Approaching the Torah
January 19, 2016

Before anything else, a word about “Torah” may be in order. I have been persuaded that “law” is a bad translation of “Torah,” even though it is evident that what is called “Torah” does have commandments, statutes, and ordinances in abundance. Why not “law?” “Law” as a translation for “Torah” is overly narrow in its implications. It suggests that we come to Moses’ books expecting to find something like a “law code.” But Moses’ Torah is much more than a law code, even though in some respects it can be seen to function as a “constitution” for Israel, a law above the law.

Torah includes history, paradoxical wisdom-like instruction, encouragement, rebuke, poetry, and even prophecy. As such it is clearly not a “law-code” nor is it just a “constitution.” The best translation is probably “instruction,” but that comes across as rather bland. To retain something of the aura of mystery and majesty surrounding the books of Moses, I chose to refer to them as “Torah.” The transliterated Hebrew word provokes the English reader to think more deeply about the nature of these profound writings.

For too many Christians, the real issue is not whether we call it “law” or “Torah,” but why we even bother with an outdated “law” that is beyond comprehension and no longer relevant for Christian living. We may ask: who cares to learn about clean and unclean animals, ceremonies for cleansing, or laws about sex and warfare? But in fact, the answer to the question, “Who cares?” is clear: Jesus cares.

Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Jesus emphatically affirmed that He did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). When He explained what that means, He asserted that even the “jots” and “tittles” of the Torah will outlast heaven and earth (5:18). Not only the words of the Torah, but its very letters will be fulfilled. However difficult it may be for us to comprehend its details, the Torah is comprehensively relevant.

Paul says the same thing when he teaches Timothy that “all Scripture” is “breathed out by God” (ESV) and is therefore profitable to equip the man of God for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). No doubt Paul did not mean to say that every verse of Scripture is equally profitable for every good work, but he is still unmistakably affirming the exhaustive applicability of Scripture, which includes the Torah of Moses. Indeed the whole of Scripture grows out of the Torah of Moses.

If we find the Torah difficult, therefore, the question of how a Christian should approach Moses’ Torah is profoundly important. I believe the answer to this question is also found in the teaching of Jesus and Paul — not to mention the rest of the New Testament. And the answer they give us — surprising perhaps to some — corresponds well with the Medieval approach to exegesis called the “quadriga.” Peter Leithart in his book, Deep Exegesis, offers a succinct explanation of the method.

“Over the course of several centuries, medieval theologians and biblical students had developed what is known as the fourfold method or quadriga. According to this mode of reading, Scripture as a whole and its particular passages are not single in sense, but have multiples senses, specifically the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. Interpreted literally, a passage tells us what happened; the allegorical sense teaches us what we are to believe, particularly about Christ and his church; the tropological tells us what we are to do; and the anagogical tells us what we are to hope for. From the time of John Cassian, Jerusalem served as a key example of the method. Literally, Jerusalem is the city of David; allegorically, it is the church; tropologically, each of us is a city in which God dwells, so what applies to the whole city applies to each of us; anagogically, it is the future Jerusalem.”[i]

To restate the terms of the quadriga in slightly different language, our approach to the Torah of Moses must be (at least) fourfold.

  1. Historical/literal meaning: What did this text mean to Israelites living in the time of Joshua, Samuel, or David? The need for this approach is obvious. The Torah was given to real people in real history. Joshua, Samuel, and David were given instruction, commandments, and ordinances that were to guide their daily lives. We obviously need to ask what the Torah meant to them, even though sometimes this is a complicated question.
  2. Christological meaning: What does this text teach us about Jesus our Savior? After His resurrection, the very first Bible class that Jesus held was with two despondent disciples who seemed to have lost all hope. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but His crucifixion on a Roman cross disproved their faith. Jesus rebuked them and showed them that in fact the whole Scripture prophesied about the Messiah, including His death and resurrection. The Torah of Moses is all about Jesus. If we love Him, we will seek Him in the Torah. Also, since the Church is His body, the Christological meaning of the law necessarily includes His Bride as well.
  3. Ethical meaning: What does this text teach us about the way of love? John taught us that God is love and that if we love God we must also love our brother. This restates what Jesus said in answer to the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment. First, love God with all your heart and strength, then, Second, love your neighbor as yourself (Mat. 22:36-39). What Jesus said next teaches us how to read the law: “On these two commandments the whole Law and Prophets hang” (Mat. 22:40). Every word in the Torah is instruction about loving God and loving our neighbor. If the Torah sometimes seems strange to us — even “unloving” — it may mean that we are misinterpreting the instruction, or it may mean that we do not yet understand love as we ought. Either way, the strangeness of the Torah is a challenge for us to grow in love.
  4. Eschatological meaning: How does this text fit in to the larger picture of the Biblical vision for the future? Paul teaches us that the Torah was intended from the beginning as teaching in elementary principles for Israelites as children who needed detailed rules for living in the land — rules about diet, clothing, calendar, and so on, that are not directly applicable to the Church, which was born into sonship after the fullness of time (Gal. 4:1-7). The Torah was, therefore, designed as administratively temporary, but it was not destined to return to dust. Both Jesus and Paul taught it that it remains relevant. The symbolism of the Torah and its covenantal structure and worldview have an eschatological dimension, as may be seen from the fact that the future consummation of history is depicted as a New Jerusalem.

The quadriga was not a system imposed on Scripture by deluded dons following dead scholastic traditions. The fourfold approach finds its roots in the teaching of Paul and Jesus, who not only gave us something like the quadriga through their teaching about Torah, but also through their example of Biblical interpretation.

One final thing must be said, though this does not constitute a fifth approach but an aspect of each method: a Christian approach to the Torah must be apologetic, that is, those who twist and distort the teaching of the Torah in order to blaspheme God must be answered. Moses, and Joshua after him, exhibited a sincere concern for God’s name, His reputation. In a time of outspoken anti-Christian atheism — exemplified, for example, in writings by Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — and Bible-denying “Christian” theologians and teachers — of whom there are too many to name — it is important for Christian teachers to show that the God of Moses is none other than the Father, Son, and Spirit, the God of everlasting love.

Ralph A. Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.

[i] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), p. 13.

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