Pentateuch (part 2) – To the Promised Land
Last week James took us through Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch; which gives us 4 books to gallop through today: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
It’s not as bad as it sounds though because they are all dealing with the same period, the rescue from slavery in Egypt and the wanderings in the desert.
There are 4 themes in these books.
- One of them is the exodus, a theme which recurs throughout the Bible, the great saving act of God to which all later generations look back with thanksgiving.
- Then, there is the recognition that God has chosen the Israelites.
We heard it in genesis in God’s words to Abraham and it comes again in Exodus when Moses is commissioned to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
He is told to tell them that God has said “I will take you as my own people, I will be your God, I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.”
- Next we have the covenant between God and his people.
A covenant to the people then was something which united people in a mutual relationship, much as in a marriage contract.
This covenant was initiated by God and it made moral and ritual demands on the people.
- Last of all there is the Law, particularly the 10 commandments in Exodus 20 but others expanding on them in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
So let’s look at these books in detail.
- Exodus… its title tells us what it’s about- the exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The first 9 chapters are pretty familiar to us, Moses in the bulrushes, Moses as an adult meeting with God in the burning bush and receiving the commission to demand freedom for the Israelites and then to lead them to the land which God has prepared for them. We know about the plagues which the Egyptians suffered because of Pharaoh’s obstinacy, culminating in the death of the Egyptians’ first born and the passing over of the Israelites by the angel of death.
Then there was the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea and the wanderings in the wilderness began. There was a lot of grumbling about the conditions but God provided food and water for them. The next 20 chapters are about God’s law for the Israelites, his covenant with them and the setting up of the tabernacle, a tent shrine for God.
- The famous 10 Commandments are in chapter 20.
The first 4 of them are about man’s relationship with God and the other 6 our relationship with one another.
- The laws that follow in the rest of Exodus are expanding on the 10 Commandments. They give general instructions about worship, and about civil law and instructions for keeping the 3 main feasts: the feasts of unleavened bread combined with Passover, the feast of first fruits and the harvest festival (which became known as Pentecost because it followed 50 days after the feast of first fruits).
Passover is the meal which Jesus had with his disciple immediately before his arrest, the one we call the Last supper.
- Finally there were God’s promises to his people and the instructions for making the tabernacle. It was a tent shrine which the people would carry with them, a visible sign of God’s presence, that God was with them wherever they went, not confined to one locality. If you want to read a passage of pure delight, read chapters 25-28, which are the descriptions of how the tabernacle is to be made and furnished and the robes the priests are to wear.
Moses read the covenant to the people and they responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said, we will obey.” Yet, sadly, in no time, when Moses was absent spending time with God, they became dissatisfied and with Aaron made a golden calf to worship, a major sin for which God forgave them.
- Next, we have Leviticus… It’s a book of laws for the Levites, the priests, but it’s not laws for the sake of it: the laws are to help the people keep the covenant with God. There’s a lot of emphasis on sacrifices and the ritual about that. Animal sacrifice is pretty alien to our thinking but the daily sacrifices were a reminder to the people of the sinfulness which cuts men off from God, sinfulness which should result in death, but because god is merciful, he accepts a substitute as a token of men’s repentance. It’s a forerunner of course of what we believe about the willing death of Jesus, that his sacrifice as the lamb removes the sentence of death from us.
- A whole section of the book is about hygiene rules and instructions for daily living. We can understand the principles behind the rules about diet, hygiene and medicine, the animals which should not be eaten, the instances of isolation and quarantine for various ailments. The Israelites had to accept the rules without understanding why, but God was working within the principles of the world he had created.
- Then we have further elaboration about the feasts, followed by instructions about keeping the Sabbath and also for the Jubilee year when on every 50th year, slaves were to be freed, mortgages were to be cancelled and people had a fresh start.
- The book of Numbers starts off with exactly what you’d expect – numbers. It’s a census of all the men eligible to fight, set out according to their tribe, and all the offerings for the dedication of the altar made by the different tribes.
At the dedication of the altar God gave them a blessing with which we’re very familiar. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
- The Israelites began to move on from Sinai and continue on their journey. All the time God was with them . The visible sign of his presence was a cloud above the tabernacle by day and fire above it by night.
- Throughout this time there were constant grumblings and disobedience to God. It’s a continuous cycle of sinning, disaster, turning back to God and forgiveness.
There’s one notable passage in chapter 21 which John refers to in his gospel. The Israelites were plagued by poisonous snakes, they turned to God and when Moses prayed for them he was told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, anyone who was bitten by a snake was to look up to the bronze snake and would be healed. John writes, “even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of God be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
- As they came nearer to the promised land a scouting party which included Joshua was sent out to report on the land they were heading for, but as a result of all the disobedience and sinning, out of the generations which left Egypt, only Moses Joshua and Caleb survive to the end of the book, and only Joshua and Caleb were to enjoy the promised land. Joshua was to carry on the leadership.
- Now we come to Deuteronomy. It’s name means 2nd law giving but in fact it’s a restatement of the Sinai covenant and a development of its principles.
- Moses gives 3 addresses.
- First he recaps the past, all that God has done for them, how he rescued them from Egypt and is bringing them to the land he has promised.
- Next he reminds them of all the laws, reminding them that the covenant has 2 parties, God and them. It’s a covenant born out of |God’s love for his people but it requires his people to keep his laws. He commands them to love and follow God, obedience will bring blessings, disobedience curses.
- Moses is coming to the end of his life and he knows that he will not enter the promised land. Finally as they come in sight of the promised land, Moses commissions Joshua to take over the leadership and says to the Israelites “Be strong and of a good courage for the Lord your God is with you.”
So we have the 4 themes: exodus, a chosen people, the Law and the Covenant, all interwoven and repeated.
What is there for us?
- A reminder that we are dependant on God just as the Israelites were in the wilderness, we can do nothing in our own strength.
- Next God will equip us for whatever task we are called to. Moses was a most reluctant leader: I can’t do it; I can’t speak well; please send someone else.
God’s response was, “I will be with you.”
- Then we need to acknowledge that our relationship with God depends on our keeping our side of the covenant.
We don’t have to earn God’s love, it’s freely given but we live under his will. It’s no good us praying, “Your will be done, your kingdom come,” unless we wholeheartedly are doing our part to bring that about.
- Lastly there is the reminder that we should give thanks for all that God has done for us, the answered prayers, the unexpected blessings.
Talk given by Joy Kiley on Sunday 21st June 2015