THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Updated: Feb 4
Let’s start with some facts. The first five books of the Christian Bible (in any form) are known as the Pentateuch (Greek root: penta, as in pentagram and pentangle). For Jewish culture they’re called the Torah, meaning ‘instruction’, sometimes called ‘law’.
Just to keep you on your toes, they’re also known as ‘The Books of Moses’, which we’ll come back to shortly.
In the King James Version (see the previous post), the Pentateuch has 156,736 words, which is nearly 20% on the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Given that the complete collection has 66 books, it’s easy to see the 'weight' of these first five, even before reading them.
The Old Testament is the story of the Chosen People (the Israel nation), starting from ground zero – actually before zero, creating light and sky and land. That part of the story you already know, whatever your faith. The purpose of this post is to give a little more detail on how the Chosen People got to their Promised Land.
Which, in the context of setting up an entire nation – history, population, leaders, laws, culture, and practices – makes the Torah look remarkably efficient, even if it is a bit of a slog on occasion.
ACT 1: GENESIS
Every story needs a start, and setting the scene is the purpose of the first book. Like any great work of art, there is more to this than just the surface story. There are threads that run throughout all the chapters; indeed, throughout the whole Bible.
You know this starts with Creating the world, Adam and Eve, the snake, the apple (although it is only referred to as ‘a fruit’). The first dozen chapters relate (literally) from the first people (Adam = mankind) to Noah to Shem to Abram (later Abraham). And in those first few pages – like any play or novel – the seeds are sown that will spring up again and again.
And while this is a religious story, focused on a God who can create worlds, it’s also a very human story, presenting choices that are taken every day, individually or collectively. Choices between good and evil, not just presented as a talking snake, but as decisions between Adam and Eve, that result in a lack of trust, then the decision by one of their offspring to kill his brother.
By the time we reach chapter five – only five! – there has been so much bad form from the limited population, God decides to wipe the slate clean and try again. The flood, Noah, and the Ark. Then by chapter eight, it’s gone downhill again (paradoxically) with the Tower of Babel.
One theme is already clear: humans make poor choices.
The rest of Genesis (from Greek gignesthai: ‘to be born’) is more specific, moving from the relationship with the world overall, through nations, to specifically Israel. It follows a family line from Noah to Abram/Abraham, the father of the nation. But even he doesn’t start well, betraying his wife Sarah, and sleeping with another woman.
Eventually Abraham and Sarah give birth to Isaac, who in turn is the father of Jacob. Good news – except he steals his brother’s (Esau) birthright.
Jacob then has two wives – and ‘relationships’ with two handmaidens – leading to twelve sons, including Joseph (one with the Technicolor dreamcoat).
Recap: Adam eats the forbidden fruit, Cain kills Abel, Jacob steals from Esau, Joseph’s brothers try to kill him, then sell him (to Egypt) instead. From the Garden of Eden paradise to fratricide and multiple adultery in 50 chapters.
For some believers this is all the literal truth, for others it’s a series of myths and folk tales to be read and interpreted. (If you have multiple hours of your time, Jordan Peterson - who's not to everyone's taste - has taken a shot at the C21st 'meaning' of Genesis.) The only position I take along that continuum is the truth of the human condition. Collectively, we are extraordinarily good at missing the bar of virtue, and that we all need our own version of hope (deity or otherwise) to keep us somewhere near the straight and narrow.
ACT II: EXODUS
Academics concur there’s a 400-year gap between Genesis and Exodus. The ruling class in Egypt has forgotten Joseph, his dream interpretations, and his long-term economic planning (ref: Gen 41), and the new Pharaoh sees Israelites as no more than immigrants, threatening the status quo. Sound familiar?
Israel, the nation, is enslaved with no home of their own. But their God remembers that a promise had been made to them, so he selects a representative – Moses – to bring them to the land (Canaan) that had been given to Abraham.
There’s no doubt in Moses’ mission: “Let my people go”.
So begins a battle of wills between God and the Pharaoh. (Remember: 3500 years ago, when Exodus takes place, in Egyptian culture Ramses II was a god. In our frame of reference, it may sound odd; in Moses’ time, this was his God challenging any other god from any other culture.)
The more the Hebrew God throws at the Pharaoh (frogs, gnats, flies, sores etc), so the pharaonic heart hardens. Finally, when the Pharaoh’s first born son dies, Moses is released, taking ‘his’ people with him. But like any action thriller, after the ‘win’ comes the plot reverse – Pharaoh starts chasing the Israelites through the desert. The ultimate climax is the parting of the Red Sea, and the drowning to the Egyptian forces. Victory!
But how forgetful the human mind can be – even that of the Chosen People. In just two chapters after the escape, they start complaining about being in the wilderness, and how it wasn’t so bad in Egypt after all.
From the start of Genesis until now (Exodus 19), all this has really the set-up, the 'back stories'. The formation of the Israel nation starts here, when Moses and his people arrive at Mount Sinai.
You certainly know about the Ten Commandments, even if you can’t name them all: Moses goes up the mountain, his God appears in a storm cloud, and the Ten are engraved on stone tablets (Exodus 20). But that’s not the end.
The Ten are followed by 52 more laws, covering worship, social justice, property, hygiene, even identity. While less dramatic than the Commandments headlines, detailed rules are much more important when taking a ragbag of slaves and trying to shape them into a nation.
They may not be physically in the land of their nation, but shared values and behaviours are the essence of being a collective.
To show how difficult this is, while Moses is up the mountain being given the rules, the rest are down below, making a golden calf because they need something to worship. Not surprisingly their God and Moses are pretty displeased.
God is about to wipe the slate clean again, but Moses steps in and makes the case that they’re worth saving if they can learn how to worship only one God. (Side note: don’t forget, they were only recently freed from Egypt, where they had spent 400 years in a multi-god culture. They need more practice.)
Hence, the Tabernacle. A portable worship place (you might call it a tent) containing an inner Sanctuary, which in turn contains the Ark which contains the Covenant. It’s the 1500 BCE equivalent of a cathedral, portable for when the people go walkabout. And to make the point about its specialness, God comes down from the mountain to live in the Sanctuary, making it so holy that not even Moses can enter. Only his brother, Aaron, who becomes the Chief Priest, and the other member of the Levite tribe.
(The word ‘holy’ means ‘set apart’. The people of Israel are being set apart from the other peoples who do not have the rules and values of the Chosen Few.)
ACT III: LEVITICUS
Now they have a tent and a God who has come down from the mountain and is living among them. But it’s also new ground; the people don’t know what to do. This is the purpose of Leviticus – how to deal with a pure, powerful presence.
Think “Chosen People: The User Guide”.
There’s a meta-quality to this book, which is at the heart of the Torah. There’s a belief that all five books here were written by Moses – hence ‘The Books of Moses’ - laying out the rules for all those who will follow him, now and in generations to come. Leviticus (the Levis tribe who are chosen to be priests), describes the procedures, offerings, duties, and the need for ‘holiness’ on the part of everyone involved. The closer a mortal gets to God, the more ritualistically purer they must be to survive. (When you know this, the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark takes on an altogether deeper context).
It contains details about offerings – for peace, for guilt, for sin. Priests don’t just wake up one morning knowing how to be the people-God go-betweens. They need standards to meet. Instructions about being pure, and how to avoid impurity. ‘Kosher’ food is one of the starts of the practice: clean and unclean.
At the centre of all this is The Day of Atonement. Read or pronounce this ‘at-one-ment’ and it will give you an idea about the link between the sacrifice served as a reminder of how the people have sinned.
(Note: as part of this practice, two animals were used as a symbol of at-one-ment: one goat is killed, it’s blood offered as cleansing, the other goat is released, upon which all the actions and behaviours the group wishes to atone for. This is the scapegoat.)
ACT IV: NUMBERS
If you ever set out with the best of intentions to ‘read the Bible’, if it wasn’t Leviticus that tripped you, the implied tedium of Numbers probably has. Where the first two books are full of characters and stories that have fed film makers for over a century, Numbers takes us round in circles, literally.
A two-week journey turns into 40 years. Because even the Chosen people behaved like every other group of humans.
There are two parts to the chapter: 1) the end of the old generation (the people who left Egypt) and 2) the new generation who will enter the Promised Land – eventually. The two generations are each assessed through a census – hence the title Numbers.
Moses has the task of moving his people from one place to another; and now they have their God at the centre of the action. So logistics is important. Rather than trying to move a shapeless mass, Moses divides them according to their genealogical line – back to Jacob’s 12 sons, excluding Levi and Joseph, replaced by his two sons. Hence, the ‘12 tribes of Israel’. (Look them up if you want to know them all.)
Even with roles and responsibilities attributed, the people continue to make life difficult. Only three days after leaving Sinai, the tribes start complaining again. Even Aaron, and his wife Miriam, take opinion potshots at Moses.
This is 1500BCE; fortunately they don’t have Twitter or Facebook.
While it’s not the purpose of this post, there is a case study here for any organization undergoing change. It doesn’t matter if your god is on your side or not – your people will always complain. That’s part of the genius of the Torah; it might be the words of the God of a Chosen People, but it might be any group: Jew or Gentile, Christian or Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist – people will complain.
Indeed, the complaints by the old generation are so bad, by the time they reach Paran (a halfway point in the chapter) Moses is angry. Even God is angry. Twelve spies are sent to check out Canaan (the Promised Land), and when they return, ten give it the thumbs down. Which leads to 40 years of wandering. And a rebellion.
A character called Korah, born of arrogance and ambition, is aggrieved – he’s a Levi, but he isn’t a priest. God gives Aaron the task of suppressing this. Well, if you are High Priest, you’d better live up to the job title.
God then imposes more laws, and to make matters worse, Moses proves himself ‘faithless’. In addition to being banned from the Sanctuary, he’s told that he will not be leading the new generation into the Promised Land.
After Sinai and Paran, the third phase of the journey is via Moab, where the local king pays Balaam, a prophet-for-hire, to curse the Israelites. Despite the moaning and the complaining, their God is committed to the Covenant, so limits Balaam’s capabilities to only give blessings rather than curses. Which is another of the key themes of the book, and indeed the Torah: rebelling or being faithful, cursing or blessing. The conundrum started with the Garden of Eden and is echoed through the entire Bible by the Prophets, Poets (in Psalms) and the Apostles (in NT Acts and Letters).
Before the end of Numbers, yet more laws are imposed, and Joshua is named as successor to Moses. As any organization knows, a leader who is good for one ‘phase' of the organization might not be right for the next one, a change in circumstances, perhaps the transition from start-up to stability.
ACT V: DEUTERONOMY
Unless arrested, leaders of large organizations tend not to go immediately; they have an exit plan, a sharing of experience, an emeritus role. In the final book of the Torah, Moses gets to pass on his wisdom to an incredibly difficult group of people.
Deuteronomy (Greek: “a second law”) is a recap on all that has gone before: The wilderness wanderings, the Ten Commandments, the multiple laws, the danger of worshiping idols, and why Israel is holy (‘set apart’ from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Edomites, Hittites, Midianites, Philistines and Phoenicians).
And the laws and the rules: leadership, worship, punishment, and the rules of everyday life. A lot of these laws may now seem barbaric (see The West Wing President Jed Bartlet, who's written as a practicing Roman Catholic) but acknowledge that they were all given at a different time, in different circumstances, to people with different resources.
And some of them still ring true: runaway slaves should be given a haven; loans should be fair and just; children should not to be punished for the crimes of their parents; the poor are to be cared for.
We reach the last four chapters of the book, and the Torah, and as practiced by any multi-part novelist (e.g. Charles Dickens) or sequel-driven film maker (e.g George Lucas), the purpose of the end is to set up the next part of the story.
Joshua is confirmed as the successor who will lead the Chosen People into the Promised Land, Moses sings a song about rejection, forgiveness, purification, then stands on a Moab mountaintop, sees the Promised Land, and dies.
Towards the end of Deuteronomy – and the Torah - there is a promise of another “prophet… like Moses… who will come and lead the people to a new covenant”.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Next time, we’ll look at the books that are known as ‘Histories’. Like a Chosen People’s version of Netflix The Crown – except it covers a thousand years, give or take.
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