The term “Torah” is one of the most confusing and controversial terms in the Hebrew language.
One word with the weight of a long history, a word which has quite a few meanings and preconceived ideas, some of which are not at all true. So then, what is the Torah?
The Book(s) of Moses
The Halacha, the rabbinic Jewish law, taught us to think about the Torah as a book of laws and rituals. However, despite the fact that there are laws in the Torah, the literary genre of the Torah is not a book of laws, but a narrative. It’s at story, written in one book – the book of “Moses”. Later on, the book was divided into five different books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The laws and commandments take up only a small part of the Torah. This isn’t just our own understanding, it’s also an academic understanding:
“The Torah, which contains most of the laws, is not a collection of laws but rather a narrative that tells the history of the Jewish people, in their earliest days… therefore we can view the Torah as a source of laws and even construct a set of laws from it. But this is not adequate grounds to interpret the Torah outside of its literary genre, which is a narrative… The fact that the biblical laws are always found in a literary context and not in a legal context means that the laws are indisputably tied to the means and purposes of the literary context in which they are found… The Torah is first and foremost a narrative and not a law book, and it needs to be treated accordingly. ” Doctor S. Chaval
Covenants and commandments
One of the most well-known stories in the Torah is about a man named Abraham. God chooses him to start a nation, the people of Israel, who after some time find themselves enslaved in Egypt. From the people of Israel, God chooses another man – Moses. Through Moses, God redeems the people of Israel and makes a covenant with them at Mount Sinai – the “Sinai Covenant”.
A covenant is a contract and all 613 of the laws or commandments that Moses gave to the children of Israel are the terms and conditions of this same “contract”, or “covenant”. In other words, there’s the Torah, which comprises the first five books in the Old Testament, and there are the commandments, which take up a small part within the Torah, and which are a part of its bigger story. The commandments are actually laws that have to do with rites, rituals, customs, morals, social justice, and so forth, that were given to a newly-born nation to help them in their first step toward the light in an otherwise dark civilization.
Notice a very clear pattern –
In the story, Moses gives the first commandments to the children of Israel: “You shall have no other gods” and, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image”… What happens simultaneously? Israel breaks those very laws as they make a calf of gold. After this, another story of rebellion appears and Moses gives them more commandments, and then another story of rebellion, and again more commandments.
Commandments – rebellion – commandments – rebellion… Did you get the pattern?
The purpose of the story is to show that the commandments weren’t given without reason, but were given as a response to Israel’s sinful actions. It’s like an instance when a child breaks a vase and then his parent decides that “from now on, you’re not allowed to play ball in the kitchen!” Unlike an instruction manual, in which all the instructions were written in advance, this is not an instruction manual for life but the story of a people whose character God is slowly fashioning, by restraining their behavior by setting up boundaries, and by correcting their bad behavior.
Slowly, God is raising his moral standards. This is a long and painful process, because the children of Israel came from a culture of wicked idol worshipers, people that would burn their babies alive as part of a pagan ritual. Nowadays, in modern times, whoever reads the commandments in the book of the Torah will find some of the commandments to be very strange and primitive, such as laws that forbid having sexual intercourse with your mother or with animals, laws that require you to cover up pits you’ve dug to prevent someone from falling into them, laws that forbid you to drink blood as if you’re some vampire, laws that forbid you to sacrifice your child by fire to an idol, and many other laws that probably make you think: What kind of a barbaric group was Moses dealing with?
The laws and commandments in the Torah were meant to suppress criminals and to defend the weak. The purpose of the Law was to create basic law and order in a corrupt and barbaric society. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul explains:
“Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers…” (1 Timothy 1:9)
Even the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not lust, honor the requests of your parents and so forth, sound so obvious, the type of things that a normal person wouldn’t need to be told. But they weren’t written for normal people, and they weren’t meant to represent God’s ultimate moral standards, rather they were meant to restrain the human heart which at that time, morally speaking, was very wicked and corrupt. Indeed, when we approach the commandments, it’s important to remember the cultural, social, and historical context they were given in.
Understanding the context
The children of Israel were most definitely not an innocent people – rather these commandments were given to a people who had been slaves, a people who went through oppression and physical and mental abuse, a people lacking in education, influenced greatly by pagan, barbaric, and twisted cultures – cultures which were mostly extremely wicked and cruel. That’s why the children of Israel had extremely low morals and principles. You could almost say that they were a bunch of hooligans. Also, their way of thinking and their way of interacting with their surroundings was morally speaking like that of a small and undisciplined child, and their behavior and the way they treated one another was influenced accordingly. People such as these must indeed learn basic things – that murder is not a good thing, that you’re not supposed to have sexual intercourse with your mother, and not with your goat or sheep either, and when your mother and father ask you to do something that you really don’t want to do you don’t beat them up because they’re old and weak – rather you respect them and their request.
On the one hand, when you’re dealing with merciless barbarians, you need to handle them with a strong hand, and that’s why you find a lot of threats about death penalties. On the other hand, for the first time we’re introduced to God’s grace and compassion, for who has the patience to deal with such people? But God, while putting down firm and clear boundaries, also shows grace and compassion. How? By being merciful!
Here’s an important thing about the Torah – the commandments in the Sinai Covenant were most definitely not God’s ultimate moral standards, but a temporary compromise on godly standards for us, people who are sinners. Why? Because our hearts are so hard.
By the way, despite the fact that the standards in the Torah do not represent God’s ultimate standards, not one of us is able to uphold them perfectly, which shows us that we are incapable to save ourselves. We need someone to come and deliver us, a divine Messiah. There’s a direct correlation between “knowledge” and “morality”. When we “know” God, in other words when we know the character and the will of God, our moral principles and ethical standards go up accordingly. The Torah and its laws were only a first step, a first step out of a moral slough and towards godly morals.
Western civilisation based on the Bible
Today, in the 21st century, we have the privilege of enjoying the last thousands of years in which the entire western world was built upon biblical foundations and was fashioned accordingly. That privilege that did not exist then, for the people of Israel. The reason we know today that stealing and committing murder is wrong is because our parents and the society we live in educated us in accordance to these moral standards, and that’s the way it’s been for the last thousands of years. And, as we all know, the foundations for the entire western world are based on another Jewish book, the New Testament. This is what Jesus taught, concerning the commandments of the Torah:
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you… but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)
Because of the hardness of our hearts, we were allowed to take revenge, to get divorced, to take slaves, and so forth. But originally, things were different. In other words, we can find God’s ultimate standards way before the Torah was given, back in the beginning – before sin permeated creation, and before Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. God’s standards are not “Do not murder” – “Do not murder” is only a preventive and a restraint. God’s standard is to love, to love even your adversary.
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28
God’s standard is not “Do not steal” – rather that we need to be generous towards everyone.
“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:38
The first attribute of the commandments is that their purpose was to restrict the behavior of the Israelites. The corrupted heart of man is sort of like an animal infected with rabies, that must be quarantined so it won’t hurt others. This is what the commandments did for the children of Israel, they restrained and restricted all their terrible behaviors. Take for example a well known commandment:
“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Exodus 21:24-25
Remember that we’re talking here about a culture of barbaric, cruel, vengeful, blood-thirsty people. The purpose of this commandment was to restrain and restrict this vindictive spirit. If someone hurts you, you can’t kill him or his child as an act of revenge. The revenge you’re allowed to take is restricted and is in accordance to the damage he’s done to you; “wound for wound”. Yet again, this is not a picture of God’s ultimate moral standards.
God’s ultimate moral standards
God’s ultimate moral standards are forgiveness, harmony, and unity, not revenge and discord. Take note that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about these very verses:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:38-44
Let’s go over this passage verse by verse:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” Matthew 5:38-39
Whereas Moses restricted and restrained in the Torah, Jesus raised the standards back up to God’s ultimate moral standards. In this case, instead of going out and starting a never-ending cycle of revenge, forgive. Notice that Jesus is talking about taking revenge on the person who did the offense and not on the act of offense itself. Of course, you’re allowed to demand that the authorities do justice and handle the violators. Jesus is talking about taking revenge on the person who did wrong. Contrary to the Torah, which restricts the act of revenge, yet still allows it in measure, Jesus tells us to not take revenge on the person who did us wrong at all. If your neighbor accidentally hurts your sheep, you don’t need to go and hurt his sheep as well, you can just forgive him. Did your other neighbor steal your donkey? Don’t take revenge by killing his family, just go to the police and let them deal with it.
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:39
No, Jesus isn’t some stubborn pacifist, after all in John chapter 18, when he was slapped he didn’t turn the other cheek, but expressed his frustration at the lack of justice. The Apostle Paul acted similarly in Acts chapter 22. Jesus had a different point. In order to slap someone’s right cheek one needs to use the back of the hand, a degrading and humiliating act against someone. During the second temple period, this was used especially by the Roman guards, when a Roman guard would, justifiably or unjustifiably, slap a common citizen. Many of the Jews would be so humiliated to receive such treatment from a Roman gentile that they would lose their temper and fight back, not against the evil itself but against the evil doer – the Roman guard – and would strike him back. This of course brought harmful consequences to the insurrectionist, to his family, and sometimes even to the whole town. As an example from our times – say a police officer strikes you and humiliates you, you need to take him to court and not try to hit him back.
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Matthew 5:40
According to Exodus chapter 22 verse 25, if you borrowed clothing from someone you need to return it before the sun goes down. However, Jesus said if someone threatens to sue you because maybe you borrowed something and didn’t return it, don’t wait for it to be settled in court – return his shirt and compensate him further by giving him your cloak as well. This way, you’ll both cover the debt and appease the other person.
“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Matthew 5:41
The Halacha, the Rabbinic Jewish law, based on Numbers 17, 21, and 35 (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 51a) forbids a Jew to carry anything or to even walk over 200 cubits (one mile) on the Sabbath. One the other hand, the Roman law granted Roman soldiers permission to force a citizen to walk with him up to one mile, and also to carry something for him. We can find an example of this in Matthew 27 and in Mark 15, when the Roman soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus’ point in this verse is, you need to not only be willing to pay your dues according to the laws of the country, but to do it with the right attitude as well. Not with a sour face, complaining the whole time about how unfair it all is, but with a generous spirit and open-handedly.
“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
In the commandments in the Torah, Deuteronomy 23 and in Exodus 22, the Israelites were allowed to exact interest from foreigners they lent money to, but not from other Israelites. Jesus, however, teaches that if a person in need asks for your help, it doesn’t matter who he is, whether he’s a gentile or whether he’s hurt you in the past. You need to be willing to step up and help anybody in need. In other words, whereas the Torah prevented exploitation, Jesus demonstrated to us God’s ultimate moral standards, which is: grace.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44)
According to Pesahim, a tractate in the Talmud:
“Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Not only is this permitted, it is even a mitzva to hate him.” (Pesahim 113b)
But Jesus teaches the exact opposite. How can you pray for your enemies? Only by forgiving them, then can you truly pray for them!
What does this mean?
Praying for them might not necessarily change them, but it will most definitely change you. When you pray for someone who’s hostile towards you it helps you forgive and it heals the wounds that that person’s hurt you with. When we hold onto our hate and refuse to forgive, we’re just poisoning ourselves.
In short, our flawed hearts were under the confinement of the Torah, whose purpose was to restrain us. Now, we no longer need to be under confinement. Today, we have the cure. The cure is the Messiah, and the cure no longer involves finding ways to keep us under confinement and to restrain us, so that we won’t commit transgressions and hurt others. Rather the cure, the Messiah, sets up God’s ultimate moral standards anew: Grace, compassion, forgiveness, and love. In Messiah, we now go the extra mile, by faith, and not because of laws and rituals.
The writers of the New Testament spoke about the commandments in this way as well, as a “temporary guardian”:
“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19)
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,” (Galatians 3:24-25)
They also describe the Messiah as one who finalizes and ends the old covenant:
“by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15)
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)
The Law has been nullified, since it could not cure our twisted and broken hearts. It could only restrain us and put us in a temporary confinement, until the Messiah would come with the cure:
“For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect);” (Hebrews 7:18-19)
After curing us and giving us a new heart, the Messiah now dwells within us through the Holy Spirit.
“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)
By the way, even many of the Jewish Sages believed that the messiah would nullify the covenant of Moses, and in its place another would be made, a new covenant.
So hang on, what did Jesus mean when he said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
First of all, Jesus is not talking about the laws of Sinai, after all we know that the prophets did not give us the commandments. The term “the Law and the Prophets” meant in those times the entire Old Testament. Secondly, the goal of the Torah and the Prophets is the Messiah himself.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)
Jesus came to fulfil the messianic hope of the Torah and the Prophets
In other words, the entire Old Testament, from the very beginning of the Torah to the very end of the Prophets, points to our need of the Messiah. Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah. In other words, Jesus didn’t come to make up a new story, but to fulfill the original story because, after all, the Torah’s prophecies are about him:
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46)
In the following verse, Jesus continues:
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
“Until heaven and earth pass away”, meaning so long as creation has not been replaced by the new creation. “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In other words, the authority of the Scriptures remains valid until all that has been written is fulfilled, including the prophecies yet to be fulfilled in the last days.
So are we supposed to just ignore the commandments of Sinai? Of course not! Just as it would be a mistake to treat the commandments as the main thing, it would also be a mistake to ignore them completely.
The commandments of the Torah not only reveal the weakness of the human heart, they also teach us about the holiness and the grace of God, they show us wisdom and knowledge, deepen our understanding concerning the character and the work of the Messiah, and compel us to love God and love man.
While the Torah has many purposes, the goal of the Torah is to guide us, through the broken Sinai Covenant, to the Messiah. Without the Torah, we wouldn’t have been able to know or recognise the Messiah, or even know of our need of him. Thanks to the Torah, and to the entire Old Testament, we recognise that Jesus is the Messiah, just as he said himself:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” (John 5:39)
As believers, we are forced to define anew what it means to “keep the Torah”.
As opposed to the rabbinic definition of today, which defines keeping the Torah as performing external rituals and practices that aren’t even related to the Torah, truly keeping the Torah is to believe in Jesus the Messiah and to follow him.
Followers of Jesus are true followers of Moses, in the truest sense, and keep far more than just the commandments of the Sinai Covenant by loving God and loving others. If only we too, as we meditate on the treasures of the Scriptures, could be as enthusiastic as David was, when he wrote:
“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalms 119:97)
King David, who prophesied much concerning the Messiah himself, knew that in order to recognize the Messiah and our own need of him, we need to meditate as much as possible on the Scriptures. Today, we know that in order to understand Jesus’ words in their right context, we need to know the Torah.
In conclusion, while the Torah is God’s word in every sense, we need to remember that we are no longer under the authority of the commandments of the Sinai Covenant. In the Sinai Covenant, we served God through the priesthood and through sacrifices in the temple.
The priests were the mediators between God and the people and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant were the laws that showed us how to serve God in the framework of this covenant. In the New Covenant, on the other hand, we are under the Torah of the Messiah. He is our great High Priest, who brought us a Torah with much higher and much more challenging standards in comparison with those of the Sinai Covenant.
“For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” Hebrews 7:12
By the way, for those who want to try to keep the commandments of the Torah or from Jewish tradition for reasons of cultural relevance – there is nothing wrong with this. It’s like adding a little extra flavor to our Israeli-Jewish identity, like when we barbecue on Independence Day, light candles on Hannukah, or eat dried fruits on Tu BiShvat, the Jewish “New Year of the trees”.
Actually, according to Acts chapter 21, before the temple was destroyed, the Apostle Paul acted in a similar manner, in order to be a witness, to remain connected to his people, and to not be a stumbling block, as he himself said:
“To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.” 1 Corinthians 9:20
For those who want to know more about the goal of the Torah, the purpose of the commandments, and the role of Jewish Tradition in our lives, we’ve written a book that addresses these very issues, which you can order here.