Suggested Readings: Leviticus 1-7; Leviticus 17-26; Numbers 1:1-3, 19b-46; Numbers 6:22-27; Numbers 9:15-23; Numbers 10:11-11:15; Numbers 20:6b-13; Numbers 22-24; Numbers 26; Numbers 27:12-23; Numbers 28-29; Deuteronomy 4:32-40; Deuteronomy 5; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:18-32; Deuteronomy 12-26; Deuteronomy 30:15-20
The Hebrew word torah means teaching, and carries with it the understanding of a teaching that binds one to obedience. The Talmud, a collection of teachings by important rabbis reflecting on the Torah and put together in the second century AD, lists 613 separate teachings or laws that directed the lives of the Jewish people on matters of ritual purity and ethical conduct. For Orthodox Jews today, they still do. We can see, then, how vital the Law is to the Jewish people, both in ancient and modern times. The books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain the Law given by God through Moses to Israel. It was by being faithful to the Law that Israel would prove faithful to the covenant.
The Book of Leviticus regulates right worship for Israel. Here are found directions on the various sacrifices and how they should be offered (Leviticus 1-7), instructions for the consecration of priests (8-10), laws determining ritual purity, what and who are clean or unclean (Leviticus 11-16), and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), which laid out for the Israelites the requirements for living a moral life. Only God is truly holy. Israel is holy by virtue of God’s actions freeing Israel from slavery, by virtue of Israel’s association with God in the covenant, and by virtue of Israel’s faithfulness to the Law. Right conduct in one’s personal life is expected, especially by showing justice to the poor and hospitality to the foreigner, and by providing protection to the weak. Even how one treats the land is important, since the land is God’s gift to Israel, and the Israelites are welcome on the land only so long as they observe the commandments.
The census that opens the Book of Numbers (Numbers 1:19b-54), and from which the book gets its name, demonstrates God’s blessing to His people: Israel had entered Egypt as a small clan of a few dozen, but they left Egypt as a multitude of thousands. While the people organized around the base of Mount Sinai, they received God’s Law in preparation for the journey to the Promised Land. The Lord was with them as a cloud that hovered over the Tent of the Lord’s Presence during the day, and as a column of fire at night, guiding them on their way (Numbers 9:15-18). As they set off on the journey, they were enthusiastic in their devotion to God and the covenant under Moses’ leadership.
It did not take long before things started to break down. The organized formation of the tribes turned into a meandering rabble. The people complained about being brought into the desert, and even stated a desire to return to Egypt! Their complaints made Moses weary, and he started to complain to God about having to lead such a cantankerous people. The Lord became angry, and He punished the people with a plague (Numbers 11:1-15, 31-34). Even Moses sinned against God, disobeying His instructions for bringing forth water from the rock at Kadesh. This act of disobedience, a lack of trust in God’s providence, was the reason Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the land God promised them (Numbers 20:6b-12).
Finally, the people left Kadesh, where they had been camped for some time, and quickly enjoyed victories over the Canaanites, the Amorites and the kingdom of Bashan. Yet the people continued to complain, and God struck them with another plague, showing mercy only in response to Moses’ prayers. As the people approached Moab, the Moabite king, Balak, began to fear their coming. He called upon Balaam, a magus, to curse Israel. Having been warned by an angel, however, Balaam instead thrice blessed Israel. In the third blessing, Balaam prophesied that a king would rise from Israel to establish a magnificent kingdom (Numbers 22-24).
One last act of disobedience marked Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. They fell into the sin of worshipping the false god, Baal of Peor, while in Moab. Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, defended God’s honor, and His anger was turned away (Numbers 25:1-13).
A new census was taken of the people (Numbers 26). This census represented a people who had been purified by the desert and God’s discipline. A new generation had come to the fore, and Moses passed on his authority to a younger leader, Joshua. It was Joshua who led the people in the conquest of the Promised Land and who continued to call them to faithfulness to God’s covenant.
The title of this book comes from the Greek deutero nomos, meaning “second law.” It was given this title because of the similarities between the Law found in chapters 12-26 and the Law as given in Exodus 20-23 (the first law). Contemporary biblical scholars are convinced that Deuteronomy was put together and added to the Pentateuch many centuries after the other four books. The laws recorded reflect a culture that is less agricultural and more urban, and less suggestive of a tribal society than of a monarchical government, as would be expected in the seventh century BC, rather than the thirteenth or twelfth. The authors wanted to restore Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant which, of course, meant worship of the true God and rejection of all false gods. The Book of Deuteronomy makes clear that God’s covenant is one based on love and is eternal.
Deuteronomy insists on worship in a single Temple. The first law in Exodus allowed worship in a variety of shrines all over the country. But, since the building of Solomon’s Temple, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, no other altar or shrine was permitted (Deuteronomy 12:1-14). As well, this “second law” ties together faithfulness to the covenant with the land. Faithfulness would mean God’s blessings of prosperity, good harvests, victory over enemies and keeping the land. Disobedience and devotion to false gods would lead to defeat and exile, and the loss of the land (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
The infidelity of Israel and her kings is given as the reason the Israelites suffered so under the subjugation of foreign kings. Had Israel been more faithful to the covenant, God would have protected and blessed her. The Book of Deuteronomy offers hope that faithfulness to God’s Law by the Jews of its day will result in return from exile and restoration of the land to Israel.
WHAT TRUTHS DO THE BOOKS OF THE LAW REVEAL ABOUT GOD?
- All are called to be holy, even as God is holy.
- Israel is faithful to the covenant by being faithful to the Law.
- God will remain faithful, even when His people lose faith and turn from Him.
- Even still, God will not hesitate to cleanse His people of those who persist in infidelity.
- God calls His people to protect the weak, women and orphans, to feed the hungry, and to welcome the stranger.
- God’s covenant with His people is based on love and is eternal.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.