The Lost World of the Torah

Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context

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John H. Walton, J. Harvey Walton
The Lost World Series, Volume 6
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Well-known and acclaimed Old Testament and Hebrew Bible scholar John H. Walton has cowritten another installment of his Lost World series with his son J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context. The book is an attempt to address the background and function of biblical Torah (law). Although many works have addressed this issue, Walton and Walton provide a new and comprehensive approach, not simply in interpretation but in overall conceptualization.

The Waltons tackle one of the more debated issues in biblical scholarship, the law. Its role and function in Christian theology have remained a contentious issue throughout church history. For Christians, after the advent of Christ, the law’s function is typically divided into three possibilities: still in full effect, partially in effect, or no longer binding. Likewise, the law is often broken down into three categories: cultic, civil, and moral. Debate over these designations and categorizations has continued for generations, particularly regarding their implications. However, with the growth of archaeology and the discovery of numerous literary and epigraphic materials, the rise and function of comparative methods in literature, culture, and religion have transformed the way modern scholars view the biblical text. Those most pertinent to the Waltons’ book are texts associated with law and wisdom.

The Waltons build the case that biblical law was not equivalent to statutory law, as modern people may assume, but a contextual representation of common law. They state, “The ancient world was more interested in order than in legislation” (5). This perspective is not unique to the Waltons. Other scholars have previously addressed the overwhelming evidence that common law was the standard concept in the ancient Near East (Raymond Westbrook, Joshua Berman, John H. Sailhamer, and Christopher B. Hays). The primary difference between these two systems is the orientation of those referring to or utilizing the law code. A statutory system views the law as static and comprehensive, while common law views it as dynamic and limited.

Here the Waltons bring in the argument that the concept of law was originally an aspect or result of wisdom, categorized as a subgenre in wisdom literature. So, the biblical Torah was not meant to be taken as absolute and universal but particular and contextual. It was meant to be adapted to new situations, since the law codes were guiding insights rather than eternal dictates. With this in mind, the Waltons argue that this wisdom and the common-law system was necessarily dependent on the idea of covenantal relationship, one that brought status and patterns for society.

Modern discoveries and scholarship have undoubtedly shown that the Waltons’ view of the Torah is on the right track, at least. Though describing the contextual nature of the biblical text need not diminish its value for those who believe it is divinely inspired scripture, it does require some careful analysis to see how and when the commonalities exist without deferring to causality, as the Waltons rightly note. However, two issues may be addressed regarding their helpful addition to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholarship.

First, although the idea of common law may be a proper assessment of the ancient Near East and Torah, the Waltons take the implications too far. In their list of propositions, although emphasizing covenant, they leave the door wide open to relativism, dismissing claims of universal morality (206). They spend time describing and reiterating the image of a “cultural river” (11). By this they mean the contextual situation and even limitations of Torah. In other words, wisdom, law, and expectations change as culture flows in history. Biblical law was not prescriptive but descriptive, even for First and Second Temple Israel. They go on to champion “wise living,” without the constrictive notion of “following rules” (44). Although wise living is a theme replete in the biblical texts, it is hard to defend the notion that the law was not taken as a defining and absolute decree from God at least up until the advent of Christ.

Furthermore, proposing that the biblical laws are merely dynamic and contextual diminishes their value as perpetual signifiers of the nature of God and as expectations for the conduct of his people. In turning the foundation of Torah into relative social and contextual guidelines, Walton and Walton incidentally remove the divine backbone from morality and biblical ethics. Such a premise not only leaves open the possibility of cultural and social relativism but, without their overt affirmation, becomes indistinguishable from it. To this end, they indict the law and criticize it as “characterized by primitive flawed institutions” and “neglecting basic social sensibilities” (136). While much of the legal material is casuistic and situation dependent, there are also apodictic and imitative elements of the law, which should not be so quickly abandoned or thrown out. Instead, a more appropriate address of the nature and value of biblical law is due the scriptures (see C. J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, InterVarsity, 2004).

Second, the Waltons emphasize that Torah does not indicate any elements or expectations of imitating God and explicitly reject the premise of imitatio Dei (imitation of God, 203). The focus of their criticism is on the phrase “Be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). They attempt to change the intent of this phrase from active obedience to passive status. Although status is likely an inherent quality for the covenant people, the literary context of Leviticus (e.g., 11:44–45, 20:7, 26), the Torah, and the Christian biblical corpus point to it as an imperative or hortatory (cf. 1 Peter 1:16). As representatives and emissaries of the creator God, Israel was to “be” holy, which the prophets warn and lament was not always the case. This theme is pervasive throughout the Christian canon.

Despite some potential issues in this book, the Waltons’ case for the formative role of biblical law and its relation to the ancient Near East is a beneficial contribution to biblical scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse W. Harris is a PhD candidate at Gateway Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John H. Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. Previously he was professor of Old Testament at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for twenty years.

J. Harvey Walton is researcher in biblical studies and has contributed to a variety of publications. He is pursuing graduate studies at St. Andrews University.


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