Torah (תּוֹרָה) : Law and Instruction

The teaching of the LORD is perfect, renewing life; the decress of the LORD are enduring, making the simple wise; the precepts of the LORD are just, rejoicing the heart; the instruction of the LORD is lucid, making the eyes light up.  Psalm 19:8-9, JPS

Many of us Christians have grown up with a negative attitude about the word “law,” feeling that it refers to oppressive and arbitrary regulations. But the word torah that we translate as “law” has a very different emphasis and connotation in Hebrew.

The Hebrew torah is derived from the root word yarah, which means “to point out, teach, instruct, or give direction.” Torah could best be defined in English as “instruction,” that is, God’s instruction to man. If God teaches us something, we are, in a sense, obligated to obey. Therefore, the word “law” is within the bounds of definition of torah, but not really its main emphasis. Our Bible translations tend to reinforce our thinking by translating torah as “law” most of the time. The Jewish Tanakh instead translates torah as “teaching” most of the time. For example, the New International Version reads:

But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)

… while the Jewish Tanakh says:

Rather, the teaching of the LORD is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. (Psalm 1:2, JPS)

What a difference it makes to think of the primary emphasis of God’s word to us as loving guidance, rather than as burdensome law! Certainly there are many laws within the Bible, but even those are given to form us into the people God wants us to be.

Another way of seeing that torah really means “teaching” rather than “law” is to notice that the first five books of the Bible are called Torah, but they contain much more than laws or commandments. The Torah contains the story of creation and the Fall, God’s choosing the family of Abraham, and his deliverance of Israel from slavery, their formation as a nation, and God’s revelation of himself as their God. All of the Torah teaches us about God’s ways, but only part of it is actually law. The reason for the name “Torah” is that it was understood to be God’s teaching given through Moses, but the word torah is sometimes even used in a larger sense to describe all of Scripture.

This emphasis helps us see God in a more positive light. Now the word torah reminds us that rather than being primarily a lawgiver, or a judge ready to punish us, God is a loving father teaching his children how to live. Jesus, who instructed his disciples and the crowds, was simply imitating his father in teaching us how to have life, and to have it more abundantly.


[Except from Listening to the Language of the Bible by Lois Tverberg with Bruce Okkema]