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Torah as Holiness:
"Law" as Response to Divine Grace
A Paper Presented to the Thirtieth Annual Meeting
of the Wesleyan Theological Society, Dayton, Ohio, November 5, 1994
A. The issue
The tension between legal and relational categories in understanding the
divine-human encounter may be a hot topic in modern theological circles, and may
be formulated from the categories of modern thought, but it is certainly not a
new tension. In its most basic form, it can be traced through the Reformation
debates to Jesus’ confrontation with scribes and Pharisees. But the roots are
far deeper and the tension can be seen as early as the eighth century BC in the
prophetic attacks on superficial formalized worship, and perhaps even earlier in
the beginning days of the prophetic movement when the ideal of faithfulness in
living (hearing the voice of Yahweh) was valued above strict adherence to ritual
and legal requirements (1 Sam 15:22). It may even be traceable to the early
chapters of Genesis as the religious undercurrent of the Cain and Abel story.
Modern scholarship has approached the tension between legal and relational
modes of thought from a variety of perspectives, including the nearly century
long debate on the meaning of torah, and its relation to nomos.
Both from biblical and theological perspectives, scholars have increasingly
recognized the distortions that have crept into the Christian tradition in its
understanding of the Old Testament concept of torah.
These have come from a variety of sources, from the distortion of first
century Judaism in early Christian polemics, to subsequent misinterpretations of
Luther’s dichotomy between law and gospel, to the filtering of Old
through the lens of Western metaphysical categories. It seems almost
presumptuous to attempt to add anything to that debate in a short study, let
alone wade into the already deep and muddy waters of the legal versus relational
debate roiling in Wesleyan circles. However, since much of the discussion is
being carried on by New Testament scholars or by theologians, often from the perspective of
Jewish-Christian relations, it may be helpful, especially in an Arminian-Wesleyan
context, at least to raise some issues from the perspective of Old Testament studies.
B. Question and thesis
What is the implication(s) for Christian theology, and especially for
Arminian-Wesleyan theology, of taking seriously this growing acknowledgment that
the biblical concept of law/torah often has not been understood well in
Christian tradition and theology?
The working thesis for the study is this: the Old Testament concept of torah
cannot adequately be understood forensically. Rather, torah is primarily
a relational concept, providing the community of faith an anchor point in God’s
grace from which it can live out, in changing historical circumstances, its
identity as the people of God.
Torah was one way the Israelites expressed God and human beings as
interactive in history, God revealing Himself and at the same time calling them
to respond in concrete ways to that revelation in a mutual relationship. As
such, torah describes the balanced tension between stability and change
in community, a balance that the biblical traditions hold in stasis in order to
avoid the drift to religious tyranny (legalism) or the excesses of religious
anarchy (antinomianism). -2-
Torah is the encompassing concept of both stability and change, and the
biblical tradition preserves the ongoing struggle to maintain balance and hold
them in dynamic tension.
I will suggest that the Old Testament concept of torah is a lifestyle of nurtured
and nurturing relationship with God and others, subsuming every facet of life to
a dynamic (growing) and joyful acknowledgment of God as supreme Sovereign and
Lord of the earth. Torah
is not primarily a book to obey or rules to follow; it is a path to walk, a way
of life to lead. And yet that walk must authentically reflect the character of
the God who has called people to walk it. One suggested application of this
thesis in our specific context of Wesleyan theology is that the Old Testament concept of
torah can provide a new model for holiness in the 21st century: torah
as holiness, encompassing the human response to divine grace.
There are several lines of evidence that could be followed here. Since time
constraints prohibit pursuing any of them in detail, let me simply suggest what
these lines might be and briefly sketch out with selected examples and
observation the track they would take.
Two additional parameters need to be established. First, I will not
as a metaphysical or ontological category, although not denying that the ancient
Israelites were capable of thinking in those terms. The basis of my observations
will be the canonical biblical texts of the Old Testament. Although not excluding the
various historical and literary strata of the biblical material, I will look at
these texts from the perspective of a holistic understanding of the Old
Testament as the
literary repository of the Old Testament Faith (Scripture), and against the background of
insights from modern Old Testament scholarship.-3-
Second, I will not attempt to trace the specific historical development of
the concept into intertestamental or first century AD Judaism, or its
development in later rabbinic Judaism. -4-
As necessary as that might be for a full understanding of the New Testament and early
Church history, it may also introduce elements that are anachronistic for an
understanding of the Old Testament, especially in view of the fact that much of that later
development occurred in interaction with extrinsic ideas or in polemical
contexts. I will assume a diachronic theological trajectory of the concept of
torah, and will try to establish the beginnings of that trajectory from the
Old Testament. -5- This assumes that there is an
ongoing theological significance to the idea of torah that communicates
truths about God, about us, and about our relationship to God, even though it is
cast in various periods of history in different forms. It is that theological
significance that I will attempt to explore in what follows.
II. The Old Testament Concept of Torah
A. The scope of torah
There is little question that the term torah has a wide range of
meaning. Not only is it often difficult to translate in the biblical texts,
subsequent usage has added shades of meaning beyond the language itself. It has
become nearly axiomatic that the term does not mean simply "law."
1. torah as law/command
However correct this may be, there are places in the biblical text where
seem to have the specific meaning of "law" as referring to a binding rule or
code of conduct, often written, to be enforced by a controlling authority.
-6- For example, there are numerous references to actions that are required
according to what was written in the book of the torah, often with one or
more cognate terms, ranging from the offering of sacrifices to the sparing of a
king’s children by a new monarch. -7- The
reforms of Josiah, portrayed by the Deuteronomist as the most righteous of
Israel’s kings, as well as the Chronicler’s version of the reforms of Hezekiah,
all proceed according to written codes. -8-
The post-exilic reconstitution of the Jewish community under Ezra and Nehemiah
likewise was based on scrupulous obedience to written codes.
In these cases, specific actions were required in the context of a community.
In addition, we can note that verbs like obey, keep, do, and enforce are often
used with torah. The torah is commanded and warnings are given not
to transgress, break, or violate the torah. This is also supported by the
use of torah as a general reference to larger blocks of material that
contain social regulations for the community.
-10- The conclusion after even a superficial examination of the 220 times
the noun torah
occurs in the MT is that there are places where the best English word is "law."
However, even with this acknowledgment, there is considerable ambiguity and
tension in the concept. For example, Numbers 5:11-31 details the rather public
and communal procedures for dealing with accusations of unfaithfulness against a
wife, concluding with the summary (v. 30b):
Then he shall have the woman stand before the LORD,
and the priest shall do to her all this torah.
Yet, this is in the context of detailed instructions for a trial by ordeal,
an elaborate cultic ritual, not what we would call a "civil" legal proceeding.
-13- While the use of "all" with the singular torah
may imply more than specific cultic regulations, it is more likely that torah
here means "instruction" in proper cultic procedure.
There is additional tension in the biblical tradition from at least two other
perspectives. First, in taking seriously the varied strata of Old Testament tradition, we
can observe, for example, crucial differences between 2 Kings’ and the
Chronicler’s accounts of the reforms of Hezekiah. The Chronicler specifically
points out that the reforms proceeded according to the written torah as
law. -14- The parallel account in Kings,
however, has no specific reference to torah or written law, only that
Hezekiah followed Yahweh and observed the commandments of Moses.
-15- What one tradition saw narrowly as law, carried out under the scrutiny
of the priests (Chronicler), another saw in terms of the faithful obedience of a
righteous king (Deuteronomic History). It is not that these are mutually
exclusive, only that they are different perspectives.
Second, it is significant to note that most of these "legal" uses of torah
are from texts heavily influenced by a priestly perspective, or governed by the
theological macro-structure of the Deuteronomist.
-17- This suggests a later (post-exilic) perspective and a specific
theological agenda revolving around the authority of the priest and the (re)building
of a religious community based upon specific written laws. None of these
passages are from the prophetic or wisdom traditions, and most of them refer
specifically to cultic or ritual observance.
-18- It is not easy to separate cultic and social obligations in any period
of biblical history. However, the conclusion is that when torah is
presented as primarily a legal concept, it is in the context of a very specific
perspective and agenda, almost always relating to the identity and solidarity of
the community as a religious and social unit.
2. torah as instruction/guidance
While maintaining that torah should in some cases be understood as
"law," in the Old Testament it most frequently has the meaning of "instruction" or
"guidance." A fitting example is the extended celebration of torah in
Psalm 119, since in these 176 verses the term occurs 25 times with most of the
major parallel words used in the Old Testament. -19-
The psalm begins:
Blessed are those whose path is wholesome [tamim],
who walk by the torah of the LORD!
Walking in the path of Yahweh, learning from God and understanding that path,
seeking the Lord with all one’s heart, and living a wholesome (well-ordered,
whole) life in the midst of adversity are themes played out repeatedly in this
While a variety of apparently "legal" terms do occur, it is obvious that the
Psalm’s focus is not legal. The emphasis is on a lifestyle lived out (walking a
path -22-) under the active, and
interactive, guidance and direction of God. Torah describes the
parameters of life lived out in response to God’s graciousness.
-23- But those parameters are not simply words written in a book, nor are
they legal stipulations to obey. Torah
must be learned, meditated on, and understood.
-24- It must be taken into the heart, which in
Old Testament metaphorical language is
the seat of will, intentionality, and volition. Torah must become part of
the person in the process of living so that she lives life faithfully in
response to the deliverance, grace, love, even the creation, that God has given.
The need for obedience is certainly present, even a strong sense of obligation.
But it is not viewed in terms of legal constraint here, but as a joyful, loving,
intentional response of the heart. Since Psalm 119 is usually considered to be a
late (post-exilic) composition, this perspective of torah stands in
direct tension with other post-exilic perspectives noted above that focus on the
legal requirements of torah.
We do not have to go far to find additional examples of torah used in
this sense. In prophetic eschatological passages, the writers long for and
envision a future in which the whole world will be instructed in the ways of
Yahweh. For example, in Isaiah’s vision of the future working of God in bringing
peace and reconciliation to the world, he says (Isa 2:3):
Many peoples shall come, and they will say: "Come,
let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob;
[so that] he may teach us his ways, and [with the result that] we may walk
in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the torah, and the word
[dabar] of the LORD from Jerusalem.
This passage is significant for several reasons. Torah is here
paralleled with "word" (dabar) of the Lord. As a theological term,
dabar describes God’s ongoing revelation of himself in the world, especially
through the prophets. -26- The sense is that
the will of God is not codified in a book of laws but must be proclaimed and
learned. The implication is also that there can be new words, new torah
for new times. While it could be held that the peoples are coming to the house
of God to learn what the laws are, it is actually "his ways" and "his paths" in
which they should walk that they must learn; that is, the lifestyle they are to
lead in response to God’s self-revelation. The dabar/torah
of Yahweh is the instruction or directions they need to learn in order to walk
in the path of God.
We find similar ideas in other passages, in both positive and negative
Receive torah from his mouth, and establish
his words in your heart. (Job 22:22)
There is no torah, and her prophets obtain no
vision [chazon] from the LORD. (Lam 2:9)
In the connection of torah with "heart," "words," and paralleled with
"vision," -29- the implication in both
passages is that torah is not seen as a code of laws, but is the dynamic
will and leadership of God active (or not) in the community of faith, teaching
them how to live out being His people. -30-
In the period of the monarchy, it was normally the prophet who gave this
ongoing direction from God. In later periods after the destruction of Jerusalem,
that responsibility fell increasingly to the priest. For example, in Malachi
2:6-9, the Levites are given the charge to teach "true torah" since the priest
is the "messenger" of God (v. 8). The priests are condemned because they have
perverted the instruction selfishly and caused people to stumble on the path.
-31- The responsibility of the priest was not just in teaching torah
as law, but also in interpreting it dynamically in the lives of the people.
A final area in which torah has the unambiguous meaning of instruction
is in the wisdom traditions. In virtually all the occurrences of torah in
Old Testament sapiential literature it means teaching or instruction, even when it is
paralleled with "legal" terms, such as in Proverbs 1:8:
My son, keep your father’s commandment [mitsvah],
and forsake not your mother’s torah.
It has been customary to identify three different kinds of torah in
the Old Testament: priestly torah, encompassing the legal codes; prophetic torah,
the ongoing word of God for His people; and sapiential torah,
instructions in practical living.
-34- Our investigation so far has confirmed
has this range. While torah does at times have the overtones of legal
requirements under a governing authority, there is considerable tension in the
concept. Different traditions lay varying weight on the legal overtones, and
some traditions have little if any forensic dimension. However, rather than
seeing these as different kinds of torah, or relegate them to different
periods of history, or to different religious or social classes, I would suggest
that these simply reflect different aspects and perspectives of a single
overarching concept. -35- The biblical
traditions themselves are quite content to leave these in dynamic tension.
B. Living the Torah
There are a variety of governing verbs used with the noun torah. I
have already noted that some of these verbs (obey, keep, do, enforce,
transgress, break, violate) seem to reinforce a forensic dimension of the
concept. However, a closer examination of some of these words reveal a range of
meaning that lessens the legal connotations in English.
1. keep - follow the guidelines
The most common governing verb used with torah is "keep" (shamar,
and its synonym natsar). This word has a range of meaning from the
literal (tend [a flock], keep, guard, protect, preserve), to the more figurative
(celebrate, observe, be prudent, follow the guidelines). It occurs about 25
times with torah, including several occurrences in the idiom "be careful
to do," -36- and about 120 times with
various synonymous and related terms (commandment, statute, covenant, service,
etc.). It is possible to see these constructions from a forensic perspective in
the more literal meanings, an idiomatic way of saying "obey the law." There may
well be such overtones to the term. -37-
However, without assuming a priori a totally forensic meaning for this
term, the connotation of the word moves much further toward the figurative
meanings, with the more positive overtones of celebrate, observe, follow the
guidelines, with some implication that the "observing" of torah is an act
of response to God.
This is the meaning at the end of the positive half of the paired salvation
history psalms (105-106), where both words are used (Psalm 105:43-45):
He brought out his people with joy, his chosen ones
with singing. And he gave them the lands of the nations; and they took
possession of the fruit of the peoples’ labor, to the end that they would
keep [shamar] his statutes, and observe [natsar] his laws [torot].
The conclusion is that keeping the torah, while perhaps in some
contexts understood as a legal obligation, is seen in others as an act of
faithfulness in responsive relationship to God.
2. obey - hear the voice of
The most common verb translated "obey" is actually an idiom in Hebrew. The
verb itself (shama‘) means simply "to hear." It is frequently used with
"voice" in the phrase "to hear the voice of" or with other accusatives or
prepositional object markers to mean "to listen to." Genuinely to hear someone
is also to respond to what is said, especially when used of God. If one really
hears the voice of God, what would they do but respond? Consequently, if they do
not respond, it is because they have not heard. The idea behind the idiom is not
simply to obey, but to respond to what is heard.
-40- And that response is often understood as a lifestyle (walking a path).
So in passages like Jeremiah 32:21-23, "hear your voice" and "walk in your
torah" can be used synonymously.
You brought your people Israel out of the land of
Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and
with great terror; and you gave them this land, which you swore to their
fathers to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey; and they entered
and took possession of it. But they did not hear your voice or walk in your
torah; they did nothing of all you commanded them to do. Therefore you
have made all this disaster come upon them.
It is important to note that the context is again God’s gracious actions in
history to which the people should have responded faithfully. Likewise, in
Isaiah 42:24, hearing, or not hearing, the torah is a way to describe
unfaithful response to God.
Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the
robbers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose paths
they would not walk, and whose torah they would not hear?
Sometimes the torah that the people are to hear (respond to) are words
written in a book (Neh 8:3, 9, 13:3, 2 Chron 34:19). However, just as often what
they are to hear is the voice of God, either directly or through his agents, as
in Zechariah 7:12:
They made their hearts like flint lest they should
hear the torah
and the words [debarim] which the LORD of hosts had sent by his breath
through earlier prophets. -42-
This even extends to the torah as interpreted within the community
where prophets, teachers, or scribes can themselves proclaim torah that
must be heard by the community, as in Isa 1:10 where he is addressing Israelites
under the sarcastic title of Sodomites:
Hear the word [dabar] of the LORD, you rulers
of Sodom! Give ear to the torah of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
What follows in this passage is a prophetic attack on the cultic rituals the
people are observing according to the "law" while at the same time they are
failing to live out a faithful response to God in their lives, and so need a new
torah. This tension in what constitutes true torah will be taken up
What emerges here is a much more dynamic concept behind this idiom than
simply "obey the law." It encompasses an attentiveness to the voice (leadership,
guidance, direction) of God that may come from a variety of sources. The
emphasis is on faithful response to that instruction or leadership.
3. walk - live a lifestyle
The metaphorical use of the verb "walk" on a path (halak), to mean
living in a certain way, is often connected with torah and its synonyms.
-44- This dynamic conception of relationship with God should be integrated
into any understanding of the journey of the faith community in history, as well
as any theological formulation of relationship with God arising from these
texts. Israel took the historical nature of its relationship with God seriously.
That is, she understood that relationship with God as His people meant
translating it into the very arena in which He had revealed Himself to initiate
the relationship: the real life arena of human history. Relationship with God
was never left in abstracted categories, nor could it be mythicized into a
cosmic realm, nor could it be encompassed by legal requirements. It must be
lived in real time, in real place, in changing human existence. That meant that
relationship with God was dynamic as the community moved through history.
Walking in God’s ways became a suitable metaphor to capture this dynamic
dimension of God’s interaction with the people, and their response.
The theological idea that emerges here is an understanding that the people
must respond faithfully to God (hear His voice) by living in a certain way (walk
His path). To hear God, either in words or in deeds, calls for a response. The
parameters of that response are described as torah. Torah could be
God acting or speaking directly in history, God speaking through prophets or
teachers, God speaking through the community, or God speaking through the
testimony of the community recorded in a book.
-46- However it was heard, torah must be lived, and therefore
torah was not an external set of laws. It was nothing less than the
interactive will of God for the community.
III. Torah as Response
A. Exodus and Sinai
This dynamic interactive understanding of relationship with God as expressed
in the concept of torah can be seen in other aspects of the biblical
traditions. The very canonical shaping of the bulk of Old Testament torah traditions
contribute to this understanding.
1. historical context of torah - Exodus
For several decades critical Old Testament study has raised questions about the
relationship between the exodus and Sinai narratives in the book of Exodus. Ever
since Gerhard von Rad suggested that the core of Old Testament tradition was a short
confessional credo focused on the exodus event, many Old Testament scholars have separated
the Sinai narratives as secondary literature, or least divorced them from the
main narratives of the exodus. -47-
Without even entering that debate, I would like to follow the canonical
shaping of the tradition that has left the stories in their present sequence,
and which emphasizes the theological confession of that shaping. There are two
important theological points that emerge from the present canonical shape of
First, the simple observation that exodus precedes the giving of torah
at Sinai should be allowed to have its full import. God initiated a relationship
with this people by entering history and hearing the cries of oppressed slaves.
He revealed himself in history, not only through the words to Moses but by the
exodus itself. Later theological reflection on the reason for this action of God
could find no basis or merit on the part of the people; only that God chose to
act out of love and grace. -48- The Sinai
narratives flow out of that initial action of God. As the Exodus tradition
continually repeats, the purpose of the exodus was so that the people, and
Pharaoh, might know that Yahweh is God.
The Sinai narratives are rooted in that historical deliverance and encounter.
The introductory speech to these narratives is important (Exod 19:4-6):
You have all seen what I did to the Egyptians, and
how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. So now, if you
will truly hear my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall become my own
possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall
become my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Not only is the giving of torah placed against the background of the
exodus, its purpose was to call the people to a continual and unique
relationship with the God of the exodus, a God who had been experienced as the
initiator of the divine-human encounter.
Second, since the fundamental concept of torah is canonically rooted
in God’s initiating love and grace (or to use a theological term, prevenient
cannot be seen as a means to establish relationship with God on any level. It
can only be the outworking of a response to a relationship already established.
Torah can be seen as the means to develop and nurture the relationship, as
well as to live the implications of the relationship in history. Yet, proper
observance of torah, even conceived as law, does not cause God to act; it
is the celebratory response to action He has already done on his own.
Thus torah can be dynamic in the growth process of the community, a
fact evidenced by the range of instructions from different periods of Israel’s
history contained in the later chapters of Exodus (as well as the rest of the
Pentateuch, and Ezra-Nehemiah). But torah cannot create the relationship.
That is always understood to be at God’s initiative.
-50- This has some implications for the forensic dimensions of torah,
especially in the cultic sphere.
2. narrative context of torah - Deuteronomy
There is a remarkable parallel to the canonical shaping of Exodus in the
"second" torah, the reiteration (and interpretation) of the Sinai
found in Deuteronomy. -51- The book opens
as the Israelites are poised to enter the land. After the first four verses of
introduction and scene setting, the first speech of Moses is introduced in 1:5:
Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses
undertook to explain this torah, saying:
What follows this introduction in the next three chapters (1:9-3:29) is a
detailed historical review of the exodus and wilderness experiences, emphasizing
God’s actions on behalf of the people. Just as in Exodus, the torah
traditions here are not presented simply as law to obey. Even when torah
is to be explained and taught to the people, it is set in a narrative framework
that links it directly to the exodus event.
At the conclusion of this recounting is an extended appeal for faithful
response from the people to the torah (4:1-40). Motives given in
this section for hearing and keeping torah (faithful response) include:
that you may live (4:1), that you may possess the land (4:1), that you may be
wise and understanding in the eyes of surrounding people (4:6), that you may
live upon the land (4:10), that you may teach your children (4:10), that you may
not serve false gods (4:8-19), that you may remain in the land (4:25-31), that
it may go well with you and your children (4:40), that you may prolong your days
in the land (4:40). Four times in this passage are references to children (vv.
9, 10, 25, 40), emphasizing the concern with the continuity of the community.
There is also concern that the people learn torah, that they understand
it, that they take it to heart and make it a part of them (4:1, 9, 14, 23, 39).
These same concerns work out repeatedly through the entire book. While many of
the apparently "legal" synonymous terms for torah appear in this context,
the whole tenor of the appeal, and the following ones, is not obedience to a
code of law. The emphasis is on the ongoing viability of this community as the
people of God, and their well being as they move into an uncertain future
fraught with dangers that they cannot yet imagine.
Torah calls this community to remember the God of the exodus, and
calls them willingly to shape their lives in faithful response to Him as they
move into the very real world of Canaan.
Torah here revolves around the gracious love of God revealed in concrete
actions in history (4:37) who expects love expressed in concrete actions in
history in return (6:6). -53- Those actions
are to be shaped by the specific instructions which follow (chs. 12-27). The
specificity of the instructions as ethical and behavioral norms could be,
and often were, perverted into a legal code devoid of life, but that was
not the spirit of torah. -54- The
location within this narrative framework casts torah
in terms of a mutual relationship characterized by love.
3. actualization of torah - Ezra-Nehemiah, Joshua, Psalms,
This same phenomena can be traced throughout the Old Testament, and even into the
Wherever the biblical traditions want to stress the people’s accountability to
God, or negatively to condemn their failure to live up to their responsibility
as the people of God, they place those obligations in a narrative framework of a
recounting of God’s previous actions in history on their behalf. When Joshua
wants to call the people to renewal, he first summarizes where they have been
and what God has done (Josh 24:2-28). When Ezra wants to revitalize the
post-exilic community, he first retells the story of God’s graciousness, all set
in the context of the new "exodus" in God’s returning them from exile (Neh
8:1-9:37). The psalmist, in highlighting the people’s failure to be God’s people
in a corporate confession of sin, sets their forgetting against the background
of God’s remembering (Psa 105-106).
The obligation and responsibility of the people is never separated from God’s
previous activity. Torah is not conceived as a body of laws that have
validity apart from the actions of God. It is consistently seen as a faithful
response in the context of ongoing relationship with God and empowered by that
B. Beyond Sinai - Community and the Dynamics of History
The primary understanding of torah in the Old Testament traditions as dynamic
response to God rather than as fixed "law" can be traced through the biblical
traditions by noting how torah expressed in specific regulations was
adapted, transformed, and modified as the community moved through history and
faced different circumstances.
1. the religious dimension: cultic practices adopted and adapted
Cultic regulations make up a considerable portion of the Pentateuch. These
range from general regulations concerning priests, tabernacle, and sacrifices,
to specific instructions about the color of the pomegranates on the fringes of
the priest’s inner tunic (Exod 28:31-34). The detailed instructions for building
the tabernacle and the accompanying vessels and vestments of the priests are
understood to be given by God to Moses on Sinai. The specific directions
concerning sacrifice are delivered to Moses directly by God in front of the tent
of meeting. In both cases, all these regulations come under the rubric of
torah, and are understood to come from God.
From historical research, we know that many of Israel’s cultic laws were
common practice in the ancient Near East. For example, Israel did not invent the
offering of sacrifice. Or to put it another way, sacrifice was not first
practiced at the command of God at the foot of Sinai. All people in the Ancient
Near East offered sacrifices to their deity. It was part of the religious and
cultural milieu of people throughout that part of the world, and had been for
centuries, if not millennia. -58-
Even though the cultic regulations theologically are being given by God,
many of them, including the institution of sacrifice, were adopted from the
common pool of Near Eastern culture.
The significance of the cultic regulations that emerge at Sinai, or later in
the plains of Moab, or even later in Jerusalem, is not that they are uniquely
commanded by God. It is that they are done in worship of a unique God whom they
have encountered in history. The Israelites are responding to God’s historical
self-revelation, and they are responding in history. The torah that
emerges is incarnated in that history. That is, the response to God by this
community is torah, even when the specifics are adapted from the culture
in which they live.
This is not to suggest that God had no hand in torah. They are
God’s instructions. It is clear on all levels of biblical tradition that the Ten
Words were understood to be God’s unique gift to Israel, even being written with
the finger of God.
-59- But again, this was not the first time
in human history that, for example, there were laws against murder. The
uniqueness of the gift was the theological confession (revelation) at the
beginning of the tablets that Yahweh alone is God. And that confession is
predicated on the opening statement of the Decalogue in both Exodus (20:2) and
I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land
of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
This is the grounding of everything that follows, including the whole corpus
of material in the Pentateuch, even to the number of gold hooks and blue loops
used on the tabernacle’s inner curtains (Exod 26:1-6). Yahweh, He alone is God,
and He has entered human history to establish personal relationship with His
However, to try to decide "how much God" and "how much Israelites" misses the
point. There is a dynamic interaction at work here (or to risk a theological
term, a synergism). God initiates, people respond. Torah emerges
as a dynamic concept that has more to do with response to God as His people than
with the color of pomegranates on the priests robes.
2. the social dimension: Israelite transformations of "law"
Much of what is said above concerning cultic regulations could be said of
social regulations that make up part of Old Testament torah (or in modern context
"civil" law). While the word torah is rarely, if ever, applied to
specific social laws, it is applied to the larger traditions that contain these
laws. -60- The fact that torah
contains guidelines for social interaction as well as religious instruction
indicates that it places every facet of life under faithful response to God. Law
codes existed long before Israel emerged as a people, and many of the Israelite
social laws were shared with surrounding peoples.
-61- But there is a uniqueness to Israelite laws. It lies in the uniqueness
of the God in whom these laws are grounded; it is Yahweh’s torah.
So, for example, Israelites may keep slaves. That is no different than
surrounding peoples. But they can do so only under strict guidelines, cannot
mistreat them, and cannot enslave fellow Israelites.
-62- These parameters are all grounded in the historical reality that once
they themselves were slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out. God is the kind
of God who heard (hears) the cries of oppressed slaves. And so they must respond
to God on that basis. -63-
They experienced a historical encounter with God that resulted in their
deliverance from slavery. And so they are called to live (walk, keep, do
torah) in light of that encounter with God. This community is called to
function in ordinary, day to day existence as the chosen people of God. So, the
governing of social actions, from borrowing a neighbor’s ox to heinous crimes
against him, became an expression of faith in, and response to, God’s grace.
3. the communal dimension: applied torah
In the post-exilic era, one of the major threats to the Jews was the dilution
of the returned community by the influx of foreign influences picked up in
Babylon. These influences were more than alien ideas. Many exiles had
intermarried with non-Israelites who were not worshippers of Yahweh.
-64- When the people returned, they brought with them many who worshipped
Mesopotamian and Canaanite gods, who did not know the Israelite heritage, and
who could not even speak Hebrew. -65- Given
the Israelites’ problems with idolatry and syncretism, the leaders realized the
danger to the fragile community. From the time of the early returns under
Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, there was an increasing concern with the
"pollutions" of these foreign influences.
So they took steps to "cleanse" the community of this contamination.
Nehemiah issued a stern warning, accompanied by physical beatings and pulling
out of hair, against the continuation of this practice of intermarriage.
-67- Ezra went one step further. He demanded, under threat of losing all
their property and their right of participation in the community, that those who
had intermarried divorce their non-Israelite wives. This decision is made by
appealing to specific law which forbade such intermarriage.
-68- However, the laws only prohibited such marriages; there was no
provision for divorcing wives in such circumstances, much less for forfeiting
property and community rights for failure to do so. Yet, one of the elders
characterizes this action as according to torah (Ezra 10:3):
So now, let us make a covenant with our God to put
away all [these] wives and their children, according to the counsel of my
lord and of those who tremble at the commandment [mitsvah] of our
God; and let it be done according to the torah.
It is obvious that Ezra, faced with a new and uniquely threatening situation,
applied the "law" far beyond its original intent. Yet, that new application, in
the context of the pressing needs of the community, could be characterized as
Other examples could be given of the dynamic nature of torah,
including the development of various systems of tithing as the community moved
from an agrarian society to an urban one, the development of cultic ritual from
local shrines to wilderness tabernacle to Jerusalem temple, etc. One of the
theological implications of God’s refusal to allow David to build a temple was
the fear that relationship with God would become static, tied to a place and
functioning to preserve the status quo, rather than allowed the dynamic
freedom of movement in history, as symbolized by the tabernacle.
What becomes clear is that torah provided guidelines for the community
to adapt to a changing world, while at the same time anchoring that community in
a relationship with God that provided the parameters for their movement through
IV. Torah as Stability and Change
At the beginning of this study I referenced the tension between legal and
relational categories of understanding the divine-human encounter, which could
also be expressed as a tension between ceremonial and ethical responses to God.
That tension has taken shape in the context of the biblical traditions as the
tension between stability within community and that community’s movement in
history. There is abundant evidence in the biblical traditions that the balance
between these two poles was difficult to maintain. And yet it is in this very
tension that torah begins to emerge as a paradigmatic theological
A. The tension between religion and authentic response
The tension between stability and change is most apparent in the biblical
traditions when legal, ceremonial observance threatens to overshadow and even
usurp relational, ethical response to God. The prophetic traditions tackle the
issue more overtly, although it breaks the surface of other traditions as well.
One observation is important: the tendency toward imbalance never occurs toward
the relational side; it always drifts toward the legal. That is, legal
structures that provide stability, by their very nature, tend to emerge as
dominant, controlling factors in community. And yet the vitality of the
community does not lie in legal structures; it lies in the ability of the
community to meet new challenges of history.
1. Former Prophets
The locus classicus in the Former Prophets is Samuel’s conflict with
Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22:
And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in
burnt offerings and sacrifices, as [he has] in hearing the voice of the
LORD? Behold, to hear is better than a sacrifice, and to give attention than
the fat of rams." -73-
The passage itself is working a specific agenda in its present context: the
downfall of the house of Saul and the rise of the Davidic dynasty. A second
version of Saul’s rejection varies in significant details from this one.
However, at the heart of both accounts is the conflict of ritual observance with
faithful response to God. Saul’s response to victory over the Amalekites, an
undertaking commissioned by God, was to perform a ceremony. The prophet Samuel
had "commanded" a different course of action by the "word of Yahweh."
-75- Saul is portrayed in both accounts as too preoccupied with ceremony to
hear the living word of God through the prophet. The traditions understood this
failure to hear the (new) word of God that went beyond ceremonial (legal)
observance as evidence that he was unworthy to lead God’s people.
If torah were primarily legal or ceremonial, this tension would not be
expected in liturgical texts. Yet there are several psalms which go beyond legal
observance. Psalm 40 offers thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from trouble,
with typical affirmations of God’s "wondrous deeds" for his people. However,
instead of the usual offering in the temple,
-76- the worshipper concludes that (vv. 6-8; MT 7-9):
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire; but you
have cleaned out my ears. You have not required a burnt offering and sin
offering. So I said, "Look, I am coming; in the roll of the book it is
written of me; I delight to do your will, O my God; your torah is
within me." -77-
Since both sin offerings and burnt offering were specifically required
by the law codes, -78- it is obvious that
the Psalmist understands a larger concept of torah.
The same perspective is evident in Psalm 50 where sacrifices are abundant but
a lifestyle of faithful response to God is in short supply (vv. 8-13). Psalm 51
is a strong affirmation that sacrifices cannot restore relationship with God,
and are not the basis of forgiveness (vv. 15-17).
3. Latter Prophets
The tension between legal and relational understandings of God reaches its
peak in the latter prophets. It is most easily seen in the so-called
anti-sacrificial passages, in which the prophetic traditions contrast legal
obedience to law or tradition with a dynamic lifestyle based on a loving
response in relationship with others. While the ceremonial response focuses on
God, the prophets are more concerned with how that response takes shape in
relation to others.
For example, in Isaiah 1:10-20, the dabar(word)/torah that
Isaiah brings to the people appears to be a condemnation of ritual practices,
which themselves are commanded by torah-law. In some of the strongest
language used in such contexts, he portrays God not only refusing to accept the
sacrifices (v. 11, 13), but hating their festivals (v. 14) and refusing to hear
the people’s prayers (v. 15). It seems that at the very time the people are
doing torah according to Exodus and Leviticus, they are violating
torah according to Isaiah.
The prophet goes on to define what he understands to be faithful response to
God (vv. 16b-17):
Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice,
correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.
The issue was not that the rituals were inherently bad or were inauthentic
responses to God. It was that the people had separated the legal and ceremonial
from the relational and ethical. They had lost the balance between legal and
relational views of serving God, which amounted to a perversion of torah.
Isaiah brought a larger concept of torah
to bear on this imbalance, one which called them to respond to God in the arena
of human history by relating to people in ways that went far beyond what could
be proscribed by law. This is not a rejection of law; it is simply an eloquent
affirmation that relationships based on loving response to God cannot finally be
legislated; they can only be lived. -80-
It is significant that following this passage is the vision of torah
and the word of God (dabar) going forth from Zion to all the earth,
bringing justice and peace. -81- The result
of authentic response to God, truly doing torah, will be that (v. 4b):
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and
their spears into pruning hooks; never again shall nation lift up sword
against nation, and never again shall they learn war.
This same theme emerges repeatedly. In Jeremiah 6:19-21, God rejects
sacrifices because the people have not heard God’s word and have rejected his
torah. In the well known Temple Sermon which follows (Jer 7:5-11), Jeremiah
makes it clear that obeying legal, cultic law is no substitute for faithful
response to God, which he defines as justice for the helpless, and loyalty to
Yahweh. Micah makes an almost identical appraisal, as does Amos.
-82- Hosea is more concerned with the problems of Baal worship, which leads
him to the same conclusion from a different perspective. Israel does not need
more ritual, more sacrifices, or more laws (Hos 8:12):
Were I to write for him my laws [torot] by ten
thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing.
What they need is to realize the relationship of love that God desires from
His people, as modeled in the life of Hosea, and demonstrated by the gracious
acts of God in their history (Hos 11:1-11).
This brief survey demonstrates that there is a consistent undercurrent in
Israelite traditions that understands, as important as ceremonial legal codes
were for the solidarity of the community, the true vitality of the community did
not lie in strict adherence to codes of law. Relationship with God must be
expressed in a manner of living that cannot be totally defined by law. Hosea
hinted at the problem; there simply can never be enough laws. While there must
be law, there must be also something more than law to expresses a living, loving
relationship with God.
1. modern Old Testament scholarship: sociological and theological dynamics
There is a recent methodological trend in Old Testament studies that can provide a
useful framework for understanding the dynamic Old Testament concept of torah that
has emerged in this study. Several scholars have renewed the attempt to
integrate the wide range of traditions of the Old Testament in a theologically coherent
way, as well as provide some rationale for relating the Old Testament to the New
renewed effort is different than the older attempt to find a "center," a single
organizing principle or rubric to which all theological ideas could be related.
-83- The newer approaches use various ways of looking at the
Old Testament, but
basically combine theological and historical, specifically sociological,
Three fundamental assumptions have grown out of the last half-century of Old
studies that generally inform this approach. First, whatever else they may be,
the traditions of the Old Testament are primarily theological in nature confessing the
Israelite, and Jewish, understanding of relationship with God; that is, they are
Scripture. -84- Second, the sociological
context of the communities that produced and used the biblical traditions
influenced both the casting and shaping of the traditions, which leads to a
diachronic emphasis. Third, for the biblical traditions to maintain their
validity through time, there must be a coherence to the tradition on some level.
Several scholars have concluded that the Old Testament should be seen in terms of
opposing ideas or bipolar emphases held in balance, not only in the texts
themselves, but in the communities which produced and still use these texts.
Overarching categories such as "Promise" or "Covenant" may be helpful. However,
the real vitality and coherence of the biblical traditions lies in the tensive
stasis of theological formulations emerging from the real life experience of the
community, which on the surface may seem to be mutually exclusive, but when
balanced provide an encompassing theological grounding for the community. While
the tension arises in a historical and sociological context, it is far more than
just the manifestation of a temporary historical crisis. The tension is really
an outgrowth of two basic human tendencies that emerge in community, and
therefore the biblical perspectives, while on one level descriptive of the
historical community, can on another level become normative or paradigmatic.
These tendencies can be identified as the need for stability or grounding to
provide continuity, and the need to adapt to changing historical circumstances
and new experience.
Various scholars have proposed different foci for this model, although they
generally revolve around the same bipolar points. Samuel Terrien, working from a
broad range of traditions, sees the tension between the "presence" of God
experienced in the past (providing points of reference, thus stability), and the
apparent absence of the "elusive" God in the present (providing the impetus for
new questions, thus change). He summarizes this as the tension between the
aesthetic (stability, expressed in poetry, creed, and worship) and the ethical
(change, expressed in historical narrative, ethics, and daily lifestyle).
Paul Hanson, initially working from apocalyptic traditions, sees a similar
tension between "hierocrats" (pragmatists, stability) who saw God’s purposes
fulfilled in the establishment of cultic worship, and "visionaries"
(revolutionaries, change) who saw God’s purposes working out in the
transformation of society toward a restored future.
-86- Walter Brueggemann, originally working from prophetic material, sees
the tension arising in the community between those who wanted to preserve the
status quo, the "royal consciousness" that served to legitimate authority
and structure, and those who wanted change, the "prophetic imagination" that is
willing to take experience seriously and embrace the pain of struggle and
change. -87- Brueggemann has worked out a
bipolar model in which he understands the dynamic of the Old Testament
traditions to lie in the unresolved tensions between truth claims (stability)
and real life experience that could not be subsumed under settled truth claims
I will not attempt to incorporate specific conclusions of these scholars into
the present study. But I do want to distill two main ideas from their work to
provide a setting for what follows. First, the insight that the Old Testament traditions
are not monolithic, and were never intended to be, takes seriously the phenomena
of Scripture itself. The diversity, indeed at times contradiction, of Scripture
is part of the dynamic of the communities’ movement through history. The task is
to understand the dynamic, not to try to force the traditions into some
externally imposed artificial order.
Second, the identification of the double foci of stability and change
confirms the tension that has already emerged in this study between torah
as law and torah
as instruction. If placed against the background of the tension between the need
for stability in community and the need for change in light of the movement of
can be understood as the theological paradigm that circumscribes the two foci.
2. torah as dynamic stability: transcendent reality,
Torah in the Old Testament was understood as the will of God for His people,
revealed to them through various avenues, teaching them what it meant in real
life to have encountered in history the one and only true God.
-90- It was the means by which the community defined itself as God’s people,
and so formed the matrix of communal identity and solidarity. Torah was
grounded in Yahweh himself and his self-revelation in history, and so provided
the theological anchor point for defining who they were as people of God. As
such, torah was the incarnation of a transcendent reality, the "flesh and
blood" sign of their encounter with the God of the exodus.
-91- The Israelites and Jews saw torah
as the governing influence of God in the life of this community that He had
created and that He sustained.
Yet, that incarnation of torah called for practical obedience in
was not an abstracted eternal principle. Torah was the concept by which
Israelites construed God and human beings interactive in history, God revealing
Himself and at the same time calling them to respond in concrete ways to that
revelation. And so, the Israelites developed cultic and social laws to govern
community solidarity, and ethical instruction to govern relationships within
community, all anchored in Yahweh’s torah. The purpose of such laws,
which themselves could be called torah, was not simply to meet the
immediate needs of the community, although they did serve that function. They
were the people’s response to God’s grace, and so served to provide the
stability, the base, from which the community could continue to respond in
A danger always arose in biblical tradition when community solidarity and the
systems which maintained it (the status quo, the "royal consciousness")
overshadowed the ethical and relational dimensions (dynamic application, the
"prophetic imagination"). When that occurred, the purpose of torah itself
was eroded and the balance was lost. It was law that governed the maintenance of
the community, but when that law became an end in itself, it ceased to be
torah because it ceased to be a dynamic response to the God of Israel’s
history. When reduced to legalism, the laws actually defeated their own purpose
by rendering the community incapable of meeting new historical challenges, and
thus isolating the community from the movement of history. Such a tyranny of
religious system imposed a static order at the price of vitality within the
community. And yet without the laws, without the practical incarnated response
to God’s revelation, the community would have no identity, nothing to
distinguish them from other peoples who had not yet encountered the God of the
Exodus. The community would collapse into religious anarchy and everyone could
do what was right in their own eyes, a rejection of God’s revelation and an
attempt to settle for cheap grace. -92- This
was finally a denial of the very reason the community existed in first place.
The balance between these two tendencies is the dynamic stability that embodies
the essence of torah.
It was Yahweh’s torah, and yet it was worked out in real history by
the community itself as its leaders, priests, and prophets struggled to
translate what they had come to understand about Yahweh into practical
obedience. -93- Since any specific
expression of torah was also rooted in the history of a particular people
at a specific time and place, it could not possibly contain everything that the
community would ever need throughout its existence. The community had to respond
to new experience, to new threats, to new history. Just as Yahweh could not be
reduced to an image of wood and stone, torah could not remain fossilized
in the past. Otherwise it would cease to have relevance for the community and
quickly become obsolete. Torah had to be taught through the community,
not as a set of rules to obey, but as a lifestyle to lead.
So the law codes, the specific expressions of torah in history, grew,
were supplemented, and at times altered. The change was not capricious or
relativistic, because ultimately torah was not grounded in the community
itself or in history. The Israelites resolutely believed that Yahweh was with
them in their journey leading them, showing them a way to live, and even
enabling them to do so, shining the light of his presence upon their path in the
form of torah. It was their responsibility to follow that path, to walk
in that light, to apply torah in practical ways that allowed them to
follow a path in life that was in harmony with God’s revelation of Himself.
-94- Following that path, doing torah, came to
be called shalom.
V. Torah As Holiness: Instructions for Life
"According to Jewish tradition, every . . . debate among sages or among
students aspiring to become sages must have as its end not the mere elucidation
of theories in the form of a scholastic exercise, but should--at any rate
ideally--lead to practical conclusions."
What follows is such an attempt.
A. The theological trajectory of torah: implications
As suggested at the beginning of the study, I will here only suggest some
possible implications and raise issues for further thought and research. First,
I would like to make some observations about the balance between stability and
change that I have concluded is the functional role of torah.
1. torah and legalism
As Paul Livermore observed several years ago from a different perspective,
the evangelical Christian tradition continues to struggle with its understanding
of the nature of Scripture. -97- Since we
are inheritors of the Reformation perspective of sola scriptura, we value
Scripture as the only authoritative source for the "fundamental law"
that governs our modern communities of faith. And conservative evangelical
Christianity, which most branches of the holiness movement continue to
represent, has consistently held the authority of Scripture in high regard.
In the very fact that Protestants value a book, an already codified torah,
we continually run the risk of attempting to apply already applied law, rather
than to learn torah
for new applications. To take the Bible as a fixed code containing every law or
insight or theological doctrine that the community will ever need is to
misunderstand the very nature of Scripture, and the dynamic working of God in
the communities through history that produced it, and still use it.
-99- This not only runs the risk of legalism, reducing a dynamic
relationship with God to externally quantifiable data, it also risks rendering
Scripture itself obsolete. And it is a subtle yet eloquent denial of the
Wesleyan idea of a divine-human synergism under grace.
As we have seen, the biblical traditions themselves were dynamic, not only
through history but within the same community at a single time as it brought
different perspectives to bear on the traditions. Even though we now must deal
with a closed canon, the dynamic dimension preserved in various ways within the
canonical biblical text itself challenges us to see interaction with Scripture
in the same light, and may even call us to examine some of the very affirmations
we make about it. Taking Scripture for what it is rather than for what we think
it ought to be will go a long way toward maintaining the balance of torah.
This leads to two observations, and corresponding suggestions that might help
balance the recurring drift toward legalism, structural fossilization, and
ensuing irrelevancy. First, there is an increasing suspicion, indeed
realization, that the Christian Faith has been cast largely in metaphysical
philosophical categories that are alien to most of the biblical text, certainly
of the Old Testament. If we are going to take Scripture as seriously as our creedal
statements and faith affirmations say we do, then it seems to me that we need to
look at Scripture with assumptions and frames of reference that allow it (God
through it!) to speak, and be heard, in fresh ways on its own terms. That is, we
will need to move further away from philosophical questions put to Scripture and
closer to the biblical text itself. -100-
From this perspective, the developing narrative approaches to Scripture and
theology do more justice to the dynamic tensions in the biblical text than do
classical categorical or metaphysical systems. And they are far more compatible
with a Wesleyan understanding of a divine-human synergism than more absolute
models that leave little room for human contribution, especially on the level of
community (in producing or interpreting the text).
By listening to the biblical text, to the biblical story, against the
background of our own confessional affirmation, new voices can be heard that
have been overwhelmed by other models. The new voices may create new tensions as
they raise questions for which there are no easy answers, or which the older
systems thought were long settled. But if they arise from the biblical text, and
our own experience of the world, they command our attention, and we need to
listen (respond) to them. And as we have seen, it is in the tension, if
balanced, that genuine spiritual vitality is most evident.
Second, we have seen that on several levels of the biblical tradition,
encounter with God to establish relationship comes first (exodus), and
structuring that relationship comes second (Sinai). We do not have to polarize
the two, and should not. Yet, the tendency of human nature, perhaps even as an
expression of our own fallenness, is to allow the structure to overwhelm the
relationship. In fact, there may even be here a playing out of the
original sin, wanting to "become like [God], knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:22).
By a dependence on legal forms and manners of expression it is easy to reduce
dynamic relationship with God to a manageable, quantifiable minimum.
Relationship with God can then be in our control, neatly circumscribed by laws,
procedures, formulae, doctrine, and ecclesiastical structure. And so we become
preoccupied with the legal, ceremonial, doctrinal formulations that can easily
lead, as in did in later Judaism, in later Catholicism, and in some segments of
modern American Protestantism, to a scholasticism of salvation, or at least
relationship, by creed. Torah, then, is reduced to exactly proscribed
belief and action that substitutes community stability and safety, and thereby
existing structures of power and authority, for dynamic movement and growth in
And yet, the heart of the divine-human encounter is not, and cannot be, a set
of laws, no matter how correctly conceived, or a set of rituals, no matter how
correctly performed, or an organizational structure, no matter how badly needed.
Whenever the balance tilts toward such legal formulations, as always it does, it
is seen as a perversion of torah.
-102- And whenever there is a failure to
respond to God’s grace in real life, in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking
humbly with God (Mic 6:8), it is seen as a failure to walk by torah. At
the heart of the divine-human encounter is a relationship established that must
be nourished, nurtured, and grown, and that cannot finally be reduced to
Nothing here is intended in any way to disparage theological and academic
disciplines, or the doctrinal and faith affirmations of our communities. It is a
frank admission, however, that all those things are secondary. Or, to put it
another way, it is the nature, the substance, of the relationship, not the
description, the circumstance, of it that is primary. In our Arminian-Wesleyan
context, it seems to me that those theological approaches that emphasize the
relationship aspect of the divine-human encounter are more reflective of the
biblical tradition, are closer to the spirit of torah in the Old
Testament, and will
serve us better, than those that emphasize legal formulations.
2. torah and lawmaking
And yet, doing torah means that the community of faith is
involved in lawmaking. -104- Vital, growing
relationship with God is expressed in concrete actions that reflect the
transformative encounter with a living God. Or to put it in Old Testament terms,
exodus people become Sinai people (or resurrection people become Kingdom
people!). Exodus people cannot remain Pharaoh’s slaves; they become Yahweh’s
people. -105- Lawmaking is a valid
activity for the community, because lawmaking translates the relationship with
God into concrete actions that embody that relationship, both ceremonially and
ethically. Lawmaking guides the community in its response to a God of grace by
defining in particular historical contexts the nature of that relationship.
Lawmaking is what gives the community coherence and continuity in history, and
defines the obligation of its members as part of that community. Since authentic
lawmaking is grounded in a self-revealing God of grace, it serves to remind the
community how it came into existence, and for what purpose it continues to
But lawmaking serves a wider purpose that relates directly to this reason for
existence. The community is involved in lawmaking because it exists in a wider
world. Israel’s relationship with God was never intended to be a private matter
only between itself and God. -106- Israel
was called to live in that larger world in such a way that people outside the
community of faith could look at how the community lived its transformed life
and see in that lifestyle the character of the God to which it was responding.
Law lived out as response to divine grace was to be Israel’s witness to the
world of a God who was willing to enter into personal relationship with human
So Israel’s lawmaking was to be of a different sort than simply making laws.
Israel’s lawmaking was to be a dynamic application of torah in a living
community of faith responding to a living God. It needed to make laws, but at
the same time to acknowledge that the laws were not absolute, and that they
could, and probably should, be changed as the community moved through history.
Yahweh’s torah was the foundation of lawmaking, a manifestation of His
grace; law was Israel’s response to that grace.
Yet the community could not just provide new rules, as important as those
might be on a judicial level. It had to teach torah; that is, it
had to teach the people, especially the children, the community-shaping story of
a loving God to provide principles and values by which they could make laws in
the movement of history. -108- They had to
learn to apply torah, grounded in the dynamic relationship with a God who
enters the particularity of human history for the sake of that relationship,
independently of legal constraint. To maintain their vitality, they had to learn
to respond to God in lawmaking that went beyond consequences and punishment,
that went beyond an all encompassing set of rules, and that allowed them to be a
witness to the world.
I will only take one brief example of the need for torah-based
lawmaking in our modern world. -109- There
are many evidences of the movement of history in our modern culture, but none so
pronounced, or so far reaching, as advances in technology. Many of these
advances, especially noticeable in the field of bio-medical technology, pose an
increasing array of ethical questions for which there are no answers in the
tradition, and no chapters and verses in the Bible. And those questions will
become increasingly complex. It is possible to respond to these questions from a
base in philosophy, sociology, psychology, or pure pragmatics uninformed by any
theological perspective. But as exodus-Sinai people (or as resurrection-Kingdom
people), the community of faith cannot make such a move, because it must respond
from the transformation effected by its encounter with God. Yet, neither can the
community of faith directly apply codified law from the past, even from
Scripture, as an immediate answer to these questions. Too often, such "answers"
are naive and unrealistic, and only serve to undermine the credibility of the
community of faith and its message, and thus invalidate the larger purpose of
the community’s witness to the world. And often they distort the biblical
message itself by forcing it to answer questions it was never intended to
If modern communities of faith are going to have a voice in new questions
forced upon it by the movement of history, they will need actively to embrace
the ongoing task of lawmaking as part of their role as the people of God.
Scripture should provide the grounding for ethical decisions and doctrinal
formulations as we again hear the community-shaping story of God’s
self-revelation. To do otherwise would be to abandon not only our heritage, but
our stability and continuity as a community of faith. But Scripture alone cannot
provide all the answers, and we should be ready to admit that.
-110- Here we must learn torah, seek
torah, hear the voice of God speaking anew in the community as He guides
and directs open hearts and minds that have been shaped by the ethos and pathos
of the biblical story. I am not implying a new revelation from God, or some new
mystical experience to take the place of Scripture. I am suggesting that
torah based lawmaking is an endeavor in which the community of faith is
empowered to participate as part of its task in the world, guided by a living
God who has entered into interactive relationship with His people. That task of
lawmaking is already evident in Scripture in the dynamic tension between
stability and change in the concept of torah.
And so, I would suggest that it is not adequate to cite biblical "law" texts
to prove, for example, the sinfulness of abortion. Such texts as "you shall not
kill" make absolute claims when so used that do not take into consideration the
advances of modern technology (for example, so-called abortion pills, or the
medical definition of human life), the complexity of circumstances (rape,
incest), or the wider sociological and political issues (home for the child,
poverty and medical bills, etc.). However, when working from the perspective of
divine grace, in moving into the ethos of the biblical story, and in
participating in the dynamics of torah as the governing will of God
revealed in the ongoing life of the community as it responds to Him, the tenor
of scripture establishes a different base from which to work. Lawmaking in this
case can be much more adequately grounded in an understanding of God as the
defender of the weak and helpless, as the champion of the oppressed and
marginalized, as the deliverer of slaves who have no voice in their future. An
application of torah from this perspective will be less authoritarian and
less rigid (less legal), but, I think, more credible as a witness to the world
of a God of grace and forgiveness (more relational).
B. Torah as a paradigm for Holiness
I have concluded that torah in the Old Testament is a means of expressing an
interactive relationship with God, one in which God’s role is defined by incarnational mercy and grace, and in which the faith community’s role is
defined by a lifestyle that embodies a concrete response to that grace as a
witness to God in the world. That lifestyle subsumes every facet of life under
God, so that every detail of life is lived as a testimony to God’s grace as it
reflects the character of God. However, all of life cannot be governed by fixed
law, because human experience is too diverse, and the movement of history simply
will not allow such rigidity. Since torah encompasses both poles of
stability and change, it provides anchored guidelines, yet allows flexibility in
application. A heart turned toward God will seek to learn torah as the
guiding influence of God, the light God shines on the path of life, and will
listen for the voice of God speaking torah
in a variety of ways.
The Wesleyan holiness tradition has always stressed religion of the heart, a
heart strangely warmed by an encounter with God Himself. Heart religion in our
tradition is not just emotional experience, but an active relationship with God
that goes far beyond legal imputation of righteousness or holiness. However it
is emphasized, by whatever language, and by whatever circumstance, the Wesleyan
tradition affirms that as we respond to Him, God genuinely transforms us by His
grace into a Christlikeness that is a genuine reflection of the revelation of
God through His Son. And that transformation results in a life of holiness
before God that bears testimony to the world in concrete, social ways the
transformational character of God who enters history to interact with human
The Old Testament concept of torah as a lifestyle lived out in response to God’s
grace, encompassing a grounding in God Himself, yet calling for a holy lifestyle
as His people in the real life experience of the world, is genuinely a torah
of the heart (Deut 6:5-6). As such, I would suggest that torah, properly
understood in dynamic relational terms instead of primarily legal categories,
provides an appropriate biblical paradigm for what Wesleyans mean by holiness.
Relationship with God and lawmaking can be held in dynamic tension with the
overarching idea of torah encompassing both. With this paradigm, holiness
can encompass both the focus of love, seen in relational terms (change), and the
focus of obligation, seen in lawmaking (stability), without allowing either to
overpower the other. If held in constructive tension, both are torah,
both are holiness, and both can be described as response to divine grace.
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