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Torah

What does Torah and Law really mean?

We have talked about the two stone tablets with the Ten Words (Ten Commandments). What about the rest of God’s Word? It seems that Moses wrote it himself, as instructed by God. It was an ongoing process for Moses, for the rest of his life. He was now 120 years old. He had just handed over the mantle of leadership to young Joshua (though no spring chicken himself). He had a few more things to say, a few more things to write.

“And it was when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD* saying, “Take this scroll of the Torah and put it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD* your God, so it will be there as a witness against you.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-26)

The book was finished - but not quite finished, of course. Joshua himself would have completed the Torah – called the “law” in other translations - with the story of the death of Moses on Mount Moab. We know that Joshua was no stranger to the writing stylus.

“And Joshua wrote these words in the scroll of the Torah (Teaching) of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak that was by the Sanctuary of the LORD*.” (Joshua 24:26)

And so was completed the written Torah, the “five books of Moses”, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, written on scrolls and accompanying the tablets of stone in the Ark, in the Tabernacle.

This is as good a place as any to start to look at this most misunderstood of words, Torah, translated as “law” by so many Bible versions. Firstly, the Hebrew letters:

Four letters, which are (right to left) tav (t), vav (v), resh (r) and hey (h). The vav is a consonant that is sometimes a vowel (as in this case!), so you can see how the other three consonants spell out the word TRH or Torah, once we put in the vowels. Of course one burning question that is possibly niggling you is: who decides what vowels to put in if the Hebrew Scriptures just consist of consonants? Very good question, which will be answered ... eventually.

To say that Jews throughout history have a high view of Torah is akin to the statement that we need to breathe to stay alive. It is considered the holiest possession of Israel and its place in religious Jewish life is affirmed by this set prayer:

Blessed be the Lord, Who has chosen us out of all the peoples of the World with this everlasting trust and gave us His Torah.

You’ll remember what was said earlier about the three consonant root words. Well, the Hebrew word for Torah itself is derived from a root verb, yarah:

This is made up of the letters

yod 

resh

and

hey

This is going to show us how earthy, visual and evocative Hebrew is. This word yarah is basically a verb which means, primarily, to throw or shoot, just as a skilled archer directs his arrow on the right course. So also Torah is all about being guided or directed towards the target of perfect living – it’s about instructions for life.

But aren’t we taught that Torah means “law”? Yes, we are taught this and, later, when we look at the vast majority of English translations of the Bible, we’ll see where this idea comes from. It’s an interesting story and worth waiting for.

This is Hebrew. It uses everyday activities and observations, such as shooting arrows at a target, to create meaningful words and expressions.

Hebrew verbs are interesting because Biblical Hebrew is more about verbs than nouns. Hebrew is a dynamic language, full of movement and expression and, as such, verbs take on a certain level of importance. English verbs distinguish past (he hit me), present (he’s hitting me) and future (he’s going to hit me). They are all related to time. Hebrew verbs are different, they are related instead to action.

Just think how awesome this simple little fact is. Modern societies are arranged according to our concept of time, flowing from the past to the present to the future. We reminisce about the past, live in the present and plan for the future. Could it be any different? It could, but, to fully appreciate this, we need to think differently - Hebraically.

In Hebrew thought, the importance is in the doing rather than “when the doing is done” (if you can understand that). It’s more important to do what you say you’re going to do, rather than abandoning it for lack of time. Doing it late is better than not doing it at all is a very Hebraic attitude.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

For the next article in this series, click here.

To find out what is my favourite book of the Bible, click here.

You can reach Steve with any comments or questions at the Saltshakers Web Community website.

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