Review: Torah Old and New

Torah Old and New, Ben Witherington III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.

Summary: A study of the texts from the Pentateuch quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and how they were understood both in their original context and as used in the New Testament context.

Ben Witherington has previously written Isaiah Old and New and Psalms Old and New. Following this same pattern of studying texts used in the New Testament both as they were understood in their original context and in the New Testament, Witherington takes on the ambitious project of doing the same with Torah, the first five books of scripture, also known as the Pentateuch.

This is an ambitious project as is apparent in Appendix 1, where we find listed all of the passages in Genesis through Deuteronomy cited, alluded to or echoed in the New Testament, and where these occurred. A study of this Appendix explains the layout of the book and demonstrates why the chapters on Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are so much longer than those on Leviticus and Numbers. The three former books were cited much more. Witherington covers all of these instances in the pages of his text, first consider the passage in the Pentateuch, and then the various New Testament references.

One observation, that Witherington notes, is that much more of the material is “law” material than narrative material. The big exception is some of the the songs, particularly the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. The narrative is important, however, especially the narratives of Abraham and his faith, who in the new covenant is father by faith for all of humanity, not only the descendants of Jacob, or Israel.

The use of Torah in the New Testament is centered around the significance of Jesus, who extends the application of some parts of Torah while dismissing others such as laws around sabbath and cleanliness. Paul was the first to grasp the significance of this, allowing Jewish believers to remain Torah observant while Gentiles would observe the aspects of the law re-affirmed and deepened by Jesus.

What all this has in common is that the laws of Torah and the new covenant are both framed by the saving work of God. The laws, contrary to later conceptions focus on what it means to “stay in rather than how to get in.” Both assume already being “in.”

The book sparkles with insights throughout whether or not you find yourself in agreement with Witherington at every point. One insight I found helpful is that many commentators debate whether a New Testament citation is drawn from the Greek (Septuagint) or the Hebrew (Masoretic) text. Witherington proposes that in many cases, they may not have had either text at hand and quoted from memory. That seems like just good common sense!

In addition to the Appendix 1 mentioned above, quite useful for study are two others, on a review of Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight and a second discussing the enigmatic references to Enoch in 1 Peter 3:18-22. The review is fascinating, particularly to see Witherington’s defense of a historic Adam, but doesn’t quite seem germane to this work, other than it references material in Genesis.

My experience over the years is that there is far more preaching from the New Testament than Old in most Christian churches. What Witherington shows is that we cannot go far in the New Testament without some Old Testament allusion or outright citation. What Witherington helps us recognize is both what these texts meant in their context and how they are being used in the New Testament, and have been in the life of the church which reads all scripture in light of Jesus. Witherington’s book is a valuable reference for those preachers, written by one whose preacherly background shows through on nearly every page.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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.