The Book of Moses

The Book of MosesWe’ve been looking at the Bible in its larger context; we’ve looked at the whole Bible twice, the Old Testament and New Testament once each, and last week we looked at the first five books of the New Testament; this week, I want to turn back to the Old Testament, and look at the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah, or the Book of Moses.

If you look at the table of contents in the Bible provided, you’ll see listed there five separate books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There’s some convenience in that; it does make it easier to find the passage you want. ‘Turn to Exodus’ is a bit simpler than ‘turn to the Torah section 2’, I suppose, but it has its inconvenient aspect too; it disguises the fact that the Torah, the Law, is a single book, whose five parts make one complete whole. Jesus makes that clear, when He calls it ‘the Book of Moses’ in Mark 12.26—in a comment, not incidentally, which He begins by saying Is not this why you are wrong, that you [do not] know… the scriptures? Given that context, we can be sure He is speaking precisely here. It’s also referred to in exactly the same way, as a single book, in at least half a dozen places in the rest of the Old Testament. If we ignore the connection between these five titles, we risk not fully understanding them, or rather it, because from now on I want to refer to it as a single book, whether the Book of Moses, or the Law, or the Torah.

Jesus doesn’t only say it is a single book; he says the author is Moses. Now that’s a bit of a controversial statement in some quarters; there are many scholars who say Moses didn’t write it; so let me expand a bit on this. The word ‘author’ is used rather carelessly today, and it doesn’t really mean what most people use it to mean. It is simply a concrete form of the abstract noun ‘authority’. You can look it up in the OED, but it’s obvious when you think about it, isn’t it? If ‘finality’ is the state of being ‘final’, then ‘authority’ is the state of being ‘author’. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you wrote the work of which you were author, even though that’s the way we most often use it. It means you are the authority behind the work. Especially in times past, writing was something you ordered one of your assistants or officers or flunkies to do; you told them what to write, and they wrote it. You were the author, they were the scribes. As some of you may know only too well, there’s many a professor whose name is the only one on the cover of a book who had some of his grad students write parts of the book; but he is still legitimately the author. He told them what to write, looked it over when they had finished, corrected what was necessary, and it’s his authority, his authorship, that the rest of us trust when we read the book. These days most authors can’t afford to hire a writer—even the professors use inducements other than money to get their grad students’ help—so most authors have to be their own writers, but the two words still don’t mean the same thing to a careful speaker, even today. Now Moses certainly wrote some parts of this book himself; we know that because Jesus talks about Moses writing part of it in John 5.46f. And there are references to Moses’s own writing activity in the book itself. But it seems unlikely that Moses wrote all of it. He would not have thought it necessary. He was a great leader, with plenty of scribes among those ready to help him in his task, and he’d have been less than a great leader if he had tried to do everything himself. But nevertheless the book has a single author, and it’s Moses. And because there’s just one mind being used by God in the production of this book, it’s essential to see it as a whole before getting too involved in any of its parts. All sorts of misunderstandings result if the parts are not put in the context of the whole.

So let’s take a look at the whole. If you were going to write a review of this book, you’d sum it up by saying it’s about God creating and shaping a people for His purpose, the purpose of bringing all humanity back to the knowledge and love of God. All the book’s parts serve this purpose: the story of creation at the very beginning, for instance, is not an explanation of how things were made, but why, and by Whom. The book tells us that they were made for the purpose of demonstrating God’s goodness in such a way that the reader can appreciate that goodness in something like the way God appreciated it as He created. God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. When we read the description of God bringing the universe into being, we see His power and creation’s goodness in the most vivid way. So vivid, that our feelings are sometimes tinged with sadness—if only it were still that good! Which is of course why the author follows this picture of the goodness of creation with the story of how the best part of His creation, the crown of creation, humankind, turned their back on God and gave away their birthright, their ability to enjoy God’s goodness. These are the opening scenes, and everything that follows is God acting in history to show mankind how to regain that birthright. The means God chose for this was the creation of a special people, a people through whom He would draw the whole world back to Him. So in part 1, called Genesis, we see God calling Abraham for the explicit purpose of blessing all the people of the earth, and through Abraham’s descendants shaping a whole people, generation by generation. In part 2, Exodus, we see Him calling this people out of bondage to the world mankind had created for itself, and into the wilderness, where they would have an experience of God that would reveal His will to them. In part 3, Leviticus, we see God beginning to make this people a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, in order to be a channel of God’s blessing. In part 4, Numbers, we see how God’s revelation of His will drew them out of the wilderness and back into the world to which they were to bring God’s blessing. And in part 5, Deuteronomy, we get Moses’s own summary of everything that had gone before, explaining God’s purpose in it more fully. And it’s all in order to create a special people for God’s purpose of bringing mankind back to Him. That’s what the Book of Moses is about.

Sometimes people get hung up on particular parts of it, and they read those parts outside the context of the whole, and then misunderstandings arise. The so-called clash between the theory of evolution and the Genesis account vanishes when you remember that Genesis isn’t a science book. It wasn’t written to explain the detailed processes by which everything came into being, and when we treat even part of it as though it were, we end up misunderstanding God’s word, as well as misunderstanding science. Some people get hung up on the civil and ceremonial laws by which the people ordered their lives during the period covered by the book. But it isn’t a law book in our sense of the word, or a worship manual. Those things weren’t permanent, they were just a stage in the shaping of God’s people. The Ten Commandments are the basic principles all people are called to lived by, and the other practices described in the Book of Moses were the particular ways of applying those commandments to the current situation of the people God was working through. Some aspects of those things faded out of the picture as time went on, and more was set aside specifically once God’s people had experienced the fullness of God’s plan, and were sent out to bring the whole world into the special relationship with God for which we were all created. To understand it all, we have to remember God’s purpose; and when we remember God’s purpose, this book can shape us for that purpose just as effectively it shaped the generations that followed Abraham and Moses.

One of the most important ways in which God prepared His people for their rôle of blessing humanity was through a special Covenant with them. The concept of covenant is central to this whole book. The covenant is first made between God and the whole earth, every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth, in the early chapters of Genesis, where humanity is portrayed in a general way by representative figures like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his family. But as the covenant is renewed, it gets more and more specific. God promises that through Abraham, who is not a representative figure but a real individual, blessing will come to all the families of the earth, and He renews the covenant with him for that purpose. It’s confirmed by God to Isaac, Abraham’s son, and to Jacob, Isaac’s son, as God makes it clear that His plan works in terms of centuries, generation after generation. It’s renewed with the whole people of Israel after they have been delivered from slavery in Egypt, and in that renewal the people accept the Ten Commandments as their response to God’s promise. Moses reads the book of the covenant to them—he had already written down some of the most important parts—and the people respond, All that the Lord has spoken we will do. And the covenant between God and man is expressed in all sorts of signs. The individual’s sign of being in a covenant relationship was circumcision; observing the Sabbath was the sign that the social life of the whole people was part of the covenant. In Leviticus a special bread is also used as a sign of the covenant relationship between God and His people, although at that time only certain people could eat it. In Numbers, which deals with the period after the Commandments have been given, we see the people carrying the written commandments in special box called the Ark of the Covenant. And as Moses sums up everything that’s happened in the book of Deuteronomy, he refers again and again to the covenant between God and Man, in which God promised to bear the price of our failure to live up to it, but in which we promise to be more than we are, not to be content with what our sin has made us.

The book ends with a statement that carries our minds forward to Jesus, Who will complete the creation of a people for God’s purpose of blessing. In Jesus God will also keep the promise He made in Genesis 15, making Jesus the keystone of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, the bringing back of all people into their rightful relationship with God. One of the ways that Moses had explained what God had been doing was to talk about God’s plan to send another prophet like him, like Moses. Moses does this when he explains what had happened at Mt Sinai in the wilderness, when the people had asked for a mediator, someone who would be the bridge between them and God. In Exodus 19.17 Moses is described as bringing the people to Mt Sinai to meet God, and God descended on the mountain in such power that the mountain itself quaked, and was wrapped in fire and smoke. After God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the people were terrified, and they say to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ They were afraid to come near God, because they were not holy enough to survive His presence. Human beings need to be cleansed of their unrighteousness before they can enjoy the presence of God. And as Moses reminds them of this in Deuteronomy, he explains how God had told him that the people have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you, like Moses, from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And at the very end of the Book of Moses, someone several centuries later, after it had been lost and then rediscovered, added this comment: there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel. These are the very last words of the Book of the Law, the Book of Moses, and they make it very clear that the one like Moses was still to come, even centuries later. He was still to come when Jesus began His ministry, for people asked John the Baptist if he was the promised prophet. When Jesus asked His disciples, what are people saying about me, who do they think I am? one of the disciples said that some people were saying Jesus was the prophet like Moses. Jesus doesn’t say anything at that point; it is actually Peter, after the resurrection, in the Acts of the Apostles, the last book of the New Testament Pentateuch, who confirms that Jesus is the one Whom God promised all those long centuries ago: having quoted Moses’s words about the coming of another prophet, Peter says to the people of Jerusalem, you are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness. It is the Book of Moses that first talks of Jesus, that tells us of God’s promise, and that the promise would be kept in one still to come. And knowing from the New Testament that Jesus was that one, we can now turn back to the Old Testament to understand more fully what He brings us. He is the one who enables us not to be afraid of God’s presence. We can be face to face with God when we are in Christ, to use the phrase Paul uses, and we are in Christ when we put our faith in Christ. When we put our faith in Christ, Paul says, we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness; when God looks at us He sees not our disobedience but Christ’s obedience, and we can enjoy His presence without fear, or shame, or guilt—our sins have been washed whiter than snow, and we are now the humanity God created, and can enjoy the goodness of His creation and the holiness of His nature in in this life and in the life to come.

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One response to this post.

  1. Thanks. The meaning of “author” as the “authority,” the person who “authorized” the book, is very helpful.

    Reply

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