Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

Torah/Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Genesis 1-11

After wandering through the more obscure books I am finally getting to the best part of the OT, the stories!  Stories I heard over and over again in various form as a child.  I repeatedly read the ten volume set of Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Bible Story which presented a somewhat bowdlerized Adventist version of most of the stories in the Bible.  Those lavishly illustrated books laid the foundation of my early understanding of the Bible.   But there were some stories, like Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law after the Lord killed first her husband and then her brother-in-law who infamously “spilled his seed on the ground” rather than impregnating her (Genesis 37), that were either left out or minimized.  At least I don’t recall hearing about them until I read the Bible for myself.

With biblical stories there is always the question of whether they are “true.”  Claims are often made re: archaeological evidence which confirms elements of life in the second millennium BCE Near East as described in the Bible.  But archaeology can tell us little about the existence of ancient individuals and the details of their lives.  To date there have no archaeological discoveries that demonstrate the actual existence of the Patriarchs.  

The Bible is not a history text.  It was not written by historians seeking to present an objective view of events but by people endeavoring to demonstrate the revelation of God in history.  According to Samuel Sandmel,  “Biblical narrative is not so much history as philosophy of history. . . . (The focus is) the significance of events rather than events themselves. . . . All biblical history is theological” (p.320).  

This does not, as it is all too easy to assume, mean that the “Bible isn’t true;” only that judging it on the same basis as we might evaluate a historical account of the Civil War is not helpful.  Whatever religious truth may be in the Bible has little relation to whether or not creation of the world happened in six days, a snake persuaded Eve to eat forbidden fruit, a man named Abram journeyed from Ur to Palestine in the second millennium BCE, or a Hebrew named Joseph saved Egypt and the much of the ancient Near East from famine.  Those stories are about the relationship of God and the people he chose.  Historical facts that give context to the stories are indeed interesting, but don’t actually add all that much to the meaning in those stories.

Reading Genesis now I can see Rabbi Sandmel’s wisdom in recommending beginning with the non-narrative books.  Having read especially the prophets  I have a clearer understanding of the theology which shaped the stories I’m now reading.  

Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch (Christian) or Torah (Jewish), five books which are traditionally referred to as “the books of Moses,” although Moses was not their author.  Only Deuteronomy, which is a record of Moses’ speeches, refers to Moses in the first person.  There is nothing in the other four books that would indicate Moses’ authorship.  

Most non-fundamentalist scholars subscribe to some form of the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” a rather complex theory which I won’t try to explain except to say that it maintains that four or more sources were woven together to form the narrative books of Genesis through Kings.  Material was compiled and redacted over several centuries.  Narratives were added without deleting earlier material or attempting to reconcile conflicting accounts, which explains why there are differing versions of incidents, duplications, inconsistencies, and contradictions throughout the narratives.  Perhaps whoever was responsible for the text as we now know it sought to assemble all the available stories without attempting to reconcile differing details.  Ancient writings, as well as myth, and folklore, which a great deal of Genesis is, were not concerned with consistency to the degree that we are.  It may be that the apparently contradictory stories in the Pentateuch represent an early form of midrash, a tradition more fully developed in later Judaism which embellished, often in quite fanciful ways, biblical stories.  In any case, it is interesting to note the many instances in which there is more than one version of a story.

Genesis - “the beginning” - is about how things began.  The first part, chapters 1-11, is primeval history describing how the world and the people in it came to be, the origin of evil, and why things are as they are. It consists of a series of mostly disconnected episodes which occur over many centuries.   Chapters 12-50 relate stories of the patriarchs, the ancestors of the Israelites, over four generations beginning with Abraham and concluding with the story of Jospeh and how the children of Jacob/Israel came to be in Egypt.  In terms of literary form, Genesis begins with myth, proceeds into elements of folklore, then a multi generational, but still somewhat disconnected, family saga which concludes with a fully developed coherent plot in the novella like story of Joseph.

The documentary hypothesis which contends that multiple source documents are represented in Old Testament books originated with the observation that there are two divergent accounts of creation in Genesis.  Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the most familiar, with six days of creation culminating in “male and female created he them” followed by the Sabbath on which the Creator rested.  The second account (2:4-24) makes no mention of days of creation.  Man is created after the earth and heavens but before vegetation or animals.  Eve is created last of all from Adam’s rib.  There are interesting parallels with other ancient creation myths.  God’s use of the plural in referring to himself may be a trace of polytheism.  But the Genesis creation story is unique in known ancient literature.

In reading the story of the Fall this time I noticed that God’s purpose in expelling Adam and Eve from Eden was to prevent them from becoming divine beings.  In eating the fruit of the forbidden tree “the man (no mention of Eve) had become like us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” he was cast out of the Garden of Eden “to till the ground from which he was taken” (3:22-23).  So God kept Adam and Eve in their place as created beings.

In the story of Cain and Abel (4:2-16) there is no indication as to why Abel’s sacrifice of a sheep was more acceptable to God than Cain’s “offering of the fruit of the ground.”  The story likely reflects tensions between nomadic shepherds, which the Israelites were, and farmers.  After the murder of his brother, Cain built a city in “the land of Nod, east of Eden.”  Along with the age old puzzle of where Cain found a wife, I wonder where he found enough people to populate a city.  Again the association of the first city with the first murderer likely reflects the attitude of early pastoral Israel towards the settled population of cities.

There is a lengthy account of Cain’s descendants followed by another for the lineage of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth along with often obscure references to their deeds.  Highly unlikely ages are listed for individuals.  Ten generations are recorded from Adam to the Flood.  Interestingly the account of a world destroying flood in the Babylonian Gilgamesh Saga also lists ten generations prior to the flood along with even more fantastical ages for the individuals it names.  In Genesis Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, is said to have “Walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (5:24), a mysterious statement which became the basis for various esoteric traditions, including the non-canonical book of Enoch, which continue into modern times.  In another parallel, the Babylonian list of pre-flood generations also states that the seventh pre-flood hero was “taken by god” (Oxford Annotated Bible footnote to Gen. 5:24).  

Chapter 6 contains another mystery.  It relates how “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose” whereupon God reduced the human lifespan to “a hundred and twenty years.”  The next verse states that “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them.  These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (6:2-4).  Like Enoch, these mysterious verses, which seem to refer to divine beings of some sort and are probably a fragment of ancient mythology, have over the centuries been the subject of esoteric speculation including the non-canonical apocalyptic book of Enoch which is quoted in the the New Testament (Jude 13).

Whoever the “sons of God” and the Nephilim may have been, after ten generations of increasing wickedness the Lord ran out of patience with his creatures: “ ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:7-8) and was saved along with his family.  

As with the creation there are two differing narratives of the flood God sent to destroy most of his creation.  In one account two of “every sort” of animal, male and female, are brought into the ark (6:19-20).  In the other there are seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of unclean (7:2-3).  The number of days the flood lasted as well as the time before Noah and company emerged from the ark also differ in the two accounts.  There are many details in both that match those in flood story of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Saga, which was composed sometime in the mid-second millennium BCE from older source material.  Scholars believe that, even if the Genesis flood story wasn’t directly derived from that of Gilgamesh, the two at share least a common source.

With all life other than that preserved in the ark gone, Noah and his wife along with their three sons and their wives emerged from the ark to repopulate the earth.  God blessed Noah and told him what to expect going forward.  No longer will animals be unafraid of people, for, there being no plants left to eat, they would now be eaten by humans; only consumption of their blood was forbidden.  God made a covenant with Noah and his sons which included commandments that in Judaic tradition are known as  the Noahide Laws to which all humanity is subject since everyone on earth is a descendant of the family with whom God made that covenant.

The post-flood story moves on to say that Noah “was the first tiller of the soil,” ignoring the post-fall curse which sentenced Adam to do just that, and relates a strange episode in which Noah got drunk from wine made from his grapes and “lay uncovered in his tent.” His son Ham saw him and told his brothers who covered Noah up without looking at him.  When he awoke he cursed, not Ham but Ham’s son, Canaan.  There may be some confusion in the text, but the curse may be an explanation of why God told the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites who resided in Israel’s promised land (9:20-27).

There is a lengthy genealogy of Noah’s descendants and how they repopulated the earth, which for the writers of the Bible constituted the Near and Middle East.  The story of the Tower of Babel (a phase not actually in the Bible!) explains the origin of different languages.  In the kind of punning wordplay that occurs over and over again in the Old Testament, Genesis turns the Akkadian name of Babylon, Babilim meaning “gate of God” into the Hebrew Babal, which means “to jumble or to confuse.”

The genealogy in Genesis 11 ends with Terah and his son Abram who “went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan” but settled along the way in Haran where Terah died.

Genesis 12-50

With Genesis 12 the story of what would eventually be the nation of Israel begins with God’s call of Abram, instructing him to “go to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation.”  So Abram left Haran for Canaan which God told him would be given to his descendants despite the fact that other people were already living there.

In Canaan Abram, his wife, his nephew Lot, along with their various herdsmen and servants lived as semi-nomadic herders moving about the land to pasture their sheep and cattle.  Everywhere Abram stopped for a while he built an altar to “the Lord who had appeared to him” (12:6-9), establishing sites sacred to his God which would continue to be noted by his descendants as such.  

A famine in Canaan caused Abram to go to Egypt where an incident occurred that would be twice repeated with variations (substituting the king of Gerar for Pharaoh) by Abram and then by his son Issac (12:10; 20; 26:1-11).  Fearing that the Egyptians would lust after his wife, Sarai, and harm him, Abram instructed her to say she was his sister.  Pharaoh learned of her beauty, and she “was taken into Pharaoh’s house.  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram,” rewarding him with many animals to add to his flocks.  “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai.”  Pharaoh confronted Abram with having deceived him and “set him on his way, with his wife and all that he had.”  

That this scenario is repeated two more times, the last with Issac rather than Abram, is likely due to there being slightly different traditional versions of the incident which were incorporated into Genesis.  What is remarkable to me is that there is no real acknowledgement that there was any moral problem with Abram, and latter Issac, basically offering up his wife as a virtual prostitute to ensure his personal safety.  Only Pharaoh, and the king of Gerar in the other versions of the story, both of whom presumably did not worship Abram’s God, seemed to view Abram’s deception as wrong.  Even God seemed to have had no problem with it, intervening not by punishing Abram but Pharaoh.  There are a number of other instances in which Genesis seems to take an almost amoral view in describing the actions of Abram and his descendants.  Only in the story of Joseph does there appear a clearly developed ethical sense in Joseph’s resisting the attempted seduction by his master’s wife and his dealings with his brothers.  This is definitely not a point of view that I got in the SDA version of the lives of the patriarchs of Israel!  If the issues raised by these accounts were ever addressed, or even noted, I don’t remember it.

Genesis presents a series of loosely connected episodes involving Abram.  After defeating four invading kings from the east who kidnapped his nephew lot, Abram gives a tithe to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek who is described as the king-priest of Salem which many years later became Jerusalem.  The deity Melchizedek serves is titled “God Most High (El Elyon in Hebrew), Maker of Heaven and Earth,” one of several instances in Genesis in which the title of what would seem to have been a Canaanite god appears, perhaps indicating a gradual attribution of the traits of other gods to the deity who would emerge in Exodus as the God of Israel.

In Genesis 15 God comes to Abram in a vision.  Although Abram and his wife are aging and childless God promises that he will have a son and his descendants will be as numberless as the stars.  While Abram has been led from Ur to the land destined to be the home of his heirs, before they take possession they will be “sojourners in a land that is not theirs”  for four hundred years (16:13).  The covenant between God and Abram was sealed by a ritual in which the Lord, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch in the darkness of night, passed between the severed halves of sacrificial animals.

Abram and Sarai decided to try to fulfill the promise of a son by making Sarai’s maid, Hagar, Abram’s second wife.  She conceived, and “looked with contempt on her mistress.”  Sarai “dealt harshly with her, and she fled.”  But an angel found Hagar by a spring in the wilderness and told her to return and submit to her mistress.  The angel also said that Hagar would bear a son called Ishmael whose  descendants would be more than could be numbered (16).   The story was repeated with some variation several years later after the son born to (by then renamed) Abraham and Sarah displaced Ishmael.  The second time Hagar and Ishmael were sent away for good and again saved by an angel (21:9-21).  After the death of Sarah, Abraham had other children by a third wife and several concubines, but only Sarah’s son was heir to the promise of the covenant.  Genesis briefly notes the others along with Ismael as ancestors of various foreign tribes and nations.  

Another account, believed to be from a later tradition, of the covenant appears in Genesis 17.  Here God is titled El Shaddai, “God, the One of the Mountain,” another divine name absorbed by Abraham’s deity.  In this appearance, the Lord changed the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.  It may be that these dialectical variants of their former names are from a source in which they were so-named all along.  There is again a promise that Abraham will be “the father of a multitude of nations.”  The divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants will last forever as will their possession of Canaan.  All the males in the households of Abraham and his descendants were to be circumcised, a common practice among Semitic peoples, as an external sign of the covenant “in your flesh.”

The Lord and two other beings, all three described as men, visited Abraham and promised that Sarah would have a son in the spring.  The “men” were on their way to see for themselves the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and destroy the cities and all their inhabitants.  But Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lived in Sodom and Abraham bargained with the Lord to save the city.  After agreeing to spare the city if as few as ten righteous people could be found there, “the Lord went on his way” (18).

The other two “men,” now described as angels, went on to Sodom where they were welcomed by Lot, but a mob gathered and demanded that the strangers be handed over to them to sexually abuse.  Lot offered his daughters instead of his guests (another instance of a morally questionable attitude), but the mob only relented when struck blind by the angels.  Warned by the divine messengers of the impending doom, Lot, his wife, and two daughters fled the city.  Famously Lot’s wife looked back despite having been forbidden to do so and, in a folkloric explanation of the salt pillars of the Dead Sea, became a pillar of salt.  Less famously, Lot’s daughters, thinking that they had no other hope of having children, made their father drunk and seduced him.  The resulting sons were the ancestors of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites and Ammonites.

The promised son, Issac, doesn’t have a very large part in the Genesis account.  There is the well known story of God testing Abraham by demanding he offer up Issac as a burnt sacrifice.  Abraham followed instructions right up to the point when an “angel of the Lord” told him, “Do not lay your hand on the lad. . . for now I know that you fear God” (22:12).  Over the centuries since it became part of sacred scripture, the “binding of Issac,” as it is known in Judaism, has been the subject of innumerable speculations.  The simplest maintains that it is an artifact of an ancient transition from human to animal sacrifice; the more complex range from devout interpretation of it as a test of Abraham’s faith to horrified revulsion.  Whatever its origins, the near sacrifice of Issac is a troubling and fascinating piece of Judeo-Christian tradition.

Abraham dispatched his servant to Haran to find a wife among kinsfolk still there for the forty year old Issac.  The servant arrived in Haran at a well where “the daughters of the city” came to draw water, and asked for a sign to indicate who he should select as Issac’s bride.  Rebekah, Issac’s cousin, unknowingly fulfilled the sign.  Only after the servant had bargained with her male relatives was Rebekah consulted.  She agreed, but I can’t help but wonder how much choice a woman in that time and place would have had in such a situation.

Twin sons were born to Rebekah and Issac.  Jacob and Esau struggled together in the womb, and continued to do so after their birth.  Esau emerged first from the womb, but his brother caught hold of his heel, causing him to be named Jacob, “he supplants.”  

Whereas Jacob resembles the classic folkloric figure of a clever trickster, Esau seems to have been somewhat of a simpleton - another folklore motif - who was easily convinced by Jacob to exchange his firstborn birthright for food.  Jacob, “a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” was favored by his mother while Esau, a rough, hairy hunter was the favorite of Issac.  In what seems to be another version of the transferred birthright, Rebecca overheard the aged blind Issac arranging to give his blessing, which was believed to determine the character and destiny of the blessed individual, to Esau.  She instructed Jacob to disguise himself as Esau to obtain the blessing for himself.  When Esau discovered Jacob’s deception, he made plans to kill his brother after their father’s death.

Jacob fled from his brother to his uncle in Haran where his mother, who had been driven to suicidal thoughts by Esau’s Canaanite wives (27:46), hoped he would find a wife among her kin.  On the way to Haran, Jacob stopped for the night and had the well-known dream of a ladder reaching to heaven on which angels ascended and descended.  Above the ladder stood the Lord, who extended to Jacob the promise made to Abraham.  Here Jacob is not “the supplanter” trickster but the patriarch whose descendants would become the nation of Israel.

Upon Jacob’s  arrival in Haran there was a virtual repeat with his cousin, Rachel, of the encounter of Abraham’s servant with Rebecca.  But Jacob’s uncle, Laban, was also a trickster who promised Rachel to Jacob on condition of seven year’s servitude.  At the end of the seven years Jacob was deceived by Laban and unknowingly spent his marriage night with Rachel’s older sister, Leah.  After promising to serve his uncle for seven more years, Jacob was given Rachel as his second wife.  Leah was fertile while the beloved Rachel was barren.  Both wives, like Sarah with Hagar, also gave their maids to Jacob to conceive children who were regarded as the offspring of their mistresses.  Eventually Rachel conceived and gave birth to Joseph.  Later in Canaan she died giving birth to a second son.  

After several more years of labor beyond the fourteen served for his wives, Jacob decided to leave for home.  But first he persuaded Laban to give him sheep and goats from his flocks that had a certain marking.  Through a (biologically impossible) trick Jacob caused a great increase in animals bearing those marks, then gathered his wives, eleven sons and one daughter, servants, and flocks and secretly set off for Canaan.  Rachel, a bit of a trickster herself, also stole her father’s household gods which she concealed under her camel’s saddle.  When Laban caught up with the fugitives and searched them for the stolen images, Rachel said that she could not arise from her seat on the camel because she had her period.  

There is no indication that the writer of Genesis saw anything amiss in the deceptions which repeatedly occur in the story of Jacob.  As he fled from his brother’s anger, Jacob was in fact rewarded with a divine ratification of the blessing which he at the urging of his mother had stolen from his brother.  There is no apparent condemnation of Rachel in taking her father’s household gods, which she presumably worshipped, although in preparing to revisit the site of his ladder dream Jacob later disposed of them.  

As he neared home, Jacob became very anxious about how Esau would receive him.  The night before the brothers’ meeting Jacob spent “alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (32:24).  As dawn broke the apparently divine figure implored Jacob to release him.  Jacob, from whom “the man” was unable to break free, demanded a blessing.  “The man” responded by telling Jacob his name henceforth would be Israel - “He who strives with God” - but refused to reveal his own name.  Jacob the trickster was now Israel, the man who had wrestled to a draw with God.  The change of name along with assurance of the covenant made with Abraham and Issac is repeated (35:9-15) in a later account of divine blessing.

Despite Jacob’s misgivings, the meeting with Esau, who no longer bore his twin any ill will, went well.  Jacob (the name Genesis continues to use) and his band moved into Canaan to follow his father’s and grandfather’s semi-nomadic pastoral life.  There was a troubling incident involving the seduction or rape (the account isn’t very clear) of Jacob’s daughter Dinah and a horrifying act of revenge by two of Jacob’s sons.  Jacob feared attack by the Canaanites but “a terror from God fell upon the cities that were round about them” (35:5) to keep Jacob and company safe.  Rachael died giving birth to his twelfth son near the place that would later be known as Bethlehem.  

After a list of Jacob’s twelve sons from Leah, Rachael and their maids, is a lengthy description of Esau’s descendants who became the Edomites who were the subject of curse after curse by the prophets.  So the brother’s quarrel continued for many generations.  

Genesis 37 begins one of the finest stories in the Bible, composed by a master story teller.  With a well developed plot and characters, it is the equivalent of a modern short story or novella.  We are introduced to Joseph at age seventeen, a callow and spoiled young man who, as the first born of Rachael, was beloved by Jacob/Israel and resented by his older brothers.  Narcissistic and naive, Joseph innocently related dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him, increasing their hatred for him.  They plotted to kill him but instead sold him as a slave to some passing traders.  He was taken to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh.  Evidently Joseph, thrown into a life far removed from the pampering he knew in father’s house, matured quickly: “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man. . . .  (Potiphar) made him overseer in his house and over all that he had” (39:2-4).

“Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (39:6) and his master’s wife sought to seduce him.  Joseph, in a clearer statement of morality than appears in many of the stories of his forefathers, refused to “do this great wickedness and sin against God” (39:9).  In her frustrated rage Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape.  Joseph was thrown into prison (realistically a slave accused of attacking his master’s wife probably would have been executed on the spot).

In prison Joseph once again was blessed by God and gained favor in the eyes of the keeper of the prison.  As in Potiphar’s household, Joseph was given charge of “whatever was in the prison. . . . and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (39:22, 23).  He met two imprisoned officers of Pharaoh who related troubling dreams which Joseph correctly interpreted.  

Pharaoh had a troubling dream which his magicians and wise men could not interpret.  One of the men whose dream Joseph had explained had meanwhile been released from prison and returned to Pharaoh’s court.  Remembering Joseph’s skill in dream interpretation, the former prisoner recommended him to  Pharaoh.  Joseph was brought “hastily out of the dungeon” and, after making himself presentable (an example of the detail in this well developed story), appeared before Pharaoh to hear his dream.  Joseph told Pharaoh that the dream predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.  He also recommended a course of action to prepare for the famine.  Pharaoh was impressed and, noting that the “Spirit of God” was in Joseph, put him in charge of “all the land of Egypt.”  So Joseph, by virtue of his faithfulness to God, progressed from spoiled teenager to slave to prisoner to a position second only to that of Pharaoh (41).

During the seven years of bountiful harvests Joseph diligently stored up the surplus food.  Then, as foretold, “famine was severe over all the earth” and “all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain” (41:57).  Among those who came to Egypt seeking relief were Joseph’s older brothers whom he recognized though they did not recognize him since he was living as an Egyptian with an Egyptian wife and children (no mention is made of how he may have dealt with the gods of ancient Egypt).  Joseph put them through a series of demanding tests which caused much anxiety along with guilt as they recalled what they had done to their little brother.  The brothers departed with the grain they sought, but one remained behind as a hostage against Joseph’s demand that they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother who his father refused to let out of his sight for fear that he would suffer a fate like that of Joseph.  

Jacob/Israel (in perhaps another indication of interwoven sources the text alternates the names seemingly at random) initially refused to let Benjamin go to Egypt.  But famine continued with the necessity of obtaining food from Egypt.  So the brothers returned.  In another example of the personal details in the Joseph saga, Genesis describes how Joseph upon seeing Benjamin was so emotionally overcome that “he sought a place to weep” (43:30).  After yet another test of his brothers, who proved to themselves changed men, Joseph, loudly weeping, revealed himself to them.  They returned to their father with the good news.  God reassured the disbelieving Israel/Jacob  “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will make of you a great nation” (46:3).  So Israel and all his children came to Egypt.

To deal with the ongoing famine Joseph established a feudal system wherein everything in Egypt belonged to Pharaoh; Egyptian sources record such a change as occurring between 1700-1500 BCE (Oxford Bible footnote 47:20-26).  Other details in the story of Joseph correspond with known aspects of ancient Egyptian history and culture.  But it is important to remember that such a correspondence doesn’t “prove” that the story itself is actual history, no more than factual Civil War details in Gone With the Wind establish the historical existence of Scarlett O’Hara.

After an extended, rather confusing poem (49) in which Jacob/Israel blessed his twelve sons, who “are the twelve tribes of Israel,” he died and received a royal Egyptian mourning ritual (Oxford Bible note 50:2-3).  His body was taken by his sons back to Canaan to be buried in either (the text is contradictory) the family tomb purchased by Abraham (49:29-32; 50:13)) or another tomb he prepared for himself (50:5).  His brothers feared, that with their father gone, Joseph would take revenge on them.  “But Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today’ ” (50:19-20), verses that an Oxford Bible footnote describes as “the heart and climax of the Joseph story.”  After burying their father, the children of Israel returned to Egypt where Pharaoh had given them a place in the land of Goshen.  Genesis ends with the death of Joseph at the age of one hundred and ten.  His body was embalmed and “put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26) to await the return of Israel as a nation to the land promised to their forefathers.


The book of Exodus begins some four hundred years after the ending of Genesis.  Living in the northeastern Egyptian Land of Goshen which Joseph’s Pharaoh had given to them, the descendants of Israel/Jacob “multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them” (1:7).  The Egyptians, fearing that they would join with some enemy against them, made them slaves in hopes of keeping them in line.  But the Israelites continued to multiply despite the oppression.  In hopes of lessening their numbers, Pharaoh ordered that all newborn male (but not female) Israelite children be thrown into the Nile.  

So begins the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.  Moses survived because his mother placed him in a bullrush basket in the river (in putting him in the river his mother was technically following Pharaoh’s decree!).  The baby was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who knew he was “one of the Hebrew’s children” and “took pity on him” (2:6) and adopted him despite her father’s order.  So Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household.  Parallels to the story of Moses’ miraculous survival occur in many legends of heroes, most closely in that of Sargon, the circa 2600 BCE founder of the Akkadian Empire, whose mother also placed him in bitumen sealed rush basket in the river.  The motif is also repeated with variations in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of baby Jesus’ escape from Herod’s decree.

Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but one day killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew.  Fearing for his life, Moses fled to Midian which was inhabited by distant relatives of the Israelites.  In an incident at a well resembling the meetings with Rebecca and Rachel in Genesis, Moses encountered the daughters of “the priest of Midian,” one of whom he married.  

Moses tended the flocks of his father-in-law until his fateful encounter with the “burning bush.” A voice spoke from out of the flames, identifying itself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob,” telling Moses that he had been appointed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses was overwhelmed and made excuses, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11).  He also demanded to know the name of the being who was sending him.  The reply, “I AM WHO I AM,” is “an etymology of Yahve” (Oxford Annotated Bible footnote 3:14).  According to Exodus 6:2-3, this was the first time the name of the God of Abraham had been revealed.

I wonder about the encounter of Moses with Yahve.  Did he have no previous knowledge of the Patriarchs’ God?  After all he had been raised in Pharaoh’s household, no doubt surrounded by the Egyptian pantheon of many gods and their elaborate rituals.  And who/what was his father-in-law (who is given two, maybe three different names in Exodus and Numbers) a priest of?  Some scholars think that Yahve may have originally been a Midian deity.

Up this point the story is been pretty straightforward, without the differing and mystifying accounts that appear in Genesis’ stories of the Patriarchs.  But things become more confusing as the story continues.  Story elements are sometimes out of chronological sequence, conflicting details appear as well as vague accounts of mysterious events.  In Exodus 4:24-26 there is a brief, likely incomplete brief mention of an incident that occurred as Moses returned to Egypt.  “On a lodging place on the way Yahve met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah (Moses’ wife) took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet (in the Bible often a euphemism for penis) with it, and said, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’  So he (Yahve) let him alone.  Then it was that she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision.” Some scholars think these mystifying verses may be a remnant of a tradition about the origin of circumcision different from the Genesis account involving Abraham and/or a ritual to ward off attack by a demonic force.  But just what was going on remains a mystery.  

With the assistance of his brother, Arron, Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites.  Which he had no intention of doing.  There was much back and forth, with miracles worked by Moses and Arron and finally the ten plagues.  Pharaoh several times almost relented, but then Yahve “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he refused to let the Israelites leave.  As is often the case in the OT, Yahve seems to be a source of opposition to the good he urges.  But if all that happens is directed by divine will, then it logically follows that even bad things must come from God.

The plagues and repeated hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by Yahve occupy several chapters.  The last plague, the death of all the first-born of Egypt, is linked to the institution of Passover.  The Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the lintel and doorposts of their houses.  Seeing the sign of the blood Yahve would then “pass over the door, and will not allow the Destroyer to enter your houses to slay you” (12:23), thus “Passover.”  Inserted into the narrative is a lengthy, repetitious description of how Passover, which also includes the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is to be observed.  Some scholars believe that Passover brought together a pastoral celebration of the first lambs of the season and an agricultural festival of the spring wheat.  But, as with many explanations of biblical passages,  that idea seems to be based more on conjecture than known facts.  I do wonder about the significance of warding off a threat to first-born children with the sacrifice of a lamb.  Could this, like the near sacrifice of Issac, be related to an ancient change in which human sacrifice was replaced with the offering of an animal?

Yahve at midnight “smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt” (12:29).  Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptians were now more than ready to be rid of the Israelites, whom Moses told to ask the Egyptians for jewelry, silver and gold, and clothing.  Which Exodus states the Egyptians, likely in fear after their first-born were slain by Israel’s God, willingly gave them, for “Yahve had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians.  Thus they despoiled the Egyptians” (12:36).

In the morning the Israelites left Egypt with the bones (likely mummy) of Joseph, which he had requested be taken back to his homeland, along with their flocks and the riches the Egyptians had bestowed on them.  Yahve led them with a pillar of cloud by day and one of fire at night.  Then he once again “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh who decided he wanted his slaves back and pursued them with his army.  The Israelites were trapped on the edge of the Sea of Reeds (not the “Red Sea” which is based on a mistranslation from Hebrew to Greek in the Septuagint), a marshy region on the border between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.  The Israelites panicked, accusing Moses of having brought them out “to die in the wilderness.”  But Yahve, for whom saving Israel seemed to be primarily a means for proving his superiority to the Egyptians and their gods (14:17-18), told Moses to direct the Israelites onward as the sea parted before them at Moses’ command.  Then the waters closed behind them, drowning their pursuers.  

There have been many attempts to establish the exodus from Egypt as historical fact.  It is generally agreed that the probable date is somewhere around the thirteenth century BCE.  A number of details in the Exodus account correlate with known Egyptian history and culture at that time.  There have also been attempts to explain the plagues and parting of the waters in terms of natural events, some of which are noted in the Oxford Annotated Bible.  There is, however, nothing resembling the events of Exodus in the extensive records of ancient Egypt.  In addition no archaeological evidence of the movement of a large group of people through the Sinai region or invading Canaan has been found.  But, as is often said in reference to archaeological “proof,” lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  There may well have been a movement from Egypt to Canaan of people who would eventually be incorporated into the nation of Israel.  But there is not much in the way of conclusive evidence to establish that as historical fact.  (See Rachel Hallote, "Does Archaeology Confirm Joseph's Time in Egypt," Biblical Archaeology Review, Fall 2021, pp. 40-47 re: a possible relationship between the biblical story of the Children of Israel in Egypt and the brief period when a Canaanite group ruled Egypt).  While new discoveries may demonstrate otherwise, so far at least, belief that the Exodus as described in the Bible was a historical event rests more on faith than hard evidence.

Exodus states that about six hundred thousand male Hebrews left Egypt along with uncounted women, children, and a”mixed multitude” of non-Hebrews (121:37).  According to an Oxford Bible footnote, with women and children there would have been a total of about two and a half million people, far more than could be supported in either Goshen or the Sinai wilderness.  Of course there is always recourse to divine miracle, such as the manna or great flock of quail Yahve sent to his people to save them from starvation in the wilderness, to explain things.  But the six hundred thousand, like many numbers in the Bible, appears to be an exaggeration that shouldn’t be taken literally.

Safe on the far side of the sea from which they could see the drowned bodies of Pharaoh’s army, the thankful Israelites sang a song/psalm, the first verse of which is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, praising Yahve for the victory.  But their thankfulness didn’t last long.  Repeatedly they complained, accusing Moses of having brought them “out to the wilderness to die.”  Repeatedly Moses asked Yahve for help, and was given a miracle which temporally made his difficult followers content until the next hardship came along.  

There was a battle with the Amalekites (17:8-13), a desert tribe which would trouble Israel well into the future.  So long as Moses, watching from a distance, held his arms up the Israelites dominated the enemy.  But when he tired and lowered his arms, the enemy would advance.  So Arron and another Israelite, Hur, held up his arms until the enemy was routed.  This was the first of what would be many battles as the Israelites fought their way into the Promised Land.

Moses’ father-in-law visited the Israelite camp, bringing with him Moses' wife and two sons who had been sent back to Midian while the Exodus was getting underway, where he offered a sacrifice to Yahve, and proposed an administrative system which relieved Moses from the burden of judging every dispute that arose (18).

About three months after the departure from Egypt, “Israel encamped before the mountain” of Sinai (19:2), which seems to have been identical with the mountain of Horeb where Moses first encountered Yahve.  From the mountain Yahve called to Moses, proposing a covenant in which the people of Israel would agree to “obey my voice and keep my commandments.”  In turn they would be made “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6).  There follows a confusing weaving together of accounts from several sources which makes it very difficult to arrive at a definitive version of events at Sinai.  

The simplest story, the one that I learned as a child, has Moses going up the mountain where Yahve gave him the Ten Commandments engraved on two stone tablets.  Moses was gone forty days and nights (a standard biblical count for a long period of time), so long that the people left down in the camp suspected that he had died on the mountain and begged Arron to do something.  Gathering up all the gold in the camp, he made a golden calf resembling the gods the Israelites were familiar with in Egypt, built an altar before it, and proclaimed "a feast day to the Lord."  When Moses finally came down from the mountain he was horrified at what had happened in his absence.  He threw the stone tablets bearing the commandments on the ground, shattering them as a metaphor of how the Israelites had broken the just established covenant.  Aaron claimed that the calf emerged on its own from the fire in which he had melted down the gold the people gave him.  Moses then went back up Sinai with another set of tablets and again received the Ten Commandments which the Israelites agreed for the second time to follow.

But the account in Exodus is more complicated as well as confusing.  It is not clear whether the stone tablets were inscribed with only the Ten Commandments or, like the similar Code of Hammurabi which was carved into stone, with the entire ritual and civil law which was also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  There is mention of a book of the covenant as well as the two tablets of stone but it is unclear whether they were separate partial records of the covenant or different names for the same thing.  Differing accounts are given of who went up the mountain with Moses.  There are several chapters describing ethical and ritual commandments along with civil ordinances, many of which seem more suited to a settled agrarian community than a group of desert dwelling nomads.  The civil laws resemble the legal systems of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Exodus 20:1-17 contains the Ten Commandments (literally “Ten Words” in Hebrew) as I learned them, which are repeated with minor variations in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  Additional versions of some of those commandments occur later on in Exodus in combination with ritual injunctions and a cultic calendar (34:11-26).

Chapters 25-31 contain very detailed directions for building and furnishing the sacred tabernacle/tent of meeting (of Moses and Arron with Yahve) along with a description of the vestments of Aaron and his sons who would serve as priests in the tabernacle, all of which was communicated to Moses during his forty days and nights on the mountain with Yahve.  Growing up in a church founded around Daniel’s twenty-three hundred day prophecy concerning the “cleansing of the sanctuary,” I learned a lot about the tabernacle described in Exodus.  I can still recall pictures and schematics of it with its division into Holy Place and Most Holy Place, outer courtyard and sacred furnishings. Interestingly the remains of a similar structure associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor have been found in modern Israel.  Exodus’ description of the tabernacle resembles an ancient Egyptian depiction of the war tent of Ramesses II.   Similar structures are described in ancient West Semitic religious texts.

Moses came down from the mountain to find the people he had led out of bondage in Egypt worshipping the golden calf.  Yahve lost all patience with “this . . . stiff-necked people” whom he was ready to destroy.  He told Moses to “let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”  But Moses argued with him, saying that “the Egyptians will say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains.’. . . And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (32:9-12).  Again Yahve seemed to be more concerned about his reputation than he was moved by compassion.  Still there was punishment as the Levites went through the camp killing about three thousand people who were presumably (the text is less than clear) most involved with the episode of idolatry.  In addition Yahve “sent a plague upon the people, because they made the calf which Aaron made” (this text seems very unclear as to just who made it!) (32:35).

After describing how Yahve “used to speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” when they would meet in the tabernacle (33:11), the text says that Moses was told that he could not see Yahve’s face and live.  But he was placed in a safe “cleft of the rock” and allowed to see the deity’s back as Yahve passed by (33:20-23).  

Moses went back up Sinai with another set of stone tables.  Yahve again proclaimed his covenant with Israel along with another version of the commandments and ritual laws.  This time the covenant was appropriately received by the people.  Most of the rest of Exodus, in great detail which repeats much of the earlier instruction for its building, describes construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings along with the vestments of Aaron, the high priest.

Nine months after the arrival at Sinai the newly constructed tabernacle/tent of meeting was dedicated and filled with the cloud-like presence of Yahve.  “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward, but if the cloud was not taken up , then they did not go onward until the day that it was taken up” (40:34-38).


Leviticus, is probably one of the least read books of the Bible.  Except for perhaps the now infamous sentence of death for homosexuality, even devout Christians are unlikely to know much about it.  Leviticus is a book of laws for ancient Israel.  The name of the book comes from the Levi tribe of priests.  In rabbinic literature Leviticus is referred to as “The Regulations of the Priests.”  Judaic priesthood having ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Leviticus is of interest these days to few people apart from rabbis and yeshiva students studying Torah and scholars seeking to understand ancient Hebrew religion.  

The use of several sources is apparent in textual duplications and abrupt shifts in topic.  Elements of Exodus’ ten commandments appear mixed in with other commandments (19).  In The Old Testament, A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, Richard Hess describes a number of interesting parallels between cultic practices and laws described in Leviticus and those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.

Leviticus has only three narratives.  Chapter eight is an extended account of the priestly ordination of Aaron and his sons by Moses.  The other two narratives describe the result of failure to abide by the law given by Yahve.  One tells of how two sons of Aaron offered “unholy fire” (not from the perpetual flame in the tabernacle), for which they were themselves consumed by fire.  Aaron and his surviving sons then failed to eat their portion of the sin offering made in atonement.  Moses was distressed by his brother’s failure to do as told, but “was content” with Aaron’s explanation of his distress at “such things as have befallen me” (10).  In the third narrative the sin of blasphemy was punished by death.

The first verse of Leviticus describes Yahve speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting to convey instructions for sacrifices.  Leviticus is much concerned with sacrifice, providing detailed descriptions of the several kinds of sacrifices prescribed by Yahve and how they are to be preformed.  There are both animal and “cereal” (grain and baked goods in which salt was to be added but not leaven) offerings for specific situations and occasions which are described in detail.  Judging by the procedures for butchering sacrificial animals and throwing their blood around the altar, the tabernacle/temple (most biblical scholars believe that much of Leviticus depicts post-exilic temple practices projected back into the time of Exodus) would seem to have more resembled a slaughter house than what we think of as a place of worship.  Strict adherence to Yahve’s commands regarding animal sacrifices would seemingly have produced non-stop slaughter and burning of flesh on the altar.  I wonder how closely the laws of Leviticus were actually followed.

Sacrifices were offerings made to Yahve.  Some, “holocausts,” were completely burned up.  Others were only partially consumed on the altar.  What was left was eaten by the priests who had to consume all that had been made holy via sacrifice within a certain timeframe.  Fat and blood, the latter of which was regarded as “the life” of the sacrificed animal, were not to be eaten but were Yahve’s portion.  Sacrifices were only to be offered in the tabernacle, not in the fields as in the days of the Patriarchs as that was the location of offerings made “to satyrs,” i.e. gods other than Yahve (17:7).

There is much focus on holiness and its opposite, uncleanness, both of which were regarded as objective non-materialistic energies that could be transmitted via contact.  It was dangerous to touch or even be in the presence of a holy object or person.  Likewise, contact with an unclean object, animal, or person made one unclean.  There were regulations for the care of holy objects along with details as to how the priests were to stay safe when in the holy tabernacle and extensive directions for decontamination of uncleanness.

As an Adventist my only real association to the rules found in Leviticus was the list of clean and unclean animals, which in contemporary language was reduced to “don’t eat pigs or shellfish.”  As my family were vegetarians, that didn’t have much practical application for me.  But when I finally got around to reading the biblical text, I wondered why Adventists ignored the rest of Leviticus’ dietary code, which for observant Jews constitutes kosher.  Interestingly other ancient Near Eastern cultures like the Hittites also made a distinction between clean and unclean animals.  But for the Hittites pigs were clean (Hess, p. 85-86).

As an apparent visible sign of uncleanness, leprosy, which seems to have been a generic term for any skin disease and even mildew in dwellings, gets a lot of attention in Leviticus which is responsible for the common usage of  “leper” in reference to someone who has been banished from society.

There were a great many rules regarding sex, most having to do with whom one could not have sexual relations.  The penalty for many sexual violations was death.  Women were regarded as unclean during and for a while after their period as well as after childbirth.  In general there wasn’t much positive regard for women in the laws of Leviticus.

A sacred calendar is described along with rules for observing the sabbath and several annual festivals, some of which other biblical texts seem to indicate actually originated after the Babylonian exile.  Every seventh year was a sabbath year in which fields were not to be cultivated or crops harvested.  This seems to have involved an act of faith that Yahve would provide a large enough harvest in the sixth year to ensure survival until harvest in the eight year.  There was also a fiftieth Jubilee Year in which the prohibitions on sowing and harvesting were repeated, leases expired and people returned to their family homes, debts were forgiven, and indentured servants freed.  As the fiftieth year would follow a sabbath year, that meant two years in which tending and harvest crops was forbidden.  I wonder whether these seemingly impractical injunctions were ever actually followed.

There are rules for ethical conduct, including the “Golden Rule” in a text quoted by Jesus (19:18), debt and business transactions, property exchange, and everyday life.  Only non-Hebrews were to be enslaved in perpetuity; Hebrews could be indentured to pay off debt but were to be freed when either the debit was paid or the Year of Jubilee occurred.  The poor must be provided for.  The regulations for sacrifice make provision for when someone was too poor to be able to make an expensive offering.  

Chapter 27 is a sort of appendix describing the procedure for setting the monetary value of persons, animals, and property that have been “vowed” to Yahve, apparently to redeem the pledge.  A lesser value was assigned to females.  Pledged animals suitable for sacrifice were not redeemable but had to be sacrificed.  A tithe of virtually everything was to be given to Yahve.  Agriculture tithe could be reclaimed by paying its valuation along with an additional fifth, but the tithe of animals could not be redeemed.  

Leviticus ends (except for the appendix) with a promise of prosperity conditional on obedience followed by a longer threat of punishment for disobedience:  “You shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up” (26:38).  But even then “I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God; but I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers” (26:44-45).


The name of this book in the Christian OT comes from the several censuses which it records.  But in Tanak it is “In the Wilderness,” which better describes it as a record of the forty years between the departure from Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land of Canaan.  The structure of the book, like the rest of the Pentateuch, is a bit of a jumble.  Narratives are mixed, without transitionary explanation or apparent order, with chapters describing census counts (which can seem endless and way too detailed for most readers), legal matters, detailed descriptions of the Levites in relation to the tabernacle and their cultic duties, the camp layout with the tabernacle at the center (unlike Exodus where it is outside the camp), and plans for occupying Canaan.  The narrative concludes with the conquest of several nations on the border of Canaan, the settlement of two tribes outside of Canaan on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and preparations for the invasion of Canaan followed by what seem to have been left-over legal matters tacked on to the end of the book.

Chapter twenty one contains three songs/psalms celebrating events that occurred as the Israelites neared the Promised Land.  One cites “The Book of the Wars of Yahve.”  Another leads off with “Therefore the ballad singers say, . . .”  I wonder what else was in that lost book and what other songs those ballad singers sang.  What other lost sources did the compilers of the OT use?  Much OT scholarship seems to revolve around attempts to reconstruct sources which at best can be no more than hypotheses.  So much of the past will always be unknown.

I was surprised to discover that about thirty five of the forty years “in the wilderness” were spent at an oasis.  In addition the Israelites were camped at Sinai for almost a year.  So they weren’t actually wandering about the Sinai peninsula for the full forty years.

There are repeated counts of various groupings of males above twenty years of age, “every man able to go to war.”  Exodus’ improbable total of more than 600,000 is twice repeated.  The Levities (22,000 - another doubtful figure) were counted separately in relation to their sacred duties.  Aaron and his sons presided as priests over sacrifices in the tabernacle; the rest of the male members of the tribe of Levi were assigned various tasks involved in transporting, setting up, and maintaining the tabernacle.  First-born sons from the other tribes belonged to Yahve, but were redeemed by an equal number of Levites who substituted for them.  As there were more first-borns in the other tribes than there were male Levites, the leftover first-borns had to be redeemed via an offering.

It is clear that women didn’t have the same legal rights as men.  A vow made by a woman could be cancelled if her father or husband objected; but no one could change a vow made by a man (30).  A trial by ordeal was prescribed for a woman accused of adultery (5:11-28); there is no corresponding ordeal for a man so accused.  


Much of the narrative in Numbers involves repeated instances of complaining about the hardships of life in the wilderness, repeating the same accusations of being brought out of Egypt to die that occur in Exodus.  In response Yahve sent plagues of various kinds that killed many of the rebellious people.  In one instant Moses reached his limit and asked Yahve to kill him so he would no longer have to deal with such difficult people (11:10).  

Spies sent to check out Canaan came back overwhelmed by what they saw.  Of the twelve spies all but two, Caleb and Joshua, reported that the inhabitants of Canaan (the mighty Nephilim last heard from in Genesis apparently had somehow survived the Flood and resided in the Promised Land) would be too much for the Israelites, who again begin wailing that it would have been better to have died in Egypt.  Yahve threatened to kill them all (as in the story of the flood there were limits to his patience) and make Moses “a great nation” in their stead.  Moses once again talked him out of it by pointing out that doing so would hurt Yahve's reputation in other nations (14:13-19).  Yahve relented, but decreed that, except for Caleb and Joshua, the generation that left Egypt would have to die before the Israelites would be permitted to enter Canaan, hence the forty years in the wilderness.  The ten fearful spies were killed by a plague.  Not exactly content with their sentence of eventual death in the wilderness and apparently having lost their fear of the Canaanites, some of the Israelites attempted to storm into Canaan but were driven back (14:39-45).  In a latter incident Moses, exasperated by the continual complaints, struck a rock to bring forth water, disobeying Yahve’s direction to “speak” to the rock, whereupon he too was barred from entering Canaan (20).

Chapters 16 relates an account that seems to conflate two differing versions of revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron.  In one the rebels were swallowed up by the earth; in the other they were consumed by fire.  When others protested the death of the rebels, Yahve sent a plague that killed over fourteen thousand people.  In the following chapter Aaron’s appointment as high priest was challenged and put to the test by leaving “rods” from each tribe along with one from Aaron overnight in the tent of meeting/tabernacle.  In the morning Aaron’s rod alone had sprouted, producing blossoms and almonds, thus confirming his divine appointment.

Even Moses’ siblings complained about him.  Aaron and Miriam didn’t like Moses’ Cushite wife.  (Cush was an African nation which for a time ruled Egypt.  The relation of the Cushite to Moses’ Midianite wife in Exodus is unclear as is the connection between the siblings objection to her and their complaint against Moses).  They challenged their brother’s special status with God: “Has Yahve indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  Yahve summoned the three siblings to the tent of meeting where he stood in the door to say that he spoke “mouth to mouth” only with Moses who alone of all people beheld “the form of Yahve” (a contrast to the incident at Sinai in which Moses wasn’t allowed to see Yahve’s face.  I wonder how he stood in the door but wasn’t seen by Aaron and Miriam).  Miriam was punished with leprosy which, thanks to Moses intercession with Yahve, lasted only a week.  As in the incident of the Golden Calf there is no mention of Aaron also being punished (12).

As the wanderers neared Canaan they again began complaining about Moses’ leadership and their hardships which included “this worthless food” of manna.  This time Yahve sent “fiery serpents among the people” who then came to Moses saying that they had sinned.  In one of the stranger accounts in the Old Testament Moses was told to make a bronze “fiery serpent” elevated on a pole which would heal those who had been bitten when they looked upon it (21:6-9).  This seems more like a remnant of some idolatrous magical tradition than something that belongs among the prohibitions against worship of idols.  According to 2 Kings 18:4, the bronze serpent was preserved to become an object of worship which was destroyed during the reform of King Hezekiah.

Numbers 22-24 presents one of the best known incidents in the Israelites’ journey with the story of Balaam, usually referred to as “Balaam and the Ass.”  The detailed telling of the tale, especially the humorous incident with the ass, has a decidedly different style from the rest of Numbers.  Balaam seems to have been a sort of freelance prophet for hire.  A fragmented inscription from the eighth century BCE discovered in modern Jordan describes a vision of Balaam son of Beor, the same title as the prophet in Numbers, in which he attended the divine assembly of El (a divine name translated as “God” in the English Bible), indicating that some kind of tradition of Balaam existed apart from that in the Bible.  

There seem to be two conflicting attitudes towards Balaam in Numbers, likely indicating the merger of differing accounts.  In one he seems to be a devout worshipper of Yahve; in the other he is a mercenary rogue.  Whichever Balaam may have been, the king of Moab, fearful of invasion by the large force that had appeared near the border, asked him to curse the Israelites.  Balaam consulted Yahve who told him not to do it, so Balaam sent the king’s envoys away with his refusal.  But the king persisted, repeating his request.  Again Balaam asked Yahve to tell him what to do and was told him to go with the men but to do only what Yahve would tell him.

So Balaam went off with the king’s men.  But Yahve apparently changed his mind, sending an angel with a sword to stop Balaam.  Balaam’s mount saw the angel blocking the way and refused to go forward.  When Balaam began beating the ass, it spoke up, asking why he was beating her.  Balaam, apparently not surprised by an ass speaking, replied that he wished he had a sword to kill his mount for “having made sport of me.”  The ass asked Balaam if he had ever known her to do such a thing.  He replied, “No,” whereupon his eyes were opened to see the angel who told him that the ass had saved his life.  If he had gone forward the angel would have killed him.  Balaam said he would turn back.  But the angel, adding more confusion to the story after nearly killing him, directed him to go on, only not to say anything except what he would be told.

Four times the persistent and perhaps not too bright king took Balaam, who warned him that he would utter nothing except what Yahve told him to say, to a high place from which he could view the encamped Israelites.  At Balaam’s direction the king built seven altars on each of which he offered a bull and ram.  Each time “the Spirit of Yahve” came upon Balaam and he blessed rather than cursed Israel, much to the king’s dismay.  The final time Balaam prophesied the  destruction of Israel’s enemies including Moab.  After which the king and Balaam went their separate ways.  The text doesn’t say whether Balaam was paid.

As they neared Canaan, the Israelites “began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab,” who invited them to their festivals of sacrifice to Baal.  In response Yahve told Moses to hang all the “chiefs of the people.”  Moses ordered his administrators to kill everyone who had joined in the worship of Baal.  A man who had brought a Midianite (who seems to be associated with Moab) woman into the camp was killed along with the woman by one of Aaron’s sons.  (I wonder about Moses’ Midianite wife!).  Their deaths brought an end to a plague (not mentioned before - again there seems to be a weaving together of different accounts) that had killed twenty four thousand people (25).

After several chapters of census and legal maters, Numbers continues with the aftermath of the episode of idolatry.  Yahve orders the destruction of the people of Moab/Midian (Midian seems to replace Moab in the account of revenge).  Every Midian adult male, including Balaam who was blamed for encouraging the Israelites to join in the festivities honoring Baal ((31: 8, 16) was killed.  The women and children were taken captive.  When Moses saw the captives he was angry, demanding that “every male among the little ones” and “every woman who has known man by lying with him” also be killed.  I wonder what happened to Moses’ Midian wife and father-in-law.  “But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (31:17-18).  In a list of the spoils of war the captive Midian virgins are enumerated as thirty two thousand (32:35).  I wonder what happened to Moses’ Midian wife and father-in-law.

Many years ago, when I was still a believing SDA in my teens, I came across a book by Mark Twain in which he cited this incident as evidence of the depravity of God as depicted in the Bible.  I don’t think I had been aware of the fate of the Midianites before reading that book but it stayed with me.  While it is perhaps one of the more shocking narratives, it is not the only story in the Numbers that doesn’t correspond very well with what I was taught about God as a loving being.  A man gathering sticks on the sabbath was stoned to death (15:32-36).  Yahve repeatedly killed large numbers of his people for complaining and, as in other places in the Bible, seemed more concerned about his reputation “among the nations” than he is with the well-being of his people. Again I think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job argument that the God of ancient Israel was a far from conscious being capable of taking responsibility for his actions, something that, in Jung’s thinking, happened only with the death of Jesus.  

Still, among the stories, shocking incidents, instructions for sacrifices of a bewildering variety, legal concerns, and assorted counts of the Israelites, Numbers contains one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible, the Priestly Blessing which Aaron and his sons were to bestow on Israel.  It is also preserved in the oldest known text of a portion of the Bible, inscribed on fragments of two tiny silver scroll amulets found in 1979 and dated to just before the 586/7 BCE Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (


     The Lord bless and keep you;

     The Lord make his face to shine upon you,

     And be gracious to you;

     The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,     

     And give you peace.



The Old Testament title for the last book of the Pentateuch is Greek for “the second law” or “repetition of the law.”  While a major part of the book is concerned with laws to govern Israel in the Promised Land, many of which were also in the preceding books, the Hebrew title, “The Words” more accurately describes the book as the record of three speeches given by Moses prior to his death.  As is the case with the other books of the Pentateuch, some aspects of Deuteronomy appear to come from a later period in the development of Judaism.  It is believed to have been put into its present form sometime after the return from exile in Babylon.  However some parts no doubt existed earlier.  Most biblical scholars agree that the “Book of the Law” that was discovered and inspired the reforms of King Josiah (reigned 640-608 BCE) in 2 Kings 22-23 was an early form of Deuteronomy.  

While Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch, in the documentary hypothesis which seeks to understand the history of Old Testament books in terms of their sources and editing, it is also the first book of what is termed the “Deuteronomic history” that runs through the books of Kings and was put into its final form after the return from Babylon.  While that is the general scholarly consensus Richard Hess, in his The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, suggests an alternative view, comparing the structure of Deuteronomy to that of Hittite vassal treaties from the second millennium BCE as evidence for a possible earlier date for the book in its present form (pp.129-133).  

Samuel Sandmel describes message of Deuteronomy as “God works in history; obey his law, lovingly, and he will work good for you, but disobey, and he will work ill for you” (The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas, p. 415).  

The major part of Deuteronomy consists of three speeches Moses delivered to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land.   The first speech (1:6-4:40) reviews the journey from Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name, in an unexplained shift, for the mountain called Sinai in Exodus-Numbers) to the border of Canaan with exhortations to remain faithful as Israel realizes its destiny of becoming a great nation.  The second speech (seemingly too long and tedious to have been delivered as a speech to “the congregation of Israel”) is a description of cultic and civil regulations, much of it repeating and expanding material contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  Chapters 27-28, which change to third person from the first person of Moses’ speeches, describe a ritual of blessings and curses to be performed after crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  

The final speech (29-30) of Moses calls for a renewal of the covenant made at Horeb.  Along with hope for the future, unfaithfulness followed by punishment via conquest and exile is predicted along with a promise of restoration following repentance.  Throughout Deuteronomy there are repeated references to what seems to be the conquest of Israel and Judah, exile, and return to Jerusalem, events that occurred centuries after the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan.  On one hand this can be read as prophecy; on the other it would seem to point to a post-exilic date for at least some parts of Deuteronomy.

Moses’ recapitulation of the journey through the wilderness emphasized the many times Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant with Yahve, especially in regard to the instances of worshipping other gods.  To lessen the possibility of temptation resulting in a recurrence of idol worship, all the idolatrous nations of Canaan were to be ruthlessly and completely destroyed along with their gods and shrines.  However the nations outside of Canaan (who of course also worshipped gods other than Yahve) were to be treated differently, killing only the men while taking captive the women and children.  

Even before entering Canaan the Israelites conquered two kingdoms in whose seized lands two and a half tribes (what would have been the tribe of Joseph was split between his two sons, making thirteen actual tribal groups although the two split tribes of Joseph were counted as one) were settled with the understanding that their men would continue to fight with the rest in the conquest of Canaan.  In agreement with the reports of Nephilim by the spies sent to Canaan, giants dwelt in the conquered land, one of whom was Og whose huge bedstead was on view as a sort of museum piece (3:11), a bit that would seem to be from a later time.

Following a review of the events at Horeb, including the Ten Commandments (“Ten Words” in Hebrew) with minor variations from that in Exodus 20,  Deuteronomy describes how Yahve told Moses “all the commandment and the statutes and the ordinances which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess” (5:31).  Moses’ relating what he was told runs from chapter six through twenty-six.  Chapter six leads off with what became in Judaic tradition the Shema (“Hear”), which Jesus quoted as the “First Great Commandment” (Mark 12:29-30):


     Hear, O Israel,

     Yahve is our God; Yahve is one,

     And you shall love Yahve our God

     With all your heart

     And with all your soul,      

     And with all your might.


Descriptions of “the commandment, statues, and ordinances” vary from terse to discursive.  Compared with Numbers, there is less about sacrifices, and more focus on civil law.  There seems to be no discernible pattern; only motifs and reframes with some repetition.  

Some of the laws are appalling to modern sensibilities.  A “worthless son” could be stoned to death at his parents’ request.  A newly married wife who is found to not be a virgin was also to be stoned.  In determining sentence for an intentional injury done to another, the law was “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  A wife who helped a husband who was being physically attacked by grabbing the assailant’s genitals was to have her hand amputated.  Men with damaged genitals were excluded from the assembly as were the disfigured and disabled.

Other laws were surprisingly humane.  A number concerned obligations towards the less fortunate.  Cities of Refuge were to be established to protect those who had unintentionally caused a death from revenge by relatives of the deceased.  Slavery was allowed, but Hebrew slaves were to be freed after seven years and fugitive slaves were not to be returned to their masters.  A captive woman could be taken as a wife, but could not be made a slave and must be set free if her husband tired of her.  There had to be more than one witness to a crime for conviction.  Men with unfinished business of various kinds, in the first year of marriage, and those “fearful and fainthearted” were excused from participation in warfare.  There were several laws pertaining to animal welfare.

Practical matters were addressed.  Soldiers were to carry a tool with which to bury their excrement outside the camp.  Flat roofs had to have parapets to keep people from falling off, an indication that some of the laws came from a time when Israel no longer lived in tents.  A king elected by the people would be permitted but he was not to “multiply” horses and wives (17:14-17), an apparent late addition perhaps commenting on the behavior of Solomon?

Some laws just seem strange.  Levirate marriage concerned the obligation of a brother-in-law to ensure the survival of a deceased brother’s heritage by getting his widow pregnant with a son.  Garments were to be fringed and could not combine two kinds of cloth.  Two types of crops were not to be sown together and two kinds of animals were not to plow together.    

Compared with Numbers, Deuteronomy is less concerned with matters of clean vs. unclean.  I was surprised to read that meat from unclean animals could be eaten provided the animal had been slaughtered in town rather than the country-side (another late addition).  As in Numbers blood was not to be consumed but, as the life-force, had to be drained from slaughtered animals (12:15-16, 20-21).  

Following the long discourse on the laws is a description of a ritual that was to be performed once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.  In contrast to a previously stated stipulation (which however is probably a later addition from a time when Jerusalem had been established as the ritual center) that sacrifices were to be performed only at a central location, instructions were given for the building of an altar on the Canaan side of the River Jordan on which sacrifices would be offered, likely an indication of an early origin of the ritual.  A series of curses for disobedience and blessings for abiding by the terms of the covenant were to be ritually read and affirmed by the people.  

In Moses’ final address he set before the people of Israel, “life and death, blessing and curse,” in hopes that they would “choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (30:19).  In preparation for his death, he appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the conquest of Canaan.  Then he “spoke the words” of a song about Yahve’s covenant with Israel, their disobedience and punishment followed by Yahve’s “vindication of his people,” an apparent reference to the Babylonian exile and return (32:1-43).

In the form of another poem Moses blessed the several tribes (Simon is not mentioned but the splitting of Joseph’s descendants makes for twelve) with their assigned land.  Interestingly, the mountain of Yahve is identified as Sinai rather than Horeb which is so designated in the rest of Deuteronomy, indicating a likely early origin for the poem.  

Moses then ascended “Mt. Nebo, to the top of Pisgah” (again there seems to be a mix of two traditions).  From the height Yahve showed him “all the land” in the distance from which he was barred because he struck rather than spoke to the rock.  Yahve buried Moses in an unknown grave.  Thus ended “all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel” (34:1, 12).  Volumes two through five of the Pentateuch (literally “Five Scrolls”), regardless of who may have written them, are for certain the Books of Moses, the central figure in the narrative which runs from Exodus through Deuteronomy.

© 2021 James Moyers


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