Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
The last four books of the Torah/Penteteuch tell the story of the fulfillment of God’s
promises to Abraham. Not only does God make Israel a great nation, but God establishes
a special relationship with this people bound by the qualities of righteousness, generosity,
purity and holiness and by recognition of God’s sovereignty in all areas of their lives. The
prophet Isaiah will later write that Israel is to be a light to the nations showing them
God’s own nature.
The story begins in Egypt and presupposes that the reader knows something about this
country. The rule of the Pharaohs spanned over 3,000 years until the rule of the Romans.
The story of Exodus takes place in about 1250 under the rule of Ramses II. The pharaoh
ruled as a god and claimed to be the son of Amon-Re (the sun god). He held two titles,
“Lord of the Two Lands” (upper and lower Egypt) and “High Priest of Every Temple.”
He made the law and commanded the army. As the sole supreme power, he represented
the power of Egypt itself. Any sign of weakness threatened succession of his son (Egypt
was ruled by 30 different dynasties in 3,000 years) or war with surrounding peoples.
Read Exodus 1-20: (Begin reading Exodus 1 and stop at end of chapter 20) This is the
story of Israel's deliverance from bondage. It is the paradigmatic story (it seems as a
pattern or model to which others refer) of how God saves for both the Old Testament and
New Testament. Pay attention to how God works and through whom God works. Pay
attention to the nature of the central conflict in which God is engaged. The story ends
with the establishment of a covenant between God and Israel. Covenant is the most
significant language used in the Bible to describe the nature of the relationship between
God and humanity. Much of the remainder of Exodus contains details of that covenant.
Which of God's actions do you find troubling? How would you characterize the rivalry
between God and Pharaoh? Who are God's servants in this story and what are their
distinctive attributes? There are many more commandments than 10 (by some reckoning
there are 613), but the ten commandments serve as a sort of summary of the law.
Memorize the 10 commandments. Which commandments stand in tension with the
American tradition of the separation of church and state?
Skim chapter 21-23 and look at the subtitles (they appear in the notes at the bottom of the
page in the New Oxford Annotated Bible). Begin reading again at 24:1-8 (chapter 24,
verses 1-8). Skim chapters 24:9-31:8 (chapter 24, verses nine to chapter 31, verse 8) and
look at subtitles. Read chapters 32-34. What role does Moses play in this story? Are you
troubled by Moses' command to the Levites? This story offends our modern sensibilities.
Traditionally, readers have focused upon the distinction between the Levites and the rest
of the people. The Levites obedience to do what we would refuse to do sets them apart
from the people as those worthy to act as God's agents in sacrificial worship. Skim 35:140:33. Read 40:34-38. How is God's glory visibly manifest to the Israelites? Visible
manifestations of God are called theophanies.
The first five books of the Bible (the Torah/Pentateuch) introduce several important ideas
in biblical thought. The following notes include paraphrased material and excerpts from
Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (New York: Schocken,
1964). This is an older work, but one that I found particularly helpful as an
1. The Holiness (qodesh) of God: For the Hebrews holiness refers to God alone and then
to characteristics and things that belong to God. Closely related to this concept is that of
God’s glory (kabod). “It comes to stand for the positive activity of that Personal Other,
whom the Hebrews recognize as Jehovah. He shines forth positively, radiantly,
Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 50:2; 80:1, 94:1; Job 10:2, just as the light shines forth.... In
such a way as this, at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple ‘the cloud filled the house of
the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the
glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord, 1 Kings 8:10; ... The development of this
experience, and of this figure of speech in describing it, is seen in the Shekinah [God’s
indwelling spirit] of later Jewish tradition, and in the cloud of the Transfiguration, Mark
9:2-8).” Holiness is connected with Awfulness, Urgency and Fascination. (Pages 46-50)
2. The Righteousness of God: holiness and righteousness (tsedaqah) are closely
associated in biblical thought. According to Isaiah, people see God’s holiness by exalting
righteousness in their midst. Injustice is a violation of God’s holiness. It is not enough to
worship God; God’s community must make His glory manifest through its righteousness.
Israel’s God is a god of virtue. Knowledge of God brings understanding of right action.
Sin is rebellion against God not a transgression again a law but a violation of a
relationship. God’s righteousness is manifest in His consideration for the poor and downtrodden, in the care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger. God is concerned with the
establishment of justice in the land, the enactment of his will. (Pages 51-70)
3. The Salvation of God: The rulers of this world strive to conquer Israel, and God
responds by redeeming his people (setting his people free from slavery and oppression).
The establishment of justice or the manifestation of God’s righteousness is linked with
God’s saving activity. Christians tend to think of salvation as liberation from the
consequences of sin. To be saved means that one is assured eternal life. This is not the
Old Testament notion of salvation. Salvation is rescuing from death or deliverance from
bondage or suffering. (Pages 79-93)
4. The covenant-Love of God: The Hebrew word is chesed. In English versions it is
translated, with few exceptions, by ‘mercy or loving-kindness .... Sometimes the word
‘Grace’ seems appropriate. Chesed in the Old Testament comes “to denote that attitude of
loyalty and faithfulness which both parties to a covenant should observe towards each
other” but also God’s sure love. God’s love is paralleled by His slowness to anger.
(Pages 94-106)
5. God as a Covenant-God: Covenant (berit) is not a concept unique to the Old
Testament, but it is the concept that is used to explain the relationship between God and a
particular people. God enters into covenant with Abraham and then with His people
Israel at Sinai. Transgression of the laws of the covenant then signifies a violation of the
relationship with God. The Israelites agree to stay in relationship with God by fulfilling
His commandments. The covenant also signifies God’s promise to the Israelites to stay in
relationship with them, to be their savior and redeemer.
Leviticus: When we refer to the purity code of the OT we usually use the term "Levitical
Purity." Read chapters 11-13 and 18 to get an idea of what this code contains. What
eating habits would you have to change in order to dwell with God's people in the Mosaic
covenant? What is the role of the priest in the purity laws? Read Lev 16 for a description
of the scapegoat ritual. What purpose does the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the
ritual of the scapegoat serve? What does the word atonement mean? Skim Lev 23-26, the
chapters dealing with festivals. What is the reason for releasing slaves in the Jubilee year
25:55? Modern readers are often troubled by the emphasis upon animal sacrifice in the
Old Testament. We will discuss this in class.
Numbers contains a good number of census materials, but it also contains some stories
and some legal material. Read Num 6 for the description of the Nazirite vow and the
priestly benediction. Practice reading Num 6:24-26 aloud. What does it mean to be
blessed? Read the stories of Aaron and Miriam and the spies sent to Canaan in chapters
12-13. What elements in these two stories do you find ironic or humorous?
Deuteronomy also contains many commandments. One significant difference from the
book of Exodus is that this book describes how the people renew the terms of the
covenant before they cross the Jordan into the promised land. It provides a precedent for
covenant renewal. Read chapter 6 because it contains the first part of the Shema, one of
the most important prayers in ancient and modern Judaism. Memorize Deut 6:4-9. Many
of the laws in this book seem meaningless to us. What does Deut 6 remind the Israelites
about the basis of the commandments? Look at 10:12-22 as well. These are key passages
for understanding the law. How does one circumcise the foreskin of his or her heart?
Upon whom in society should one practice justice in order to imitate God's love of Israel?
Read the following legal material: 14:22-25:16. Which laws strike you as being ones that
we should seek to follow in order to be more just? Which laws strike you as being overly
severe? We will discuss the role of the death penalty in the covenant in class. Scan the
way that the covenant is ratified in chapters 27-28. Chapter 32 contains a long song
entitled The Song of Moses. Many of the themes and images of this song are echoed in
Jeremiah. Chapter 33 contains Moses' final blessing upon the tribes of Israel. Read about
the death of Moses in Chapter 34.