John Walton’s Finest?

John Walton’s Finest? February 25, 2019

A question will be asked in the coming months if this new book by John H. Walton, in his Lost World series, is his finest.

His approach of showing how a major text or genre or theme were part of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and therefore needed to be understood from that world, and that once done the interpretation often changed — that approach is put on full display in this new book on the Torah.

What he did for creation narratives is now done for Torah segments from the Old Testament.

His newest book, with his son J. Harvey Walton, is called The Lost World of the Torah. I’m posting about this book today though it’s Publication Date is tomorrow, but it can be ordered today and shipping begins tomorrow.

What, I have been asking of late as I translate the New (ahem, “Second”) Testament, is the best translation for the Greek word (nomos) normally translated with “law.” Is  the Torah of the Old Testament “law”? Is the Sermon on the Mount “law”? Is the ethic of the apostles “law”? What’s the best word? Law, legislation, instruction, covenant obligation? Resolution of those questions are for another day, our post is about Walton and Walton’s new book.

Walton’s approach is to face squarely the ANE in order to understand the OT. We want it to speak to us today, and it does, but how? Walton-Walton, and from now on (W&W):

People using the Old Testament and the Torah today want to believe that they can address the significant issues of culture in “biblical” ways and, specifically, with “biblical” answers and positions. In our society today, as diverse and pluralistic as it is, we are faced with a multitude of issues, including abortion, stem cell research, genetic engineering, climate change, land exploitation, species extinction, capital punishment, immigration policies, creation care, sustainability, euthanasia, and, perhaps most pervasively, questions concerning rights and identity (gender, sexuality, ethnic, racial, etc.). We want the Bible to give us answers, but whatever answers might be embedded there, or whether there are any answers at all, can only be determined by having an informed understanding of the biblical text and by using a consistent methodology to arrive at our interpretation.

W&W continue with this important, though for some controversial, claim:

We are going to suggest that finding what we can consider “biblical” answers to these social issues is not as straightforward as it seems because, contrary to what many interpreters imagine, the Bible is not a compilation of propositional revelation—a collection of facts expressing divine affirmations. Though that is a popular view, we will contend, in contrast, that Scripture is not a body of information containing propositions that are always valid in all places and times. Instead, we will find much greater need to resist the thinking that there is a divinely inspired silver bullet to resolve the complicated questions we face.

The OT Torah, W&W are saying, is about order in society and wisdom for judicial contexts not comprehensive legislation for all of the Land:

Instead of relying on legislation (a formal body of written law enacted by an authority), order was achieved through the wisdom of those who governed society.

But have we treated the Torah this way?

We have too often looked to the Torah to construct legislation as if the Torah were intended to be legislation. If, as we contend, it was never intended as legislation, then that is the wrong approach. If the focus of the Torah is order and wisdom, then it will provide for us an understanding of order and wisdom at least in an Israelite context. We will then have to determine the relevance that has for us today.

W&W have an approach: theses form the title of chps and the content of that chp. Skim the Table of Contents and you’ve got the book — if you understand what that thesis is. Some are already talking about this book without reading it and without understanding the complexity and nuance of this book. This book will prove challenging for many to read, but it will pay rich rewards for its readers. Some of our assumptions are being challenged.

1 The Old Testament is an Ancient Document

This means that if we are to interpret Scripture so as to receive the full impact of God s authoritative message, and build the foundation for sound theology, we have to begin by setting aside the presuppositions of our cultural river [about how law in our society works], with all our modern issues and perspectives, in order to engage the cultural river of the ancient communicators.

We need to listen to those who know the ANE.

If we have any hope of understanding texts that are resident in another cultural river, we need the service of a cultural broker.

Some of their most common claims now, claims I consider established:

Torah is part of the ancient text we know as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. That Bible is written for us (i.e., we are supposed to benefit from its divine message and expect that it will help us to confront the currents in our cultural river by transforming us), but it is not written to us (not in our language or in the context of our culture).

The Bible was written to the people of ancient Israel in the language of ancient Israel; therefore, its message operates according to the logic of ancient Israel.

The authority of the text is found when we read it for what it is—no more, no less. For those who pride themselves on interpreting the text ‘literally,” we can only say that a person cannot read the text more literally than to read it as the original author intended for it to be read.

Again, to counter what some claim (that this means the Bible can only be read by experts), W&W show that all can read the Bible but it requires experts to understand some dimensions of the Old Testament:

Scholars have a role in the body of Christ just like everyone else does. One cannot object that it is somehow elitist for scholars to think they have a contribution to make that not just anyone can make. Not everyone is an eye, an ear, or a hand. Everyone else is gifted to do what they do, and academics are no exception—and no one should begrudge that. No person alone is the whole body of Christ; we all depend on the gifts of others. If the Bible needs to be translated—an important emphasis of the Reformation still acknowledged today— then somebody needs to translate it. Cultural brokerage, like lexical semantics, is part of the translation process and is a necessary function of a competent translator.

2 The Way We Interpret the Torah Today Is Influenced by the Way We Think Law and Legislation Work

For the purposes of this book, it will be enough for us to differentiate between written documents that are descriptive and those that are prescriptive. Prescriptive documents expect obedience or conformity as a response; descriptive documents expect comprehension as a response. We will use the term legislation to refer to the idea of legal formulations that are prescriptive and therefore create a system of law and an obligation for those under that system.

As commonly happens, interpreters were inclined to read the biblical text through the filter of their own cultural river—their own cultural context. As a result of such reading, people began thinking that the Torah dictated the law of the land to Israel. And since it was considered divine revelation, it was therefore construed as God’s ideal guide to society and morality. And if it is God’s guide to the ideal shape of society and morality, then all people everywhere are obligated to apply it; one must merely determine how to deal with idiosyncrasies and anomalies in order to apply it to today.

Big conclusions now arise with clarity:

3 Legal Collections in the Ancient World Are Not Legislation

One of the characteristics of the kind of prescriptive codified legislation we use today is that it has to be somewhat comprehensive in the range of topics it covers. If a society is going to be governed by law, the law must address every aspect of society. … In contrast, it has been clear to everyone who has studied the ANE legal collections that they do not even try to be comprehensive; many important aspects of life and society are left unaddressed. … Ancient legal wisdom instead tried to instruct the judge on what Rightness and wrongness looked like so he (and it was usually a man) would be able to produce Rightness and eliminate wrongness with his verdicts.

4 Ancient Near Eastern Legal Collections Teach Wisdom

In the same way, the lists of legal sayings provide wisdom for judges who have to decide on cases in their towns. These lists showcase the wisdom of the king to discern what justice will look like. They are not the laws of the land, they are not legislative decrees, and they do not constitute a prescriptive code enforced in society. The king has not promulgated these as laws. He has had them compiled to convey his wisdom because, as the king designated by the gods, his responsibility is to maintain order on behalf of the gods. Wisdom is the ability to perceive order and establish it.

Likewise, this instruction in wisdom should be recognized as having a very different intention from legislation. Whereas legislation has the expected response of obedience, instruction in wisdom has the expected response of comprehension and application.

We find that it is far different from the understanding and practice of law today. Rather than focusing on words that define our cultural river, words like code, legislation, prescription, coercion, obedience, and obligation, we must focus on words that define their cultural river, words like wisdom, illustration, circumscription, description, instruction, comprehension, and assimilation of ideas.

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