Torah in the Prophets and the Psalter

To what does a text in the Hebrew Bible signify when it speaks of torah? Two scholars have recently raised this question and provided helpful answers. Charles Halton explores the notion of “Law” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012; 491-503), and Gordon Wenham explores the term torah in his book Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), specifically in the chapter “The Concept of the Law in the Psalms” (77-95) where he focuses on Psalms 1, 19, and 119.

Charles observes that when the biblical prophets make reference to torah or moral norms, these things are not dependent upon the Pentateuch. More specifically, the Mosaic and Priestly traditions within the Pentateuch do not inform the prophetic conception of and rhetoric about torah. Rather, the prophetic conception of torah “skip[s] over Sinai and tap[s] into an Ur-tradition of law,” a tradition more indicative of natural law (500). In concert with this observation, he recognizes that “elements that seem central to Sinaitic revelation, within the narrative world of the Hebrew Scriptures, actually have roots going back to primeval stories in Genesis” (499). Charles’ article is in certain respects a good summary of the conclusions reached at the SBL annual meeting back in November in the joint session between the Pentateuch and Book of the Twelve Prophets program units.

In a very different vein, Wehnam observes that torah in the Psalter is a concept much broader than (but inclusive of) the Pentateuch, in particular the legal portions. Surveying the terminology for law in Psalm 119, he concludes that “the breadth of Psalm 119’s understanding of the law . . . is not just ethical injunctions and rules, but rather the whole of God’s revelation” (88). Unlike Charles, in the next chapter, “Laws in the Psalter” (97-118) he aims to demonstrate the dependence of the Psalter on the Pentateuch, principally the Decalogue but inclusive of other Israelite legal “codes.” While I see with Wenham certain correspondences between the ethical values of the Psalter and the ethical norms of the Pentateuch, he does not persuade me to see dependence. It is important, when doing influence studies, to remember the dictum: correlation does not imply causation.

As time permits, I hope to feature more articles from the recent IVP dictionary on the prophets. My full review of Wenham’s Psalms as Torah will appear in RBL in the next few months.

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6 thoughts on “Torah in the Prophets and the Psalter

  1. Hey Joseph,
    Thanks for your brief post. Can you help me understand the importance of ” when the biblical prophets make reference to torah or moral norms, these things are not dependent upon the Pentateuch. More specifically, the Mosaic and Priestly traditions within the Pentateuch do not inform the prophetic conception of and rhetoric about torah. Rather, the prophetic conception of torah “skip[s] over Sinai and tap[s] into an Ur-tradition of law,” a tradition more indicative of natural law (500).”
    Thanks for any help.

    1. I don’t know that its importance is singular, as though it means one thing in particular. It is an exegetical observation which many people may find significant for a variety of reasons. I can spell out its importance for my own work. I have an article currently under review in which I argue that “Obedience in the Hebrew Bible less often functions as an ethical foundation and more often functions as a kind of moral discourse within which many different ethical foundations operate.” If all ethics in the Hebrew Bible were to point to a written, Mosaic Torah, it would be more difficult if not unwarranted to argue my case (though, as I point out–critical historical and compositional issues aside–one still must reckon with the reality of pre-Sinai ethics divorced from divine command). The fact is, the Hebrew Bible does not everywhere think that ethics is rooted in Obedience despite the prevalence of obedience language. Part of the evidence of this is that biblical prophets and sages are bypassing Sinai and appealing to different kinds of ethical foundations–C. S. Lewis’s “magic before the dawn of time,” so to speak.

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