A few years ago I found myself in a synagogue on the Sabbath. I watched in awe at the great care taken in bringing the Torah scroll to the podium. Then the scroll was unwrapped and rolled open, then God’s word was read in our hearing. Concluding the reading, the congregation recited a prayer that captured the sacred moment,
“Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who selected us from all the peoples and gave us the Torah. Blessed are you, Adonai, giver of the Torah.”
I remember reflecting on this prayer for hours. The prayer opened a window to a perspective quite different than what I had grown up with. The people uttering this prayer believed that “the law” is a blessing, it is a gift of grace. But in my religious education the entire “Old Testament,” much less “the law,” was typically viewed not as gift of grace but as a burden. Indeed it was grace to be liberated from the burden of the “the law.” However, this prayer captures well the sentiment of the biblical writers themselves, including the apostle Paul who is frequently cast as one who delivered Christianity from the Torah.
Psalm 19, like the prayer we prayed on that Sabbath, opens up a window to view of “the law” that is foreign to Restoration and Evangelical Christians today.
“The law of the LORD is perfect,
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes …
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold,
sweeter than honey,
and drippings from the honeycomb.”
For centuries before the advent of Christianity, Israel extolled in psalms what “the law” is, and what it does. The Torah is perfect, sure, right and clear. What the Torah does is revive life, make wise, rejoice the heart, enlighten sight.
The Torah is riches. The Torah is delicious. It is sweeter than honey.
These evocative words in Psalm 19 do not, in their historical context, refer to the New Testament. Since Psalm 19 is usually dated to about the time of the reform by Josiah in the seventh century BC, it would be six centuries before the Gospels were penned and Romans was sent out by Paul. It is “the law,” the “law of Moses” to which this Psalm primarily refers. The word “decree” in v.7 is ‘edut which is what Moses placed in the Ark, “You shall put into the ark the ‘edut that I shall give you” (Exodus 25.16).
For many though, the thought that “the law” is sweeter than honey strikes them as bizarre and perhaps even unchristian. Schooled in late medieval theology, and a hefty dose of anti-Semiticism, we have believed the function of “the law” was to accuse and condemn. “The law” was given to convince humanity that we could never obey perfectly and thus finally drive us to grace.
But one thing is certain, the Israelites who wrote and then used Psalm 19 in worship for six hundred years did not think they were trying to earn their salvation nor was the Torah a source of misery.
How does the Torah revive life, make wise the simple, and rejoice the heart? What is it about the Torah that is sweeter than honey? Why is it that the Israelites sang this Holy Spirit inspired psalm and Jews on the Sabbath praised Adonai for the gracious gift of Torah?
The answer to these questions is found by understanding what the biblical authors mean by “torah.” Torah is not law as western Protestants commonly understand the word “law.” We think of the IRS Tax Code, the Constitution of the United States or the like. We reduce “the law” to a series of disjointed commands. But the Hebrew word torah means primarily “instruction” or even better “pointing the way.”
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are a united narrative. They are intended to be read as a unity. The “law” or “torah” is a narrative. The torah of the Lord is a Story, a Story about God that points the way.
It is the story that defines everything about the people of God. The Sweeter than Honey Story is …
Humanity rejected God.
God Started Over.
God is the star of the Story. It is the Story of God and God’s love. The Torah is the story of God’s love affair with the world. It instructs (i.e. teaches) us who we are, we are the dependent creatures of God. It teaches us what we are supposed to do, we are supposed to image the Creator within this world reflecting God’s justice, care and mercy. The story instructs us in the character of this passionate and loving God who refuses to give up on creation.
It is the Story of the God who rescued the poor. Like Abram their distant ancestor, those rescued did not even know who Yahweh was at the time of his mighty act of redemption.
It is the Story of God who when his freshly rescued and created people rejected him for an idol (falling as surely as adam did in the Garden) chose to forgive and dwell with humanity in Israel.
The Story of God shows the way of our survival even when enemies plan our demise while we are completely unaware. We survive because God preserved us in the face of the enemies of God.
The Story of God , the “torah,” makes us wise to the truth that God’s people, like adam, are placed with creation to be a servant reflecting back God’s justice, care and mercy. It shows us the way to live with Yahweh and with one another. And most of all it continually teaches that everything we have, everything we are, everything about us is the gift of Yahweh’s infinite hesed (‘never ending/steadfast love’).
God’s torah is indeed sweeter than honey. God’s torah does indeed revive life by pointing us to the Source of Life, Yahweh. The individual commands of God are embedded in and take their meaning from the overarching Story.
When we step back with this perspective on “the law of the LORD,” the whole takes on the meaning Israel sang praises about. We may begin to embrace even those passages in Paul that we over look when the apostle declares the torah to be holy, good, Spiritual and … a gift of grace.
Paul would, and probably did, join his voice in praise thanking God for the gift of the torah for it is more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold and sweeter than honey, even the honey from the honeycomb.