Defining Torah: Law and Story

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For years, I have endeavored to consult every lexicon, dictionary, and opinion about the term torah. The term is difficult to define for good reason. Sometimes torah is used for the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, or Pentateuch. Some define the writings from Genesis to Malachi as torah. Sometimes torah is a technical term for particular bodies of legal material that we read in Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In rabbinic literature, there were believed to be a written and oral torah which Moses received at Sinai. The written is mostly thought to be what we have in the Hebrew Bible. The oral was the interpretation and application of the written. We know from the Kings account that a torah scroll was found in the Temple during the reign of Josiah, which led to a major restoration campaign. Yet, we are not sure what was actually found—whether it was a copy of Deuteronomy or the Pentateuch.

The common definition of torah in Christian circles is “law,” most likely because torah was translated, nomos (“law”) in the Septuagint. Defining torah as law is certainly acceptable in many contexts, but understanding torah as law in every instance is too restrictive and does not allow for a full expression of the idea. There is no question that torah contained legal material but the bulk of torah is narrative and narrative can function just as much as a guide as laws. Some scholars have assumed a connection between the Hebrew word torah and the Hebrew verb yarah which means “to point the way” or “guide” and I would agree that the general idea of torah is a “guide” or “way of life.”

James Sanders in his book, From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, believes the multiple definitions of torah can be ranged under two rubrics: mythos (story or Haggadah) and ethos (laws or Halakah). His point is important because a healthy definition of torah is the balance between story and law. Overemphasizing law over story leads to a very poor understanding of Judaism and even Christianity. Further, the narrative seems to take precedent over the legal as some of the legal is bound to the context that the story tells.

Rather than taking you on a lexical journey of the multiple meanings of torah, I would rather show you an example of how the narrative parts of torah were used as a normative guide for the people. A couple of texts that might give us insight into how torah was used by Israelites are Pss 78, 105, 106, 135, and 136, but for time sake, we will look only at Ps 105. I would
argue that at least the last four of these texts were written after the Babylonian exile by Israelites trying to make sense of the loss of king, land, and temple.

Psalm 105 is a call to praise YHWH and remember the great wonders he has done for his people. The psalm retells much of the torah story from Abraham to the wilderness. However, the psalmist reshapes the story to make it relevant for the post-exilic community. The psalm is bookended with the “servant Abraham” and the land promise (6, 42). The historical
retelling follows Israel’s movement from Canaan (vv. 11-16), to Egypt (vv. 17-38), to the wilderness (vv. 39-44). The fortune of Israel changed with each location because YHWH was with his people in whatever “land” they resided. In addition to the “land” theme are two others motifs centered on the words, servant and chosen ones. Together, these three ideas work together to evidence YHWH’s provision—YHWH cared for Israel no matter what “land” they lived by electing certain “servants” and “chosen ones” to be his instrument for guiding Israel in these different locations.

At the end of the psalm, the psalmist tells us that YHWH gave land and possessions to his people in order that they might keep his statues and observe his torah(s). This is a torah psalm but not in the sense of rules, commands, or to-do’s. We can witness how the narrative of Abraham, Joseph, and Exodus functioned as a “guide” for the later community. For the postexilic community drew hope and peace from their past and found other times when Israel did not possess the land.

One of unique features of this psalm is the plague list. Psalm 105 lists the plagues in this order: darkness (9th according to Exodus), water to blood (1st), frogs (2nd), flies (4th), gnats (3rd), thunder, hail, and fire (7th), locusts (8th), and the death of the firstborn (completely omitting the 5th and 6th plagues). I find W. Dennis Tucker Jr. proposal the most persuasive explanation, believing the list can better be understood in light of the theme of “land.”[1] Tucker Jr. writes, “as the psalm progresses through its historical recital of key events within the history of ancient Israel, the emphasis on land remains steadily just beneath the surface.” In fact, Tucker’s observations provide perhaps the best explanation for the omission of the fifth and sixth plagues. The Hebrew word ארץ (“land”) occurs almost as a formulaic conclusion in eight of the ten plagues in the Exodus account.[2] He reasons that the emphasis on land in the psalm, coupled with the concluding formula that mentions “land” explains the omission of the fifth (livestock) and sixth (boils) plagues. His point is supported by the absence of ארץ in the fifth (Ex. 9:6) and the sixth plagues (Ex. 9:10): “Although the fifth and sixth plagues were no doubt horrific, for the psalmist, they were not about “land.”

Psalm 105 demonstrates how the narrative portions of torah functioned as a guide for the people. During this time in Israel’s history, the people knew the laws, they knew the covenant, and they knew they had broken both, but the legal portions of torah could not provide, in this instance, the much needed hope that the stories could. This instance gives us one of many insights into a broader understanding of what torah was to God’s ancient people and how it functioned for them.

As the biblical story unfolds, some of the specific laws were amended, reapplied, or eliminated altogether. One of our best sources for viewing the torah is the New Testament. The NT use of the OT suggests that NT authors saw the OT, in general, as a story of God’s great actions of creation, election, and redemption, and within that narrative, Torah is an expression of God’s will for how to live before him (Sanders 119). Does this mean that the narrative takes precedent or carries more weight than the specific laws? It appears so! This explains Paul’s appeal to Abraham in Galatians and Romans when explaining why circumcision is no longer the primary way to identify God’s people. Paul emphasized torah as a story of God choosing Abraham and his descendants and rescuing them in order to use them as his instrument for changing the world. Paul was thoroughly convinced that God’s work in Christ furthered the torah story and made that same election and redemption available to all humanity. Paul labored to preach this fulfilled torah story as he de-emphasized the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc) that were preventing the greater narrative from being accomplished. In other words, when Paul and the early church were faced with the Jew-Gentile crisis, they decided it was better to follow the greater ideal of the story (God would bless all nations through Abraham) won out over the specific rules (circumcision, dietary laws, etc).

Since I left full-time preaching for construction work, a tape measure, level, and string line have become my guides for work. It is of utmost importance that any project be level, plumb, and square. What I am arguing is that the torah narrative is a guide in and of itself. A healthy understanding of torah, as both law and story, is crucial for the church. Too many have either excused the relevance and importance of the torah in place of a skewed retirement sales pitch that is sold as the gospel message or have reduced all scripture to rules and the Christian goal is to follow them stringently. Our guide, or as some scholars would say our canon, for keeping us on track is the narrative of Scripture. When we read a specific passage, a rule, a poem, a psalm, a prophecy, etc, hold it against the story of Scripture to see where it fits into the greater scheme. When we learn to master this story, don’t be surprised if the story begins to master us!

[1] W. Dennis Tucker, “Revisiting the Plagues in Psalm CV,” VT LV, 3 (2005), 401-02.

[2] Exodus 10:22; 7:20-21; 8:6; 8:24; 8:17; 9:23 10:14-15 (all numbers from English texts. The MT numbering is different). Even the death of the firstborn contains the phrase “in the land” contra Psalm 78:51 which locates the plague “in Egypt.”

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