure, or increasing until amply supplied.
For example, when Jesus reads from the scroll in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me . . .” he concludes by declaring “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He brings that prophecy to life, and is still bringing it to life today, with no connotation of having “completed” or wrapped it up.
(2) I have read that it was common for teachers of Jesus’ day to rank the Torah commands in order of most- to least-important, because it is not uncommon for Torah commands to conflict with each other, and one must choose which one to obey at the expense of the other.
For example, in the probable parallel passage in Luke 10:25 ff, Jesus conveys his point of the two greatest commandments by telling the tale of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite in that story ardently wanted to serve God properly, so they bypassed what could have been a dead body – getting involved might have required them to break a Torah command.
But Jesus was trying to get them to see: The command to love your neighbor outranks the command to not touch a corpse. They were neglecting the “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
Fine, tithe your herbs. And yes, avoid corpses. But not at the expense of the two most important commands.
And I have some homework to do. Having never seen *Tora, Tora, Tora* I have added it to my watch list! Thanks again for an touching and thought-provoking post.
Thank you for your thorough (and rapid) response. I want to spend some time thinking about the significance of:
“(2) I have read that it was common for teachers of Jesus’ day to rank the Torah commands in order of most- to least-important, because it is not uncommon for Torah commands to conflict with each other, and one must choose which one to obey at the expense of the other.”
It would explain a lot about first-century practice (that has carried into the 21st century?). Please feel free to point me to resources that speak to this.
Have a blessed Easter!
As soon as I see an email about your new posts, I just get so excited to read them! So yes, I guess I did comment pretty quickly last time 🙂
As far as ranking Torah commands in light of inherent conflict, I first heard that 15 years ago at a teaching session in Tucker, GA. The teacher was “Dan” whose last name escapes me – thorough and engaging.
Later I read about ranking “heavier” against “lighter” commands in the time of Jesus in “New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus;” and I think this book covers much of the same ground – “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus”
I’ve given away both, but I should probably order at least one of them today.
Thank you for the book suggestions. I will want to read them. Context is one of my top CliftonStrengths, so they are right up my alley!
Ok, I had to google CliftonStrengths, but I’m glad context is one of yours — so important, it would be great if it were a strength for all of us 🙂