Sermon, 4th August 2019 at 10.30am

Reading the Pentateuch

By The Revd Mark Wakefield

 In our August sermon slots this year we are going to be talking about the Old Testament, something that is too often misunderstood and its importance too often overlooked.  Today, at the beginning of this series of talks, I’m going to be talking about the Pentateuch. 

The Pentateuch is the name given to the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The word comes “Pentateuch” comes from the Greek words for “five” and “books” or “scrolls”.  It starts with the beginning of the world in Genesis; moves through the earliest days of the people of Israel; their captivity in Egypt, subsequent release and wandering in the wilderness; the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai with the ten commandments; and ends with the death of Moses just before the Israelites enter the promised land.  There’s general agreement that it was the work of many hands and developed over centuries in oral form, most likely assuming its final, written form around the fifth century BC.

I’m sometimes asked the question: “are the Pentateuch and the Torah the same thing?”

to which the answer is both “yes” and “no”.  “Torah” means “instruction” or “guidance” or “law”.  In so far as the Pentateuch contains the story of the giving of the law and ever more precise details for its observance, it is the same as the Torah.  But strictly speaking the Torah is something rather bigger in that it encompasses both the written law in the Pentateuch and the oral Torah which contains interpretations and amplifications provided by Rabbis over the centuries.

So, why does it matter so much to us?  It’s no exaggeration to say that in so far as it has shaped Christianity it shapes the whole way we look at the world, regardless of our faith position.  By extension, to the extent to which the western world is leaving the Christian faith behind (as opposed to what’s happening in “the global south” and China) there is a big, worrying question as to what will take its place.  All I can do here is attempt the briefest of sketches but I hope it will be sufficient to illustrate the point that it is foundational for our current worldview.  So let’s begin at the beginning with Genesis.

Genesis is remarkable for telling us at least as much about ourselves as human beings as it does about God.  According to it we are the apex of all creation, God’s crowning achievement.  But for all that we are but creatures who have received the precious gift of life and with that the power for both reflection and choice – for good or ill.  Genesis may be a great work of literature as opposed to a factual account of the beginning of the world but who can fail to recognise with a sinking heart the baleful effects of human sinfulness that it describes so graphically? Its sophistication as piece of great literature, albeit one inspired by the HS, is remarkable.  Consider the story of the fall.  Eve decides to eat fruit from the forbidden tree in today’s reading when she saw that:

 “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes”

But earlier in Genesis we are told that:

“God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food”

Can you see what’s happened?  Eve, in her sinfulness, has reversed God’s order of things.  Whereas God intended the glory and beauty of his creation to be a delight to human beings first and foremost and only secondly a source of food, Eve sees the tree as primarily for its usefulness to her and only secondly as a pointer to the glory of God.  As we look around us at soaring temperatures, floods, melting glaciers, and all our filth and detritus who can doubt the truth of this insight that we use and abuse the world when we should stand in awe of it and cherish it?

But make no mistake – it is clear from Genesis that we are under judgement. We, the crown of God’s creation, have special responsibilities and will be held accountable for our actions.

Accountability is a foundational idea that runs through the whole of the bible and when that idea loses its power and salience, as undoubtedly it is doing in our post-Christian society, then we get into trouble.  I’m struck by the view of a senior judge friend of mine who, while struggling with faith, nonetheless says how very hard it is to make and apply law when there is no belief in ultimate authority any more.

Creatures under judgement we may be but the God of the bible also confers on us a remarkable dignity.  Indeed, as the crown of God’s world we are seen in the bible as no less than his co-workers in the task of creation.  As the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the God of the Old Testament “makes space” for us.  In Exodus we find Moses – the man who when confronted by God had to hide his face in his cloak such was the blinding radiance of the Almighty – nonetheless arguing with God.  More than that, he came off the better in the argument when God changed his mind about punishing the Israelites.  This, after all, is a God who strikes deals with the Israelites in the form of covenants that both sides were expected to honour.

This idea of partnership with God is taken up particularly strongly in the New Testament.

Consider Jesus’ reliance on his disciples to continue his work and the expectation that we believers all have a part to play in building the Kingdom of God.  For however silly and sinful and misguided we may be, just as our forebears in both the Old and New Testaments were, God’s grace is such that we he is always ready to forgive us.

So the story the Pentateuch tells is one that is unflinching in its understanding of human sin and its effects but also one that is full of hope in the particular dignity that God confers on us as his co-workers in creation.

Of the other books the one I want to draw particular attention to is that of Leviticus, not least because it is the most challenging.  There’s much in the Pentateuch that we find difficult.  It describes an agrarian society very different from our sophisticated, urban one.  It also differed from us in ethics for it was a society in which slavery was deemed acceptable and animal sacrifice a way of life.

Leviticus is a book of precise instructions to laity and the priesthood covering all aspects of life and worship.  It’s here that you find a very severe injunction against homosexuality and activities that are seen as defiling of human beings, for if Leviticus is about anything it’s about purity.  For all its apparent foreign-ness it features the two related themes of atonement and sacrifice that are crucial to our understanding the New Testament.

There was nothing new about animal sacrifice in worship of course.  Anyone who’s read Homer will know that the ancient Greeks constantly sacrificed extraordinary numbers of animals to appease the Gods and the quantities of animals sacrificed in the Old Testament are enough to turn your stomach.  But the stomach-turning aspect of sacrifice was rather the point of it.

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition at least, human sin is an abomination.  It is so awful, its effects so heinous that it cannot go without judgement. There is a price to be paid – blood for blood, as it were.  Believe it or not there is a merciful aspect to the sacrificial system in our tradition.  It’s precisely because God didn’t want to condemn his people for their wickedness that the system existed.  The sacrifice of animals was both a reminder of the awfulness of sin and a way of purifying the sinful so that for all the wrong they had done, they could still stand before God and be in relationship to him.  In this way they “atoned” for their sins and continued in relationship with God.

You can immediately see how Jesus’ bloody and horrible death was interpreted – after the resurrection – as an exercise in sacrifice and thereby atonement but this time with God himself paying the price for human sin and so cancelling any further need for sacrifice.

“Behold” indeed, “the lamb of God”

I’ve not time here for anything more than a few, brief remarks about the remaining two books of the Pentateuch, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Numbers covers the wilderness period when the Israelites, having escaped slavery in Egypt, wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  Poor Moses had to put up with a huge amount of complaining on the part of the Israelites - or “kvetching” to use the lovely Yiddish term and has to again intervene to stop God punishing them for their faithlessness.  To those of us who are impatient the story is a reminder of the virtues of trust and patience, virtues we will need as we find the church cast ever more to the margins of society.

Finally, Deuteronomy, often regarded as the most influential book of the Pentateuch from the perspective of the New Testament for it was certainly often quoted by Jesus and others, not least St. Paul.  Most striking for us is its strong humanitarian streak.  It speaks repeatedly of a God of love,  a God with the deepest concern for the marginalised – the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the enslaved.  This is very much the God of Jesus Christ that we meet in the New Testament such that when asked in Mark’s gospel what the greatest commandment is, he quotes Deuteronomy:

“Love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself”

There, then, in whistle-stop form, you have the Pentateuch.  I may have only skimmed the surface but I hope it’s been sufficient to show that without the Pentateuch we would not just have no New Testament, but none of the most basic assumptions until now – at least – have shaped our view of the world and our role within it.