Understanding the Pentateuch
In order to discuss the “little picture” of Genesis 1-11, we must place it within a larger picture that is called the Pentateuch, which is the Greek name for the “five books” of what the ancient Hebrews called the Torah. The word Torah, however, more properly means instruction. For the Hebrews, the Torah was interpreted less as a law code and more as a set of guidelines that could and should be applied to every area of life and which was binding on all who wished to be known as Jews.
The Torah demonstrates God as the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe that he created. It informs its readers that humankind was created to worship God and to have fellowship with him. Specifically, the Torah illustrates how the Hebrew nation was chosen from all other nations to be the witness to the existence and power of God in the world. To demonstrate to the world the presence of God in the life of their community, they were to conduct themselves as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
Priestly as in being servants and Holy as in being set apart for the purpose of being servants. So in n a world filled with polytheism and superstitions, they were to live their lives in obedience and faithfulness as models for other nations around them. God made a covenant with them which promised blessings if they responded correctly and curses if they failed to respond to its stipulations correctly.
If one is going to understand the historical, religious, and theological of purpose Hebrew and Church history, it is necessary to have a firm foundation in the Pentateuch, especially the first eleven chapters of Genesis, where it all began.
Understanding the Books of the Pentateuch (A Quick Glance)
Genesis, which means origin or beginning, contains two parts. First, it tells the stories of primeval history with the Creation and Fall accounts (Genesis 1.1 to Genesis 11.26). We must understand that no specific amount of time can seriously be ascribed to these eleven chapters. Second, a shift occurs at Genesis 11.27, and the focus is on the patriarchal history beginning with Abraham and ending with the twelve tribes living in Egypt (Genesis 50.26).
The book of Exodus discusses the birth of Israel into a nation by two decisive acts. The first was the freeing of Israel from slavery by God’s power (Exodus 1.1 and ending at Exodus 13.16). The second act was his making a covenant with them which produced a loyalty between God and Israel (Beginning at Exodus 13.17 and concluding at Exodus 40.38). The first act bears directly on the second. It is only because of the deliverance that the covenant was established.
The third book of the Pentateuch received its name also from the Septuagint (LXX). While the Levites are largely unmentioned in the book, the Levitical priesthood duties are discussed. It is fundamentally a rule book for community living. This is one of the books in the First Testament that for the modern reader is a problem to understand. The blood sacrifices are often repulsive to the modern person. It is precisely this idea that finds its completeness in Jesus. Without the understanding provided by Leviticus, the death of Jesus would be a riddle. This system was performed daily and constantly reminded Israel of the sin that cuts them off from God. While it was difficult for the Hebrews to understand why they needed to obey these rules and regulations, it is not difficult today to understand that God was working to give Israel health and well-being (Leviticus 1.1 to its end at Leviticus 27.34).
The Hebrews call this book In The Wilderness. Its name, as we have it in our Bibles, comes from the two censuses which are recorded in it: the first in Numbers 1.1ff. and the second in Numbers 26.1ff. The numbers given are a little over 600,000. While it looks like a census to the normal reader, it is much more. In reality, it was the mustering or organizing of its army. The numbering happens twice, first at the abortive attempt to enter Canaan as recorded at the beginning of the book and finally at the conclusion, about forty years later. The number given was only males over twenty years of age. The total population would be somewhere between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000. The exception has been given to the idea of such a large number, and several attempts have been made to solve the disagreement. It is not our task to give all the arguments and their conclusions. You can read, if interested, in most one-volume Bible commentaries to discover the various arguments. However the numbering is solved, it points to the fact that there was a remarkable increase in the number of descendants of Abraham that entered Egypt at the conclusion of the book of Genesis some four centuries before. It certainly is not beyond the scope of God to handle this great number of people and supply them with their daily needs. Creating the world with just a word would find this need supplied by a snap of a finger.
Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal document which furnishes a detailed description of what the Sinai covenant meant for the Israelites. Its name can be defined as “the repetition of the law.” The whole of the book of Deuteronomy finds its fullest structure in the form of the Lord-Servant Treaty (Beginning Deuteronomy 1.1ff. and ending at Deuteronomy 34.1ff.).
To this new generation on the verge of conquering the land of promise, God is seen as powerful (Deuteronomy 6.4; 35.10, 14, 17). It suggests that Israel’s future was secure. God promised them a piece of land and he was now ready to deliver it. A call for their loyalty in every detail of life is seen in chapters 12-26.
Quotations from Deuteronomy occur between eighty to 100 times in the Second Testament.
- Jesus, at the temptation, quoted Deuteronomy 6.16 in Matthew 4.7. As a reminder, there were no verses in the First or Second Testament just blocks of text that were used by the
- Paul relates Deuteronomy to Christian experience (compare Deuteronomy 30.12-14 with Romans 10.6-8)
As a reminder, there were no verses in the First or Second Testament. Quoting verses is a national pastime for Christians today. One of the favorite arguments for quoting verses can be summed up by the phrase: Jesus quoted verses from the First Testament from Deuteronomy 6.16 in Matthew 4.7. However, a great question to ask is: “Is this really what Jesus was doing?”
If we pursue the argument that “Jesus did it therefore it is okay for us to do it,” we will in that argument make Jesus out to be doing something that he was not really doing nor were the authors doing with his words. This practice has been given the name “intertextuality,” which is the “embedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one….” I cover this idea briefly in my book God’s EPIC Adventure (p. 39). To hear what the first authors meant when they were inspired by God, it is imperative to read the text in their context within the book in the book in which they are found as well in the historical context or problem-solving context in which they are found. Without that safeguard, we will often stray to a meaning that will make our point in an argument and make God say something that he never intended to say. For more information on this subject read Craig Keener’s two articles: “Does the New Testament Quote the Old Testament Out of Context?” and “The Bible in Context.” [NOTE” when you click on the first link, you will be taken to an article on Craig Keener’s web page. When you click on the second link, you will download a Word document directly from Craig Keener’s website. Happy Learning!]
Deuteronomy is a warm and touching book in which we see and hear Moses for the last time. His great legacy outlasted the pages that tell of his last instructions and life events.
Understanding the Flow of the Story
When you open the pages of the First Testament, the beginning thing you see is a God of activity. He is creating a universe through the might by only a spoken word. Page after page causes our excitement to grow. Within a few chapters, God has set the world into existence and begins to create a nation. From the cradle of Adam to the conquest of Canaan the story flows.
Briefly, the events flow as follows: God creates the world with Adam and Eve as the crown of his creation. Together they corrupt their relationship with God through disobedience and are expelled from the garden. Their family grows and increasingly strays from their relationship. Finally, only Noah finds favor with God. He builds an ark and escapes the catastrophe that batters the earth.
But the descendants of Noah violate their relationship also and pridefully strive to reach the heavens by their own means by building a tower called Babel to the heavens. Out of Ur, (See: Key Places in Genesis ) God summons Abraham and takes him to a new land. God gives him a promise that his family would become a blessing to the whole world. In fulfillment of God’s promise, Isaac was born. From Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Egypt, Abraham’s family grows into a nation.
From the bonds of slavery, God hears the cry of his people for freedom, and a new leader arises. Moses challenges Pharaoh to let the people of God go, he refuses, and God acts on their behalf. The nation is born in a redemptive exodus. On their way to a land promised them, they camp and receive a covenant from God. Often called the Ten Commandments, this covenant demonstrates how they should worship God and how they should treat each other. From the Mount called Sinai, the infant nation sets out to the promised land. Arriving at Kadesh-Barnea, they send spies to scope out the land. The debriefing session rules that it is too great of a risk to enter this new land. The majority wins. God acts. He brings death, destruction, and wandering for that entire generation. Their children would inherit the land. Only the two who voted in favor of entering the land were spared.
After the death of this first generation, the new generation begins its move toward the land of promise. At Moab, Moses gives them final instructions for entering the land God had promised. He reminds them of the mighty acts of God on their behalf. Moses dies, and the page turns to a new leader, Joshua.
The Pentateuch is the foundation for all else that follows in the First and Second Testaments.
A Reading Guide for the Pentateuch
Ur: Genesis 11.27-32
Haran: Genesis 12.1-3
Canaan: Genesis 12-50 (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)
Egypt: Exodus 1.1-19.1 (The Exodus)
Fellowship With God: Exodus 19.2-24.18 (Covenant)
Worship Of God: Exodus 25-40 (Tabernacle)
Way To God: Leviticus 1-17
Walking With God: Leviticus 18-27
Taught By Moses: Numbers 1.1-10.10
Wandering: Numbers 10.11-21.35
On to Moab: Numbers 22.1-36.13 (Preparation for Conquest)
The Giving Of The Second Law: Deuteronomy[ref]Winn Griffin. God’s EPIC Adventure. Harmon Press. 2007-2014. 146-147.[/ref]
Chiastic Structure in the Bible
A chiasm (also called a chiasmus) is a literary device in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as the ideas are “reflected” back in a passage. Each idea is connected to its “reflection” by a repeated word, often in a related form. The term chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like our letter X. Chiastic pattern is also called “ring structure.”
Humankind’s first sin (Genesis 2.4–3.24)
The following is an example of a chiasm in Genesis 2.4-3.24
a creation of man: his happy relationship with the earth and his home in the garden, where he has freely growing food and access to the tree of life (2:4–17)
b creation of woman: her happy relationship with man (2:18–25)
c serpent, in conversation with woman, tempts her (3:1–5)
d CENTER: the sin and God’s uncovering of it (3:6–13)
c′ punishment of serpent: its spoiled relationship with woman (3:14–15)
b′ punishment of woman: her spoiled relationship with man (3:16)
a′ punishment of man: his spoiled relationship with the earth and expulsion from his home in the garden; he will now have to toil to secure food and will no longer have access to the tree of life (3:17–24).[ref]Dorsey, D. A. (2004). The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi (p. 50). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.[/ref]
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- How has the Pentateuch served as Torah to you in your day-to-day life?
- In what ways do polytheism and superstition still fill the world you live in?
- What is in your “rule book” for community living?
- Name five “beginnings” that God has created in your life.
- Write or tell the story of the Pentateuch in your own words.
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