Chapter 7: A Book of Biblical Proportions. 3, Torah

A Jewish Book

First century Christians taught that Christ is the mystery of God now revealed (Col. 1:26, 2:2); all the promises of God in the previous centuries find their fruition in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). But the people of that time were closer to those previous centuries than we are! We’re likely to feel less connection to the promises and purposes of God as recorded in the Old Testament.

A Jewish friend finds the New Testament very unlike the Tanakh (the Jewish term for the scriptures). That’s a point most of us Christians miss, because we’re accustomed to the two testaments being adjacent and related.  We assume that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, whereas, for Jews, a good deal of the New seems foreign to concerns of Judaism, especially passages that seem to repudiate the Torah and denigrate Moses. Not only that, but the New Testament seems addressed to Gentiles rather than to Jews and is, indeed, very hostile and dismissive of Jews and Judaism; even the most positive passages about Judaism (Rom. 11:11-32) would not seem so to Jews.[1] So how can anti-Jewish writings be self-evidently scripture to Jews?  Certainly Christians through time have harbored prejudices and hatred toward Jews based on the content of the New Testament.

A Bible explorer should be sensitive to these facts.  While we read the Old Testament in connection with the New, the Old can also be read in very different ways as a diversity of different witnesses. The New Testaments arises out of the experience of the risen Lord Jesus, but for those who do not see evidence of his lordship in the world,[2] the New Testament seems a radical reading of the Old. The New Testament, though, is not something brand new; in fact, its special witness was shaped and verified by the divine authority of the Jewish scriptures. (Recall that verse I discussed earlier, 2 Timothy 3:16-17. If you take the verse literally, and if you assume Pauline authorship of that letter, the verse was actually referring to the Old Testament.) So we need a suitably respectful view of the Spirit’s witness through the Old Testament.

I think that the Christian aversion to Judaism is a bit like new members of an organization who, once they’ve been included in the fellowship, now think they own the place and consider the former members foolish. One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity originates from the Old Testament. (Major exceptions include the Eucharistic consumption of blood, very contrary to Torah kashrut teachings, and the Cross, a Gentile way of killing people. But early Christians affirmed that even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scriptures, e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). We find foundational ideas right away, in the Torah.


The Torah has five books.

Genesis takes us from the Creation to the death of Joseph. Along the way, we read the familiar stories of the first generations of humans, the call and covenant of Abraham, the stories of his descendants, and the emigration of Jacob’s family to Egypt.

Exodus explains the Israelite slavery, the call and ministry of Moses, the Passover and Exodus, the entry into the wilderness, the Sinai covenant, and the creation of the Tabernacle.

Leviticus contains numerous laws: laws of sacrifice, the consecration of priests, laws of holiness, kashrut (kosher), purification, holy days, and atonement, among others.

Numbers continues the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness. The people travel from Sinai to Moab but fail to believe the counsel of Joshua and Caleb concerning the inhabitants of the Land. God punishes their rebellion by forbidding that generation from entering the Land. Thirty-eight years passes between chapters 19 and 20, and Moses himself is forbidden from entering the Land as well.

Deuteronomy concludes the Torah’s long story in the fortieth wilderness year as Moses addresses the people in two discourses (1:6-4:40 and 5:1-26:19). Moses reiterates the law (the name of the book means “second law”) and reminds the people of the necessity of faithfulness to God. After speaking his parting words, Moses dies and is buried.

It’s a shame that we tend to disconnect portions of the Bible from other sections. For instance, we tend to isolate Genesis 1-2 when we think about God’s creation. But the stories of creation connect with the beginning and spread of human sin and God’s plan of salvation. Genesis 1 connects with the Jewish Sabbath, which, as I considered in chapter 5, is a sign of God’s covenant with Israel (Ex. 32:12-17). In turn, Genesis 1-11 can’t be set apart as separate stories, for those chapters are necessary for understand how the story of humankind has a “twist” that alters everything else: God’s great call to Abraham.

I love reading Genesis. The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants always seem like small gospels, in the sense of the “good news” of God’s favor and blessing to people who, though deeply flawed, respond in faith to God’s unmerited grace. But I can’t isolate the book from Exodus 1-15, for everything is necessary for understanding who the people of Israel are and why they are in Egypt. So in Exodus we find more stories of God’s history of his people: the reasons for Israelite slavery, the story of Moses, the liberation of the people, their deliverance across the Red Sea, and the beginning of Moses’ long leadership of the people in the wilderness as they approach the Promised Land.  So the basic story forms a long “arc” from creation to God’s great work in the exodus and the parting of the sea.

But the Exodus, movie-worthy as it is, isn’t just the climax of a drama!  In fact, it’s a beginning that marks a turning point, the great event by which God creates his people. Interestingly, the prophets do not evoke Abraham and his covenant but instead evoke the Exodus as the great event by which God established his covenant people (e.g., as Anderson and Childs respectively point out, Amos 2:10, 9:7, Hosea 2:15, 11:1, 13:4, Isa. 43:16-21, 51:9-11, Ez. 2:5-6, 20:33-44, and also Deut. 5:6, 6:20ff, 26:5ff, Psalm 78, 81, 95, 105, 106, as well as the allusion in Joshua 3:1ff, and later in Neh. 9:6ff, Daniel 9:15, 2 Chr. 7:22, and also references to the plagues and rebellions in Psalm 78, 95, 105, 106, and in Wisdom of Sol. 16 and Sirach 45:1ff.[3]

This connection of the exodus and subsequent history is possible because the exodus and the covenant of Sinai are connected, as in Ex. 19:3-6.[4] As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experience earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.”[5] In Exodus 24, which binds two traditions (verses 1-2 and 9-11, and 3-8), the covenant is ratified between God and the people. But the covenant, too, can be tied back to creation. Scholars note that the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people.[6] Not only that, but the covenant and law comprise a new “Eden” in which the people can live, close to God.[7]

The material from the 10 Commandments on is not just a collection of statutes. The Israelites’ story continues and if you’re tenacious, you notice things. In the middle of Leviticus, you encounter a family tragedy: Aaron’s two sons are killed by God’s fire. Later on, in Numbers 16, you find the story of Korah’s rebellion, which resulted in casualties—inflicted by God—greater than the bloodiest Civil War battles, if you take the biblical statistics literally.  Also in Numbers, Moses is forbidden to enter the land; and he loses his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, who have shared the journey. Reading hastily through this material, we’re liable to miss the poignancy of Moses’ circumstance.

If you read this material closely, you notice certain “story arcs.” Exodus 29, which concerns priestly ordination, connects to Leviticus 8-9. The covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. The laws of Leviticus connect back to the events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24.[8] The stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14 connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness (which is not recorded but which happens between the end of the story at Numbers 17:13 and the beginning of Numbers 20. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel.

Finally, in Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long farewell message, instructing the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments.  With the death of Moses at the end, we conclude this most part of the Scriptures that faithful Jews hold most precious.  But the death of Moses is not the end, for Deuteronomy looks to the future. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).

Deuteronomy circles back even further, toward the beginning.  “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the “priestly source” which was the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships.[9]

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).[10]

Israel has made no distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws: all are of a piece, although today, many of the ceremonial laws are obsolete because there is no temple or priesthood in Judaism. 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.[11] 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).

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)[12]
  • 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).

Link to next section


[1] Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[2] In terms of Jews and Christians, for instance, Maurice Friedman puts the matter well: “The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world”: in Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960), 279.

[3] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (third edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Childs, Biblical Theology, 131.

[4] Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 53-54.

[5] Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 82-83.

[6] Childs, Biblical Theology, 112, where he notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

[7] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 37.

[8] Childs, Old Testament Theology, 53.

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

[10] The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 513-592 and passim; and William J. Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (New York: 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), and the Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers). Doorly calls attention to the reform of Judahite religion during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC), when the book of the law was discovered in the temple and then the keeping of the law was enjoined (2 Kings 22-23). After Josiah’s tragic death, soon followed by the fall of Jerusalem, the work of preserving and editing the laws continued during the exile.  Scholars believe that the law discovered in the temple comprised at least part of the Deuteronomic Law Code.

Doorly notes that the Levitical priests, connected historically to the Shechem/Shiloh area in the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC), are associated with “the Deuteronomic circle,” but meanwhile the Aaronic (or Zadokite) priests associated with the temple also compiled laws (p. 4-5). During and after the exile, laws were preserved by both groups and eventually edited into what we now know as the Torah or Pentateuch.

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) (7-9).

The Deuteronomic Code, much longer than the Book of the Covenant, 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 (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 (32-33).

The Holiness Code contains laws about the slaughter of animals, sexual taboos, priests, several annual festivals, sabbatical years and jubilee years, and others.  Doorly believes that this code was a pre-exilic stroll intended for education of Judahites, separate from the Priestly Code (49).

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) (65).  This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly points out 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 (72-73).

[11] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible, 159.

[12] Here is some additional history of the ancient priesthood (see note 18 above). 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. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 145-150, 152-153.


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