A Jewish Book
Continuing my exploration of the Bible’s content as I think of the book as a “landscape” for exploration… I began with the New Testament but left out many of its themes so that I could show typological, historical and thematic connections between the testaments. So now, I backtrack to the Old Testament as a whole, and then its respective sections: the Torah, the historical books, writings, and then the prophets.
Jews call their scripture the “Tanakh,” which refers to the three sections of the book “Torah,” “Neviim” (prophets), and “Khetuvim” (writings). This means: the Torah is still Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Then the middle section includes the historical books beside the prophetic books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (the “minor prophets”). Then the last, writings section includes: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. In the Christian Old Testament, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are placed after the 1 and 2 Kings, reflecting historical chronology. Then the next books are from the “writings” section of the Tanakh: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs–again, reflecting historical chronology in the placement of David’s and Solomon’s books near their historical accounts. Finally, the last books of the Old Testaments are the prophets–but Lamentations and Daniel are included in this section, and the twelve minor prophets are not grouped as a single book. In the following essays, I follow the Old Testament order but refer to the Tanakh order.
A Jewish friend points out how unlike (to Jews) are the Tanakh and the New Testament. That’s a point most of us Christians miss, because we’re accustomed to the two testaments being adjacent and related. We assume that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, whereas, for Jews, a good deal of the New seems foreign to concerns of Judaism, especially passages that seem to repudiate the Torah and denigrate Moses. Not only that, but some of the New Testament is addressed to Gentiles rather than to Jews and, indeed, much of the NT material comes across as hostile and dismissive of Jews and Judaism; even the most positive passages about Judaism (Rom. 11:11-32) would not seem so to Jews. (Dr. Julie Galambush, in her book cited in note 1 below, skillfully discusses the Jewish background of [and seeming anti-Jewish sentiments in] the New Testament .) Certainly Christians through time have harbored prejudices and hatred toward Jews, in part because of the anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament.(1a)
A Bible explorer can be sensitive to these facts. The New Testament arises out of the experience of the risen Lord Jesus, but for those who do not see evidence of his lordship in the world, the New Testament seems a radical and foreign reading of the Old.(2)
On one hand, this is true. For instance: Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words (and thus is a slightly lower level of authority, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship (a level of authority still lower than the other two). If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. For Christians, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6).
On the other hand, Christians shouldn’t think of the New Testament as something brand new; the NT’s special witness was shaped and verified by the divine authority of the Jewish scriptures and, as I show in these essays, there are abundant interconnections between the Old and New Testaments.
Christians still need to take care how they interpret the Old Testament. For instance, because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) is more time- and culture-bound. We should avoid the disingenuous practice of proof-texting from the Torah laws when we’d never think of practicing (or even reading) most of them.
Similarly, the prophets. A person could easily cite the ancient prophetic judgments in order to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) True, the prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future, which Christians affirm as the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” (the concern of my professor Brevard Childs) that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.
One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity is a “reconfigured” Jewish idea. (A major exception is the cross, a Gentile way of killing people, but even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scripture: e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53;12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). The oneness of God, creation, atonement, redemption, the Hebrew people, holiness, ethics, and so on: these are ideas foundational to both religions. We find them right away, in the Torah.
The Torah has five books.
Genesis takes us from the Creation to the death of Joseph. Along the way, we read the familiar stories of the first generations of humans, the call and covenant of Abraham, the stories of his descendants, and the emigration of Jacob’s family to Egypt.
Exodus explains the Israelite slavery, the call and ministry of Moses, the Passover and Exodus, the entry into the wilderness, the Sinai covenant, and the creation of the Tabernacle.
Leviticus contains numerous laws: laws of sacrifice, the consecration of priests, laws of holiness, kashrut (kosher), purification, holy days, and atonement, among others.
Numbers continues the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness. The people travel from Sinai to Moab but fail to believe the counsel of Joshua and Caleb concerning the inhabitants of the Land. God punishes their rebellion by forbidding that generation from entering the Land. Thirty-eight years passes between chapters 19 and 20, and Moses himself is forbidden from entering the Land as well.
Deuteronomy concludes the Torah’s long story in the fortieth wilderness year as Moses addresses the people in two discourses (1:6-4:40 and 5:1-26:19). Moses reiterates the law (the name of the book means “second law”) and reminds the people of the necessity of faithfulness to God. After speaking his parting words, Moses dies and is buried.
It’s a shame that we tend to disconnect portions of the Bible from other sections. For instance, we tend to isolate Genesis 1-2 when we think about God’s creation. But the stories of creation connect with the beginning and spread of human sin and God’s plan of salvation. Genesis 1 connects with the Jewish Sabbath, the sign of God’s covenant with Israel (Ex. 32:12-17). In turn, Genesis 1-11 can’t be set apart as separate stories, for those chapters are necessary for understand how the story of humankind has a “twist” that alters everything else: God’s great call to Abraham in Genesis 12 and following.
I love reading Genesis. The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants always seem like small gospels, in the sense of the “good news” of God’s favor and blessing to people who, though deeply flawed, respond in faith to God’s unmerited grace. But I can’t isolate the book from Exodus 1-15, for everything is necessary for understanding who the people of Israel are and why they are in Egypt. So in Exodus we find more stories of God’s history of his people: the reasons for Israelite slavery, the story of Moses, the liberation of the people, their deliverance across the Red Sea, and the beginning of Moses’ long leadership of the people in the wilderness as they approach the Promised Land. So the basic story forms a long “arc” from creation to God’s great work in the exodus and the parting of the sea.
But the Exodus, movie-worthy as it is, isn’t the climax of a drama! From there, God creates and cares for his people. Interestingly, the prophets do not evoke Abraham and his covenant but instead evoke the Exodus as the great event by which God established his covenant people (e.g., Amos 2:9-11, 3:1-2, Hosea 2:15, 11:1, 13:4, Isa. 43:16-21, 51:9-11, Ez. 2:5-6, 20:33-44, and also Deut. 5:6, 6:20ff, 26:5ff, Psalm 78, 81, 95, 105, 106, as well as the allusion in Joshua 3:1ff, and later in Neh. 9:6ff, Daniel 9:15, 1 Chr. 6:5, 7:22, and also references to the plagues and rebellions in Psalm 78, 95, 105, 106, and in Wisdom of Sol. 17 and Sirach 45:1ff.(3)
This connection of the exodus and subsequent history is possible because the exodus and the covenant of Sinai are connected, as in Ex. 19:3-6. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experience earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (4) In Exodus 24, which binds two traditions (verses 1-2 and 9-11, and 3-8), the covenant is ratified between God and the people. But the covenant, too, can be tied back to creation. Scholars note that the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (5) Not only that, but the covenant and law comprise a new “Eden” in which the people can live, close to God.(6)
The material from the 10 Commandments on is not just a collection of statutes. The story continues and if you’re tenacious, you notice things. In the middle of Leviticus, you encounter a family tragedy: Aaron’s two sons are killed by God’s fire. Later on, in Numbers, you find the story of Korah’s rebellion, which resulted in casualties—inflicted by God—greater than the bloodiest Civil War battles, if you take the biblical statistics literally. Also in Numbers, Moses is forbidden to enter the land; he also loses his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, who have shared the journey. Reading hastily through this material, we’re liable to miss the poignancy of Moses’ circumstance.
If you read this material closely, you notice certain “story arcs.” Exodus 29, which concerns priestly ordination, connects to Leviticus 8-9. The covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. The laws of Leviticus connect back to the events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24. (7) The stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14 connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness (which is not recorded but which happens between the end of the story at Numbers 17:13 and the beginning of Numbers 20. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel.
Finally, in Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long farewell message, instructing the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. With the death of Moses at the end, we conclude this part of the Scriptures that faithful Jews hold most precious. But the death of Moses is not the end, for Deuteronomy looks to the future. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).
Deuteronomy circles back even further, toward the beginning. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.
The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the “priestly source” which was the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships.(8)
The Torah, though, may be the most ambivalent portion of the Bible for Christians. Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless, of course, some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and the laws become God’s eternal word to criticize people.
We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These 613 laws were first given for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people.(9) The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of whole cloth, as it were. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will. God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love, and because of God’s favor, this legal and narrative material is part of our religious heritage (Rom. 11:17-24).
Contrary to a common Christian idea, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us. (10) Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Romans 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9). The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).
The Torah is deeply foundational for Christians, in ways so obvious that we take them for granted. A Bible explorer will discover interesting “arcs” and connections. One is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30). Another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice, even if they were still being done (Heb. 9:11-14).
Still another idea is the faithfulness and righteousness of God, a Torah theme strongly defended in Romans 3 in Paul’s preaching of Christ.
Still other connections:
* The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
* Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
* The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
* The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
* The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:6-9Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5)
* The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
* The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
* The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
* The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
* The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)
* The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
* The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
* The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8 and the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25.
* The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).
Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. Any pastor who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is a true shepherd.
1. The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
1a. A funny but awful exchange in the musical Spamalot goes: “Patsy: I’m Jewish! King Arthur: What? Why didn’t you say so? Patsy: Well… it’s not the sort of thing you say in front of a heavily armed Christian.”
2. In terms of Jews and Christians, for instance, Maurice Friedman puts the matter well: “The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world”: in Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960), page. 279.
3. Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard W. Anderson, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), pages 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, p. 131.
4. Anderson, pages 82-83.
5. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 112, which notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.
6. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldworthy, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), page 37.
7. Brevard S. Childs in his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), page 53.
8. The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 267-268.
9. The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law by William J. Doorly (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).
10. Goldsworthy, p. 159.