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Word study - law - Old Testament usage

A total of 7 different words, from 5 word-families, are used here. The overwhelmingly most frequent one is torah, which itself exhibits a range of shades of meaning. This list excludes family relationships which in English use the word law (eg father-in-law). The different sections below look at:
  1. The word families with some basic comments
  2. Word frequencies in different OT books
  3. More detailed definitions from a linguistic perspective

As a quick overall summary, the following may be said. torah is the most abundant word, having the general connotation of a body of teaching, pattern of conduct, or way of life rather than particular regulations. The word is spread quite evenly through the various books of the OT. Within this even spread, there are certain "stock phrases" used, and these show more of a development through the various books of the OT.

"Words of the law" is predominantly an early phrase, as is use of "law" on its own without some sort of qualifying phrase. A usage confined to Leviticus refers to a collection of regulations concerning a particular theme (such as particular kinds of offering), rather than the body of teaching as a whole. "Book of the law" is quite evenly spread. "Law and commandment", and especially "law of Moses" are focused more towards the later books. All of these are entirely or largely confined to the historical books. "Law of God" or similar expressions are the preferred expressions of the poets and prophets. Other words are rarely translated "law" but are linked with the concept. mishpat and mitsvah are distributed quite evenly, while choq and chaqaq are biased towards the earlier books, and dath towards the later ones. Most of these are related to individual requirements or laws (in the everyday sense), rather than the overall way of life. torah is paired with mitsvah in the phrase "law and commandment" to emphasise this distinction. A particularly interesting passage is Exodus 24.8-12, which combines berith (covenant), torah (law) and mitsvah together in the context of a theophanic appearance of God.

Word families with some basic comments

Family baseBase meaningIndividual wordWord meaningComments
yara or yarah [03384] To teach or shoot   Not ever translated as "law"
   torah [08451]Direction, instruction, custom, teaching The most commonly used word translated as "law" in the OT, comprising nearly 90% of all occurrences
chaqaq [02710] To cut in, inscribe, or decree   Only used in Proverbs in the sense of "decree"
   choq [02706]Something prescribed or owed, a statute Used in the sense of a publicly-proclaimed regulation
shaphat [01899] To judge or govern   Not ever translated as "law". Shophetim (Judges) derives from it
   mishpat [04941]A judgement Used in the sense of an enforced rule
tsavah [06680] To lay charge, give charge to, command, order   Not ever translated as "law"
   mitsvah [04687]A commandment Used in relation to particular regulations
dath [01881] A decree or law (the word is of foreign origin)   Used predominantly in Esther. Also translated as "decree", "edict", or "regulation".
dath [01882] The Aramaic form of the above   Used exclusively in Ezra and Daniel, on all occasions during reported words of Persians. Also translated as "decree".

Word frequencies in different OT books

The following table indicates how many times each word appears in the different book-blocks of the Old Testament. As torah is considerably the most abundant, and has a variety of important shades of meaning, several sub-cases have been listed here. Hopefully this shows something of the evolution of the concept through the passage of time. Additionally, the number of other uses (ie translated as different English words than "law") of the same words has been shown [in square brackets]. There will be minor differences between different modern translations, but the general picture will remain the same.

The book-blocks into which the Old Testament has been divided are:

  1. The Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy, the books of Moses)
  2. Joshua - 2 Samuel (the earlier historical books)
  3. 1 Kings - Esther (the later historical books)
  4. The Wisdom literature (Job - Ecclesiastes)
  5. The Prophets (Isaiah - Malachi)
Strong's numberWord in question (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)Total
03384yara or yarah0 [17] 0 [12]0 [14]0 [27]0 [14]0 [84]
08451torah56 [0] 9 [0]55 [0]50 [0]44 [5]214 [5]
 "words of the law"9 -3--12
 "book of the law"6 58--19
 "law and commandment"2 18--11
 "the law of Moses"- 310-316
 "the law of God/the Lord"4 -17362683
 other uses35 -9141573
02710chaqaq0 [3] 0 [2]0 [0]1 [6]0 [7]1 [18]
02706choq1 [46] 0 [3]1 [19]2 [38]0 [17]4 [123]
04941mishpat1 [83] 0 [18]1 [57]0 [114]0 [147]2 [419]
04687mitsvah0 [63] 0 [6]0 [61]0 [39]1 [11]1 [180]
01881dath1 [0] 0 [0]8 [13]0 [0]0 [0]9 [13]
01882dath0 [0] 0 [0]6 [0]0 [0]5 [3]11 [3]

When "law" is paired with "commandment" then the second word is mitsvah [04687], thus highlighting the difference between the general pattern of teaching and the specific acts of obedience.

More detailed definitions from a linguistic perspective

torah is essentially a set of instructions from a person in higher authority to one in lower. It may have originated in the family sphere in the sense of the education given by a mother to her children (and is used in this sense in Proverbs). The closely linked word mitsvah is used of a direct command from higher authority (God, the king, a father, etc.). choq has a great diversity of meanings, but essentially relates to something that has been established rather than pronounced. It can mean a religious obligation or royal pronouncement. mishpat also has numerous shades of meaning, with a common link of having a legal connotation - a specific legal verdict, or a ruling normative for future judges, for example. It is used in connection with the case-based lawa discussed below. dath is used in later literature, and in Persian use indicated a royal decree or government law - in OT usage it came also be used to suggest the law of God.

The Middle East tradition of law-giving can be traced back into the 3rd millennium BCE, and several law-codes have been preserved in varying degrees of completeness. Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite codes all share many characteristics. They are typically in the "casuistic" style - ie case-based such as "if a man does this then ...". The structure was quite conservatively maintained over many years. However, it is unclear to what extent typical ones were actually used as a basis for law (for example, we do not have judgements with an explanatory appeal to Hammurabi's law number 42). Some of the earlier ones were apparently constructed to demonstrate the ethical and religious motivations of the ruler in question. There is also a great deal of material outlining particular legal agreements, for example marriage contracts, court procedures, trading agreements etc. Egypt has generated this latter kind of material but not a body of laws in the style of Hammurabi's. This has been taken to indicate that Israelite traditions of law-giving owe more to Mesopotamia than to Egypt.

Israelite contains two other kinds of law as well as casuistic. The first is "apodictic", of the form "you shall do... you shall not do..." which is not found elsewhere and has been viewed as of pure Israelite origin relating to worship of Yahweh. The second is of similar structure but with certain clauses requiring the death penalty. There is debate as to whether these should constitute a separate class or not. They are viewed as containing relics of a tribal society where death-penalty verdicts could only be issued by the chief.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the sequence of individual laws presents something of a mystery to modern readers. There does not appear to be any legal theory determining a progression between types of law. Sometimes there are clusters of laws elaborating a particular theme (eg an ox goring) but at other times the sequence appears strange. If there was a logical pattern of thought it has long since been lost. This is typical not just of Israelite law but other Middle Eastern compilations as well. Some of the general preoccupations of the content of law point back to a nomadic lifestyle - for example theft of cattle or grazing land. Compensation for personal injury, whether deliberately intended or caused by negligence, is common Middle Eastern thought. A humane approach to slaves - whether Israelite or alien, male or female, is however quite unusual.

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