PAUL AND THE "CURSE OF THE LAW"

Did Paul teach that the Torah (the Law) is "a curse" that Yeshua came to do away with? Did he suggest that the Torah could only bring death, and life was in Yeshua, with no regard to Torah?

A frequently cited verse used to support this idea is:

Galatians 3:10-13 -- For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.

Clearly, there is something called the curse of the Law. But is the Torah iteself a curse? First, recall what God said when He gave the Torah:

Deuteronomy 4:39-40 - Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else. Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever.

The question that needs to be asked is, "Did God change?" Did He suddenly take what He gave for the spiritual well being of His people (Jews and gentiles who lived among them) and turn it into a curse? Scripture tells us that God does not change. It also tells us that the curses God promised His people (in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy) would come from NOT following His Torah.

We know that Paul's view of the Torah clearly remained a positive one:

Romans 7:12 - Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

Romans 7:22 - For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.

What's more, when Paul was (falsely) accused that he might be teaching that the Torah was done away, he took strong steps to prove otherwise:

Acts 21:21-26 - And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law.  As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.  Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.

THE MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS OF THE TORAH

On the surface there seems to be quite a contradiction. How can something God gave, which according to Paul is holy, righteous and good, that Yeshua practiced and upheld (Matt 5:17-20), that "James" said was to be our standard (James 1:22-25), that Paul himself delighted in and also followed, be called a "curse" by Paul?

Part of the problem is a failure to understand and teach the dual nature of the Torah. God Himself alluded to this duality when He gave the Torah:

Deuteronomy 30:15-17a -- "See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgements, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your hearts turn away so that you do not hear, you shall surely perish ..."

Notice in those verses that "faith" comes before, and is tied directly to, obedience. First, God says He commands His people to "love the Lord" (trust/faith), and then to walk in His ways (obey His Torah). Next, He says if their hearts turn away (lack of faith) they will perish. God's view of faith is not void of action on our part. It is not a matter of "just believing" in certain facts.

The most famous verse in Judaism is the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4:

Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu Adonai echad.

"Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

"Shema," the first word of the verse, is usually translated "hear," but is a complex word that means to, "accept, implying faith, commitment, and obedience." (1)

Hebrews 3:7-4:2, says Moses and the children of Israel were preached the Gospel in the Wilderness, but they perished. Were they condemned for "failing to follow every point of the Law?" No, It was due to lack of faith. The book of Hebrews says they did not "mix" what they knew to do (the Torah) with faith. Faith in God and following Torah are inseparable.

Look again at the verse from Deuteronomy quoted earlier. Note that before telling His people to keep the commandments, He tells them to first have faith:

Deuteronomy 4:39-40 - Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else. Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever.

The above verse mirrors the "10 Commandments," the first of which is to have faith in God.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes about the purpose of the Torah. He compares it to a tutor to us before faith (2). Yet, he also talks about "the curse" of the Law. One seems "good" and the other "bad." How can this be?

The answer is that although one function of the Torah is to show man how sinful he is and that he stands condemned before a righteous God, this is not all that the Torah does! Only by trusting in God for salvation, AND agreeing to walk in His ways, are we considered "right" with God:

1 John 2:3-5 - And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.

The only commandments John knew was the Torah. What is important to know here is that the Torah itself is not a curse, rather, the curse is but one part of the Torah. This "curse of the law" AND its function of being "a tutor" (a "guide" or "guardian," literally one who escorts you), apply to those who have not yet placed their faith in God.

It is often taught that when Paul spoke of the Torah serving as a guardian before Yeshua, he was saying that it held the Jews, under the Law of Moses, in bondage until Yeshua came and died and now that role of the Torah is permanently done away with. This is a biased misreading of the text, as God does not change. What Paul is saying is that in the life of every living person (yesterday and today), the Torah functions as such before they come to Messiah.

After anyone comes to trust in Yeshua, the Torah's curse and role of guardian, each cease. However, the Torah's role as God's revelation of how we are to live for Him continues.

TORAH IN THE LIFE OF THE BELIEVER IN YESHUA

The Torah is a way of living for God, so all will be well with you, is the other side of the duality of the Law -- a blessing and guide for us to live, and a revelation of God to us, so that we can draw closer to Him.

The Torah lists 613 direct commandments. According to the Judaism of Yeshua (and today) 365 of these are considered "negative" commandments. You can call these the "thou shall not's." The purpose of these negative commandments is to; a) point out (even to arouse) sin, b) show man he is condemned by his sin, and, c) point him to God for salvation. There are 248 "positive" commandments. The purpose of the positive commandments, is to show us the things God wants us to learn and do after coming to faith.

As believers, we are indeed, "no longer under the Thou shall not's," (the negative commandments) - but ONLY in that they no longer condemn us. We now trust God for salvation and follow these commandments out of obedience to the God we love.

When Paul says we are "not under the Law," he does not mean we are now free to murder, steal, or break any part of God's Torah. To Paul, the Torah was a whole -- no one can pick and choose which parts they feel like applying. The same opinion is shared by Yeshua and James:

Matthew 5:18-19 - For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

James 2:10 - For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

Put succinctly, this is what Paul is teaching throughout his letters:

Attempting to gain salvation by following the Torah on your own without faith, and inevitably failing at some point, is the "curse of the Law."

What Paul teaches throughout his letters is that only the Spirit of God, received through faith, gives life to the written text of the Torah. The Torah is to be followed in faith, as it is the way God Himself gave us to conduct our lives.

The Torah is not meant to be followed in the flesh:

Romans 7:14a - For we know that the law is spiritual.

By this Paul does not mean we can "spiritualize away" the Torah (i.e., saying we now follow some undefined concept as "the Law of Christ" or simply "let the Holy Spirit show us what sin is," in place of learning and following the actual Torah that God gave.) This would mean that the Messiah's "law" is different than the Father's and that the Holy Spirit can contradict God's instruction. Of couse neither of these can be true -- yet it is often taught today (without actually saying so) that God did change 2000 years ago, that Messiah is not the same yesterday, today and forever, that His spirit can contradict His previous Word, and that people today are saved by faith, but before Yeshua it was by "something else."

As we will see later in this study, Paul reiterates this in Romans chapter 8, where he says that those coming to faith, being of the Spirit, are no longer condemned by the Torah. However, now that they saved, they are to become hearers and doers of this Torah. (Again, Yeshua and James teach the same thing.)

It is not the Torah that was/is taken away, but the veil (blindness of trying to do Torah without faith) that is removed (circumcised) through trusting in Yeshua. Paul make it clear that although the Torah is not meant to be followed in the flesh, this does not mean that it no longer has a place in the lives of those who now follow Yeshua:

Romans 3:31 - Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

If anyone attempts to follow Torah apart from the Spirit (in faith), indeed it brings death to him (the curse of the Law). This was what many did in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:8-19) and were continuing to do in Paul's day.

Reading the "New Testament" with this Hebrew understanding of where Paul was coming from, eliminates the conflicts caused by the (false) idea that he made contradictory statements about "the Law." Everywhere he went, Paul preached against the popular teaching that you could earn your salvation through legalistic observance of Torah. However, he never taught against Torah being a part of the life of any believer.

The "New Testament," when put back into its Hebrew context, says this about the Torah and believers in Yeshua:

  • Faith does not abolish any part of the Torah as a whole (Matthew 5:17-21, James 2:10)
  • Keeping the Torah is part of the faith that gets you to heaven (Matthew 19:17; Revelation 12:17; 14:12; 22:14)
  • You will abide in Yeshua's love, if you keep Torah (John 14:15-23) as He abided in the Father's love by keeping Torah (John 15:10; Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:15)
  • Faith in Yeshua does not cancel out what the Torah says, it establishes it (Romans 3:31)
  • Torah is itself "liberty" and the standard we are to judge ourselves by (James 1:22-25)
  • It is those of the flesh who are not subject to the Torah (Romans 8:5-8)
  • If you say you know Him, and ignore His Torah, you are a liar (1 John 2:3-7)
  • It does not matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, what matters is keeping God's Torah (1 Cor. 7:19)
  • The "law of love" is that we keep his Torah - which is by no means a "burden" (1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6; Matt. 11:29,30)

These "New Testament" references to "Torah" might at first confuse people as they aren't used to thinking in these terms. However, when Paul, Yeshua, James, or any of the Jewish "New Testament" authors, speak of law or commandments in a religious context, it must be interpreted as "Torah," unless there is a clear reason to do otherwise, as this was what it meant to them.


  1. The Shema, Spirituality and Law in Judaism, Norman Lamm, The Jewish Publication Society, Jerusalem, 1998, p.16
  2. The Midrash Rabbah, on the first verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:1) has the Torah referring to itself as a tutor at the time of creation.

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