The Scope of the Torah’s Authority in the Old Testament

In December 2010 I published a blog post called “Are There Categories of Biblical Law?” This was a chapter from my Master’s thesis on the role of Old Testament Law, and I answered the question in the affirmative: Yes, there are legitimate categories of Old Testament law. One of the ways the Old Testament law can be categorised, I attempted to show, was in terms of laws that applied only to native born Israelites on the one hand, and on the other hand laws that applied to everyone – Jew and gentile alike – living in Israel. This post is another chapter from that thesis. In this post, I look at the scope of the Old Testament law. This article uses the font Hebrew.ttf. If you don’t have it, you can get it here.

As I wrote this thesis back in 2002 and 2003, it’s entirely possible that I no longer agree with some of the things you’ll see here – but nothing springs to mind! Also bear in mind that I was encouraged at the time to write in the first person plural, referring to myself as “we.” This is a convention I prefer not to use, but I have used it here.

Were the standards of the Torah standards that Israel alone was morally required to uphold? Some say yes, such as John Sampey, who argues that “It was to Israel that the Decalogue was primarily addressed, and not to all mankind.”1 Geisler likewise draws this conclusion because in his view, “Nowhere in the Bible are Gentiles ever condemned for not keeping the law of Moses.”2 Or were the standards of Israel’s Law standards that applied to all nations everywhere, with Israel as a chosen example of how the rest should live? Also of interest is the prevalence of the Law as the ethical standard by which Israel is judged throughout the Older Testament, and the basis of Israel’s condemnation. Is it disobedience to the standards revealed in the Law, or condemnation on some other basis? We will treat this topic in three sections – what the law declares about itself, historical outworkings of the law’s authority and the law in prophetic literature.


1. The Law Itself

By “the law itself,” we refer to the law not in the broader sense of the Pentateuch/Torah, but the law in terms of actual legislation. Specific commands, along with their qualifications, explanations, and historical events directly linked to the giving of the law to the people of Israel in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. When the law is given, does it provide any information on its authority? Does it give us any clue as to whether or not the moral standards revealed therein are universal or particular in scope?

Leviticus 18:24-30

This passage belongs to the inclusio of 18:1-18:30. Here Yahweh warns the children of Israel not to commit certain abominations. These abominations were committed by the Egyptians in the land God has delivered them from, and by the previous inhabitants of the land into which Israel is being brought. If Israel commits them she too will be removed from this land to which God has led her, and thus here is a significant motivation to obey these laws. “Motivations concerning the land… point to a future event and thus are made contingent on observing the law. There is warning that although God is giving them the land, if they do as others have done they too will be spewed out” [emphasis added].3 The references to the sins of the Egyptians and the Canaanites are by no means hypothetical or even unfair.4 As Wenham notes, “The prevalence of the customs denounced here as Egyptian and Canaanite perversions is well attested in Scripture and in nonbiblical sources.”5

While most commentators (rightly) focus on the obligations laid upon Israel and the contingent nature of her possession of the land, one other feature is of great significance here: It is precisely because of violation of the specific standards that Yahweh is delivering to Israel that the foreigners were driven out of the land.

The very law which God was revealing to Israel was the same law which concurrently brought divine punishment upon the Gentiles for transgressing it. Israel and the Gentiles were under the same moral law, and they both would suffer the same penalty for the defilement which comes with violating it – eviction from the land.6

There are only six references to an act being an “abomination” (hb*u@oT) in the book of Leviticus altogether, and five of them occur in this passage in 18:22-30.7 It is taken as a given that it is no less abominable for the nations to do these things (in this case forbidden sexual relations and child sacrifice) than for Israel, and God visited the exact same judgement on the Canaanites that He would visit on Israel if she did them. This came to pass for the Canaanites in the Conquest, and it later came to pass for Israel in the Exile. As with His own people, God was patient with the previous inhabitants, and did not expel them immediately for their sin, but waited until their sin had “reached its full measure” (Gen 15:16). Based on these observations, Jan Joosten concludes that according to this passage in Leviticus 18, “even the previous inhabitants of the land were in a sense subject to these laws: It is because they did not observe them that they were vomited out by the land.”8 On the basis of this context of the specific commands in Leviticus 18, Joosten reflects on verse 5 – “the man who does them will live by them,” saying: “I venture to submit… that Lev 18:5 intimates the universal tenor of the OT message.”9

Deuteronomy 4:5-8

“These eloquent words,” observed Von Rad, “place the revelation at Sinai as the embodiment of all wisdom above all truths possessed by all other nations.”10 The presupposition expressed in this passage is that any right thinking person from any nation would immediately see that the laws God gave Israel are to be envied for their excellence and wisdom, and Israel’s obedience to these laws will be seen as an expression of wisdom by all. Are the other nations subject to the standards of the law? Yes – and when the other nations see the law, they themselves will readily recognise this fact! “Thus, Israel’s obedience to God’s law was intended to be an example to the nations.”11

2. Historical Outworkings12

Ezra 7:25-26

Here King Artaxerxes sends Ezra back to Judah at the close of the Exile, with these instructions:

And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province beyond the river, all such as know the laws of your God; and those who do not know them, you shall teach. Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgement be strictly executed upon him, whether for death or for banishment13 or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.

According to Fensham, while it is true that Artaxerxes refers to “all the people of the Trans-Euphrates,” he says that in reality, “the Jewish population is singled out, and they must be instructed by Ezra in the law of God.” The exegetical basis for this is never alluded to, and all that Fensham offers is his assurance that “Scholars agree that this is a reference to the Jews who lived in Trans-Euphrates.”14 Apparently none of this implied crowd of scholars has made any quotable comment to his effect, as Fensham does not see fit to offer any citation in support of this claim. Batten has likewise tried to downplay the scope of v. 26 by saying that “To all the people who are beyond the river is qualified by the following: i.e., To all who observe the law of thy God, so that Ezra’s jurisdiction is confined to Jews in the Syrian province.”15 But this will not do, because the next verse “goes even further.” The decree is not limited to those who already obey the laws of God – “those who do not know them, you shall teach.” The decree “appears to envisage a situation where the whole province becomes… obedient to the law.”16 Ezra’s response is one of clear joy that Yahweh should put such a decree in the King’s heart (v.27). Clearly there were no qualms about imposing the standards of the covenant on provinces that were not party to the covenant.17

3. The Prophetic Writings

We have no option but to be frustratingly selective here (solely due to space restrictions), and will treat the Eighth Century Prophets, represented here by Hosea and Amos.18

Amos gives us a summary statement of the charges against Judah in Amos 2:4, “they have despised the law of Yaweh, and have not kept His commandments.” Hubbard reasons that this was “a crime that only the covenant people could commit, based as it was on the law (Torah) and its specific applications… which they alone had been given.”19 While it remains to be seen that only Israel was capable of breaking the law of the covenant, we can at least note the general principle underlying Judah’s sin – it was a violation of the express commandments of God in the Torah.

This principle is evident in each of the specific condemnations of acts of evil as well. In Amos 5:10 we read that the people are despising “the one who corrects in the gate.”20 This is a person who serves the role of judge, ensuring that people’s legal rights are protected and they are made to fulfil their legal obligations. We see further in 5:12 that the people “turn away” the poor at the gate. “In the gate,” says Stuart, “refers to the location of most court proceedings: at the broad, multi-chambered gate area designed as part of city fortifications but used routinely for official legal business.”21 It was here that “public hearings took place and where justice was administered.”22 This is confirmed in the book of the law (Deuteronomy) itself, where we see that Yahweh institutes the gate of the city as a place where justice was to be carried out, including the punishment of criminals.23 The poor and underprivileged are victimised by the people who take bribes, “in the very place… where justice should be dispensed,”24 and exclude the poor from having their case heard fairly. This is a direct violation of the Law of God, who instructed the people in Exodus 23:6-8

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

This practice, or at least related practices, can be seen elsewhere in the prophets, as in Isaiah 29:20-21,

The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear, and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down — those who with a word make a man out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.


There are other obvious violations of the Torah in Amos, and we will note just two more here. In 5:26 the people are accused of blatant idolatry, carrying the tabernacle of Moloch, and worshipping Chiun the star God, in clear violation of the first and second commandments.25 Also in the market place, a place where the merchants will do virtually anything to increase their wealth, they are using dishonest scales and violating the gleaning laws by selling the sweepings off the threshing floor (8:4-6).

In addition to such clear violations of the explicit standards of the Torah, commands of the law, the Ten Commandments in particular, came to have a broad interpretation. We can see glimpses of this broader interpretation being violated as well in Amos. Dale Patrick shows us an example of this with respect to “do not misuse the name of the LORD your God.”

The third commandment, like the first two, had the capacity to expand radically. The idea of ‘profaning the name’ extended to a host of actions that brought God’s name into ill repute. This was particularly true of things that happened around the sanctuary, such as … cultic prostitution (Amos 2:7)…26

Not only were God’s people breaking the letter of the law, they had also long forgotten the underlying spirit of the law.

In addition to the general statement that Judah has forsaken the Torah along with specific examples of violations of God’s law carried out by Israel and Judah, there is evidence that God Himself appeals to the law as a defendant to put Himself in the right with respect to the condemnation of His people. In Amos 3:12 the prophet writes that only a few of those in Samaria will be saved. God will save them, but only as a shepherd who manages to save a few meagre scraps of a sheep from the mouth of a wild animal – a couple of legs and a piece of an ear. Why would a shepherd do such a thing? Surely those remains are not worth saving. Boeker makes a connection between this verse and Exodus 22:10-13.27 Here, when a man is a steward over an animal, and the animal is savaged by a wild beast, he may produce the mutilated remains, and is then acquitted of all guilt in the demise of the animal. So it is with the fate that is to befall Israel, God is innocent, since the people have brought this fate upon themselves.

Hosea gives no overarching principle to explain the wrong that Israel has done, but the examples are no less consistent than those in Amos. Unlike Amos, Hosea has no oracles against the foreign Nations. Like Amos, Hosea spends more time elaborating on the judgement itself than on the crimes that brought the judgement about. However, where the crimes are expressly referred to we see that they are specific violations of the Torah. Hosea 4:2 seems to be a good summary of the kind of behaviour that had become common, “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed.” We read that the people are worshipping wooden idols (4:12), they commit adultery and practice cultic prostitution (4:13-14). As in Amos, the people are condemned for specific violations of the Torah.


The Oracles Against the Nations

One of the basic types of question that gets asked about the Oracles against the nations is the type highlighted by Hasel. “Is there a communication here for the first time in biblical religion that the nations as well as the elect people of Yahweh are under the judgement of the covenant of God? On what basis are these nations held responsible for their activities?” [emphasis added]28 We would suggest that this “communication,” if present here, is not as new as Hasel thinks, but for now we will briefly consider the suggestions for the basis of God’s judgement on the nations. Barton presents four major suggestions:


  1. Nationalism and the Covenant.

In this view, “the nations are denounced for opposing Israel,”29 the covenant people of God. A chief difficulty with this view also surely be, especially as far as Amos is concerned, that while the nations are condemned for some quite specific things, they are not once condemned for sins against Israel.

  1. Logical Extension

Here, the moral obligations that Israel is known to owe Yahweh “are supposed by extension to apply also to the nations.”30 Here, Israel’s law is seen as the standard by which the other nations are judged. Barton finds this view unacceptable because it puts Israel too close to the centre of right ethics, when in reality the condemnation of Israel and Judah would have come as a surprise to the reader. He sees that this view “sees universal morality as deriving from, rather than as presupposed by, the special moral response of the covenant people,” and therefore he rejects it.31 This response may be a little too hasty, and we will respond to it under the next option.

  1. Universal Law

In this view, there is an unwritten moral law that applies to all of creation, a law by which all people may be judged. This might be inferred from Romans 1, where we read that the judgement of God is quite rightly revealed against all people,

since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (vv. 19, 20)

Motyer adopts an approach like this, saying that God condemns the nations because while “they were without the law written on tables of stone,” it was still true that they were “not without the law written in the conscience.” We were created with a God given conscience, and when people violate the laws of conscience, the command is “be a man,” that is, be what you were made to be. 32

Barton sees this view as superior to the concept of logical extension. But let us compare the two. Is it really the case that the previous option is so different from this one? Would God’s judging the nations based on Israel’s law be fundamentally different from His judging the nations based on this universal law? The answer is “Yes – if and only if the two laws are not one and the same.” In other words – what if there is such a universal law, and God gave this law in its clearest expression to Israel, His covenant people? If this is the case (and it cannot be ruled out), then options 3 and 4 may well be different ways of describing the same thing in terms of what the standards are that God holds the nations accountable to. Having noted the perceived superiority of this view, Barton sees it as “still basically unsatisfactory.” This is because, according to Barton, it would contradict the message of Amos. Amos is not condemning the nations for unwittingly breaking some unwritten law that they know nothing about. He is condemning them “for contravening moral principles which even they should have recognised.”33 But this analysis is quite unexpected – it is really a misrepresentation of the concept he is rejecting. The very concept of a universal law is not that there is some secret law that the nations are unaware of. On the contrary, the concept is that the nations are very well aware of this universal law. This view is made expressly clear in Romans 2:12-15

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

We should note that this universal law described by Paul here is actually the Mosaic law. What other law could there be that the Gentiles, unlike the Jews, “do not have”? Barton’s rejection of the concept of a universal law, binding on all people, seems to be based on a straw man.

  1. International Customary Law

Barnett suggests that the nations are being judged for violating an accepted international code of warfare conduct. They are not waging war like gentlemen, they are playing “dirty” so to speak. Hubbard takes a view similar to this, reasoning that

… the wrongs noted are all acts of inhumanity, until we come to the speech against Judah (2:4-5). It seems that the nations are condemned here not for idolatry nor false religions but for offences commonly judged as evil by the prevalent standards of the day: cruelty to civilians in war (1:3, 13), selling of war prisoners into slavery (1:6, 9), violation of treaties (1:9, 11), an mistreatment of a fallen king (2:1).34

The basic problem here is twofold. Firstly, advocates of this view have never been able to point to any such laws of common decency. What if some cultures were simply barbaric and there were no such universally accepted rules of warfare? Secondly, even if the specific crimes condemned in Amos are “acts of inhumanity,” each of them is also a violation of Israel’s covenant law. Examining the examples given by Hubbard, the mistreatment of Gilead (1:3) is not defined for us, selling entire communities of prisoners of war as slaves to other nations was contrary to Israel’s laws regarding slavery,35 breaking treaties, inasmuch as it constitutes swearing a false oath, is condemned (Num 30:2). For this reason God forbade Israel to make treaties with the surrounding nations, because they would result in binding obligations.36 With respect to the burning of the King of Edom’s bones (2:1), the reference is not a clear one. The historical circumstances surrounding this misdeed and what it entailed “cannot be determined.”37 There may be some connection, however, with the punishment of Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9, where some particularly serious offences were punishable by burning. Offences which, perhaps, the King of Edom was not guilty of. The connection is tenuous, but then again the reference is obscure, and better suggestions are not abounding.

The eighth century prophets do not actually give a blanket statement on what the fundamental basis for God’s judgement on the nations is. This is why there is such a disagreement.38 We suggest therefore that the only way we can know (or even have a reasonable idea) what the general principles are is to look at the specific condemnations, observe what (if anything) they have in common with each other, and then put them alongside the condemnations of Israel and Judah, and see what the basic differences (or similarities) are. The actual term translated “transgressions/sins of” (yu@v=P!), according to Dearman and Wolff, is not a nondescript word for “sins” in general. Rather, in Amos the word refers to cases that “involve infractions of property and personal rights.” As part of the evidence for this, Wolff notes the use of the term in the legal tradition (e.g. Ex. 22:9).39 For this reason many translate (or at least regard) the word here not as “sins” or “transgressions,” but rather as the more specific “crimes.”40 If this analysis is valid, then we are justified in looking for a general principle, a “law” so to speak, against which crimes may be committed. We have already given intimations of this in our brief analysis of 4.) above. As it happens, the specific crimes listed are conducive to being seen as violations of the Torah, so it seems reasonable, given that the God who now condemns them is the God who wrote the Torah, that they are being condemned because they are violating the standards of the Torah.

1 John R. Sampey, “The Ten Commandments,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), vol. 5, 2944, cited in Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “God’s Promise Plan and His Gracious Law,” JETS 33:3 (1990), 296.

2 Norman Geisler, “Should we Legislate Morality?” Fundamentalist Journal (July/August 1988), cited in Greg L. Bahnsen “For Whom was God’s Law Intended?” The Christian Worldview 4:12 (1998), reproduced on the internet by Covenant Media Foundation,, accessed 2nd October, 2002.

3 Greg Chirichigno, “A Theological Investigation of Motivation in Old Testament Law,” JETS 24:4 (1981), 312.

4 This is said over and against sweeping claims made to the contrary in the literature. Lester Grabbe, for example dismisses the claims of Leviticus 18:1-5, saying “The ‘abominations of the Egyptians and Canaanites’ are a fiction which still persists, especially with regard to the Canaanite religion.” According to Grabbe, there is “no evidence” that the Egyptians or Canaanites “were less moral than the Israelites, or that their sexual practices were necessarily very different.” Lester L. Grabbe, Leviticus, Old Testament Guides (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 79.

5 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New international Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 251. Wenham uses as examples the practice of Egyptian royals to marry their siblings, and the Canaanite codes that forbid some of the crimes in Leviticus 18 but by implication permit others. The Hitties, for example, permitted bestiality with a horse or a mule, but forbade it with an ox, sheep or dog (Jaqcob Milgram, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1570).

6 Greg L. Bahnsen, “For Whom was God’s Law Intended?”

7 The sixth reference is Lev 20:13, a prohibition of homosexual acts – virtually identical with Lev 18:22, with the added reference to punishment of the offenders by execution.

8 Jan Joosten, People and Land in the Holiness Code: And Exegetical Study of the Ideational Framework of the Law in Leviticus 17-26, Vetus Testamentum Supplement 67 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 77.

9 Ibid., 77. It might hypothetically be suggested that an implication of this passage is that these laws are exclusively linked to the Promised Land as though the land – unlike other places – was the place that these laws are to be obeyed. But aside from the philosophical difficulty with maintaining a local morality of this nature, the implied condemnations of the Egyptians as well as the Canaanites in verse 3 gives reason to think that these actions are just as wrong in the land Israel has come from as in the land Israel is going into. This land is to be different in that It must not be defiled – but this only makes sense if other places have been defiled by the evil actions of the nations that dwell there – and this in turn only makes sense if the moral standards declared here apply to those nations as well as to Israel. (We say “hypothetically” because no commentators on this passage that we are aware of have actually made such a suggestion.)

10 Gerhard Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary, trans. Dorothea Barton, Old Testament Library (London: SCM, 1966), 49.

11 Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches: Covenant Media Press, 2002, 3rd ed.), 346.

Wayne Strickland takes issue with this interpretation of the passage, but his reason is highly unusual:

Any appeal to Deuteronomy 4:6-8 in support of the Mosaic law and administration being normative for all nations fails to recognize that the passage does not say, “Be like Israel,” or “We (other nations) will be like Israel.” (Wayne G. Strickland, “Response to Greg L. Bahnsen,” FVLG, 164.)

This bizarre exegetical demand highlights what might be seen as a paradigmatic weakness of what might (in Christian circles) be called a “fundamentalist” approach to Scripture: The insistence that an opponent’s position may not be claimed to ever be implicit in Scripture, all the entailments must be made explicit in the text itself. But clearly it is unnecessary for the text to issue the command “be like Israel,” since the text is addressed to Israel. And likewise it is surely unnecessary for the nations to say “we will do these things” if they have already essentially said “I wish that we had laws that were so wise!”

12 We have omitted the act of the Conquest here, although as seen from Leviticus 18:24-30 discussed above, it too would rightly belong here.

13 Of peripheral interest is the proper meaning of the word translated “banishment” (wvr)v=). Myers notes that it may in fact a Persian word deriving from sr^%vy* or the Avestan sr^”vy*, meaning not necessarily imprisonment but “physical punishment,” Jacob M. Myers, Ezra – Nehemiah, the Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 59. F. Charles Fensham concurs in The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 108. Cf. a more extended discussion in H. G. M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1985), 97. Also of some interest is that the list of punishments is in descending order of severity, and it is apparent that the author considers confiscation of private property to be worse than imprisonment.

14 Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 107.

15 Loring W. Batten, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1913), 313.

16 Peter C. Ackroyd, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, The Torch Bible Commentaries (London: SCM Press, 1973), 246.

17 An objection might be raised from history at this point. It might be argued that we have no narrative record of Ezra actually seeking to impose God’s law on the areas beyond the province of Judah. But this would prove far too much, because even the alternative interpretation would demand that at very least the law was imposed (or rather “re-imposed”) on Jews living beyond this area. We can only then respond in the words of David Clines: “[A]bsence of historical corroboration of Ezra’s commission does not necessarily mean that the firman itself is a Jewish fantasy; it only shows that we are too ill-informed to pass a judgement.” David Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, 106.)

18 Outside of this portion of Scripture, the most striking passage would be Jeremiah 12:16-17

And then, if [the nations surrounding Israel] will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, “As the Lord lives,” as they taught my people to swear by Baal, then they shall be built up in the midst of my people. But if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord.

Thus Kaiser concludes, “there is a sense of universality and prescriptivity about these laws.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr, The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable and Relevant? (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2001), 192.

19 David Allen Hubbard, Joel and Amos, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1989), 138.

20 The term for “one who corrects” here is j~yk!om, which comes from the verb hky, meaning “to argue out together.” In its form here it is a participle meaning “arbitrator,” one who settles disputes, who of all people is called to “speak rightly” (10b). Holladay, 134.

21 Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary 31 (Waco: Word, 1987), 348.

22 Shalom M. Paul, Amos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 170.

23 Dt. 17:5, 21:19, 22:15, 22:24, 25:7.

24 Shalom Paul, Amos, 170.

25 The NRSV reads “you take up Sakkuth your king,” while the NIV reads “you take up the tabernacle of your king.” While recognising these possibilities, I am favouring the AV reading, “ye have taken up the tabernacle of your Moloch.” The same consonants for Sakkuth (tWKs!) could quite plausibly have been meant to read toKs% (tabernacle) with different vowel pointing. Secondly, the word translated “your king” (<k#K=l=m^) is identical to the word we would expect for “your Moloch.” Thirdly, it is not clear what taking up the tabernacle of the king would mean, and why it would be such a terrible thing to do unless Israel was actually worshipping its king (which is very unlikely). Fourthly, this verse is clearly about idol worship, and Moloch is an idol that Israel has had a history of trouble with (cf. Lev 18:21, 20:2f; 1 Ki 11:7). Fifthly, the Septuagint favours the reading “Moloch” rather than “king,” and is cited to this effect in Acts 7:43. Sixthly, who would Sakkuth be? There is no record of a king in Israel or Judah by that name.

26 Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (London: SCM Press, 1986), 49.

27 Hans Jochen Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East, trans. Jeremy Moiser (London: SPCK, 1980), 169.

28 Gerhard F. Hasel, Understanding Amos (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 57-58.

29 J. Barton, Amos’ Oracles Against the Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 39.

30 Ibid., 39.

31 Ibid., 42.

32 J.A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1974), 35-37.

33 Barton, Amos’ Oracles, 43.

34 Hubbard, Joel and Amos, 128.

35 In Israel there were two forms of slavery. Firstly slavery could be used as a means of debt repayment, and secondly Israelites were permitted to take foreign slaves as lifelong workers, passed down to posterity. Clearly this is quite different from attacking communities for the purpose of capturing them and handing them over to another nation as in Amos 1:6,9. Moreover the text suggests that such an atrocity was carried out in violation of a specific covenant.

36 Ex 34:12, 15; Dt 7:2, 23:6.

37 J.L. Mays, Amos (London: SCM, 1969), 39.

38 Although one should probably be forgiven for thinking that even if such a blanket statement were given, there would be many who were only too willing to attribute it to the bias of a later author who did not share their view of Old Testament ethics.

39 Hans Walter Wolff, Amos and Joel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 152-153. This conclusion is supported in John Andrew Dearman, Property Rights in the Eighth-Century Prophets, JBL Dissertation Series 106 (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1988), 19.

40 For example, the New Century Version of the Bible, as well as Hubbard, Joel and Amos, 128.



6 thoughts on “The Scope of the Torah’s Authority in the Old Testament

  1. One comment may be in order. While a number of the sources cited here are from within the field of critical Old Testament scholarship, a number are quite clearly note, hailing instead from more doctrinaire circles Norman Geisler, for example, does not have his reputation because he is a Hebrew scholar). Within the context of this thesis this was necessary, as my area of interest was what segments of the evangelical community make of the role of Old Testament law. As I said in passing to my supervisor: “While the subject itself is fascinating, it does mean you have to interact with Norm Geisler in Old Testament studies!” Said in love, but with a certain sense of groaning.

  2. Glenn, I wonder if the Jewish distinction between laws of the resident alien which applied to Jews and Gentiles living in Israel and Mosaic law per se is helpful here. According to this distinction some parts of the torah are given implicitly to all nations but the Mosaic law as a whole only applies to Israel.

  3. Matt, yeah, in the earlier blog article that I linked to I noted that distinction.

    I think what that distinction means in practice is that the universal scope of the Torah as implied (I think) by the evidence I present here is itself qualified by the distinctions made within that same Torah. So the Torah applies “everywhere” so to speak, but everywhere it applies it has those same qualifications (such as “this specific law applies to the native born Jew in Israel and not to gentiles”). So it’s a principle something like “Unless I say otherwise in regard to any particular stipulation, all these stipulations apply to everyone.”

    So the whole Torah presents standards that implicitly apply to everyone (i.e. that’s the starting assumption), but some specified commands are uniquely stated to apply only to Israelites.

  4. OK, here’s where I’m going with this subject for those who are interested in some of what they can expect to see at the blog and podcast:

    After putting up these two longer blogs on the topic – and maybe another one, where I’m (tentatively) driving to is an area related to M MTheol but not quite the same. I’m moving to the point – and I think I’ll have to do a podcast or two on this – where the pat Evangelical shunning of the Old Testament and Old Testament Law (as some but not all Evangelicals do) just doesn’t cut it. Actually the Old Testament law is presented as offering principles that were not “just for Jews,” the traditional categorisation of Old Testament law has considerable merit, and also – and this is what I have yet to write on here – the New Testament evidence regarding the continuing validity of much of what the law has to say just can’t be ignored.

    I don’t think it’s OK to just run screaming from what looks like a fairly extreme mindset (like, say, “Christian Reconstructionism”) and use those extremes as an excuse for taking the opposite approach. Whatever those extremists are wrong about, the reason they actually tend to win arguments and frustrate their opponents is because of what they’re right about and because of what the wider evangelical community needs to get serious about if it is to provide a serious alternative. Yes, the Old Testament law needs to be read and taken seriously. It’s scope and it’s ongoing authority have what I take to be pretty clear exegetical support, so Christians, rather than running away from the task out of fear of being associated with nutters, need to seriously come to grips with the Old Testament law and what it was saying. Otherwise you have no defence when you’re accused of following the bits of the Bible you don’t like and trying to ignore the embarrassing parts.

    There has been some good work done in this area (Walter Kaiser’s work was influential on me during my undergrad studies), but I also think the above needs to be brought into dialogue with the type of work being done by Paul Copan (author of Is God a Moral Monster) in actually untangling what may look to us like shocking or puzzling statements in Scripture and stepping into not just the ancient religious world but also the ancient literary world in which they were written.

    Some of this may be happening a bit further down the track, but this is why, starting in December last year, I’ve started presenting some of my work on Old Testament law.

  5. This last bit really caught my intrerest:

    “but I also think the above needs to be brought into dialogue with the type of work being done by Paul Copan (author of Is God a Moral Monster) in actually untangling what may look to us like shocking or puzzling statements in Scripture and stepping into not just the ancient religious world but also the ancient literary world in which they were written.”

    I’d enjoy some podcasts on this topic 🙂

  6. I’m glad to have piqued your interest Brandon. 🙂

    At some stage there will be a podcast or two on the issue of Old Testament Law. The first part will be where I may make some Christians uncomfortable. Not intentionally, but what I’ll do is try to force people to face the issue head on without – as some Christians do – engaging in theological avoidance tactics by finding a way to simply dismiss Old Testament law altogether as something that we Christians just don’t need to worry or think about. This was the focal point of my Master’s degree, so it’ll be nice to delve back into that subject area again.

    The second part will look at the question of “OK OK, so we have to take the Old Testament law seriously. Is there anything we can do to allay the immediate concerns that this presents us with what look like really unpleasant, unfair and harsh laws?” If we have to take them seriously, just what role to they play? And what about those really awful sounding ones? The last question is where I would look at Copan – and also others – on the issue.

    It’s just a question of being able to find the time to prepare it!

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