The Old Testament – An Overview (part 5)

Continuing the content of the Book of Genesis, the story of Abraham finds its fulfilment with the birth of his son Isaac, and the pivotal event when Abraham agrees to God’s request to sacrifice the child of promise. Isaac as a character does not advance the story arc greatly; his need is to find a suitable wife!

But he has two sons, Esau and Jacob, twins whose birth will demonstrate God’s freedom to choose how the linage will develop. The story line will eventually follow Jacob, a trickster, and his journey to being re-named by God as Israel. Through two wives he will have twelve sons. The second youngest will be called Joseph; his story will take up the latter part of the book, following his relationship to his brothers, being sold into slavery in Egypt, his imprisonment and eventual rise to supreme power because of an ability to interpret dreams.

As I have said before the arc of the story of Genesis follows the necessary trajectory to bring it into line with the communal and historic memory of the nation of Israel; that it was a people brought out of Egypt by God.

This is the story of the second book of the Bible, Exodus. This is a Greek word that means ‘way out’ and which describes the overall theme.  The first word of this book in Hebrew is Shemot, meaning ‘names’, which is the Jewish title.

We have just followed the story of this book in some detail: the change of fortune of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt; the saving of a slave baby to be raised by the royal family and named Moses (an Egyptian name). His eventual flight from Egypt after committing murder, his call by God to return and set the people free; the subsequent plagues, the parting of the sea, the wonders in the wilderness, the encampment at Mount Sinai, the giving of the torah, the golden calf incident, the instructions about the tabernacle, and finally moving on towards the Promised Land.

At this point the narrative of the Pentateuch comes grinding to a halt and people, who enjoy a good story, tend to lose interest, because they have turned the page and opened the Book of Leviticus! The first word in the Hebrew version of this book is Vayikra, which means ‘summoned’ and gives it its Jewish name. The English name is a Latin version of a Greek word that means ‘law of priests’. And that is the purpose of the Book: in the usual minute detail that is required by God, instruction is given to the priests who are the celebrants at all the major Jewish festivals and every other religious activity.

It must be remembered that although the Book of Leviticus is situated in the Torah it was written down during the Babylonian Exile. At that time the blame for God abandoning the nation was widely recognised as due to it not having been living as a ‘holy people’. Holiness was regarded as next to cleanliness (ritual), and so in the post-exilic period this would be corrected by clear instruction on what was ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’.

All priests had to be racially descended from Aaron, and this is why it was felt appropriate to place this book of priestly instructions at this point in the narrative. To be continued…

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