Sunday, November 17, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Torah

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Biblical scholar John Walton and his son, theologian J. Harvey Walton, argue that the Torah was not originally understood to be “law,” but rather wisdom.

The Waltons advance a variety of arguments for this claim. First, ancient law codes, most notably the Code of Hammurabi, are not cited in ancient court cases. According to the Waltons, this is because they were not deemed to be “laws,” but they were general guidelines of wisdom that may still have guided society, on some level. Second, biblical law is far from comprehensive, which would be odd, if it were considered to be a set of rules that people were literally required to obey. And, third, in the biblical narratives, the characters after the giving of the Torah hardly ever base their decisions on the Torah, even when addressing issues that the Torah explicitly comments on.

Believers in the Documentary Hypothesis can probably answer that last argument by saying that the reason biblical characters seem unaware of the Torah is that the Torah had not been written yet: the biblical narratives about David and Solomon were composed prior to the composition of the Torah. Regarding the second argument, one may inquire if law codes needed to be comprehensive to be actual law. Does a law code need to cover marriage, for example, when local clans and families may have been handling that issue quite well, according to their customs? However, the first argument, about why the Code of Hammurabi is not cited in Babylonian court cases, is a weighty challenge to the idea that ancient law codes were actual law.

The strength of this book is that the Waltons are unafraid to tackle difficult questions and to forge a way forward from the standpoint of Christian theology. The Waltons argue that Paul understood the Torah to be actual law, even if that was not its original function. What, then, can Christians do with Paul: was Paul wrong? The Waltons attempt to offer a solution; how convincing it is would be up to the reader.

The Waltons also honestly challenge the idea that the Torah was a step up from the rest of the ancient Near East, morally speaking. There are aspects of the Torah that appear to be an advancement, from a modern progressive perspective, but there are also elements that seem to be regressive, in comparison with ancient Near Eastern ideas.

The Waltons engage questions that have been in my mind lately, as I have been reading the Book of Exodus. Did the authors of Exodus understand the details of Exodus the way that many contemporary evangelicals do, or were their cultural presuppositions radically different? If the Covenant Code resembles the Code of Hammurabi, does that lessen its spiritual value? And why would the Torah have Ten Commandments that appear to state the obvious: many cultures exhort people not to steal or kill. The Waltons’ answers to these questions make for engaging and thought-provoking reading.

A disadvantage to this book is that the Waltons seem to be inconsistent and nebulous on some issues. For one, was the Torah intended to be implemented, on some level? Parts of this book lean in the “yes” direction, and parts lean in the “no” direction. Second, does the Torah demonstrate the character of God? There is some ambiguity here, too.

It is also difficult to get around the frequent exhortations in the Torah, particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the Israelites are to do it. Here, the Torah sounds like law.

My reservations notwithstanding, this is my favorite book thus far of the “Lost World” series.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

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