The Old Testament – An Overview (part 6)

The content of the Book of Leviticus begins with instruction about sacrifices (what people can bring and what the priests should do with them). In a time when ‘gods’ are fickle, disinterested, and hard to please, this level of precise instruction given by the ‘god’ was intended to give peace of mind and assurance to all concerned – do this, this way and all will be well!

After a section about the ordination of priests, there is a longer one about what constitutes ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’; what is acceptable to God and embraced and what was abhorrent to God and to be avoided. It was Israel’s adherence to this way of looking at life that would make the nation stand out among all other nations, and demonstrate its loyalty to God.

Next was instruction about the annual holy day for the whole nation – The Day of Atonement. This was the occasion in which a scapegoat (a real goat!) was chosen to bear all the sins of the all the people and the only day the High Priest, and only he, could enter the holy of holies within the tabernacle (and eventually the temple).

The final main section of the book – and its heart – came to be known as ‘The Holiness Code’. This explained public and private behaviour of the community across all aspects of its life. It is in this section that the scribes and Jesus found the ‘second greatest commandment’ – love your neighbour as yourself.

The next book is the Book of Numbers (the Greek word gives us the word ‘arithmetic’). In the Jewish Bible its title comes again from the first word – Bemidbar – ‘In the desert’. But its English name comes from the content; for it contains the details of two censes taken.

The book begins at Mount Sinai and gives the reason why the people end up wandering the wilderness for 40 years: with the story of the twelve spies who go into Canaan and two return with a tale of a land overflowing with milk and honey but ten with a report of fortified cities and giants that fill the people with fear and God’s displeasure at their lack of faith in his promise to give them the land results in the judgement that that generation would not enter the land.

In the book can be found another story of Moses striking a rock for water (and the reason he is barred from entering land); the plague that is overcome by the bronze snake and Balaam and his talking donkey. In this book we learn also of the death first of Moses’ sister, Miriam, and then of his brother, Aaron. But interspersed through the narrative elements are more instructions and lists that make the book difficult to read simply as a good yarn. The book closes with the people encamped on the Plain of Moab.

The final book of the Torah or Pentateuch is Deuteronomy. I have already explained its importance to the overall structure and content of the whole Old Testament. In the Jewish Bible its title is once more taken from the first word – Devarim meaning ‘spoken words’. The English is a transliteration of the Greek meaning ‘second law’. This is based on an early mistranslation of Deut. 17:18 where it should have read ‘a copy of the law’. To be continued…

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