3.69 Pentateuch -- Lessons from the Pentateuch
Here is a paradox: the faith of the Pentateuch, which at its heart is revelational and experiential, is recorded in a book, on paper. Yet it cannot truly be known by reading, by study. The book itself is an invitation to encounter. But modern conservative religion so frequently exalts the book ("inerrant in its original autographs") and omits the encounter. Or rather, reading the book IS the encounter. Any extra-Biblical guidance or experience is suspect because it is not verifiable or universal.
This scenario would not have held up in the Exodus generation. Revelation was not "static." Instead, there was a living tradition of God's words and deeds stretching back to Abraham, and even before that, to Noah. There was consistency in this tradition, but not uniformity. It was rather like the growth of a flower -- an unfolding, from green shoot, to bud, to blossom, to flower. At each stage in Israel's history, God added to what He had revealed before:
"I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them" (Ex 6:3).
What was written in the book, the past deeds and words of God, was extremely important. It was to be taught to the younger generation, and to be read in a mass assembly of the entire community every seven years. But this teaching was only a supplement to the experience of the manifest Presence of God in the midst of the people. It formed the basis for understanding His current expressions -- His commands and His acts.
It is this matter of divine co-habitation that is the distinctive note of Pentateuchal religion. God was physically present among Israel in the Tent of Meeting, and once Israel conquered Canaan, He intended to select a town "as a dwelling for His Name" (Deut 12:11). All Israel was to come before Him to this location several times a year to celebrate the feasts. These aspects of divine immediacy and tangibility contrast sharply with later Jewish and Christian movements of systematic theology, idealism, scholasticism, and sacramentalism. In the former cases, an abundance of words takes the place of direct personal and corporate experience of God's Presence. In the case of sacramentalism, carefully crafted symbolic rites take the place of actual sacrifices, real blood shed, and true contact with a fearful God.
This process of abstraction has proceeded very far. In recent years, the ship of faith has drifted away from its moorings in blood and fire, cloud and smoke, ie. in sacred experience, so far indeed that the original events are considered myths, not merely by secularists, but by some of the (more liberal) adherents of the faith traditions themselves. They regard their task as the extraction of the "essential meaning" of the stories, or the distillation of ethical wisdom from events of dubious historicity. The accounts of divine intervention or epiphany are treated as so much poetic hyperbole. Alas, this is to sink the Good Ship Pentateuch. Oh, one can still cling to the denominational name of Jew or Christian, as in the manner of clinging to a life preserver amongst drifting wreckage. But the vessel itself has gone under, because you cannot preach that current history is meaningful if sacred history is a lie.
So the Pentateuch is assaulted from both sides: conservatives assert the validity of the Biblical record but tend to de-emphasize the living presence. Liberals affirm the presence of God in the world today, but deny the Biblical content of that presence. To them, all religions are vehicles for God's presence, and it is idolatrous to exalt one faith tradition above the rest. Both of these viewpoints fail to accurately represent the Pentateuch. One diminishes our own capacity for knowing God directly, the other undercuts the credibility and consistency of His past actions.
It isn't necessary to chose one or other of these "solutions." Let us re-focus on the primary purpose of the Pentateuch, indeed of all Scripture -- which is to bring the reader (of any historical or geographic background) into revelational encounter with God and into compliance with His plan for mankind. The Pentateuch presents itself as an accurate account of prior revelation which provides the context and basis for our own experience of God. Both elements -- historical accuracy and present Presence -- are essential, because they are interdependent, just as they were in ancient Israel. If you tinker with either element, you will distort the message of the entire work.