The Old Testament puts off many Christians. It seems long and difficult to understand at times. Further, since Jesus fulfilled much of the Old Testament (think, for instance, of sacrifices1), many sections of the Old Testament seem irrelevant to us.
But let’s remember that Jesus told his followers that all the Scriptures (by which he meant what we call the Old Testament) anticipated his coming. For example, after his resurrection, he spoke to two confused disciples and showed them “beginning with Moses [another way to refer to the Law] and all the Prophets . . . what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (luke 24:27).
If we want to know about Jesus fully, we can’t ignore the beginning of the story. The books of the law or, as Jewish tradition has it, the Torah, are the opening scenes and events of the story of Jesus. As we turn to the five books of the Torah, we will see that law has a very broad meaning. While it does contain many commandments, Law as it refers to the first five books of the Bible has the more general sense of instruction. The Torah does contain laws (most famously the Ten Commandments), but these five books instruct us about God and our relationship with him largely through recounting stories about how he created the world, how humans rebelled against him, and how he passionately pursues restoration with his wayward creatures.
When we open the Bible and start from the beginning, we find the book of Genesis, which appropriately means “beginning.” But what many modern readers don’t realize is that Genesis is not really the first book, it is the first part of the first book of the Bible. In other words, the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is really a single book that has been divided into five parts. That is why the Torah is sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, or five scrolls. This one composition was divided into five parts because an ancient scroll could not hold the entire story.
Sitting down to read Genesis through Deuteronomy is like opening a book to where the plot begins and we are introduced to new characters and situations. The stories in these chapters help us understand later parts of the Bible. We wouldn’t pick up an exciting new novel and start reading in the middle or near the end. (Okay, sometimes we cheat and read the end of an exciting mystery, but then that spoils the anticipation.) We start at the beginning2 in order to understand the story and really appreciate the ending.
The purpose of this booklet is to orient us to get the most out of reading the Torah and to appreciate how it fits into the message of the whole Bible. We will begin by identifying its main message and showing how the story presents that message. We’ll sketch an overview of the plot as we move from the beginning (creation) to the end (the death of Moses). And we’ll see that one of the central features of the Torah story is God giving Israel his law.
Christians often wonder how we are to understand the role of law, not just in the life of ancient Israel but also in our own lives, so we will give special consideration to that question. Finally, we will see how the Torah fits in with the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, looking at the question: How does the Torah anticipate Jesus and the gospel?
What Is the Main Message of the Torah?
True, but from what?
The Torah starts from creation to tell us about God and our relationship with him. We learn that God created humans to live in intimate fellowship with him, but we rebelled against him and he judges us for our sin. Even so, God did not give up on humanity. He pursues us passionately to restore relationship with him. The Torah even anticipates God’s ultimate reconciliation of his people.
Let’s start from the beginning of the Torah to see how this story of creation, sin, redemption, and reconciliation develops as we move from Genesis through Deuteronomy.
Genesis is indeed a book of beginnings. Here we learn about the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of human sin, the beginning of redemption, and the beginning of Israel.
Genesis opens with two accounts of creation (1:1–2:4a; 2:4b–25). The first account focuses on the creation of the cosmos in seven days. For our purposes, we do not have to get hung up on whether this describes creation in a literal seven-day period or whether the language is figurative. There is no doubt about the fact that the first creation account proclaims that the God of the Bible is the one who created everything! Nothing exists and no one is alive apart from God’s creative activity. The second creation account makes the same point, but here the focus is on the creation of human beings (2:4b–25).
The message of both creation accounts is that God created the cosmos and humans in a blessed condition (genesis 1:22, 28). As described particularly in Genesis 2, this blessing meant there was harmony between God and Adam and Eve, between Adam and Eve, and between Adam and Eve and the world in which they lived. Humans, as created, were morally innocent and capable of choice.
The next episode explains why, though God created everything and everyone in a blessed condition, we experience a world full of evil, pain, and suffering. In Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God reveals why the condition of our current world isn’t the result of God’s creation, but is our responsibility. In a word, we all rebel against God, starting with Adam and Eve in the garden. As the New Testament writer Paul later points out, the original human rebellion against God introduced sin and death into the world (romans 5:12–21). The result of sin meant that we no longer live lives blessed with harmony in our relationship with God, with each other, or with creation itself.
Even so—and here is the exciting message of the rest of the Pentateuch, indeed of the rest of the Bible—God did not destroy his human creatures nor did he simply abandon them.3 Instead he passionately pursues us in order to redeem and bring us back into relationship with him. He wants to bless us once again, so we can live in harmony with him and enjoy flourishing lives.
The first part of Genesis (chaps. 4–11) describes how humans kept sinning against God (think of it, Cain murdered Abel [4:1–16]), eventually “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5), and humans attempted to build a tower “that reaches to the heavens” (11:4). But as you read Genesis, you’ll see that God’s response to sin is never restricted to only judgment. Each and every time God judges sinners he also extends grace. For example, in 4:15 he puts a “mark” on Cain to preserve him from violence, and in 6:22–7:5 he tells Noah to build an ark, and in chapter 10 he allows humans to continue to communicate through diverse languages and continues to pursue reconciliation.
It’s with this background we are to understand an important chapter in God’s story. It’s the momentous call of Abram, who later is called Abraham:
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (12:1–3).
God’s call to Abraham is important because it helps explain much of the rest of the Bible. In response to Abraham’s act of faith, God promised to make him a great nation. This meant Abraham would have many descendants who lived on land they called their own. Not only that, but God would bless him and his descendants and “all the peoples of the earth.” Adam and Eve were blessed in the garden, but they lost that blessing because of their rebellion. God promised to restore that blessing through the promises to Abraham!
Abraham obeyed God’s instruction to go to the land, but the promises did not come to fulfillment immediately. Far from it! Abraham was a pilgrim in the land, and he and Sarah did not have a child for many, many years. For his descendants to be a great nation, he had to start with at least one son!
That Abraham and Sarah did not have a child became a test of faith as they got older and older. How did Abraham respond to threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of the promises? Honestly? Not so well.
He didn’t trust God to take care of him when he fled to Egypt to avoid a famine. He lied about Sarah in order to save his own skin (genesis 12:10–20), and he showed he hadn’t matured much in his faith when he lied about her again many years later (genesis 20).
Occasionally, he responded with faith and not fear (see chap. 13), but it wasn’t until after the birth of Isaac when Abraham was one hundred years old (21:1–6) that he showed real and utter faith in God. We see this when he is willing to trust God’s promise and follow God’s command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice even though Isaac is the only son born to Abraham and Sarah (genesis 22). The story of Abraham encourages us because, like him, we struggle with our faith in the promises of God. In Abraham’s story we see that God stays faithful to those of us who deal with doubt.
Abraham is a pivotal figure in the biblical story of redemption. He was the recipient of the promise that God would make his descendants a “great nation,” and that God would bless him, his descendants, and even “all peoples on earth.” While the birth of Isaac shows God’s commitment to honor his promises, it is only the beginning. Once Abraham died, the promises passed on to Isaac (not his half-brother Ishmael),4 and then when Isaac died, Jacob (and not his twin brother Esau) was the one to whom the promises came. To be the chosen heir of the promises did not mean a pampered life. Far from it! Isaac and Jacob’s lives were filled with struggle, disappointment, and pain. Despite this, and sometimes through it, they were used to bring blessing to others (including Ishmael and Esau and the people who came from them).
Joseph’s Place in God’s Story
The final story of Genesis focuses on Joseph, the youngest and favorite son of Jacob (chaps. 37–50). For a variety of reasons, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him as a slave, and he was taken to Egypt. But God was with Joseph, and everywhere he went, prosperity followed. Even so, he was framed for rape and thrown in prison. In prison, he met two high-level Egyptian officials whose dreams he interpreted. His reputation as a dream interpreter eventually landed him in front of Pharaoh, whose dreams revealed a horrible famine would hit the region.
Put in authority, Joseph prepared Egypt for the famine. Meanwhile, in the Promised Land, Jacob and his other sons had no food. So, to survive, the brothers traveled to Egypt. Of course, Joseph did not trust them, and so he hid his identity and tested them to see if they had changed since selling him into slavery. When Joseph threatened to throw Benjamin (Jacob’s new favored son) into jail, Judah, the spokesman for the brothers, offered himself in his stead. The brothers had indeed changed. Their relationship with Joseph was healed, and Jacob and his family moved to Egypt.
What do readers learn from the Joseph story?
First, we learn how the chosen family came to live in Egypt, which prepares the reader for the story of the exodus to follow. Second, we begin to understand the relationship among the twelve sons of Jacob. God had earlier given Jacob a second name, Israel (32:22–31), and these sons would become the fathers of the future tribes of Israel. Among other things, we learn how important Joseph and Judah (who at the end of the story had become a leader among the brothers) are among the sons of Jacob. The tribes that descended from them—Ephraim (named after one of Joseph’s sons) and Judah—would become the most powerful tribes of northern and southern Israel. But finally, and most dramatically, this story teaches that not even powerful, wicked people can stop the plan of God. At the end of his life, Joseph tells his brothers “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20).
From Genesis, we learn about our beginnings as humans. Today, we understand that we are sinners in need of saving, but that was not the way God created us. Our rebellion led to judgment but also to God’s great acts of redemption in which his choice of Abraham plays a central role.
At the end of Genesis, Abraham’s descendants were an extended family living in Egypt; the rest of the Torah (Exodus through Deuteronomy) carries forward the story from there—beginning several centuries later. The book of Exodus can be divided into three parts: the story of God’s rescue from Egyptian bondage (1–18), the account of God giving the law to Israel at Mount Sinai (19–24), and the description of the building of the tabernacle (25–40).
As the curtain rises on the action again, we learn that Abraham’s descendants had “multiplied greatly” (exodus 1:7). So much so that Pharaoh felt threatened by their presence in Egypt and subjected them to forced labor and issued a shocking decree: All baby boys should be killed at birth. But God had plans for the people through whom he meant to reach the world. Baby Moses should have been killed at birth, but through the actions of some brave women, God preserved him so he could eventually lead the Israelites out of bondage and into the Promised Land.
The account of the exodus from Egypt is one of the most exciting stories in all of Scripture. After God called Moses into service through a burning bush (exodus 3), Moses confronted the stubborn Pharaoh, who only increased the suffering of the Israelites. God, in turn, brought a series of plagues on Egypt, culminating in the death of the firstborn (commemorated by the Passover to this day) that finally led the Egyptian king to let Israel go. However, once they were gone, the embarrassed and angry Pharaoh pursued the Israelites intending to wipe them off the face of the earth. Near the Red Sea, God parted the waters allowing his people to escape and then closed the waters in judgment on the pursuing Egyptians.
Beyond the threatening reach of Egypt, Moses led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, near where he first encountered God in the burning bush. Here God entered into a covenant (a legal agreement between two parties, similar to a treaty between a great king and his subjects) with Israel and gave them his law, headed by the Ten Commandments (exodus 20:2–17). Other laws, many of which are case laws,5 follow these famous commandments (20:22–23:19). Much of the remainder of the Torah contains law, so much so that it warrants looking closely at law in the next section.
Besides the exodus and the giving of the law, the book of Exodus also describes the building of the tabernacle, an ornate portable structure where God made his presence known. The tabernacle was also the site of sacrifices and worship to God (some of the laws in the rest of the Pentateuch set up the requirements for these sacrifices and worship ceremonies), before the Israelites settled in their new land. God initiated its construction (25:1–8) and even provided the plans (25:9, 40), the materials (12:33–36), and the skill (31:1–11) to build it! The tabernacle was the tent of Israel’s divine king and housed the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence among his people.
With all of these blessings, we might think that God’s people must have fallen on their knees and worshiped him constantly. But they didn’t. Instead they grumbled and complained and, like Adam and Eve in the garden, rebelled against their Maker and Savior. They did not trust him, so he condemned that first generation to die in the wilderness. Thus for forty years they wandered—until everyone from that first generation had died—before they finally reached the border of the Promised Land.
Before moving on in the story of the Torah, we might ask why we should read the book of Exodus. In each of the three major parts of the book we are introduced to truths that remain important to Christians today. Later we’ll talk about the specifics, but here let’s just recognize that the first part (chaps. 1–18) is about salvation, the second part (chaps. 19–25) is about law, and the third section is about how God makes his presence known among his sinful people (chaps. 25–40). This final section prefigures Jesus, the Word who became flesh and lived among us (john 1:14).
The last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, is the record of Moses’s final sermon before he died and the people went into the land. His audience is the second generation, the children of those who died in the wilderness, and the subject of his sermon is the law of God. After rehearsing all the good things God had done for them in the past (chaps. 1–4), he then reminded them of the Ten Commandments (5:6–21) followed by an even lengthier list of case laws (chaps. 6–26). Moses was leading the second generation into renewing the covenant their parents had made with God at Mount Sinai. Through Moses, God reminded them that keeping the covenant leads to blessing—restoration of relationship with God that results in good relationships with others and a flourishing life (chaps. 27–28).
The Torah starts with creation, tells the story of the fall into sin and death, and then informs us about God’s pursuit of us to redeem us. That story ends with Moses’s sermon on the Plains of Moab, but we know the story will continue as the people enter into the land of promise. You can think of these books as the exciting beginning of God’s story—a story that culminates in Jesus!