Last year while doing research on tithing in the Bible for some SimplyChrist videos, I was struck by how complicated and sometimes confusing the laws on it in the Pentateuch are. This was not an isolated example but it reminded of the difficulties with the making sense of the Mosaic law in general. In an OnScript interview about his bold and thought-provoking book Inconsistencies in the Torah (OUP, 2017), Dr. Joshua Berman provided truly paradigm shifting insights on why the Mosaic law works the way it does. He argued that we look at “law” in the Bible through a modern lens and think of it as statutory law when it is much closer to common law.
We think of law as a codified text which is part of a comprehensive legal system that must be methodically applied by authorities in all circumstances. Common law rather is more about upholding communal moors and social norms instead of creating judicial precedents that must be followed. This made a whole lot of sense to me because it actually better explained various things in the text. I knew Dr. Berman was not just spouting his own idiosyncratic views because it resonated with what John Walton, another Old Testament scholar, was saying. Many months later Dr. Walton and his son Dr. J. Harvey Walton come out with a book, The Lost World of the Torah (IVP, 2019), all about the nature of “law” in the Bible and how it cannot be understood from a modern perspective but rather an ancient Near Eastern perspective. The Waltons write,
At the core of this book is the understanding that the ancient was more interested in order than in legislation per se, and authorities were not inclined to make what we call laws (though decrees are common place) to regulate everyday life in society. Instead of relying on legislation (a formal body of written law enacted by an authority), order was achieved through the wisdom of those who governed society. (p. 5)
Scot McKnight has a very good series of articles working his way through this book that gives a detailed overview of what it says. He begins his review asking the old question which scholars have perennially debated, whether “torah” (or “nomos” in Greek) should even be translated as law. It has been known for a long time that Torah actually means instruction or direction, as Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:6,
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (ESV)
The ESV is an example of viewing Torah through a modern lens because it says “statutes” where other translations more accurately say “decrees”. This passage views “law” as embodied wisdom that a group of people live out. It reminds me of the work of Joshua Jipp in his book Christ is King (Fortress Press, 2015), where he says in the Greco-Roman world the ideal king is meant to be “living law”, which for the Jews meant modeling Torah, which is an ideal Christ is portrayed as fulfilling in the New Testament. That was just one example but it seems this non-legalistic view resonates with a lot of things to do with law through out the Bible.
The thesis that Torah is not law truly represents a dramatic shift in how we understand those parts of Scripture and has radical implications for their value and relevance today. This is something I am working through myself and I am excited about the new vistas of understanding that it can potentially open to us about Scripture and how we live it today.