A Layman’s Guide to the Law: Part I.

I have a theory that if you were to take the Bible of most Christians, lay it flat on its spine, and then let go, it would flop open to either the book of Romans or the Gospel of John. That ‘other side’ of the Bible, what we call the Old Testament, gets some use in children’s ministry or when we need to talk about evolution, but beyond that it would seem that the New Testament and its appendix, the Book of Psalms, is enough to do the trick for most. This is for a variety of reasons, but often it is because we love the book of Genesis for its recounting of the Creation and the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The first half of the Book of Exodus is sure a favorite! Not only do we have the action packed story of how a man under divine guidance brought a nation to freedom, but we also have to thank Cecil B. DeMille and Disney for bringing that story to life.

But after the story of the Exodus concludes, we begin to move into a little uncharted territory. The liberation of the fledgling nation Israel provides enough momentum to get us through the initial stages of the wilderness wanderings where God provides manna and quail for His grumbling people and up through the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, but soon after that though, it’s like we’ve been riding our bikes on a nice, smooth, freshly paved road and suddenly transition to an unpaved, gravel path. The practical application of the Ten Commandments usually referred to as the Covenant Code along with Golden Calf incident, two extended sets of instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, and a slew of instructions for Israel’s priests, make the last half of the Book of Exodus uneven and nervous terrain for some. Just when we need to come up for air, for a re-acquaintance with the familiar after finishing Exodus, we encounter the book of Leviticus and…THUS ENDTH THE READING OF SCRIPTURE.

It is this stretch of rules and regulations commonly referred to as ‘the Law’ that extends from Exodus 20 until the end of Leviticus, and then taken up again in the book of Deuteronomy, that is often the most challenging portion of Scripture for the New Testament Christian. This is not only because the legal corpora that is sprinkled throughout the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) lacks those characteristics of narrative, or story, that we all love so much, but also because believers on this side of the cross find it difficult to understand why these sometimes arcane and seemingly monotonous pieces of Scripture are even included in the Bible. After all, isn’t the message of the cross grace, and indeed, is not a cornerstone of Protestant theology, the idea that salvation is through grace alone, through faith in Christ alone? What purpose for Christians can possibly be found in laws against garments of made out of mixed fibers or a restriction on cutting the hair on ‘the corners of your head’ (Lev 19.27)?

This set of ‘Law’ found in our Old Testaments is certainly one of the least understood (and read) portions of our Bibles. What’s more, if we ever hear a sermon on the ‘Law’ in our churches it can sometimes be presented like this: ‘The poor Israelites, they had this burden they had to endure, having to follow all of these laws in order to please God. But now, as Christians, how wonderful! We are free from this burden of the Law and can live a life of faith!’ This only confirms to us that what we thought was sheer drudgery to read would have been even worse to try to live!

But is this an accurate reading of Scripture? Did God really bring Israel out of Egypt from the bondage of one cruel taskmaster only to hang a fresh milestone around her neck, this time rather than a maniacal Pharaoh, a set of rules that were impossible to follow? When presented with such a question most of us would respond intuitively with a resounding ‘No,’ but yet are still left with two nagging questions concerning ‘the Law:’

1. What is it?

2. What is it for?

Over the next two blog entries we will seek to answer these two questions in the context of the entire Bible. In ‘Part I’ we’ll handle the question ‘What Is It?’ and in Part II to appear next month, we’ll handle the question ‘What Is It For?


What Is It? Law?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is most often translated as ‘Law’ in our English Bibles is Torah. For many people, despite being a Hebrew word, the term Torah sounds fairly familiar, especially if one has a Jewish background or has any Jewish friends. This is because for the Jew, Torah is the absolute center of worship, and is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament, or Pentateuch (from the Greek Πεντάτευχος: πεντα [penta, five] and τεῦχος [teuchos, tool, vessel, book]). While Protestants tend to believe in what I like to call a ‘flat canon,’ that is, a canon of biblical books that are all equal in inspiration and authority, Jews on the other hand tend to place a higher priority on the Pentateuch. One scholar puts it this way:

“. . . for both Christians and Jews, Scripture begins with the Torah. For Judaism we could remove the article and say that ‘Scripture begins and ends with Torah,’ inasmuch as the rest of the Hebrew Bible – especially the prophetic books, but also to some extent the "writings" – can be understood as interpretive extensions of the Torah, rather than as portions of equal weight.” [T. M. Mann, The Book of Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch, 1]

So, in answering the question, ‘What is the Law?’ it is first of all Torah, the term Jews have used from antiquity to denote the first five books of the Bible and, along with the Nebi’im (Prophets) and Kethubim (Writings), one of three major sections of the Jewish Bible. In the New Testament we can even see Jesus referring to this section of the Bible in this way in Luke 24.44:

“Then He told them, ‘These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’” [emphasis added]

The reason why the word Torah became synonymous with the Pentateuch is because so much of the first five books of the Bible are dedicated to legal literature, what has become known most commonly in Christian circles as ‘The Law.’ As a result, in addition to referring to the Pentateuch, the word Torah (‘the Law’) can also mean the 611[1] individual statues and regulations found in the Pentateuch itself. For Christians, this is perhaps the usage that most of us are familiar with, but also the one that we have the most trouble understanding, especially when it comes to trying to find the purpose of these statutes and regulations for the New Testament Christian. As a result, when we refer to Torah in this rest of this article, it is in this sense (corpus of legal material) that we will be referring to when trying to answer the questions ‘What It Is’ and ‘What It Is For.’

In order to understand what Torah is and the purpose it plays in Scripture, it is important to know a little Hebrew, which along with Aramaic, are the original languages of the Old Testament. Sometimes knowing the etymology, or historical development of words, can be very helpful when attempting to clarify a Biblical term, but at other times it is possible to make too much out of a word’s basic parts and run the risk of committing what is called a ‘root fallacy.’ For instance, knowing that the English word ‘butterfly’ is composed of two words, ‘butter’ and ‘fly’ does not help in the least when trying to understand anything about a ‘butterfly.’ When handling the Word of God it is imperative that we do not commit similar errors. For example, one that I hear quite often has to do with the Greek word for Church, εκκλησια [ekklesia], which is a compound of two Greek words, the preposition εκ [ek] meaning ‘out of,’ and κλησις [klesis] meaning ‘the call, or the calling.’ In this way, some might be tempted to say that the church is ‘the called out ones,’ but this would not be correct. The term for church, εκκλησια [ekklesia], was used in reference to a meeting or gathering well before the advent of Christianity.

However, with the word typically translated ‘Law,’ in the Old Testament, Torah, we are fortunate because there is actually quite a lot to be gained by considering the etymology of the term. In Hebrew, nearly all words are built from a basic, three consonant root, and the vowels, prefixes, and suffixes added to this consonantal root determine the word’s part of speech and usage. In English we do something very similar with words like the noun, | SONG |. From | SONG | we can get | SING | (a present tense verb) or | SANG | (a past tense verb), or | SINGING | (a present active participle). Notice that each one of these words has something to do with making a melody with one’s voice, whether it is the thing sung (a song) or the act of making a song (the choir was singing).[2]

For the word Torah, the basic, three consonant root is | YRH |, which is verbal in nature, and shows up most often in the Hebrew Bible as the verb yarah, which means, ‘to throw or to cast.’

So, for example, we see yarah in Joshua 18.6 to describe the casting of lots:

“When you have written a description of the seven portions of land and brought it to me, I will cast (yarah) lots for you here in the presence of the LORD our God.” (HCSB)

In a slightly different manner, we see yarah, the verbal root upon which the noun Torah is based, used in 1 Samuel 20.36 in the sense of ‘to shoot.’

He said to the young man, ‘Run and find the arrows I’m shooting (yarah).’ As the young man ran, Jonathan shot (yarah) an arrow beyond him. (HCSB)

Between these two verses it is possible to see a fuller spectrum of meaning for yarah. First in Joshua 18.6, yarah refers to a rather haphazard action, where in the casting of lots one throws the dice, but is not all that concerned where they end up. In the verse from 1 Samuel, another, slightly different nuance is added. When shooting an arrow, the person performing the action of the verb is more considered about the destination of that which is being ‘shot,’ in this case an arrow. Hence, even though the same word is used, yarah, it gets translated in two different ways, namely, ‘to throw or cast,’ and in the other instance, ‘to shoot.’ But what accounts for this difference?

In Hebrew, unlike English, there is a special grammatical form one can put verbs in that serves to emphasize the subject’s control over the action of the verb. This is called the Hiphil stem in Hebrew, sometimes also referred to as the ‘causative stem.’[3] So, while yarah is used to cast lots, where the destination of the lots is irrelevant, there are verses such as 1 Samuel 20.36 above, as well as the following verse from Proverbs, where the verb appears Hiphil stem and thus the destination of the object of yarah is very much of concern.

A worthless person, a wicked man
     goes around speaking dishonestly,
winking his eyes, signaling with his feet,
      and pointing (yarah) with his fingers. (Prov 16.12-13)

In this verse from Proverbs, yarah in the causative stem is used to describe the ‘pointing’ that the evil man does with his fingers. Obviously, in order to point to something, one must control the direction that one’s finger is pointing, because someone ‘points to’ something else, that is, toward a certain destination.

It is from this sense of ‘pointing’ or ‘shooting’ that the verb yarah in the causative Hiphil stem also gets used to describe the act of ‘teaching.’ This is because the idea of ‘teaching’ in Hebrew literally has the sense of ‘pointing’ someone toward that which they are to learn. Significantly, it is this nuance of the verbal stem for yarah that is elicited when the causal sense of yarah is substantized, or brought into a noun.

In Hebrew, the way that some verbal roots are turned into a noun is by adding a prefix, and one of the most common substantizing (noun making) prefixes in Hebrew is the letter for ‘T,’ Taw. So, the word Torah, typically translated as ‘Law’ in our Old Testaments, is formed by taking the verbal root from yarah, dropping the weak consonant ‘y,’ and adding a ‘T,’ hence Torah.

In essence then, Torah, is a word meaning literally, ‘that which is taught,’ or to put it in a less awkward way, ‘instruction.’

I have spent so long developing the etymology of the word Torah because unfortunately most of the time we encounter the Hebrew word Torah in the Old Testament it is translated as ‘Law.’ While this is an acceptable translation for Torah, is it the best one? My answer is a resounding NO!

The propensity for English versions of the Old Testament to translate Torah as ‘Law’ stems more from the pressure of other, external forces, rather than a desire to represent the Hebrew correctly. In this case, the influence exerted by the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) on the Latin version of the Bible that was held in high esteem in the early Greco-Roman, Western Church, extended into early, popular English translations such as the King James Version. From there it became so familiar that subsequent attempts to translate the Old Testament into English were hesitant to depart from this traditional rendering.

Lest you think I’m out to lunch in thinking that a better translation for Torah is instruction rather than Law, let’s consider a very instructive verse from the Pentateuch in several translations where the root | YRH | appears both in its verbal and nounal forms.

First, the King James Version:

They shall teach (yarah) Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law (Torah): they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar. (Deut 33.10)

Here, when these two forms appear in close proximity to one another it is easy to see their relationship. Literally, the verse is saying something akin to ‘They will teachJacob your judgments, and Israel your teachings.’ Why the need to change the sense of ‘instruction, body of teaching,’ to ‘law?’ This is because the Septuagint typically translates Torah as νομος [nomos], the Greek word for ‘Law.’ But at the time that the Septuagint was translated, νομος [nomos] had the primary meaning of ‘a custom’ or ‘typical way of doing something,’[4] not a ‘law’ as we would conceive of it.

Interestingly, the King James is followed by nine (9) of the eleven (11) English translations that I consulted. The two exceptions were The New Living Translation and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The latter reads:

“They will teach (yarah) Your ordinances to Jacob and Your instruction (Torah) to Israel; they will set incense before You and whole burnt offerings on Your altar.” (HCSB)

In this instance, two things should be noticed. Firtly, the HCSB and NLT represent the Hebrew of Deut 33.10 much better than virtually any other English translation. Secondly, one is able to sense the influence of the King James Version and its predecessors here.

If this is not enough, we can turn to a Pentateuch scholar par excellence, the apostle Paul! Consider what he has to say regarding the Torah in Galatians 3.24-25:

“The law (νομος [nomos]), then, was our guardian (παιδαγωγος [paidagogos]) until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian…” (HCSB)

That Greek word translated ‘guardian’ here in Galatians 3 is often translated ‘tutor’ in other versions and is the word from which we get the English terms, pedagog (teacher) or pedagogy (the art or profession of teaching). So Paul, in likening the ‘Law’ (νομος [nomos]) to a ‘tutor, guardian, or pedagog’ (παιδαγωγος [paidagogos]), has in mind the same thing that I am arguing for here. It is clear that Paul too thought of Torah not as ‘Law’ as such, but rather instruction orthat which is taught.

You might be asking yourself, ‘Well, OK, a better translation of Torah is instruction rather than Law in the Old Testament – but so what?’

Well, the difference is profound and could potentially impact the way we read our Old Testaments, and more critically, impact the way in which we view God. If, when reading the Old Testament, we think of all of the various instructions the Lord gave to Israel as a matter of mere ‘Law’ we run the risk of seeing them as harsh, restrictive, fearful, a damper, punitive, or any other number of negative connotations. What kind of God do we serve that would rescue His people from slavery in Egypt only make their life ridiculously hard and miserable by giving them Torah?

We tend to assign ‘Law’ a negative connotation, but if we were to think of Torah in the manner it was intended, as instruction, the latter half of Exodus and the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy take on a much different feel altogether. If these rules and regulations the Lord gave Israel are meant to be understood as instructions, something that points to something else, or body of teaching,we have to ask the question, to what do they point?

The full answer will be given in the second installment of this piece, but in the meantime, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.17 give a partial answer.

““Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (HCSB)

What was Torah pointing to, giving Israel instructions to? Jesus.

So, the important thing is that when reading the Old Testament, it can become much less cloudy, especially when reading the extended portions of legal material if we can see Torah as a set of instructions rather than Law.

So, in answering the question, ‘What Is Law or Torah,’ the proper answer is Instruction.

In Part II of this blog post we will explore the purpose of Torah both for Israel in the Old Testament and for the New Testament Christian today.

[1] It is perhaps most typically said that the ‘Laws’ appearing in the Pentateuch number 613. However, this number includes two imperatives, viz., Deut 6.4 and Ex 20.2, as ‘Laws’ but are not formally so.

[2] I am thankful for my Hebrew teacher at Dallas Seminary, Dr. Brian Webster from whom I got this example.

[3] This is the view of some grammars of Biblical Hebrew, yet represents only one among many functions of the Hiphil stem.

[4] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940) s.v. νομος.