Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Content and Central Concern of the Pentateuch

The central concern of the Pentateuch is God’s relationship with the people of Israel. The Pentateuch is basically a story about the establishment of a covenant relationship between God and Israel. The covenant in question is the Mosaic covenant. The term the Mosaic covenant (also known in the Bible as the old covenant) is used as a shorthand way of referring to two covenants: the Sinaitic covenant and the Deuteronomic covenant (see “Mosaic Covenant or Covenants?”). The Sinaitic covenant, as its name suggests, is the legal agreement that God and the people of Israel entered into with each other at Mount Sinai (Exod 24:1–11), whereas the Deuteronomic covenant is effectively a confirmation and expansion of the substance of the Sinaitic covenant in a manner appropriate for Israel’s life in the promised land (Deut 29:1). The account of the establishment of the Deuteronomic covenant is recorded in Deut 29–32. This covenant was established by God with the people of Israel in the desert of Moab, opposite the promised land.

Apart from the traditional division into five books, the Pentateuch can be divided into six main sections (as per D. A. Hubbard, “Pentateuch,” NBD2): the origin of the world and the nations (Gen 1–11); the patriarchal age (Gen 12–50); the exodus from Egypt (Exod 1–18); the Sinaitic legislation (Exod 19:1–Num 10:10); the wandering in the wilderness (Num 10:11–36:13); and the final speeches and death of Moses (Deut 1–34).

The climax of the Pentateuch is Israel’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai (Exod 19–24). Leading up to this point, the Pentateuch describes the circumstances and reasons that led to the establishment of the covenant relationship between God and Israel at Sinai. Having recorded the establishment of this relationship at Sinai, the Pentateuch is concerned to explore the nature of this relationship in more detail and the beginnings of the historical outworking of this relationship for Israel. Standing at the heart of this relationship were the promises of God. God’s promises are referred to in the Pentateuch under the terms blessing and curse (e.g., Deut 28:2, 15; 30:1). The term blessing describes the positive benefits that would accrue to Israel if the nation as a whole was committed to the covenant relationship with God, whereas the term curse denotes the negative consequences of disobedience. The terms or stipulations of the covenant spelled out God’s promise to Israel, and Israel’s obligation to respond in covenant faith, i.e., faithfulness. God promised to bless Israel on the condition of obedience (i.e., faithfulness) to the stipulations of the covenant revealed in the law of Moses (Exod 19:5–6; 23:22; Deut 28:1–14). But God also promised to punish Israel on the condition of disobedience (Exod 23:20–21; Deut 28:15–68). In a nutshell, God promised that if the people of Israel would obey his commandments (i.e., be faithful to the covenant), then they would live in his presence, and experience blessing in close communion with him in the promised land.

The concern of the Pentateuch with tracing the historical background, the establishment, and the initial stages in the subsequent outworking in history of the covenant relationship between God and Israel means that the backbone and dominant genre of the Pentateuch is historical narrative. Interspersed within this narrative structure, we also find the genres of law, prophecy, and poetry. The genre of law is particularly significant. Within the Pentateuch, this genre relates especially to the stipulations of the covenant, and highlights the significance of the concepts of covenant and obedience in Israel’s relationship with God.

No comments: