The Bible in a Nutshell Part 3: the Pentateuch (God’s Law)

Continuing on with the series, having laid the foundation in Genesis in Part 2, Part 3 will cover God’s revelation of himself through the exodus from Egypt, the provision of the Sinai covenant, and the march towards the land of promise. This portion of the Bible shows how God is gathering a people to himself, and his expectations for them as his people.  My main goal in this series is to demonstrate the cohesiveness of Scripture and seeing it as one seamless story. So as I move along, it’s important to keep the beginning of the story in mind to see what God is doing with respect to his creation.

With that, by way of review, from the fall of man, we must see God’s rescue of his creation as a unified plan beginning with the promise in Gen. 3:15. I also noted how God’s redemption is mediated through righteous representatives: Noah, Abraham, and his offspring and he is providing Through Abraham, God gave a specific promise for 4 things: 1) a land to live in; 2) numerous descendants; 3) blessing for himself; 4) blessing through him for all the nations of the world.

The tribes of Israel form and are allotted land. Their presence in the physical territory is meant to bring a blessing to surrounding nations. Does that still hold? The church has been divided on that issues. I’ll discuss that more when we get to the New Testament.

Themes of the Pentateuch

I have found there are 3 major themes in the Pentateuch: redemption, reconciliation, and revelation

1. Redemption

Genesis is actually part of the Pentateuch but I thought it necessary to address separately because of its significance as the introduction to the Pentateuch, which is foundational to the rest of the Bible. The Hebrew term for Pentateuch is torah, translated “law.” Now when we get to this part of the Bible, there are common mischaracterizations often made. Unfortunately, the law can get treated as a list of arbitrary rules disconnected from God’s purpose in providing them, which primarily involves his people reflecting his glory. Another misconception is contrasting it with grace. No, there is grace in God’s law for it reveals his intentions. Neither should we consider the law as separate way of salvation for Old Testament Israel; the premise of salvation has always been  through faith in God’s promises. But I write more about that in the next section of this part 3.

This is not a separate story from the theme of Genesis but rather continues it. So we see the prominent theme of redemption. It’s important to see what God is doing in relation to what he started in Genesis, which involves his rescue of from the time the first man plunged God’s creation into sin. Observe that rescue of God’s people started as a promise to one man and one woman, grew to a family, then a nation. At each step, the people of God become more numerous and defined. In Exodus, we see that this nation became enslaved in a land they did not know with inhabitants that did not honor the one true God. God rescues his people from this enslavement but not without first requiring the sacrifice of first born sons. This theme of rescue and sacrifice dominates Scripture.

Just as God did with Noah, Abraham and the Patriarchs, God again chose a representative of righteousness through whom he would continue to reveal his promises: Moses. God’s rescue is always based on his gracious actions. This is also why we should not turn these representatives into principles of Christian living. God is doing something bigger that involves the ultimate rescue of creation through his Son.

God builds on his promise to Abraham by establishing a covenant with Moses, which provides a further definition of what faith in God’s promises looks like.

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel; you yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exod. 19:3-6)

What is this covenant about? First, it is an assurance that God is calling people to himself. “I will be your God, you shall be my people” is a major theme undergirding the Pentateuch. It’s also important to note the language here that is replicated in the New Testament (1 Pet. 2:9)

Salvation always starts with a call and a requirement to put faith in God’s promises. Here God is further establishing that there is an explicit link between faith and obedience. Why? Because his rescue involved belief in who he was and that he would save his people so they could represent him on earth. Michael D. Williams says it best;

Thus, God’s Sinai covenant with Israel harks back to his promises to Abraham. Yehweh is reminding Israel that he is not a deity restricted to a particular territory or tribe. Rather, ‘the whole earth is mine’ communicates that God’s selection of one people out of all the earth, while maintaining his sovereign rights over all nations, leads to the conclusion that the election of the one is for the blessing of all. Israel’s calling is a means towards the end of universal blessing.[1]

This is why there were consequences for Israel’s disobedience for it revealed a lack of faith in God’s promises. Israel was meant to be a blessing to the nations to demonstrate God’s exclusive reign and glory. Israel as a nation must be considered as God’s people, not a political territory, which is something I’ll more about when I get to the New Testament.

2. Reconciliation 

In the Sinai covenant, God expands on his previous revelation by providing his people with more instructions about how they are to be as his people. He provides them with a template for reconciliation so that they could not only enjoy the full benefits of being his people, but also reflect his

We see elements of sacrifice in Genesis but through the Sinai covenant Genesis established a sacrificial system whereby reconciliation could be made between God and man. This is why the book of Leviticus is so important because it specifies in detail the requirements necessary for atonement. These are the same requirements that Jesus satisfies when he offered himself up as a sacrifice for the propitiation of sins (see Rom. 8:1-4).

God gets very specific about the requirements for priesthood. Why? The significance of the priesthood is that God was establishing those who would mediate reconciliation between God and man. The book of Hebrews specifically highlights this aspect of Christ’s fulfillment, particularly chapters 7-9.

All the dimensions that God lays about the tabernacle show how serious he is about his requirements for worship. The tabernacle is where God meets with his people so they can experience the benefit of being his people. Again, we must see how that relates to Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s requirements. Sadly, I’ve spent time in church circles that use this Old Testament template as a model for worship but this tragically ignores the fact about Jesus’ accomplishments concerning tabernacle/temple requirements. I’ll write about this more when I get to the New Testament. In the meantime, here is something I wrote on the topic.

There is much to say on the topic of the law, but for these purposes of this post in this series, the purpose of God’s law was so that his people could experience the benefit of his promises. The law was the revelation about God’s character. He was laying down his requirements for his people so they could reflect his character.

We also want to note the universal binding of God’s moral law found in the Ten Commandments and where the requirements of the law related to civil and religious ordinances are fulfilled with the first Advent of Christ. Tim Keller provides a really good explanation here of why, for instance, we still hold to not coveting but we don’t worry about mixing materials together.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17)

Overall, we must conclude that the law expressed what God cared about, that he wanted his people to communicate to the world. On a side note, we also have to remember that it was a much different world than the one we live in now. The beauty of God’s law is how it elevated human dignity above what the surrounding nations did.

3. Revelation

Note that Jesus makes mention that he came to fulfill the Law AND Prophets. As I’ve noted from the first part of this series, from the beginning of his creation, God is revealing himself–his will, intentions, and character. God was speaking through the law and also through prophets. We see an important aspect in this segment of the Bible before we even get to the prophetic books, and particularly with Moses. I think there is an important connection to Moses as the prophet of God and God’s ultimate speech through his Son.

Observe in Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron challenge the fact that God only spoke through Moses. Recall also that Moses was the one God called to be a representative. Then God called him out and said;

Hear my words; if there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful to my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses (Num. 12:6-8).

Here God is elevating Moses from just a vanilla prophet; God speaks to him “mouth to mouth.” He also designates him as faithful, meaning he is the one who faithfully represents God to the people. Now watch what Moses says in Deuteronomy 18;

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen. (Deut. 18:15)

Of course there would be a line of prophets to follow in Israel’s history. But I believe the ultimate reference is to the One who will truly and finally speak for God, who is Jesus the Christ, the 2nd person of the godhead. He is the one who is the full expression of the Father’s thoughts, will and plan. In the progress of revelation throughout the Old Testament, as God unveils more of his character and will for his people, what he says through the law and prophets ultimately find their fulfillment in Christ. An important text in this regard is how the book of Hebrews starts off;

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (Heb. 1:1-3)

This is why elevating Moses as a model to emulate misses what God was doing through him in relation to the Son.

See part 4 here

[1] Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2005), 138

 

 

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