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English translations of the Old Testament contain many different “law”-related words, such as charges, commandments, decrees, judgments, law, ordinances, precepts and statutes. That might cause a casual bible-reader to think that the Old Covenant’s rules were divided into specific “categories”, perhaps of varying importance. And so, some people have tried to sort out what difference there was between those seeming categories. Also, some have wondered which of those things might apply in our day and age.
This article proceeds to show that even though many translations contain wordings which can cause the reader to think that the rules of the Old Covenant were in some way “categorised”, that does not really have a basis in the Hebrew text.
A part of this matter is that translators have often rendered a given Hebrew word in many different ways, in different places. An example: One popularly used bible-version translates the Hebrew word choq in such ways as “appointed”, “bounds”, “commandments”, “custom”, “decree”, “due”, “law”, “ordinance”, “portion” and “statute”. Turning that the other way: In passages where that bible-version has “ordinance”, the Hebrew word in question can be choq, chuqqah, mishmereth, mishpat, mitsvah or yad. – In short: There is no consistency in translation. This applies to most English bible-versions, probably all of them.
The following clarifies this matter in more detail. Also, it will be considered what relevance the above-mentioned words and things might have, in connection with the New Covenant.
Below, the 1769 edition of king James’ bible is used as an example of how translators have rendered different Hebrew words in different contexts.
The purpose with the following list is to show that even though a casual bible-reader might get the impression that there were some specific “categories”, such as “law”, “statutes” and “decrees”, it really was not so.
To the English words in question, and the corresponding words in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament:
As can be seen in the examples above, translators have not been consistent but have rendered the Hebrew words in question in many different ways, in different passages. Sometimes they have done that even within the same verse.
So, were the rules of the Old Covenant divided into specific “categories”, such as “law”, “statutes”, “ordinances” and so on? No, not the way a casual reader of an average English bible-translation might come to think. Nor does the Hebrew text “categorise” those things.
Here, one must keep in mind that the Old Covenant was an indivisible package. The ancient Israelites were to live by all of its rules. None of them could be ignored, or viewed as “not so important”.
But, certain special words and concepts are worth closer consideration. This includes the Hebrew word torah, the English word “testimony”, and the phrase and concept “ten commandments”. There is also the question, what rules does the New Covenant have, and where can one find them? Those things are considered under the following headings. The are also links to other articles with more details.
A side-note: Some writers have claimed that the word “added” in Galatians 3:19 refers to some special “category”, consisting of rules that were “a later addition to the Old Covenant”. But, that concept is based on a misunderstanding. It was the Old Covenant itself that was “added, because of transgressions”. And, it was to last “until the Offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” – that is, until Jesus came. When Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in pace of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. The article nca080.htm has more on this.
Many kinds of concepts have been formed around the word “testimony”. It can be good to know what that word actually means and refers to in the Bible, both linguistically as well as historically.
The Latin-based word “testimony” means “witness”. The corresponding words in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament are eduwth, edah and tauwdah which likewise mean “witness”.
Exodus 16:34 is perhaps the first bible-passage that mentions “testimony” (witness) of this kind. That verse records that Aaron took a bowl of the manna and put it in store, “before the Testimony”.
Exodus 16:33 And Moses said to Aaron, Take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations. 34 As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept. (AKJV)
“Testimony”, Hebrew eduwth, “witness” – here in verse 34, that word refers to the Sinaitic Covenant’s two tablets of stone, those that were stored in the gilded chest (“ark”). Those tablets were a “testimony”, “witness”, in the meaning that they contained a written record of that covenant’s main points, the Decalogue.
A note: In Exodus 16, the mention of the Testimony (the tablets of stone), is not in “chronological order”. The author of that book simply wrote a note regarding the placement of that bowl with manna, in a passage which otherwise is about events which took place before the Lord had given those stone tablets to Moses.
Deuteronomy 31:25–26 shows that even the other rules of the Old Covenant, those which the Lord gave to Moses who then wrote them down, were put into the same chest, as a “witness”, Hebrew ed.
The custom to call the two tablets of stone by the name “testimony” (witness) can be seen in several bible-passages. The book of Exodus, and Joshua 4:16, show that the gold-covered wooden chest where those stone-tablets were stored, was called “the ark of the testimony” (the chest of the witness).
Many things in connection with the Old Covenant, were symbols of what was to come, in connection with the New Covenant. The Old Covenant had a torah (“instruction”) which was written on physical things. Even the New Covenant has an “instruction”. It is written,
“not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3, NKJV).
In other words: The Holy Spirit is the New Covenant’s “writing”. The article nca060.htm has more on this. (And no, 2 Corinthians 3:3 and Jeremiah 31:33 do not refer to a “spiritual understanding of the rules of the Old Covenant” as some have claimed. There are some notes on the word torah in Jeremiah 31, later in this present article.)
The word “commandments” was mentioned earlier in this article. Right here, let us consider the phrase “the ten commandments”.
Early English translations did not contain that phrase. This has to do with Exodus 34:28 where the Hebrew text talks about “the words of the covenant, the ten words”, and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 which contain a shorter form which translates as “the ten words”.
So, the Hebrew text talks about “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. But, the makers of the 1560 Geneva bible changed the wording to “the ten commandments”. That has then been copied to many later translations.
Here, it can be good to know that the word “decalogue” comes from the Greek Septuagint version (LXX) which has in Exodus 34:28 the phrase kai egrapsên ta rêmata tauta api tên plakôn tês diathêkês tous deka logous which means “and he wrote those words on the tablets, the ten words of the covenant”.
The “ten words” are recorded in Exodus 20, but it is in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 that they are given a “name”. Here is the first of those three passages, as the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation has it:
Exodus 34:28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words. (JPS1917, highlighting added)
Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 contain a shorter form, “the ten words” (JPS1917).
The three highlighted phrases above are correct translations of the Hebrew text.
Regarding the Decalogue – some writers have claimed that it “pre-dated Sinai” and that it was “a law which had always existed”. But, those who check what the Bible says, will find that the first mention of those “words of the covenant, the ten words” is found in Exodus 20 which records what happened when the Old Covenant was made by Mount Sinai. The Scriptures do not contain any mention or indication that those “words of the covenant, the ten words” would have existed or been known, before the Exodus and the making of the covenant by Mount Sinai. Even that phrase in itself makes things quite clear.
In short: Those “ten words” were not a “separate law”. They were a central, integral and inseparable part of the covenant which was made by Mount Sinai – the Old Covenant.
Now, regarding the New Covenant: The New Testament makes it clear that the saints were not to murder or steal or do any other kind of evil to others. Numerous NT passages record how Jesus and his apostles taught that they were to live pure and just, righteous lives. – But right here, the point is that the “words of the covenant, the ten words” were not a thing for themselves. They were an integral and inseparable part of the Old Covenant. The article nca050.htm has more on the Decalogue. The article nga080.htm explains what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.
In religious English, the old Hebrew noun torah has come to be translated as “law”. Sometimes, for instance in connection with Jeremiah 31:33, that can lead to misunderstandings.
The literal meaning of the noun torah was “teaching”, “instruction”. It was related to the verb yarah which meant “to instruct”. ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’ by Harris, Archer and Waltke states:
The word tôrâ means basically ‘teaching’ whether it is the wise man instructing his son or God instructing Israel.
Right here, the point is that the Old Testament section which the Jews call Torah (the five books of Moses), contained the Old Covenant’s “written rules” or “instructions”. In contrast to that, the New Covenant’s “writing” or “instruction” consists of the Holy Spirit. Again, the New Covenant is written,
“not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3, NKJV).
So, let us consider Jeremiah 31:31–34 which is about the New Covenant. In that passage, the word torah in the Hebrew text does not refer to the Old Covenant or its rules but is used in its literal meaning, “guidance”, “instruction”, and refers to the Holy Spirit. We read:
Jeremiah 31:31 “The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. 33 “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions [Hebrew torah] deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT04, highlighting and comment added)
As you can see in the scripture-quote above, this was regarding a new covenant (see verses 31–32), one that is not like the one that had been made by Mount Sinai. Point: Verse 33 does not mean that God writes the rules of the Old Covenant in people’s hearts (minds). That verse means that God himself will come to dwell in humans, through his Holy Spirit, and will instruct and guide them in the right ways.
The saints – those who received the Holy Spirit in biblical times, first century CE or earlier – were a “first-fruits” fulfilment of that promise. The main fulfilment is yet to come.
The article nca090.htm has more on the fact that the New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant.
The old Hebrew noun torah was often translated into Greek as nomos. – Here, it is good to know that it was only by extension that the noun nomos meant “law”. It was related to the verb nemô which meant such things as “to divide”, “to dispense”, “to assign”. In old Greek, the noun nomos was used of anything that was “assigned”, such as “usage”, “custom”, “tradition” and “way”.
Here, it can be good to know that in English translations of the New Testament, the phrase “the Law” often does not mean “law” but instead refers to the Old Testament section which the Jews call Torah. That is, the five books of Moses. Here is one of the NT passages where the three-part division of the Old Testament comes into expression:
Luke 24:44 Then He said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me. (VW06, highlighting added)
That passage contains the section-names “the Law” (the five books of Moses), “the Prophets”, and “the Psalms”. Knowing what those phrases refer to, and carefully considering the above-quoted Luke 24:44, makes even this passage easier to understand:
Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. (VW06)
Note the words “fulfill”, verse 17, and “till all is fulfilled”, verse 18. Again, Luke 24:44 which also talks about fulfilling, makes those two verses in Matthew 5 easier to understand. The obvious meaning is that certain prophecies which are recorded in “the Law” (in the five books of Moses) and in “the Prophets” (the books of the prophets), were to be fulfilled, down to the smallest details, “jot” and “tittle”. – The article nca010.htm has more on Matthew 5:17–18, and also 19–20.
A note: The meaning of the word nomos in the Greek text of Romans 3:31 is considered in the article noa110.htm.
(The translation and meaning of 1 John 3:4 is clarified in the article nca120.htm.)
Many people have tried to find in the Bible a place where the “rules of the New Covenant” are spelled out. And, when they have realised that the New Testament simply does not contain “rules” for all and everything, they have turned to the Old Testament which contains the rules of the Old Covenant, and then they have tried to “sort out” which of them might be “in effect” and which not.
That matter is really quite simple. But, confusing and misleading dogmas, and confusing wordings in bible-translations, have made it hard to understand, for many people.
The article nca060.htm shows where the New Covenant’s “writing” or “guidance” is found.
The article nca110.htm clarifies the meaning of the phrases “the Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6.
A side-note: Many bible-translators have made it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”. That has led to much confusion. The article nca130.htm sorts out that matter.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm
Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm
Where can one find the rules of the New Covenant, in written form? → nca060.htm
On the Decalogue, “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. → nca050.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm
The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → nca090.htm
The New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. Also, some notes on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20. → nca010.htm
The apostle Paul and his teachings. → noa110.htm
On 1 John 3:4 and its translation and meaning. → nca120.htm
Many talk about “the spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law”, but those expressions are not found in the Bible. On the meaning of the phrases “the Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6. → nca110.htm
Some notes on bible-translations which make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”. On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. → nca130.htm
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