The Lost World of the Torah | Reflections & Notes

John H. Walton & J. Harvey Walton. The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context. IVP Academic, 2019. (268 pages) Download Book Charts & Tables .pdf.


At the very least, in Evangelical circles Walton’s work is invaluable. It is the kind of education that exposes the assumptions with which we’ve all been working and challenges us to rethink our entire paradigm of exegesis and interpretation without causing us to feel as if there is a direct assault upon our beliefs. That is a skill that few have, and even fewer have leveraged in the world of biblical scholarship where erudition is a higher value. The end result, if heeded, is a far more capacious and intelligent understanding of these ancient texts. To consider our responsibility in attaining wisdom based upon a covenant is a brilliant advancement of our human imagination. But it is also a tall order.

Ay, and there’s the rub.

Humans crave simplicity. Humans, in fact, need it. It is how we navigate the complex and chaotic world. Easily apprehendable heuristics give us just enough security to get through the day and allow us to perpetuate our species and promulgate our genes. Every now and then, a few humans will see the deeper patterns and structures of our universe and attempt to articulate them in ways that promote a more advanced civilization, one full of thoughtfulness, love, compassion, and a universal ethic that expands and protects human flourishing. Every now and then, those humans write down their discoveries to be passed down to future generations. This is the gift of “scripture.”

But what happens when later humans–people who have not been forged by the same fires of destruction, empire, oppression, and suffering–come upon these texts with the same penchant for simplicity and lack of imagination for complexity? Well, we get late dogmas imposed upon early texts. Those dogmas do not emerge from the writings, but rather are imposed upon them to such a degree they appear manifest in the original, even though they are anachronistic philosophies that are foreign to the first authors and readers. The way forward through this morass is for a few humans to unveil this veneer, inviting us to time travel through history and reclaim the dynamism that caused these texts to become sacred in the first place. John Walton is one of those humans. The “Lost World” book series are examples of those writings.

I had one critique and curiosity. On page 217, Walton writes:

…there is a reason why the Christian Scripture contains the original Hebrew Scriptures and not any of the Second Temple translations or expositions of it, such as Targum, Midrash, or Septuagint, or any of the supplementary documents (e.g., Enoch or Jubilees) that provided alternative or expanded interpretations. All these sources (to varying degrees) are highly speculative and represent significant distortions of the original material (even accounting for varying document traditions apart from the Masoretic text). Because these sources do not faithfully represent the Scriptures and are not Scripture themselves, there is no basis for assuming that what they teach about God is accurate, any more than the Roman poets or Greek philosophers would be (though all of these served as inspiration for later theologians). Not all the Old Testament references in the New Testament establish parallels, but when a study of the New Testament text in context determines that it is intending to say “this recapitulates something that was done in/by/to/through Israel,” we have to look at the original to understand what the recapitulation is supposed to mean, even if that is different from what the New Testament author would have thought. (217)

He goes on to write on page 218:

Thus, the intention of the Torah is the same for us that it was for ancient Israel; we are to understand what it is saying and what God is doing through it. Israel was supposed to understand so they could know how to retain God’s favor; we today are supposed to understand so that we know how to make sense of the New Testament, the church, and our present lives and circumstances. (218)

First, it is not true that “the Christian Scripture contains the original Hebrew Scriptures…” A) The Septuagint is used frequently in the New Testament quotations of the “Hebrew Scriptures. B) There is no “original.” And, C) They are “scriptures,” (γραφη) meaning “writings.” This is especially true since Christians used the apocryphal writings for centuries, and they are included in the Septuagint. (See When God Spoke Greek). Second, what would/does “the original” even mean? Does it have greater authority? If so, is all authority lost because we have none of the originals? And don’t “significant distortions of the original material” exist within the New Testament!? In all honesty, this section of the book felt like an interpolation, some later scribal insertion to make a different point than the surrounding text was talking about. I was really disappointed in this segment, and it still leaves me perplexed, that Walton’s brilliance in the rest of the book seemed absent in this portion.

As an alternative, we should consider an “inter-subjective” approach to the authority of scripture, that our tradition has always been passed down primarily by the people who wrote, transmitted, and taught the texts more than the texts themselves. This cares not for the “original,” or the authoritative “scriptures,” putting a focus on the spirit of the tradition, and it’s evolution over time through the people of God. This is not only more accurate to history, but it is also more compelling when talking about “how to make sense of the New Testament, [T]he [C]hurch, and our present lives and circumstances.”



We must be committed to seeking what the original communicators intended to say–no more, no less. (2)

The most important interpretive question is not, “what is this statement telling me to do in order to represent God properly?” The question we should ask first is, “why is this in here?”–because that will help us address the literary task. (3)

Rather than asking how the Torah, teaches, rebukes, corrects, trains in righteousness, and equips God’s people for every good work, we should ask what it means that the Torah is “God-Breathed” (inspired). (4)

We are going to suggest that finding what we can consider “biblical” answers to these social issues is not as straightforward as it seems because, contrary to what many interpreters imagine, the Bible is not a compilation of propositional revelation–a collection of facts expressing divine affirmations. …we will contend, in contrast, that Scripture is not a body of information containing propositions that are always valid in all places and ties. Instead, we will find much greater need to resist the thinking that (4) there is a divinely inspired silver bullet to resolve the complicated questions we face. (5)

| At the core of this book is the understanding that the ancient world was more interested in order than in legislation per se, and authorities were not inclined to make what we call laws (though decrees are commonplace) to regulate everyday life in society. Instead of relying on legislation (a formal body of written law enacted by an authority), order was achieved through the wisdom of those who governed society. (5)


Proposition 1: The Old Testament Is an Ancient Document

Translation of cultural ideas is difficult for many reasons. One of the most important is that often a target language does not have the words that would represent all the ideas and nuances present in the words of the source language. But beyond the obstacles presented by inadequate vocabulary, we encounter ideas communicated from within and with reference to an unfamiliar cultural framework. We are inclined to interpret texts from the perspective of our own cultural network without accounting for the cultural framework native to the text we are reading. (10)

The role of cultural broker is played by someone who is sufficiently knowledgeable in both the source culture and the target culture to identify what hurdles might be encountered in trying to understand and then give explanation in terms that will make sense. (12)

Modern Bible readers need cultural brokers who can move beyond the translation of the ancient legal sayings of the Torah (e.g., Deut 22:11: “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together”) to offer an explanation of the thinking behind those sayings (why would wearing such clothes of mixed materials have been a problem in the ancient world?)

[via: “What were they thinking?”]

[The] Bible is written for us (ie.e, we are supposed to benefit from its divine message and expert that it will help us to confront the currents in our cultural river by transforming us), but it is not written to us (not in our language or in the context of our culture). (13)

The est path to recognizing the distinctions between and=cient and modern thinking is to begin paying attention to the ancient world and at the same time imposing methodological constraints to minimize the impact of anachronistic intuition. This is accomplished by immersion in the literature of the ancient world. (14)

We cannot impose Hebrew on the biblical text–it is written in Hebrew. In the same way, we cannot impose the ancient world on the biblical text since the ancient world is its native context. (15)

| The authority of the text is found when we read it for what it is–no more, no less. For those who pride themselves on interpreting the text “literally,” we can only say that a person cannot read the text more literally than to read it as the original author intended for it to be read. (15)

[via: This is a bit audacious. “No more, no less,” needs nuance.]

Scholars have a role in the body of Christ just like everyone else does. One cannot object that it is somehow elitist for scholars to think they have a contribution to make that not just anyone can make. (16)

Proposition 2: The Way We Interpret the Torah Today Is Influenced by the Way We Think Law and Legislation Work

We will use the term legislation [note: Referring to positivist law, whether associated with divine command, natural law, or statutory law from the sidebar.] to rear to the idea of legal (18) formulations that are prescriptive and therefore create a system of law and obligation for those under that system. … We will use terms such as legal sayings to refer to instruction that is largely descriptive of ideas that are current in what are generally cultures where cases are judged based on traditional wisdom. In this usage, legislation and instruction are two distinct speech-acts that in turn carry differing expected responses. (19)

In relatively recent history (post-Reformation), a major change took place in how people thought about law. People grew to think of law as codified legislation that is coercive in nature. The documents of this legislation were considered prescriptive in nature and imposed an obligation on people. Consequently, today we think of law as reflected in a legal code. (19)

In contrast, prior to a couple of centuries ago (and still not uncommon in non-Western cultures), law was more flexible. Society was regulated by customs and norms that had taken shape beyond memory. Judges, who were those considered wise in the traditions of the culture rather than those who were specially educated, made their rulings based on their insight and wisdom. Any documents pertaining to law in those cultures were not codified legislation; that is they were not (19) prescriptive documents establishing law. Instead they describe rulings (whether through actual verdicts or hypothetical examples)–reporting decisions. (20)

LeFebvre contends (and we agree) that the ANE is a “non-legislative society” rather than a “legislative society.” [note: Lefebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah, 23-30.] In such a case, the legal structure is not based on written documents. Written documents serve an entirely different function. (20)

cf. Michael Lefebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-characterization of Israel’s Written Law. [.pdf Introduction] [Google Books]

As perspectives about law shifted over the last couple of centuries, we began to interpret the Torah in light of those new perspectives. (21)


Here is a brief review of some technical terms and their definitions from the philosophy of law.[a]

Divine command theory. In this view the source of law is God. Some believe that it is found in divine decree—written documents believed to have come from God. This requires special revelation. Others believe that no special revelation is required and that God’s law is known through general sources such as conscience.

Natural law. In this view law is deduced from the functioning order of the world around us, which may include our consciences. If the world order is seen to have its source in God, this is a subcategory of divine law It is known from observation and not from revelation in the text. This view is articulated by Paul in Romans 1-2. As long as the source of law derives either from God or from the inherent nature of the world, society is not free to make its own decisions; there are universal moral truths.

Positivist law. This refers to a system of understanding whereby a body of rules is enforced by those in authority in accordance with their will. These rules need not be logical or rational and are not subject to being contested on their merit; that is, lack of merit does not negate their authority. No essential link to morality is necessary. Positivist law is generally undergirded by means of coercive force (though shared values will lead to conformity without resorting to force). It could have its source either in the divine world or in the king (or in both when the king is seen as the channel for the divine will), or even in a religious body (such as the Pharisees, or those who are responsible for the magisterium, or sharia). This approach to law develops in the Hellenistic period and is therefore not reflected in the Old Testament or the ancient Near East.

Common law. Once decisions are made about where law comes from (God, nature, governing body) and where it is found (divine decree, conscience, codified statues), systems arise for applying law to regulate society’s behavior. Common law (sometimes called customary law and generally reflected in case law) does not depend on a written code. It depends on the wisdom of the judges to issue rulings that reflect the mores and customs of the society. No particular judicial decision determines precedent for future decisions. By nature it is incomplete and fluid. Berman draws the distinction that sacred texts, when they are in play, serve in common law as a resource for judges to consult, not as a source of statutory law.[b] New circumstances and differing scenarios require revisiting of earlier decisions. Common law involves a system of reasoning rather than a code and works best in a largely homogenous social sitting (rather than a cosmopolitan or diversified one).

Statutory law. This is an application of positivist law that results in a codified text that serves as the law of the land As positivist law, it originates from an authority and is imposed coercively. It is finite; judgments are made according to that which is written in the statutes. Its roots are found in classical Greece, but it became standard consensus in the West in the late nineteenth century.

The history of law relative to the Bible can be found in books by Hayes and Berman, already referred to, as well as in one by Michael LeFebvre.[c]

The importance of that discussion is twofold: it demonstrates that our current perspectives developed relatively recently and that the ancient world di not employ positivist or statutory law.

[a] Information for these definitions and distinctions are drawn from Christine Hayes, What’s Divine About Divine Law? Early Perspectives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) [Google Books]; Roy E. Gane. Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 25-26 [Amazon]; and Joshua A. Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). [Amazon] These definitions were refined through personal conversation with Robert K. Vischer, Dean and Mengler Chair in Law, University of St. Thomas Law School, for which I am grateful, though the final responsibility remains my own.

[b] Berman, Inconsistency, 110.

[c] Michael Lefebvre, Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-characterization of Israel’s Written Law. (New York: T&T Clark, 2006). [.pdf Introduction] [Google Books]

As perspectives about law shifted over the last couple of centuries, we began to interpret the Torah in light of those new perspectives. (21) Specifically, we began to treat the Torah as if it were prescriptive, codified legislation, though that concept did not exist in the ancient world. … As a result of such reading, people began thinking that the Torah dictated the law of the land to Israel. And since it was considered divine revelation, it was therefore construed as God’s ideal guide to society and morality. And if it is God’s guide to the ideal shape of society and morality, then all people everywhere are obligated to apply it one must merely determine how to deal with idiosyncrasies and anomalies in order to apply it to today. (22)

| This chain of logic all begins with the false assumption that the Torah represents revelation of the prescriptive, codified legislation given by God. … If, however, the Torah was never intended to be revelation of prescriptive, codified legislation, then we have to clear the table and start from the beginning to understand what it is and how it works. What are the alternatives? If the intended function is not legislation (and therefore the expected response is not obedience), what are the intended function and the expected response? What is the revelation of the Torah intended to achieve? What sort of speech-act is it? What is its revelation? In other words: why does it exist in Scripture? (22)


Proposition 3: Legal Collections in the Ancient World Are Not Legislation


Ur III (ur-Namma or Shulgi 21st Sumerian Ur yes 31 sayings
Isin-Larsa (Lipit-Ishtar) 20th Sumerian Isin yes 38 sayings
Old Babylonian (Dadusha or Ibalpiel) 18th Akkadian Eshunna no 60 sayings
Old Babylonian (Hammurabi) 18th Akkadian Babylon yes 282 sayings
Middle Assyrian (Tiglath-Pileser I) 11th Akkadian Assur no 100 sayings
Neo-Babylonian 7th Akkadian Sippar no 15 sayings

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 2002: Diorite stela with the Code of Hammurabi. Detail showing the King standing and receiving the 282 collected laws from the God of Justice Shamash. Babylonian civilisation, 18th Century BC. Paris, Musée Du Louvre (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

When first discovered, the texts were referred to as “law codes,” a label that reflected a presupposition derived from our cultural river (26) and correlating assumption about the nature of law and in part from previous decisions about the nature of the biblical “law codes.” This view was believed to be supported by the relief that is found at the top of the stele containing the so-called Code of Hammurabi, which contains a picture ofShamash, god of justice, seated on a throne and extending a rod and ring to Hammurabi, whos stands opposite him in a deferential pose. Early interpreters thought this represented the god giving the law to Hammurabi just as Yahweh gave the law to Moses. On further analysis, it became clear that the god Shamash was not delivering the material to Hammurabi, but the other way around. As more information about Shamash was discovered, it was learned that the rod and ring were neither the laws themselves being revealed nor even the authority to make laws. Instead, they were recognized as Shamash’s symbols of authority, and he was displaying them, not (27) giving them to Hammurabi.[1] The relief depicts the investiture of Hammurabi as the just king by the authority of Shamash. Coupled with the revised interpretation of the relief, a variety of observations over tie began to suggest alternative interpretations of those ANE legal collections. When scholars began to notice that there were major gaps in the content of the law (i.e., areas that were not covered that would nevertheless have been essential or a legal code; see further below), suggestions began to be made that these collections did not constitute a law “code” (i.e., formal prescriptive legislation). Rather, it was alternatively suggested, this was a collection of model verdicts. This viewpoint fit well with the literary context of the Hammurabi collection and the interpretation of the relief. The collection of legal sayings was then reinterpreted as Hammurabi’s demonstration that he was executing justice in his kingdom–a role that the gods had appointed him to carry out and for which they held him accountable. (28)

[1] This is evident from the numerous depictions of Shamash holding these symbols even when no one stands in front of him. Some believe that Shamash is giving these articles to Hammurabi and that they are symbols of royal office (scepter and nose ring), enabling the king to guide the people and administer justice. See W. W. Hallo, “Sumerian History in Pictures: A New Look at the ‘Stele of the Flying angels,’” in An Experienced Scribe Who Neglects Nothing: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Jacob Klein, ed. Yitzhak Sefati et al. (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005), 142-62, discussion on 150-53. Others contend that Shamash is regularly pictured wth his arm extended and holding these insignia and that he is not giving them to anyone. In this view they are understood as measuring instruments See Thorkild Jacobsen, “Pictures and Pictorial Language (the Burney Relief),” in Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East, ed. M. Mindlin et al. (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1987), 1-11; Christopher E. Wods, “The Sun-God Tablet of Nabû-aplaiddina Revisited,” JCS 56 (2004): 23-103. For a brief discussion on the rod and ring see Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 156.

…adjustments in thinking continued to occur. Scholars began to suspect that these collections were the result of the scholarly creativity of the scribes rather than solely the work of legislators ruling on cases brought before them. (28)


If a society is going to be governed by law, the law must address every aspect of society. The extent to which it is selective is the extent to which it loses its effectiveness. Of course, no code can exhaustively cover every possible permutation, eventuality, and scenario. Our solution to that dilemma is to make full use of precedent to classify legal situations to align with rulings of the past. In this way, virtual comprehensiveness can be achieved. Still, every category of law an every aspect of life must be addressed. It is a gargantuan task and creates a complicated bureaucracy. (29)

| In contrast, it has been clear to everyone who has studied the ANE legal collections that they do not even try to be comprehensive; many important aspects of life and society are left unaddressed. (29)

The conclusion can only be that these documents could not possibly serve as codified legislation to regulate every aspect of society. (30)


It has been abundantly clear to scholars studying the many thousand existing court documents that the judiciary in the ancient world did not decide cases on the basis of formal, written, normative legal code as is done today. … judges in the ancient world did not issue their verdicts by making reference to documents that had been produced for that purpose. Instead, they depended on custom and wisdom. When those were inadequate, divine oracles would be sought (note Moses’ procedure in Ex 18).

When we think of laws, we imagine a normative list of rules with accompanying consequences for breaking them. When a person goes to court, the lawyers, judge, and jury try to determine if the rule has (30) actually been broken and to what extent the consequences should be applied. This system relies heavily on logical precision (both in the writing of the rules themselves and in the presentation of evidence) and precedent. We very specifically do not want the judge (or the jury) to apply their intuitions about what they think constitutes “wrongness” and about what they feel should happen to this specific individual, so we force them to work within a series of methodological constraints (for example, juries are commanded to consider only evidence that the court has formally admitted and are deliberately isolated from any additional influence). People in the ancient world, however, did want the judge to apply his intuition about wrongness to the cases he judged and to consider each on its own merits. … Ancient legal wisdom instead tried to instruct the judge on what rightness and wrongness looked like so he (and it was usually a man) would be able to produce rightness and eliminate wrongness with his verdicts. … The texts do not teach what the law is; they provide a model for right and wrong so that the judges will know it when they see it. (31)

Proposition 4: Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections Teach Wisdom

…”aspective.” That is, they offer a wide variety of aspects pertaining to the topic of the list. …the accumulated aspects provide wisdom. (33)

The king has not promulgated these as laws. He has had them compiled to convey his wisdom because, as the king designated by the gods, his responsibility is to maintain order on behalf of the gods. Wisdom is the ability to perceive order and establish it. (33)

| In raw form the lists are pedagogical. (33)

Whereas legislation has the expected response of obedience, instruction in wisdom has the expected response of comprehension and application. (34)

All people (as well as the gods) should consider the stele as proof that Hammurabi is indeed a wise king. Judges would learn wisdom from this list, and people would be convinced that the king has been working tirelessly on their behalf to provide order for them. (35)

| The list is not comprehensive because it is intended to circumscribe, not legislate. It provides illustrations of justice and order. (35)

This also explains why we find no reference to sources of law in the court documents. The list of legal sayings is not the source of law; the sayings are a resource for informing the wisdom of the judges. (36)

Proposition 5: The Torah Is Similar to Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections and Therefore Also Teaches Wisdom, Not Legislation


First, as is true for the ANE legal collections, the Torah, even with all collections combined, is nowhere near being comprehensive. (37)

Second, as we found with regard to the ANE, the Torah, though clearly recognized as a document (“book of Moses”), is not relied on as the legal, normative basis for judicial decisions. (38)

Third, we must recognize that the legal collections in the Torah are embedded literarily at several levels. Most importantly, the legal sayings are presented in the context of a covenant between Yahweh and Israel, in which case they serve as stipulations to that covenant agreement (developed further in propositions 6 and 13). (39)


The term Torah is universally acknowledged to refer to instruction. [1] In fact, there is no Hebrew word for “law” (=legislation), and now it can be seen that the reason for this is that the ancient societies were now legislative societies. (40)

[1] G. López and H.-J. Fabry, תוֹרָה tôrâ, TDOT, 15:609-46; P. Enns, “Law of God,” NIDOTTE, 4:893-900. This conclusion has support in etymology but is even more strongly supported in the broad range of usage. Whether instruction through oracles, instruction through wisdom sayings, or personal advice, the instruction aspect remains central.

Other words that are most frequently used to describe certain types of legal sayings (along with the most common English translation used in the NIV) include:

  • משפטים – “laws/judgments”–verdicts given in legal contexts
  • חקים – “decrees”–dictates delivered by a formal authority (e.g., king)
  • דברים – “words”–insights, advice, exhortations, or admonitions that should guide one’s thinking
  • מצות – “commandments”–charges or mandates coming from those with recognized status (e.g., parents or elders)
  • עדת – “statues”–used of legal sayings primarily in Psalms, not in the Pentateuch
  • פקודים – “precepts”–sayings that establish order; used only in Psalms.

[via note: Walton used transliterated Hebrew. I have used the original Hebrew.]

cf. Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 6:4

Note, however, that this combination almost always takes the noun “voice” (qol) as the object of the preposition (as in Ex 19:5), and it never has tôrâ or any of its synonyms as the object of the preposition. Obeying the voice of the Lord is always a good idea, but it should not be equated to obeying laws. (42)

…the fact that the content of such documents is circulated by reading aloud gives sense to the idea that the people on the reeving end should hear, but also heed, what is being said. … In Wisdom literature, particularly the book of Proverbs, the one being instructed is repeatedly enjoined to heed the wisdom that is being conveyed. This proverbial wisdom is specifically not legislation. The response that we often term “obedience” pertains more specifically to aligning one’s will with that of Yahweh by taking the role of a servant who is loyal. This (42) sort of response has very little to do with obeying a codified, prescriptive legislation. (43)

cf. Prov 4:4; Prov 19:16; Prov 29:18

Wise living cannot be legislated. It is a matter of applying principles of wisdom, not of following rules. … Order in society was the goal, and it was achieved through wisdom, which had its foundation in the fear of the Lord. (44)

The legislation carries a sense of “you ought”; instruction carries a sense of “you will know.” (45)

| Consequently, we will propose that Torah in biblical usage is an expression of wisdom, not of legislation. It refers to a collection of examples that combine to form a description of the desired established order. We will be using the term to refer to the corpus of legal sayings found throughout the Pentateuch and will seek to demonstrate that these sayings embody standards of wisdom for the ordering of society within the covenant relationship that Yahweh had with Israel. (45)

Proposition 6: The Israelite Covenant Effectively Functions as an Ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty Treaty

Similarly to the legal texts, ANE treaty stipulations are respective, not comprehensive, and their intention is instruction, not legislation. Rather than instruct judges in wisdom to properly administer justice, however, the treaty stipulations are intended to instruct the regent and his administrative underlings in the wisdom to properly serve as loyal vassals. …stipulations are not a comprehensive list of everything that is expected of the vassal…but a representative list. (47)

Importantly, stipulations were not received as revelation from the suzerain; the vassals knew what the suzerain expected of them and would not have read a treaty document in order to gain this information. What was expected was loyalty and a positive reflection on the sovereign’s reputation, generally achieved by maintaining a peaceful, well-ordered state as well as an overall posture of submission. (47)

In this sense we might compare the treaty stipulations with the end-user license agreement that accompanies most software purchases. (48)

A treaty relationship (48) has not been formed so that the suzerain can bless the vassal with stipulations. Instead, the existence of a treaty serves to communicate the greatness of the suzerain. In an act of granting royal favor he has adopted the vassal into this family (politically speaking), and the existence and condition of the vassal reflect on his power and competence as king. (49)

Importance was not found in what the vassal did or did not do, but in the identity of the suzerain. (50)

Being a vassal carried benefits, but it also came at a price. For our purposes, the most significant cost of being a vassal was the need to pay tribute. (50)

Just as the king was not listing stipulations to legislate the society of his vassals or to implement a moral system, neither was Yahweh imposing morality or social ideals on Israel through the stipulations for the Torah. (51)

When the suzerain imposed stipulations on the vassal, he was not asserting law. He was extending his identity (as a glorious and powerful king) to, and especially through, the vassal. The kings of the ancient world did not impose law; they gave wisdom as they forged their identity. Yahweh was the source of the Torah, but since neither the treaty stipulations nor the legal wisdom can be construed as law, being the source of Torah does not make Yahweh the source of law. (51)

Vassals serve to enhance the king’s reputation. If the vassals are loyal, the king will demonstrate his power and competence by granting them prosperity and protection from enemies. If the vassals are rebellious, the king will demonstrate that same power and competence by putting down the rebellion with brutal efficiency. … (Deut 28:63). What pleases Yahweh is not the granting of blessing to Israel per see; what pleases Yahweh is using Israel as a means to establish his reputation. If blessing the Israelites will enhance Yahweh’s reputation, Yahweh will do that; if destroying them will enhance his reputation, he will do that instead. (52)

cf. Ezekiel 36:22-24; Deut 30:19

This in turn indicates that when we turn to apply the message of Israel’s covenant documents to ourselves, we should think in terms of trying to understand the reputation that Yahweh intended to establish for himself. We should not think in terms of something that Yahweh wants to give us (law) or something that he expects to receive from us (moral performance). (53)

Yahweh’s self-revelation through Israel’s covenant includes establishing how he is perceived as a deity, in addition to establishing how he is perceived as a king. This is done by means of a third genre within the covenant documents, namely, ritual literature, as well as by the holy status that is conferred to Israel. (53)

Proposition 7: Holiness Is a Status, Not an Objective

cf. Leviticus 19:2

Careful attention to grammar, however, will show that God’s people are not called to “be holy–the verbal form is indicative, not imperative (“you will be holy”). God declares his people holy by election decree. It is a status that he gives, and it cannot be gained or lost by the Israelites’ own efforts or failures. (55)

Holiness is the word that identifies elements of what we can call the constellation that collectively defines divine identity. … Constellation refers to all the elements that compose this list:

Most major gods are identified with an anthropomorphically conceived divine person, a statue, a number, a semi-precious stone, a mineral, an animal, an emblem, a star, constellation or other celestial entity and various characteristic qualities. Ištar in particular is simultaneously identified as a divine person who dwells in heaven, yet is localized in various terrestrial temples (most prominently Arbela and Nineveh), the planet Venus, the number 15, the semi-precious stone lapis-lazuli, and the mineral (55) lead, and understood as the embodiment of such qualities as love and war.

Each of these interconnected divine networks composed of many distinct elements may be viewed as a divine constellation, in which the various elements are connected to a more or less unified entity and share in its identity. In other words, each major god consists of a constellation of aspects, which may act and be treated (semi-)independently. Most divine constellations consist of several connected deified aspects, with an anthropomorphic core that is always deified and other occasionally deified elements like heavenly bodies, abstract qualities, and metals. (56)

[note: Michael B. Hundley, “Here a God, There a God: An Examination of the Divine in Ancient Mesopotamia,” AoF 40 (2013): 68-107, quote on 80-81]

In Hebrew, one of the uses of the term קדש (“holy”) is to designate the referent as part of Yahweh’s constellation.

  • As a term used in reference to Yahweh to describe the full constellation of all that is associated with him, holiness includes objects (the ark), places (Mount Sinai, the temple), time (the Sabbath), land (a field or city devoted to God), and communities (the nation of Israel).
  • Labeling something “holy” identifies it as one of the spheres of patronage that collectively define the god’s identity: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7). (56)
  • When a thing becomes holy, whether that thing is the abstract community of Israel or an object like the ark or the sanctuary, it means that whatever that thing is or does in some way identifies something about what God is or does.
  • Holiness is a status given by Yahweh to Israel that makes the nation a part of his identity by virtue of his making a covenant with them. Israel’s holy status means that Yahweh has defined himself as “the God of Israel.” By making the covenant with them and giving them this status, he has brought them into his constellation.
  • Holiness is a status that is conferred; it cannot be earned, acquired, or lost by behavior.
  • It is the community of Israel that is holy more than each individual. Only priests and perhaps prophets as individuals are holy.
  • Holiness is not defined by imitating God; rather, God makes the people holy by identifying himself through his people.
  • For the nation of Israel to be holy means that Yahweh will identify–that is, reveal–himself through his interaction with them. (57)

In the ANE, people did not aspire to imitate the gods, and the gods did not expect their worshipers to imitate them. Humans were humans and gods were gods; they had different functions and different natures and were evaluated by different standards. (58)

In the ancient world, identifying an element as part of a divine constellation does not say anything about the element; it says something about the deity to whose constellation the element belongs. (58)

…when Yahweh brings the nation of Israel into his constellation by declaring it holy, he declares himself to all observers to be the kind of God who would be patron to a nation like Israel. (59)

All of Yahweh’s interactions with Israel serve to establish his reputation, one way or another. This is once again what we mean when we say that Yahweh uses Israel to reveal himself (61)

The ancient understanding of order, justice, and faithfulness is circumscribed in the legal wisdom and treaty documents of the Torah. However, we should not assume that Yahweh wishes to stamp an endorsement on these conceptions for all time, as if all people in all places and all times who serve Yahweh would be expected to reproduce the cultural values of the ANE. Likewise, we should not assume that we can substitute our own definitions for those words and claim that this is what Yahweh supports instead. It further does not mean that we can assume that Yahweh endorses whatever the highest values of any given society happen to be. In our case, this would be such things as freedom, equality, self-expression, and general human flourishing. Instead, we should understand Yahweh’s self-revelation not in terms of absolutes or universals but rather in terms of contrast. Faithfulness, order, and justice were not equalities that were normally associated with ANE gods (though they desired that sort of behavior from their worshipers). Yahweh has effectively told the Israelites that he is a different kind of God than their culture would lead them to expect of a deity. (61)


Proposition 8: Ancient Near Eastern Ritual Served to Meet the Needs of the Gods

Ritual is defined in a variety of ways. Most experts agree on certain characterizations; that is, it involves ceremonial, customary routines of performance reflecting religious belief about what is effective for the intended result and metaphysical notions about the nature of the object of the practices. (65)

Evidence is ample and there is wide consensus among scholars that in the ANE the cultic ritual system was designed to meet the needs of the gods. [1] (66)

[1] For detailed discussion see Michael B. Undley, Gods in Dwellings: Temples and Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), as well as his Keeping Heaven on Earth: Safeguarding the Divine Presence in the Priestly Tabernacle, FAT 50 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

The status quo, then, was a codependence built (66) from mutual need. The gods required food, housing, and clothing, and in order to provide those amenities reliably, people needed protection and provision. (67)

We refer to this as the Great Symbiosis because it represents the symbiotic relationship that framed the life, religious thinking, rituals, and theology of the ancient world. The gods had needs, and they wanted to be pampered in every way by the people who worshiped them. The main focus of this symbiotic relationship was the temple, the palace of a particular god, in which the god resided and from which he or she ruled, represented by his or her image, which occupied the sacred center, mediating worship, presence, and revelation. Such temples were considered the control center of the cosmos, and from there the god maintained order, sustained by the rituals of the people. (67)

In the Great Symbiosis, then, rituals provided the means by which order could be maintained. This equation was the basis of the religious system. We might well inquire, then, what role did justice, law, or morality play? The gods had no concern for the common good of humanity–only for their own good. Justice, legal governance, and what we might label moral behavior are important for order to be maintained in human society, but order was important to the gods only because it ensured the receipt of their prerogatives. In this system, humans did not have a religious obligation to be moral or just; they had a religious obligation to care for the gods, who would go to great lengths to secure their stream of revenue. (68)

…in the absence of the forensic means available today, judges often had little evidence beyond hearsay or conflicting testimonies. (68)

Rituals would also come into play occasionally in the use of trial by ordeal: a person’s innocence or guilt was established by subjection to a life-threatening ordeal (e.g., thrown in the river) to see if the gods would save them. (69)

In summary, divine favor was always the objective> Both justice and ritual were time-honored means for gaining that favor, and wisdom was at the foundation of both sets of practices. (69)

Proposition 9: Ancient Israelite Ritual Serves to Maintain Covenant Order Because Yahweh Has No Needs

The Israelite sacrifices that featured blood manipulation, primarily those commonly designated the sin offerings and guilt offerings, have no parallel in the ritual systems so far attested in the ancient world. (70)

The term kipper [כיפור/כפר] has (70) traditionally been translated as “atonement,” but that is misleading. More recently scholars have used terms like “expiation” (Milgrom) or “clearing” (Hundley). By virtue of the death of the animal, the blood accomplished the ritual role of a detergent to expunge anything that would desecrate the sanctuary (whether unacceptable behavior or ritual uncleanness). (71)

In Israel, in place of the Great Symbiosis we find that the relationship has been redefined (by the covenant) as the relationship of suzerain to vassal, in which humans display God’s glory and enhance his reputation rather than providing for his needs. (71)

| In Israelite theology, Yahweh,…has no needs. … Likewise, (71) Yahweh has not initiated this relationship in order to give something to Israel (e.g., blessing, enlightenment, happiness, prosperity, salvation, or morality). Yahweh is proclaiming his reputation as suzerain of Israel, his vassals. Quid pro quo is abolished. (72)

…a properly functioning cultic and ritual system was a symbol of a properly ordered and functioning society. (73)

Israel’s views on divine presence were very much like those of the ancient world. The god sat enthroned in the temple, and consequently the order established through creation was maintained, the forces threatening that order were held at bay, and the viability of the human community was maintained. As the center of order and power in the cosmos and the seat of divine presence, the existence of the temple in the human community brought the hope and potential of great benefits such as fertility to the fields, prosperity, health, peace, and justice. (74)

The temple can therefore be understood as the economic center of the cosmos, … “the central, organizing, unifying institution in the ancient Near Eastern society.” [John Lundquist, “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” in The Question for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall, ed. H. B. Huffmon, F. A. Spina, and A. R. W. Green (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 213; see also Jon D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” JR 64 no. 3 (1984): 298.] (74)

Given this understanding, it would be a mistake to think that the sacrificial system was all about sin. As already noted, most of the sacrifices are not responses to offenses. … In Israelite practice, the Torah establishes these two sacrifices as responses when some impurity encroaches on the sanctuary (sin offering) or when something that belongs to the sanctuary is appropriated for personal use (guilt offering). (75)

| The sin offering is required when violation of the Torah has taken place unintentionally. Intentional sin had no ritual response. It was understood that an unintentional offense involving ritual impurity or violation of behavioral expectations in society had a desecrating (75) impact on the sanctuary. … Blood was designated as the ritual detergent to expunge the results of the offense and restore sanctity in the sanctuary and order for the community. (76)

…we can see that these rituals were not designed to take away the sin of the person. They were designed to restore equilibrium to the place of God’s presence. The “clearing” antiseptic role of the blood accomplishes kipper. (76)

…the contamination remains on the sanctuary, not on the person, so there is nos suggestion of kipper cleansing an individual of sin. (76)

[via: From “commands/legislation” to “procedure”]

These were not commands that told them what they ought to do as replacement for what they naturally would want to do (coercive law); they represented, instead, Yahweh’s active communication with them of what was essential to their relationship. (79)

The Israelites welcomed the guidance and instruction that Yahweh gave them and counted it a blessing and an act of grace. (79)


Proposition 10: The Torah Is Similar to Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections Because It Is Embedded in the Same Cultural Context, Not Because It Is Dependent on Them

When we engage in comparative studies between Israel and the ANE, we should not assume that any similarities that we might find between their texts suggest library indebtedness–that is, that Israelite scribes were copying or translating existing documents from say, Babylon, by making minor, cosmetic modifications. … For borrowing to be determined, one must demonstrate near identical words, phrases, and ideas at multiple places, and also propose how the Israelites would have had access to the other piece of literature. (84)

The question is not, What have they borrowed?, but rather, How does Israel’s Torah represent the revelation of God? … In other words, the potential source of the information (e.g., from this or that piece of ANE) matters much less than the use the author has chosen to make of it. (85)

Torah (NIV) Deuteronomy 22:23-27

23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her,24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.

25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.

ANE Hittite 197

If a man seizes a woman in the mountains (and rapes her), it is the man’s offense, but if he seizes her in her house, it is the woman’s offense: the woman shall die. If the woman’s husband discovers them in the act, he may kill them without committing a crime.

Torah (NIV) Exodus 21:28-29

28 “If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. 29 If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death.

ANE If an ox is a gorer and the ward authorities so notify its owner, but he fails to keep his ox in check and it gores a man and thus causes his death the owner of the ox shall weigh and deliver 40 shekels of silver.

Hammurabi 251:

If a man’s ox is a known gorer and the authorities of his city quarter notify him that it is a known gorer, but he does not blunt its horns or control his ox, and that ox gores to death a member of the awilu-class, he (the owner) shall give 30 shekels of silver.

Torah (NIV) Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

ANE Assyrian A-8:

If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they shall cut off one of her fingers.

Torah (NIV) Exodus 21:10-11:

10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

ANE Hammurabi 148-149:

If a man marries a woman and later la’bum-disease seizes her and he decides to marry another woman, he will not divorce the wife whom la’bum-disease seized; she shall reside in quarters he constructs and he shall continue to support her as long as she lives.

If that woman should not agree to reside in her husband’s house, he shall restore to her her dowry that she brought from her father’s house, and she shall depart.

Torah (NIV) Deuteronomy 22:1-3:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.

ANE Hittite 71:

If anyone finds an ox, a horse, or a mule, he shall drive it to the king’s gate. If he finds it in the country, they shall present it to the elders. The finder shall harness it (i.e., use it while it is in his custody). When its owner finds it, he shall take it according to the law, but he shall not have the finder arrested as a thief. But if the finder does not present it to the elders, he shall be considered a thief.

Torah (NIV) Leviticus 18:23:

23 “‘Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.

ANE Hittite 187-188:

If a man has sexual relations with a cow, it is unpermitted sexual pairing: he will be put to death. They shall conduct him to the king’s court. Whether the king orders him killed or spares his life, he shall not appear before the king (lest he defile the royal person). [188 gives similar instruction if the object is a sheep.]

Torah (NIV) Exodus 22:18:

18 “Do not allow a sorceress to live.

ANE Assyrian A-47:

If either a man or a woman should be discovered practicing witchcraft, and should they prove the charges against them and find them guilty, they shall kill the practitioner of witchcraft.

Torah (NIV) Exodus 22:5:

“If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard.

ANE Hammurabi 57:

If a shepherd does not make an agreement with the owner of a field to graze sheep and goats, and without the permission of the owner of the field grazes sheep and goats on the field, the owner of the field shall harvest his field and the shepherd who grazed sheep and goats on the field without the permission of the owner of the field shall give in addition 6,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field) to the owner of the field.

Torah (NIV) Deuteronomy 19:14:

14 Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

Deuteronomy 27:17:

17 “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

ANE Assyrian B-8:

If a man shall incorporate a large border area of his comrade’s (property into his own) and they prove the charges against hi and find hi guilty, he shall give a field “triple” that which he had incorporated; they shall cut off one of his fingers; they shall strike hi 100 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service one full month.

Proposition 11: The Differences Between the Torah and the Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections Are Found Not in Legislation but in the Order Founded in the Covenant


Source. In contrast, Israel did not view a human authority (i.e., Moses) as the source for the Torah. [a] (90)

[a] Comparisons between the “books of Moses” and the stele of Hammurabi typically cast Moses as the lawgiver (Hammurabi) and Yahweh as the transcendent divine sponsor (Shamash). However, in the epilogue of Hammurabi’s Code, the following appears: “These are the just decisions which Hammurabi, the able king, has established and thereby has directed the land along the course of truth and the correct way of life” (translation by Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995), 133. In the biblical text, no such statement is ever attributed to Moses; the law is established by Yahweh, the decrees are Yahweh’s, and the refrain throughout is “I am Yahweh.” Yahweh is the lawgiver; Moses is merely the scribe.

Scope. The Old Testament is more pessimistic about the ability of humans to order their own world and instead portrays a divinely administered order (through the covenant) as essential. (90)

Yahweh, as ruling king, issues decrees from Sinai that serve as the basis for order in the human realm of Israel. (90)

Holiness and covenant. …when God made the covenant with Israel at Sinai, he co-identified himself with them and (91) them with him: “I will take you s my own people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7). Yahweh becomes the “God of Israel” (Ex 5:1). This co-identification expands the identity of Yahweh (since it is new) just as it expands the identity of Israel. As a result of this co-identification, Israel is made holy because Yahweh is holy. …this statement does not refer to holiness as something that Israel should strive to achieve; it is the status that Yahweh has given them. He, by definition, is holy (holy essentially means “divine”), and since he is identifying them with him, they are holy (part of his divine constellation). This status cannot be gained or lost by anything that they do, though they may or may not reflect that status appropriately. (92)

| The Torah, then, far from being legislation, has as its objective to define the nature of the order that defines the people who in turn give some definition to the identity of Yahweh. … Nothing in the ANE equates to this conception of holiness–that is, ANE gods are not concerned with the integrity of their identity as reflected through the objects of their patronage. (92)

The Torah therefore is not focused simply on maintaining order in the cosmos and society by executing justice; it is designed to define the covenant order so that it will reflect the identity that Yahweh wishes to establish for himself. Given this understanding, it is no surprise that the wisdom contained in the Torah not only instructs judges in wisdom for executing justice; it instructs all of Israel in wisdom for maintaining order in all spheres of life. (93)


cf. Proverbs 26:4-5


Yahweh is not just communicating to Israel standards for justice but is delivering standards by which his people can reflect their holy status. The wisdom embedded in the Torah will enable them to maintain covenant order. (97)

…what is the significance of not adding to it or subtracting from it (Deut 4:2; 12:32)? (98)

cf. Jer 26:2; Prov 30:5-6

It is therefore evident that such warnings are not specific to legal documents and do not refer to a complete and unchangeable legislation. Instead, the warnings are addressed to scribes as a way to secure the integrity of the text–whatever sort of text it is. It has to do with textual tampering, not with legislative innovation. (98)

Proposition 12: Torah Is Situated in Context of the Ancient World

To say that the Torah is situated in the ancient world is another way of recognizing that its communication and conversations are embedded in the ancient world. .. That does not mean that we cannot extrapolate, only that it has to be done very carefully with full knowledge of what we are dealing with (gene) and how extrapolation can take place effectively (methodology and hermeneutics). (100)

Modern Bible readers are inclined to regard the Torah as universal because they have assumed that it is God’s law, that it is to be equated with a moral system, that it reflects God’s (unchanging) ideal, and that it is in the Bible–God’s revelation to all his people. What compels us to conclude that it is fully situated and relative? We can address this by turning the question around: What compels us to believe that it is not culturally situated? (101)

…we will find that the internal logic of the Torah is ancient and the conditions it advocates are ancient, rather than ideal. (101)

Proposition 13: Torah Is Situated in the Context of the Covenant

First, we can see that many of the specific stipulations do not find easy parallels in the biblical material since they pertain to political relationships between communities. At the same time, the stipulations in the (106) general category are transparently similar to the concerns that are expressed in the Torah. (107)

| Second, we can note that at times the stipulations of treaties take on the same sorts of form and content that we find in the legal collections. (107)

Note that in Israel, the “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom refers to loyal submission to the will of the suzerain. …in the end they are aspective, just like legal collections, but with different focus:

  • Legal collections of the ANE give examples of what justice in society looks like.
  • Treaties of the ANE give examples of what faithfulness to a suzerain looks like.
  • Ritual instructions (e.g., Hittite instructions to priests) give examples of what purity in sacred space looks like. (108)


On the formal side, it is interesting to note that many of the stipulations in the treaties are apodictic in nature (“you shall/shall not”). When the legal collections from the ancient Near East (ANE) were first analyzed, it was observed that most of them use a casuistic form (case law, “if someone does X, than Y will be the response”). In the Torah, examples of casuistic formulations are found in some of the sections, but many others use a variety of other forms[1], and the Decalogue, the most well-known collection, uses apodictic formulations. We can now see that this combination of apodictic and casuistic in the biblical Torah is accounted for when we recognize that it reflects both genres: legal collection and treaty stipulation. It has been observed that even though the legal collections use casuistic formulations instead of apodictic ones as found in the Decalogue, the subject matter of commandments 5-9 of the Decalogue is addressed in the legal collections.[2] When we turn to the treaty stipulations, however, we can easily find comparable issues addressed (except the Sabbath). Often in apodictic formulations.

The following are examples from treaty stipulations chosen to illustrate parallels with the Decalogue:

    • Don’t have any other suzerain.[3]
    • Respect the image of the suzerain.[4]
    • Do not speak evilly of the suzerain, and do not hold guiltless those who do.[5]
    • [nothing comparable]
    • Given honor to the suzerain that your days may be long in your land.[6]
    • Do not commit murder against any of the people of the suzerain.[7]
    • Do not engage in sexual behavior with any of the suzerain’s family.[8]
    • Do not steal what belongs to the suzerain.[9]
    • Do not swear falsely (violate the oath made to the suzerain).
    • Do not covet what belongs to the suzerain.[10]

None of this is offered to suggest that the Torah is borrowed from ANE documents. As we discussed in proposition ten, the issue is not literary indebtedness. Rather, cultural embeddedness influences an inclination to use similar genres, though they may be reshaped in the Torah. The Torah may also use stock phrases present in the documents created by scribal schools throughout the ANE (in treaties or in legal collections).[11] These comparisons given an improved understanding of what the Torah is (literarily) in light of the cultural river in which it is immersed, a unique part of the cultural river but not a replica.

[1] See a convenient compilation of the Hebrew syntactical forms in M. Clark, “Law,” in Old Testament Form Criticism, ed. John H. Hayes (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1974), 106.

[2] Karel van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia: A Comparative Study (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1985), has a chapter on each commandment, employing information gleaned from the ANE legal collections.

[3] Suupiluliuma I and Huqqana, Gary M. Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, ed. Harry A. Hoffner Jr., 2nd ed., WAW 7 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999), par. 2, p.23.

[4] Naram-Sin and Elam, Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant, 1:51.

[5] Muwattalli II and Alaksandu, Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, par. 13, p.85

[6] Suppiluliuma I and Huqqana, Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, par. 13, p.85.

[7] Ebla and Abarsal, Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant, 1:27.

[8] Ebla and Abarsal, Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant, 1:29.

[9] Ebla and Abarsal, Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant, 1:27.

[10] Murshili II and Manapa-Tarhunta, Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, par. 7, p. 79.

[11] Not unlike boilerplate legal documents today, e.g., house closings or even book contracts.

Proposition 14: Torah Is Situated in the Context of Israelite Theology Regarding Yahweh’s Presence Residing Among Them

The temples in the ANE were the palatial residence of the deities. There the gods rested, and from there they ruled. (112)

God’s residence among people is a common recurring theme that is addressed in various texts in a variety of ways. (113)

cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4

rest here refers to active residence and rule, not passive relaxation. The gods do not rest in a bed or on a couch; they rest on the throne. (113)

When Adam and Eve choose to take wisdom (the “knowledge of good and evil,” Gen 2:17) for themselves, they simultaneously become like God (Gen 3:22) and thereby inherit the responsibility to establish and sustain order. (114)

Divine presence in the ANE, and also in Israel, is a sign that order is being maintained and the world is functioning properly. (115)

Yahweh furthermore has a land for his people. It is his land, but he grants them tenancy. … Because the land belongs to Yahweh, Israel’s residence in Yahweh’s land is conditional on their fidelity to their vassal treaty,… (115)

The Torah has no role apart from the sanctuary–the place of Yahweh’s presence from which he rules over his people as he dwells among them in a covenant relationship. (116)


In accordance with this interpretation, we might propose the possibility that Yahweh’s ultimate reason for coming down to the top of Mount Sinai is not to deliver the Torah; rather, he descends to the mountain to inaugurate the construction of the tabernacle as a place of his presence. If this is so (and it cannot be proven), the primary objective was not Torah; the tabernacle was not constructed to support Torah. The ultimate objective was for God to give instructions for the construction of the tabernacle so that Yahweh could come to reside on earth among his people. The covenant is preparatory for the tabernacle/temple, and the Torah gives wisdom for living in and retaining the presence of God. This finds support in the layout of the book of Exodus, in which the reference to the tablets frames the tabernacle instructions. From this we might consider the possibility that the tablets may have included the instructions for the tabernacle and perhaps even a diagram of its design. In the ancient Near East, the gods frequently gave instructions for the building of temples and also provided diagrams (such as the one pictured on the lap of Gudea in a well-known statue from about 2000 BC). In fact, the biblical text refers to God’s provision of such a diagram (tabnît; Ex 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8; Num 8:4).[a] We also learn from the Gudea Temple dedication cylinder that temple-building instructions and diagrams could represent sworn agreements. On this cylinder, Gudea refers to a “firm promise” of the gods, which is represented by the decision to build a temple for a dwelling place.[b] Furthermore, the connection between written instructions and the construction of sacred space is found in Esarhaddon’s description of his work at the temple of Ešarra: “I made [it] beautiful as the heavenly writing.”[c] The sworn agreement between Yahweh and Israel might then refer to Yahweh’s promise to come to dwell among his people when they prepare an appropriate place for him. All this evidence then suggests that in Exodus the tablets were provided, first and foremost, for the building of the tabernacle while the Torah serves contingently as instructions for living in proximity to sacred space.[d] This distinction does not mean that none of the Torah instructions were included on the tablets,[e] but it does suggest that we would be remiss to exclude the instructions for the tabernacle from among its contents.

[a] Victor Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in the Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings (Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1992), 168-70.

[b] Otto Edzard Dietz, Gudea and His Dynasty, RIME 3/2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), Cyl B: 24.11-14, p.101.

[c] Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House, 245.

[d] See William Schneidewind, “Scripturalization in Ancient Judah,” in Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writings: Ancient Literacy, Orality, and Literary Production, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 313.

[e] Exodus 34:1, 4, 27-29, when read together seem to suggest that at least the “ten words” were included on the tablets and that they represent the covenant (bƏrît).

Just as Torah cannot be mechanically extrapolated beyond its ancient context, and cannot be adopted outside of its covenant context, Torah cannot be removed from its context of the manifest presence of God in his terrestrial residence (tabernacle/temple). (117)


Proposition 15: Discussions of Law in the New Testament Do Not Tell Us Anything About Old Testament Torah in Context

The history o interpretation of the Torah has consistently recognized an important and transparent reality: we cannot adopt all of Torah as regulations for Christian living. (121)

The problem is that most Christians throughout history who have written about the Torah are really writing about law in the New Testament. They do so under the assumption that there must be continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament in how to think about law. In fact, however, we would contend that there is not. By suggesting this, we are not proposing that the testaments stand in contradiction to one another, only that they have different perspectives and are addressing different issues. (121)


It is not a checklist to be marked off–the law is “kept by order being reflected in every aspect of life. The goal of the Torah is order, not legislation or salvation. Sometimes order is even sustained by violating the stipulations, as Jesus frequently demonstrates concerning the Sabbath.


It was only when Torah was adopted as legislation in the Hellenistic period that a community discussed the idea of keeping al the law as if it were legislative and comprehensive. (124)


Communicating new ideas does not involve assigning new meanings to words; it involves combining existing ideas (using existing words) in new ways. (126)

…saying that you must always use words with the same meaning in order to convey the same message misunderstands how language works. (126)

The point is that the “unity of Scripture” does not mean that it says the same thing in the same way all the time. Instead, it means (127) that all of Scripture describes the same God (as opposed to several different gods; see for example Marcion’s thought) and that all of it describes that God accurately. (128)

cf. Galatians 3:24 …Paul refers to the law as paidagōgos (NIV: “guardian”). …it should be understood as something more like “custodian” or “babysitter.” (129)

Consequently, even though Jesus and Paul were willing to engage in moral instruction, they did not identify the Old Testament Torah as having that role. (129)

Furthermore, we contend that neither Paul nor even Jesus provides hermeneutical models from which we can infer a methodology that can then be applied consistently to arrive at the authoritative message of Old Testament texts that we are interpreting. The New Testament authors use the methods of their day, but their use of them does not validate them.

  • The New Testament use of Hellenistic traditions and literature does not validate those literatures (e.g. Paul quoting Stoic philosophers in Acts 17:28; Peter referencing 1 Enoch in 2 Pet 2:4).
  • The New Testament author’s choice to quote from one version (say, the Septuagint) rather than another version (say, what would become the Masoretic tradition) does not validate a text-critical decision.
  • The New Testament author’s interpretation of a passage in the Old Testament does not attempt to offer an analysis of the Old Testament author’s intention or the exegetical meaning of the Old Testament context (e.g., Jn 10:34 treatment of Ps 82:6; Zech 13:7 in Mt 26:31)
  • The New Testament author’s identification of fulfillment does not show us the original message of the prophet (e.g., Hos 11:1 in Mt 2:15).
  • The New Testament author’s views of Christ in the Old Testament cannot be used as license for us to find Christ wherever we want (e.g., in the wrestling angel in Gen 32; Arius found him in Prov 8 and used that as a basis for the idea that Jesus was only adopted as the Son of God). (130)

Proposition 16: The Torah Should Not Be Divided into Categories to Separate Out What Is Relevant

…a solution that has become commonplace in Christian interpretation–to divide the Torah into categories–ritual/ceremonial, social/civil, and moral. (133)

Two immediate problems arise. The first is that this approach treats the Torah as legislation. (134)

The second problem concerns the coherence and integrity of the Torah as a whole. The Israelites would not have considered it legitimate to make such distinctions and thereby choose what has validity and what does not. Nor would Jesus or the New Testament authors. (134)


Marriage. The Torah assumes the Israelite institution of marriage, which was virtually identical to that found in the ANE and which was very different from that of today. In the ancient world, marriage was primarily focused on establishing a relationship between families (more than between individuals) and on producing offspring (providing continuity of identity to the next generation). (139)

In this sort of system, the exchange of goods (dowry and bride price) was part of the transaction for a new relationship between families. The dowry (given by the father to the bride) provided security for the wife in the possibility that her husband would die, abandon her, or divorce her. The bride price (given by the groom to the bride’s father) reimbursed the bride’s family for a lost laborer. We might think that these exchanges reflected a belief that the woman was a commodity to be purchased, but that would be a misunderstanding. Both the woman and the man along with the exchange of goods, were part of a community merger. (139)

Fidelity ensured the paternity of the offspring and therefore the legitimacy of heirs, which in turn was important because property and goods were owned by families, not individuals. (140)

Economy. Israel, along with the rest of the ancient world, had a particular economic system that can be labeled agropastoral: a single family both grew its own food and raised its own flocks and herds. … One of the strategies to cope with these potentially life-threatening patterns was what is referred to as debt-slavery. It was an alternative to starvation as it provided a way for those in need to recover from bad seasons. (140)

We have (140) little justification for pontificating about the ills of slavery in the ancient world. (141)

Political systems. Given as little as it has to say about political systems, we recognize that its objective is not to provide an ideally structured society. A structured society requires some sort of political system, which the Torah does not contain. (142)

Social status and hierarchy. …we should avoid the complementary though opposite reactions: we should neither criticize the Torah or condoning patriarchy, nor should we seek to enforce or imitate patriarchy today. Both extremes represent a flawed understanding of Torah. (142)

International relations, warfare, and diplomacy. In the ancient world, war was not considered the opposite of peace; it was considered a response to encroaching disorder. (143)

The Torah does not provide a theory of warfare that is going to prevent abuse, or one that is going to always represent the best for all parties. No ideal theory of war exists, and the Torah should to be evaluated on that basis. (143)

Diplomacy and international relations. Israel is thus called to resist what was a standard behavior in the ancient world because such a practice would prove detrimental to the nation’s covenant loyalty to Yahweh,… (144)

Respect of personhood. In ancient society, order and stability in the community took precedence over personal freedoms. … Again, different societies will prioritize differently, ad the Bible does not dictate whether one or the other is right or wrong. The Torah simply operates within the priorities that the ANE cultural river maintained. (145)


cf. Cuthean Legend of NaramSuen

Property ownership and rights. Land belonged to the gods and was administered by the king, but primary rights were vested in clans and families (as opposed to ownership by individuals). (146)

Crime and punishment. Locking people away for months and years at the expense of the state as a form of post-trial punishment (our idea of prison) is unattended in the ancient world. More frequently, prisons incarcerated debtors or political rivals, not criminals. This gives a very different meaning to the word prisoners in the ancient world. (147)

We can conclude neither that capital punishment is acceptable nor that it is unacceptable to God based on the Torah. (148)

Sexual ethics. As we encounter the various stipulations in the Torah, we must recall that it is designed to promote a particular understanding of order, not an absolute morality or an ideal way of thinking. Most of the sexual ethics of the Torah had to do with what was perceived to bring order throughout the ancient world. (149)

Doing business. In the Torah, as throughout the ANE, justice was maintained through fair business practices (true weights, charging of interest, etc.)

Relationships with outsiders. …the Torah emphasizes covenant order. Therefore, the Torah is going o address the extent to which outsiders can be incorporated into the covenant relationship with Yahweh rather than the extent to which they can achieve insider status in society. … Ancient Israel was not a nation-state. … Instead, Israel was a geographic territory (“from Dan to Beersheva,” e.g., Judg 20:1) in which a particular standard of order was expected, both from ethnic Israelites and from anyone else residing in the territory. (151)

Relationships within the community. The affirmation that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), as a statement concerning corporate identity, is not in itself a warrant to claim that the Torah has a special concern for personhood, dignity, or human flourishing. In any case, this statement is never offered within the text as a reason to care for the poor. (152)


In all of this it is clear that those who criticize the Bible for promoting a social system that is primitive and barbaric in contrast to our own enlightened views; those who believe that the Torah presents an ideal social system that all should follow as “God’s way”; those who argue that the society created by the Torah, if not ideal, was at least an improvement over the ANE status quo; or even those who point to isolated passages in the Torah as representing God’s moral or social ideals have all misunderstood the Torah. It is also clear that Israel’s own society was little altered by Torah and that it did not differ in any significant ways from the other societies in the ancient world. Torah was not the revelation of a new society. It was the revelation pertaining to how (152) God’s chosen people were expected to participate in the plans and purposes of God by reflecting well the name of Yahweh, with whom they were identified. This called fo integrity as people living in the society in which they lived, as they promoted an order that would be the envy of the nations around them and give honor to Yahweh, their covenant God. (153)

[via: This poses a significant conundrum, then, if true. What relevance does this have for our “more evolved sensibilities”? Also, how did we attain these “morally evolved ethics” if not from religion? If not true, then what of this entire thesis?]

Proposition 17: Torah Was Never Intended to Provide Salvation

The places in Pauline literature where we find negative assessments of the Torah are based on how people perceived it in the first century, not a critique of what it was in the Old Testament. (155)

| What is important for our study is that we understand that Torah, in the context of the Old Testament, was never intended to provide a way to heaven or a way to pay the penalty for sin fully and finally. … When we talk about Christians not being under the law, but under grace, it is a reflection on what Christ has done for us, not a biblical rejection of the Torah as a means of salvation (which it never was intended to be). (155)

Speaking bluntly, on the basis of the evidence from the Old, we find that they had no hope of what we call salvation.

  • They did not know that “going to heaven” was a possibility.
  • They did not imagine that one could spend eternity in the presence of God.
  • They did not fear eternal punishment.
  • They did not believe that they needed their sins to be resolved in any way beyond that which was available to the community in the sacrificial system.
  • They did not believe that they could be saved from their sins (in the way we understand was accomplished by the death of Christ or that they needed to be.
  • They did not think of the Messiah as functioning in the sacrificial system to provide a mechanism for salvation; they saw him only as playing a role in the restored order. (158)

God’s plans and purposes did not do something to the Israelites (other than give them a status as his people); his plans and purposes worked through them. His plan was not to cleanse them of their sins, provide for their eternal life, reconcile them to God, impute righteousness to them, or take their sin on himself. Instead, what he did was establish his kingdom on earth and dwell among his people as king. (159)

Proposition 18: Divine Instruction Can Be Understood as a Metaphor of Health Rather Than a Metaphor of Law

If the Torah is not legislation and cannot be reduced to mortality, the fact that it has divine authority does not establish a divine source for either legislation or morality since neither is the Torah’s intent. (161)

The intention of the Torah is to produce knowledge, not obedience; … What it offers is not an imperative but a choice: …(Deut 30:14, 19) (162)

It would complicate the matter significantly and prove utterly unreliable to try to look to the Bible in order to derive universally applicable principles for good health. (164)

The key is to have clear sight of the goal and to be committed to doing whatever represents the current wisdom in order to achieve that goal. If we try to reduce the goal to a checklist of practices and behaviors, it is likely that we will lose sight of the larger goal. Extracting a list of principles has the potential to undermine the importance of some of the more abstract ideas. (164)

Proposition 19: We Cannot Gain Moral Knowledge or Build a System of Ethics Based on Reading the Torah in Context and Deriving Principles from It

…we should evaluate what the narrator is doing with the characters rather than focusing on what the characters are (incidentally) doing. (169)

Here is the main point that we must understand: if we have to be selective about which passages we mine for moral guidance and which we reject, it is not Scripture that is guiding us but our own preconceived notions of what is right and wrong. … If Scripture is not in fact producing our sense of right and wrong, then the question of whether it theoretically could is mostly academic, and the claim that it does not (as we have argued in the case of the Torah) is reduced to a technical discussion among scholars. (171)


The first problem…is the difficulty in determining which passages contain moral principles. (173)

The second problem with this approach is in trying to establish derived principles with confidence. (173)

If we have no consistent methods for determining which texts contain moral principles and are faced with insurmountable obstacles in deriving principles with confidence, we must confront the uncomfortable reality that both of these determinations are ultimately based on our culture and our inherent sensibilities, not established by the text independently. (174)

Now we progress to the next step–stipulations from which the principles derived would be contrary to common sense. (176)

The unsettling fact is that many of the legal sayings in the Torah are based on ways of thinking in the ancient world that are foreign to us as they transcend modern reasoning and intuition. This fact argues against the idea that their scriptural authority is to be realized by deriving principles from them. (177)


Our expectations of a text and our use of the text must be coherent with the intention of the text–an that is determined in major part by its genre. (177)

…we need to be trying to understand what God was doing through the Old Covenant in its context. (178)


Proposition 20: Torah Cannot Provide Prooftexts for Solving Issues Today


In the ancient Near East (ANE), the textual and iconographic evidence indicates that body marking (whether tattooing or piercing) was used as a mark of servitude. (184)

In and of itself, dress does not carry inherent meaning, but its meaning is ascribed culturally. (186)


People in the ancient world, however, were less inclined to treat the name of a deity as powerless. They were more inclined to recognize its inherent power and attempt to wield it for their own benefit. This concern is the polar opposite of the way that the commandment is used today in prooftext. (187)


The inherent flaw in prooftexting goes beyond particular fallacies to the larger contempt of misidentifying the Torah. The procedures by which we seek the relevance of the Torah must recognize what we have been observing about the Torah throughout this book. Decisions about the relevance and application of the Torah (as with any text of Scripture) must be made on the basis of the genre (in this case, wisdom insight rather than legislated commands), the context (written to Israel in the context of covenant and temple), the rhetorical strategy (how a section of literature functions within the larger work), the author’s intention (what he intends the communication to accomplish–the expected response), and the backdrop of the cultural context (understood in relation to the ancient cultural drive, not ours). Only by consistently maintaining these standards of interpretation and methodology can the authority of God’s Word be appropriated to our modern contexts. Extracting prooftexts never gets us there. (190)

Proposition 21: The Ancient Israelites Would Not Have Understood the Torah as Providing Divine Moral Instruction


The important question, then, is not whether any of the listed behaviors can be construed as in the moral/ethical realm but whether the literature can be interpreted as intentionally addressing anything akin to what we call moral law. (195)

The designation “moral” would not be a fitting description since the Torah includes so much that cannot be associated with morality. Literarily, then, the Torah must be considered to have a focus (196) that is not moral in nature (though we undoubtedly could find material that overlaps with people’s moral sensibilities). It includes divine instruction (as per the association with Wisdom previously established), and moral instruction would be appropriately involved, but no systematic or universal moral system is found there. (197)

Instead, the Torah is instruction, and the expected response is comprehension of the nature of the order it describes (“you will know”) rather than a response of obedience to the specific rules it reportedly dictates (“you ought”). (197)


…the Torah in its Old Testament context should be viewed as instruction for maintaining God’s favor by reflecting his desired reputation through the order of the nation of (197) Israel, not legislation or rules for morality. However, we have also argued that the New Testament understands the Torah differently from the way the Old Testament does (see proposition fifteen). Therefore, it is theoretically possible that the Torah, as the Second Temple period understood it (as opposed to the form that appears in the Old Testament), is being established by the New Testament as a basis for divine moral law going forward. (198)

When Paul wants to encourage morality, he does not do so from the Torah. Instead, he builds a case from logic–both philosophical and theological (see Rom 2). (199)

The objective of the New Testament instructions is the same as that of the Torah–preserve the ideal of order in one’s own time–but it does indicate that even the New Testament authors did not see the Torah as the basis by which to define what ideal order in their time should consist of. Based on these observations, we would contend that the Torah in particular, and perhaps even the entire Bible in general, does not have the literary-theological purpose or function of revealing a moral system. (199)

Proposition 22: A Divine Command Theory of Ethics Does Not Require that the Torah is Moral Instruction

When a thing becomes holy, whether that thing is the abstract community of Israel (which is what is addressed in Lev 19, not each Israelit individually) or an object like the ark or the sanctuary, that the thing is or doe sin some way identify something about what God is or does. (204)


The concept of objective morality can be defined in a couple different ways. A moral system could be designated objective if it finds it source outside of humanity (e.g., divine command theory). Another possible definition allows that such a system could be considered “objective” if it attempted to derive its components objectively (i.e., from “pure reason”) rather than subjectively.

In either case, if someone believes that there is objective morality, they have to determine where to get it. Given the approach that we have taken in this book, one could not derive objective morality from Torah because it does not provide a full moral system. If we have to pick and choose which components to use, it is not objective. Furthermore, a moral system cannot be derived from God’s revelation of his character because not enough of God’s character is revealed for us to derive a full morality. Even the glimpses of moral insight that the text does contain do not carry the authority of God because authority is tied to context and the context of the insights is not to define a moral system. Finally, the problem with deriving morality from nature/conscience is that such an approach leaves too many gaps and ambiguities; the observers of nature and experiencers of conscience are themselves human, and so their insights cannot really claim to transcend humanity. In the end we have to pick and choose which human insights about nature or which human experiences of conscience will guide our moral conclusions, and which will not.

Morality may well find anchors in all these sources, but none is complete and our use of each is selective, so no objectivity. An objective moral system based on the Bible is simply impossible to produce. Whether an objective moral system based on something else can be produced is a question for philosophers not exegetes. However, even if someone were to conclude that there is no objective morality (as defined above), that is not the same as saying there is no morality, that right and wrong have no meaning. Of course there is morality, but if it does not have an identifiable source outside of humanity from which it can be objectively derived, we have to come at the question from a different direction.

Regardless of where right and wrong come from, no one is free to make an individual morality. Morality is a function of communities, not individuals. Every community desires order, and morality entails establishing behavior, customs, and traditions as well as social norms and taboos that preserve order.

We do have moral obligations, and we have no reason to think they are not grounded in God. Moral obligation may depend on God ontologically whether or not someone believes in God and whether or not morality can be objectively determined. Some suggest that God can be considered a moral authority without believing that we can objectively determine the shape of morality.[a]

Given this ontological understanding, we could say that there is no uniquely Christian morality, any more than there is a uniquely Christian cosmic geography, and for the same reasons (addressed below and in proposition nineteen). Whether morality is objective or subjective, morality is a part of reality, just like the structures and arrangement of the cosmos are part of reality. A Christian who happens to be a physicist can examine the structures of the cosmos and understand how they work, or perhaps even correct the consensus. Likewise, a Christian who happens to be an ethicist can examine morality and understand how it works, or perhaps correct the consensus. But in neither case will anything in the Bible or any work of the Spirit (except perhaps subliminally) help them to do so. Our particular morality is a product of our cognitive environment, just as our particular physical cosmology also is; it represents something we have to work within, not something we have to create. The task of the church is not to determine rightness and wrongness; the task of the church is to make disciples, which it can only do by both maintaining the integrity of its identity (regardless of what the culture thinks is right or wrong) and by being careful not to make itself unnecessarily offensive to the surrounding culture (that is, in light of what a particular culture thinks is right and wrong).

[a] Evans, God and Moral Obligation, 2, 21.

Proposition 23: Taking the Torah Serisouly Means Understanding What It Was Written to Say, Not Converting It into Moral Law

…since reading the Torah seriously does not entail using it as the basis for a moral system, we must consider the possibility that those who try to use it as the basis for a moral system are, in fact, the ones who are not taking the text seriously. (211)

Their purpose is not to dictate God’s demands for our conduct but to let us know what God is doing-what his plans and purposes are–so that we can choose whether we want to participate or suffer from not participating as its own consequence. (212)

For our purposes, we can claim that it is possible to have moral knowledge, even moral knowledge that has its source in God, without needing to get it from the Torah, or even from special revelation of any kind, including the New Testament (see proposition fifteen). (213)

If we want to understand the value o the Torah today, we might ask what our understanding of God would be if we di not have it. Imagine what Moses might have thought if confronted by Jesus and the New Testament writers in the second millennium BC. Without any further resources, he would have assumed that the God Jesus was claiming to be was more or less the same as the gods he knew from his culture–self-interested and exploitative, expecting Israel to provide for his needs bu willing to offer benefits in exchange. (215)

The primary value for the Torah outside of the original context of covenant Israel is the role it plays in helping us make sense of the New Testament. (216)

…in order to treat the recapitulation as theologically meaningful, (219) we should expect a replication of function. The Sermon on the Mount is not a treaty and does not duplicate the instructions of the Torah. However, because it recapitulates the Torah, we should expect the literary purpose of the sermon in the Gospel of Matthew to be similar to the literary purpose of the Torah in the documents of the Pentateuch. In other words, we should expect the sermon to contain an aspective description of the kind of order that should define the kingdom of God under the New Covenant–which, because the New Covenant works differently from the covenant with Israel, will probably be different, thus explaining the need for new revelation. (220)

Summary of Conclusions

Appendix: The Decalogue

The Decalogue, then, like the rest of the Torah, is focused on instructing Israel as to the nature of the societal order that would reflect the reputation God desires for himself. (232)

Moshe Weinfeld draws our (232) attention to a remarkable inscription from the city of Philadelphia in Lydia (Asia Minor) dating to the first century BC in a shrine of the goddess Agdistis. The builder describes a list of commands he was given by Zeus in a dream:

Not to destroy a fetus or cause an abortion
Not to commit a robbery
Not to murder
Not to steal anything
To be loyal to the sanctuary
No man will lie with a strange woman other than his wife…nor with any boy or maiden.

[Moshe Weinfeld, “The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition,” in The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition, ed. Ben-Zion Segal (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990), 30-31]


#1 Other gods. This background suggests the interpretation that the Israelites were not to imagine any other gods in the presence of Yahweh: “You shall have no other gods in my presence.” (235) … the meaning is consistently spatial: על-פני (‘al pǝnê)

  • Genesis 11:28: Haran died ‘al pǝnê his father Terah
  • Genesis 23:3: Abraham arose from ‘al pǝnê his dead wife and spoke
  • Genesis 32:22 (Eng. 32:21): And the present passed ‘al pǝnê him
  • Genesis 50:1 And Joseph fell ‘al pǝnê his father and he wept for him
  • Exodus 33:19 (34:6): I will cause all my goodness to pass ‘al pǝnê you
  • Leviticus 10:3: I will be honored ‘al pǝnê all the people
  • Numbers 3:4: [Nadab and Abihu] made an offering of unauthorized fire ‘al pǝnê him
  • 1 Kings 9:7: I will cast [Israel] from ‘al pǝnê the land
  • 2 Kings 13:14: Jehoash went down and wept ‘al pǝnê him
  • Job 4:15: A spirit passed ‘al pǝnê me
  • Job 21:31: who denounces his conduct ‘al pǝnê him
  • Psalm 9:20: let the nations be judged ‘al pǝnê you
  • Ezekiel 32:10: when I brandish my sword ‘al pǝnê them

Israel was to be distinct from the nations around them. That is the very point of the prohibition. Although it does not say explicitly that no other gods exist, it does remove them from the presence of Yahweh. (238)

#2 Images. The ANE beliefs can be explored through three aspects: the manufacture of the image, the use of the image, and the perception of the image. (240)

Perception concerning the image. …we can conclude that the material image was animated by the divine essence. Therefore, it did not simply represent the deity; it manifested (242) its presence. (243)

We may conclude then that the image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence. It is the means by which humans gained access to the presence of deity. As such it represents the mystical unity of transcendence and immanence, a theophany transubstantiation. (243)

We can see that the line between religion and magic was virtually non-existent in the ANE or even in the Greco-Roman world. (247)

The meaning, the effect, and the “power” of a name lie not in the ominous character of the name per see but in the significance, the effect, and the “power” of the bearer of this name. … If one knows the name of a person or a god, one can summon, “invoke,” him/her. In this sense knowledge of the name signifies a degree of power over the person known. If this person is very powerful, then the person’s name also has corresponding effect and can be used for good or evil purposes. This situation also results in the use of the name of significant persons, but esp. of Yahweh’s name, in magic. [ Adam S. van der Woude, “שם šem, name,” in TLOT, 1351

Commandment three works on the same premise and prohibits divine identity theft (used for empty, vain purposes). (248)

…a more significant violation in the ancient world would occur if someone recognized the power of the name and took steps to tap into that power for his or her own purposes. This abuse would include, for example, false prophecy. … The prohibition does not concern pronouncing God’s name; it involves invoking it for inappropriate purposes. (249)

#4 Sabbath. The rest,…is more importantly an expression of engagement as the deity takes his place at the helm to maintain an ordered, secure, and stable cosmos. (250)

People are commanded to participate in the rest of God on the Sabbath, not to imitate his rest but in recognition of his work of bringing and maintaining order. (252)


#5 Parents. …many modern interpreters have made a persuasive case that the fifth word is addressed primarily to adult children and focuses on their responsibility to their elderly parents. (254)

The stability of the (254) covenant community is dependent on families provide for the elderly in this way. (255)

#6-9 Murder, adultery, theft, and false witness. Throughout the ANE, adultery described sexual relations between a man and a married woman (cf. Lev 20:10). Sexual liaisons with an unmarried woman may have been considered promiscuous and unacceptable for a number of reasons (some related to clan relationships and the value of a woman for an arranged marriage rather than as purely a matter of sexual ethics) but are not classified as adultery. (255)

…it resulted in questions about paternity and therefore the essential identity of the child. (256)

#10 Coveting. Discussion of coveting is not found in the legal collections of the ANE, but it is addressed in Wisdom literature. … Alexander Rofé has presented evidence that the root ḥmd (covet) refers not only to the desire for something but also “implies the adoption of measures to satisfy the desire.”[a] It thus entails both desiring and seizing (notice the (256) connection made explicit in Deut 7:25; Mic 2:2). (257)

[a] [Alexander Rofé, “The Tenth Commandment in the Light of Four Deuteronomic Laws,” in Segal, Ten Commandments in History and Tradition, 48. He finds the same to be true for the cognate root in Phoenician, as indicated in the Karatepe Inscription, which is supported further in Stamm and Andrew, Ten Commandments in Recent Research, 102-3. Coogan goes so far as to translate it “scheme against” rather than “covet.” Coogan, Ten Commandments, 90-93.]


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