“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Continued from The Torah, Foundation of Covenant Continuity: The Role of the Torah.

In addition to the roles explored thus far, the Torah would go on to ultimately represent the national identity of ancient Israel. From the Israelite perspective, the Torah is the basis and evidence of the intentionality of God toward them, as John Sailhamer remarks, “Every word spoken within Israel’s history has a horizontal (historical) range of meaning as well as a vertical (messianic) one. Within Israel’s own unique salvation history, not only are biblical words fraught with divine intentionality, but so also are the actual historical events that constituted that history.”[1] Indeed, behind all of the events in Israel’s history is the mind of God and His effective will, and the standards accompanying their identity are higher than those governing their pagan neighbors. As a theocracy in which God and the state are integrated, these standards handed down to Israel for its welfare (Deut 28:1-14) set ancient Israel apart from the surrounding Ancient Near East (ANE) nations.[2] Yahweh’s symbolic inscription of His name upon their hands, which is reminiscent of the branding of slaves in the ANE, also separates Israel. Hence, the Pentateuch functions in the life of ancient Israel much as a symbol of their identity as God’s covenant people.[3] “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:11-12, ESV).[4] The Torah presents the basis for this conventual relationship.

Although scholars present varying arguments in support of an expanded understanding of the Torah, the normative character of OT law and its regulation  of moral and social behavior cannot be overlooked. Jesus’ exchange with the pharisees in Matthew 19 offers insight into the practical, judicial need the law provides: “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’” (7,8). Sailhamer questions whether God’s original intent was to issue vast collections of laws beyond the Sinai covenant, but they became necessary in response to transgressions in the wilderness.[5] “Because of your hardness of heart” Moses allowed them to divorce; this denotes a reactionary measure. Sailhamer aptly points to the incident with the golden calf as marking a decisive moment in which Israel broke the covenant nearly before it began, yet God did not revoke His covenant and cast them aside; instead, God demonstrates His grace by renewing the covenant but with the addition of new laws.[6] The same God who demonstrates His love for Israel, in spite of its disobedience in the Exodus account, is the same God who so loved the world, that He sacrificed His own Son, granting eternal life to everyone who trusts in Him (John 3:16).

“And he [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). The expression “and he counted it” (וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ) is commonly translated as “to reckon” or “to consider,”[7] and Abraham and the righteousness credited him represents another key Pentateuchal element of Israelite identity. Though much of our consideration about the law consists of four of the five Pentateuchal books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, Genesis plays a major role within ancient Israel. “They [the Jews] answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did’” (John 8:39-40). Israel takes great pride in being descendants of Abraham, and though His opponents may be descendants according to the flesh, Jesus points out that they are not Abraham’s children. Although the exchange recorded in John took on additional elements, the final reaction of Jesus’ antagonists demonstrates how entrenched Jewish identification with Abraham had become by the first century: “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (8:59). Besides maybe Moses, no other patriarch is as fundamental to the Torah in the eyes of ancient Israelites as Abraham.[8]

“What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Rom 9:30-32). Many in ancient Israel fall prey to the same threat that Christians must remain cognizant of today, specifically, using the law as a means of self-justification, instead of faith in God’s covenant grace. As Paul states plainly that his fellow Israelites did not achieve the righteousness of the law, because they did not pursue by faith in the God of the covenant who would graciously transform them.[9] Paul’s explanation in Romans 9 presents a window into how Israel has not practiced Abraham’s faith and thus is unable to satisfy the law, because unlike Abraham who trusted God, they treated the Torah “as a standard rather than an invitation to depend on God’s kindness.”[10] No wonder Paul writes Timothy, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim 1:8). From Paul’s perspective, though Israel had misused the law, God’s purposes could not be thwarted, not even by sin, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (Rom 7:13). Consequently, God uses the Torah within the event space of ancient Israel to not only expose sin (cf. Rom 7:7) but to reveal mankind’s desperate need for a Savior as well (cf. Rom 7:24,25).

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

[1] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2009), 230.

[2] William Edgar, “Parallels, Real or Imagined?: A Review Article of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology,” Themelios 35, no. 2 (July 2010): 244.

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Bearing the Name of the Lord with Honor,” Bibliotheca sacra 168, no. 669 (January – March, 2011): 22.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

[5] Sailhamer, 46.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Mark Sheridan and Thomas C. Oden, Genesis 12-50 (Ed. Mark Sheridan and Thomas C. Oden; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 32.

[8] Thomas Römer, “Abraham’s righteousness and sacrifice: how to understand (and translate) Genesis 15 and 22.” Communio viatorum 54, no 1 (2012): 13.

[9] Craig S. Keener, “Reading the Torah as the Law of Faith.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 64, no. 1 (Fall 2021): 78.

[10] Ibid., 79.

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