Archive for April, 2018

Bible in a Year: The Oral Torah

Continuing my “Bible in a Year” posts from my “Journeys Home” blog.

In upcoming posts about the Bible, I’ll write about the Jews’ return to the land, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple during the post-exilic years 539-432 BCE (Ezra and Nehemiah), the reaffirmation of the covenant during those years, the survival of exiled Jews in Persia (Esther), and the victory of Jews over the Seleucids who tried to establish Greek worship at the Second Temple during the 2nd century BCE (1 and 2 Maccabees).

It’s important to remember the ways that Judaism continued to survive and remain faithful to the Lord during the subsequent decades and centuries, often amid Christian persecution of Jews. The following is a brief explanation of the Talmud, the writings which have been central for Rabbinic Judaism, the mainstream form of Judaism since the 500s CE. Tragically, as that linked article discusses, Talmud and its study have been the focus of anti-Semitic attacks over the centuries, with material taken out of context or completely fabricated. See also this site concerning Christian persecution of Talmud study.

As Judaism developed during the post-exilic period, the canonization of the Scriptures was one crucial development. The writing and editing of the Jewish Tanakh likely began just prior to and then during and after the exile, while canonization was a process that happened between the Hasmonean period and the 200s CE. (Canonization of the Christian Old Testament was a much longer process; in addition to the weighing-in of other councils, the councils of Carthage [397] and Trent [1546] established the Roman Catholic canon, as did Eastern authorities concerning the Orthodox Christian canon; but Martin Luther [1534] removed deuterocanonical OT books to an appendix, useful for reading but non-scriptural.)

By the first century CE, the term rabbi (“my master”) became common to refer to a learned Jewish teacher. Also by that time, competing factions existed in Judaism: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. An ascetic group, the Essenes, also lived during this time, said to be successors of the Zadokite priests that began in the times of David and Solomon. Here is an explanation of differences among these groups: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pharisees-sadducees-and-essenes Early Christianity emerged during this time as well.

After the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews found themselves in a traumatic situation that rivaled the disaster of 586 BCE. How would the faith survive without a temple? Without a priesthood? How would Jewish traditions survive? The Zealots all died at Masada in 73; the Sadducees faded from history; and the the Essenes also disappeared. The Christian sect became a predominantly Gentile religion, retaining Jewish scripture and reconfiguring aspects of Jewish theology. Jewish vitality remained with the Pharisees, who saw Jewish law as the focus of Jewish life, and they helped shift the focus from temple offerings to tzedakah, study, and synagogues.

In this situation, a tradition called the Oral Torah had to be compiled and written down. The Written Torah was the scriptural five books of Moses, but an oral tradition attributed to Moses’ teachings had been passed down over the centuries; Orthodox Jews believe that this tradition was safeguarded through the Judges and Prophets and Second Temple-era sages. After the unsuccessful revolt of Simon Bar Kochba (132-136 CE), Romans forbade Jews from returning to Jerusalem—further exiling Jews, and further necessitating a way to preserve Jewish faith and traditions. By about 200 CE, Pharisaic Judaism had segued into Rabbinic Judaism as a rabbi named Judah ha Nasi (Rabbi Judah the Patriarch) began to edit these oral traditions and discussions about Jewish law into a readable form during the early 200s CE.

The first compilation and written/edited form of the Oral Torah is called the Mishnah. Rather than a law code, it is a study book (or rather, several books) containing the varieties of discussions and opinions of the sages. Rabbi Judah drew from many sources in his compilation and recorded discussions in a way to help with memorization. These are by no means uniform opinions. If the sages differed on when morning prayers should begin, what defines a Jewish marriage, and many other topics, the differences are recorded. Here are some sample passages: https://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMidrash/MishnahSamples.html

The Mishnah has six orders (sedarim): agriculture (Seder Zeraim), sacred times (Seder Moed), women and personal status (Seder Nashim), damages (Seder Nezikin), holy things (Seder Nodashim), and purity laws (Seder Tohorot). Each order is divided into tractates, and each tractate has chapters, and each chapter contains halakhot (laws) of the Tannaim, who were the sages from the era of the Mishnah (like Rabbis Akiva, Hillel, Shammai, and many others: see this site).

The word Tosefta means “addition,” and the Tosefta is a body of material that further explains Torah laws, details about laws, and provides extra material to the Mishnah. The Tosefta is three times as large as the Mishnah, although it is also structured with six orders. There are different theories as to whether the Tosefta is older than the Mishnah and was originally and independent body of opinion, or whether it was compiled and written later in order to broaden the material of the Mishnah, which does not include rabbinic discussions preserved in the Tosefta. Editions of the Babylonian Talmud provide the Tosefta at the end of each tractate.

What is the Talmud? Talmud is the comprehensive collection of the Oral Law that encompasses the Mishnah (200s CE) and the Gemara (500s CE). Talmud is discussion of the Mishnah but also the Mishnah itself.

The word Gemara (from the word gamar study) refers to the rabbinic commentary discussions about the Mishnah. You could say that the Talmud is the Mishnah plus Gemara, with material from the Tosefta as well. The sages of the Gemara (the period 200-500 CE) are referred to with the term Amoraim (see this site); the Amoraim expounded on and explained the Oral Law transmitted by the earlier Tannaim.

The site “My Jewish Learning” has this: “Although it is organized in accordance with the structure of the six orders of the Mishnah, mishnaic teaches are, for the Gemara, the launch pad for diverse topics: prayer, holy days, agriculture, sexual habits, contemporary medical knowledge, superstitutions, crumble and civil law. The Germara contains both Halakhah (legal material) and Aggadah (narrative material). [My emphasis] Aggadah includes historical material, biblical commentaries, philosophy, theology, and wisdom liberature. Stories reveal information about life in ancient ties, among Jews and between Jews and their neighbors, and folk customs. All of these genres are blended together with the halakhic material, in what is sometimes described as a stream-of-conscious fashion filled with meaningful tangents and digressions… [T]he Gemara … explains unclear words or phrasing [in the Mishnah]… provides precedents or examples to assist in application of the law and offers alternative opinions from sages of the Mishnah and their contemporaries [Tannaim]. Whereas the Mishnah barely cites biblical verses, the Gemara for every law discussed introduces these connections between the biblical text and the practices and legal opinions of its time. It also extends and restricts applications of various laws, and even adds laws on issues left out of the Mishnah entirely…. Multiple opinions of sages are weighed against one another, often without presenting a conclusion.” myjewishlearning.com/article/gemara-the-essence-of-the-talmud

There are two versions of the Talmud; the second and later one is the more comprehensive. Scholars of the Land of Israel (especially the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Caesarea) published what is now called the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) during the period 350-400 CE. Unfortunately, Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, persecuted Jews and the Jerusalem Talmud remained incomplete. Meanwhile, scholars at Jewish academies in Sura, Pumbedita, and Mata Mehasia published their own discussions in about 500 CE: this material is called the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. Usually, the words Gemara and Talmud refer to the Babylonian Talmud. The language of the both Talmuds are dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic.

Long after the Amoraim, rabbinic commentators continued to discuss the law and the opinions of the sages, and so the Talmud was never a “finished” body of work. Not surprisingly, it is a vast work, running several volumes, and has been translated into English. Here is a site that provides the Bavli in Hebrew and English translation: https://www.sefaria.org/texts/Talmud Notice how it’s organized according to the Mishnah sedarim that I listed above: agriculture (Zeraim), sacred times (Moed), women and personal status (Nashim), damages (Nezikin), holy things (Kodashim), and purity laws (Tohorot).

Different bodies within Judaism today view the Talmud differently. To generalize: Orthodox Jews consider the Oral Torah as inspired and authoritative, of Mosaic origin; Conservative Jews also honor the sanctity of Oral Torah and view Talmud as complementary to Torah study; Reform Jews retain Talmud studies in rabbinical seminaries but do not consider the Talmud as binding today.

Another, smaller body of material is the Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”), a text which is often published separately and found in many prayer books, and which has inspired its own commentaries. Technically, the Pirkei Avot is part of the Mishnah, specifically the ninth tractate (with six chapters) in the Seder Nezikin, which in turn is the fourth order of the Mishnah. The Pirkei Avot is popular because it provides ethical principles of the rabbis and give us a sense of who they were and their devotion to Torah. “The worldview espoused by the rabbis quoted here emphasizes learning, service of God, discipleship, ethical behavior, humility, and fair judgment… A rabbi is introduced, often, but not always, as a disciple or son of the preceding rabbi, and the text then offers one or more teachings by this rabbi” (myjewishlearning.com/article/pirkei-avot-ethics-of-our-fathers/ )

For all of this material, I relied upon the helpful articles at the site My Jewish Learning (myjewishlearning.com). Subsequently I made a donation to the site. More detailed articles on the Mishnah and Talmud can be found at jewishencyclopedia.com and jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mishnah. My grateful thanks goes out to an esteemed Jewish friend and colleague who read and commented on the essay; any remaining errors are mine.

*****It’s a depressing coincidence, that King Louis IX of France (St. Louis) was a persecutor of Jews who ordered Talmud scrolls confiscated (see this site), while the German ship the MS St. Louis (named for the city) carried Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939 but was turned away from the U.S., Canada, and Cuba, and many of those Jews perished in the Holocaust (see this site). On the other hand, St. Louis City and County has a strong and diverse Jewish community today.


Here is a wonderful statement that explains the devotion to study (which, after all, is based on words of God, Deut 6:7): http://www.aish.com/atr/Why_Study_Torah.html


Read Full Post »

Bible in a Year: Torah and Prophets

The Torah is such a rich section of the Bible. Although I finished Deuteronomy in the previous post, here are a few more thoughts about the Torah, gleaned from some of my other blog sites.

The author of the “Judaism 101” site writes, “Each week in synagogue, we read (or, more accurately, chant, because it is sung) a passage from the Torah. This passage is referred to as a parshah. The first parshah, for example, is Parshat Bereishit, which covers from the beginning of Genesis to the story of Noah. There are 54 parshahs, one for each week of a leap year, so that in the course of a year, we read the entire Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) in our services. … We read the last portion of the Torah right before a holiday called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), which occurs in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). On Simchat Torah, we read the last portion of the Torah, and proceed immediately to the first paragraph of Genesis, showing that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

“In the synagogue service, the weekly parshah is followed by a passage from the prophets, which is referred to as a haftarah. Contrary to common misconception, ‘haftarah’ does not mean ‘half-Torah.’ The word comes from the Hebrew root Fei-Teit-Reish and means ‘Concluding Portion’. Usually, haftarah portion is no longer than one chapter, and has some relation to the Torah portion of the week.”

This is from http://www.jewfaq.org/readings.htm , which also has the list of weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. This site, https://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/ , also provides the daily and weekly readings for recent and upcoming years according to how Simchat Torah falls.

Remember that in Judaism, “the prophets” is not only Isaiah through Malachi, but also Joshua through II Kings, or the later and former prophets, respectively. The Ketuvim, or writings, have no formal cycle of readings, although the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) are read on particular festivals, and Psalms are found throughout the Siddur (prayer book).

The Torah 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 which other people have violated.

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 are laws for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. 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 a whole piece. 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 this material is part of our religious heritage because of God’s favor (Rom. 11:17-24).(

In contrast to Paul’s theology about the law in Romans and Galatians, 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; thanks to Christ, the Torah is precious to us Gentiles, too.

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 (Rom. 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).

Furthermore, the Torah is foundational for Christians in other ways so obvious that we take them for granted. A Bible explorer will discover interesting “arcs” and connections between the Torah and the New Testament. 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 (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.

Here are a few additional 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. 24:3-8; Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5, Mark 14:22-25 and parallels, 1 Cor. 11:25)
The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Num. 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)
Moses’ shining face (Ex. 34:29-35, 1 Cor. 3:12-18)
The drink offering (Ex. 29:38-41, Lev. 23:12, 13, 18, Phil. 2:12-18, 2 Tim. 4:6-8)
The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)(20)
The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Also: Deuteronomy’s authorization of and limitations on role and authority (under the Torah) of the king, which in turn shapes the later prophetic theologies concerning the righteous Davidic king of Israel—which in turn shapes Christians’ vision of Jesus. (I found an interesting article about the Deuteronomistic theology of the monarchy: http://www.academia.edu/218248/_The_Reconceptualization_of_Kingship_in_Deuteronomy_and_the_Deuteronomistic_Historys_Transformation_of_Torah_)


Back in 2015 (http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-pentateuch.html), I took notes from the enjoyable article on the Pentateuch in the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary. The author, R. W. L. Moberly, discusses issues of interpretation and content. For instance, narrative tensions can be found throughout the various books. Isaac’s blessing of his two sons (Genesis 27) implies that Isaac was near death; but Isaac died years later, after Jacob returns from his fourteen years with Laban (Genesis 29:15-30, 35:27-29) (p. 432). The number of Israelites who left Egypt seem to be a comparatively smaller group—that can be accommodated by twelve springs and by water produced from a rock (Ex. 15:27, 17:6). But elsewhere the narrative describes the group as 600,000 men on food, not including women and children, or nearly two millions people (p. 433).

Another contrast is the status of women: Exodus 20:17 places “wife” after “house,” while the corresponding commandment in Deuteronomy (5:21) places wife before house. Similarly, Deuteronomy 22:22 makes a woman accountable for her actions, although in Genesis, when Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s harem (and later Abimelech’s), it is Abraham who is accountable (Genesis 12:18-19, 20:10) (p. 433).

Still another contrast is the difference between the Ten Commandments, usually in small details, but notably in the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Sabbath commandment, where two different reasons for the commandment are given (Ex. 20:11, Deut. 5;15) (p. 433).

The article lists several similar examples, reflecting the different traditions that have been brought together in the writing and editing of what became the canonical text. But I was particularly interested in points made in the section “Genesis as ‘the Old Testament of the Old Testament’” (p. 434-435). The focus is on the fact that, in Exodus 3:13-15, God reveals the divine name to Moses as a new name, and in Exodus 6:2-3, it is stated that the patriarchs knew God, not as YHWH but as El Shaddai. But in Genesis, God uses the divine name (Gen. 15:7, 28:13), and the name is frequently used throughout the book (p. 434).

A possible explanation is that, for the hypothesized writers named as the Elohist and the Priestly sources, the divine name was made known to Moses but not before, while the source called the Jahwist used the divine name all along, in Genesis 2, in Gen. 4:26, and so on. Still, these different traditions were preserved together when Genesis was written. (Another explanation is that the divine name was familiar to the authors and used in the text, even if it is anachronistic: p. 435.)

Moberly writes that the divine name becomes attached to the covenant of Moses and therefore to holiness and exclusivity (as in Exodus 12, where the Egyptians did not know the true God.) And yet, the Lord named by the divine name YHWH is traditionally called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Moses’ forebearers. As Moberly puts it, “The one God can apparently be known in markedly different ways. This poses the ancient problem: how should one recognize as religiously authoritative material that is full of religious practices different from or even forbidden by Mosaic torah (compare, e.g., Jacob’s setting up a pillar in Gene. 28:18 with the strong prohbition of such in Deut. 16:22)?” (p. 435).

Moberly suggests that the patriarchs “become types and/or figures of Israel” for instance, Abraham’s journey to Egypt. The Abraham stories aren’t rewritten to reflect later religious realities but they remain authoritative heritage for Israel. Christians, of course, do the same thing in their interepretation of Abraham, Moses, and other aspects of the Old Testament (p 435).

Another interesting point made in the article concerns the Shema, not only Deut. 6:4-5 but also Deut. 6:6-9. Christians tend to ignore 6-9 as Jewish practices. Yet Christians feel scriptural obligations to follow other teachings of scripture (as in the “do this” of 1 Cor. 11:23-26, et al.). It’s just that Christians have appropriated other practices for their own heritage. “Of course, some Christians traditionally have practiced equivalent to those of Deut. 6:6-9, most obviously int he regular recital of the Lord’s Prayer and in the display of the prime Christian symbol of the cross—often on a necklace but also over the gates of critics in the historic Christian empire of Byzantium, where they symbolically depicted the identity and allegiance of the place one was entering, just as Deut. 6:9 envisages the working of the Shema doing for Israel’s homes (private space) and cities (public space). Deuteronomy does not envisage the recital and display of an equivalent to the Shema, but of the Shema itself. Yet Christians only receive Deuteronomy as part of the larger canon of Scripture… and that makes the difference” (p. 437).

I often fuss about Christians who declare that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted, only obeyed. It’s such an uninformed if well-intentioned declaration about the Bible, a book with richness and contrasting viewpoints that reward ongoing study and interpretation.


Connecting the Torah and the Prophets

The Torah is read in a yearly cycle in synagogue worship (the weekly portion or parshah), accompanied by a related reading from the Prophets (the haftarah). This week I went back to the lists of those readings to learn their meaningful connections, perhaps unexplored by most Christians. The following is gleaned from W. Gunther Plaut, The Haftarah Commentary (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996): first the name of the parshah, then the Torah portion, then the haftarah. I focused on the Ashkenazic readings; in a few cases, Sephardic congregations have different haftarot.

Genesis 1:1-6:8: the creation story
Isaiah 42:5-43:11: the creation of Israel is linked to creation of the universe

Genesis 6:9-11:32: the punishments and redemption during the time of Noah
Isaiah 54:1-55:5: the redemption from punishment and exile is at hand

Lekh Lekha
Genesis 12:1-17:27: stories of Abraham
Isaiah 40:27-41:16: God remembers and cares for Israel, children of Abraham

Genesis 18:1-22:24: God promises Abraham and Sarah a song
II Kings 4:1-4:37: Elijah’s miraculous help for the Shunammite woman

Chayei Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18: Abraham looks for a wife for Isaac
I Kings1:1-1:31: David’’s need for a suitable successor

Genesis 25:19-28:9: the struggles of Jacob and Esau
Malachi 1:1-2:7: a reiteration of the primacy of Jacob over Esau

Genesis 28:10-32:3: Jacob’s sojourn in Aram
Hosea 12:13-14:10: Hosea’s use of that story

Genesis 32:4-36:43: Jacob and the angel
Hosea 11:7-12:12: Hosea’s use of that story as a metaphor for his home and for the nation

Genesis 37:1-40:23: Joseph is sold into slavery
Amos 2:6-3:8: Amos’ Israelite contemporaries would sell out an innocent person

Genesis 41:1-44:17: Pharaoh’s dream
I Kings 3:15-4:1: Solomon’s dream

Genesis 44:18-47:27: reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers
Ezekiel 37:15-37:28: the reunited stick

Genesis 47:28-50:26: Jacob gives his last words to his sons
I Kings 2:1-12: David gives his last words to Solomon

Exodus 1:1-6:1: Israel’s enslavement in Egypt
Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-29:23: Israel’s sins and troubles

Exodus 6:2-9:35: the plagues of Egypt
Ezekiel 28:25-29:21: the coming humiliation of Egypt, which had forsaken Israel

Exodus 10:1-13:16: Pharaoh vs. God
Jeremiah 46:13-46:28: Pharaoh Necho, who killed King Josiah, will be defeated

Beshalach (Shabbat Shirah)
Exodus 13:17-17:16: Defeat of the enemy Egypt and the people’s song
Judges 4:4-5:31: Deborah’s song of the defeat of Canaanite enemies

Exodus 18:1-20:23: The Sinai revelation
Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6: the revelation of God to Isaiah

Exodus 21:1-24:18: release of the Hebrew slaves
Jeremiah 34:8-34:22; 33:25-33:26: Jeremiah’s response when Judah rulers would not free slaves

Exodus 25:1-27:19: construction of the Tabernacle
I Kings 5:26-6:13: construction of the Temple

Exodus 27:20-30:10: the Tabernacle altar
Ezekiel 43:10-43:27: the future Temple sanctuary

Ki Tisa
Exodus 30:11-34:35: the Golden Calf
I Kings 18:1-18:39: the priests of Baal

Exodus 35:1-38:20: building a sanctuary
I Kings 7:40-7:50: building a sanctuary

Exodus 38:21-40:38: the craftsman Bezalel who worked on the Tabernacle
I Kings 7:51-8:21: the craftsman Hiram who worked on the Temple

Leviticus 1:1-5:26: sacrifices
Isaiah 43:21-44:23: the proper sacrifices

Leviticus 6:1-8:36: sacrifices
Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-9:23: sacrifice alone cannot please God, who also demands righteous deeds

Leviticus 9:1-11:47: deaths of Aaron’s sons when they approach the Holy Fire improperly
II Samuel 6:1-7:17: the death of Uzzah who touches the holy Ark improperly

Leviticus 12:1-13:59: skin diseases
II Kings 4:42-5:19: the story of Elisha and Naaman

Leviticus 14:1-15:33: skin diseases
II Kings 7:3-7:20: the story of the four lepers

Acharei Mot
Leviticus 16:1-18:30: forbidden sexual relations
Ezekiel 22:1-22:19: denouncing sexual licentiousness

Leviticus 19:1-20:27: ethical requirements, with warnings
Amos 9:7-9:15: Amos’ warnings to the kingdom

Leviticus 21:1-24:23: priestly duties
Ezekiel 44:15-44:31: priests of the future Temple

Leviticus 25:1-26:2: family titles to land
Jeremiah 32:6-32:27: Jersmiah buys a parcel of land

Leviticus 26:3-27:34: blessings and curses
Jeremiah 16:19-17:14: Jeremisah’s assurance of blessings

Numbers 1:1-4:20: census in the wilderness
Hosea 2:1-2:22: the people will be as numerous as sands of the sea

Numbers 4:21-7:89: Nazarites
Judges 13:2-13:25: Nazarites

Numbers 8:1-12:16: the Tabernacle candlestick
Zechariah 2:14-4:7: vision of the candelabrum of the Temple

Numbers 13:1-15:41; the spies
Joshua 2:1-2:24: the spies

Numbers 16:1-18:32: Korah’s attempt to replace Moses
I Samuel 11:14-12:22: the people’s seeming attempt to replace God with a human king

Numbers 19:1-22:1: Moses’ request to the Amorite king
Judges 11:1-11:33: Jephthah’s negotiations with the Amorites

Numbers 22:2-25:9: King Balak (Balaq) wants Balaam to curse Israel
Micah 5:6-6:8: Micah remembers this incident.

Numbers 25:10-30:1: Phineas (Pinchas) and his reward
I Kings 18:46-19:21: the heroism of Elijah

Numbers 30:2-32:42: God’s punishment
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3: Jeremiah’s call to preach warnings

Numbers 33:1-36:13: punishments
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4: the prophet’s warnings about idolatry

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22: Moses
Isaiah 1:1-1:27: punishments

The next seven haftarah are haftarah of consolation (Shabbat Nachamu) and all come from Second Isaiah. They are all messages of hope for God’s people Israel. The first is read on the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av, which is the fast that commemorates the Temple’s destruction in 587 BCE. The others are read on successive Sabbaths until the seventh, which is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. Thus, as Moses urges faithfulness to the Lord and obedience to his Torah, the Isaiah passages express God’s promises to liberate and provide for Israel.

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Isaiah 40:1-40:26

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Isaiah 49:14-51:3

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Isaiah 54:11-55:5

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Ki Teitzei
Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Isaiah 54:1-54:10

Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Isaiah 60:1-60:22

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Isaiah 61:10-63:9

This haftarah is usually read on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30
Isaiah 55:6-56:8: seek the Lord when God is near

Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52: Moses’ farwell song
II Samuel 22:1-22:51: David’s song

Vezot Haberakhah (read on Simchat Torah, when the year’s Torah readings are concluded, and the new year of readings begins)
Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12: death of Moses
Joshua 1:1-1:18: the beginning of Joshua’s leadership

The Judaism 101 site also gives the special Parshiyot and Haftarot for Jewish holidays:

The Judaism 101 author provides this information: “Each week in synagogue, we read (or, more accurately, chant, because it is sung) a passage from the Torah. This passage is referred to as a parshah. The first parshah, for example, is Parshat Bereishit, which covers from the beginning of Genesis to the story of Noah. There are 54 parshahs, one for each week of a leap year, so that in the course of a year, we read the entire Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) in our services. During non-leap years, there are 50 weeks, so some of the shorter portions are doubled up. We read the last portion of the Torah right before a holiday called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), which occurs in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). On Simchat Torah, we read the last portion of the Torah, and proceed immediately to the first paragraph of Genesis, showing that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

“In the synagogue service, the weekly parshah is followed by a passage from the prophets, which is referred to as a haftarah. … The word comes from the Hebrew root Fei-Teit-Reish and means ‘Concluding Portion’. Usually, haftarah portion is no longer than one chapter, and has some relation to the Torah portion of the week.

“The Torah and haftarah readings are performed with great ceremony: the Torah is paraded around the room before it is brought to rest on the bimah (podium). The reading is divided up into portions, and various members of the congregation have the honor of reciting a blessing over a portion of the reading. This honor is referred to as an aliyah (literally, ascension)… ”

Working on this post, I discovered that there are yearly and triennial cycles of readings. A rabbi friend explained that the Masoretes (the 6th-10th century CE scholars who helped established the definitive text of the Hebrew Bible) set up the cycle of yearly readings, and other scholars of the Land of Israel established a three-year cycle. The Wikipedia site reads:

“The Triennial cycle of Torah reading may refer either a) to the historical practice in ancient Israel by which the entire Torah was read in serial fashion over a three-year period, or b) to the practice adopted by many Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal congregations starting in the 19th and 20th Century, in which the traditional weekly Torah portions were divided into thirds, and in which one third of each weekly ‘parashah’ of the annual system is read during the appropriate week of the calendar.

“There are 54 parashot in the annual cycle, and 141, 154, or 167 parashot in the triennial cycle as practiced in ancient Israel, as evidenced by scriptural references and fragments of recovered text. By the Middle Ages, the annual reading cycle was predominant, although the triennial cycle was still extant at the time, as noted by Jewish figures of the period, such as Benjamin of Tudela and Maimonides. Dating from Maimonides’ codification of the parashot in his work Mishneh Torah in the 12th Century CE through the 19th Century, the majority of Jewish communities adhered to the annual cycle.

“In the 19th and 20th Centuries, many synagogues in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal Jewish movements adopted a triennial system in order to shorten the weekly services and allow additional time for sermons, study, or discussion.”

I wonder if we Christians might appreciate the Torah more if we not only delved into the passages themselves but also saw them in relation to Old Testament stories and teachings with which we may be more familiar. It has certainly improved and blessed my knowledge of the books of Scripture that Jews hold especially dear.



Read Full Post »

Continuing my “Bible in a Year” series from my “Journeys Home” blog.

Numbers 20 through Deuteronomy 6.

I apologize that this post is nearly twice as long as the others, but I include some material on Deuteronomy that connects that book to the other four Torah books, and also considers the way Deuteronomy looks ahead to the history in Joshua through 2 Kings.

When we arrive at Numbers 20-25, we enter the last year or two of the Wilderness period. When I was a little kid, I learned that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and I thought they were on the move and lost all that time! Actually the people remained at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, near the edge of the Land. Miriam dies here (20:1), as does Aaron (20:21-29). Though the priesthood continues under his son Eleazar, the founding high priest and his sister pass away short of the Promised Land.

And, of course, Moses is forbidden to enter the Land after the incident of Numbers 20:1-29. In a tragic parallel to the incident of Exodus 17, the people complain for the lack of water, and in anger, Moses strikes the rock rather than (as God required) speaking to it. Moses’ sin does not seem severe enough to warrant God’s judgment. The Torah: A Modern Commentary seeks a possible explanation: Moses does not go to God and intercede for the people as he did in the past; he is more passive and then angry, indicating that he has become wearied in his leadership. But furthermore, the entry into the land requires a warrior-leader like Joshua, whereas Moses has been primarily the prophet and shepherd.

The narrative turns positive in chapter 21, when the people have successful conquests over Arad (21:1-3) and Sihon and Og, 21:10-35), but yet another rebellion occurs 21:4-9, over the quality of food that God provides. Here we find the famous story of the bronze serpent; God sends snakes to torment the people, but anyone who looks at the bronze snake will live (21:4-9, cf. 1 King 18:4). The bronze serpent has been called a type of Christ, as anyone who looks up to Christ will be spiritually healed and live.

In all these stories, the Israelites must trust in God, and if they do, things will go well; if not, disaster follows. This is difficult theology, as I mentioned last week, for we know in our experience that things sometimes go poorly for the best people. We have to remember the context of the scripture, where God is shepherding a resistant people through dangerous circumstances and also teaching them a covenant relationship with God. Our own painful situations aren’t sent by God, but God is close by, loving, and helping.

The section 22:1-24:25 is the well known story of Balak the king of nearby Moab, and the seer Balaam. As the Harper’s Bible Commentary points out, this story happens apart from the Israelites, who don’t realize how God is protecting them from the threat of a curse. Balak sends Balaam to curse the Israelites, which Balaam attempts three times, but each time God allows him to bless the people, making Balaam a kind of prophet of the Lord. Like many kids, I learned the story of Balaam’s donkey at an early age; it’s a kind of folk tale wherein the donkey perceived God’s angel before Balaam, and God allows the ass to speak and testify to God’s presence to his irritated master.

Sadly, chapter 25 is another story of rebellion, this one involving Israelite men who have relations Midian women. The women, in turn, invite them to worship Midian gods, especially Baal of Peor. One of my commentaries comments that this story is placed right after the Balaam stories for ironic effect, showing how the people were unfaithful to God right after God had saved them (see note 1 below). The Baal-peor story is an early example of the connections of idolatry, cult prostitution, and the metaphoric “harlotry” of worshiping gods other than the Lord—a theme that we’ll see in the Prophets. In our own time, we’d call it a very “patriarchal” story, with the women and their sexuality portrayed as negative influences.

The Israelite Phineas takes the initiative and slays the Midianite Cozbi and the Israelite Zimri; since he kills them with a single spear, the two are presumed to be engaging in sex when they are killed. The savagery and divine jealously of this story are troubling; God is like a spurned lover for whom punishment against his beloved is justified. And although he is not to be emulated as a lesson, Phineas’ actions are praised! Where I live, there was a recent news story where a husband killed his wife and then himself, and so these kinds of biblical stories, wherein God is like an enraged husband, are troubling.

In this story, Phineas’ slaying of Zimri and Cozbi stop the plague that God sent agains the Israelites. The 24,000 who die in the plague are likely the end of the old generation.

Now we are on a new generation. Numbers 26 is a census of the twelve tribes, connecting back to the census that opens the book. But this census sets up the concern for how the land will be distributed among the people. The Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that there are correspondences in this concluding section and the earlier chapters, like the celebration of the passover (chapters 9 and 28), the provision for the Levites (chapters 18 and 35), legal issues for women (chapters 5 and 27), and others.

The last long section, chapters 26-36, has a variety of material. Mitzvot about inheritance, sacrifice, and vows (27:1-11, 28:1-30:16) are provided along with the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. But Joshua will not have the direct interaction with God that Moses had; as the Harper book reminds us, Moses is a unique leader whose stature in Israel’s history is never reached by subsequent prophets. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews discusses Jesus’ superiority to Moses, but that also indicates the unique and high place of Moses; only God’s Son can supersede him.

The victory of the Israelites over the Midianites is another savage story. In the context of the narrative, it illustrates the fact that the new generation trusts God as they should, and the debacles of Numbers 13-14 and 25 are reversed. The story of Reuben and Gad also serves to illustrate the right path that the new generation is taking. These two tribes requested to settle outside the boundaries of the Land, that is, on the east side of the Jordan River. The request troubles Moses, who fears a negative response on the part of the people (as in Numbers 13-14), but a compromise is successfully achieved.

Chapters 33-36 conclude Numbers—and would conclude the whole story of the Bible so far, before we even get to Deuteronomy. Chapter 33 summarizes the travels of the Israelites from Egypt and all their campsites. Chapter 34 provides the boundaries of the Land as God gives the tribes this place to live. Chapter 35 establishes cities of refuge and the Levitical cities. Chapter 36 has more material on the daughters of Zelophehad, providing (as the Harper book indicates) a frame for the section of chapters 27-36.

I like to find “story arcs” in the Bible. Good commentaries are essential for me, because otherwise I wouldn’t notice the connections. 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.(16) 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. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel. Of course, the very promise of the Land connects us to Genesis 12 and God’s promise to Abram and his family.

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 that is also 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 (see note 2 below).

In the upcoming Deuteronomy: 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, and chapters 29-30). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).But Deuteronomy circles back to Genesis as well. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 29:5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The story could end with Numbers, for the people are about the enter the land and new leadership has been established with Moses’ impending death. It’s interesting to me that these hypothesized ancient accounts like the Priestly Source and others provide this shape of the overall story. We already saw how the Priestly Code is found throughout this material.

With Deuteronomy, we begin a section of the Bible that will extend to the end of 2 Kings Scholars hypothesize a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of all this material (see note 3 below).

The Deuteronomistic history continues the theme of the earlier Torah books: the keeping of the covenant. God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.

The land is another ongoing theme that we’ll find through the upcoming historical books—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua.  Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the campaigns and conquests of Joshua are far the end of the story (see note 4 below).

Eventually we’ll get to the history of the monarchy and the great figure of David, whom we can connect to Moses as the Land’s greatest king, though not a prophet like Moses.

Deuteronomy contains another hypothesized, ancient source of law, the Deuteronomic Code, which is much longer than the Book of the Covenant that we saw earlier. This code stretches across Deut. 12-26 and includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on. While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (32-33). My Harper’s commentary points out aspects that indicate Deuteronomy’s likely authorship during the time of the monarchy, perhaps the reign of Josiah: the indication of a monetary rather than agricultural/barter economy, the fertility rites that tempted God’s people during a later time, the importance of a just judiciary, and the overall importance of reform (pp. 209-210).

There are differences among the laws compared to similar ones in other parts of the Torah. There are also differences in the conception of the priesthood—another connection among all these Scriptures. One of my teachers, Brevard Childs, discusses the distinction of Aaronic and Levitical priests. Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. The Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities. We also find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel; Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim rather than the Levi tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus.  Scholars like Julius Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material: Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah), but Childs sees the historical development of the priesthood as largely irretrievable background history for the canonical text, in which the post-exilic form of priesthood has become normative. (See note 5 below).

The ten paragraphs above are from another informal Bible study that I did a few years ago: https://bibleconnections.wordpress.com/connections-2/ Now, back to the text!

Deuteronomy reflects a common practice of covenant renewal and is presented as a long, farewell speech from Moses, who will soon die at the edge of the Land. In the beginning section, chapters 1-3, Moses begins with a recounting of the journeys of the Israelites. The Harper author notes, “Even before Israel left Mount Horeb, it was structure into a society shaped by God’s justice” (p. 213), and this opening section certainly reminds the Israelites of the importance of justice for Israelite and stranger, powerful and powerless alike. It is a timely message for many time periods and many circumstances! Moses also reminds the people of the importance of trust in God, compressing the disaster of Numbers 13-14 and the success of Numbers 21 and 29 (cf. Psalm 136:17-22).

Moses promises God’s faithfulness, recounting the richness of the land and the protection that God provides when the people are obedience (3:12-29, 4:1-40). The section 4-11 (I’m reading 4-6 this week) is a sermon about the mitzvot. Moses preaches about the Ten Commandments and connects them to God’s faithfulness, the Sabbath, the Covenant, and the importance of worship of God alone and of justice.

Chapter 6 is worth quoting as a whole, as it relates to so much else, and it contains the beloved Shema (Hear, O Israel).

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

“When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right’” (NRSV).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Chuqat               Numbers 19:1-22:1             Judges 11:1-11:33
Balaq               Numbers 22:2-25:9             Micah 5:6-6:8
Pinchas               Numbers 25:10-30:1             I Kings 18:46-19:21
Mattot               Numbers 30:2-32:42        Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Masei               Numbers 33:1-36:13             Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Jeremiah 2:4-28; 4:1-4:2)
Devarim               Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22     Isaiah 1:1-1:27
Va’etchanan       Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11     Isaiah 40:1-40:26


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Brit Olam Series, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, COllegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 180-181.

2. Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume II (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 267-268.

3. The first of several books on this subject is Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).

4. An excellent study is Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

5. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 145-150, 152-153.


Deuteronomy 7-34

This week, I’ve been studying Deuteronomy 7-34, thus concluding the book and also the Torah. But Deuteronomy is also the beginning book of the so-called Deuteronomistic History, the hypothesized source that extends through 2 Kings. So we’re ending the section of the Bible most sacred for Jews and also opening to what Jewish Bibles name “the Former Prophets.”

I wrote a lot about the book last week (above). The Jewish Study Bible introduction points out that significant aspects of Judaism derive from Deuteronomy, like the tzitzit, the teffilin, the mezuzah, the Shema, and of course the covenant itself (p. 358). Deuteronomy is written as Moses’ reiteration of the covenant, the mitzvot, and final admonitions as he and the people stand on the plains of Moab just outside the Promised Land—a land that Moses, the last of the generation who fled Egypt, will not enter. The word Deuteronomy means “second law.”

The Deuteronomic Code of chapters 12-26, much longer than the Book of the Covenant in Exodus, includes laws (some new, some found in other Torah books) about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (chs. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (chs. 32-33).

Deuteronomy likely existed independently of other law codes and narratives that we now find in the other four Torah books. The narrative of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22-23) is a key to its origins and eventual canonical shape. (Josiah was king in 641–609 BCE). The book may have originally consisted of the laws of chapters 12-26 along with an introduction and an oath of loyalty (chapter 28) (Jewish Study Bible, p. 358-359). The king hoped to renew the covenant and preserve religious and social traditions in light of a dual threat: the Assyrians, who had already conquered the northern Israelite kingdom, and also the growing threat of Babylon to the east. Among Josiah’s reforms, sacrifices were restricted to one site instead of several: previously sacrifices were made at Bethel, Mitzpah, Gilgal, Mount Carmel, and other places, but Deuteronomy 12 authorizes one place, i.e. Jerusalem (p. 357).

When Babylon did indeed conquer Judah in 586 BCE, material of Deuteronomy was likely added to the “Deuteronomistic history” of Joshua through Kings, and all of it expanded with other traditions. Then, in the period after the Exile, Deuteronomy was added to Genesis through Numbers, which already form a unit from Creation to the outskirts of the Land (pp. 357-359). Further transformation of the text reflects the needs of the post exilic Second Temple period, including the unequivocal monotheism of the Shema (pp. 360-361).

That same essay points out that the book, in effect, has Moses speaking to each new generation. The long monologue delays entry into the Land, which Moses himself cannot enter—and the fact that the Torah itself closes outside of the land has the effect of keeping readers outside the land, too (p. 359). There is a story arc connecting us back to Genesis. Abram was promised the Land to his descendants (Genesis 12), but Abram (Abraham) himself only owned a small area of land as a grave for his wife. Moses does not even have that, and he is buried in an unknown location in Moab near Beth-peor (Deut. 34:6). “Ancient editors have deliberately defined the Torah as a literary unit so as, first, to accommodate the addition of Deuteronomy and, second, to sever it from its logically expected fulfillment. The possession of the land is diverted instead into the next literary unit, which is to say, into the future. So profound a reconfiguration both of the patriarchal promise and of the overall plot is conceivable only in light of the historical experience of exile, which profoundly called the possession of the land into question. Had possession of the land remained central to the covenant, Israelite religion would have collapsed. The fulfillment of the Torah is thus reductional redefined as obedience to the requirements of covenantal law rather than the acquisition of a finite possession” (p. 359).

Deut. 1:1-4:43 is the first discourse of Moses, reviewing the historical circumstances and urging the people to obey the Lord. Deut. 4:44-28:68  is Moses’ second discourse, which contains the “legal corpus” of chapters 12-26. Moses recounts the Ten Commandments (chapter 5), expounds on the first commandment (6:4-25). This week, I’ve studied:

Chapter 7: The war of conquest and the special status of Israel
Chapter 8-10: Moses urges the people not to be proud and self-centered as they live on the land; God has shown many past mercies, even when the people broke the covenant; and so obedience is required for living in the land.
Chapter 11: Additional reminder to practice and teach God’s commandments, for the sake of blessing and not of curse.

The Deuteronomic Law Code for the people’s future
Chapter 12: Sacrificial worship in a single place of worship (rather than multiple places)
Chapter 13: Loyalty to the Lord rather than idolatry
Chapter 14: Clean and unclean animals, and the tithe of produce
Chapter 15: Laws relating to slaves and the poor: economic justice
Chapter 16:1-17: The Passover and other festivals, which also have roots in justice and in God’s blessing.
Chapter 16:18-17:20: Laws concerning courts and an eventual king
Chapter 18: Priests and Levites
Chapter 19: Criminal laws
Chapter 20: Laws of war
Chapter 21-26: Various laws

Chapters 27-30: The renewal of the covenant
Chapters 31-34: Moses’ final words, Moses’ song, his death and burial, the people’s grief.

Among these laws are major social concerns: protection against false accusation (Deut. 5:20, 19:15-21); protection for women (Deut. 21:10-14, 22:13-30); protection of property (Deut. 22:1-4); everyone should get the fruit of their labor (Deut. 24:14, 25:4); everyone should have a fair trial (Deut. 16:18-20); people should not be oppressed if they are in property or disabled (Deut. 23:19, 24:6), and other protections and guarantees. My NRSV Harper Study Bible has a list of all these social concerns with references to several Torah mitzvot (p. 274).

This week I studied a book I really love, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997). Here are a few of his insights.

Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, he writes, “To study Judaism is a moral imperative, because to be good one has to know what one’s duties are and what goodness entails… and this requires study” (p. 489). I wish more Christians considered study as an imperative! So many of us Christians have a high opinion of the Bible as God’s word, which in effect substitutes for actual knowledge of Bible content. We also get our views about society from our politics–as if being a Christian and a Republican or Democrat were identical–rather than studying biblical commandments and social models to inform our world views.

Deuteronomy 16:20 reads, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (NRSV). Telushkin writes that the emphasis on “justice” in this sentence reflects God’s will expressed in the Torah. He notes that although this mitzvah is particularly directed at judges,  “‘Pursuing justice implies that one should become personally involved when hearing about an injustice that one is capable of ameliorating” (p. 492).

Deuteronomy 21:15, 17 et al. stipulates that certain advantages go to the firstborn son—and yet this is not borne out in biblical stories. Think of Bible heroes who were not firstborn sons: Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon and Joseph (the eleventh son). Also, think of Bible heroes who weren’t sons at all!  “As in the case of polygamy, it is clear that although the Bible occasionally acquiesces in a deeply rooted tradition (such as favoring the firstborn), when it find such a tradition to be morally dubious, it finds a way to make its disapproval known” (p. 498).

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 et al. adjoins the humane treatment of animals. Telushkin notes that we find this compassion right away in the Bible: Genesis 24, when both Eliezer and Rebecca express concern for camels. Although humans are allowed to eat animals beginning with the end of Noah’s flood, kindness toward animals is urged throughout the Torah, as in Leviticus 22:28, Deut. 25:5, Jonah 4:11, and elsewhere (pp. 500-501).

“Most people associate biblical law primarily with rituals. Few are aware that one of the Torah’s 613 laws obligates homeowners to make sure that their roofs are safe.” referring to Deut. 22:8. He likens this to putting a fence around a pool: we’re being faithful to the Bible when we ensure that our homes are safe places!

Telushkin notes that some Torah laws are problematic, notably those regarding rape. “Torah law is much less severe regarding rape than modern sensibilities would expect. Although the Torah never adopted the sexist view that a sexually abused woman was in some way ‘asking for it,’ it also did not impose a particularly harsh punishment on the rapist” (p. 505). But the violent responses of family members in Genesis 34 and 2 Samuel 13 reflect “considerably less equanimity” toward rapists than we find in the law itself (p. 505). It is a horrible crime that requires justice and support for the victim.

Regarding the charging of interest (Deut. 23:20-21), he notes that Jews are forbidden to charge interest on loans to follow Israelites though not to foreigners, but the Torah warns against harassing people who are laid in paying, and being cruel to people in need (Deut. 24:10-14, also Lev. 25:35-36). The rabbi comments that Shakespeare’s Shylock is a slander toward Jews.

The Torah contains a traditionally numbered 613 laws. A rabbi friend of mine tells me that about 300 can still be followed today, and all are studied and reflected upon. Here is a site that lists them: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in Telushkin’s book (pp. 513-592 and passim), and in William J. Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Va’etchanan                  Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11                  Isaiah 40:1-40:26
Eiqev                            Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25                Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Re’eh                            Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17              Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Shoftim                        Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9                Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Ki Teitzei                     Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19              Isaiah 54:1-54:10
Ki Tavo                        Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8                  Isaiah 60:1-60:22
Nitzavim                      Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20                Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Vayeilekh                     Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30                Isaiah 55:6-56:8
Ha’azinu                       Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52                II Samuel 22:1-22:51
Vezot Haberakhah        Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12               Joshua 1:1-1:18(Joshua 1:1-1:9)

In my own reflections on these scriptures, I think of an odd connection: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments and to remind future generations of God’s mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God’s mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart. In the Christian affirmation, although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, that victory is assured. In a variety of ways, the Old and New Testaments affirm God’s own faithfulness! So we can follow God with confidence.



Read Full Post »

Continuing my Bible studies from my “Journeys Home” blog…. This post concerns Exodus 19-40.

“At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain” (Ex. 19:1-2). There they stay, until Numbers chapter 10. In Exodus 19-40, God’s greatness is everywhere apparent with the beginning of the covenant (19-23); its confirmation (chapter 24, a ceremony which becomes the basis of Jesus’ Last Supper covenant); the authorization of the Ark of the Covenant, the Altar, Priesthood, and Tabernacle and the sanctity of the Sabbath, (25-31), the incident of the Golden Calf (32-34), and the creation of the Ark and Tabernacle and furnishings (35-40). Something I read indicated that we have a great lesson in God’s faithfulness in that the work of creating a sanctuary carries on after the people had sinned so seriously.

The Sinaitic Covenant is established in 19:1-24:11, and as the Jewish Study Bible author notes, “The moments encounter with God at Sinai is, for the Torah, the defining and seminal moment in Israel’s relationship with God” (p. 145). But Chapter 19 is a very confused chapter,; the Lord’s voice comes form the fire, or from the thunder, and Moses seems to go up and then down and then up again the mountain. Aside from textual challenges arising from ancient sources edited together, the theophany depicted in chapter 19 is momentous and sets the stage for the coming covenant.

The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, begin God’s revelation (20:1-17):

1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (NRSV)

The remainder of chapter 20 notes that only the Commandments were told to the people directly; they were fearful of the divine voice and insisted that Moses mediate for them.

The section 20:22-23:33 is called the Covenant Code, or the Book of the Covenant. I’ve an interesting book by a Presbyterian minister, William J. Doorly (1931-2011), called The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Paulist Press, 2002). Doorly describes the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile:

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23)
The Deuteronomic Law Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)
The Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)

The Book of the Covenant contains cultic laws about altars and images, 22 secular laws about restitution, bodily injury, and property, 20 cultic and social laws (including God’s demand for justice) and finally 6 more cultic laws, including three festivals (p. 12). While not the oldest laws, they may be associated with the reform work of Hezekiah and then were preserved by the Aaronic priests during the exile from the Jahwist and Elohist sources (J and E) (pp. 7-9).

Doorly points out the presence of the Priestly Code that has been edited into the Torah text in ancient times. He notes that the Priestly Code is found in Ex. 12-13, 25-30, Lev. 1-7, 10-15, 27, Num 5-6, 9-10, 18, 27-30, and 35-36. This code includes laws about Passover (Ex. 12-13), the tabernacle (Ex. 25-30), offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27), uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36) (p. 65).  So all these passages are interconnected. This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (p. 49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly believes that both the Aaronic and Levitical schools sought to preserve laws in light of their creative rewriting of Israel’s history, with the Levites beginning with the events of Deuteronomy, and the Aaronids beginning with the time of the Exodus (pp. 72-73).

If you’re a Christian, unaccustomed to meditating on the laws, you might overlook their deeper meanings. My NRSV Harper Study Bible (p. 274) gives a list of “major social concerns of the covenant.” Here are some from the Covenant Code:

* Personhood: everyone should be secure: e.g. Ex. 21:16, 26-31, etc.
* No woman should be taken advantage of: Ex. 21:7-11, 20, etc.
* Everyone’s property rights should be secure (Ex. 21:33-36, etc.)
* Everyone is to share produce of the ground (Ex. 23:10-11, etc.)
* Everyone should rest on the Sabbath, including servants and resident aliens and animals (Ex. 20:8-11, etc.)
* Everyone deserves a fair trial (Ex. 23:6, 8, etc.)
* No one should be exploited or oppressed, including the impoverished and disabled (Ex. 22:21-27, etc.).
* Animals well being should be protected (Ex. 23:5, 11, etc.).

So we should not look and these laws and think: this is just ancient stuff that we can ignore. Precious to Jews, they have much to teach us Christians, too. How we interpret all the laws and their spirit (originating in ancient agricultural and monarchical society) in our contemporary, technological and liberal capitalist societies is the ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation for both Jews and Christians.

The section 24:12-31:18, and the section 35:1-40:38, concern the Tabernacle. I found an interesting article at this site, that provides quite a bit of information about the Tabernacle, which was the portable sanctuary that serve God’s people in the Wilderness and beyond: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-tabernacle/ My Harper’s Bible Commentary has a chart about the Tabernacle and its furnishings and functions, providing the correspondence in the text between God’s commands and the resulting actions (p. 150):

“The contribution: commanded in 25:1-9, executed in 35:4-29.
The Ark: commanded in 25:10-22, executed in 37:1-9
The table: commanded in 25:23-30, executed in 37:10-16
The lamp stand: commanded in 25:31-40, executed in 37:17-24
The tabernacle: commanded in 26:1-37, executed in 36:8-38
The sacrificial altar: commanded in 27:1-8, executed in 38:1-7
The tabernacle court: commanded in 27:9-19, executed in 38:9-20
The lamp: commanded in 27:20-21, executed in Numbers 8:1-4
The priestly garments: commanded in 28:1-43, executed in 39:1-31
The ordination ritual: commanded in 29:1-49, executed in Lev. 9:1-9:24
The incense altar: commanded in 30:1-10, executed in 37:25-28
The bronze laver: commanded in 30:17-21, executed in 38:8
The anointing oil: commanded in 30:22-33, executed in 37:29
The incense: commanded in 30:34-38, executed in 37:29
The craftsmen: commanded in 31:1-11, executed in 35:30-36:7
The Sabbath: commanded in 31:12-17, executed in 35:1-3”

Before I conclude with aspects of the significance of the Tabernacle, I want to think about 32:1-34:35, the breaking of the covenant and its renewal, otherwise known as the story of the Golden Calf. The  Harper’s Bible Commentary notes (p. 153-154) the irony of the calf: “The people’s demand is for ‘gods who will go before us’; that is, they want palpable assurance of the divine presence among them on their march. This, however, is precisely what the tabernacle will provide. Thus the irony in the situation is that the thing the people are demanding is exactly what is being prepared for them on the mountain [by the Lord through the mediation of Moses]. Seen in this light, the manufacture of the golden calf is a travesty of the tabernacle just authorized.” As we all know the story, Moses’ brother Aaron is a leader in the effort to construct the idol (a fertility idol, for the calf or young bull symbolizes virility). When Moses returns from the mountain, he smashes the tablets, and yet only the intercession of Moses saves the people and makes possible the renewal of the covenant.

Exodus 34:29-35 tells us that Moses’ face shone with light as he returned from the mountain. 2 Corinthians 3 Paul interprets this passage in a supersessionist way to stress the glory of the New Covenant. If you ever wondered why Moses is sometimes artistically depicted as having small horns (Michelangelo and others), it comes from this Exodus passage. The Hebrew root qrn can be translated “horn” or “radiant light.” I suppose you could thereby discern Moses from among other robed and bearded biblical heroes.

I’ll double-check these references, but I find on good ol’ Wikipedia that, after the Joshua conquest, the Tabernacle was located at Shiloh (the area of Joshua’s Ephraim tribe), where is was located during the 300 years of the Judges. (See Joshua 18:1; 19:51; 22:9; Psalm 78:60, and 1 Kings 6:1; Acts 13:20), but the tabernacle with the Ark was located at Bethel, too (Judges 20:26-28), and Saul moved it to Nob (1 Samuel 21-22) and later it was located at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:2-6, 13). Then the Ark itself came to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17; 1 Chronicles 15:1), while the Tabernacle stayed Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 1 Kings 3:2-4). Finally Solomon brought it and its furnishings to the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 8:4). The Ark and furnishings are never mentioned in the scriptures after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Why is so much space given in the narrative to the authorization, description, and construction of the portable sanctuary and its furnishings? Is it only for historical purposes?

A favorite book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC, 1981) provides some possibilities. For one, the deity of ancient religions had to have a personal house, and this is the story of Israel’s (p. 598). But specially for Israel, the Tabernacle was the presence of God, in a portable sanctuary. The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig saw the Tabernacle as the high point and “pinnacle” of the Penteteuch, which “concretized [the Israelites’] freedom. For even as God ‘made’ the world so Israel now ‘makes’ the sanctuary in a new act of creation, and the same words used in the opening chapters of Genesis characterize the creation of the Tabernacle” (p. 598).

In the text, the Tabernacle is connected to the Sabbath, which the great Jewish teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Israel’s sanctuary in time. The institution of the Sabbath begins the authorization and the construction of the Tabernacle (31:12-17, 35:1-3; Plaut, p. 666), and the Sabbath has endured for the Jews as a faithful “place.”

The Tabernacle also forms an connection back to the beginning of Exodus: “The erection of the shrine was the symbolic conclusion of the Exodus tale. The latter had begun with the ‘absent’ God during the years of enslavement and now ends with the ‘present’ God who will lead His people to the Promised Land” (Plaut, p. 688). With the end of Exodus we read through Leviticus, which is primarily laws, but is its own kind of narrative that continues Israel’s ancient story. Next week I’ll study Leviticus 1-22.


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Mishpatim                 Exodus 21:1-24:18              Jeremiah 34:8-34:22; 33:25-33:26
Terumah                    Exodus 25:1-27:19              I Kings 5:26-6:13
Tetzaveh                    Exodus 27:20-30:10              Ezekiel 43:10-43:27
Ki Tisa                       Exodus 30:11-34:35              I Kings 18:1-18:39 (I Kings 18:20-18:39)
Vayaqhel                    Exodus 35:1-38:20              I Kings 7:40-7:50 (I Kings 7:13-7:26)
Pequdei                      Exodus 38:21-40:38              I Kings 7:51-8:21 (I Kings 7:40-7:50)


Leviticus 1-22

Some folks will say, “Don’t read the commentaries, read the Bible!” But commentaries clarify and explain the Bible content, and you still have the Spirit and your own intellect and emotions to help you gain insight. So I have six or seven of my commentaries and study Bibles on hand to help me with all these readings.

For instance, the Berit Olam series has a volume devoted to Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see note 1 below). The author reminds us that Leviticus is the heart of the Pentateuch, and is precious for Jews; yet Christians regard the book with less esteem, for instance, only nine verses appear in the three-year Lectionary (p. 4). I don’t know how many books of Christian theology I’ve read that refer to “Jewish legalism,” a misunderstanding of the Torah (see note 2 below).

If Christians could appreciate the Torah from the Jewish point of view, and then understand the Torah’s significance in the New Testament, we could learn much and cherish these books, too. I’m reading the Jewish Study Bible this week; the introduction to Leviticus reminds us that the book is part of the long narrative, from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10, which could be called “When the Tabernacle Stood at Sinai” (p. 203). That period is less than a year, and Leviticus, though lacking much narrative material, is a critical part of that overall story. We saw last week how important the Tabernacle authorization and construction is, occupying the last 16 of Exodus’ 40 chapters. Following immediately from that material, Leviticus contains the mitzvot, the priesthood, the aspects of worship, and foundations for Israel’s and Judaism’s history (p. 203).

Purity and holiness are key concepts to all of the mitzvot of Leviticus, underlying our readings this week that relate to sacrifice, the priesthood, the Day of Atonement, kosher food, and other laws. Once the Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood ceased in Judaism, the dietary laws, certain festivals, family ritual, and other mitzvot remain aspects of ongoing Jewish life and are based on the same foundations of holiness. (Orthodox, conservative, and Reform Jews approach these mitzvot differently.) And rather than being “picky” laws, they are rooted in the Jewish concern to be in service to other people and to witness to God (p. 205).

I’m also reading Harper’s Bible Commentary this week, which discusses the three realms of being in the Israelites’ world view: the holy, the everyday, and the unclean. Think of being an Israelite: we live in the everyday realm. The unclean realm include things like dead bodies, bodily fluids that are now out of the body, non-kosher living things, and so on. We come into contact with the unclean realm but can perform ritual acts to clean themselves (Lev. 12-15, for instance) to make us able to approach and properly worship the holy. Although everyday people cannot fully enter the realm of the holy, people can worship the Lord, do the rituals, sacrifice, and honor the Sabbath, and those of the priesthood are set apart and ordained for divine service to the holy on behalf of the people. This three-level worldview is the foundation for the Torah mitzvot. To bring the unclean into proximity with the holy, without the sanctifying rituals, was dangerous, as shown by the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 (pp. 167-168).

Importantly, Leviticus also connects us back to Genesis, for as God sought friendships among the ancestors of the Israelites in the post-Eden world, God now defines a close relationship with the people and returns them, if not to Eden itself, to proximity to God through covenant and mitzvot. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible notes that the tabernacle, which Leviticus presupposes, has several symbols of creation, while Leviticus 11-16 “instruct in how to restore the created order in the tabernacle” (p. 153).

This material has additional relevance for Gentile Christians. The Berit Olam author shows that there are numerous allusions to Leviticus in the New Testament, some negative expressions of the particular law, others positive adoption of the laws and the imagery. Most of these apply to the chapters I’m reading this week (pp. 5-7). Leviticus is foundational for aspects of New Testament theology, in ways many of us don’t realize:

Lev 1:2, the first of several verses that uses the expression “bring near,” is echoed in Eph. 2:13, Heb. 7:19, James 4:8
Lev 1:4, the word translated “be acceptable” is alluded to in Rom. 15:16 and 1 Peter 2:5
1:9 and several subsequent verses has the expression “a pleasing odor,” which is echoed in Phil 4:18, Eph. 5:2, Rom. 12:1
Lev. 4:12, 21, 8:17, 9:11 — Heb. 13:11
Lev. 4:25, 34, 5:9, 6:30, 16:15, 27 — 1 John 1:7, Eph. 1:7, Rom. 3:25
Lev. 5:11 — Luke 2:24
Lev. 6:16, 18, 26, 7:61 — 1 Cor. 9:13
Lev 6:2 — Heb 7:23
Lev 7:20 — Rom. 11:22
Lev 10:10, 11:47, 20:24-26 — Gal. 2:12
Lev 11 — Acts 10:25
Lev 11:4 — Matt. 23:24
Lev. 14:1-32 — Matt 8:4, Luke 17:14
Lev. 15:25 — Matt. 9:20
Lev. 16:1-15 — Heb. 10:19, 9:12
Lev. 16:29 — Acts 27:9
Lev. 17:10-14 — Acts 15:20
Lev. 18:16, 20:21 — Matt. 14:4
Lev. 18:22, 20:13 — Rom. 1:27
Lev. 19:23-25 — Luke 13:7
Lev. 20:10 — John 8:5
Lev 21:1 — Luke 10:31
Lev 21:10 — Matt 26:65
Lev. 21:18 — Matt. 11:5
Lev 24:5-9 — Matt. 12:4
Lev 25:10 — Luke 4:19

The Christian name of the book (which means, pertaining to the Levites) is misleading, because he Levites only appear in two verses, and even the priests are not the only focus of the book (Berit Olam, p. 3), for the book is addressed to Israel as a whole. The Hebrew title is the first word of the text, Vayikra, “He [God] called [Moses].” Although there are only a few stories in the book, the whole book can be thought of as a kind of narrative, as it looks to the past (Israel’s salvation from Egypt), stresses obedience in the present, and sets up conditions for the future faithfulness of the people (p. 12). It is also a kind of narrative because numerous laws set up a problem, which in turn is addressed and solved by the mitzvah (see pages 3-44 for an in-depth discussion).

As I also said in last week’s post, the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) is one of the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile. The Priestly Code, another pre-canonical collection, is spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; in Leviticus, the code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Here is an outline of this week’s chapters:

The primary offerings (chapters 1-7)
The burnt offering (chap. 1)
The grain offering (chap. 2)
The fellowship offering (chap. 3)
The sin offering (4:1-5:13)
The guilt offering (5:14-6:7)
Other regulations concerning offerings (6:8-7:38)

The ministry of Aaron and his sons (chapters 8-10)
Their ordination (chap. 8)
Their ministry (chap. 9)
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu, and other regulations (chap. 10)

Cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 1-15)
Food (chap. 11)
Purification after childbirth (chap. 12)
Skin diseases (13:1-46)
Midweek (13:47-59)
Skin diseases (14:1-32)
Discharges (15)
Day of Atonement and the scapegoat (16)

At this point, the “narrative” of Leviticus shifts from the Tabernacle to the land. Although chapters 21-22 concern the priesthood, the section 17-26 focuses overall on the land and the importance not to introduce uncleanness to the land via unholy actions, lest the Lord eventually expel the people from the land.

Holy living (17-26)
Prohibition of eating blood (17)
Unlawful sexual relations (18)
Other laws about holy living (19)
Punishments for sin (20)
Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
Acceptable and unacceptable Sacrifices (22:17–33)
… and I’ll continue with the remainder of this block of laws next week.

Interestingly, the sacrifices of chapters 1-3 are voluntary responses to God’s goodness, while those of 4-6 are required.

Chapters 8-10 concern the consecration of the priesthood of Aaron. But the story ends with the death of the two sons Nadab and Abihu, who brought pans of burning incense into the holy place and the fire of God’s presence consumed them. The Jewish Study Bible explains, “[T]he sin of the two brothers was not simply that they went too far in their misguided super-piety. Rather, they acted in utter disregard for the deity. God intended that the manifestation of His Presence would ignite the altar fire, marking His acceptance of His people’s devotion. Their intent was for the divine fire to ignite their own pans; that is, they were attempting to arrogate control of the deity to themselves” (p. 227).

Chapter 11 are the famous laws of kosher (acceptable) food. The Judaism 101 site has a wonderful explanation: http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm Interestingly, no plants are considered non-kosher.

That site also explains the significance of Yom Kippur, http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday4.htm  In Leviticus 16, the day is a cleansing of the Tabernacle to remove the effects of impurity and unintended sin, and then the day is named in Leviticus 23:27, 28, 25:9.

Chapter 18 concerns prohibited sexual unions, which are also “abominations of the Canaanites” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 249). Lev. 18:22, regarding homosexuality, addresses not the sexual orientation that we understand today, but forceable intercourse that degrades and humiliates (p. 251). When people cherry-pick this verse to condemn gays, they ignore the underlying assumptions and context of the verse.

Chapter 19 addresses individual holiness. The Ten Commandments are echoed throughout 19:1-18, culminating in that verse 19:18, which many rabbis, and Jesus as well, regarded as one of the greatest commandments, implicitly summarizing all the others.

Lev. 19:33-34 has been cited a lot in recent days, with President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees. God commands hospitality and care for the stranger among Israelites, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (vs. 34).

Chapters 20-22 address other issues of holiness and concludes with God’s admonition not to profane God’s name so that God may be sanctified among the people—-the people whom God rescued from Egypt 22:31-33).

In synagogue readings (according to the Judaism 101 site), the parshah and haftorah readings are:

Vayiqra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26, Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-9:23
Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47, II Samuel 6:1-7:17 (Sephardic: II Samuel 6:1-6:19)
Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-13:59, II Kings 4:42-5:19
Metzora: Leviticus 14:1-15:33, II Kings 7:3-7:20
Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30, Ezekiel 22:1-22:19  (Sephardic: Ezekiel 22:1-22:16)
Qedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27, Amos 9:7-9:15  (Ezekiel 20:2-20:20)
Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23,  Ezekiel 44:15-44:31


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

2. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible has this: “One may recall how the book relates to what comes before in Exodus. Leviticus is part of the Sinaitic covenant instruction. The book is a gift from God instructing in the structuring of this covenant community. It is not legalistic in the sense that it provides the people with a means of earning God’s favor; rather, it is a multi-faceted response of the people to God.”


Leviticus 23 through Numbers 19

The material from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10 reflects the time when the Israelites sojourned at the foot of Mount Sinai. But as they moved northeast toward the land of Moab, at the outskirts of the Promised Land, the Israelites lost their chance to enter the Land and camped for many years at Kadesh-Barnea. The Bible seldom dates anything, so it’s good to realize that, when we begin Numbers 20-22, we’ve jumped over 38 years to the near-conclusion of the wilderness period.

Numbers has many more stories than Leviticus, but legal material spreads across Numbers and continues from Leviticus. As I wrote about in previous posts, the Priestly Code, a hypothesized pre-canonical collection of mitzvot, is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Continuing into Numbers, the Priestly Code includes the passages on uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and also Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36). So all these passages are interconnected, and they also connect back to the Sinai covenant and the Tabernacle (see my Exodus 19-40 post.)

Here is the outline for the remainder of Leviticus—including the block of laws that begin with chapter 17.

Holy living (17-26)
Prohibition of eating blood (17)
Unlawful sexual relations (18)
Other laws about holy living (19)
Punishments for sin (20)
Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
Acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices (22:17–33)
Annual feasts (23)
Use of oil and bread in the Tabernacle (24:1–9)
Punishment for blasphemy (24:10–23)
The Sabbath and Jubilee years (25)
Covenant blessings and curses (26)
Regulations for Offerings Vowed to the Lord (ch. 27)

My Harper’s Bible Commentary indicates that the chapter 20 laws have two purposes: inculcating the obedience that protects the land from uncleanness/defilement, which in turn ensures that the people won’t be expelled from the land. God has set aside the people from others of the land, so they would be a holy people. The priests are to be particularly holy, even lacking physical abnormalities (chap. 21). The single narrative in this section, the execution of the blasphemer (chapter 24), illustrates the concern in Leviticus for removing unholiness from among the people.

Chapter 23 reiterates the importance of the Sabbath and also provides the mitzvot for Peach, ‘Omer Reshit, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Mitzvot for the Sabbath of the land and the Jubilee year, both very important for social equality and ecological renewal, continue in chapter 25. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/sabbatical-year-shemitah-and-jubilee-year-yovel/

Chapter 27 forms an additional section to the other mitzvot, this one concerning holy things devoted to God. Chapter 26, however, is a divine speech that could summarize the book, wherein God reiterates the possibility of judgment—in quite fierce terms—but also promising compassion and restoration to those who turn back to God.

Leviticus 26 contains difficult theology: the connection of piety and virtue with earthly rewards, the connection of wrongdoing and retribution, the idea that the people would proper or suffer together, and the idea that morality alone brings prosperity or disaster. As The Torah: A Modern Commentary notes, the book of Job provides a corrective to these ideas; although good and bad actions do lead to corresponding results, good people do suffer while many evil people do seem to prosper. Likewise, whole peoples have suffered terribly in spite of their virtue (for instance, Native Americans, victims of Soviet persecution, Holocaust victims, and others) (pp. 954-956). The straightforward theology of this chapter, meaningful in its early context, requires ongoing prayer and reflection. But, as that same writer points out, Leviticus 26 also stresses that faithfulness and morality are among the keys to an upright society, and also that hope is always available even in difficult circumstances! God never abandons his people Israel and never will (p. 956)

Here is the outline for Numbers 1-19, taking us to the end of the old generation.
Israel prepared to depart for the Land (1:1-10:10)
The census (1-4)
The commands concerning purity of the people (5:1—10:10), which includes among other things the Nazarite vow and the Aaronic benediction (6), the observance of the Passover (9:1-14).
The Journey from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11—12:16)
The journey commences (10:11–36)
Fire and quail (11)
The sin of Miriam and Aaron (12)
Israel at Kadesh, and God’s judgment (13:1—20:13)
The report of the spies (13)
The people’s rebellion and defeat (14)
Several laws on offerings, the Sabbath, tassels on clothing (15)
Korah’s rebellion (16)
The budding of Aaron’s staff (17)
More laws about the priests (18)
The red heifer (19)

The Hebrew title of the book translates, “In the wilderness,” which is perhaps a more comprehensive title than “Numbers,” which comes from the census that dominates chapters 1-4, with lists of the adult males—those who can go into battle—among the twelve tribes. But the transition from the old to the new generation is nevertheless a theme of the book, and the initial census forms an arc over to chapter 26, the census of the new generation. As Israel sojourns at Sinai and then moves toward the land, their experience of wilderness is critical, as I write about in another post: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2017/01/bible-road-trips-long-sojourn-at-sinai.html

The section 5:1-6:21 gives us more laws, also regarding purity as the people begin their approach to the promised land. 6:22-27 gives us the beautiful priestly blessing used in many Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Israelites’ approach to the land includes the guidance of God through the cloud (Numbers 9:15-23, which echoes Exodus 13:21-22), the sounding of the trumpets (10:1-10), and then the march toward the land, nineteen days after the census and eleven months after the people had arrived at Sinai (Num. 10:11).

But then chapters 11-14 is a terrible “twist” in the story. After all the preparation to ensure the people’s faithfulness and holiness, the people rebel and are punished. First there is a general complaining about misfortunes (11:1-3), then there is controversy among the people for variety of food (11:4-35). In chapter 12, even Miriam and Aaron speaking ill against Moses because of his foreign wife. Miriam is stricken with leprosy for seven days, so that she stayed outside the camp. The Torah: A Modern Commentary suggests that although Aaron was not similarly cursed, he may have suffered the psychological pain (arguably worse than some kinds of physical pain) in having to submit to his younger brother. (On the other hand, it may also be a case of patriarchy: in the thinking of the time, Aaron was too important to be exiled from the camp for a week, but being a woman Miriam was more expendable.)

God authorizes Moses to send spies into the land to gather information (13:1-14:45). One man from each of the twelve tribes set out, and forty days later they return with a favorable report of the land, but with a fearful report about the strength of the inhabitants. Only Caleb and Joshua recommend that the people trust God. (Some of my books point out that two ancient sources underlie this story, one in which Caleb is the faithful one, and the other in which both Caleb and Joshua are the heroes.)
In response to the fearful report, the Israelites rebel and plan to find a leader which will help them return to Egypt. As the Harper Bible Commentary discusses, this is a far worse sin than the golden calf, for that sin was “only” a way to represent God in a familiar image, while the rebellion struck at the heart of all of God’s promises and preparation. If you read the Bible from Exodus 19 through Numbers 14, you do get a sense of the tragedy of the people’s rebellion after so much preparation and guidance by God.

So…. the people were afraid to die at the hands of the Canaanites, and instead they must die at the threshold of the land. Of the first generation, only the faithful Caleb and Joshua will enter the land. And yet, God’s promise endures. While God could have wiped the people out (cf. Num. 16:38-50), the second generation will endure and will live in the land.

At this point, the major part of the first part of the wilderness journey ends, but we also have the story of the rebellion of Korah and 250 laymen, and the subsequent rebellion that results in a divine plague. The Korahites complain: If the people are holy, a “nation of priests,” why can’t non-priests bring incense to the tabernacle? It is actually a very good question, pushing the envelope concerning holiness and identity. Norah and his people claim the status of holiness and resent Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership.

Things end badly for the rebels—-and in the Numbers story, that’s what they were, rejecters of God’s chosen intermediary and shepherd, Moses. But somewhere in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the great theologian comments that although Korah and his followers perish in God’s judgment, the Korahites are honored later in scripture, as singers (2 Chronicles 20:19), and as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88. Barth sees therein a subtle affirmation of Korah’s original concern: what does it mean to be a holy people?

Other laws in this section emphasize priesthood and validates the Aaronic priesthood and the service of the Levites (17-18). The section ends with the strange mitzvot about the Red Heifer. Once such a heifer is sacrificed and burned, its ashes purify from uncleanness—and yet the ashes confer short-term uncleanness upon him who handles them! In the Jewish tradition this is a famously difficult mitzvot, making Solomon himself despair of his own wisdom (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1149). The placement of the mitzvot at this point in Numbers forms “a literary bridge that now binds the red heifer ritual with the concern for uncleanness from the dead” (Harper Study Bible, p. 196). Tragically, death will be a concern for the next 38 years, as the old generation dies.

Here are the parshah and haftarah (from the Judaism 101 site):

Emor                     Leviticus 21:1-24:23        Ezekiel 44:15-44:31
Behar                    Leviticus 25:1-26:2          Jeremiah 32:6-32:27
Bechuqotai          Leviticus 26:3-27:34        Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Bamidbar             Numbers 1:1-4:20           Hosea 2:1-2:22
Nasso                    Numbers 4:21-7:89         Judges 13:2-13:25
Beha’alotkha       Numbers 8:1-12:16         Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Shelach                Numbers 13:1-15:41       Joshua 2:1-2:24
Qorach                 Numbers 16:1-18:32       I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Chuqat                 Numbers 19:1-22:1          Judges 11:1-11:33


Read Full Post »

A few years ago, I made an effort to deepen my Bible study. I wanted to study comparatively unfamiliar areas of the book, and I especially wanted to gain a better sense of its canonical interconnections (prophecies, allusions, historical connections, etc.).

The major result of this enjoyable time of study was my book Walking with Jesus through the New Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), and also some short-term blogs where I posted my reflections and notes, including an informal survey of the whole Bible.

I like to do year-long series on my “Journeys Home” blog–they help me stay spiritually focused amid life’s busyness–but I hadn’t yet found a new series for 2017. Meanwhile, though, I missed in-depth Bible study, which I’d neglected since finishing my book manuscript.

I got an idea: a series of weekly summaries of Bible material through the course of the year. I Googled the number of chapters in the Bible, and discovered there are 1189. Divided by 52 weeks, that is about 22 chapters a week.  So I began to read the Bible (and consult some of my commentaries) at a rate of about 22 chapters a week, more or less, and record here what I learn.

Eventually, I dropped this plan and studied entire Bible books at a time. But after I studied the Bible in a year (actually in sixteen months), I decided to copy my essays over here on my “Grace, Place” blog. They are very informal studies, note-taking that I enjoy whenever I read and study the scriptures.

To start with: after the cat moved, I read an interesting discussion in my Harper’s Bible 15871532_10154226981038519_759061570477772776_nCommentary about the “primary and secondary histories” of the Old Testament (pp. 75ff)

The primary history is the material from Genesis through Kings, which takes us from from Creation to the beginning of the Exile. Interestingly, the history begins with great promise—God’s pledge to Abraham of many descendants and a land–but it ends sadly, with ten of the twelve tribes of those descends disappeared with the 722 Assyrian conquest, and the other tribes conquered by the Babylonians in the 500s. Nearly all the leadership of the accompanying historical periods are ineffective. Is it strange that the Bible contains this long narrative that culminates in failure?

The secondary narrative is Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which also begins with Creation (Adam and his descendants), continues to the Exile, but also considers the post-exilic time of restoration in the Land (Ezra and Nehemiah) and the lives of Jews in the Diaspora (Esther, although one could also include Daniel here). The Secondary History ends on more positive notes, with the people newly settled in the land and Diaspora Jews establishing the faith as well. In the case of Daniel, we also get an apocalyptic account of God’s ultimate victory.

Learning this material is part of the enjoyment of Bible study: when you begin at Genesis, you embark on a long journey through the experiences of God’s people, and then once 2 Kings ends, you start again on a shorter but also important journey through the same history and a couple centuries more. Putting all this together, you start to gain a sense of the richness (and by no means uniformity) of the biblical witness, and the contrasting viewpoints and theologies of the biblical writers.

You could consider the New Testament a corresponding history, and not just new scriptures. The New Testament, after all, contains passages that begin at the Beginning (John’s prologue, and Col. 1:15-20), and then reinterprets the experience of the Old Testament people, and the great institutions of their kingdom and religion, via the life of Jesus. Plus, this corresponding history opens to a new future where Gentiles are grafted onto the people of God thanks to God’s grace and mercy (Romans 11:16-24).

But the New Testament is characterized by all-too-human failings, too, with writers like Paul, the Hebrews author, and John of Patmos scolding their congregations for sins, errors, and shaky faith. The very last New Testament book has the context of conflict and uncertainty within the addressed congregations, while at the same time depicting God’s ultimate victory as well. So although the New Testament covers a much shorter history than the Old Testament, the ambiguities of human experience are present there, too. In the Bible, as in all of life, the glory is God’s alone, and we rely upon God’s mercy and kindness.


Genesis 1-22

Beginning my year-long reading of and note-taking about the Bible, about 20 or so chapters each week, I “open at page one,” to quote that old Jethro Tull song about the ill-fated train engineer.

I read somewhere that Genesis “feels” and reads differently than the rest of the Torah, because God is not yet the savior and law-giver of Israel. God is working with people and making connections, so to speak, accompanying the Hebrew ancestors as they begin a history in the land promised to Abraham.

Chapter 1-11 is a block of material prior to the Bible’s main story that begins with Abraham. Of course, we first study the two creation accounts: the “priestly” narrative of 1:1-2:4a and the “Jahwist” narrative of 2:4b-3:24. I’ve also read how the Genesis stories “demythologize” other ancient Near Eastern stories. For one thing, the creation story has a covenantal purpose: Genesis 1 links over to Exodus 31:12-18, where the Sabbath is part of God’s eternal covenant with Israel, based in God’s own rest from creative activity. We Gentiles, mulling over the literalness or symbolism of the seven days, miss the very key point of the Sabbath (not so named in Genesis) that becomes Israel’s “sanctuary in time” (Heschel).

Other aspects of “demythologizing”: Even though God seems anthropomorphic, walking in the garden, not much is made of this in the narrative, and there is certainly no “birth” account of the deity, nor  does Eve function as a fertility goddess or demigod like Asherah. There is a “trickster” entity who deceive the first couple, which introduces sin into God’s creation and separation from the deity, although notice that God helps the couple make clothing before they leave the garden!

A theme that we find in much literature, inspired by the Bible story, is the way children continue the sin of their parents, and of course Cain takes the almost careless sin of his parents and multiplies its horror, killing his own brother. The genealogies that follow his story show the one way that human beings were faithful to God—being fruitful and multiplying. Otherwise, without getting into theological theories of free will vs. original sin, the narrative moves along human moral decline. The Noah stories, which evidence an editing of the J and P sources, anticipate later biblical themes: God’s eventual judgment against sin, and also God’s demand for purity and purification.

The remainder of the Genesis 1-11 block is filled with genealogical information of the descendants of Noah moving out into the world. See the map at bible-history.com/maps/images/genesis_shem_ham_japheth.jpg ) I read somewhere (I need to take better notes!) that the narrative of Acts, intentionally or not, follows in reverse order the Table of Nations in showing how the Holy Spirit came to people around the ANE and eastern Roman Empire. Here, however, the genealogies include a narrowing of focus: to a particular family, that of Abram (Abraham).

The Abraham stories—which as I say is the crucial beginning of the biblical story—fill 12:1-25:18. I think I’ll take these notes through chapter 22. At the end of chapter 11 and into chapter 12 and following, we meet Abraham and his family, learn of God’s call and promise to the patriarch, and read of some of his adventures: his gaining of property during a sojourn in Egypt, during which he’s caught in a well-intentioned lie; his separation from his nephew Lot and his flock; his rescue of Lot during an intertribal conflict; and his meeting with the king of Salem, Melchizedek, who worships and serves the one God. This last story connects with the history of Jerusalem, which we’ll read about much later, and also with Jesus, who is praised by the author of Hebrews as a priest like Melchizedek.

There is ugliness and sorrow in the Abraham stories. The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is tragic (21:-34), though it gives the Lord a change to bless both son and mother. Hagar, in fact, has more of a role in praising and naming God than any woman in the narrative up to this point. We also have the narratives of Lot, of Sodom, and the incest perpetrated by Lot’s daughters. There is a subtle point in the narrative that the children of the daughters are ancestors of Moabites and Ammonites, two of Israel’s enemies in later centuries.

There is beauty, though, in the way Abraham openheartedly beseeches God to spare the city if there be a few righteous people to save. It is a classic story of how God may respond to prayers of intercession on behalf of persons about whom we care, for whom we hope for God’s compassion and help.

The Harper’s Bible Commentary (p. 99) notes that 20:1-22:24 are stories of the Elohist source (that makes use of the general name Elohim for God, rather than the sacred name YHWH, but is not the Priestly source which also uses Elohim). The commentator writes that the stories have the same structure: “God instructs Abraham to initiate a course of action that will involve mortal danger to another family member (Gen. 20:12; 21:12; 22:2); the patriarch obeys (20:1-2; 21:14; 22:3); the threatening situation is about to be realized (20:1, 18; 21:16; 22:9-10); and God intervenes to prevent the expected outcome (20:6-7, 17; 21:19-20; 22:11-13)” (p. 99). Little wonder that Abraham becomes the great paradigm of faith in three major world religions—the Abrahamic religions—because of the extraordinary commands of God and his extraordinary, often wordless and distressing obedience.

I remembered a post from a couple years ago on my now-seldom-updated “Changing Bibles” site: the Pentateuch, another name for the Torah or the first five biblical books, has interesting theological and textual issues, revealing contrasts of view points and challenging insights. Some of the issues pertain to Genesis’ relation to the other books: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-pentateuch.html

In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Parshah                  Torah                         Haftarah
Bereishit                Genesis 1:1-6:8         Isaiah 42:5-43:11 (Isaiah 42:5-42:21)
Noach                    Genesis 6:9-11:32     Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Isaiah 54:1-10)
Lekh Lekha           Genesis 12:1-17:27    Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Vayeira                  Genesis 18:1-22:24    II Kings 4:1-4:37 (II Kings 4:1-4:23)


Genesis 23-45

This week, we have the remaining chapters of Abraham and Sarah’s stories (23:1-25:18), the “Jacob cycle” (25:19-36:43), and the Joseph narrative, which is 37:1-50:26 but this week I’m stopping at the stories’ climax, chapter 45.

This is the end of Abraham’s stories, though the beginning of the long story of God’s promise to him. In 23:1-20, we read of the only part of the promised Land that Abraham actually owned by legal contract: the tomb and field where he will bury Sarah. Abraham and the Canaanite Ephron strike a deal, and there Sarah is buried, and eventually Abraham (25:1-18) and later Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. If I remember correctly, this is the last time we meet Ishmael in the story, when he joins Isaac in burying their father.

I remember reading in one of Brevard S. Childs’ Old Testament studies, that the paucity of Isaac stories raises the question of whether there once was a cycle of his stories as long as those of his father and son. I also remember reading, in Torah: A Modern Commentary, that Isaac seems passive in the stories: things happen to him, rather than him taking initiative. He goes along with the near-sacrifice in chapter 22, and with the selection of Rebekah in chapter 24, and is sadly victim to his son’s and wife’s scheming in chapter 27.

The long chapter 24 gives of the story of the wooing of Rebekah, where the servant of Abraham helps gain her as Isaac’s wife. We have a series of rich interconnections in these chapters. The Harper’s Bible Commentary author notes that chapter 24 is structured similarly as Abraham’s call in chapter 12, with the repeating of key words “bless” and “go,” and chapter 24 also forms a frame for the chapter 12 promise. Rebekah, after all, is essential for the promise and enters the family as Isaac’s wife. (Sadly compare the expulsion of Hagar in chapter 21 with the acceptance of Rebekah, though Ishmael’s descendants are provided a genealogy, 25:12-18). The initial “barrenness” of Rebekah (25:21) also provides a narrative connection back to Sarai/Sarah.

The Harper’s commentary points out other connections. Conflict and deception are themes through the Abraham stories and now both the Jacob and Joseph cycles—mostly familial strife, though Jacob contends with the mysterious challenger in 32:24-32, and we can remember Abraham’s verbal contention with God over the fate of Sodom in chapter 18. Not to mention, chapter 26 has the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and Abimelech, where (like his father’s two deceptions about Sarah) Isaac does not want it known that Rebekah is his wife, and in the meantime gains substantial property (again, similar to his father’s experience in chapter 12, and Jacob a bit later).

The fraternal twins Jacob and Esau have trouble right away, with Jacob pushing Esau to despise his birthright (chapter 25), and the more elaborate deception of chapter 27. The Harper’s commentary makes an interesting point: that the resourcefulness of Rebekah to ensure her son’s future is similar to the story of Moses’ mother in Exodus 2:1-10. There are other interesting connections, like Jacob’s outrage at Laban’s deception–he who was the deceiver has now been deceived—and Laban’s own deceptive advocacy of his daughter Leah, which echoes Rebekah’s advocacy of Jacob (chapter 29).

We can also make connections to the sacred place of Bethel, the site of Jacob’s dream of the ladder/stairway and God’s retelling to Jacob of the promise to Abraham. Bethel was an alternative sacred place (1 Kings 12:26-33, Amos 7:1-13) while Salem/Jerusalem (Genesis 14) became the city of the Temple and the southern kingdom. Another significant place for Jacob is the location in Genesis 32 where he wrestles… who? An angel? A human adversary? Although the sacred site is given the name Penuel, the more significant change is Jacob’s, who gains the name Israel, “one who contends with God.”

I always love the story of Jacob meeting Esau, because how many times have I anticipated something with deep dread but it turned out alright, and even very well! Sometimes it takes years for situations to work themselves out. Although many of us turn our troubles over to God, we always should remember that we may not get quick answers and easy solutions—but God does hear our prayers! Although Esau is used as a negative example in Hebrews 12, here he seems open and magnanimous toward his deceitful brother and welcomes him as a brother.  We learn of Esau’s descendants in chapter 36, and as the Harper commentary tells us, we find later references to those descendants (“Edom”) in 2 Sam. 8:14, 1 Kings 11:14-22, 2 Kings 8:20-33, and elsewhere.)

Jacob’s children were (with wife Leah), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Diana. With maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. With maidservant Ziplah: Gad and Asher. With wife Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. Of course, these sons became the founders of the tribes of Israel. I found an interesting site that considers the background of Jacob’s genealogy:
http://thetorah.com/how-the-israelite-family-was-put-together-the-twelve-sons-of-jacob/ The terrible story of Diana’s rape and her subsequent avenging connects to a later story of David’s daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel. I recommend the article “Women in Genesis” in the Harper’s commentary (pp. 116-118) that discusses the relationship of mothers and children in Genesis; contrasts the voiceless Diana with the resourceful Tamar and Rebekah; discusses the contrasting emotional situations of Leah and Rachel; points out that the rejected Hagar is given a theophany of God; notes the double standards that we find amid the Genesis stories (Lot sins, but only his wife is punished; both Abraham and Sarah laugh, but only Sarah is scolded for her laughter, etc.), and so on.

The stories of Joseph are so well known: we’ve read them in Sunday school and perhaps can sing along to the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical! They have several parts:

37:1-36, Joseph’s relationship with his brothers and father, his brothers’ cruel plan first to kill and then to sell Joseph, and his forced journey to Egypt.

39:1-30, Joseph’s first experience in Egypt and his unjust imprisonment.

40:1-41:-57,  Joseph gains favor as an interpreter of dreams and becomes a significant official in Pharaoh’s government, planning for the anticipated famine.

42:1-45:28, the wonderful stories of Joseph’s meeting with his brothers, their failure to recognize him,  the way Joseph “messes” with them for a while, and finally his tearful revelation of himself to them and their reconciliation.

Chapters 46-50 also deal with Jacob and Joseph and the brothers. I’ll read those chapters next week.

I love these Joseph stories in part because God is hardly mentioned in them—and I don’t mean that in a negative way. God does not appear in theophanies and miracles in these stories, but the providential guidance of God is assumed. To me, this is a very realistic narrative about ways God may work in our lives, though obviously with different life experiences than Joseph’s. We, too, experience painful times, suffer injustice, struggle through periods of difficulty but eventually we turn the corner from those periods into times of well-being again. We still have questions for God: why did I have to suffer so long in that situation, and why couldn’t God have shortened the pain (as Joseph languished in prison for two years)? But we rejoice when we do, indeed, see (often in hindsight) how God was guiding us all along.

I didn’t mean to skip the dark story of Judah and Tamar, which is inserted not the text (chapter 38) just as Joseph is being carried off to Egypt. Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah, loses her husband before she had children. By the laws and the customs of the time, the husband’s brother was obligated to impregnate her, but he withdrew before ejaculation—and shortly died! Again, according to the views of the time, semen was considered spiritually unclean outside the body, and he also had declined a serious obligation—for Tamar was a widow with no children, a bad situation in which to be. But Judah refused to offer her his remaining son, and so Tamar deceives Judah into impregnating her instead. There’s that theme of advantageous deception that we find throughout Genesis. Like Rebekah, Tamar has twins, Zerah and Perez.

My commentary points out that Judah’s first son and also these two sons become important tribes within the larger tribe of Judah—in fact, Judah is the primary surviving tribe following the Exile, and Perez is an ancestor of Jesus himself. Again, the strange providence of God amid very complicated, painfully human circumstances.


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Chayei Sarah          Genesis 23:1-25:18 I Kings1:1-1:31
Toldot                  Genesis 25:19-28:9 Malachi 1:1-2:7
Vayeitzei                  Genesis 28:10-32:3 Hosea 12:13-14:10 (Hosea 11:7-12:12)
Vayishlach          Genesis 32:4-36:43 Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Obadiah1:1-1:21)
Vayyeshev          Genesis 37:1-40:23 Amos 2:6-3:8
Miqeitz                  Genesis 41:1-44:17 I Kings 3:15-4:1
Vayigash                  Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28


Genesis 46-Exodus 18

This week, I’m finishing Genesis and covering Exodus 1-18, which brings us to the point where Moses and the people arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 19. These chapters from Exodus are among the most important in the entire Bible!

Genesis 45 is really the climax of the Joseph stories, where Joseph revealed himself to his brothers—-after he’d “messed” with them for a while—-and their reconciliation. The rest of Genesis, though, is important, too. In chapter 46, Jacob departs for Egypt, assured by God that God’s covenant will not be broken if he travels there (46:2-4). Jacob’s family accompany him. We had last seen Jacob at the beginning of the Joseph stories in chapter 37, and now we conclude his long story. My Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 1999) explains that Jacob had two periods of 17 years each with Joseph, the beginning of Joseph’s life and the end of Jacob’s 147-year lifetime (p. 93).

There is an interesting section (47:13-27) that I’d overlooked before: the fact that Joseph’s policies saved the lives of Egyptians but also enslaved them. This injustice sets the stage for Exodus, where a new Pharaoh in turn enslaved the Hebrews.

In chapters 48 and 49, Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons, and we have a long section of Jacob’s blessings and predictions for his sons. Christians have especially focused upon the words concerning Judah (49:8-10), understood to connect to Jesus. Who are the ancestral heads of the tribes of Israel?

Children of Jacob and Leah: Diana the daughter (not a tribal leader), and sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.

Sons of Jacob and Zilpah: Gad and Asher

Sons of Jacob and Bihah, Dan and Naphtali

Sons of Jacob and Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin

Sons of Joseph, adopted by Jacob: Ephraim and Manasseh.

Here (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-twelve-tribes-of-israel) is an interesting website that explains the tribes and the locations of their settlement after the conquests of Joshua. The Levites had no land because Moses set them apart for priestly duty (Leviticus 3:1-4). The idea of the “ten lost tribes,” which is not a biblical phrase per se, comes from 2 Kings 17:6, concerning the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom. The tribes of the southern kingdom, which survived the Babylonian exile, were Judah (which eventually included the tribe of Simeon), Benjamin, and also Levi.

Genesis wraps up in chapter 50, with Joseph mourning his father’s death, the preparation (via Egyptian embalming) of Jacob’s body, and his burial back at the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased. Joseph, not vengeful toward his brothers as they feared (50:15ff), returned to Egypt, where he lived till the age of 110.

Now we come to Exodus. Chapters 1-15 provides a block of material from the establishment of Hebrew enslavement to the song of liberation following the splitting of the sea. But Exodus 13-18 is also a block of material that depicts the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the wilderness to the foot of Mount Sinai.

Also, the narrative of Exodus-Joshua can be understood as a narrative (though with different traditions within it) from Egyptian slavery to the conquest of the Land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants. Of course, when you add Genesis to the front of this block, you have the whole story up till the conquest. The difference is that Genesis depicts the patriarchs within the land, more or less at harmony with the land’s peoples. God is less concerned about the holiness of the patriarchs than establishing with them promises and providential guidance. With Exodus and afterward, Israel’s story is focused upon the establishment of the the identity of Israel as a people—descendants not only of Abraham but of the Twelve Tribes—and as a people they journey, receive the covenant, are guided, punished, declared God’s holy people, and given victory as a people.

We skip over a lot of history in chapter 1: traditionally counted, the Hebrews were in Egypt over 400 years. Exodus begins with the familiar story of Moses’ salvation from the murderous fears of Pharaoh. The narratives of Jesus’ infancy draw upon these narratives. Once Moses is an adult, he witness the suffering of an Israelite and kills the bully, which caps the first third of his life and sends him into exile for the second third of his life. In chapters 3 and 4, he meets the God of his ancestors in the form of a theophany, a voice form the burning but unconsumed bush. This is the great revelation of God’s name YHWH, God who declares “I AM WHO I AM.” After giving God numerous reasons why he (Moses) shouldn’t take on the divine task, God sends him on his way.

The story continues:

Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh, who instead adds to the Israelites’ burdens. Moses beseeches God. (Chapter 5)

God reiterates his promise to God by the divine name.  Moses tries to encourage the people (unsuccessfully), and he and Aaron return to Pharaoh. We additionally learn of the family genealogy (Chapter 6).

Again, the brothers meet Pharaoh. Aaron’s rod turns into a serpent, “magic” that the Egyptian sorcerers likewise do, but their serpents are swallowed by Aaron’s. Yet Pharaoh’s heart is heartened. Next the river is turned to blood (Chapter 7).

More plagues: frogs, and then gnats and flies (Chapter 8). Pharaoh won’t relent, and more plagues happen: the death of livestock, boils, hail, and fire (Chapter 9). Pharaoh almost decides to release the Israelites when threatened by locusts, and then darkness covers Egypt (Chapter 10). God instructs the Israelites to borrow their neighbors’ silver and gold, and Moses threatens the king with the death of Egypt’s firstborn (chapter 11).

Chapter 12 and 13 establishes Pesach (Passover), the meaning of the rites, and the importance and meaning of the hoy day. The firstborn are killed, and the Israelites are at last released. God does not send them the straight way, where they would reach the land via Gaza, but an alternate way that would send them into what we call the Sinai peninsula. God guides them in pillars of cloud and fire.

In chapter 14, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, to the fearful response of the people. God instructs Moses, who raises his staff and the Sea splits, allowing the Israelites to pass through to safety, while the pursuing Egyptian forces are drowned as the waters return.

Chapter 15 contains what scholars consider one the oldest song of the Hebrew tradition: the song of Moses, Miriam, and Israel on their deliverance. The people set out into the wilderness, but “murmur” because they’re thirsty. God sweets the bitter water at Marah, but it is a temporary respite for the perennially unhappy Hebrews.

They make camp at Elim, a location with wells and palm trees, but when they proceed on, they murmur because they want bread. This is the famous story of the manna and the quails; God provides for them all the days of their journey with the sweet bread-like substance called “What is it?” (the meaning of the word “manna”) (chapter 16).

They travel on to a place called Rephidim, where they murmur for water again. God strikes the rock that in turn produces water for them, but the place is called Massah and Meribah (“test” and “quarrel”). In what is perhaps a Deuteronomistic insertion into the story, the Israelites fight Amalek and his forces, who are cursed by God (chapter 17).

In chapter 18, Moses is reunited with his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro gives Moses a good solution to the problem of the many people coming to Moses for help and decisions.

The Harper’s Bible Commentary author on Exodus—a professor I knew at University of Virginia years ago—points out that the pre-exilic community would have known the Exodus story via the J narrative (p. 131), which “presents the departure from Egypt as a continuation of the theme of the double promise made by Yahweh to the patriarchs. Israel is to be a great nation in a productive land” (p. 129). For the post exilic community of the Second Temple, the story would’ve been known through the P history, and thus would’ve taken comfort in the continuity of religion from the Mosaic times through the Sinai covenant down to that post exilic time (p. 131).

From that same book, I learned that Psalms 78 and 105 also refer to the plagues, although their order and number are different. While Exodus has the ten—blood, frogs, gnats, flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn—-Psalm 78 has blood, flies, frogs, locusts, hail, cattle and firstborn, while Psalm 105 has darkness, blood, frogs, flies, hail, locusts, and firstborn. Bible trivia!

We may think of the splitting of the sea as the movie-worthy climax of this overall story, with the covenant and Ten Commandments an important addendum. Actually the covenant is the great event toward which these great stories move. God is Savior (Rescuer) but God is also a covenant-maker. He has created and rescued the Israelites in order to establish a holy, eternal agreement with them—a partnership, if you will, for the sake of the world.

If you’re a Christian, and if I asked you what is the most important event in the whole Bible, you might say Jesus’ death and resurrection (or the interrelated passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost gift of the Spirit). But the Exodus is not only the focal event of the whole Old Testament, but it is the “model” on which the New Testament narratives and theologies of our salvation are based!  I write more about this on another blog: https://bibleconnections.wordpress.com/the-exodus-and-our-faith/

The site “My Jewish Learning” has a wonderful essay on the significance of the Exodus for Jews as well as all humankind: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-exodus-effect/

The Jewish Study Bible contains these insights: “Many of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Judaism are rooted in Exodus. The first of the book’s two central events, the exodus itself, is recounted daily in Jewish prayers, It and the other central event, the proclamation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, are celebrated and retold on Jewish festivals [Pesah and Shavuot] ever year” (p. 106). The author goes on to say that the covenant, the Jewish way of life, the encounter of the people with God at Sinai, the Sabbath, and other aspects of Exodus are foundational for Judaism (p. 106-107). In our own time, the movement of Jews to Palestine echoed for many the Exodus journey of the Israelites (p. 107). The exodus has also captured the imagination of Gentiles, especially the image of Moses leading people to freedom. The early British settlers of North America had that image in mind, as did African Americans seeking to gain their freedom (p. 107).

It’s also worth noting a couple more connections to the New Testament. The Pascal lamb is connected to Jesus (Ex. 12:11, 1 Cor. 5:7), and (in next week’s readings), the ratification of the covenant (Ex. 24:3-8) is connected to the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25).


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Vayigash                           Genesis 44:18-47:27       Ezekiel 37:15-37:28
Vayechi                             Genesis 47:28-50:26     I Kings 2:1-12
Shemot                              Exodus 1:1-6:1             Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-29:23 (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
Va’eira                               Exodus 6:2-9:35           Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Bo                                      Exodus 10:1-13:16      Jeremiah 46:13-46:28
Beshalach                         Exodus 13:17-17:16     Judges 4:4-5:31 (Judges 5:1-5:31)
(Shabbat Shirah)
Yitro                                  Exodus 18:1-20:23         Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6 (Isaiah 6:1-6:13)

Read Full Post »