Review: The Lost World of the Torah

lost world torah

Review: The Lost World of the Torah (The Lost World Series Volume 6), John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Like other books in this series, argues that Torah must be understood in its Ancient Near East context as a legal collection teaching wisdom and covenant stipulations rather than legislation, and cannot be appropriated into a system of moral or social ethics today.

The first five books (Torah) of the Bible are challenging for any person who believes the Bible inspired by God and having authority in one’s life. John Walton, joined in this volume by his son, have written a series of books premised on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, as well as the fact that it is an ancient work, reflective of its Ancient Near East context. The Walton’s argue that we often read these texts through our own cultural lens of how law and legislation work, and may be used to establish biblical “positions” or “precedents” for all sorts of modern moral questions. This is problematic not only because what we have is not a codified system of laws (there is much that is not addressed), and some of the laws support practices like slavery or requiring that a rapist marry the woman he has raped, that we would judge unacceptable. Like other “Lost World” books, they proceed by a series of propositions, with an appendix on the Decalogue.

The Walton’s, identifying similarities between Torah and other ancient legal collections, argue that the purpose of these collections is not legislation but to articulate wisdom about how society is to be ordered under the ruler of the state. The purpose is order that reflects well upon the king. Additionally, in the case of Torah, it is a covenant document similar to Ancient Near East (ANE) suzerainty treaties, where the various provisions outline how the people are to remain loyal to their suzerain, in this case Yahweh or God. The statement, “you shall be holy for I am holy” is a conferral of status rather than an objective for the people of Israel, and Torah is wisdom for how they might be who they are by status. There is a distinction between ritual instructions in Torah and other codes. For others, rituals serve to meet the needs of the gods. Yahweh has no such needs and instead, these serve both as means of worship, and maintain and restore covenant order.

The Walton’s then move beyond noting the similarities and differences of ANE codes and Torah to consider similarities and differences of context. They note that many of the similarities in provisions reflect not dependence on other codes but rather that they are both embedded in the same cultural “river.” What differentiates Torah from these other codes is that it also reflects God’s covenant with Israel and God’s presence among them, instructing them how they might retain the enjoyment and blessing of that presence.

The final part of their work addresses the church’s use of Torah and particular focuses on what Torah is not, and what interpretive practices are invalid. They discourage the common practice of dividing Torah into moral, civil, and ceremonial law, arguing that these divisions are both artificial, and undermine understanding Torah in context as an integral whole. Typically, we lift out the “moral” teachings, and seek to derive principles for our contemporary situation, perhaps along with New Testament teaching, which is situated in a different, Greco-Roman cultural river. They point to a number of areas in the Torah where this is problematic: marriage, economy, political system, social status and hierarchy, international relations, warfare, and diplomacy, respect of personhood, taxation, property ownership and rights, crime and punishment, and sexual ethics. They contend that Torah was not for salvation, but arose as instruction for living under the covenant. It is a metaphor of health, not a system of moral instruction, and cannot be used as prooftexts for contemporary problems. Taking Torah seriously reads it as a wisdom text disclosing the gracious character of God toward his people and God’s intention that they flourish under his care as their suzerain, as they pursue covenant faithfulness in adhering to his wise instruction.

There is much here that is helpful. Instructions we would find morally objectionable (those upholding slavery or patriarchy, for example) fall in line with the kind of order one would expect in the Ancient Near East and commend Yahweh as ruler of his people, but do not serve as legislation for the contemporary church.

What I find missing, and perhaps troubling is how then we are to read scripture, including the New Testament, also embedded in a cultural river, and according to the Walton’s, also not a source of moral instruction for us, but rather “wisdom.” They write:

“The decision between ‘do not conform to the pattern of this world’ (Romans 12:1-2) and ‘become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some’ (1 Cor 9:22) does not default in either direction. It means that we exercise wisdom in knowing where to conform to the culture of our day. This wisdom must be exercised by those who can understand the culture well enough to understand the cost of either decision, and it is these people whom we should appoint to lead the community. But making those decisions is not the same thing as following a rigid set of rules, especially not a rigid set of rules that was written to a different culture” (p. 230).

I recognize the value of reading contextually and avoiding prooftexting, but I’m troubled here with language that seems to elevate the wise interpreter above the “rigid set of rules” they interpret. The language of “rigidity” reveals a disposition toward scripture that seems troubling. Were Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians or Corinthians about how to lead a life worthy of their calling rigid? Or those of Jesus on divorce, grounded not in a particular culture but in God’s creational intent? I agree that the Bible is not primarily a book of moral instruction, yet does not scripture aid those saved by grace, God’s workmanship, who created for good works in which we are to walk (Ephesians 2:8-10)? The Waltons’ conclusion smacks of a “hidden knowledge” accessible to the wise that seems a long way from the perspicacity of scripture. I would have been helped if they would spell out more of how scripture may be appropriated, and not mostly by how it may not.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Lost World of the Torah

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2019 | Bob on Books

  2. Great job on the review. I especially agreed with your closing comment on how the book leaves us wondering how scripture is to be appropriated.

    I had a question that you might be able to help with since you’ve read it.

    If Torah isn’t legislation (and I do find Walton persuasive on this) I still wonder how the law serves the purpose that Paul seems to assume in Romans 7:5-12? Perhaps Walton would say this is a Second Temple interpretation of Torah and not the original ANE understanding of it but that does seem to be bit of a stretch for me. Are we really to think that the Torah didn’t reveal sin to ancient Israel? It seems Walton believes the entire purpose of the Torah was to give wisdom to maintain order so that Israel would remain in covenant faithfulness but how do explain Yahweh’s wrath toward the Canaanites for offering their children to Molech? There seems to be an assumption that it was evil to offer human sacrifice to the gods. How do we understand knowledge (and therefore culpability) of sin using Walton’s thesis?

    Thanks for any help on this.

    • Really good questions that in a busy season I don’t have time to give the response they deserve. I will try to get back to you, and feel free to ping me if I don’t. Thanks for reading and responding to the review!

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