by Lois Tverberg
The teaching (torah) of the LORD is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the LORD are enduring, making the simple wise; The precepts of the LORD are just, rejoicing the heart; the instruction of the LORD is lucid, making the eyes light up. (Psalms 19:8-9)
Protestant Christians tend to have a negative attitude about the word “law,” feeling that it refers to oppressive and arbitrary regulations. But the word that we translate as “law,” torah, has a very different emphasis and connotation in Hebrew.
Torah is derived from the root word yarah, which literally means “to flow as water.” Figuratively it means “to point to,” to “teach,” “inform,” “instruct,” or “guide.” Torah could best be defined in English as “instruction,” that is, God’s instruction to man. When it’s used to speak of God’s instruction, the implication is that what God teaches us, we are obligated to obey. So the word “law” is within the bounds of the definition of torah, but not its main emphasis. Christian translations tend to reinforce our thinking by translating torah as “law” most of the time. Jewish translations like the JPS Tanakh instead translate torah as “teaching” most of the time.
One place that you might be surprised to see the word torah is in Proverbs 31. Verse 26 says that the excellent wife “opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (ESV) Literally, she has a torah of hesed to share with others! You can see that in this verse that the word torah means teaching, not law.
Another place we see evidence of torah as “teaching” rather than “law” is when we look closely at the first five books of the Bible that are called the Torah. They contain much more than laws! The Torah contains the story of the creation and fall, God’s covenants with the family of Abraham, how he rescued them from slavery and led them in the desert. All of the Torah teaches us about God’s ways, but only part of it is actually law. The Penteuch is specifically called “the Torah” because it is understood to be the teaching given through Moses. In Jewish parlance, the word “Torah” is often used in a larger sense to refer to all of Scripture, though.
Grasping the idea of torah as “teaching” helps us see God in a more positive light. It reminds us that rather than being primarily a lawgiver or a policeman waiting to punish us, God is a loving Father instructing his children in how to live. Jesus, who instructed his disciples and the crowds, was simply imitating his Father in teaching us how to have life, and have it more abundantly.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on biblical words and cultural ideas in their original setting.
A Companion Bible Study for Listening is also available, for readers who want to explore the Scriptures from a Hebraic perspective. The set is available for a discount here.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook only).