The way we see the Torah determines the extent to which we are interested in it.
a. If we see the Torah as fixed regulations or laws, given to humanity by a harsh God, then we experience that as oppressive. If we are Gentiles, we are somewhat glad that we are not Jewish. We are not sitting around eagerly awaiting laws that impose limits on what we can or cannot do.
b. Entirely at odds with the foregoing vision, you can also view the Torah as merely tips from a God who is involved and interested in your well-being, but we have the steering wheel firmly in our own hands and we pick only what we like out of that basket of tips. We get to decide and that absence of any real obligation trumps all.
c. Between the above extremes you can also view the Torah as instruction or teaching given to humanity by a heavenly Teacher, whereby those among us who are eager to learn begin to get interested.
d. Or...what if the Torah is intended as revelation, given by an all-knowing God to a humanity lacking in knowledge? For after all, God knows things that humans cannot know. Well then it really gets interesting. The feeling dawns on us that we will miss something if we do not take cognizance of this Torah.
The key question is actually not how we see the Torah, but what God intends. Then it’s clear that c. and d. above reflect the proper attitude to take regarding God’s intentions. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word Torah is instruction/teaching. But because we consistently translate the word Torah with law, the Torah has come to have a meaning as if it pertained only to law. The Torah itself states that it is a revelation.
Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those that are revealed belong to us and our descendants forever, so that we might obey all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29) NET
For the Israelites the revelation on Mt. Sinai is the heart of the Torah. God had never been so close! God’s audible voice spoke the ten commandments; so impressive, so holy that the people could not bear it (Ex. 20:18,19). Which is why Moses received the rest of the Torah up on the mountain by himself.
This revelation came from God and had to be taught to every generation.
But it is more. This revelation bears with it the very heart of God. God wrapped Himself in the words of the Torah. When we take up this revelation, think it over and dig into it, we discover God Himself.
The Torah: not the status-quo
Many believers think that a ‘Law of God’ first came into being on Mt. Sinai. But that is not the case. Indeed, the revelation on Mt. Sinai is very unusual. It is the beating heart of the Torah and from the standpoint of volume it does constitute a considerable part of the total text. Yet from the time of creation, and on many occasions thereafter, God has communicated His guidelines to humanity. There is communication between God and humanity whenever circumstances call for it; a process of advancing revelation that runs parallel to the changes in life. Because the Torah is intended as revelation and instruction, it is logical that instruction would again be necessary when the situation changes drastically.
For Adam and Eve life was new. They needed instructions about how to live well and properly. The Creator taught them how they, as created beings, were to deal with the creation and themselves. Already then God expressed Himself as to their daily food, Adam’s work, Eve’s work, marriage; and He established the seventh day as a day of rest. And they received a first commandment: eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is prohibited (Gen. 2). So to the extent that you believe that laws are only necessary in a sinful world, I would emphasize here that God gave His first rules prior to the fall.
After the fall, God communicates many times, in each case giving humanity guidelines as circumstances change. To be able to survive in a world ‘under the influence of sin’ humanity can certainly use God’s help. His guidelines are supplemental to those given at the time of creation and intended to limit the consequences of sin. God gave guidelines to the various patriarchs and heads of the tribes, like Adam, Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of Abraham, God said the following:
All this will come to pass because Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Gen.26:5) NET
All of these patriarchs lived long before the revelation on Mt. Sinai. Each of them was the head of a tribe or community, so God instructed them as to how they could best lead their community.
At Mt. Sinai the Israelites become a great people. God gives His guidelines enabling them to become a nation with a holy religious faith. At the point when they are to become a nation bound to land with geographic borders, guidelines are added, given on the plains of Moab: the book of Deuteronomy.
And finally comes the Son, the Chosen One who, in the Sermon on the Mount, expresses the guidelines as to how believers, as His followers, can best conduct themselves (Matt. 5-7).
Thus we distinguish a variety of moments in which God communicates. In summary:
· Instruction at the time of creation: The best rules for life.
· All instructions after the fall: The best rules for surviving in a sinful world.
· Instructions to the patriarchs and heads of the tribes: The best rules for community.
· The revelation on Mt. Sinai: The best rules for society.
· Instructions on the plain of Moab: The best rules for living as stewards of the land.
· The Sermon on the Mount: The best rules for discipleship.
Thus it is that God accompanied the development of humanity, at each step laying down His blueprint for all forms of living together. It testifies to the existence of a deep connection that God has with His creatures and the tremendous care he flourishes upon them.
The Torah: a hedge of protection
The Torah provides the framework within which we can live safely here on earth. It is a fence around humanity’s playground. There is freedom inside that fence, and safety; beyond that boundary is danger. Outside, the traffic races by at full speed. Continuing with the image of the playground: the area outside is also a playground, a different one managed by someone else. Look how badly those pieces of playground equipment are in need of maintenance, how many thorny bramble bushes in the metalwork, how easily you could be cut and scratched! Look - no soft rubber mats under the swings. And there is cat shit in that sandbox while the sandbox in God’s playground is clean! Can you see how safe it is within the hedge of God’s playground? Have you already met the one who supervises God’s playground? His supervisor really loves the children. The other playground also has a supervisor, but he absolutely does not love children – he thinks only of himself. He hits them for any reason. He abuses them, and sometimes does even worse things. No, it is better not to get to know him. Dear children, stay happy, safe and sound within God’s playground.
Back to the world of adulthood. The Torah protects natural life in the here and now. Life lived beyond the bounds of Torah automatically has consequences. Instead of criticizing Torah, it would be more correct to be thankful: “Thank you Lord, for such good care … and I had not even noticed it before. I always saw your law as a restriction, and now I see that in all fairness it is your protection. Now I see that what had seemed oppressive actually gives us space to breathe.”
This text is the opening of chapter 3 and a part of paragraph 3.3 from the Dutch book Vrij van de Wet? Publisher: Sola Scriptura, Wijngaarden, The Netherlands.
Author: E. Noordermeer. Translated by D.A. Schechter