3.73 Pentateuch -- The Message of the Pentateuch
The message of the Pentateuch can be stated succintly: "God owns history." As Moses put it in Deut 10:14,
"To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it."
The Deists, however, had a point -- the God of First Causes was up there getting everything going, but not taking an active role in human affairs, except at certain crisis points. For many generations, mankind had to make do with "general revelation," ie. all that they knew about God was what they could decipher from creation itself. Man was no more than some higher form of animal -- he had all the equipment for spiritual intercourse, but few opportunities to use this capacity (apart from Noah). This changed with Abraham. Here, God begins to declare Himself in human terms. Here He begins to tell us the purpose of history itself.
God declares that He is going to create for Himself a family, a nation, from Abraham and his wife Sarah. He is going to build this nation over the centuries in the midst of the rest of humanity. This people will be a special project of God -- not only will they be given a homeland, but they will be given an identity, a "mark" that separates them from the rest of mankind. They are to be God's own possession among the nations, and they in turn will possess God as their treasure, their covenant Promise. Eventually, this nation will impact all the peoples of earth.
The purpose of God's involvement with what became the family of Israel was not the enrichment of that nation. It was His purpose to be glorified among men. This involved the construction not so much of a special building as of a living community in which He could plant His standard. The habitation of God among men necessitated the transformation of the people He lived among. This was the unresolved problem of the Pentateuch.
By comparison, it was a simple matter for God to deliver Israel from the bondage of Egypt. That work was external -- involving God's control over nature and weather: He sent the plagues on the Egyptians and devastated their land. The harder task was internal -- the process of Identity Formation in a slave population. He strove to implant in the Israelites a consciousness of their new nature: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, with "the shout of a King among them" (Num 23:21). But man's nature is not as tractable as that of the rest of creation. And much of the Pentateuch recounts the frustrations of each of the Covenant partners with each other. These episodes resulted in a fairly high body count of dead Israelites scattered through the wilderness.
And what of the foreign nations, outsiders, who had no participation in the special relationship of Israel with her God? As we have seen, there was no simplistic single policy, because there were many categories of foreigners: Canaanites, related peoples, more distant nations, travelers and residents aliens. Indeed, Israel itself was not a pure ethnic group, but was a compound of many peoples: Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Egyptian, Midianite. While the Pentateuch does make clear that all humanity has a single origin, there is no corresponding future vision of the reunion of all mankind. On the other hand, that possibility is not excluded, in fact it is left ajar: not only are Edomites and Egyptians given permission to "enter the assembly" after three generations, but there was a constant repetition of the command to welcome the foreigner and treat him fairly and generously.
While the people of Israel were distinguished from and exalted above the rest of mankind, the idea of racial superiority was clearly repudiated. God told them explicitly that their selection was not due to their power or righteousness, but solely to His love for and promises to their ancestors. Furthermore, their favor was conditional upon obedience to the covenant. If they forsook God's laws and adopted the practices of the Canaanites, He would judge them like the Canaanites. The fulfillment of the Covenant promises would then await a future generation that turned to Him with their whole hearts.
The task God gave Israel was a mirror of the one He set Himself -- separation of the clean and unclean. As Israel was commanded to distinguish between the holy and common in animals, in food, and in actions, so God was engaged in a task of creating a clean nation in the midst of common humanity. Yet this process of delineation and of community formation could not proceed exclusively along blood lines. Much of Numbers recounts episodes of purging unclean Israelites. At the same time an allowance was made for the inflow of clean foreigners, people who wanted to live in Israel in accordance with her laws.
We could paraphrase the events of the Pentateuch like this: when God spoke to Abram in Gen 12 and told him he would become a great nation, God was lighting a match to a piece of kindling. But this was wet kindling, and it really didn't catch fire for many generations. However, Abram nurtured the spark, and passed it to his son, who passed it to his son, and so on. And gradually, as God breathed more promises upon that original flame, it took hold and grew stronger. An extended family became tenders of this flame. We could call them Keepers of the Fire. Sometimes it burned strongly, as in Joseph's day, but then it looked like it went out completely in the following centuries. Suddenly, it burst forth again in Moses' time, and flared into a huge fireball, visible for the first time to the larger world. This fire would warm those who were careful in its presence, and burn those who were not. Some of the Keepers of the Fire hated it and looked with envy on other nations. Those people who despised their heritage either left or were cut off. On the other hand, some people from surrounding nations saw and felt the fire and were drawn to it. They envied the Keepers of the Fire and wanted to join them. Although full membership was not permitted without the passage of several generations, nevertheless they were permitted to dwell among the keepers.
This is as far as the Pentateuch takes us. It is only the foundation of God's work, not the walls or the roof. It closes with Israel right on the verge of taking possession of the Promised Land. There are many open questions: can the holy community take root in new soil? Will the old inhabitants of the land be eradicated? How will a nomadic society make the transition to a settled agrarian economy? What form of central government will develop? How will God speak now that Moses has passed from the scene? How will Israel relate to non-Canaanite surrounding nations? What is the next stage in God's plan for His people in history? We shall consider these as we study the next section of the Bible, the historical books.