The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)


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It may be a way of disclosing to us a wider range of possibilities in the text. We need not suppose that reading against the grain of the text is a sign of disrespect for the text. What is disrespectful to the text is to assume that it will say what we would like it to say. Nor is it harmful to the church or the synagogue to hear of readings against the grain.

The dialectic of the text I have just now been describing a dialectic that we can set up between the text and the reader, when the reader takes up a position, or starts out from a position, that is not shared by the text. There is another kind of dialectic we can pay attention to, however. It is a dialectic that is immanent in the text, a dialectic between the elements of tension in the text itself. In the Penta- teuch such a dialectic comes to expression in the questions, Is God merciful or vengeful? Does God wish to reveal himself or conceal himself? Is God directing the course of human history or not?

Without probing very far beneath the surface of the text of the Pentateuch, we soon form the impression that the text says quite different things on these subjects at different moments, that there is at the very least a tension in the text and at the most there is irreconcilable conflict. Perhaps we will at the end of the day uncover some grand harmonizing truth that brings the poles of tension together and enables us to create some unitary vision of our topic. God in the Pentateuch 7 2.

Dialectic Readings a. God and Noah Here is a very simple example of the dialectic readers may find themselves involved in with their text. The issue can be framed in this way: Is the story of Noah a story of God as saviour or of Noah as saviour? The ideology of the text has some plain outlines. According to the text, all humans deserve to be wiped out by a flood because of their wickedness, but Noah finds favour in the eyes of Yahweh Gen. God tells Noah how he can escape the flood, God commands him to make an ark, God sends him into the ark, God shuts him in, God remembers him, and God tells him to leave the ark when the waters have subsided.

In short, God saves Noah and, with him, humanity from the flood. The answer has to be that God merely tells Noah what to do. God does not do anything himself to save Noah, he tells Noah how to save himself. So is it a story about God at all, if it is not about anything he does? Is it perhaps a story about the achievement of a great hero, who saves humanity from extinction by keeping alive his family in a boat? To be sure, the deity has warned the hero of the coming of the flood and has given him instructions about the ark that must be built if the flood is to be survived.

But the actual saving acts are 7. God in the Pentateuch 8 those of Noah, who even in his six hundredth year is building the ark, collecting all the animals and stocking it with food— singlehandedly the verbs in 6. The ideology of the text does not contain this second reading, I would say; the text does not authorize it, it does not encourage us to read it that way.

But then neither does it disallow it, for it gives us all the data by which we may develop this reading against the grain. And once we have encountered such a read- ing, it is hard to forget it, hard to expunge the memory of its possibility from our consciousness, hard to adhere any longer to the idea of a univocal meaning of the text—hard, in short, to be sure what it is the text wants to say about God.

The possibility of reading against the grain makes for a plurality of interpretations. God and the exodus Here is another example of a dialectic reading of the Pentateuch. It seems to be both a case of a reader reading against the grain and of a tension that is immanent in the surface of the text. The text has persuaded its readers that it is telling of a mighty deed of salvation.

What the text never says, in this connection, is that it was Yahweh who brought them into Egypt in the first place. In the book of Exodus, the presence of the Hebrews in Egypt is regarded as a given, and the only questions are whether, how and when Yahweh will remove them from the house of bondage. The story of the exodus begins only at the point when the Hebrews groan under their hard labour.

And his character God seems to regard the presence of the Hebrews in Egypt as nothing more than an unfortunate accident that has happened to them; he never acknowledges that it is his own deliberate design. Now it makes a difference does it not? A tension immanent in the larger text of Genesis plus Exodus has led to a reading that in some respect goes against the grain of the smaller text of the opening chapters of Exodus.

God and the plagues in Egypt In at least one place there is an evident tension, on the surface of the text, over the behaviour of God during the affair of the Egyptian plagues. There is little doubt that the general intention of the text is to represent God as the saviour of the Hebrew people from the Egyptians: in Exod. Why did you ever send me? God in the Pentateuch 10 This is not the question of an opponent of God, and it is not rebuffed by God.

Moses is not punished for asking it, and God effectively concedes the truth of it by not denying it but changing the subject in his response. Now I hardly need to observe that the text does not mean us to accept that this is how we should read the entire narrative of the plagues, as a sequence of damaging actions of God against the Hebrews; and the narra- tive as a whole ensures that we ultimately forget about this objection of Moses, or almost so.

But what his question does is to open a window into the narrative, another angle of vision that enables the divine actions to be interpreted in another way from that of the text as a whole. This question of Moses invites us as readers to consider the whole plagues narrative from an alternative perspective; and even if we do not come to accept this perspective in the end a little note of ambiguity has been introduced into the portraiture of God.

There is another point at which the text, less overtly, intro- duces ambiguity into the larger picture. Of course, we can never know which of these possibilities we should choose, but we can hardly help wondering about it, especially because of the second ambiguity. Are we to say, The God of the Exodus is so powerful that he can remove every obstacle placed in his way—even those he in his omnipotence has put there himself like an irresistible force getting rid of an immovable object?

See Laurence A. On this last reading, see the essay by David M. Clines, David M. Gunn and Alan J. At the same time they avow men harden their own hearts In Exod. It is an explanation that bows under its own weight. And, in the second place, to say that he has hardened the hearts so as to give the Hebrews something to remember in later years is to suggest that there was no justifica- tion or necessity for the hardening of the hearts at the time. That is to say, while Yahweh is having all this sport making a fool of the Pharaoh and while all these memories are being laid down in the national consciousness, the Hebrews are still at work in the brick kilns.

Every day that passes in fruitless negotiations with the Pharaoh is another day of slave labour for the people of God, even if the text does not draw our attention to the fact at this moment. George Arthur Buttrick et al. And in the second place, does it resolve the issue to say that humans acting freely are carrying out the divine will, unless we are prepared to say also that God acting freely is carrying out human will?

But whatever we do, the textual data remain, and the picture of God remains intriguing and ultimately unexplain- able. If the narrator had set out to portray a deity whose pur- poses were not entirely clear and whose behaviour was from time to time eccentric, a deity who operated under the self-pro- fessed slogan, I will be whatever I will be, he might well have given us such a narrative as this. God and the chosen people Fundamental to the ideology of the Pentateuch is the idea that God has chosen the people of Israel from among all the nations on earth. The idea first becomes apparent in Genesis 12, though the language of choosing is not yet used.

When Yahweh tells Abram that he will make of him a great nation and that he will bless him and make his name great The divine self-description in Exod. David E. Green; Edinburgh: T. Clark, , p. God in the Pentateuch 14 We wonder, incidentally, whether any Israelites of whatever century needed to be told that they were not the most numerous people on the face of the earth; even without a state educational system or encyclopaedias, did they really imagine Israel was a greater state than Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia or Persia?

Or, if they did, how does the author of Deuteronomy happen to know that they were not? Nonetheless, whatever the implications, there is no doubt that the Pentateuch represents God as the God of the Hebrews—God of the Hebrews, that is, in a way he is not God of the Egyptians or Hittites, for example even if he is God of those nations in any sense at all. This is all right if you happen to be an Israelite and have no dealings with Hittites. You know all you need to know, which is that Yahweh is your God.

But if you happen to be a Hittite, or even a twentieth-century reader of the Pentateuch, how conge- nial is it to encounter in its pages a deity who is bound in this way to just one nation: the nation claims that he is their peculiar deity, and he professes that he has chosen them as his own peculiar people? What is the sense in this arrangement, what rationale is offered for it—especially since the Pentateuch itself regards God as the creator of the whole world?

And above all, for our present consideration of God in the Pentateuch, what does this exclusivity say about the character of the deity repre- sented here? The Pentateuch itself sees no problem here, nothing to be excused or justified; if anything, it makes a point out of there being no rationale for the choice of Israel as the people of Arthur W. Heathcote and Philip J. God in the Pentateuch 15 God.

But it does not occur to it that the very idea that there should be just one nation that is the chosen people—leaving the rest of humanity unchosen—is itself problematic. The time-honoured language, and the sense of fitness that creeps over us through long acquaintance with the idea, should not be allowed to soften the sense of shock to the modern con- science religiously formed or otherwise that such an example of nationalistic ideology must deliver.

Nor should we blur the contours of this distinct figuration of God in the Pentateuch with some pacific harmonization or identification of this God with the universal deity of the Christian religion—or, for that matter, patronize the God of the Pentateuch by excusing the myopia of his vision as a necessary stage in the progress of religion. The grain of the text, in short, assumes the centrality of the Jewish people and portrays a God whose attention is concen- trated upon that nation. So long as we stay within the ideology of the text, we experience no discomfort with the portraiture.

But the moment we position ourselves outside the text and become conscious of our own identities as non-Hebrews which we might do even if we are Jews today , it becomes difficult not to take a more quizzical view of the character. Unifying Readings The readings presented above of the character God in the Penta- teuch are meant only to be exemplary of the ambiguities and indeterminacy of the portrait offered by the text.

They them- selves, readings against the grain of the text, go against the grain also of the central tradition in biblical scholarship, which has generally striven for a harmonizing and unifying depiction of the character of the deity in the Old Testament, one indeed that maximizes the compatibility of the portrait with that of the God of the New Testament and of Christian theology.

This standpoint is of course quite legitimate—provided only that it is recognized that, like all standpoints, it has to be chosen, and, when it is chosen, it restricts the range of vision. God is present. The Pentateuch is not a story of human history in which God appears at the margins, making only occa- sional interventions like a deus ex machina. Volume 1, pp. Clark, Douglas W. Scott; Atlanta: John Knox Press, For a case where von Rad does think that a theological view con- tained in the Old Testament has its defects, see his Old Testament Theology, I, p.

Terence E. God in the Pentateuch 17 dominant character. Very little is said in the Pentateuch of the nature of God in himself; it is always God in relationship with humans, involved in the events of family or national history. He is known by what he has done, is doing, and will do—i. God speaks. God is the principal speaker in the Pentateuch. Most of the central chapters of the Pentateuch, from Exodus 20 to the end of Numbers, are the speeches of God.


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If you write down ten of the page numbers of the Pentateuch at random, and look them up to see if God speaks or is quoted on them, you will probably find, as I did, that on 6 out of 10 pages there are words of God. The significance of this speaking is variously understood by the theologians.

The Pentateuchal law, Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology, pp.

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Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology, p. Anderson is speaking of the Old Testament in general, it should be noted. To take another, not uncharacteristic, example, G. Because God encountered Israel as savior, he commanded to it his will. God promises. The Old Testament as a whole has commonly been read, by Christian interpreters, as promise, to which the New Testament corresponds as fulfilment.

And I have argued myself that the theme of the threefold promise to the ancestors of progeny, land and a divine—human relationship binds the whole Pentateuch together: while Genesis develops the element of the promise of progeny, Exodus and Leviticus concern themselves with the promise of the divine-human relationship, while Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline, p. Ronald E. Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis Dallas: Word Books. Westermann, Claus. Genesis A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg. Luke Bock, Darrell L.

Refine your editions:

A Theology of Luke and Acts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. Henrichs Tarasenkova, Nina. Library of New Testament studies London: Bloomsbury. Levine, Amy-Jill. A Feminist Companion to Luke. London: Sheffield Academic Press. Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Peabody: Hendrickson. Rowe, C. Shillington, V. An Introduction to the Study of Luke-Acts. Luke: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Carroll, John T. Luke: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Luke.

The Gospel of Luke. Brazos Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Brazos. Johnson, Luke Timothy.

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Sacra Pagina 3. Collegeville: Liturgical Press. Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Barton, John. Edited by J. Carleton Paget and J. Brakke, David. Ulrich, A. Jacobsen, and D. Frankfurt am Main: Lang. Edited by E. Chazon, D. Dimant, and R. Carr, David M. Collins, John J. Mays, D. Petersen, and K. Nashville: Abingdon. Grant, Robert M. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2nd ed. Translated by J. London: SCM Press.

Downers Grove, Ill. Kugel, James L. Pages in Early Biblical Interpretation. Kugel and R.

The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)

Philadelphia: Westminster. Law, Timothy Michael. Lim, Timothy H. The Formation of the Jewish Canon. Sanders, eds. Peabody, Mass. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah Leiden: Brill. Mason et al. Najman, Hindy. Journal for the Study of Judaism — Satlow, Michael L.

The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)
The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)
The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)
The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)
The Theme of the Pentateuch (Jsot Supplement Series, 10)
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