Is the Torah For All Nations?
A common claim I hear when engaging with my Torahist friends is the idea that the Torah is for the entire world. There’s a sense in which this is a true statement. But there’s another sense in which this claim is misleading and opens the door for misinterpretation, if not outright heresy. For example, my Torahist friend Rachel argues:
God chose Israel, out of all the nations, to be a light because Israel had what no other nation had: the Torah. They were to model what holiness and mercy looked like to the world around them. Through obedience to the Torah, Israel could show the world what it looked like to treat one another fairly and forgive great debt and worship God.
In other words, Israel would provide spiritual and moral guidance to the entire world through the observance of the Torah. While there is truth to this perspective, it is far from the whole story. In fact, it misses the main point of the story.
What Does the Torah Claim?
Let’s start with the words of the Torah itself:
Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”—Exodus 19:3-6
In this passage, God promises the Israelites that if they keep His covenant, out of all nations they alone would be His treasured possession. And that, although the whole earth is God’s, Israel alone will be for Him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It’s clear from this text that the Law of Moses was given specifically to Israel, not to all nations. God did not command the pagans to circumcise their men or the Egyptians to keep the Sabbath. And He certainly didn’t command the Gentiles to make sacrifices in the Temple. That would have violated the Law of Moses! The things God commanded in the Torah He demanded of Israel alone, to set them apart as a nation.
As clear as that seems, our Torahists friends still insist that the Torah was intended for the whole world in a specific sense. Let’s take a look at the two most common arguments they use.
Same Law for Foreigners
First, Torahists point to the fact that when a foreigner lived among the Israelites they were required to live by the Torah. Many passages teach this:
- “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
- “There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 24:22)
- “As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD.” (Numbers 15:15)
Foreigners who lived among the Israelites were indeed required to live by the same law as Israel. However, this does not show that the Torah was for all people. Would we say that the laws of Ireland were given to all people because when a foreigner lives in Ireland, he is required to live under Irish law? Of course, not. Passages like those above actually show that the Torah was the national law of Israel, rather than a universal law for all people.
The perspective of Messianic Judaism on this issue emphasizes how the laws of Moses were explicitly given by God to the ancient people of Israel for their specific needs at their particular time in history:
Let’s jump a few thousand years back to the time of the ancient Near East, a culture and mindset completely foreign to ours today, whose social structures are badly damaged by the Fall. Within this context, God raises up a new nation with new laws to live by, in order to create a new culture for them. In doing so, He adapts His expectations to a people whose attitudes and actions are subject to influence by the pagan nations around them. These laws aren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all peoples everywhere at all times. They are specific to that people with their specific needs in that ancient era . . .
Take for example God’s ideal for marriage—a monogamous union joining husband and wife as one flesh (Gen. 2:24). When God is dealing with Israel, a nation of fallen humans affected by their surroundings in the ancient Near East, God’s ideals are distorted and forgotten. Therefore, God is on the move to restore His ideals through this small new nation. The laws of Moses are a first step in that process.—Postell, Bar, and Soref 1
Light to The Nations
Torahism’s second argument stems from the Hebrew concept of La’Goyim, which means Light to the Nations. This term originated with the prophet Isaiah:
He says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles (La’Goyim), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”—Isaiah 49:6 (parenthetical addition mine)
When viewed in the context of the entirety of Scripture, we find that Isaiah’s prophecy about the “light for the Gentiles” is actually referring to Yeshua (Jesus), not to the Law of Moses, or the Torah, or even Israel. Isaiah was prophesying that it is through the Messiah that God’s salvation will reach the ends of the earth. Israel is only the source of the light insofar as it is the channel through which Yeshua came. It is Yeshua Who is the Light for the Gentiles and the means of God’s salvation, not the Torah.
How do we know this? First of all, because the New Testament repeatedly refers to Yeshua as the Light.2 This is not a coincidence. The New Testament authors were Jews who knew well the prophecies in the Tanakh (Old Testament) about the Light coming into the world. And they knew their Jewish audience would have understood exactly what they were referring to. Consider the words of Simeon when he held up the child Yeshua in the Temple and proclaimed:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.—Luke 2:29-32
And as Yeshua began His preaching ministry, Matthew quoted directly from the prophet Isaiah to show us that Yeshua was, in fact, the Light that was prophesied:
Leaving Nazareth, he (Yeshua) went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”—Matthew 4:13-16 (Quoting from Isaiah 9:1-2)
The Apostle Paul taught this as well, saying:
I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.—Acts 26:22b-23
Yeshua Himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Contrary to what Torahism teaches, Israel is not a light to the nations because they have the Torah. Israel is a light to the nations because through Israel, God gave us His Son, Yeshua. This underscores one of the grave dangers of Torahism; it displaces Yeshua’s role in redemptive history with the Torah. And when it does so, Torahism takes the focus off of Christ and draws people away from salvation, which can only be found in Him.3
The Jerusalem Council
There is an episode captured in the New Testament where the issue of applying the Torah to all people was directly addressed. It happened in the year AD 50—just twenty years after Yeshua’s resurrection—at a meeting of apostles and elders in Jerusalem. In my opinion, the outcome of this event alone is enough to shut down Torahism once and for all.
I covered this council in detail in this article, so I’ll just share the moral of the story here: the Jerusalem Council did not make the keeping of the Law of Moses a requirement for new believers in Yeshua. This was a groundbreaking decision. If there was ever a time during the forming of the nascent Christian Church for the Jews to demand that the Gentiles keep the Torah, this was it. But they did not mention circumcision, keeping the feasts, observing the Sabbath, avoiding pork, or any of the other Laws of Moses. The decision made by this council was to mention just four restrictions:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.—Acts 15:28-29
Starter Pack Theory
At this point, our Torahist friends will invariably suggest that these four restrictions were given to the Gentiles as a sort of “starter pack” of commandments that would stop them from doing a whole lot of sinful things right off the bat. And then over time, the new Gentile believers would supposedly learn the rest of the commandments as they heard the Torah preached in the synagogues every Sabbath. Here are a few of the comments I’ve heard from Torahists during our discussions on this issue:
Isn’t it interesting that the council in Acts 15 chose four random instructions (laws) for the Gentiles to follow? Is this the exhaustive list? The only laws they have to follow? Or perhaps these are where the Gentiles are to start, and they will learn the rest when they come and hear the scriptures preached every Sabbath day (as it says in Acts 15).
Gentiles were coming to faith in a Jewish Messiah—they were given very basic things to follow at first. They were being discipled in Jewish houses of worship by Jewish believers. Who would expect them to adopt everything all at once?
These are not just four random things, but all four are straight out of the Torah. James is quoting Torah to show that the Gentiles coming in were foretold by the prophets. Then He suggests four instructions that the pagan Gentiles practiced at their idol’s temple.
It’s not a requirement, it’s a starting point. They are coming to learn truth.
These four starter commands would cut off believers from the Pagan temples. Paganism was central to the lives of these communities. The gods of each area were worshipped for their blessing and favor. Now that these people were cut off from their former religious lives where will they be worshipping? We know the expectation is that new believers will gradually learn the Torah because they would be entering the religious life of the nation in the synagogue.
These theories, while perhaps interesting, all suffer from a complete lack of biblical support. There is nothing in the book of Acts (nor in all of Scripture) suggesting a gradual approach to the Law of Moses for believers in Yeshua. The Bible does not teach anywhere that Gentile believers in Yeshua were supposed to (or ever did) learn all 613 mitzvot of the Torah. In other words, there is zero Scriptural evidence for a “starter pack” theory.
What we do have scriptural support for is the teaching that Christians—who are free to eat whatever they want—should not use their freedom to offend others or cause them to stumble. This is exactly what James was referring to when he explained, “For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath”(Acts 15:21). In other words, because the Law of Moses was so central to the Jewish believers in Yeshua at that time, the Council decided to issue a few restrictions to the Gentile Christians, so they would not unnecessarily offend their Jewish brothers and sisters. This is a common theme in the New Testament:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.—Romans 14:19-21
Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.—1 Corinthians 8:13
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?—1 Corinthians 10:25-30
It’s About Salvation
Another argument from Torahism about the Jerusalem Council is that the discussion was only about salvation, therefore, the council’s decision only proves that we are not required to follow the Law of Moses to be saved. However, says Torahism, we still need to follow the Law of Moses as a matter of obedience.
Acts 15 indeed opens with a statement about salvation: “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). To which, Peter ultimately argued, “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (Acts 15:11). The keeping of the Torah was not considered by the council to be a matter of salvation. And they also decided not to require the Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses as a matter of obedience.
In other words, what the council decided was (a.) “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (Acts 15:11), and (b.) “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…” (Acts 15:28). Again, if there was ever a time for the early Church to instruct the Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses, this was it. But they chose not to make it a requirement of salvation or obedience.
This is undeniable scriptural evidence that the Law of Moses is no longer in effect. And don’t miss the fact that the final decision of the Jerusalem Council carried the full weight of the apostles, the elders, and the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Their decision is a point on which Torahism as a belief system crumbles. If, as Torahism claims, the Law of Moses is still binding for all people, why did the early Church not require new believers in Yeshua to keep it? There is just no way to reconcile the decision of the Jerusalem Council and the claims of Torahism.
teaches that the Law of Moses was given to all nations. Yet, the language of
the Torah itself makes it clear it was given exclusively to Israel to set her
apart from all other nations. The Torah’s requirement that foreigners who lived
among the Israelites were to keep the Law of Moses is no different than any
nation requiring foreigners within its borders to keep its laws. It was not the
Torah that was given as a Light to the Nations; rather, the Light was Yeshua.
And the decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 makes it abundantly clear
that the Law of Moses was given to Jews, not Gentiles, and that it is no longer
binding for believers in Yeshua today.