Introduction to the Pentateuch

Alexander, T. Desmond. From paradise to promised land: an introduction to the main themes of the Pentateuch. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995. xx. 227 pp.


  1. A brief survey of the Pentateuch

The books of the Pentateuch, which have influenced major faiths and impacted many people, have been composed as a single literary unit with a plot line which is advanced through such themes as the promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and through the towering figure of Moses. This basic plot line raises the major themes of the Pentateuch that are to be treated in each chapter of Alexander’s book. With its orientation to the future, the Pentateuch is an unfinished story, which begs the question – what of the promises of God that remain unfulfilled?


  1. The royal lineage in Genesis

Genesis focuses on the family line from Adam to the sons of Jacob through linking narrative sections with genealogies, and the concept of “seed” which is perpetuated through that central family line. Toledot headings serve to focus successive narrative sections on an individual within that line who enjoys a special relationship with God as the “chosen seed”. The “seed” is connected with divine promises regarding land, posterity and blessing. The main line is a royal line from which will come kings and rulers. This provides the background to the birth of a nation, the Davidic dynasty, and ultimately to Jesus.


  1. Paradise Lost

The creation story emphasises the importance of habitable land as the setting for human life and communion with God. Human rebellion brought expulsion from the sanctuary of Eden, and increasing unrighteousness led to increasing alienation from the ground. This culminated in the judgement of the Flood and, although human rebelliousness is unchanged, a fresh start to creation mediated through Noah. After the scattering of the nations from Babel, God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. The Jacob and Joseph stories illustrate the partial and anticipatory links that Abraham’s immediate descendants have with this promised land.


  1. The blessing of the nations

Blessing and cursing refer to the experience of God’s favour or disfavour respectively and reflect the level of harmony between Creation and Creator. The blessings of fruitfulness, rule and relationships given to humans as created were lost when harmony with God was broken by disobedience. Cursing progresses to the point of destruction of all life by the Flood but hope for restoration comes through Noah although human wickedness is unchanged. God promises Abraham the blessings of posterity and land, and ultimate blessing and reversal of the curse for all nations through his “seed”. Blessing is passed down the generations of Abraham’s line but ultimate fulfilment is beyond Genesis.


  1. By faith Abraham …

The Abraham narrative in Genesis centres around the divine promises of seed, land and blessing for him and all nations. Initially made conditional on Abraham’s obedience to the Lord’s call to leave his homeland, the promise of descendants and land are, in view of his faith credited as righteousness, confirmed in an unconditional promissory covenant, and that of universal blessing through him in the conditional eternal covenant of circumcision. Finally, all the previously conditional promises are guaranteed by divine oath. The promise of “seed” is fulfilled in Jesus who brings the blessing of righteousness by faith to all nations.


  1. Who is the Lord?

Exodus is a book about Jacob’s descendants coming to a personal knowledge of God through being rescued from Egypt and brought into a covenant relationship with him. God reveals himself to Moses by means of his personal name, Yahweh, and then to Pharaoh and the Israelites by means of the signs and wonders which lead to the Exodus. At Sinai God reveals himself through the establishment of special covenant relationship with Israel and through tangible signs of his presence with them. Through all these things God is revealed as holy, powerful, just and merciful, and his ultimate self-disclosure in Jesus is anticipated.

  1. The Passover

The killing of the first-born males of Egypt and the “passing over” of the Israelite first-born was the climactic moment in God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the key redemptive event in their history. Preserved by the blood of a special Passover lamb the Israelites were released by Pharaoh after 430 years and were to commemorate this event by re-enacting it in conjunction with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and consecrating their own first-born sons to God. The ritual involved killing a lamb for atonement, daubing the blood on the door-frame for purification of the household and eating of a meal for consecration.


  1. The covenant at Sinai

Central to the book of Exodus is the establishment of the covenant relationship between the Lord and Israel which indicates the special status of Israel and the way in which they are to respond to God’s grace in rescuing them. Their obligations are stipulated principally in the Ten Commandments, and in statute laws governing social life and given standards of behaviour. The blessings of the promised land which loyalty to this covenant would bring are threatened by the episode of the golden calf. Only the intercession of Moses averts their destruction by God and brings covenant renewal.


  1. The Tabernacle

Exodus 25-30 reveals the tabernacle as the place in which a sovereign and holy God could dwell with his sinful people during their wilderness wanderings. Its adornments, furnishings and partitioning into the “Holy Place” and “Most Holy Place” show it to be a royal dwelling occupied by the Lord.  Distinguished from the rest of the camp by a courtyard fence and serviced by priests it was also a holy tent. Finally, in providing the means for atonement and sanctification of the people, the tabernacle was a tent of meeting where sinful people might commune with God. The completed tabernacle is filled with the glory of the Lord.


  1. Be holy

Leviticus is primarily concerned with holiness, and its regulations are permeated with the categories of holy, clean/pure, and unclean/impure. People, places, objects and periods of time are all located somewhere on the spectrum between increasing holiness and increasing uncleanness. Different degrees of holiness are reflected in the priesthood and laity, the partitioning of the tabernacle and in special days. There are also different degrees of uncleanness/impurity. Holiness is an innate quality of God that is to be reflected in the sanctification, wholeness and moral purity of anything associated with him. It is incompatible with uncleanness which derives from physical imperfection and moral transgression.


  1. The sacrificial system

The sacrificial system was a central part of the relationship between God and Israel. The description of each of the five types of sacrifices in Leviticus commonly gives instructions for the worshipper and priest respectively, for disposal of the blood, and for identification of the worshipper with the sacrificial animal. Most important was the burnt offering in which the whole animal was burnt as a ransom for the life of the guilty worshipper. The cereal offering, peace offering, purification offering and reparation offering also had their own special significance. A most important occasion was the annual Day of Atonement which involved purifying the sanctuary, releasing a scapegoat, and the High Priest sacrificing a burnt offering.


  1. The clean and unclean foods

As part of their call to be a holy nation, Israel is given regulations concerning which animals they may and may not eat. Leviticus outlines the basic criterion that governs the classification of all animals as either clean or unclean. Such regulations probably reflected the distinction between clean and unclean people, reminding Israel that they were to be clean in contrast to the surrounding nations. Possibly the unclean animals were themselves flesh-eaters and therefore associated with death which is opposed to life and holiness. The Israelites are also not to eat meat with the lifeblood in it.


  1. Towards the Promised Land

Numbers records the preparations Israel made for entry into the promised land during the forty year period of wandering. They were to ensure the purity and proper arrangement of their camp at all times, making and breaking camp according to the movement of the cloud over the tabernacle. The Levites are set aside for special tasks such as transportation of the tabernacle. A second census of fighting men reveals that the entire Exodus generation save for Caleb and Joshua have died in the desert as God had judged. Final preparations for entry include the appointment of people to distribute the land and designation of Levite towns and cities of refuge.


  1. Murmurings

The middle section of Numbers describes events in which the Israelites complain and rebel against God and their punishment is mitigated only by the intercession of Moses. Their complaints about food, water and the difficulty of taking Canaan, reveal lack of gratitude to the Lord and lack of faith in him for the future. Other incidents reveal their tendency to rebel against God’s appointed authorities. Finally they worship Baal and commit immorality and are stricken with a plague. They repent but the last of the Exodus generation is dead without seeing the promised land. In spite of all this, God still intends to bring his people into the promise land.


  1. Love and loyalty

In Deuteronomy Moses expounds God’s covenant love and requirements as expressed in tôrâ to a new generation of Israelites and exhorts them to re-affirm their commitment so that they may be blessed with fruitfulness and security in the land they are about to enter. Much of Deuteronomy is reminiscent of Ancient Near East vassal treaties, as is the ratification ceremony described therein. Moses stresses that the relationship between the Lord and Israel is based on love and loyalty. They are to show their love by knowing and obeying their covenant obligations and their loyalty by worshipping the Lord alone. In this way, they choose life instead of death.


  1. Why Israel?

Deuteronomy teaches that God chose Israel out of all the nations to be his treasured possession and to reflect his holiness, not because they were superior to other peoples but because of his loving-kindness. He did, however, seek to make them into a righteous nation and an example to others by placing them under the obligation of tôrâ. God’s purposes for Israel required the complete destruction of the wicked nations already in Canaan but allowed a generally positive attitude to other nations. With Israel’s election came increased responsibility and Deuteronomy anticipates that through their breach of covenant obligations they too will be punished and driven from the promised land.


  1. Conclusion

The story-line of the Pentateuch focuses on God’s special relationship with Abraham and the nation of Israel which comes from him. This nation has special responsibilities and distinguishing marks because it is to be a light to all the nations and to bring forth the ruler through whom God’s blessing will come to all nations in the restoration of the whole creation.Unfulfilled expectations in the Pentateuch lead into the narrative concerning nationhood and kingship which follows in the Former Prophets, and ultimately to the coming of the universal saviour-king Jesus Christ.


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