The Hebrew word torah is frequently translated as law or The Law, meaning the Pentateuch. In Western culture law does not tend to have a semantic range which is entirely positive. Most people in stable countries are grateful to live in a society governed by the rule of law. In contrast, however, legalism, lawyers and judgement all have negative connotations. When we encounter the word law translating torah, as it does in so many translations, we can often think of a stereotype which eclipses the genuine nuance that the word torah has in Hebrew. The problem is especially acute for many Christian readers who may well be oblivious to the problem.
Many Christians will have heard repeated stark contrasts drawn between the freedom and grace of Christ contrasted with the rigid legalism of the Pharisees. Whilst the gospels abound with stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, a shrill opposition is not what the gospels reveal. The problem is that these stories are read from an ingrained perspective which originated in the Reformation. Luther, in reacting against the abuses of the Church, read into the Pharisees’ position all that he despised in the Church of his day. Read with an open mind the gospels reveal a Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees but also a Jesus who knows torah (cf. Matthew 4:1‒11) and speaks positively about it (Matthew 5:17‒20).
Returning to the Hebrew Bible we would do well to not read the word law in a negative sense and to also note that the literal meaning of torah is ‘instruction’, ‘teaching’ and ‘guidance’. We are likely to bring less baggage to the text with the word instruction. Such teaching and guidance takes many forms and sometimes this is law, i.e. written instruction which has some element of authority associated with it. When seen as instruction, teaching and guidance from God, even when encompassing law, a richer, thicker and more positive view is possible.
That the Hebrew Bible sees torah as positive is evident throughout. For example we read:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law [=torah] of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law [=torah] day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Psalm 1:1‒3 (NIV)
It is very likely here that the concept of torah or instruction is being deliberately extended from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible the torah to the five books of the Psalms.
It is interesting to note that a similar positive exhortation opens the Former Prophets too:
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law [=torah] my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law [=torah] always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
Joshua 1:7‒8 (NIV)
To be fair there is a sense in which law keeping is an important, indeed central, part of the Hebrew Bible. The above verses are picking up where Deuteronomy left of with its call to obedience so that covenant blessings would be maintained. A healthy respect for God’s instruction is to be expected if God is God. This does not have to equate to dry legalism. Readers are encouraged to read the Hebrew Bible and come to their own views as to what extent either Pharisaical Judaism, Early Christianity, contemporary Judaism or modern Christianity embody the serious intent and delight abounding in Yahweh’s torah.