This is part three of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…”
The first five books of the Bible are collectively known as the Books of Moses, the Pentateuch (five books), and the Torah. Torah is typically translated as “law” but it also means “teaching” or “instruction.” Together they set out the Covenant of Moses – a sort of treaty or contract by which God established Israel both as a tribal nation-state and as a cultural-religious identity. The Ancient Near Eastern covenant treaty literary format is found both at the macro-level, spanning all five books, and the micro-level, found within multiple books, especially Exodus and Deuteronomy.
The literary components of a covenant treaty are: 1) prologue or backstory, 2) the giving of stipulations, 3) swearing upon witnesses, 4) a document clause, and 5) blessings and curses.
The book of Genesis functions as the prologue or backstory, setting the scene for the giving of the covenant in the book of Exodus. Genesis has already been addressed in Part Two.
The book of Exodus, so named because the exodus from Egypt is the central event described in the book, divides roughly in half; the first 19 chapters providing the historical narrative leading up to the giving of the covenant on Mount Sinai. The remaining chapters describe the initial giving, breaking, and reissuing of the covenant, especially centered around the Decalogue (or ten commandments) given to Moses and the people written by God’s own hand. The final chapters of Exodus describe the design and craft of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tent (or Tabernacle) of Meeting, wherein God would dwell among his people, and the Old Covenant worship would be centered.
The book of Leviticus is exclusively made up of laws and commands. It, too, divides roughly in half dealing first mostly with religious ceremonial laws, and second mostly with civil laws. It is from that early emphasis with the Levitical priesthood and its regulations that the book derives its name, Leviticus. If it weren’t for the interspersing of various moral laws along the way, this book would be functionally obsolete for Christians in light of the New Covenant made by Christ Jesus. As it is, the majority of its chapters are instructive primarily for Old Covenant ritual and their foreshadowing of Christ and his sacrifice.
The book of Numbers begins and ends with a lot of numbers: a census is taken early in the 40-year desert wanderings of Israel, and another taken towards its end. Counting the people of Israel, particularly the men of fighting age, was part of the preparation to move in to the Promised Land. The majority of the book in the middle, however, is a series of stories and events that take place during most of the 40-year period between the exodus from Egypt and the entrance into the Promised Land, resulting in a number of “hidden gems” – valuable and instructive stories that the casual reader misses after getting bogged down in the census records and skipping the rest of the book.
Deuteronomy is a Greek compound word: duetero means “second” and nomos means “law” or Torah. Thus the book of Deuteronomy is about the second giving of the Law or Covenant of Moses. It’s a summary of what has happened and been taught in the previous three books, rolled up into one book. There are multiple angles from which this book has been understood: some see it as a “pious forgery”, written centuries later for King Hezekiah when he was restoring Judah to orthodoxy, some see it as a series of addresses or sermons given by Moses at the end of his life, and others see it as formal covenant treaty document as it recapitulates all five literary ingredients of that writing style. In any case, its emphasis on summing up the Torah makes Deuteronomy a good book to study instead if Leviticus and Numbers prove difficult to get through.
On their own, the books of the Torah can be difficult for the novice reader to make sense of, especially in terms of discerning the types of law and instruction that either find their fulfillment in Christ and thus no longer bind us versus those that are morally applicable to all for all time. Despite these challenges, these are important books to read before proceeding through the rest of the Old Testament; all the other books, especially the Prophets, appeal back to the Torah as the foundation of their religious worldview. The historical books show how God’s people did and did not obey the Torah, the poetry shows how the Torah was expressed religiously, the Prophets preached and applied the Torah to the people in their own ministry contexts.
The New Testament writings, also, look back upon the Torah with a particular interest. It is most important for the Christian to understand who Jesus is, which is why we began with the Gospel of Saint Mark, but to proceed much deeper into the Scriptures, familiarity with the Torah is of great importance.