CHVIII - VIII. Israelite Torah: When we hear the word...

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VIII. Israelite Torah: When we hear the word "law," we typically think of secular authority or social statutes for the guidance and preservation of a community. Israel knows of no formal or final separation between civil and religious laws, between the secular and sacred dimensions of life. Every breach of the law was understood as an affront to God and which diminishes us as well as our fellowman. Further, we are pre-conditioned, by Galatians and lots of Protestant preaching, to think of "works righteousness" when we hear of a religious use of the word "law." In the OT, however, "law" ( Torah ) refers to a revelation of God's grace, not a revelation of God's condemn- ing demand. Ps. 19 and 119 are good examples of this application: "The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul," (Ps. 19:27), and repeatedly the psalmist exclaims, "I love thy law," (Ps. 119:97, 123, 163). Nor is this difference in attitude merely a matter of terminology, since the writers can also say, "I love thy commandments," (Ps. 119:97, 113, 163), and "precepts" (Ps. 119:159). That the "law" is intimately connected with God's saving acts in Exodus indicates that the law stands at the heart, and not at the ethical periphery, of Israelite faith. The OT word for law is Torah , which means "pointing the way." It is often associated with the information a priest can provide; according to Jer. 11:18, and Ez. 7:26, a person received a "word" from a prophet, "counsel" from a wiseman, and "law" from a priest. The book of Haggai gives us a good glimpse of the use of this word Torah in the life of Israel. In Hag. 2:11, the LORD directs the prophet to "ask the priest to decide this question;" literally the text says, "Ask the priest for Torah ." In other words, Torah means "guidance," or "instruction." A literal understanding of the metaphor seems quite helpful: the reason why you ask directions or guidance is to get where you want to go, and to stay out of trouble along the way. By the same token, to show a person the way, or to give them guidance is a kind and "gracious" thing to do. 1
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YHWH graciously pointed his people to the way of life; it was no easy matter for them to find that way or live it amidst a world so full of real dangers. Thus, with a bit of simplifica- tion and in the stark force of truth, Dt. 30:15 speaks of there being (ultimately) two ways, one of life and one of death. Deuteronomy, as a collection of the Torah given by God, sees itself as a gracious revelation that is "for your good" (10:13). The book is fully aware that Torah is no idle matter; "It is no trifle with you, but it is your life" (32:47). This revelation does contain YHWH's commandments, but the presence of the Decalogue does not automatically make Torah into a threat or accusation. Far from it! Deuteronomy 30:11 and 14 understand Torah as the norm for righteous living in Israel: "this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it."
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This note was uploaded on 04/17/2008 for the course REL THEL 353 taught by Professor Tyson during the Spring '08 term at Houghton College.

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CHVIII - VIII. Israelite Torah: When we hear the word...

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