If there is ever an area of misguided theological thinking for believers it is in the study of ”Torah.” In fact most evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries do not even have an area of study called “Torah.” In contrast, however, the study of Torah is one of three main areas of study in Yeshivot and Jewish seminaries, along with “God,” and “The People of Israel.” This means, according to Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern, that at least one third of the material studied by potential rabbis is hardly even considered by evangelical believers. Is it any wonder that there is very little to talk about between Jewish people and believers?
In this article, we will begin to delve into the study of Torah. There are three parts to the article. The first part attempts to define what we mean by “Torah.” Part Two will describe what kind of document Torah is. The third section will discuss some of the purposes for Torah.
1. What is Torah?
In traditional Jewish thinking, the word “torah” is used in a rather broad way. It is a word which is used in reference to the authoritative teaching of the rabbis through the centuries. In a more narrow usage, “torah” means all Jewish Law as it is recorded in both Bible and also in the Talmud. Getting simpler still, “torah” has also been used in reference to the whole Old Testament Scriptures, the Tanach. Finally, in its most narrow sense, “torah” means just the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy (also called the Chumesh).
Traditional Jewish thinking has declared that there are two torahs: written and oral. When the rabbis talk in these terms they usually mean that the written torah is the Chumesh (also known as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible). This Torah was written by Moses as he received it from G-d Himself on Mt. Sinai. On the other hand, the Oral Torah, the rabbis’ claim, was also received by Moses from God on Mt. Sinai. However, instead of this Torah being passed on in writing, it was passed down through the centuries orally, by word of mouth. Perhaps the clearest statement of this idea is found in Pirke Avot, section found in the Mishnah. In Avot 1:1 we read, “Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly.”
Eventually this oral material was itself written down. This began to happen around the year 200 C.E. under the authority of R. Jochanan ben Zakki. The “oral” Torah which was put into writing is called the Mishnah. As one can see, since the rabbis claim this material was from G-d at Mt. Sinai, it carries as much authoritative weight as the written Chumesh. This article will not discuss the pros and cons of oral vs. written Torah. That would make for a very fascinating article at a different time. The scope of this article deals with only the written Torah, the Chumesh of Moses. From now on, any reference to torah will mean only the first five books of the Bible and torah will then be spelled with a capital “T” – Torah.
2. What Kind of Document is Torah?
Having defined what we mean by “Torah,” let us now look into what kind of document it is. To some this may seem like a superfluous question. “It is law.”, they say. True, it does contain some laws. But upon more careful examination, we discover that Torah is far beyond the rather simplistic description of “law.”
First and foremost, the Torah is G-d’s teaching. This is the primary meaning of the Hebrew word. The word does not mean “law”, it means teaching. Torah is simply a document in which G-d has revealed himself to mankind and taught us about Himself.
In the Torah, one can learn all the theological concepts which are later expanded in the rest of the Bible. One can learn much about sin, sacrifice, sanctification, salvation – and even about the Saviour Himself, Yeshua!
Secondly, Torah is a Covenant. By this we mean that Torah is a legally binding agreement between God and the people of Israel. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Several times within the Torah it calls itself a Covenant (Brit).
Any number of references could be cited. Perhaps two will be sufficient. The first passage is in Ex. 34:27. The context is when G-d gave not only the famous Ten Commandments, but other instructions as well.
“And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant (Brit) with you and with Israel.”
The second reference from Deut. 28:69. The context here is near the end of Moses’s life, 40 years after the events in Ex. 34. G-d gave much more teaching and instruction which Moses had written down. Now, soon to enter the Promised Land, Moses summarises all the teaching from G-d and calls it a covenant.
“These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.”
Since Torah is a covenant, there are legal obligations to both of the parties which are involved in this agreement. G-d, the One Who initiates this covenant legally, binds Himself to keep His Word which He has spoken in the covenant. Likewise, Israel, the recipients of this agreement, are just as bound to do the same. In a sense, one could say that, understood in this light, Torah is the National Constitution for the Nation of Israel. This becomes especially clear when one looks at the Covenant in light of historical research.
Israel’s National Constitution
There has been much documentation in recent years for the fascinating research accomplished by scholars like George Mendenhall, Meridith Kline, and others. They have examined the documents of Torah with other documents in the same historical time-frame – 14th and 15th century B.C.E. Specifically, written treaties between nations and their conquered or vassal nations have been examined and compared with Torah. The similarity in their forms and structures are striking. The parallelisms are found to be extremely helpful to further enhance our understanding of Torah as a covenantal document.
To illustrate this, let’s compare the standard form of an ancient treaty with the format of the book of Deuteronomy. It has been found that the standard outline for such “Vassal Treaties” is as follows:
1. Preamble – A basic introductory paragraph of the covenant
2. Historical Prologue – The acts of the Great King, what he has done for the vassal nation
3. Stipulations – The main bulk of the treaty/covenant, what is expected out of the vassal nation
4. Blessings and Cursings – The things which will happen to the vassal nation if they comply with the covenant or do not comply with the covenant
5. Witnesses – The signature of those important people who witness the enactment of the covenant
6. Sometimes, the Means of Succession Provision in the covenant for who takes over after the Great King
7. Sometimes, provision for depositing the Covenant – discusses where the covenant or copies of the covenant will be stored
Now let’s compare this format with Deuteronomy
1. Preamble – Gives basic introductory remarks about the Book of Deuteronomy
2. Historical Prologue – Tells some of the great things The Great king, God, has done for Israel
3. Stipulations – The bulk of the book. This is the section the laymen call “Law.” In reality, however, it is the stipulations the Great King (God) has given to Israel to maintain this covenant. (More on that later)
4. Blessings and Cursings – Dt. 27-30. These are the things which God promised would happen to Israel if they keep the Covenant or break the Covenant.
5. Witnesses – Here God calls upon heaven and earth to witness this Covenant.
6. Succession – God provides for Joshua to follow Moses when Moses dies.
7. Deposit/Reading – Provision is made to store the Covenant in the Ark and to read it to all the people at a certain time.
What does all this tell us? From a historical perspective, the clear parallels between 14-15th century B.C.E. Vassal Treaties and the Torah serves to buttress the evangelical contention that the Torah is as it presents itself – a coherent document written by Moses in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.
Theologically, among other things, this information leads us to believe that the Torah is not just a list of dos and don’ts. It appears to be, instead, a critically important document describing the legally binding relationship between Israel and God. Furthermore, it appears to be a document which was given by God to serve as the National Constitution for the nation of Israel. For, in it, we have everything from a Preamble (compared to a “We the people…” in the US Constitution) to being verified by formal witnesses. The “dos and don’ts are merely the stipulations by which Israel, the redeemed nation can maintain its covenant relationship before its Great King and enjoy its benefits.
Although Torah describes itself as a Legal Covenant and the extra-Biblical evidence points in that direction as well, there is a portion within Torah which hints at it being still another kind of document. One cannot be too dogmatic at this point, but there seems to be considerable evidence within Torah which would prompt one to label it a Ketubah. A ketubah is a formal written document which spells out the terms of the wedding contract between the husband and wife. How does Torah do this?
The first hint of this is found in Exodus 6:6-7. In this passage, G-d tells Moses what He intends to do through Moses for Israel. In short, G-d says that He will set them apart (“bring them out from under the yoke of slavery”), He will “deliver” them from their bondage, He will “redeem” them, and He will “take them to be My people.” (Those of you familiar with Pesach will remember that the four verbs here become names for each of the four cups of wine drunk during the Seder.)
The last verb, “will take” is used elsewhere in the Tanach, among other usages, to describe what happens when a man “takes” a woman to be his wife. In the context of Ex. 6, then, it appears that G-d is betrothing Israel to be His wife. But when is the wedding?
The wedding ceremony is described in Ex. 19-34. Look how the L-rd set it up. First, He provided the canopy, the Chuppah. We can see this in 19:9 when G-d says that, “I will come to you in a thick cloud …” The cloud is the Chuppah under which the Bride meets the Groom! Next, G-d tells Israel, His bride, to go through the mikveh, a traditional practice for Jewish brides even today! The mikveh is where the bride cleanses herself and prepares herself for the groom. In Ex. 19:10 we read that G-d told Israel to “stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes.”
Every groom has an endearing name for the bride which reminds him of how much she means to him. G-d gave Israel such a name. In Ex. 19:5-7 G-d told Israel that she is His “treasured possession.” The Hebrew word is “segulah”. It is a word which was also found in ancient texts from about this same time period. It was used by kings to describe how much more precious certain objects were to them from all the other objects which he received when he conquered a nation. While he valued all of his possessions, only a certain few treasures were especially cared for, protected, and displayed. These were his “segulot.” Thus, when G-d calls Israel His “segulah” He is using it as a most endearing term. He cares for all His creation, but He considers Israel His special Bride.
One of the main ingredients of the wedding is the Ketubah itself. This is the document which shows that the marriage is legal. It is also the document which serves to remind both parties of their mutually agreed upon responsibilities to make that marriage work and work well. In this case, the Ketubah is Torah! Exodus 20 is the Ketubah. It is the marriage agreement between G-d and Israel. G-d even provided two copies – one for Himself, and one for them. Both were to be kept in the Ark. Thus, we read in Ex.31:18, “When He finished speaking with him on Mt.Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact (Covenant), stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.”
Finally, what is a wedding without a ring? The ring serves as an outward symbol of the marriage covenant made between the two partners. Where is the ring in this marriage? It is found in Ex. 31:12-17. In verse 13, we are told that G-d gave Shabbat as “a sign between Me and the children of Israel throughout the ages.” In fact, so important is Shabbat as a sign of the covenant that it is repeated once more in this passage, in verse 17. Hence, Shabbat is the ring, the outward sign of this marriage covenant!
In summary: The Bible reveals that Torah is an extremely important document. It is an instructional document, teaching about G-d and His ways. It is also a legal covenant or agreement between G-d and Israel. It is to be the National Constitution for Israel, carefully laid out by G-d Himself describing how the Great King Himself wants His nation Israel to function under His Kingdom. Lastly, Torah is a sacred Marriage Covenant between G-d the Groom and Israel, His Bride.
Perceived in this way, Torah appears to be more than a petty list of impossible laws to keep. The role Torah plays as a legal covenant is extremely important. There are, however, more functions to the Torah, but these must be considered in other studies on this subject. We must consider here some of the purposes of Torah.
What are Some of the Purposes of Torah?
Yeshua has not received the credit He deserves from many circles as the greatest Torah Teacher there ever lived. With Him there was an underlying assumption about Torah throughout His teachings. The assumption is that Yeshua clearly perceived that G-d’s Covenant People are to have a living, meaningful relationship to Torah. In other words, one of the purposes of Torah is to describe the lifestyle of the redeemed community. This will also become evident later.
One of the clearest passages which teaches this is Matt. 5:17-20. In this passage, Yeshua clearly states that He did not come to do away with Torah. In addition, He also rebukes anyone else for teaching it should be done away with. He said, “Whosoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so leaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.19) To back up His statement, He then embarks upon a series of teachings in chapters 5-7 where he quotes how the torah teacher understood various passages in Torah, then gives His own interpretation. The telltale sign of this was the repeated use of the formula, “You have heard that the ancients were told (erroneous teaching of the rabbis), but I say unto you … ” (correct interpretation of Torah given by Yeshua.) He was doing this to practice what He taught in 5:17 when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfil.” Yeshua was speaking the lingo of the rabbis here. When a proper interpretation was given of a passage, the rabbis said that it was “fulfilled”, or, interpreted properly – the words were given their full and complete meaning. Conversely, when an erroneous interpretation was given, it was said that a teacher “abolished” or misinterpreted a passage. If, as some believers say, that the Believer is to have no meaningful relationship to Torah in this day and age, then this would have been a most appropriate place for Yeshua to teach it. He clearly did not.
There is another important passage from the Gospels which clearly teaches a critical purpose for the Torah. After He was risen from the dead in Luke 24, He appeared to two of His followers. Following a period when they did not recognise Him, He identified Himself to them. Then, verse 27 says, “And beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Again, in verse 44, He says something similar, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Torah of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Could it be that with the use of the word “fulfilled” He was saying that in order for Torah (and the rest of the Tanach) to be interpreted properly, one must see how they speak about Yeshua? Yeshua was saying emphatically, that one of the major purposes for the Torah was to understand it in such a way so as to see Him in all of its teachings.
The Letters of Saul of Tarsus
Saul of Tarsus (Paul) was more than qualified to teach on the purposes of Torah because of his extensive rabbinic training and thinking. In many of his letters to various congregations of believers, he sets forth many purposes – both negative and positive. Before we embark on a listing of some of these purposes from Saul’s writings, a word needs to be said regarding how to properly interpret Saul. The reason for this is obvious: he, perhaps more than any theologian has been sorely misunderstood and maligned by both Jewish scholars and many Evangelical Christian theologians as well.
There are at least two very important hermeneutical principles one must keep in mind when seeking to understand Saul.
The first principle is the concept of keeping the harmony of the Scriptures. In other words, Scripture may not contradict Scripture. For example, the events in Acts 21 happened after Saul wrote both Galatians and Romans. In Acts 21 Saul is clearly portrayed as a rather staunch follower of the Torah of Moses – as are tens of thousands of other Jewish believers in Yeshua! Please note particularly verses 15-26.
Someone with the leadership status of Saul of Tarsus would not live one way and then teach others to live a different way! Saul would not have lived according to Torah and then teach other believers that Torah has no place in their lives. This would make Paul a hopelessly contradictory teacher. This would, therefore cause the Scriptures to be contradictory, as well.
The second hermeneutic principle is this: CONTEXT! Both the immediate context and also the context for the whole book or letter are important. One should know clearly that the context for the letter to the Galatians has to do with people who were teaching that one must obey the Torah in order to be saved. Because of this heresy, it stands to reason that there will be many rather negative statements concerning such a use of Torah. But such statements should all be interpreted in light of the context of the letter. In Galatians it is not the primary purpose of Saul to teach about how to apply Torah to the life of the believer. His primary purpose is to emphasise that one may not live according to Torah one intends to do so in order to earn, merit, or keep one’s Justification. The same kind of idea would also apply to Romans, as well.
Unfortunately many interpreters of Saul’s writings have not consistently applied both of these hermeneutical principles. Therefore, Saul is portrayed either as mixed up, contradictory, anti-Jewish, or the instigator of a new religion called “Christianity.” He is none of the above! He is merely the kind of Jewish person G-d intended the sons of Jacob to be all along, faithfully engaged in taking the good news of the Messiah’s atoning death and resurrection to the Gentiles and properly applying the Message to them.
Now, with all this in mind, let us begin to outline some of Saul’s understanding of the purposes of Torah:
1. Torah is not to be observed in order to gain Justification before G-d. This is the whole point of the letter to the Galatians and one of the major points to the letter to the Romans. Romans 3:20 teaches; “… by the works of the Torah (or any legal system, according to the context of Rom. 2-3) no flesh will be justified in His sight, …” People were trying to observe the Torah (as well as other legal systems) in order to be saved. To such people Saul emphatically said, “The Torah is useless!” Why useless? Because Torah is that which is to be the lifestyle for someone who is already justified/redeemed.
2. Torah helps mankind to recognize his own sinfulness. There are several statements in this regard through out Saul’s epistles. The rest of Rom. 3:20 will suffice to illustrate this. Saul says, “… for through the Torah comes the knowledge of sin.” The Greek word translated “knowledge” should be rendered recognition.” It is not that Torah tells people what sin is. It is through Torah that people see the sinfulness of their sin!
3. Torah helps to bring about G-d’s wrath. Rom. 4:15 says, “for the Torah brings about wrath…” The context of the writing is important for understanding such verses properly.. Saul’s teaching in Romans has been that if one tries to use Torah for the purpose of achieving Justification before G-d, then his attempt will backfire! He will only discover that he cannot obey it perfectly. Thus, if he does not, the only thing which awaits him is not Justification, but condemnation. Justification always has been, and always will be granted as a gift from G-d on the basis of one’s personal trust in what Yeshua did for him, in Yeshua’s atoning death and subsequent resurrection.
4. The Torah, the Protector of Israel. In Galatians 3:23-25 we read, “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under Torah, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Torah has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” By use of the words translated “custody” and “tutor” Saul is making reference to the ancient Greco-Roman custom of having a slave act as one who protects a child on the way to and from the child’s teacher. The “pedagogue,” as the word should be rendered from the Greek, was not the teacher himself, just the protector. He was the one to protect the student on the way to the teacher.
Paul said that the Torah is our protector. How? This author suggests various ways. First, Torah helps to protect G-d’s elect until the time set by the Father (Gal. 4:1-7) to actually save them. One needs to have a firm handle on the doctrine of divine election to understand this. The Torah accomplishes this purpose in that by knowing and even practising its teachings as well as keeping its view of G-d on their minds, the elect will be spiritually prepared for when Messiah comes to them.Torah helps keep the elect on the way to the Teacher.
Let us take this idea of protection one step further. There is another sense in which Torah is the protector of the Redeemed Community. Galatians 3:10-21 compares two covenants, the Covenant with Abraham with the Covenant with Moses (Torah). The Covenant with Abraham is described as a covenant in which G-d promises an inheritance to His people which is to be received by faith. Notice the three elements: Promise, ‘Inheritance, Faith. The promise of an inheritance was given by the grace of G-d. The expected covenantal response was to be faith.
What of the Covenant with Moses, Torah? First, Saul says in verse 12 that this is not a faith covenant. In other words, the expected covenantal response was not faith, but obedience. Secondly, it was not a covenant of promise. It did not promise the inheritance, it merely protected the people so that they could enjoy and fully participate in the blessings of the inheritance! Moreover, v.17 specifically says that the Covenant with Moses did not do away with this covenant. Instead, they compliment each other.
Thomas McComiskey comments on this masterful interaction between these two covenants in his book, “The Covenants of Promise.” On pages 72-73 he writes: “Not only did the law covenant define and amplify the promise, but it served to protect and secure the promise as well The protective function of the law is also apparent in the various legal stipulations. The health laws and the prohibitions against Canaanite practices served to preserve the nation and to maintain its solidarity … The law also served to define the terms of obedience for those whose faith was in the promise it perpetuated. The law is not the promise; it is a covenant distinct from the promise covenant. It establishes the conditions under which the terms of the promise could be maintained … The law did not give the inheritance; it served to provide the framework necessary for the people to maintain their relationship to it.”
Hence, according to McComiskey, people were not saved by obeying the Torah. They were saved by trusting in the promises of G-d. To participate in that eternal inheritance, the covenantal response is faith. But the Torah was given to the Redeemed Community not to an unsaved community (although there were unsaved people in that Redeemed Community) so that the community could be maintained and protected. Obedience, therefore, is the required covenantal response. Is this not what Galatians is teaching?
To summarise, there are at least three levels in which the Torah served/s as a protector. First, if obeyed, it protected the nation to enjoy its inheritance. Secondly, it protects the individual redeemed people within that nation to fully enjoy their own inheritance. They truly enjoy to the fullest their redemption because they understand and participate in the miracle of Redemption as it is portrayed by the mitzvot of Torah. Thirdly, for those who were not yet spiritually saved but whom G-d has elected to eternal life, it protects them until the time when God will save them by preparing them spiritually by means of the spiritual pictures Torah paints about Yeshua. Parents who are believers do the same thing with our young children in their families.
5. The Torah, a way of life. As we have already seen, the Torah is not for unsaved people. The only function it serves for them is to point out their sin and subsequent condemnation for it. However, the Bible does teach that the Torah is to be the way of life for the Redeemed Community.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. Deut. 30:14-15 comments on the Torah by saying, “But the word is very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may observe it. See I have set before you today life and prosperity.” Jer. 31:33 again emphasises that for the saved person, “I shall put My Torah within them, and on their heart I will write it…” Psalm 119 is completely dedicated to the blessings of living according to the Torah.
The Brit Chadasha (New Testament) is equally as clear – just as long as one adheres to the interpretative principles outlined above! As far as Saul’s writings are concerned, most, if not all, of Saul’s exhortations on practical everyday living, his “halachah” in Jewish thinking, are based on some teaching in Torah.
Moreover, James wrote his letter to the Jewish believers who are in the Diaspora. In his letter he strongly urges them to follow Torah. Notice particularly what he says in 1:22-25. He compares the person who does not do what the word of G-d says to a person who looks into a mirror and forgets what he looks like! In the same way, the Word of G-d describes what the new creation person looks like! In James’ language, he says, “But such a person who looks intently at the perfect Torah, the Torah of liberty, (underline mine) and does not abide by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.”
6. The Torah reflects G-d’s holiness, goodness, and righteousness. Saul set out to teach that the weakness with the Torah to produce Justification does not lie with Torah, but with man and his misuse of it. In fact Paul points out in Rom.7:12, “So then, the Torah is holy, and the command is holy, and righteous, and good.” It is accurate to infer from this that since it is all these things that Torah is, in fact, a reflection of G-d’s Holiness, Righteousness, and Goodness. Thus, when one studies Torah he can learn a great deal about G-d Himself and His eternal attributes. And when one practices Torah, he is, therefore, practising, that which is holy, righteous, and good. He is also participating in LIFE – in the life of G-d – in his new life in G-d. “These words are not just idle words for you, they are your life!” (Deut. 32:47)
This article was only a beginning. Our purpose was somewhat two-fold. First, we intended to present Torah in a different light from which many believers in Yeshua have been taught. We intended to show from the Scriptures what Torah is and how it is supposed to function. Secondly, in doing this we hoped to lay a solid theological groundwork for other teachings on how to properly relate to Torah, who is to follow it, what are they to follow, and how are they to do it. Our goal in this article is accomplished when each reader can sing ‘with David in Psalm 19:7-11. Many believers sing this song. When they do, most of them think about all the Word of G-d. This is alright to do, but one should remember that when David wrote these words he was writing about the Torah.
“The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Your servant is warned. In keeping them there is great reward.”
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 2, Torah, Summer 1995)