What Do We Mean by the Term “Torah?”
The Hebrew word, torah (תורה), is derived from a three-letter combination that was often used in the realm of archery, yareh (ירה). Yareh means to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark. The mark or target, of course, was the object at which the archer was aiming. Consequently, torah, one of the nouns derived from this root, means to hit the target, or hit the mark. In time, the word torah evolved into referring to teaching or instruction, which hits the mark concerning truth. Biblically speaking, the truth is truth about God and how one relates to Him. The Torah is, therefore, in the strict sense, instruction designed to teach us The Truth about God.
Torah is frequently translated “law” in English Bibles. However, this rendering is not accurate. It should be translated “instruction” or “teaching.” When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek about 250 years before Yeshua (called the Septuagint or abbreviated lxx), the Jewish scholars mostly used the Greek word nomos, nomoß to render the Hebrew word torah. The Greek word nomos, however, has a variety of uses, among which is “law,” but there are other uses of nomos, depending on the context. In each context, the word nomos needs to be translated accurately according to its legitimate options of meaning. Hence, depending on the context, nomos can also be rendered “principle,” “standard,” “legalism,” or “Jewish Religious Law,” as well as the basic definition: teaching and instruction.
Nomos is used frequently in the Newer Covenant Scriptures to speak of God’s sacred Scriptures, the Bible. When nomos is used in that way, it is not appropriate to render it as “law”, as is usually done. Here are two examples why we assert this: In at least one occasion Yeshua quoted from the Book of Psalms as part of His argument against a group of religious people who were questioning Him. We read John 10:34 in English, “Yeshua answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” Yeshua was quoting from Psalm 82:6. The word “law” is a common translation of the Greek word “nomos” in this verse. Yet, who would say that the Psalms was/is The Law? So, why would we render nomos “law” in this case? We can find a second example from Paul’s writings. In the English of 1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul writes, “In the Law it is written, ‘by men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord’.” Once again, “law” is a translation of the word nomos. However, Paul is quoting from the Prophets, from Isaiah 28:11, to be specific. We ask the same question again: how many believers consider the Prophets to be “The Law?” In both of the examples now sited, the translation should be:
John 10:34, “Yeshua answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Torah, ‘I said, you are gods’?”
1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul writes, “In the Torah it is written, ‘by men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord’.”
It seems clear that in the Newer Covenant Scriptures, when nomos is used in reference to the Bible, it should be translated Torah or Scripture, perhaps even “God’s Book of Instruction.” Of course, nomos should always be translated according to the context. When nomos is used in reference to Scripture, rarely would the context require that it be translated as “law.” Most often the context would demand the translation “Torah” or “Scripture.” Again, the context of the word is always the final determiner of its meaning. If Torah or Scripture is a legitimate rendition of nomos, then why would translators choose the term “law?”
What do the linguists say about the matter? Louw and Nida in their lexicon write, “the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah [is] often better rendered as ‘instruction’.” Moreover, The Dictionary of New Testament Theology indicates it is
important to note that torah frequently does not mean law in the modern sense of the term…the predominant use of the latter word [nomos in the LXX] must have produced a striking translation [i.e. to the Jews]… Originally torah meant an instruction from God.
Because Jewish scholars know that torah means instruction or teaching and not law, they use the term in a variety of ways to speak of educational material. In traditional Jewish thinking, the word “torah” refers in a rather broad sense to all the teachings of the rabbis, even including their students’ note-taking!. In addition, torah is used to refer to:
- The Talmud (the compendium of Jewish law and practical applications of the Scriptures — instructions about how to live
- The Tanakh (the complete Old Testament)
- The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy (also called the Pentateuch)
- The Covenant God gave to Moshe (Moses) on Mount Sinai (because it contains individual teachings, or torahs)
- Any teaching of the first five books of the Bible