A Word for Today – Torah


Where people have sought to live in harmony with one another, there has always been some basic code of behaviour, whether written or otherwise, that regulated the interaction of individuals within that particular community. Some communities made a firm distinction between law that governed morality, and divine law that covered religious practices, and, even today, there are many leading jurists who see a clear conflict between the roles of law and religion. But in the Old Testament, there is an indissoluble relationship between the law of God (torah) and the outworking of moral codes of practice/behaviour. The biblical idea of law is therefore much wider than law in general, so under Mosaic law coveting is a moral prohibition, Exod. 20. 17, but not, for example, under English law.

The Hebrew word torah, translated as ‘law’ over 200 times in the Old Testament, comes from the root y-r-h, and there are differing schools of thought as to whether the word means to shoot an arrow with a view to hitting a target, or, literally, to instruct or teach. If the former, it might well provide the background to Paul’s statement in Romans chapter 3 verse 23. Other scholars take the view that it refers to teaching or instruction ‘in the practice of extending a hand or finger to point in a particular direction’.1 This idea is applied generally to the instruction or teaching given by parents to their children, as in Proverbs chapter 1 verse 8 and chapter 6 verse 20, and specifically to the way in which God teaches and instructs His children in the Old Testament. So when we think about the giving of the law (torah) at Sinai, Exod. 20, we should not simply restrict our thinking to a strict legal code. In fact, the word torah not only reveals God as the supreme Lawgiver, Isa. 33. 22, mirroring His own holy nature and character, but also as the supreme Teacher or Instructor of His people, Isa. 54. 13. This is reflected in the 613 toroth or commandments conveyed to Moses in the Old Testament, which Israel was obliged to keep in order to walk (halakah)2 in harmony with God. Although Israel failed to comply with these commandments on many occasions, they never lost their outward love of torah, even though their hearts were so often far away from God. This love can be seen in Psalms 1 and 19, and is the exclusive theme of the celebratory Psalm 119.3 Notice the variety of synonyms used by the writer in translating the word law (torah) in that Psalm, e.g., decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, ordinances, to mention just a few! Torah was also to be the centre of devotion for God’s people, 2 Chr. 31. 4, and to be carefully studied and observed by them, Deut. 6. 25, cp. Rom. 2. 18, 20. Regrettably, whilst torah was revered, the constant failure of Israel to listen to and observe God’s word brought about divine retribution, Lev. 26. 14-39, eventually leading to exile for seventy years, Jer. 25. 3-14.

Not only does the word torah provide us with a wide range of meanings, but Jewish tradition since the late biblical period uses the word ‘torah’ to describe the first five books of the Old Testament.4 In this specific context, the English definite article is used to differentiate the term from law in general. Sometimes, the expression ‘the Torah’ is used by Jews to refer to the whole of the Old Testament, not just the first five books of Moses. However, the importance of ‘the Torah’ in the restricted sense of the first five books of Moses as it relates to the rest of the Old Testament cannot be overstated. The Jews divide the Old Testament into three main parts – (the) Torah (Pentateuch), Nebiim (Early and Later Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings or Hagiographa), and this was the way that our Lord divided the sacred text in His discourse on the Emmaus road, Luke 24. 44.5 In appreciating this division, Judaism recognizes levels of sanctity (not inspiration) within the Old Testament in that ‘the Torah’ underpins all the books in the second and third collections. This means that the other inspired texts outside of ‘the Torah’ not only take their lead from the books of Moses, but always revert back to them. This can be illustrated by the diagram below where both trajectories start or end with ‘the Torah’.

This deference can be seen throughout the Old Testament. One such example is the 8th-century BC prophecy of Amos. Amos is often described as the prophet of social injustice, and his prophecy is concerned with the exploitation of the poor in Israel by the nouveaux riche . Amos constantly denounces Israel for failure to comply with God’s word, i.e., ‘the Torah’, by breaking such commandments in respect to the misuse of security deposits, Deut. 24. 12-13, in respect of sexual promiscuity, Exod. 21. 7-11, cp. 1 Cor. 5. 1, and where they encouraged the Nazirites to break their vow of abstinence by drinking wine, Num. 6. 1-21. Despite the moral vacuum that existed in Israel, there was still a punctilious observance of religious rituals, which was an abomination to God, Amos 4. 4-5. But simply going through the motions of religious piety was insufficient as far as God was concerned. What God required from His people was obedience to His word, 1 Sam. 15. 22, and lives that reflected righteousness, loving kindness, and humility, Mic. 6. 8. Although, in theory, this might have been possible, Rom. 2. 13, the reality was far different, Rom. 3. 23. It needed someone (Christ) to completely fulfil its demands, Matt. 5. 17, and thereby enable God to place His law within His people, and ultimately write it upon their hearts through a new covenant, Jer. 31. 32.

In the New Testament torah is usually translated by the Greek word nomos (as in LXX) or, in respect of the law, ho nomos, 1 Cor. 9. 9. References to the law, nomos, are widespread throughout the New Testament,6 and in each context, the law of God as revealed in the restricted term ‘the Torah’ is implied. Our Lord not only delighted Himself in ‘the Torah’, but used it extensively during His ministry on earth.7 To completely reverse a famous Rabbinic saying, for our Lord, ‘Words of Torah are (were) more beloved than words of Soferim, i.e., tradition’.8 Paul makes us aware of the fact that it is only in the revelation and work of Christ that the law can be properly understood, Rom. 10. 4. He further explains that the law was a parenthetical regime, simply brought in by God because of human sin, Gal. 3. 19. The inherent problem in respect of torah was that it could not produce righteousness for God because, ‘it was weakened by the flesh’, Rom. 8. 3 ESV. The law was not, however, evil, per se, Rom. 7. 12, but became the agent of sin, Rom. 3. 20; 7. 7-9. It was a positive force that produced very negative results in the lives of sinful men. By the death of Christ, however, all the demands of torah have been perfectly met in that we have been redeemed from the curse of the law, Gal. 3. 13. The legal requirement to keep torah so that we might acquire a righteous standing before God has been abrogated, Col. 2. 14. Since we have now been set free from torah by the ‘law’ of the Spirit, Rom. 8. 2, may we prove to be effective ministers of a new covenant, 2 Cor. 3. 6, ‘who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit’, Rom. 8. 1.

For further reading/study


  • Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman (Eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery – Law, pp. 489-492.


  • Alexander and Baker (Eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament – Pentateuch (LAW), pp. 497-515.



Alexander and Baker (Eds.) Dictionary of the Old Testament – Pentateuch, pg. 498.


On the meaning of the Hebrew word halakah see 2011 Volume 66, Issue 3.


Each year Jews celebrate the law by reading the five books of Moses in their entirety at the synagogue at Simhat Torah = Rejoicing of Torah.


The Greek equivalent being the term Pentateuch, which is derived through Latin.


The reference to Psalms in that verse is simply shorthand for ‘The Writings’ as Psalms is always the first book, and early sources suggest it may have been the title for the entire collection. It is so identified in the Dead Sea scrolls. Paul also uses this threefold division, e.g., Romans chapter 15 verses 10-12, to buttress his argument by selecting texts from Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms.


For example, Luke 24. 44; John 18. 31; Acts 6. 13.


See Matt. 4. 4; 7. 12; 12. 5.


With apologies to Rabbi Johanan!