We are considering 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.
The Torah was intended to give the king wisdom for doing his job. The Torah (like the legal lists in the ANE) embodies wisdom; it does not establish legislation. (pp. 38-39)
John Walton devotes several chapters and propositions to helping us understand the nature of law codes in the Ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites shared the “cultural river” of their time, and Walton suggests that they way they viewed “laws” was different than the way we do today. He begins by comparing one of the most famous of the ancient law codes.
The most well-known, most extensive, and the first to be found, in 1901 in excavations at Susa, is the stele that preserves 282 legal sayings embedded in a royal inscription of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC), hundreds of years prior to Moses. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king contemporary with Israel’s patriarchs. (p. 26)
When first found, scholars thought Hammurabi’s stele was a “law code” — a body of prescriptive legislation to be enforced within Babylonian society. But one thing soon became clear. The “laws” included were not comprehensive. There were major gaps in the content of the law, areas of legislation that would have been expected in a body of laws.
The collection of legal sayings was then reinterpreted as Hammurabi’s demonstration that he was executing justice in his kingdom—a role that the gods had appointed him to carry out and for which they held him accountable.
Given this interpretation, it became less fitting to interpret the document as codified, prescriptive legislation, but adjustments in thinking continued to occur. Scholars began to suspect that these collections were the result of the scholarly creativity of the scribes rather than solely the work of legislators ruling on cases brought before them. (p. 28)
It appears that “law codes” like that of Hammurabi were designed to provide examples of the king’s wisdom, “not to define law but to offer guidance for discerning wise justice so that order might be maintained in society” (p. 33) by those responsible for executing justice. These laws were pedagogical models, not legal statutes.
The list is not comprehensive because it is intended to circumscribe, not legislate. It provides illustrations of justice and order. As judges and magistrates absorb what it communicates, they will be better able to recognize wrongness and rightness and make decisions appropriately. Since the list is not intended to regulate or legislate, there is no need for it to be comprehensive. The items in the list provide descriptive instruction, not prescriptive legislation. (pp. 35-36)
Those who study the legal sections in the Torah come to a similar conclusion. The sections of laws therein are in no way comprehensive. My professor of Old Testament in seminary, John Sailhamer, used to remind us that the Torah is primarily a narrative, and “bags of laws” have been dropped in at certain places in service to that narrative. In other words, they are not legislation for the reader to obey, rather they are examples of the laws God gave to Israel to help readers understand the story of Israel and God’s dealings with them better.
Walton puts it this way:
[T]he legal lists in the Pentateuch are…couched literarily in narrative or in speeches (such as Moses’ sermons in Deuteronomy), as well as in what eventually became canonical books, each using the Torah to accomplish its own individual literary objectives. That means that none of these are in a literary context of legislation; they have been adopted for secondary (or even tertiary) use. (p. 39)
Furthermore, he notes that the Torah could not be used to legislate Israel’s life, otherwise they would not have needed to extrapolate from it in so much detail in additional works like the Mishnah. Furthermore, even in the Bible itself, Walton notes occasions when people and leaders made decisions and cited “laws” or known rules that are nowhere found in the text of the “Law.” And so, he concludes,
The Torah was intended to give the king wisdom for doing his job. The Torah (like the legal lists in the ANE) embodies wisdom; it does not establish legislation.” (pp. 38-39)
Israel’s judiciary system, like that throughout the ANE, was based on the wisdom of the judges, not on legislation. It involved a dynamic integration of custom, divine revelation (including oracles), and intuition, rather than static codes. The legal collections found in the Torah and other legal collections embody that wisdom by providing an aspective mosaic of sayings that manifested the sponsor’s wisdom, instructed the judges, and helped the people to understand order in society. The people are to “heed” this wisdom and “preserve” it. In this view, the expected response to the Torah is far different from a response to legislation. Legislation carries a sense of “you ought”; instruction carries a sense of “you will know.”
Consequently, we will propose that Torah in biblical usage is an expression of wisdom, not of legislation. It refers to a collection of examples that combine to form a description of the desired established order. We will be using the term to refer to the corpus of legal sayings found throughout the Pentateuch and will seek to demonstrate that these sayings embody standards of wisdom for the ordering of society within the covenant relationship that Yahweh had with Israel. (pp. 44-45)