What is Torah?
While Torah has most often been translated as “law” in English, it might be more helpful to understand it as “instruction.” We could say that it is instruction on how to be human in this world, and specifically how does love take shape in personal lives, in society, and in all creation. Torah reveals that to be human is to be in loving relation with God and other humans.
Torah was given to a specific people (children of Israel) at a specific time (at Mt Sinai after the Lord rescued them from slavery in Egypt). The heart of this instruction appears to be the 10 Words. These are not simply 10 Commandments because they include instruction in the form of commands, ritual instruction, memories (narrative history), relationship, prophecy, blessing, and cursing. The 10 Commandments take the shape of a covenant document that Semitic kings made with their people. The distinctive aspect of Torah is that it is not focused on covenant with a human king and his people but covenant with the Creator and the children of Israel.
The Lord provides specific expectations for His children in the family. This instruction is summarized in the 10 Words, but it is more than the 10 Words. Torah encompasses the entire Pentateuch. “To capture the uniqueness of the Pentateuch,” writes Biblical Scholar Gordon Wenham, “it would probably therefore be best to define it as torah ‘instruction’ in the form of a biography of Moses.” Thus Torah points to specific relational and ritual behavior, but it also trains the people in a way of thinking and acting in the world. This way grows into wisdom that appears to combine rehearsing the historic commands while also seeking the Lord’s guidance afresh in the moment. In this dynamic tension, Torah unfolds over time.
Here are a few definitions from a range of thinkers:
Scripture is a sign of God’s presence, not a substitute for him in his absence. YHWH inscribes the Ten Words on the tablets not to say, “So that you’ll remember me long after we’ve parted,” but “so you won’t forget just how close I am to you.” Moses institutes public readings while they’re in the wilderness, during the one time in our history, as I just read in Friedman’s commentary on Numbers, when people lived from one extraordinary occurrence to the next every day of their lives. Scripture is sacramental in the fullest sense of the Word (pun intended): an empirical, historical correlate unveiling the actuality of God’s presence. It is God’s gift us to help us live in this miraculous reality called the Creation, and before the greatest miracle of all in the world today: God himself.
In Deuteronomy 4:44, “This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites,” the word refers exclusively to the Pentateuch in contrast to the rest of the Bible. “Torah” is also used loosely to designate the entire Hebrew Bible. The term was further extended to refer to those two branches of divine revelation—the written Torah and the oral Torah, which are traditionally viewed as having been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai (b. Yoma 28b). The Mishnaic tractate Ethics of the Fathers (m. ˒Abot 1:1) opens with the statement “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” In rabbinic literature it was taught that the Torah was one of the six or seven things that God created prior to creating the world (Gen. Rab. 1:4; b. Pesaḥ. 54a). The most prestigious sage of the post Second Temple period, Rabbi Akiba, called the Torah “the instrument by which the world was created” (m. ˒Abot 3:14). The noun Torah thus designates the whole of revelation, including both commandments and statutes.
In the context of the Hebrew Bible, torah is defined in several ways. In the Pentateuch, in Genesis and Exodus, torah refers to God’s instruction (Exod. 13:9; 16:4) and parallels ‘commandment’ and ‘statute’ (Gen. 26:5; Exod. 18:16). In Leviticus and Numbers, torah defines cultic instructions: as an introduction (Lev. 6:14; 7:1; 14:2) and as a summary of previous rules (7:37; 14:54; Num. 5:29-30). The phrase ‘this is the statute of the Torah’ (Num. 19:2; 31:21; cf. 35:29) emphasizes the reference to such cultic instruction. In Lev. 10:11 the causal form of the verbal root yrh (‘to instruct,’ ‘to teach’) is used to define the main priestly duties, ‘to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.’ This teaching includes sacrificial laws, ethical behavior, holidays, and regulations concerning purity and impurity (10:10; 14:57; chaps. 4-7, 11-15, 23).
Proverbs, which uses torah in the sense of parental guidance for a child, may provide the reason why this term was used in the religious sphere. The Israelites are frequently portrayed as God’s children in the Bible (Exod. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; 32:10–12; Hos. 11:1; Jer. 31:9, 20; Isa. 66:13). Thus, torah in the religious sense may have originally connoted the teachings imparted by God the parent to Israel the child.
‘Torah’, narrowly conceived, consists of the first five books of the Old Testament, the ‘five books of Moses’ or ‘Pentateuch’. (These contain much law, but also much narrative.) It can also be used for the whole Old Testament scriptures, though strictly these are the ‘Law, prophets and writings’. In a broader sense, it refers to the whole developing corpus of Jewish legal tradition, written and oral; the oral Torah was initially codified in the Mishnah around ad 200, with wider developments found in the two Talmuds, of Babylon and Jerusalem, codified around ad 400. Many Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul regarded the Torah as being so strongly God-given as to be almost itself, in some sense, divine; some (e.g. Ben-Sirach 24) identified it with the figure of ‘Wisdom’. Doing what Torah said was not seen as a means of earning God’s favour, but rather of expressing gratitude, and as a key badge of Jewish identity.
The purpose of the Torah in this section is to teach us that the whole world and all that it contains were created by the word of the One God, according to His will, which operates without restraint. It is thus opposed to the concepts current among the peoples of the ancient East who were Israel’s neighbours; and in some respects it is also in conflict with certain ideas that had already found their way into the ranks of our people. The language, however, is tranquil, undisturbed by polemic or dispute; the controversial note is heard indirectly, as it were, through the deliberate, quiet utterances of Scripture, which sets the opposing views at nought by silence or by subtle hint.
Obviously all the laws and ritual legislation could well be termed ‘instruction’ too: these laws are not restrictions hemming people in from doing what they like, rather they are God’s wise advice, which if followed, will lead to a happy and prosperous society. As Deuteronomy puts it: ‘Keep them and do them: for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” ’ (Deut. 4:6).
For these reasons I think there is merit in retaining the old Hebrew term torah to describe the Pentateuch, translating it or at least understanding it as ‘instruction’ rather than ‘law’. This instruction though is more than merely imparting information. It is not purveying historical facts for facts’ sake or laws for laws’ sake; rather it is seeking to persuade its hearers to obey. It instructs in order to persuade: ‘that it may go well with you, and with your children after you’ (Deut. 4:40).
 Wenham, G. J. (2003). Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 1: The Pentateuch (4). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Porter, S. E., & Evans, C. A. (2000). Dictionary of New Testament background: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed.) (1083). San Francisco: Harper & Row.
 Unterman, J. (2011). Torah. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (M. A. Powell, Ed.) (Third Edition) (1061). New York: HarperCollins.
 Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (226). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Cassuto, U. (1998). A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I, From Adam to Noah (Genesis I–VI 8) (I. Abrahams, Trans.) (7). Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University.