Torah Does Not Mean Law!

  • By Boaz Michael
  • October 14, 2009

"The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul." That’s a bold statement, but it seems a bit misguided! After all, isn’t Jesus the restorer of our souls, rather than the Torah? Maybe King David said this because he didn’t know Jesus. On the other hand, maybe it only seems misguided to us because we don’t understand the Torah.

How could the Torah restore anyone’s soul? We need to take a closer look at the word Torah and see if we can get a clearer idea of its meaning and purpose. In Paul’s letters he uses the Greek word nomos to translate the Hebrew word torah. Nomos means law, but the Hebrew word torah actually means more than just law.

Making Wise the Simple

Torah is from a Hebrew root word, an archery term meaning "to take aim, to shoot" –as in shooting an arrow to hit a target. In his book, Our Father Abraham, Dr. Marvin Wilson explains, "The word torah, commonly translated ‘law’ derives from the verb yarah, ‘to cast, throw, shoot.’"1 The essence of the word Torah is to "hit the mark."

Torah can then be likened to the target at which God would have us aim. The opposite of torah is hata which means to "miss the mark." Hata is one of the words translated as "sin" in our Bibles. Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the mark.2 Do you see the picture? The Torah is the target for which we aim our arrow.

Sweeter than Honey

Dr. Wilson continues his description of Torah by saying, "In time, yarah took on the extended meaning ‘to teach’… Torah in many contexts properly means "direction, instruction, and teaching… giving guidance and direction for life." 3 God’s direction. God’s instruction. God’s teaching. God’s guidance. That makes better sense. Maybe that’s what restored David’s soul. God’s direction for life.

Here’s a good analogy. Several years ago I purchased a VCR. I plugged it in and started to use it, but I didn’t know how to program it. So I left the clock endlessly blinking: "12:00…12:00…12:00…12:00." But I couldn’t use the VCR to its fullest potential because I didn’t know how to set the clock or program the timer. One day I finally dug out the instructions and learned how to program the machine. Human beings come with an instruction manual too. It’s called "The Instruction," that is "The Torah." We do not function to our fullest potential without the instructions.

Enlightening the Eyes

When we see the word "Torah," we immediately think in terms of the Old Testament–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. However, that isn’t accurate. Remember that Torah doesn’t just mean law, it means teaching. Yes, in the narrowest sense, those first five books are called the Torah, the "teaching" of Moses. But in a broader sense, all of Scripture is Torah, because all of Scripture is the "teaching" of God. Please note that this isn’t a new idea. In rabbinic usage, the word Torah also includes the rest of the Scriptures (keeping in mind that for the rabbis, this meant the Old Testament alone). The Psalms and the Prophets, and even the little scrolls of Esther, Jonah, and Ruth are all Torah. They are all teaching, all part of God’s Torah. That’s why Paul can say, "It is written in the Torah," and then quote from the Psalms. The Master himself does the same.
For Christians, the Torah is even broader than it is for the rabbis. Because the Gospels are Torah. Paul’s writings are also Torah. The epistles are Torah. The Revelation of John is also Torah. It is all teaching which builds upon, and agrees with, the first chunk of God’s Torah as delivered through Moses.

We’re used to thinking of "Torah" as "law," and so we’re used to thinking of it as a sterile list of rules and regulations. Yes, the Torah does set out some regulations for the governing of God’s people. But it’s much, much more than that! God’s Torah is a detailed description of who God is and how God works. It describes what He is like and how He defines holiness. It presents His expectations for His people. The Torah is nothing less than a reflection of His perfect will and wisdom. As such, it expresses the perfection of God and places before us an unchanging standard of godliness. Only as Christians live out that expression are we able to show the world what God is like. Only through a life of Torah are we able to fulfill the reason for which God made us–to reflect the image of Christ to the nations.

Enduring Forever

We can further clarify our understanding of Torah by comparing it to a builder’s cubit. The basic unit of measure in the biblical world was the cubit. A cubit is the length from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger. The problem with the cubit is that it’s subjective–everyone’s measure of a cubit will be different, depending on the length of one’s arm. The average man’s arm length will approximate a cubit, but that’s too inexact for many situations. Imagine two stonemasons working on the same building; say a little pyramid in Egypt. One mason has short arms, the other has long arms. Each one builds his side of the pyramid 75 cubits long. What would happen? The structure would be lopsided, crooked.

Likewise with subjective morality. God has given us all an innate sense of right and wrong–a conscience. But the conscience by itself is subjective. Something might seem "right" to one person, but "wrong" to another person. Different people, different arm lengths, different standards of conscience. Messy.

To solve the cubit problem, the ancient world introduced the "builder’s cubit rod." It was a standardized cubit, measured with a rod that was similar to a yardstick. If the instructions for a building said "75 cubits," any builder could measure exactly 75 cubits. It didn’t matter how long the builder’s arm was, or how he felt about the length of a cubit; it was a set measurement.

The Torah is like the builder’s cubit rod. It is the length from God’s "elbow" to the tip of his "finger." It is God’s standard, an objective standard of right and wrong. It is not based upon what feels right to me, or doesn’t feel right to you. It’s about black and white; right and wrong; ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’; it’s about clean and unclean; holy and profane. It is a universal standard of righteousness for all humanity.

But isn’t the Torah weak and imperfect? It isn’t the Torah that is weak and imperfect, rather it is human beings that are weak and imperfect. "The Torah is God’s instruction in righteousness. Its place in Christian growth is vital, but like any support structure it has strengths and weaknesses … in the use and abuse humans make of it."4 The problem lies not with God’s Torah, but with human beings. We don’t measure up to God’s standard, and so the standard is often abused in our hands.

When the New Testament writers sometimes seem to disparage the Law, it’s typically the misapplication of Torah that they’re teaching against. The most common misuse of Torah is to assume that it is a means of earning salvation. "The law of God was always designed [for] sanctification and never to attain eternal life."5 The difference between sanctification and salvation is like the difference between the cart and the horse. We must be careful not to invert the order.

More Desirable than Gold

The Torah is far from being antiquated and not one jot or tittle has passed away (Mt. 5:18). It is far from being a cold and sterile legalism composed of ancient rituals and rules chiseled in stone. The Torah is the standard of righteousness, ultimately embodied and modeled and taught by Christ. Christ, the living Word, the living Torah. The Torah is God’s teaching, His direction, guidance and instruction. As the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis puts it, the Torah is the "divine standard of conduct for God’s people."6 It is God’s written Word, now alive in Christ. That’s what David meant when he said "The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul."7

Learn More

HaYesod will spark a revival of renewed interest in Bible Study for those who often seem disinterested with traditional studies by opening up the locations and settings of the Bible Jesus read. Become involved with the HaYesod program and see the Bible through the filter of the Land, the People and the Scriptures of Israel.

By: Boaz Michael


1) Wilson, Marvin. Our Father Abraham, pg. 296, Eerdmans 1989.

2) Romans 3:23

3) Wilson, Marvin. 1989

4) Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:27

5) Five Views on Law and Gospel, pg. 210, Gundry, Stanley N., Series Editor, Zondervan 1996

6) New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 4, page 893, Willem A. VanGemeren, General Editor, Zondervan 1997.

7) Psalm 19:7

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