When is a law not a law?

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The first broad genre a Christian reader encounters in a description of the bible’s contents is “law”. Whenever the scriptures are referred to in the pages of the New Testament by genre, it is nearly always “the Law and the Prophets.” (I discussed this language a bit here.) And many people are used to hearing references to the books of Moses, or the law of Moses, in relation to the first five books of the bible.

However, what the reader finds when starting these books is not laws, but stories. It takes 50 chapters of Genesis and 19 more chapters of Exodus before we get to the giving of the law. This alerts us to a certain problem with the language of “law”.

Detail of a Torah scroll

So what’s in a name? The first five books of the bible are referred to by various names, especially Pentateuch (meaning “five scrolls”), Books of Moses, Torah (the Jewish term we’ve encountered earlier) and Law. This last is, as we’ve said, the one that crops up most often in the New Testament. Whichever terms we use, we are referring to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is the first, and most important, section of the bible for Jews.

The Greek word nomos was a regular translation of the Hebrew word torah before the early Christians started to use the language. It translates accurately as “law” in many contexts, but can also mean “custom and usage”. These can also be meanings of the Hebrew word.

Torah, however, is probably much better translated directly into English as “instruction” or “teaching”. It is broader than law, and while there are a great many laws included in these first five books, they also include other types of writing – stories about a mythical time when the world was made, tales of fabled ancestors, poetry like the song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), various collections of laws, and a very long speech (Deuteronomy) presented as Moses’ farewell discourse before his death.

These books of instruction, then, are something of a jumble of genres, not just as a collection, but also varying within each book. How they instruct us will vary from section to section, and a reader needs to stay alert to the different types of writing presented in the same book.

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