The Law of Moses has a pretty bad reputation among Christians, mainly due to a misunderstanding of Paul on a few points, I think. And so today’s the day that we rehabilitate the Torah.
First, “Torah” doesn’t so much mean “law” as “instruction” or “teaching.”
(Pro 31:26 ESV) [The excellent wife] opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching [torah] of kindness is on her tongue.
After all, the Jews refer to the first five books of the Bible as the Torah, and there’s a lot more in those books than the statutes of Moses — the so-called 613 commands.
The stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses are all “Torah.” And these stories, as well as the statutes, are the core of the “scriptures” regarding which Paul himself said,
(2Ti 3:16-17 ESV) 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I hope that we’re beginning to see that this is true from the lessons previously covered. And Paul lavishes praise on the Law —
(Rom 7:12 ESV) 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
(1Ti 1:8 ESV) 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,
And he’s following the Psalmist in so saying —
(Psa 19:7 ESV) The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
Second, the point of the Torah is not to impose a system of rules that strangle and choke our freedom. Rather, the point of Torah is to show us the nature of God.
You see, much of what Paul wrote regarding the “law” is not directed at the Law of Moses as correctly understood but at the Law of Moses as a system of gaining salvation from damnation — which is not really what it was for.
Third, we should not read New Testament concepts too easily back into the Torah. Sometimes this is exactly what we should do, but the so-called Judaizing teachers who opposed Paul — resulting in his magnificent epistles Romans and Galatians — were teaching that the Law of Moses was designed as a pathway to salvation — and therefore must be added to faith in Jesus.
But Moses was not all that interested in heaven and hell. (He says nothing on either subject.) He was interested in teaching the Israelites how to live as a nation that reveals the character of God to the world.
If you doubt me, let me take you on a highly abridged tour of Deuteronomy — a book that was edited entirely out of Zondervan’s abridged The Story. That’s right. You’re going to have to bring your real Bibles to church for this one — the Bibles with chapter and verse numbers.
The Second Law
Deuteronomy means “second law.” Here’s the scene. Moses has led the Israelites for 40 long years to the banks of the River Jordan. They are about to cross over and begin a series of battles to conquer the land. Moses isn’t going to get to go in. He’s 120 years old. It’s time to turn leadership over to Joshua.
Everyone who’d been born in Egypt, other than Joshua and Caleb, had died or soon would. The survivors were desert born and battle tough. And none of them remembered Sinai. They all been children or not even born 40 years ago.
All the miracles and spectacular signs surely made a major impression on their parents, and their children surely had heard the stories, but most had not been there themselves or were too young to remember.
You’d think that God would choose this moment to do a major miracle or two. Fire from heaven. Thunder and lightning. Make the sun stand still. But he instead has Moses give them a long speech — which was written down as most of the book of Deuteronomy. You see, God’s decision is not to impress with spectacle but to tell the story — and he makes a point to tell the second generation of redeemed Israelites the story of Israel in a very certain way.
We only have time to hit a few highlights.
Statutes reveal the goodness of God
After some introductory materials, God begins to explain himself —
(Deu 4:6-8 ESV) 6 “Keep [these commands] 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.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
Notice God’s purpose. He gives these laws to demonstrate his own greatness. This is not vanity. Rather, God’s purpose in choosing Israel is to form a nation that reveals God to the world.
Honoring God’s covenant with Abraham
Also, God declares that he will honor his covenant with Abraham, even if Israel disobeys by going after idols —
(Deu 4:25-31 ESV) 25 “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, so as to provoke him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice. 31 For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.”
Looking centuries into the future, God says that if they fall into idolatry, he’ll scatter them among the nations (which he did), but if they return to God, he will rescue them and honor his covenant with Abraham (more on this when we get to Deu 30:6 in the next post).
Now, if nothing else, this should put the lie to the notion that there was a Patriarchal Dispensation when God spoke directly to the heads of households, which was repealed and replaced with the Mosaic Dispensation. God seems to think that his covenant with Abraham continues and that his dealings with Israel are in honor of that same covenant!
The Ten Words
In chapter 5, God repeats the Ten Commandments that God issued 40 years earlier at Mt. Sinai. In Hebrew, these are called the Ten Words, and are not perceived by the Jews so much as limitations on their freedom as pledges of love.
Rather like a marriage ceremony, where the husband and bride make promises to each other, these are promises made by Israel to God, promises of faithfulness.
(Deu 5:27-28 ESV) 27 “Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken.”
The Israelites pledged their faithfulness to God with these words, and God heard their pledge and bound himself to them.
The punishment for violating Torah is not damnation but loss of the Promised Land.
(Deu 5:33 ESV) 33 You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.
The Law of Moses is not about how to go to heaven when you die. That’s the mistake. It’s not that God didn’t save any of the faithful Israelites, but that they weren’t saved based on perfect obedience to the Law. That was about something else altogether.