These books that make up The Law (The Torah) with Genesis were put together at a later date, though built on traditional scriptures orally passed down. This was done at times through the ages but most significantly at the time of the Exile in Babylon (597 BC for 50 years) in order to preserve both the faith and the way of life that was intrinsically part of it. So here we find stories of the great journey to the Promised Land in which their faith, their relationship with God, was born, and the rules for living out that faith.
Usually we find the first more easy to read than the second. But in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy we find a quite revolutionary approach to living with friend and foe, slave and free, debtor and creditor. Of course it is framed in a civilisation whose approach to life often seems strange or harsh to us, and whose image of a compassionate God is not ours. But we have to put ourselves into their mindset, of an exiled people with a tough nomadic past, always under threat, seeking help and reasons for their plight.
Genesis introduced us to the very origins of the Chosen people of God as a family as they begin with the call of Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees and head for the Promised Land, trusting solely in God.
Exodus (literally ‘the road out’ in Greek), takes us to the foundation of the people as a people reborn out of slavery into freedom, led buy Moses (the forerunner of Jesus leading us to freedom from sin). One of the great lessons is that freedom means taking responsibility for our lives.
Read all of Exodus if you can as you will know many of the stories. Look at Moses’ complex background as slave-child to adopted master to hunted freedom-fighter/ murderer. Look at the plagues again and then the Passover and then its ritual expression in Chapter 12. In Chapter 19 God calls on the people to be his people as he hears their cry of distress.
Read the Ten Commandments (Ch.20) and see, reading the first line, how they (and the other 603) are designed to help a free people live in harmony with God, family and other. Chapter 24 gives us a ritual formalisation of the Covenant (compare with the Mass, scripture and offering.) Then in Ch. 32 the Golden Calf. As we come to the end, see the presence of God descending on to the Ark, ‘overshadowing’ it, which is the same word in Greek, used for the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary in Luke’s gospel. God is now among his people.
This book is about how to be a holy people for a Holy God. “Be holy, for I the Lord am holy.” 19:2. The word holy means to be separate from the profane world. People struggle with this book as it is very much a series of laws and instructions and is not an easy read. Chapters 17-27 are called the Book of Holiness and perhaps it is best to start with these. The search is for holiness and wholeness, how to be the true people God created so as to respond to God’s act of creation appropriately. We are called to holiness and this is how to live it out.
Some of it seems strange to us now and deals with life in minute detail. See Chapter 13 on diseases and baldness. Sacrifices help to put the people right with God as does the scapegoat in Chapter 16 and the day of Atonement.
In Chapter 24 the use of capital punishment shows many in its favour, but today appears outdated to many of us in the light of Christ.
In Chapter 25 the idea of Jubilee was the basis of our Jubilee in 2000, and is a forward-thinking time of renewal.
Numbers picks up the JOURNEY again in chapter 10. Before this we have the preparation to set off from where we were at the end of Exodus. In this book as the people journey from Sinai to the point in Moab where they are looking over the Promised Land (the 40 year journey) the stress is on the presence, the glory, of God among them, journeying with them. God is present in the Ark, tabernacle, and meets with the people in the Tent of Meeting. As a settled civilisation we have to get used to the idea that ‘Tent’ = dwelling and settlement for a nomadic people..
The preparation includes censuses being taken and lists (hence the name Numbers), and in Chapter 6 the definition of Nazirite which we will come across with Samson and John the Baptist.
The cloud guides their march. Very soon they are complaining, 11:7-8, and we have a wonderful description of the vegetables the people are missing.
In Chapter 13 they reconnoitre the Promised Land but fear makes them run from taking the Land: “we are like grasshoppers to their giants.” For their rebellion God says this generation will never dwell in the Promised Land. Then in Chapter 20 at Meribah Moses does not rely on God and twice hit the rock to draw out water. The bronze serpent: Chapter 21:4, this looks toward the crucifixion. In Ch 22-24 the King of Moab, Balak, asks the prophet Balaam about Israel, and he prophecies that they are blessed with God. In this there is the strange encounter with a donkey, where it is the donkey who sees the angel of God and forces the prophet, who does not, to do God’s will. See 2 Peter 2:15 where this is quoted.
Those who wrote Deuteronomy (literally, the second writing of the Law) wanted to bring together all that had happened before and all that was needed to live life with God. Obedience to the covenant is a major theme, (26:5-10 one of three times the people are reminded what God has done for them, there is here a form of ritual remembrance of the Exodus that is repeated),
as is the cycle of faithfulness, disobedience and complacency, and forgiveness. This will be the theme of the histories to come.
The book is presented as four speeches by Moses beginning 1:1, 4:44, 27:1 and 33:1, which Moses did not give but enables the writers to give it authenticity (this was a common method in the ancient world.)
Love of neighbour and treating them with justice is a strong theme.
In the Code of Deuteronomy 12:1-26:19 (see 24:14-22) there is great care taken of the poor.
The Ten Commandments are repeated in slightly different form in Chapter 5 and then in Chapter 6:4-7 is the famous Shema Prayer (Hear O Israel) that Jews pray very day.
How should you tackle this great book?
Perhaps divide it up into the speeches. Then tackle each one bit by bit.
Jot down what strikes you as odd, uncomfortable, and impressive, and what strikes a chord.