The Lost World of the Torah (1) — Introduction

The Lost World of the Torah (1)

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?

45 thoughts on “The Lost World of the Torah (1) — Introduction

  1. Iain, regarding those of us who are in one Lutheran synod or another, your statement about us believing in apostolic succession is partly correct and partly incorrect.

    I have *never* heard anyone in the ELCA (or in the LCA, which merged with a couple of other synods to form the ELCA) refer to anything even remotely like apostolic succession – and I’m in my mid- 60s.

    Here’s something to consider in regard to people in North America who refer to themselves as Lutherans: unlike the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish who came to this country, few Lutherans spoke the same native language. That means that Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Danes, people from the various Baltic states, etc. tended to coalesce along the lines of native tongue and culture. Germans too, of course.

    Those of us in PA and adjacent states are (or were, until relatively recently) descended from German immigranrts who came here when the Brits were still in charge. And no – afaik, there’s no German consensus from that time period about apostolic succession.(The other reason for that is that modern Germany didn’t exist as yet, so there couldn’t have been a “German consensus.”) It is literally not part of the deal for us.

    For Scandinavians as well as people who came from the Baltic states, it’s different.

    That said, Lutheran immigrants to this country formed synods that were often very small, connected mostly by the synods’ members being of the same heritage. In some places, services were conducted in the language of the 1st immigrants until well into the 20th c.

    there’s nothing like the larger Anglican Communion within or among Lutherans in the US. Equally, we aren’t like the many Roman Catholic parishes throughout the US that basically were (and still are) characterized as Irish, Italian, Portuguese – and today, Latin American nationalities.

    So no, we don’t all accept the idea of apostolic succession. Myself, i find it challenging at best.

    Now, since the Episcopalians and the ELCA hammered out various things that both denominations agree on, things have changed, to a degree. But even though we now have bishops, even a presiding bishop, it’s still not quite the same as it is in TEC. We come from different roots, and it’s not as if the ELCA merged with TEC.

    Hoping that helps clarify things a hit, although “it’s complicated” is all too apt a description when trying to sift through the varieties of Lutheran churches in the US, our beliefs and practices, etc.

    I have a feeling that Richard Hershberger has a far better grasp of this than i do, so I’m hoping he’ll come along and address this issue.


  2. “To my modern mind, that sounds like a guaranteed recipe for tyrrany and disaster.”
    As indeed it was, as the authors of the Bible have God warn the Israelites when they ask for a king, and record as, in fact, happening.


  3. Five communions, thank you very much: the Anglicans and the Lutherans hold to the apostolic succession, too.


  4. I wish I could see it from your viewpoint so I might understand what you are seeing, but that is not something I’ve been able to accomplish.


  5. Well there’s no doubt much of the Protestant project is called into question by these sorts of analyses.

    It was Protestant scholars who first subjected the Bible to rigorous critical analyses using the modern tools of history, anthropology, linguistics, cultural studies, etc. It wasn’t Roman Catholics, it wasn’t Eastern Orthodox. And there findings were often so compelling that Roman Catholic scholars had no choice but to follow in their footsteps, and revise their own understanding of the Bible, how it was written, and its interpretation, despite initially giving heavy resistance. The critical insights developed by Protestants scholars forced Roman Catholic scholars and theologians to accommodate the new studies, and even to reinterpret their own understanding of the nature and role of the Church. And much of the project calls into question Roman Catholic ways of reading and understanding the Bible as much as the “Protestant project.”


  6. Right, ok. But the rhetorically it is a trivial effort to drive the statement in reverse. How is it not the results of the words, that if good [by my estimation] are the will of God playing out through his words [inexorably?] but not if the results of the words are bad [by my estimation]. It teeters on the brink of being a game of true Scotsman.


  7. I think a good example of how cultural setting and “authorial intention” defines the meaning of a communication is the movie and television series M*A*S*H. On its surface it is a show about how people negotiated their lives in Korea during the Korean War in the early 1950s. However, it is quite clear that the message was designed to speak to the war in Vietnam and the cultural moment we were dealing with in the 1970s.

    Reading the Torah and Tanakh as though it was written by Moses, etc., and assembled over the years like putting sections in a notebook until the canon was complete, giving people instructions along the way, yields a completely different reading than when you understand its final form as a text for the Babylonian exiles with a message for them.


  8. That not only goes for the Spirit, but the whole shootin’ match. As I am wont to say (too often for some of my friends), if there’s a theology test at the pearly gates, we’re all screwed. We all get it wrong.

    Part of that is the cultural distance between the ancient text (and the ancient faith) and ourselves. That was true as early as the second century when Gentile Christianity moved away from its Jewish/Christian roots (e.g. Paul vs the development of a disembodied ‘heaven’ for example). The other part of it makes me think it’s intentional.

    Christianity is always contextualized in its culture, and that can be a strength or a weakness. It’s weakness is that it too often identifies ‘the faith’ with a particular culture or cultural expression of faith. Whether it’s Southern Baptists who believe true faith looks like 19th-century revivalism, or Roman Catholics who believe the true faith looks like early medieval culture, or Anglicans who believe it looks like 16th-17th-century English culture, we all identify ‘the faith’ with a particular expression of it. But it is a strength because that is the only way Christianity can thrive in any culture.

    What that means is that while I have a great deal of respect for Scripture and seek to understand it, I also recognize that Christianity has never been a ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’. It has always been an evolving faith, influenced (for better or worse) by contemporary culture. But never fixed or finalized (a simple survey of church history makes this plain). Either that was God’s plan or this thing jumped the tracks very early on.

    The bottom line for me is since we all get it wrong, God must be far more generous with his grace than many of think he is. I’m not going to try to guess who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. That’s well beyond my pay grade.


  9. I do think that the ‘intent’ of that verse was that God manages to accomplish what He sets out to complete, not so much that we can ‘intervene’ there successfully to turn it to bad use

    just how I read it, Adam


  10. Why would they avoid it? Because they do not believe it, an untenable position especially for an academic institution, or because they do not want to face it and would prefer to emphasize other things? I had thought that in the past they were a bit more open but in recent years they seemed to have tightened their grip. Sad.


  11. > “…but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper…”

    Still problematic. If I use it to justify abuse and privilege – successfully, I prosper – that was the will accomplished?

    I agree with the intent of the statement; it still needs to be carefully dealt with.


  12. is much to think about in this verse from Chapter 55 of Isaiah:

    “10 For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return without watering the earth, making it bud and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat,
    11 so My word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it.
    12You will indeed go out with joy and be led forth in peace . . “


  13. As I always suspected, the words the prophets used are more important than the intentions the prophets had when they used them.

    Things are larger on the inside than they are on the outside.


  14. Thank you, Chaplain Mike. I would’t expect a Wheatonian to go much in the DH direction either, but I do suspect he’d bring to bear at least some insights regarding its compilation post-exile. We’ll see. I’ll follow along.


  15. well, there is a mystical quality to the SACRED Scriptures, sure, that doesn’t get impeded by our silly human limitations, if you regard the Scriptures as ‘sacramental’ in nature

    ‘Logos’ . . . ‘the Word’ not the same as what is ‘written’, no, but supposing the intent of what is ‘written’ is driven by the Holy Spirit to accomplish what God intended it to do

    so a child reads a verse, and sees it again and recognizes it from that first encounter, then after many years, comes across it again and begins to ‘understand’ its meaning in the light of his own experiences, and years later, comes to see how the way in which that verse impacted him helped him change course in his life in a way that mattered greatly
    OR he may never get it that it wasn’t his OWN ‘wisdom’ that made him ‘see more clearly ahead’ but that’s also okay in the open generosity of God to those who do not know to whom they owe their very being in existence


  16. Technical note:

    In Orthodoxy, “apostolic” does not describe anything about “authority” or the right to pronounce particular judgments, or that our institution is best. It means that what you find in us was handed down faithfully from the first disciples of Jesus.

    You may not agree, but there it is. This is already an example of Walton’s description in the quote of how the use of the word is different in different cultures.



  17. Apology accepted.
    But I’m gonna draw another card and stay in the game a little longer.

    The Holy Spirit has surprised me on this board before.


  18. And that didn’t come out nice either.

    CM, probably best to just wipe all my comments today and pretend I didn’t show up at all.


  19. Let me try to clarify what I was trying to say, perhaps (slightly) less offensively. NOBODY – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Mainline, Evangelical, even us here – NOBODY is getting it right. Theology is for ####. Are we being obedient to Christ? No? Then we’re not getting it right, no matter how loudly we proclaim our faithfulness to tradition, Scripture, hierarchy, theology, or what the hell else. I’m sick of people saying their tradition is “right”. Nobody’s is. We’re all lost and disobedient. Period.


  20. “Only Pentecostals and Orthodox get the Spirit roughly right”

    Bunkum. Individuals can get the Spirit right. Institutions? Never. Pentecostalism is far too bound up in the vagaries of personal experience divorced from any curbs (“too republican”), and Orthodox can be just as (or more) culturally and hierarchically bound as the Catholics and mainlines. Am I cynical? Perhaps, but anyone who is NOT cynical in this day and age just isn’t paying attention.


  21. This is kind of answer to all three of you

    Chap – I have a great deal of respect for ‘intuitive’ hermeneutics. When I get interpretive shingles is when all the Smart Guys sit down together and decide what’s what. You could make the argument that the Ecumenical councils were exactly that, but then you have the counter-prevailing examples of saints single-handedly overturning presumptive councils and the ‘common-sense accepted wisdom’ of their days.

    It may also interest you to know that although we don’t forbid women from attending services during their menstrual periods, we have preserved the tradition of churching women after they give birth. I won’t go into when marital relations are forbidden. That is not proclaimed from the pulpit and it is seldom heeded, but all the yiayias and papous will let you know.

    Ben S – Newbigin has always been first and foremost a theologian of the Holy Spirit, and yes, the Holy Spirit guiding us through the fog is exactly what I expect to happen. There is a quote from Charles Williams about self-attesting hermeneutical grandeur that would be appropriate here if I could access it. In my experience the Catholics tend to anchor the operations of the Holy Spirit too firmly to the hierarchy, Evangelicals too firmly to the Scriptures, and the mainline Protestants too firmly to the movements and caprices of the mainstream culture. Only Pentecostals and Orthodox get the Spirit roughly right, although if we hearken to Charles Williams’ admonition that ‘the City is simultaneously hierarchical and republican’ I’d have to admit that the Orthodox err in being too hierarchical and the Pentecostals in being too republican.

    Stephen – The Talmud as a window onto the Torah has always intrigued me. I don’t think much of some of the numerology involved, but the legal reasoning is breathtaking. A culture where men who excelled at this were rewarded by being allowed to form families with the most capable women could weather whatever you threw at it.


  22. Walton actually deals with this question in his introduction, but I did not include his musings in this post.

    Essentially, he says that the Reformation project of returning the Bible to the people does not imply that everyone has equal ability or insight to interpret the text. It was more a matter of getting the Bible into the people’s language so that everyone had access to it. But Luther and the other Reformers certainly believed in the value of scholarship and they acted as such, writing tons of commentaries, sermons, and lectures to help others understand scripture and its meanings.


  23. 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) to offer an explanation of the thinking behind those sayings…

    To move beyond “Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM)”.
    To move beyond rewordgitated chapter-and-verse zip codes.
    To move beyond “GOD Said It — I BELIEVE It — THAT SETTLES IT! (DIE, HERETIC!)”


  24. Knowing Walton and the institution for which he teaches, I doubt that he will go into that much. What I’m interested in is seeing if he brings into play the fact that the Torah was put in its final form for the exiles and post-exilic community, and how that factors into his understanding of the intent and meaning of the texts.


  25. > As to who prevails? That’s almost a recursive question

    It is also not zero sum. The prevailing may be an amalgamation.


  26. Probably is … in a modern Nation State of millions of people.

    A world of villages, where a “major city” had, maybe, tens of thousands of people and essentially no infrastructure – not so much.

    Scale changes the problem.

    We exist at a radically different scale.


  27. I know what is meant by “apostolic” structurally. But from our perspective (Protestant), claiming the term and the right solely for a specific institution and structure is just as unjustifiable as when Mormons claim it – that “apostolic” should be by way of faithfulness to the Gospel not the structures, and we do separate the two. But you also know that. I doubt you will change my mind, and I probably can’t change yours. All I can do is apologise to God at the end for not liking how much the organized church (myself included) has screwed up His intentions, because I cannot accept or condone them.


  28. I use it to mean the three communions (Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic) which hold to Apostolic succession. If self-proclamation makes you apostolic, the Mormons are apostolic. I could use small-c catholic as well but I kinda wanted to use a fighting term.

    I also think of ‘Apostolic’ as describing those churches where the Church Triumphant still has a veto on current policy


  29. Well there’s no doubt much of the Protestant project is called into question by these sorts of analyses. What becomes of ‘sola scriptura” when you need a cadre of scholars to parse the text? All interpretation is mediated by someone or something.

    But it’s not just a Protestant problem of course. Just compare Jewish Torah interpretation with any Christian view.


  30. If I can refer back to Lesslie Newbigin, with appropriate disclaimers for the number of years since I read him, and my limited understanding, I think it’s a dance, not an axe. As I summarised above: the gospel is mediated by a culture, which is not neutral, and yet as the gospel penetrates you, it will lead you to question elements of that culture.

    As to who prevails? That’s almost a recursive question – in that who will prevail when determining the answer? 🙂

    I guess if you’re out and out postmodern, it comes down to power. Or maybe you will believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us through the fog.

    Me? I dunno.


  31. Don’t you think, Mule, that we’ve always done some of this intuitively? When was the last time your priest or pastor rebuked folks for wearing cotton/polyester blend clothing? Forbade women in their menstrual cycles from attending church? Held a Sunday afternoon stoning for a recalcitrant youth?

    I myself am anxious to see where Walton goes with his understanding of the genre of the legal texts. I have had some thoughts about that as I’ve studied the Torah, and I wonder where he will come out.

    Also, remember that, as far as we understand, the final form of these texts wasn’t put together until during and after the Exile, as holy texts for the Jews after the Babylon disaster completely changed their lives and their ways of worship. What did all the sacrifice texts mean to those people, who no longer had access to temple and priesthood in the way they had before?

    Lots of interesting things to consider…


  32. “I don’t think we are the recalcitrant ones.”

    Well, we think you are. 😛

    More likely, we’re both recalcitrant, and neither/both of us are “apostolic”. And “apostolic” is a slippery and divisive term that Jesus would likely cringe at.


  33. Once again, we see kind of a sola cultura mindset emerging out of the academic Magisterium of Protestantism. How does culture emerge? How does it change? My great-great-grandparents believed in plaaggesten and consulted the White Wives on matters of crops and colicky babies. I don’t.

    Who judges between cultures? When Pedro Alvarez from the capital wants to route the road to do the least amount of damage to the watershed and local engineer Aristedes Quispe wants to route it to follow the energy lines of the apus of the valley, who prevails? Which explanation is accepted when the number of freak accidents increases unexpectedly on that stretch of road?

    Where do we stand to judge all these things, if not the text? This is a big deal to me because it is basically the hermeneutic used to justify women’s ordination, thus sealing off a large segment of otherwise reasonable Protestants from ever rejoining Apostolic Christianity.

    And I don’t think we are the recalcitrant ones.


  34. I suppose I should just wait and see, but I’m curious as to how much the author gets into the Documentary Hypothesis, that claims to identify the different origins of the text.


  35. “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.”

    To my modern mind, that sounds like a guaranteed recipe for tyrrany and disaster.


  36. Mike, I’d also recommend anything by Marvin Wilson, my OT prof at Gordon. He’s a Wheaton grad, and spent most of his career teaching at Barrington and Gordon. Recently retired, at nearly the age of Moses. A lot of his work involved modern Judaism and how it’s related to Christianity. We learned a lot of New Testament through his course Modern Jewish Culture.


  37. There are some things which scholars may never be able to definitively know about the original intent and meaning of parts of the Scriptures, because there are some things we may never definitively know about the ancient culture/cultures that produced them. That requires humility to accept, not just for individuals, who have to be wary of assuming they can understand even the “main and plain” things in the texts without the help of sober and intelligent scholarly resources; but also for churches that for over a millennium have been interpreting and teaching texts based on some of the same faulty, naive, culturally mistaken assumptions as modern individuals.


  38. Sounds fascinating. Genesis in Space and Time was an eye-opener.

    Other authors who this makes me think of are:
    – Lesslie Newbigin (e.g. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) for the notion that there is no ‘neutral’ biblical/Christian culture, but that all forms of Christianity are embedded and experienced in the context of a given culture, while also called to question and challenge that culture.

    – Vincent Donovan (Christianity Rediscovered): A Catholic missionary who realised the total disconnect between ‘Church’ culture and the culture of the Masai he was converting. He realised that the process of ‘cultural translation’ he had applied to the Gospel message also needed to be applied to the culture of the nascent church amongst that people. (Whilst searching for this I stumbled on a fascinating article on “What happened next”:, both disappointing and unsurprising).


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