When I was a boy in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School at Valley Brook Baptist Church, I was taught that the Old Testament had five sections: Law, Historical Books, Poetry, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets. That’s a good way of dividing up the 39 books. I can’t recall what my 8 year old mind went to when I thought about “Law,” but it probably had something to do with rules and regulations. I accepted those five sections then and still do; but when I look into the meaning of the word “Torah,” the Hebrew word for the first five books, I realized that “Torah” doesn’t mean “law.” It means something more like “teaching.” Consider Genesis, which contains story after story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob. There is little in the way of “law” here but plenty regarding how to understand what God was doing in the world. He was establishing a people who would one day, through the Messiah, reverse the curse of Genesis 3 and establish a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Any Jew who knows Hebrew can tell you that “Torah” means instruction or teaching. Well, I don’t want to believe piously what is not true so I began a long process of reading, studying, and considering how the first five books of Moses, or Torah, relate to New Testament Christians.
The Christian Scriptures are made up of two parts: the Old Testament and New Testament. Both are vital to our lives and faith. We cannot, should not, seek to unhitch our lives and churches from the Old Testament. It is the foundation of our faith. It was the Bible of Jesus, Paul and every writer of our New Testament. Yet, Christians have an uneasy relationship to it. We don’t know what to do with a lot of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Most Christians do not keep the Sabbath (Saturday) by doing no work on that day. We do eat cheeseburgers, pork BBQ, and catfish (can you tell I’m a southerner?) despite clear instructions to the contrary. We don’t advocate stoning adulterers or killing children who have disobeyed their parents. Yet we do find in Genesis through Deuteronomy God’s teaching which helps orient our lives. We do prosecute murders, eschew idolatry in all its forms and seek to love God and our neighbors. So what kind of relationship do we have with the Torah?
In their new book, The Lost World of Torah: Law As Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context (InterVarsity Press, 2019), John Walton and his son, J. Harvey, attempt to provide a way of reading these ancient texts for then and now. For them the Torah is not so much a list of rules and regulations, but it is God’s teaching essential to heaven’s plan to establish a people and provide them with divine wisdom so together His people can create a society of shalom and good order.