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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Law, Ten Commandments, Torah

Law refers both to the revelation of the will of God in the Old Testament and to the later elaboration on the law referred to as the “traditions of the elders” in the New Testament (for example, Mark 7:5 ).

Law is one of the primary concepts in the Bible. The specific translation of the term law is varied. It may be used for a commandment, a word, a decree, a judgment, a custom, or a prohibition. The first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) are known as books of the Law because they are based on the commandments which God revealed to Moses.

The Hebrew term most frequently translated “law” in the Old Testament is torah , used more than 200 times. The central idea of torah is that of instruction received from a superior authority on how to live. Torah in the Old Testament came to mean the way of life for faithful Israelites. The Torah is more than just “laws”; it includes the story of God's dealing with humankind and with Israel.

The concept of torah is closely linked to that of covenant in the Old Testament. The covenant agreement between God and His people at Mount Sinai provided the foundation for all of Israel's laws. God, the deliverer of the Israelites from Egypt, set forth His instructions for His people. They were to obey God's laws because of what He had done for them in saving them from Egypt ( Exodus 20:2 ). The laws found in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus cover all areas of community life. The Torah is a gift of God to His people. Obeying the Torah would result in His blessing (Exodus 19:5-6 ). Following the Law would provide for the health and wholeness of the covenant community. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the Law (Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21 ).

Later development in Israel's history gave an expanded meaning to torah . By New Testament times torah meant not only the Old Testament Scriptures (the written Law), but also the oral law (unwritten law) of Israel as well. The religious leaders developed in applying the written Law to new life situations. This oral law is sometimes referred to as “the tradition of the elders” in the New Testament (compare Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:5; Galatians 1:14 ).

Two kinds of laws can be found in the Old Testament. First are broad categorical laws which set forth general principles. These laws do not specify how they are to be enforced or what penalties are to be invoked. The Ten Commandments are representative of this kind of law. They are basic policy statements for life in a covenant community with God.

Second are case laws. These laws often begin with an “if” or a “when,” usually deal with very specific situations. Many times they indicate a punishment for breaking the law (e.g., Exodus 21:2-3 ,Exodus 21:2-3,21:4; Exodus 22:1-2 ,Exodus 22:1-2,22:4-5 ,Exodus 22:4-5,22:25 ).

The Ten Commandments are prohibitions (except for Commandments 4,5 in Exodus 20:8-11 ,Exodus 20:8-11,20:12 ). These ten laws define negatively the heart of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The first four Commandments are related to one's relationship with God. The next six Commandments have to do with human relationships. It is important to note that right relationships with others follow being rightly related to God. Being rightly related to God compels one towards right relationships to one's neighbors. Here one can see the wonderful balance that is maintained in the Law. Duties to God and to other human beings are not separated.

The Ten Commandments were not given only for the Hebrew people but are abiding laws for all people. Some of the laws of the Bible seem to apply only to specific times, places, and persons, but the Ten Commandments have an abiding quality about them. They convey duties for everyone and reveal to us the basic morality required by God. While the Ten Commandments have universal validity, they are truly significant only when persons are committed to the God behind them. What makes the Ten Commandments unique is the character of the God who gave them. Without God, the Commandments lose their distinctiveness.

Jesus certainly knew the Law and often referred to it. It is possible to say that Jesus was both a critic of the Law and a supporter of it. He was critical of the law of one means “the tradition of the elders” or the oral laws that had grown up around the written Law. The enemies of Jesus frequently accused Him of violating the Law. It is clear that keeping the letter of the Law had become more important to some of the Jews than the purpose behind the Law.

On several occasions Jesus set His own teachings over against those of the elders (Matthew 5:21-6:48 ). The Pharisees accused Jesus and His disciples of not following the law with regard to “unclean” things (Matthew 15:1-20 ), and they accused Him of eating with tax-gatherers and sinners (Matthew 9:11 ). Jesus' greatest conflict came over the sabbath. He rejected their interpretation of the sabbath Law and said that the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:8 ); that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27 ); and He taught that it was permissible to do good on the sabbath (Mark 3:4 ).

Jesus inaugurated a new era in which the Law as understood by the Jews of His day would no longer be the guiding principle for the Kingdom of God (Luke 16:16 ). Nevertheless, Jesus claimed not to have come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20 ). That is, Jesus moved the understanding of the Law from its external, legalistic meaning to its spiritual one. Moving from outward observance to inward motivation and intention is Jesus' concern (Matthew 5:21-22 ,Matthew 5:21-22,5:27-28 ). He pushes the Law out to its ultimate meaning (thus filling it full). In this sense Jesus affirmed the heart and the spirit of the Law. He moved to a deeper level of meaning, to the spirit behind the Law which God had intended from the beginning.

Jesus did not give us a new law. When Jesus was asked which commandment is the greatest, He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” (Matthew 22:36-37 ). Jesus said the second commandment is like the first, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39 ). Then He said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40 ). Incredibly, Jesus summed up the whole Law and the teaching of the prophets with these two commandments. Behind all of the Law had stood these two great principles of love for God and neighbor. It is important for us to remember that love can never be adequately portrayed in rules or in teachings. It can be seen in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. The commandments to love had been there all along; Jesus simply emphasized them in a way that would forever change how we should look at them.

Paul had a lifelong struggle with the Law. By the term “law,” Paul meant the Law of God as contained in the Old Testament. He also spoke of a kind of natural law which existed in human beings (Romans 7:23 ,Romans 7:23,7:25 ). The “law of sin” meant conduct determined by sin. Paul also used law in this sense when he referred to the “law of faith”—that is, conduct determined by faith in God (Romans 3:27-28 ).

Paul's attitude toward the Mosaic Law can be summarized under several main points. First of all, he recognized that the Law had been given for a good purpose; it was holy, just and good (Romans 7:12 ,Romans 7:12,7:14; 1 Timothy 1:8 ). The demands of the Law were not evil, but had the effect of pointing out the sin of human beings (Romans 7:7 ). Because of man's sinfulness, the Law became a curse instead of a blessing (Galatians 3:10-13 ).

Second, Paul believed the Law was given for a good purpose, but it could not save (Galatians 3:11; Romans 3:20 ). If persons were to become children of God, it would be by means other than keeping the Law. The third theme we find in Paul is that Christ freed us from the requirements of the Law by His death and resurrection (Romans 8:3-4 ). Therefore, Christ has become the end of the Law for Christians (Romans 10:4 ), and it is faith that saves and not Law (Ephesians 2:8-9 ).

Paul, like Jesus, saw the Law fulfilled in the command to love (Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:13 ). Only with the aid of the Spirit of God can we meet the requirement to love which fulfills the Law (Galatians 5:16; Romans 8:1 ). Paul saw the Law as no longer to be viewed legalistically. Nevertheless, it is still the revelation of God, and it helps us to understand the nature of our life in Christ (Romans 8:3; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 3:24 ).

D. Glenn Saul

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Law, Ten Commandments, Torah'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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