The Lost World of the Torah:
Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context
John H. Walton, J. Harvey Walton
Paperback: IVP Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I have vivid memories of devouring The Lost World of Genesis One, a slim paperback from an Old Testament scholar I had no previous exposure to. It felt like every page packed major insight into the nuances of Hebrew language and literary genres, the cultural context of the ancient world, and comparisons to other religious literature of the Near East. I remember repeatedly thinking, “Why hasn’t anyone ever explained this to me before?!”
Since then, the ongoing “Lost World” series by John Walton (and a revolving host of co-authors) has deftly guided modern readers through some of the thorniest interpretive issues presented by reading the Old Testament writings in our late-modern-scientific age, tackling historical questions surrounding topics like Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, and the Israelite conquest. While every entry has been valuable and thought-provoking, until now none have quite achieved the same level of paradigm-shifting impact as the argument presented in that first volume.
So let me say at the outset that the sixth entry, The Lost World of the Torah, vies for a spot at the top of the list, matching the best of the series in rigorous commitment to scriptural authority, precise diagnosis of modern cultural issues that impact interpretation, linguistic skill, wide-ranging knowledge of ancient cultures and religions, and accessible writing.
Like every “Lost World” book, the authors build a cumulative case, consisting of propositions that directly build on each other, narrowing in scope, until presenting a final conclusion. The result is a funnel-shaped argument, familiar to long-time readers of Walton, starting in the first chapter by simply contending that “The Old Testament Is an Ancient Document.” Though propositions like this may seem too obvious to waste ink on, the co-authors are wise in starting with a non-negotiable commitment to establishing the ancient context of the Old Testament while making no assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of said context. This may be familiar ground to cover for some, but the book takes a sharp turn right away by interrogating a frequently-unexamined interpretive lens of the modern reader: the way we think about legislation.
By leveraging the memorable image (established previously in the series) of swimming in a “cultural river,” the co-authors seek not only to identify the river within which the Torah was written, but also the river within which we read and interpret. The second Proposition: “The Way Way Interpret the Torah Today is Influenced By The Way We Think Law And Legislation Work” is the first example of the writers’ attempt to shine a light on the cultural river we stand in, and it is this thread of the whole book that sets it apart from much contemporary work on understanding the Old Testament documents. The remainder of the book jumps between these two “rivers,” explicating both the way the Torah would have functioned in the ancient context, as well as how we are unknowingly tempted to distort and misapply its teachings today.
Propositions 3-14 occasionally veer into more technical writing, but also contain the book’s most helpful content for placing the function of Torah squarely within its Ancient Near Eastern context. The authors carefully explain, using plenty of examples outside of Israel, how ancient legislative texts were not meant to be comprehensive bodies of rules for a healthy society, but were instead provided to encourage wisdom in leaders and adjudicators. By understanding Torah as a whole, then, ancient judges might grow in the type of thinking that would equip them to handle specific disputes justly, even if one couldn’t point to a specific rule or law for precedent (the way we are accustomed to using laws).
Seeing the Torah as wisdom-literature helps the modern reader understand its similarities to other societies of the time, but Israel’s Torah is not simply another mundane example of an ancient legislative text. Torah stands apart from its Ancient Near Eastern cousins in striking ways, which are elucidated in the authors’ discussions of suzerain-vassal covenants, ritual, and especially holiness (proposition 7). This is the territory in which the book provides the most startling and exciting insights.
Israel’s Torah stands apart because of Yahweh’s dual role as both deity and king, something wholly unique to Israel (at least in our current understanding). As the authors unpack the concept of Israel’s status as “vassal” to Yahweh’s “suzerainty,” the overall goal of Torah, the role of Yahweh in initiating the covenant-relationship, the meaning of holiness as a status that is given (not earned), and the function of rituals, curses and blessings all begin to take on new meaning.
“The kings of the ancient world desired to label the things that were theirs. Bricks were stamped with their names, their images were placed in conquered territories, and their treaties were inscribed and displayed prominently. A vassal was a showpiece of the suzerain’s grandeur. This labeling was a way to place one’s name on something, just as Yahweh placed his name on Israel…it showed that the suzerain had expressed gracious preference for the vassal by extending his identity to the vassal.” (49)
Within this understanding, one just begins to grasp the importance of Israel extending Yahweh’s name and reputation by participating in the covenant with wisdom and faithfulness, as well as Yahweh’s desire for ancient peoples to know who he truly is (and isn’t) through the well-ordered representation of Israel.
“The Torah, then, far from being legislation, has as its objective to define the nature of the order that defines the people who in turn give some definition to the identity of Yahweh.” (92, emphasis in original)
The final section of the book, Propositions 15-23, moves the argument into the territory of understanding the ongoing significance of Torah for modern people. Here the authors briefly discuss the New Testament’s use of Torah instruction, alluding to the difficulties of reading texts from the Greco-Roman “cultural river” that use texts from an Ancient Near Eastern “cultural river,” all while interpreting within our “cultural river.” It gets a little head-spinning. They also refute common efforts to break Torah into categories (civil, ceremonial, moral), or point to proof-texts for ethical instruction.
These chapters spring off the rock-solid foundation built throughout the book, but one can’t help wishing for more discussion (the most repeated refrain in these chapters is “such discussion is beyond the scope of this study”). Even so, these chapters illustrate the important questions that are raised in applying Torah to our context, as well as the limitations of common answers that are provided.
The result of all this is a book that masterfully elucidates the context of Torah, the ways it functioned in the ancient world, the pitfalls of many modern attempts at interpretation and application, and the ongoing need for more thoughtful work in this area. Walton and Walton are brilliant guides through the ancient world. They write with academic excellence, as well as pastoral sensitivity. This is the “Lost World” series at its best, and deserves a place on every minister’s shelf.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com