Volume 44 - Issue 2

The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context

by John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton

The present work is John H. Walton’s sixth in a series of Lost World volumes published by IVP Academic. He is joined by his son, J. Harvey Walton (who also collaborated on The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest), in an attempt to recast our understanding of the Torah, not as legislation/legal code/moral instruction, but as wisdom instruction, covenant stipulation, and ritual instruction—all embedded within an original ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context far different from our modern one. As in the previous volumes, Walton and Walton proceed by way of advancing and defending one proposition per chapter (23 propositions in all), each one laying the groundwork for further discussion, culminating in a final series of propositions designed to explore “the practical issues of today using an informed understanding of the Torah and applying a consistent hermeneutic” (p. 6).

In Part 1 (“Methodology”; Propositions 1–2), Walton and Walton employ the analogy of cultural rivers to argue that we who live within a modern cultural river with all its attendant (and assumed) cultural currents (such as democracy, individual rights, etc.) must be careful to read ancient texts (and the OT is an ANE text) in light of the ancient cultural river in which they are embedded, with due appreciation for the cultural currents that often differ from ours and perhaps don’t even anticipate ours. Only by reading the ancient Hebrew text for what it is (and not what we want it or assume it to be), with the aid of “cultural brokers” who can help those in one culture to understand the backgrounds and beliefs of another culture, can we have confidence that we have reached authoritative interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. With this in mind, they assert that our concepts of Torah today are influenced by our modern, post-Reformation notions of law and legislation as prescriptive formulations enforcing obligations upon those under its authority; according to the authors, however, the ANE context presents legal material only as descriptive formulations, calling for wise understanding by those who might settle disputes and make decisions. To put it more bluntly, they aver that many read Torah “as if it were prescriptive, codified legislation, though that concept did not exist in the ancient world” (p. 22) and so are guilty of hermeneutical cultural river violation.

Part 2 (“Functions of Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections”; Propositions 3–7) provides the authors’ actual arguments that legal collections (like the laws of Hammurabi) are not in fact prescriptive legislation, based on their lack of comprehensiveness and the lack of appeal to the written legal sayings in court records (both of which should be present in the case of codified legislation). Instead, the legal collections’ lists function as aspective wisdom, providing illustrations of what wise order in applying justice looks like. Since the Torah is like these legal collections, it should likewise be understood as aspective legal wisdom designed to preserve order and not supply legislation. It is here that Walton and Walton state in no uncertain terms what many will find to be shocking: “If God did not give rules, as we have suggested, there are no rules to follow. If God did not provide legislation, there are no laws to obey” (p. 44). In a similar vein, they also point out that the Torah shares much in common with ANE suzerainty covenants; just as the stipulations of such covenants are not given by the suzerains to legislate the vassal’s society or to provide moral requirements, so we should not assume that YHWH provides these stipulations for said reasons. Instead, they propose that the covenant stipulations serve to preserve covenant order and to reflect on YHWH the sovereign’s reputation by revealing what kind of a wise and just king he is. Finally, the authors propose that holiness for Israel is a status conferred by YHWH, not something to be acquired by observing rules or performing rituals.

Part 3 (“Ritual and Torah”; Propositions 8–9) explains how ANE ritual functioned as part of the “Great Symbiosis” where worshipers needed the favor of the gods while, at the same time, the gods were dependent on humans to meet their needs. Here the Israelite covenant differs greatly from ANE religions, since YHWH has no needs to meet. Therefore, the function of ritual must be to preserve covenant order, wherein offerings serve as tribute to the suzerain and rituals preserve the favor of YHWH dwelling in their midst.

In Part 4 (“Context of the Torah”; Propositions 10–14), Walton and Walton discuss in detail the contextual situatedness of the Torah in the ancient world (and its ancient values), in the covenant relationship (with Israel as the unique vassal), and in Israelite sacred space (where Israel receives instruction in how to preserve the blessings of divine presence and favor).

The final section, Part 5 (“Ongoing Significance of the Torah”; Propositions 15–23), applies the foregoing conclusions to significant questions about how to apply Torah today (actually, it would be more accurate to describe this lengthy section of 101 pages as how not to apply it). They argue for a number of controversial points, such as the following: the NT does not provide hermeneutical guidance for how to understand the OT in context; one cannot legitimately separate the Torah into parts in order to determine what is of enduring value; a derived-principles approach to applying the Torah is too problematic to be consistent and workable; the Torah is not and never was intended to provide an ideal social structure or a moral system/set of moral principles; and a divine command theory of ethics could be constructed even without a written Torah construed as moral. Following the conclusion, the authors provide an appendix expounding the Ten Words within their hermeneutical framework.

No doubt many will laud the work of Walton and Walton and breathe a sigh of relief that their approach offers “a way to resolve a longstanding problem: why the inclusion of slavery or patriarchy in the Torah should not concern us” (p. 225). For my part, while supportive of their fundamental goal of interpreting the Torah in its original context, I found myself in vigorous disagreement with them at so many points. However, due to the requirements for brevity in this kind of review, I thought it best to present a summary of the book as charitably and accurately as possible and to limit myself to one substantive criticism. A significant plank in their argument is that the legal sayings of the Torah (as well as ANE legal collections) are not codified prescriptive legislation. This conclusion is based on the lack of comprehensiveness in what it addresses and the absence of judges overtly grounding rulings in legal collections for the court documents we have. The latter is of course an argument from silence. The former presents a false dichotomy: either a legal collection is comprehensive in scope and prescriptive legislation, or it must be descriptive legal wisdom. As Walton and Walton put it, “The conclusion can only be that these documents could not possibly serve as codified legislation to regulate every aspect of society” (p. 30). But why must this be an all or nothing proposition? Why can’t a non-comprehensive legal collection serve as both codified legislation for the areas it does address and instructional legal wisdom for judges in the areas that it doesn’t? Appeals to our modern experience of indexing comprehensiveness to codified legislation would be to impose our modern cultural river on the ancient one.

Phillip S. Marshall

Phillip S. Marshall
Houston Baptist University
Houston, Texas, USA

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