Today we begin the journey which millions of Hebrews (and Christians) have taken over the last 3,000 years. It is the study of the Torah – a word that few Christians have heard of and fewer still have any idea what it means.
Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is otherwise known as the Books of Moses, because Moses was their official author.
Sadly, many have made the mistake of translating Torah as “The Law”. It isn’t; not even close. Torah means “teaching” or “instruction” in Hebrew. Recorded in these pages are God’s teachings and/or instructions to His chosen people, Israel. Yes, among them are commandments, moral and ceremonial laws, but they make up only a portion of the whole volume.
Worse still, it is common for Christians to think of the Old Testament dispensation as one of law, judgement and punishment while the New Testament is a dispensation of grace, forgiveness and redemption. There is nothing further from the truth. Those who have carefully studied the Torah will know that grace and mercy and forgiveness and redemption existed back then as well. What’s more, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He did not undergo a makeover. He did not have a different tactic, a new approach, and more importantly, another way to salvation.
We are told by John that Jesus, “the Word”, is full of “truth and grace” (John 1:14) and was the “in the beginning (John 1:1). This means that truth and grace also were there in the beginning, in the form of the Word – the Torah. The Word is everlasting. Though the grass may wither and the flowers fade, the Word of God lasts forever (Isa 40:8). This point proves unfounded the notion that the Torah had become obsolete with the advent of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself confirms this 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” (Matt 5:17).
How should we understand these words of Jesus?
Jesus said that he did not come to do away or abolish the Torah but rather to complete it. Not in the sense of bringing the era of the Torah to a close but in the sense of bringing to fullness the understanding of it. The Greek used here is the word “pleura” which means “to fill up”. Think of what one would tell the attendant at the gas station. “Fill her up.” In the same way, Christ came to bring the full meaning of the Torah to his people, the Jews. He began to do so by telling them what it did not mean. A case in point was the command regarding divorce, murder and adultery.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brotherc will be liable to judgment; whoever insultsd his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the helleof fire. (Matt 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28)
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 5:31-32)
Therefore, during the Old and the New Testament dispensations, law and grace were in perfect equilibrium.
Portions of the Scripture
The Torah, or Teachings, refers only to the first five books of the Old Testament. Besides it, there is the other section called the K’tuvim or Writings. This section comprises books such as Songs of Solomon, Job, Ruth, Psalm, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Finally, there is the Nevi’im or Prophets, which comprises books of the prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, and the rest.
So, we have the Torah, the K’tuvim, and the Nevi’im. Together they make up the Tanakh, what Christians today call the Old Testament. Tanakh is simply a collection of consonants from the three words (’t’, ’n’ and ‘k’) with a couple vowels thrown in between them.
Whenever you come across the word “Scripture” in the New Testament, understand that it is referring to the Tanakh. So when Paul said that “All Scripture is inspired by God…” he was specifically speaking of the Tanakh, the Old Testament. He couldn’t have been referring to the New Testament as it had not been completed and compiled at that time. Today, it would not be wrong to extend the meaning of ‘Scripture” to include the New Testament. But be very clear: the Bible and the Scripture are NOT the same and are not interchangeable.
Why Study the Torah?
Why study the Torah? I thought you’d never ask.
To most Christians, the Old Testament makes for a good bedtime reading. Countless pictorial Bible for Children line the shelves of countless bookstores. I, personally, grew up on many of the endearing Bible stories such as Abraham offering his son Isaac, the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the Whale, David in the lion’s den, and many more. Very often, a moral lesson is attached to the end of every story. Inadvertently, we have turned the Bible into merely a Manual for Moral Living. But the Bible is more than that, as Phil Vischer, creator of the popular kids television series Veggie Tales, recently realised.
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .
VeggieTales was (and is) a great format for retelling an individual Bible story or presenting a Christian value, but it wasn’t such a good format for explaining the entire arc of Scripture or unpacking tricky concepts like redemption or sanctification. I found myself with a blank piece of paper and all the time in the world. So I decided it was time to go beyond teaching biblical values to actually teaching the Bible.
When Christian children are fed and raise on such a spiritual diet, they end up knowing only 5 to 10 per cent of the Bible (in particular the Old Testament). If this is true for children, it will be true as well for the adults who teach the children.
Another reason why every Christian should study the Torah, not just read it, is because the Torah is key to understanding the rest of the Bible.
Much of the way we interpret the New Testament is through Grecian (or Western) viewpoint. Granted that the New Testament was originally written in Greek but let’s not forget who wrote them. They were the disciples of Christ and they were Hebrews. Their first language was Hebrew and their thinking was Hebraic. What’s more, all of them, especially Paul, were trained in the Torah. Imagine if the Jewish people had little to no knowledge of the Torah, then Jesus’ task would have been many times more difficult. He would have to dedicate months to educate them from ground up. But thankfully, that was not the case. He was able to come and “fulfil” (fill up their knowledge and understanding of) the Torah.
Today our Bible comes to us complete with the Old and New testaments…and for a reason. If all we had today was the New Testament, then we would naturally interpret independently of the Old Testament. But God did not allow that to happen but to read and interpret the New Testament divorced of the Old would lead to error. So, for us to accurately understand Jesus’ words we must first have an accurate understanding of the Torah.