As Christians, many of us have grown up with a negative attitude toward the word, “law”. We have been taught that the word “law” refers to excessive and burdensome regulations. The word “law” is always used in the context of the law vs. grace, or the law vs. the spirit. But the word that we translate “law” actually has a very different meaning in Hebrew. Let’s look at what the Hebrews thought when they heard the word that is translated in our Bible as law. That word in Hebrew is Torah.
The Hebrew word Torah is derived from the root word Yarah, (see “The Task of Teaching” lesson for more information) and means to point out, teach, instruct, or give direction toward a goal. It is that which aims you, (like a bow) so that you can hit the mark. Torah could best be described in English as instruction, God’s instruction to man. When God teaches us something we must obey. When the Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the translators used the word “nomos” for Torah. “Nomos” was then translated into English as “law”. Obviously the word “law” is part of the definition of Torah, but it is not the main emphasis. The word law has a very negative connotation and makes us only think of harsh rules that we are required to obey. It is much more life-giving to God’s word to insert the word instruction or teaching for law. This makes the Text read in a much more positive light.
The Jewish Bible (also called Tanakh) translates the word Torah as “teaching” in almost every case. Look at the difference it makes in the following verses where the Jewish Bible translation is compared to the NIV.
Psalm 1:2 (NIV) “ His delight is in the law of the Lord and on His law he meditates day and night…”
Psalm 1:2 (JPS) “The teaching of the Lord is his delight and he studies that teaching day and night..”
Joshua 1:7-8 (NIV) “ Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you…Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth, meditate on it day and night”.
Joshua 1:7-8 (JPS) “But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the teaching that my servant Moses enjoined upon you… Let not this book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it”.
What a difference it makes to think of God’s words to us as loving guidance and instructions for life instead of oppressive laws to buckle under. Obviously, there are many laws in the Bible, but these are given to us in a positive way to make us into the people God intended us to be. (See also, “10 Commandments: Marriage Contract“)
The first five books of the Bible are usually referred to as the Torah or Law, but they contain much more than just laws. In the Torah there is the story of creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in the Exodus. The actual laws take up a very small portion of the Torah. The reason the first five books of the Bible were given the name, “Torah”, was to emphasize that they were God’s teachings given to Moses, not that it was the law.
In the future, when you read God’s Word, when the word, “law”, appears, say, “teaching” instead as the Hebrews did. This emphasis will help you see God in a more positive light, not as a judge ready to punish, but as a loving Father teaching and instructing us how to live.
This knowledge also leads us to take a different look at the law vs. the Spirit. When Timothy wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture was inspired by God, which Scripture was he talking about? The only Scripture he knew was the Torah! The word inspired at it’s root means, “in spirited”. The Torah was a gift of the Holy Spirit, written by the finger of God, (Exodus 31:18). “Finger of God” is a Hebrew idiom for the “Spirit of God”. Also, look at these verse in Romans; Romans 7:14 ,”We know that the law (Torah or His Teaching) is spiritual” and Romans 7:22, ”For in my inner being (inner spirit), I delight in God’s law (teaching, Torah)”. Also, think of this point: The law was given to Israel after they had been saved out of Egypt. The law was not the basis or means by which He saved them; He saved them by His grace. The Torah was given to the Hebrew people to guide and teach them and to bring them to the appointed place of promise. These verses and many others show that the “law” and the “Spirit” are really one and the same and are not in contradiction to each other. Hopefully, the next time you hear some negative words about the law vs. the Spirit or the law vs grace, you will be able to call this lesson to mind and turn it into a positive message.