- Written by Wendy Janzen Wendy Janzen
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Windows to the Word - Torah
Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees.
This saying came to mind as I was working on my sermon on the Torah. What does one say about a five book chunk of the Old Testament? That’s 187 chapters and almost 6000 verses! How do we see and understand the Torah as a whole when we usually just read individual stories from it? I know that even though I have studied Old Testament theology and know the general arc of the biblical narrative, I have never really stopped to think about the Torah as a unit.
And so in order to help us see the forest, and not just the trees, I am going to attempt to provide an overview of these five books that make up the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I know for some of you this will be a review, but that for many it will be a helpful reminder of the scope of the stories we are talking about.
It all starts, of course, with Genesis: the beginning. Out of nowhere, time, space and all living things are spoken into existence by God, our Creator. The story of creation provides a way of answering basic questions like: Where have we come from? Why are we here? What has gone so terribly wrong? It tells of the beginning of time, of heaven and earth, and all of God’s splendid creatures. It introduces us to a God who is both powerful and transcendent and loving and active in the world.
In fact, there are two separate creation accounts found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Here we get a clue that paradox is okay – the Bible uses paradoxes and metaphors to describe God because God is too hard to explain otherwise. The first creation story describes God as powerful, mighty and high above us. God speaks, and everything is created. It describes God as transcendent – above us, beyond us, too mysterious for us to know, too awesome for us to do anything but worship. In the second creation story we see God in another way: God as one who is close and relational. God walks on the earth and gently bends down to form Adam’s body from the earth. These two stories complement each other. They are teaching stories. We need both the high God and the personal God. One creation story couldn’t contain all there is to know about God.
Genesis also shows us that God is a covenant-making God who relentlessly loves and cares for all people and all creation. The first is the covenant made with Noah, following the flood. This is a universal and unconditional covenant made to all peoples of the earth (not just Noah and his descendants), as well as the earth and all of creation. Later we have the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, a promissory covenant to all their descendants. Throughout these stories the people of God flourish, even while at times they fail miserably. But throughout it all God is clearly at work, transforming them into a people who are chosen by God to declare God’s love and truth to the world.
Genesis ends with the story of Joseph and how Abraham and Sarah’s descendants end up as free people in Egypt. They live there in peace for many generations, knowing however, that their future is not in Egypt, but in another land, a land of promise.
The Book of Exodus continues the story of God’s relationship with the chosen people of Israel. By now, their situation in Egypt has changed dramatically. Hundreds of years have passed since the time of Joseph, and there is a new Pharaoh in charge. This Pharaoh is threatened by the way the people of Israel have flourished, and cruelly oppresses them.
The book of Exodus is the story of divine rescue. God remembers the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and prepares a new prophet, Moses, to be his mouthpiece. Through miracle after miracle, God manufactures Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt. There is a burning bush, plagues, the parting of the sea, manna in the desert, water from a rock... With God leading the way, Moses guides the people across the Red Sea and into the desert and finally on to Mount Sinai. This is the place where God first reveals Godself to Moses in the burning bush, and now to the rest of the Israelites. Here at Mount Sinai, God establishes a new covenant with Israel. God puts into law his desires for the people and offers a blueprint for a new kind of society that God intends to be an example for the rest of the world.
In their escape from Egypt the Israelites learn to radically trust in God. They learn they can depend solely on God for protection, rather than fighting enemies themselves. Before they deserved any of it, God acted. Before they deserved it, God saved them from slavery. Before they deserved it, God provided for their every need. God acts first, and in response they offer God their praise and worship.
Up until now God has dealt only with Moses; at Mount Sinai God addresses them all directly, beginning by reminding them of all he has done for them. The last half of the book of Exodus offers a picture of the relationship between God and humanity: God resides in the midst of his people. All elements of the covenant and law bear witness to deep, spiritual realities. They are not merely laws to be obeyed, but signs of devotion and a means of forming God’s people in the crucible of worship and obedience. They are words of shalom – of living in peace with God and neighbour.
This brings us to the book of Leviticus: this book ls less narrative, and is where many people who attempt to read the Bible from start to finish often get stuck. It is part of a larger dialogue where God lays down certain stipulations for the new covenant with the people of Israel. Essentially it is a manual for the Levites (hence the name, Leviticus), the priests - those who were set apart by God to care for and maintain the covenant with the Eternal One. At the heart of the book is worship: how an unholy people approach an absolutely holy God. I came across this description of the book, which I think is lovely: “Leviticus provides the spiritual leaders with the spiritual means by which hopelessly flawed people can discover grace and find their broken lives repaired.” It reminds us that the law is not just about keeping rules, but is about offering life and relationship with the divine.
The narrative picks up again in the book of Numbers, and the journey in the wilderness continues…. If read carefully, one will discover that Numbers tells the story of an amazing journey filled with promise, conflict, victory, adventure, and disappointment. Stories of spies, of enough quail to feed 600,000 people, a donkey who speaks…
Numbers begins with Israel still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Through Moses, God offers some final instructions before they begin their long, slow, march to the Promised Land. The presence of God leads them with cloud by day, pillar of fire by night.
God instructs Moses to send twelve spies to go ahead into the land of Canaan and explore the land of abundance that God has promised them. They went for forty days and returned with reports of a rich and bountiful land. However, they also reported that the people who lived there were strong and numerous. Ten of the spies discouraged Israel from believing they could conquer the land. The people of Israel were so discouraged that they complained against God, even saying it would be better to return to Egypt. As a result of their lack of trust, God determined that the people must face a second 40 year sojourn through the wilderness.
The story ends with a new generation standing at the eastern edge of Canaan ready to inhabit the land that God promised them in covenant.
The story is picked up in final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, Moses offers a second interpretation of the law that God established with Israel at Sinai. Moses is updating the law for a new generation facing new challenges as they enter a new land.
The book takes place on the plains of Moab, where Moses reminds them of who they are, where they have come from, and what God requires of them. At the heart of his message is known as the Shema, which we find in chapter 6: 4 - 9, which was one of the passages read for us earlier. It is a call for God’s people to love God with all their heart, soul and strength, and to teach their children to do the same. It seems clear in Deuteronomy that covenant is not to be motivated by fear, but by love.
The book ends with an account of Moses’ death and burial on Mount Nebo and a tribute to his greatness. Before he dies, Moses commissions Joshua to succeed him.
So, there you have it folks, the Torah in five-and-a-half pages!
As a unit, these five books, traditionally attributed to Moses, are the foundation of the scriptures. They lay out the details of God’s early encounters with God’s people as he calls, instructs, and commissions them to extend his blessing in the world.
The Torah introduces us to God known as YHWH, or I Am, who is a God of steadfast love as Kevin pointed out in his sermon at Merv Shantz’ funeral yesterday. God remains steadfast and loving despite the repeated shortcomings and failures of the human characters with whom God is in relationship .
The Israelites don’t always come off in such a good light. Sometimes when reading or hearing the stories of the Israelites we might be prone to ask, “Will these people never learn?” But when reading these stories from the Torah, we might as well ask ourselves: “Are they any different than us?” We all tend to forget God’s provision, and we focus only on the immediate challenges at hand rather than the larger goal.
The Israelites lived through times of uncertainty, hardship and challenge. At such times, questions of what holds us together? How do we find our way through? What gives us our sense of identity and vocation? Where is God in the midst of all this? are at the forefront when powers of chaos threaten. These questions sound like pertinent questions for the church today.
One answer to these questions for the exiles was to observe the Torah and its covenants. In times of change and uncertainty, when foundations seem to be shaking, God provides guidance on the way they should walk. The word Torah, in fact mean, “guidance or instruction.” The Torah contains stories that offer guidance and instruction on how to live as God’s people. It is certainly law, but not meant as strict legalism. Torah is God’s gift, which gives life and light and wholeness, therefore the proper response is praise. I invite you to turn to Psalm 19, which describes Torah as a source of joy and refreshment.
The Torah lays down the foundation of God’s salvation story. In the Torah, salvation can mean deliver, bring to safety, redeem, vindicate, help in times of distress, rescue, or set free. Sometimes it talks of individual salvation, sometimes corporate, where God saves a whole people, or even the whole of creation. It can also mean both physical and/or spiritual deliverance. But it always comes from God. Before we deserve it, God acts. Salvation is experienced in the books of the Torah when the people trust in God, through God’s initiative not our own efforts. God’s saving work in our lives motivates us to love others.
Central to the Torah’s message are the verses of the Shema, which are also so central to the gospel that Jesus quotes it as the greatest commandment. This reference is found in all three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke. I’d invite you to turn to Mark 12:28-31.
If your Bible has footnotes that show scripture references, you’ll note that in this passage Jesus actually quotes Exodus 3:6, 15, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus is obviously well versed in the Torah, and finds it foundational for his ministry and message.
And that’s where I will wrap it up, giving Jesus the last word. What we would like do, though, for the rest of this series is to offer you a time of reflection after the sermon. Doris will play a few verses of our hymn of response, and you are invited to take out the half-sheet you were given this morning and answer the questions in each pane of glass. Today, as we have looked at the Torah, you are asked “What do you notice?” “What is the Gift?” “What is the challenge?” “What is the take-away?” Jot whatever thoughts come to you in answer to these questions. These are for your own personal synthesis of this morning’s message. If you stay for the worship response time downstairs, we will use these responses as a starting point for our discussion, and will keep notes on this larger window that has been sitting up here during the service.
May God be in your mind and in your thinking...