I can officially cross an important item off of my bucket list: I’ve read the first five books of the Bible!
To be completely honest, I didn’t read them, I listened to them. But it’s my list and I’ll lie if I want to.
As I mentioned in Impartial? a few weeks ago, I’ve begun listening to the Bible on my iPhone – thanks to the YouVersion Holy Bible app, which is equipped with audio versions of several translations of the Word.
And after zipping through Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings in recent weeks, I thought I’d go backward before going further on and listen to the books that started it all – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – known to Jewish readers as the Torah, or as I like to call them, GenExLevNumDeut. (I’ve since also tuned in to Joshua and am now about halfway through Job.)
I’d tried to tackle the Torah before, y’see. Like many an enthusiastic newcomer, I’ve attempted to read the Bible like any other book, from Page 1 to Page 1134, cover to cover. Most people get derailed when they hit Leviticus, but as I’ve confessed before, I couldn’t even get through Exodus. (Too much like a novelization of a Charlton Heston movie for my tastes…)
I’d end up reading the same passage over and over, and forget where I was and lose interest – because the ancient writing style is quite repetitive and provides chapters and chapters on genealogy and construction instructions, but only a few words here or there on pivotal moments in the narrative.
So I gave up.
But as a listener, rather than a reader, I’m able to let the less interesting bits flow by without trying to retain them, and then tune in more fully when the actual storyline continues – confident I haven’t missed much along the way.
Thus, I stand before you today – a man considerably more well-versed in the Torah than I was a month ago – particularly LevNumDeut. (For today’s discussion, let’s exclude GenEx – in much the same way that discussions on popular culture, we can exclude Gen-X without missing much.)
Here are a few impressions:
1. It’s more interesting than I thought.
I’ve always thought of LevNumDeut as a list of begats, do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts). And for the most part, it is. But a good fifth of the text tells the story of the Children of Israel wandering in the desert, after they left Egypt but before they entered the Promised Land. The Anglican Church lectionary touches on some of the high points, but there’s something to be said for hearing it all, in order – even if you have to sit through the rules and regulations to get to the ‘good stuff.’
2. It’s even more prescriptive than I thought.
Precise detail on burnt offerings, thank offerings, wave offering and sin offerings – to name a few – are provided. Moreover, pretty much anything that a Bronze Age near-easterner wandering around in the desert for 40 years could do or fail to do; anything that could happen to you – every activity and occurrence that was available to God’s People of That Day – is covered in the Torah, with specific instructions on what to do and what not to do, as well as what should happen to you if you do it anyway. And as near as I can tell, God’s People of This Day disregard pretty much all of it. (I was a goody two-shoes in high school, and I’d have been stoned to death before my 15th birthday if I were held to Torahnical standards. And so would you.) The text even stipulates very clearly when and how Israelites should rejoice – and there’s an implied threat that if they failed to celebrate at the proper times in the proper ways, according to God’s precise specifications, they could face serious consequences. It reminds me a bit of an old-west villain commanding an unwitting tenderfoot to ‘Dance!’ while the gunslinger empties his pistol toward the other man’s feet. (As I’ve said before, blasphemy is a blast for me.)
3. God meant business back then.
- When two of Aaron’s sons made an unauthorized offering to the Lord, God killed them on the spot! (Leviticus 10:1-2) No spontaneous worship allowed?!? Gulp…
- When the Children of Israel balked at the idea of trying to take the Promised Land from its powerful-looking occupants and pondered the notion of returning to Egypt, God threatened to wipe them out with a plague (Numbers 13-14). Yes, they should have trusted Him, but that seems a little extreme for the God of Infinite Patience, doesn’t it?
- Similarly, when God tells Moses to speak to a rock in order to bring water from it, Moses loses his cool for a minute and smacks the stone with his staff. For that seemingly (to me) minor outburst – one of very few times Moses doesn’t toe the line flawlessly, it should be noted – the überprophet is denied entry into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:7-13).
That last one really makes me squirm.
I had to go back and re-hear the passage a couple of times to see where Moses went off-track – the difference between speaking to the rock and striking it is what kept him from the Promised Land.
Seems like a pretty minute detail to me – when my kids stray from my instructions a bit, but still get the job done, I don’t usually even mention it to them, and I’m a nitpicking nag! And for my own part, I’m no stranger to venting frustration with a bit of violence toward an inanimate object, so I feel for poor Moses here. (Maybe there’s a lesson in there that these little outbursts do more harm than I think they do.) Still, God’s reaction seems like an eye for an eyelash to me.
Elsewhere in the Bible – even the Old Testament – God doesn’t seem as hung up on details with His people as He does in LevNumDeut. To wit …
- Abraham fears that the truth will bring him harm, so he tells powerful men that sexy Sarah is his sister, not wife – and stands idly by as they take her into their harems! God doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
- Abraham and Sarah give up on God’s plan to deliver them an Isaac and instead go their own way and make an Ishmael. God rebukes them, but no punishment occurs.
- Jacob … Don’t even get me started.
- David suffers because of the colossal sin that is the Bathsheba-related adultery and murder, but not as severely as Aaron’s poor sons – and for far less serious infractions (from an earthly perspective). Indeed, David’s punishment seems like an eyelash for an eye to me.
- How many times between the dawn of Joshua and the dusk of 2 Kings do the Children of Israel break the First Commandment and worship Baal and Asherah? Granted, God eventually responds with the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities – but there’s a measure of love and rebuke in these experiences that temper the wrath. In LevNumDeut, the wrath seems uncharacteristically unfiltered.
I wonder why…
I don’t have any real insights to share, but if you do, feel free to let ’em fly. I’m all ears.
But thankfully, I don’t really need to know.
I can sit here in my comfortable chair on this side of the Cross and ponder the Torah in safety, as a largely academic exercise.
That’s because I live in an age where the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Himself, has established a New Covenant that has fulfilled the Law of Moses and fully satisfies the wrath of God, leaving room only for God’s love for me – and my response to it.
A small part of that response is getting to know God a little better by studying the first five books of His story – rather than relying on Cecil B. DeMille’s account. So if you haven’t taken a walk through the Torah, I highly recommend it.
And as you do, be grateful that while the Torah was God’s first word to His people, it wasn’t His last.
Peace be with you.