Interpreting the Law of Moses: Relative, Normative, or Something In-Between? A Review of The Lost World of the Torah, by John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton


Paul Copan

Article ID:



Mar 8, 2023


Dec 2, 2019

A Book Review of 

The Lost World of the Torah,

The Lost World Series, Volume 6.

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton

(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019)

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The Lost World of the Torah — the sixth book in John Walton’s “Lost World” series — is coauthored with his son Harvey Walton. In all of his books, Walton — to varying degrees — helps modern readers of the Old Testament better understand its ancient Near Eastern context and its worldview. However, he does not hold back from presenting challenges to even the well-informed evangelical reader’s assumptions and beliefs about understanding and interpreting these texts. This fascinating, thought-provoking book focuses on the Torah (Hebrew for “instruction”) — or “the Law of Moses.”

As with the other “Lost World” books, the chapter titles are presented as propositions — twenty-three in all. In addition, the book’s appendix examines the Ten Commandments (“Words”) in their ancient context. Christian Research Journal readers will find some of these propositions incontestable — for example, “The Old Testament Is an Ancient Document” (#1), “Torah Was Never Intended to Provide Salvation” (#17), “Ancient Near Eastern Ritual Served to Meet the Needs of the Gods” (#8), or perhaps even “The Israelite Covenant Effectively Functions as an Ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty Treaty” (#6).

In other portions of the book, readers may detect implications and inferences drawn by the authors that are quite foreign (which in itself isn’t a problem) — or that the book presents ideas that appear to be in conflict with the New Testament’s view of the Old Testament (which does pose a problem). Here is a sample statement that readers may find arresting and even troubling: “If God did not give rules, as we have suggested, there are no rules to follow. If God did not provide legislation, there are no laws to obey” (p. 44); or, “the desire to take the teaching of the Bible seriously, whether the Old Testament or the New, does not entail an obligation to read the Torah, even the Decalogue [Ten Commandments], as moral instruction” (210).  But there’s more that may appear startling.

The Law as Culturally–Relative Wisdom

The Waltons insist that the Torah is a wisdom collection — not legislation or a “law code” (Proposition 3); indeed, there is no Hebrew word for “law.” The Torah, they claim, is comparable to the wisdom of Proverbs, which presents illustrations of what a wise person would heed (42). But, again, that isn’t legislation. The understanding of “law” as duty or moral obligation developed much later, and it was this view that was assumed in first-century Judaism and all the more in the post-Reformation era with which we’re familiar. Wisdom, the authors argue, can’t be legislated (44).

One cited reason that the Torah is a collection of wise sayings or wisdom (“you will know”) rather than a law code (“you ought”) is that it is not comprehensive but rather aspective. For example, we have only one text specifically addressing divorce (Deut. 24), which we might think should get more coverage than, say, kosher food laws. At the heart of ancient Near Eastern “law” collections is the emphasis on preserving order and promoting stability — not modern values like individual rights, democracy, free market, and personal privacy.

The Waltons also insist that the Torah is culture-bound and thus culturally relative: “How could it be otherwise?” (100). After all, the Torah is for the nation of Israel and no one else, and it assumes the values of the ancient Near East. Furthermore, the Torah is presented in the form of the ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaty. In such arrangements, an earthly king (suzerain) would make a treaty with a “vassal” nation with various stipulations; the suzerain expected loyalty, and he promised the blessings of protection or threatened curses of calamity for (respectively) following or disregarding those stipulations. The vassals were not to diminish the “name” (reputation) of the king.

Likewise, God makes a covenant with Israel — and no other nation — and gives them Torah. In response, Israel voluntarily promises to show loyalty or love (allegiance) to God and not tarnish His reputation (Exod. 24:3). Israel agrees to live as God’s “holy” people — a status belonging to the divine realm (rather than a set of moral duties) — and this status is bestowed upon them by a holy God. If they successfully live up to the stipulations, then God promises His presence would be in their midst. But He would withdraw it if they disobey. Though God is working with Israel, He is doing so within their ancient Near Eastern frame of reference and values: “We should not assume that Yahweh wishes to stamp an endorsement on these [ancient] conceptions for all times, as if all people in all places and all times who serve Yahweh would be expected to reproduce the cultural values of the [ancient Near East]” (61). Of course, Jesus Himself highlighted how various laws commanded by Moses were permitted because of human hard-heartedness, not because these were God’s perfect ideals (Matt. 19:8).

Now, the Waltons are absolutely correct on insisting that we should strive to understand the Torah in its ancient context — the “cultural river” of the ancient Near East rather than our own or even the setting of the first-century Mediterranean world, which is also different cultural river. Of course, evangelical textbooks on biblical hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation) emphasize this point of knowing the ancient culture in which the Scriptures were written. But there is more to unpack.

We should also keep in mind that Israel was distinct from surrounding ancient Near Eastern nations in that a relational God’s redeeming Israel from Egypt and making a covenant is to give ethical shape to Israel’s life and identity.1 How is this moral difference manifested?

(a) Moral Monotheism vs. Fragmented Polytheism: The one true God of Israel provides a morally coherent framework to the world that ancient Near Eastern plurality of deities could not; these deities were part of the world (immanent) rather than transcendent to it, and they created humans to meet their needs of food, clothing, and care.

(b) Persons vs. Things: This worldview difference between the Books of Moses and other ancient Near Eastern texts spills over into how humans are viewed and the ethical expectations that follow — a “Law of Persons” (humans as co-rulers with God and thus a strong humanitarian concern) vs. a “Law of Things” (in which humans aren’t distinctive from the rest of creation).

(c) Relational vs. Detached Covenant Making: The biblical God is unique in desiring to establish a relationship, dialogue, and interaction with His people — just as He did with humanity at the very beginning (Gen. 3:8). Thus, God’s laws to Israel are given to shape the moral outlook — the ethical identity and values — of His people. God repeatedly reminds Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt and that, in light of this, they should look out for the alien and stranger in their midst, providing for servants when their term of service is completed (e.g., Deut. 10:19; 15:10–15). By contrast, the other ancient Near Eastern kings (or gods) have no interest in such a relationship. The voice behind the other “[ancient Near Eastern] laws provides almost no inspiration for morality shaping, providing no interpersonal relationship for the legal subjects” in order to “shape their brotherhood and peoplehood.”2

(d) Rights vs. No Rights: The implication of biblical law is that all humans — whether war captives (Deut. 21:10–14), foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:16–17), or the socially vulnerable (Deut. 14:28–29; 26:12–13) — had rights and were to be treated as free agents (e.g., Deut. 30:19) rather than things or objects. In other parts of the ancient world, no such rights for, say, war captives, criminals, and slaves existed.3

(e) Democratized vs. Hierarchical Values: In the biblical view, every person bears God’s image and is fundamentally equal (Gen. 1:26–28). By contrast, other law collections ascribed value to persons according to their social status and issued judgments and punishments according to class ranking. For example, it was common to differentiate between the freeman and the slave in the ancient Near Eastern laws; the freeman was a person and the slave a thing.4

So it would be incorrect to conclude that such worldview differences had no moral implications concerning duties, rights, and responsibilities within Israel — and even humanity more broadly (e.g., Gen. 9:6; Amos 1–2; cf. Heb. 11:31).

The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament: “Fulfillment”

What about the Torah’s ongoing significance beyond the covenant nation of ancient Israel? Does it carry any normative weight? Aren’t we “under grace” rather than “under law,” as Paul indicated (Rom. 6:14–15)?  The Waltons correctly note that we can’t tidily divide up the Law into the common tripartite civil, ceremonial, and moral categorization. All of the laws (or, rather, “illustrations of wisdom”!) — from food, clothing, and planting stipulations to those covering murder and adultery — are relevant to Israel’s living out its holy calling. And when it comes to the Torah’s fulfillment in Christ, we’re fundamentally left with what the inspired apostles tell us, and we shouldn’t try to imitate their interpretive methods.

It appears that the Waltons have left us with slim pickings in terms of the Torah’s relevance to us. What, then, is the point of the apostles dedicating themselves to studying the Old Testament, including the Torah (Acts 6:14; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17)? On the other hand, maybe when Jesus says that even the Torah points to Him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39), perhaps it implies that we should rethink the pared-down interpretive (hermeneutical) method of the Waltons.

Here is not the place to spell out a case for hermeneutical methodology.5 But we should note that the New Testament authors — and Jesus Himself — do not suggest they are using an idiosyncratic hermeneutic about messianic foreshadowing in the Old Testament or about the moral dimensions of the Law of Moses. Keep in mind that their understanding of “fulfillment” is broader than merely a one-to-one relationship of prediction to fulfillment. No, the term “fulfill [plēroō]” is much more elastic than in our modern usage of the term (i.e., the result of a prediction).6 Fulfillment incorporates persons, rites, institutions, and events in Israel’s history that are later recapitulated in Christ, who gathers a new community/humanity around Him through His death and resurrection. This being the case, we could expect “fulfillment” to have a greater richness. After all, both a human and divine authorship are at work, which opens up new, richer hermeneutical horizons.

Imitating the New Testament Authorities’ Hermeneutic? The Waltons claim, “The biblical text never points to a method of interpretation and then instructs us to go and do likewise” (132). What are we to make of this? Actually, the New Testament repeatedly illustrates how lay, non-apostolic readers of the Old Testament can effectively and rightly interpret the Law and Prophets — note Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15 — and, in doing so, the lay interpreter can find Christ therein. Paul reasoned with people (non-apostles and even non-believers!) in the synagogues, “explaining and giving evidence” (Acts 17:2–3) for his messianic interpretations of the Scriptures. The Bereans would “examine the Scriptures daily,” checking to see whether Paul’s hermeneutic made sense (v. 11). Moreover, for Paul to have “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28 NASB), he would have to be doing more than simply give a merely idiosyncratic, otherwise-opaque apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament. No, he was appealing to a more public, broad-based hermeneutic that his contemporaries would have recognized (cf. also Acts 26:22–23; 28:23). Interestingly, in his own daily practice, Paul indicated that he had done nothing against the Torah (Acts 25:8), though this could be somewhat qualified (1 Cor. 9:20–21).

Now, the Waltons say that when Paul wants to teach morality, he appeals to commonsense morality, logic, and the Greco-Roman world’s assumptions about maintaining order (199), but “he does not do so from the Torah” (199).  Actually, this isn’t the case. For one thing, Paul believes that the Torah does teach morality, and that believing Gentiles (who are most likely in view in Rom. 2:14–15, 28–29) carry out the Torah’s moral norms, doing instinctively the things of the Law, with their conscience bearing witness to defend or condemn them. This is rich moral language, suggesting moral categories associated with Torah.

Secondly, Paul indicates that the Torah has enduring value — that it is “holy,” just,” and “good” (Rom. 7:12) — even if believers are not under the old covenant of ancient Israel. And in 1 Timothy 1:8–12, Paul expounds on the second table of the Decalogue, noting that the moral imperatives of the Torah are directed against the lawbreaker and the rebellious. (We could add that Jesus Himself urged His Jewish audience to listen to what the religious leaders said about the Law — but not following what they do [Matt. 23:2].)

Thirdly, Paul relies on the moral stance of the Torah, say, when it comes to those engaging in homosexual acts (i.e., the Greek rendering of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). Paul even coins a new term based on these passages: the term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10) is taken from Leviticus’s language of arsenikos = “male” and koitē = “bed.”7 (In a similar fashion, James appeals to the Torah about employers paying wages to workers at the end of the day, lest their cry rise up to God [Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15].) These are just examples of a larger swath of normative Torah material that, as the apostles indicate, can be included in the Christian community’s way of life. These “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23) would be “filtered,” taken up, and applied for the new covenant community by Christ and the apostles.

False Dichotomies? Notice the Waltons’ sweeping language here: “Both Torah and the New Testament writings can perhaps inform our moral sensibilities, but they do not stand as a comprehensive system or provide an authoritative source for determining all behavior” (212, emphasis added).

This raises one of a number of concerns that I have with the Waltons’ book. At various junctures, the Waltons seem to present us with either-or, all-or-nothing alternatives. Let me explore a few of them.

The false dichotomy between a comprehensive moral system and no moral direction. Yes, the Torah is incomplete and is a non-comprehensive set of “illustrations,” offering instruction for wise, orderly living. Even if the Torah doesn’t provide a “comprehensive” system or furnish a guide to determine “all” behavior, so what? Can’t we nevertheless discern moral insights and receive reasoned guidance about our duties? And couldn’t Israel’s judges and rulers use this sampling of wisdom to apply and extend it into other realms? After all, if wisdom is the skill of living, and judges gain discernment by looking at this collection of wisdom, then why not think that a wider body of moral knowledge and directives can be derived from it?

The false dichotomy between wisdom and moral commands. The Waltons write, “Wise living cannot be legislated” (44). That is true. Wisdom is the skill of living in the fear of God. As we often hear in sermons, a number of features of the Christian life in community are “caught” rather than “taught.” But this doesn’t mean that the path to wisdom doesn’t typically begin with commands to guide or to give a formative structure to one’s life and character. As parents, we tell our children to study and learn, but we hope that eventually they won’t need commands to see that the life of the mind and learning are ends in themselves. Wisdom can’t be reduced to commands, but we shouldn’t think that wisdom and morality have nothing to do with each other.

The false dichotomy between human authorship/intentionality and no hermeneutical guidance for appropriating the Torah. The Old Testament authors — including Moses (e.g., Gen. 49:8–12; Num. 24:17; Deut. 18) — will at times refer to a coming messianic figure or leader who will rescue his people, rule the nations, and usher in peace and restoration. Yet often, when these authors are writing about sacrifices, festivals, and rituals, and even narrating stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and Israel’s history in general, the intention of the authors may not often have messianic visions in view. Jesus and other New Testament authorities later detect certain Christological patterns interwoven into Old Testament texts. For example, they see Christ as the second Adam, who ushers in a new humanity and new creation, and as the true Israel, who faithfully lives out Israel’s story and ushers in a new covenant and a new community of God’s people. And why should we be surprised at this Christological hermeneutical lens if the Scriptures involve divine inspiration and a God who deputizes certain human authors to recount divine activities in salvation history, proclaim heavenly oracles to instruct and guide His people, and proclaim promises of God’s eventual vanquishing of evil and bringing peace?

The false dichotomy of a Spirit-inspired, Christocentric hermeneutic and no hermeneutical controls for the non-apostolic layperson. The book tells us that the New Testament authors and Jesus Himself are working from within a different “cultural river” than the ancient Near Eastern audience did. So even when Jesus and the apostles speak of “fulfillment” of the Old Testament, this doesn’t tell us anything about the text’s meaning as given in its original context (e.g., Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15); that is why “we cannot imitate the methods of the New Testament authors” due to the “insufficient controls to assure the results” (130–131). It is because of “apostolic inspiration” — not hermeneutics — that they arrive at their conclusions. We, on the other hand, aren’t inspired (131). But as we’ve seen above, lay Christians can examine the Old Testament Scriptures for themselves and see Christ represented therein.

My friend John Walton, along with his son, has written a stimulating, challenging book. Though I disagree with him at a number of points, I am grateful for the rich resource he has given to us to read, ponder, and discuss further. —Paul Copan

Paul Copan (PhD, philosophy, Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is author of Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books, 2011) and coauthor of Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books, 2014).


  1. Here I follow Daisy Yulin Tsai, Human Rights in Deuteronomy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 165–182.
  2. Tsai, Human Rights in Deuteronomy, 174.
  3. Tsai, Human Rights in Deuteronomy, 179.
  4. Tsai, Human Rights in Deuteronomy, 168, 182.
  5. For a start, see G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
  6. See C. F. D. Moule, “Fulfilment-Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967/68): 293–320.
  7. Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female [meta arsenos ou koimēthēsē koitēn gynaikos].” Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman [hos an koimēthē meta arsenos koitēn gynaikos].”
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