The Pentateuch

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

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 entrance to the promised land of Canaan. Since then, scholars say that many hands created the books of the Pentateuch– the Torah.

Rather than figuring out what hands they are, it might be better to keep the big picture before us. God creates the heavens and the earth (Genesis), he creates human beings, male and female. 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 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. This, then, is our story too.

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

But this isn’t the place, the Book of Exodus says, 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. The final compilation of earlier sources was made after the Jews lost their homeland and were driven into exile in Bablyon in the seventh century BC. 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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