The Pentateuch

This week we’re beginning to read from the Book of Exodus, the second book of the five books of the Pentateuch. They’re important books of scripture and it’s good to step back and see the big picture they reveal to us.

Until the 17th century, the common opinion was that the five books of the Pentateuch–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy– were written by Moses to tell the story of Israel from its origins at the creation of the world till the time when it enters the promised land of Canaan. Since then, the scholarly consensus is that many hands are involved in the creation of the books of the Pentateuch– the Torah they’re also called.

Rather than figuring out what hands they are, it might be better to keep before us the big picture we see in them. God creates the heavens and the earth (Genesis), he creates human beings, male and female. And then God says to Adam and Eve, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.” “Let there be more of you, and take possession of the land I’ve created for you.”

Human beings, we know, resisted God’s plan through sin, and so after Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the destruction of tower of Babel, God turns to Abraham and Sarah, a landless, childless couple, and God makes to them the promise made to Adam and Eve­–many children and a land of their own. Through them, God will bless all the peoples of the earth. Their story, then, is our story too.

Land and children. A fruitful land, a multitude of children. Yet, those promises seem to elude Abraham and the patriarchs as they go from place to place. When the patriarch Jacob arrives in Egypt, it seems the promises might come true. Egypt, humanly speaking, is an ideal spot for the children of the patriarchs to flourish, and indeed their numbers increase, they settle on good land and they become a powerful group in Egyptian society.

But this isn’t the place, according to the Book of Exodus, and so Moses leads them out through the desert where at Sinai God promises to be their God; they’ll have a law to guide them, bread to nourish them. It’s not an easy journey and they’re not an easy people, but God  guides them on their way.

Scholars today say Moses didn’t write the books of the Pentateuch, but they reached the form we have now from a final compilation of earlier sources made after the Jews were driven into exile in Bablyon in the seventh century BC and lost their homeland. The compilers wanted the exiles to know their history. They were children of Abraham. The God of their ancestors was their God. They had a law to guide them, bread to nourish them, a desert to journey through. Most importantly, they would reach a fruitful land and have a multitude of children.

The commentary from the New American Bible claims the editor made a substantial change to the ancient narrative to emphasize that last point:

“The last chapter of the ancient narrative—Israel dwelling securely in its land—no longer held true. The story had to be reinterpreted, and the Priestly editor is often credited with doing so. A preface (Genesis 1) was added, emphasizing God’s intent that human beings continue in existence through their progeny and possess their own land. Good news, surely, to a devastated people wondering whether they would survive and repossess their ancestral land. The ending of the old story was changed to depict Israel at the threshold of the promised land (the plains of Moab) rather than in it. Henceforth, Israel would be a people oriented toward the land rather than possessing it. The revised ending could not be more suitable for Jews and Christians alike. Both peoples can imagine themselves on the threshold of the promised land, listening to the word of God in order to be able to enter it in the future. For Christians particularly, the Pentateuch portrays the pilgrim people waiting for the full realization of the kingdom of God.”

Thoughts to hold onto in a changing world and a changing church.

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