Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Bible Library: Torah

            When I was in junior high I began to read a chapter of the Bible almost every night, and by the time I was in my third or fourth year of high school I had read up to Isaiah. I didn't really understand prophetic literature, so I gave up on that whole endeavor for awhile. Interestingly enough, what initiated this nightly reading from Scripture wasn't so much youthful piety as it was a really odd sort of punishment. My parents saw that I was using a pencil on which I had written the words "Cupid sucks." Typical thirteen-year-old angst, though I think anyone would admit that I could have written a lot worse. Nevertheless, my parents thought that a good penance for my apparently shocking vulgarity was to read chapter 3 of Genesis (when Adam and Eve eat from the tree in the middle of the garden). Pubescent immaturity... a narrative of the fall of humankind and distortion of relationships. Hmm, it seems a little incongruent if you ask me, but that's what I was told to do.
            For the record, I do not advocate using religion to punish children – of course, I'm not well suited for giving parental advice either, having no children of my own. For me, however, it kind of worked out, and I had decided to keep reading the Bible even after my reprimand for juvenile nonsense. I doubt many other teens would follow suit, but if the worse your child can do is write the words "Cupid sucks," he or she might be the type that would run with it and end up pursuing a religious studies degree. As it turns out, I never returned my mother's Bible after that, and it is currently on my desk beside me as I type. Some lesson learned.
            Some people may be under the impression that in order to read the Bible they should start from Genesis chapter one and read straight through. That is a worthy and laudable endeavor, I suppose, and if you want to do that, that's great, but I personally wouldn't recommend it. Even though I had taken that route as a teenager, I still had not connected very deeply with the Scriptures until I began to learn more about them. In any case, the Bible isn't really a book. If you try to read even just the Old Testament from beginning to end you might start off reading a single narrative, but soon you'll begin reading repeated versions of some of the same stories. You'll also find that not everything in the Bible reads like a story. In fact, most of it doesn't at all. There is a lot more poetry than prose in the Old Testament, for example, and half of the New Testament is letters which are a whole other literary form in and of themselves.
            The Bible is a complex compilation of various literary genres and styles by numerous authors. And if there is anything you should know about the Bible, it is that it didn't just fall into human hands from on high. Not even all of the books in the Bible reflect the exact same theology. What!? I know, you'd think that the Word of God would have its act together, right? This is one of the reasons why we need to use caution and humility when using Scripture. We have to appreciate the fact that the Bible is not so simple. Nevertheless, you can read the Scriptures, and God does speak to us from them today. That's kind of why we listen to the Word proclaimed at our religious services, isn't it?
            For the next couple of weeks I just want to introduce some of the books of Scripture and how they are organized in the Bible. I like to think of the Bible not as a book but as a library. On the left side of the library there are shelves of books of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures) and on the right there are bookshelves of the New Testament. Those shelves on the left of our library can be categorized by Torah, the historical books, wisdom or poetical books, and the prophets. That, in fact, is how the Catholic editions of the Bible order the Old Testament and why they are not organized in chronological order. The Jewish canon[1] of Scripture is known as the Tanak, and it is organized by the Torah, the prophets (Nevi'im), and the writings (Kethuvim). I point this out simply because the acronym, TNK, is just brilliant, and it makes me smile!
            For today, let's look at the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch – penta as in pentagon because there are five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah is the most important of the Hebrew Scriptures for the Jewish peoples. It can be said that everything else in the Hebrew Scriptures, and arguably in the New Testament as well, is commentary on the Torah. The word Torah simply means teaching or instruction. Sometime before the Babylonian exile, the word Torah was associated with "the teaching or law of Moses," and by sometime after the exile it essentially referred to these first five books of the Bible.[2] As with all things, there is a lot more that can be said about the meaning of Torah, and it surely has a much deeper connotation in the Jewish faith, but for our purposes if you hear Torah, think Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
            Oh, and if you are every perusing a shelf of movies and you come across Tora! Tora! Tora!, do not be fooled. It is not something akin to Fiddler on the Roof as I had thought. I was quite disappointed when I took it off the shelf only to find Japanese World War II aircraft on the cover and not cheerful Jewish elders dancing.
            By way of a brief and almost certainly over-simplified introduction into these five books, here is a little description about each one just to whet your appetite.

Genesis: I think this is a great book to start with if you are new to reading the Old Testament. It's one of my favorite books in the Bible, because it is such a human story. It's got everything: myth, legend, blood, sex, and betrayals, family drama, beautiful struggles and witnesses of faith, and dastardly deeds of human folly. It's like Game of Thrones without the dragons. I'm kidding;  I have never even seen Game of Thrones. The bulk of the narrative, beginning just before chapter 12 through the rest of the book, tells the story of the great Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob (aka Israel) & his two wives, Rachel & Leah, and finally all of Jacob's sons.

Exodus: Another must read! Some of this story we are familiar with from popular culture, but just as with Harry Potter, the book is always better than the movie. Exodus is the story of a saving God, who hears the cry of his people – a people who aren't even all that grateful sometimes. Not only is God a saving God, but he also makes a covenant with his people at Sinai and gives them the law. This was a hallmark of ancient Israelite theology – the salvation from slavery in Egypt, the covenant, the law. The ancient Israelites defined themselves as a people and their relationship with God based on the narratives found in Exodus. Always remember, the God of the Torah is a saving God.

Leviticus: This is one reason why I don't recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover. That isn't to say Leviticus is a bad book; it's mostly a book of laws though. Many of the laws contained within it might seem tedious or unusual for our senses, but essentially many of the laws have to do with holiness. As it says repeatedly "You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy." Holiness was a technical term, however. It didn't mean piety like we often think of holiness; it meant separation from what was ordinary, and the people of Israel were called not to be ordinary, but extraordinary – a people set apart. That vocation to holiness still remains in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way. One last thing I love to point out about the book of Leviticus is that it is in this oft-dismissed book of the Bible that we find that beautiful teaching which so many mistakenly think originated in the New Testament: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

Numbers: To quote biblical scholar Michael Coogan, "Numbers is the most complicated of the entire Pentateuch, in terms of both its content and its sources."[3] Essentially, Numbers is about the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. It gets its name from the various censuses of the tribes of Israel that are included in the book. There are some more laws and some interesting narratives in Numbers – even one with a talking donkey (Num 22). Among the things we can take with us from this book is the analogy of wrestling with God. The Israelites do a lot of whining in this book, and while God often chastises, God also always saves.

And finally, Deuteronomy: I love this book. A biblical professor I once had said that Deuteronomy and Isaiah are like the bread and butter of the Hebrew Scriptures. Deuteronomy, whose name means "second law," is more or less Moses' fair-well speech before his death and the Israelites' entry into the promised land. Indeed, a lot of it reiterates many of the laws and narratives found in other parts of the Torah, but with a slightly different theological perspective. My favorite part of Deuteronomy is 7:6-11. The thing to keep in mind with Deuteronomy is covenant and that "the LORD, your God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant... (7:9)." It is God who is faithful, even when we are not.

            So as you can see, the Torah has a lot of laws, but it also has a lot of stories – stories about a people and their intimate relationship with God. Consider for this week some of the stories in your own life about your relationship with God or with the Scriptures. As you can see, my teenage encounter with the Word had some offbeat origins, but sometimes our experiences with the Divine can be a bit humorous. For this week, I recommend reading Exodus 15:1-18. This is one of the oldest passages in Scripture, and it really gives you a sense of how the ancient Israelites thought of and related to their God. One of their earliest recognitions of the character of God was that God saves his people. In reading this passage, think about your image of God. What is your earliest experience with the Divine? Who has God been for you in your life? When you hear how God saves his people, how does that affect you? Do you think God cares about you, or do you think God is aloof and distant?
            As always, I encourage questions and comments, and don't forget to subscribe. Just type your e-mail in the "Follow the codega" box. Tune in next week for a brief introduction to the historical books.
May the Lord bless you and keep you!

[1] Canon is the word used to designate the list of authoritative books of the Bible by a religious institution.
[2] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 184.
[3] Coogan, 153.


  1. This sounds terrible, but will you explain the Babylonian Exile? I always smile and nod when this is brought up but I never really knew when this was? Is this the time period when the Israelites are held as slaves by the Egyptians or during their 40 years of wandering? Or neither...?

    1. Good question. Well after the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites finally established a monarchy with Saul and then David as the first Kings. Israel was a united Kingdom under David until the death of King Solomon (David's son and successor). Then there was the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah). Each had its own monarchy, and neither kingdom was all that powerful. The northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC, but the Assyrians did not prevail over the southern kingdom. It was the tactic in those days for the conquering nation to send into exile the higher classes of their conquered nation, and that is what the Assyrians did to the north. While the southern kingdom was not conquered by the Assyrians, they eventually were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC. That is when the higher classes of Judah were exiled to Babylon, and that is what is known as the Babylonian exile. They eventually returned to what was left of Judah in 538 BC when the Persians conquered the Babylonians.