December 3, 2020

The Gospel: The Message of the Torah (1)

'Torah' photo (c) 2009, Lawrie Cate - license: Chaplain Mike

The teacher to whom I owe my deepest debt of gratitude for giving me tools to help me read the Bible and for opening my eyes to its Gospel message from beginning to end is Dr. John Sailhamer. He was my professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School back in the 1980’s.

Dr. Sailhamer is an expert scholar on the Torah, also known as the “Pentateuch” (the five-fold book). These are the names given to the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) that we sometimes call “The Law of Moses.” In reality, these five books form one cohesive, coherent work. Though in English we often refer to this part of Scripture as “the Law,” in Hebrew the word “Torah” refers to a father’s instruction, not legal stipulations. More about that in another post.

I remember Dr. Sailhamer asking us the question, “If you were to put a title over the Pentateuch to describe its message, would it be ‘Law’ or ‘Gospel’?” In the final analysis, does the Torah represent Law — God’s demands for his people? Or does it represent Gospel — God’s provision of salvation for his people?

He went on to demonstrate that the Torah is Gospel, teaching that the Law cannot save, but that God will save his people and restore his blessing to all nations by grace through faith in a new covenant inaugurated by the promised Seed of Abraham.

For example, the message of the entire Torah is portrayed in the story told in its first chapters.

In Genesis 1, God, the creator of all, prepares a good land for his people, places them in it as his royal, priestly representatives, and gives them his blessing.

In Genesis 2-3, we learn what happened to God’s people in the good land he provided for them.

  • God provided all they needed.
  • God gave them his commands and urged them to choose the way of life, not death.
  • They, however, chose to seek to live by their own wisdom rather than God’s.
  • As a result, they were sent into exile from the good land God had given them.
  • God, however, in his grace, gave them a means of covering so that they could remain his priests in the world.
  • God also gave them a promise that the Seed of the Woman (a child born of Eve) would one day triumph over the Seed of the Serpent (Gen. 3:15)

God’s Call to “Choose Life” in the Good Land
Genesis 1-3 thus illustrates and prepares us for Moses’ main challenge to Israel. As he stood before the people of the Sinai Covenant, who had been rescued from Egypt, cared for in the wilderness, who were now gathered on the plains of Moab, preparing to enter and settle down in the Promised Land, this was his message to them:

  • God has chosen you by grace and given you a good land.
  • God calls you to represent him as his priests in the world.
  • God has given you his good Law to guide you.
  • You must choose the way of life, or you will be cast into exile.
  • When you fail to follow God’s laws, and go into exile, God will provide a new covenant for you, restore you from exile, and give you life.

Thus, in the final messages of Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy, you have words like these:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [lit. good], and death and adversity [lit. evil]; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deut 30:15-20, NASB)

As God set the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life before Adam and Eve, so God set the choice of life and good vs. death and evil before his people who were about to inhabit the good land he was giving them.

Note the pervasive language from Genesis in this passage. The story of Eden is now being replayed on the plains of Moab, as Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land.

And so Moses urged God’s chosen people to “choose life,” that they may abide in his blessing.

Failing to do so would mean exile.

God’s Prediction of Israel’s Failure under the Law
The Torah itself foretells what will happen. Israel, like Adam and Eve, will choose to follow their own wisdom rather than God’s words of life. They will be cast from the Land into exile in the latter days.

It came about, when Moses finished writing the words of this law in a book until they were complete,that Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, “Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may remain there as a witness against you. For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more, then, after my death? Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.” (Deut 31:24-29, NASB)

Notice that the Torah itself tells us here why Moses wrote it for Israel. It was given so that it would be “a witness against” them. Think about that: a witness against them. The Pentateuch was not only given as a constant reminder of God’s goodness to his people, but also of their own inability to keep God’s laws and follow his ways.

In the end, the Law God gave them would testify against them.

Isn’t it fascinating that Moses predicts from the very beginning that Israel would fail under the Law covenant and go into exile? Despite God’s provision of all they needed, and despite his gift of the Law, they would not be able to trust and obey.

Like Adam and Eve, they would be cast from the lush garden God had planted for them.

God’s Promise of a New Covenant of Life
However, this is not the end of the story.

So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut. 30:1-6, NASB)

God will restore his people from exile. When (not “if”) all these things have happened to them — after they have known God’s blessing and after they have failed to trust and obey him under the Law and after they go into exile and are scattered among the nations — then God will intervene, gather them back to himself and back to the land. Even more than that, God will give them a new heart to love him, that they may know life.

As will be developed throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, this is God’s promise of a New Covenant, one that will be inscribed on their hearts, not on tablets of stone. One that will enable them to walk in God’s ways, not just command them to do so. This New Covenant will be inaugurated after Israel experiences their exile and return to the Land.

• • •

The Torah’s message is the Gospel message:

      • God provides “the good” for the people he made.
      • He calls us to trust and obey.
      • We cannot follow God’s laws, for we do not have a heart to keep them.
      • Our failure leads to separation from God and his good provision (exile).
      • God intervenes by providing a new covenant.
      • In this new covenant, he gives us new hearts to trust and obey him.
      • In this new covenant, he leads us to life.

The time frame is also clear. This new covenant will be set in motion after Israel’s exile.

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…” (Mark 1:9)


  1. I can see the gospel there.

    As you say, “God covered them.”

    Blood had to be shed in order for that covering to take place. That’s gospel.

    Thanks for sharing that thought provoking post, Chaplain Mike.

  2. A few years ago, I started reading some Plymouth Brethren writings on the Pentateuch. They had a similiar theme, showing grace in the Old Testament. I don’t think they are in print anymore, but C. H. Mackintosh writings can often be found online and in used bookstores.

  3. Gospel message from beginning to end…absolutely. God’s grace is abundant in OT…absolutely. But I’m not following all the way through your conclusion that the “Torah’s message is the Gospel message.” Points to? yes. Promises? yes. Prepares the way for? Yes. But isn’t the nature of the Gospel include the finished work? That’s what I don’t see in the Torah.

    • Of course the finished work had not yet happened and the fullness of the story was chronologically future. But I still think we can call this Gospel. It may be in “seed” form, but the fullness of the plant is in the seed.

      • Does this mean that the Jews have the fullness of the Gospel?

        • No, but if this reading of the OT is correct, then it would lead one to forsake trust in the Law and look for God’s new covenant.

          There are other aspects yet to be discussed as well, including the person of Messiah.

          • Chaplain Mike,

            Do you know of any sects of Judaism, historically, which have ‘forsaken trust in the law’? What does it look like to forsake trust in the law?

            This also seems to run contrary to Orthodox Judaism’s claims about the origin of the Talmud (As an oral law also given at the time of Moses).

            Your approach is interesting, especially in light of Ezekiel 20:25 and much of the prophets, but I still worry it is anachronistic. I’m just not seeing Paul’s reading of the law as anything other than a brilliant theological innovation. A reimagining of the law in light of Christ (Who himself had a complicated relationship to the law (Matt. 19:8).

            Looking forward to reading how you flesh this out!

            • To forsake trust in the Law is to look like Paul! — finding one’s identity in Christ and the new covenant rather than in Moses and the Sinai covenant. As the NT itself shows, this does not necessarily entail giving up Jewish cultural or even religious practices. It means accepting Jesus as the fulfillment of all old covenant requirements and not counting on keeping them for my acceptance or standing with God. It means not using them as “boundary markers” to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out” in terms of the true faith, or requiring others to conform to those practices to be members of good standing in God’s family. It means recognizing that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28-29).

              I’m not sure what you mean by saying my view is “anachronistic” — could you explain that more? I also don’t see how this view is in conflict with Ezek 20:25 and the other prophets. The prophets were the ones who proclaimed the coming of the new covenant most fully.

          • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

            Something to remember, Dan, is that Orthodox Judaism is pretty much the descendant of one particular sect: the pharisees. In the 1st Century, Judaism wasn’t nearly as monolithic as it is today. The biggest factor in the other groups dying out, of course, was the destruction of the Temple in AD70. Something else that is often forgotten is that Orthodox Judaism has continued to evolve over the last couple thousand years, including some evolution that was frankly a reaction to the cultural ascendancy of Christianity in the West. Due to the post AD70 monolithic development of Judaism, the history as the Rabbis tell it isn’t always… objective (e.g. the complete dismissal of anything Josephus or most other Greek-speaking Jewish scholars from the 2nd-Temple Period wrote).

            That said, NT Write (and others) make a great case for 1st-Temple Judaism trusting more in “covenant nomism” than in legalistic deeds. I.e. their trust/faith was in their membership in the Covenant, not in how well they kept the Law. Within the Covenant, one was certainly expected to keep the Law (and indeed, one could be expelled from the Covenant for certain violations), but it wasn’t in the deeds themselves that the folks were trusting. Many religious Jews I know today tend to have a similar point of view. Their trust is in the fact that they’re part of Israel, regardless of whether or not they’re “good” Jews.

            Another thought, re: the “anachronistic” understanding. The limitation to a very scientific and literal “grammatical historical” method of reading/interpreting the Scriptures in general and the OT in particular is a relatively recent development in Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter). For most of recorded theological history, that was just the FIRST level of reading/interpretation. Typology and other “anachronistic” readings/interpretations were considered to be much more valuable and applicable. Heck, that’s the way the NT writers did things! Limiting things to a grammatical/historical method of reading and interpretation is really a product of the enlightenment and of modernity. For what it’s worth 🙂

          • Chaplain Mike,

            By anachronistic I mean that your reading of the Hebrew Bible seems to be grounded in New Testament exegesis and not in the text itself (Which I believe has a more eclectic view to the law). Some of the logic that Paul brings to bear on the texts and that you do as well focuses on certain strains of the Hebrew Bible (particularly the prophets as well agree) but I believe it’s an oversimplification to state that the Hebrew Bible i is the Gospel. The Hebrew Bible has many threads that may resonate with the Gospel but there are others that starkly do not.


            I’m aware of Judaism’s theological development. I’d like to know more about this “covenant nomism” during first temple Judaism. Upon what sources do Wright and others make their argument? (First Temple is a long way back)

            I’m a big fan of the enlightenment and modernity both have worked out really well for me. While I am aware that the sort of reading that I’m suggesting is historical critical I believe Chaplain Mike is suggesting that his reading is as well. He speaks of specific events, times, and historical progression. He’s not talking about a allegorical or mystical reading of the text. He states that the Torah is (And always has been) Gospel full stop. Not, “When I study the Torah it moves me to the Gospel”, not, “The Torah is a type or shadow of the Gospel”.

            • Dan, thanks. Though it’s hard to say how much my NT understanding unconsciously affects my understanding, my intention is to let the Old Testament speak for itself. I haven’t even mentioned Christ yet in looking at the OT texts, and that is certainly the heart of NT exegesis. Thus far, we have only focused on the words of the Torah itself, (1) that the law covenant would prove to be a failure because of the inability of Israel to keep it and thus the necessity for a new covenant, and (2) that Abraham is commended for faith apart from the Law while Moses ends up not being able to lead the people into the land because of unbelief under the Law. These readings are based on the text, structure and emphasis of the Torah itself, and there are many more examples I could mention. Certainly letting the OT text speak for itself is Sailhamer’s approach, and he has been the one I’ve tried to emulate.

          • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

            Wright et al are referring to the 2nd Temple Judaism when they speak of “covenant nomism,” not first. As far as I know, most everything we know about 1st Temple Judaism comes from the bible itself. I meant to either write 2nd-Temple Judaism or 1st-Century Judaism, not 1st-Temple Judaism. Sorry about that!

  4. Wonderful series, CM. It’s amazing to see God’s plan unfolding from the beginning. I appreciate the commentary on God’s promises for a new covenant of life. It’s a different perspective from what we hear in many evangelical churches, where the promise stressed is eternity in heaven. I wonder how differently we would view how our faith intersects with everyday living if we placed more emphasis on the reality that God not only provides us with heaven, but with an opportunity to experience LIFE!

  5. This was brilliant. I never knew that about a Father’s Instruction. This what Scot McKnight was talking about with the Bible being full of wiki stories of the whole. More please!

  6. This is good stuff. I have an interest in OT biblical theology (tried to crack “The Meaning of the Pentateuch” by Sailhamer recently but didn’t give it a strong enough effort) and am starting Hebrew this fall. This helps me get off to a great start.

  7. but as a Gentile, thousands of years removed from anything remotely identifiable as Old Testament Jewishness, why try to ‘backfill’ understanding of the universal perspective of the Gospel by peering intently into it???

    i will not be able to ever grasp the way the Hebrew race/nation/identity viewed its place in history or theological development. isn’t there enough of Jewish understanding taught in the New Testament to be sufficient for a good Gentile boy like me to appreciate? the book of Hebrews comes to mind…

    • Quixotequest says

      Perhaps because the Bible is not primarily a book of heroes nor a book of rules. Yes it has some of those. It also carries the anti-matter to explode the virtue and law therein. It is most of all a story, and the “Old Testament” is the only scripture story Jesus and his Apostles had, and it was sufficient to prepare them for testing and accepting the covenantal fulfillment in the Good News of Christ’s work.

      With us living in the following age prepared by Christ’s work and to know the story that came before is to give richer context for how we live out the continuing story today. To read the New Testament alone is at worst to often encourage scriptural antinomianism. At best it stunts us from the fulness of God’s own redemptive work that has always been bound in tandem with a mucked up yet real and Divine-image-bearing humanity. (With generous thanks to Keller and Wright, among others, for this perspective on the biblical story.)

      • i can’t even “do all that Jesus commanded” let alone the jot-and-tittle of Old Testament perspective…

        it is a matter of being faithful with what i know already. i can’t seem to be able to handle the NT standards let alone wondering what the OT could address…

        whew! pity to poor Gentiles that were faced with the good news of the gospel only to be innundated in Jewish history/culture/religion, etc.

        just putting it into perspective here…

        • Quixotequest says

          Pity the challenges of we inundated with Postmodern, Consumerist, et al, culture and religion as we face the Good News! If scripture is more about emulation then the cultural divide with our ancients becomes more problematic. If scripture is more about information and inspiration for us to live out our own age with what transmutes and transcends from that story then I gain more confidence from what _has_ happened, peace with what _does_ happen, rather than angst with what _will_ (or must) happen.

    • I am a career IT guy that specializes in databases. My colleagues would say I have a deep understanding of my field. But I started knowing nothing.
      I have a much deeper appreciation of the complexity of my field than I had a a fresh young graduate, the rabbit hole goes deep.

      Similarly, in my faith I have had a superficial understanding it. Enough for salvation. But am I content with that? I am beginning to see that having a deeper understanding of the Jewishness of our roots actually makes our faith much more meaningful. I have found that in some ways what we have a superficial shell left over that portrays no where near the depth or nuance that our faith really holds.

      As an example some of us hold communion as being similar to passover. If you ever attend a seder supper (passover) you will see that we have lost a lot of the depth and context.

      • “If you ever attend a seder supper (passover) you will see that we have lost a lot of the depth and context.”

        Not necessarily. Things can change a lot in 2000 years. If our communion doesn’t look much like what Jesus experienced, then maybe the modern Jewish seder doesn’t look much like what Jesus experienced either.

        • Quixotequest says

          True, but Seder is still noticeably informed and coloured by Bronze Age cultural communication forms whereas Evangelical worship forms often intentionally try to avoid looking like they’re coloured by worship forms from 20 years ago. That’s the point (as I see it): Not as much about content as it is about intent.

        • You have a point Michael, but mine is that it never hurts us to try as much as possible to learn about the original context. There are a lot of things that were not written in the NT text because they did not need to be, the original recipients understood.
          I used communion because its something I am aware of. Many times we sit in suits and pass tiny cups of grape juice and crackers around with absolutely no idea that this was originally done as part of the passover meal, something that was pregnant with symbolism and meaning to the Jews. Was the cup that Jesus took Elijah’s cup? I don’t know, but if it was the symbolism and meaning is powerful. I never knew the context of communion until I took seder.

          We are so far removed that often what we are left with is a mere shell that ends up being 1 dimensional. So I am glad we have people like NT Wright and others who are doing serious studies into the cultural and religious contexts.

        • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

          I have probably attended close to hundred Seders over the last 15-20 years (seriously… each year I attend multiple Seders, and often am instrumental in hosting/presiding over them). There’s certainly been some development, but many elements have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. While I think they can be helpful in providing some historical and cultural context for the Lord’s Supper, I frankly find my parish’s Sunday Morning Eucharist to be much more significant spiritually. As neat as the Seder is (and it is really neat) the celebration of Communion ought not be retrofitted to become a Christian Seder meal.

          BUT, but, but…. we ought to know our OT well enough that when we read the Gospels’ narratives of the Last Supper, we’re picturing the Exodus, the post exilic Passover celebrations, and the Seder as well as Holy Communion. We ought to see some connection, even as they aren’t identical celebrations.

          • What prompted my thought on this was a testimony of a converted Jewish man. Someone in his church told him that they were having communion, which was like passover.
            He recounted how he showed up on Sunday without eating, and when he looked at the front and saw a little white blanket and wondered how they could fit the meal under it.

            Knowing the cultural context of the passover meal, and that Eucharist was originally taken in that context only makes it richer and more meaningful.

            In my original church tradition it was small cups of grape juice and crackers, once a month as a kind of addendum to the service. I now attend Episcopal services and find them more meaningful, but when I think of the original context it becomes very real.

    • Joseph,

      if you have a friend who is an N.T. Wright fan, or if you have a decent library system, perhaps you could borrow Wright’s book “The New Testament and the People of God”. At the beginning there is some technical theological discussion about why he is writing this series, along with an in-depth look at story theory (which in itself is fascinating). Then he launches into his view of precisely “the way the Hebrew race/nation/identity viewed its place in history or theological development” in the first century. As you note, we are gentiles and 2000 years removed, not to mention that few of us speak Greek or have access to all the resources necessary to understand that view.

      There isn’t enough in the bible to understand some things. Some things are very clear; other things are difficult, for various reasons. People like Wright can help a lot. Do give the book a try; don’t be put off by its length or number of footnotes or theological details you may not understand. The basic text is very readable.


      • thanx for the recommendation. i will look into Wright’s book since he is a writer i am familiar with.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      isn’t there enough of Jewish understanding taught in the New Testament to be sufficient for a good Gentile boy like me to appreciate?

      The simple answer to that question is “no.” Just as there have been developments in Judaism since the 1st Century, there were also many developments in the Israelite’s (and the generations preceding them) worship and relationship with God over history. The Jewish religion of Jesus’ day looked very different from what was going on in David’s day or Moses’ day or Abraham’s day. If you really want to understand the Big Story, you’ve got to understand the whole story. Neither the Church Fathers, nor the Reformers, nor even Christ and the Apostles rejected the Old Testament; they all treated them as of vital importance for Christians. Heck, whenever the Epistles laud the study and use of the Scriptures, they’re technically referring to the Old Testament! Indeed, one of the earliest heresies to be condemned was that of Marcion, who is most famously known for rejecting the Hebrew Scriptures.

  8. It’s trite, I know, but God’s promises to Abraham have been a light that has illuminated the history of salvation until the birth of Jesus, especially in the darkest moments, for example, the Babylonian exile. In this sense, the promises to David are another key point in the history of salvation. The whole Bible is deeply imbued with these promises.
    God’s promises to Abraham include two essential elements of the Gospel: the Land (the Kingdom) and the offspring (the King).
    “Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” Abraham saw by faith the promises of God (Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises of God) and rejoiced in his faith.
    I am convinced that we could proclaim the gospel from the book of Genesis because, if we believe in the promises of God, our eyes inevitably end up meeting the Promised One: Jesus

  9. Mike,

    Great points, I was raised in traditional dispensationalism, but I have come to believe in a more narrative form of theology. Looking at the bible not as two seperate paths to God for two seperate peoples in two seperate times, but more like the Jesus Storybook Bible – “every story whispers His name”.

    I believe that Hebrews 11 supports this view. All the men listed there are declared righteous, not because of keeping the law, but because of their faith in God and His provision of a means of salvation. These died not knowing the name or the details, but they lived in faith that God would be true to His promises. I see Gospel running from Genesis through revelation, its just that looking back, we can see it more clearly than those who lived in those times.

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