Though [it] is a popular view, we will contend, in contrast, that Scripture is not a body of information containing propositions that are always valid in all places and times. Instead, we will find much greater need to resist the thinking that there is a divinely inspired silver bullet to resolve the complicated questions we face. (pp. 4-5)
We begin today to examine John Walton’s book, The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context. Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and an editor and writer of many OT studies and commentaries, focusing attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East.
In this book, Walton aims to help us understand the meaning and purpose of the law material in the Torah (Genesis-Deut) in the light of its ancient context and genre. He outlines a fundamental finding that will be explored throughout the book.
At the core of this book is the understanding that the ancient world was more interested in order than in legislation per se, and authorities were not inclined to make what we call laws (though decrees are commonplace) to regulate everyday life in society. Instead of relying on legislation (a formal body of written law enacted by an authority), order was achieved through the wisdom of those who governed society. (p. 5)
In brief, the Torah was not intended to be legislation. If this is true, we must not read it as such. But then, how then should we approach these texts?
Walton’s first proposition is: The Bible is an ancient document. We must not read it through modern Western eyes but recognize that there are ancient cultural perspectives embedded in these passages that are often difficult for us to grasp.
Like all people, we live in “cultural rivers” whose features and currents are more familiar to us, while the landscapes of those who lived long ago look like strange lands. In the Ancient Near East those landscapes contained such features as “community identity, the comprehensive and ubiquitous control of the gods, the role of kingship, divination, the centrality of the temple, the mediatory role of images, the effectual and essential role of sacrifice, and the reality of the spirit world and magic” (p. 11). The understanding reader must make an effort to make his mind and eyes adjust to the unfamiliar features of that world and culture if he wants to grasp what the literature is trying to say and do. God’s “word” comes encased in challenging packages.
Modern Bible readers need cultural brokers who can move beyond the translation of the ancient legal sayings of the Torah (e.g., Deut 22:11: “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together”) to offer an explanation of the thinking behind those sayings (why would wearing such clothes of mixed materials have been a problem in the ancient world?). A cultural broker helps build bridges between people of different cultural backgrounds in order to facilitate communication. The resulting negotiation could involve spoken words, terminology, or texts. A cultural broker must understand the values and beliefs of both cultures and be willing and able to bridge the given cultures’ belief systems. This interpretive approach works on the primary assumption that various cultures do not simply have different words for the same basic ideas; they have fundamentally different ideas that they use their words to convey, and those words often have only a superficial similarity to the words another culture might use. (p. 13)
The problem, John Walton remind us, is that “we are naturally inclined to read the biblical text intuitively. When we do so, we unconsciously impose our own cultural ideas on the text. We cannot help but do so—no reading is culturally neutral” (p. 14).
Furthermore, we must recognize that texts are written with intention, for a purpose. They are meant to achieve something in the lives of its readers. Communication attempts to accomplish something, even if it is as simple as passing on information. It also intends to evoke a response, even if it as simple as making the reader more knowledgeable of that information. In the case of Torah, if we presume that these texts are “laws” in the sense that we understand legal statutes in our time and culture, then we will discern a certain intention behind them and view them as commands to be obeyed and/or strictures set down to order society.
However, what if the ancient Israelites had a different view of “laws” and what they were meant to accomplish for individuals and communities?