Most of us who pursue Christ, want His way in our hearts and lives. We would agree that we want it in our mouths and on our minds.
We would raise our hearts and hands in petition that we might obey God’s way and that His ways would bring blessing to our lives. So, what exactly is this Book of the Law and how do we experience it in our lives?
What Is the Book of the Law?
The word law carries such ominous tones in English. Yet, if we are to understand the meaning of the phrase Book of the Law in Scripture, we need to turn our attention to Jewish tradition.
In The Complete Jewish Study Bible, the passage is explained:
In covenantal faithfulness, Adonai provided guidance and direction for his people and through them to all humankind. This instruction is known as Torah and is foundational for an accurate understanding of the rest of Scripture. Despite the common misconception that Torah should be translated as “Law,” Torah simply means “instruction” or “the way to go.”
This note from The Complete Jewish Study Bible touch on two points worthy of further attention:
1. The Book of Law/Law in Hebrew means “instruction” or “the way to go,” not the legal notion we attribute to it.
2. There is more than one Torah mentioned in Scripture.
My husband who is a pastor has been blessed with the privilege of going on a number of study trips to Israel and completely fell in love with the place and culture he’d so long studied from afar. One of the most important treasures he took home was a series of conversations with a Jewish Christian about the Ten Commandments.
In it, he began to unpack the stark difference between what we, as Western-English speaking readers have inferred on and from the text versus what was communicated from a Hebrew perspective.
When the word torah is used, it carries with it a familial sort of tone toward the instruction given; much like how a loving Father would set up boundary lines for a child, “…because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws…” (Genesis 26:5).
Abraham, who is called the Father of our faith, kept God’s ways and is commended for it because he did it out of faith; now look at the translations for each of these words:
- Obeyed: שָׁמַע shama; a prim. root; to hear; Kept: שָׁמַר shamar; a prim. root; to keep, watch, preserve (also translated as a “door keeper” and a guard, also to be careful).
- Charge: מִשְׁמֶרֶת mishmereth; fem. of 4929; a guard, watch, charge. Also translated as service, worship and duty.
- Commandments: צָוָה tsavah; a prim. root; to lay charge (upon), give charge (to), command, order. Also translated as appointed.
- Statutes: חֻקָּה chuqqah; fem. of 2706; something prescribed, an enactment, statute, customs.
- Laws: תּוֹרָה torah; from 3384; direction, instruction, law (which some Hebrew scholars don’t prefer this rendering), teachings.
These words carry with them a different set of connotations than we often attribute to them. God was pleased that Abraham listened and kept His ways; there’s an intimate quality to the description that is clearly not the same as traffic laws or other societal rules.
Torah frequently means/is translated “the way.” So, God’s laws are like a map, not meant to be viewed as something to hamper or hinder but to help and guide.
The ultimate goal for people, God, and torah is for it to be on our hearts, not a list of external checklists or hoops to jump through.
Just like how we know how to find our way home from work or the grocery store without looking at a map every couple of minutes, God’s way was meant to be on our hearts the same way. And with Jesus’ coming, He would fulfill this (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
At the Heart
What blessing to have Christ bring God’s words and ways inside us, rather than simply in front of us on a page or tablet. When Jesus came, He didn’t abolish the way of God but rather fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17-18).
He unfolded the heart of the ways of God when He explained that killing someone was not merely an action, but that anger was the soul-equivalent of murder, that lust was the soul-equivalent of adultery and that loving those who persecute us sets us apart in the same way our heavenly Father is set apart.
This was the heart of the Torah, which was more than what we think of as a law because it was meant to reach places and affect change that laws never could.
Jesus even told us that He is The Way (John 14:6)! And the early church was called “The Way” (Acts 9:2).
Nothing about God’s instruction is meant to be so removed from the heart or legalized in the way we so often think of it.
The next item to unpack (and this is such a cursory overview of the heart of the Torah, I hope it spurs you on to do more of your own research), is the concept that Scripture mentions more than one Torah.
This is important for us as Christians to consider because many of us want to follow God’s ways, yet we (like many generations before us) can tangle our hearts in our efforts (Genesis 26:5).
Abraham kept not only God’s laws, but also His charge, commandments, and statues. Yet all this was 400 years before Moses and the covenant.
The most commonly referred to torah is the set of laws given for the people to follow in the Promised Land, yet Scripture does describe law/torah outside this context.
For example, the Ten Commandments, are a torah of God, and most likely the torah Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 9:21 “…not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.”
This same passage is translated in The Complete Jewish Study Bible as:
That is, with Jews, what I did was put myself in the position of a Jew, in order to win Jews. With people in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah, I put myself in the position of someone under such legalism, in order to win those under this legalism, even though I myself am not in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah.
With those who live outside the framework of Torah, I put myself in the position of someone outside the Torah in order to win those outside the Torah — although I myself am not outside the framework of God’s Torah but within the framework of Torah as upheld by the Messiah.
From a Jewish/Hebrew perspective, God’s Torah was upheld by Christ, even when the Mosaic laws were not.
This is part of why we see in the New Testament changes like eating meat that Jews traditionally considered unclean; God’s ways, through Christ, were bursting outside the physical Promised Land to bring Promised Salvation to people in all the lands.
So, the laws for the people would deepen as it’s application broadened (Consider how Christ illuminated the heart of God’s law to not merely address adultery, but also the secret thoughts we keep that might be lustful or in the case of murder and anger).
Ultimately, as we seek to follow God’s ways so that we can honor Him, live the life we were designed to live, and receive any blessings available to us as a result of following God (there are conditional blessings and also blessings of grace and mercy that are outside the reach of even our best attempts to serve and obey God).
There are a great many instructions given to believers and seeking to understand them is good. It is vitally important that we understand that God hasn’t handed down His ways to us like a traffic cop but as a loving Father.
Why Does This Matter?
It is also important that we understand what parts of the Book of the Law are meant for Christian followers. It is easy for us to take the laws that were meant for the land of Israel and apply them legally to ourselves or (worse) others when maybe that isn’t quite the heart of God.
We were called by grace, will live out His ways by grace, and be completed therein. The highest effect of the Book of the Law that we can know is when we see that Christ has indeed written it onto our once stone, now flesh, hearts.
The Complete Jewish Study Bible ©2016 by Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC
Strong’s Definitions from NASB Strong’s Bible Text Olive Tree Software. © 2016
For further reading:
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April Motl is a pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, and women’s ministry director. When she’s not waist-deep in the joys and jobs of motherhood, being a wife, and serving at church, she writes and teaches for women. You can find more encouraging resources from April here and here.
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