Tuesday, 15 July 2003

The fifth book of the Torah is Deuteronomy. This is a strange-looking English word. In fact, it is not an English word, being made up of two Greek words. The first is 'deutero' which means 'second' and 'nomos' which means 'law'. Taken together, deuteronomy is, as you guessed, 'second law'. This is the attempt by the Greek-speaking Jews to give a name which would sum up the contents of the whole book. The fifth book of the Torah is basically the repetition of the laws given by Moses to the new generation of God's people. The first generation had listened to the Law from Mount Sinai but they had disbelieved in it, ending up wandering in the wilderness for 38 years and eventually dying one by one in the desert sands, all except Moses, Joshua and Caleb.

The children of that disbelieving generation had grown up and have taken on the position of their parents. But they needed to hear the law for themselves. So Moses gathered them at the Plains of Moab, overlooking the Promised Land. In sight of the land, Moses repeated the laws once given to their parents to the new generation. Thus, the compound word 'deuteronomy' is an adequate word to describe the thrust of the book. Initially, the word was a mistranslation of Deut. 17:18 (...he shall write for himself a copy of the law). Happily, the miscontrued word still serves as an apt title to this fifth book of the Torah.

Framed as three farewell speeches, Moses taught the new generation all the laws that will govern them as they entered the Promised Land. The laws are given to the 'you' (singular) which represented the nation as a whole. These laws are humanitarian in outlook as they dealt with the person-to-person level (horizontal level fo relationships). When the relationships between persons are right, they will be able to live long in the land. Some of these laws in Deuteronomy have found their way into many of the laws of the western nations. Thus, when we read the laws in Deuteronomy, they can vaguely seem familiar.

The books ends with Moses' Song (chap. 32), his Blessing on the 12 tribes (chap. 33) and the account of his death (chap. 34). The last chapter obviously was written by someone else than Moses. The story of Moses' death not only sums up the book of Deuteronomy but the Torah as well. What started with the creation of the universe, humankind and the calling of Abraham, the founder of the nation of Israel, ends with the story of Israel's deliverer and supreme law-giver, Moses. Taken together, these 5 books give us a panaromic view of the salvation history of God through the nation of Israel.

Wednesday, 18 June 2003

The fourth book in the Torah is Numbers. What a strange name for a book because it might imply an arithmatics book. The name came about from the name of the book in the Greek translation. Looking for a suitable name to describe the contents of the book, the Greek-speaking Jews decided on the name 'Arithmoi' (which is Greek for 'numbers'). This was because of the two censuses in the book, one at the beginning and the other near the end of the book.

The book begins with the people still at the foot of Mount Sinai. They have received the laws and made a covenant with God and are ready to depart for the Promised Land. Preparations are made which include observations like passover, circumcision etc. Then Moses takes a census of all the fighting men (around 605,000). The people set out and the middle block of the book details the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness. Stories here include the grumblings of the people, rebellion, leadership struggles, the spying of the land etc. The last portion of the books ends with the stories of Balak and Balaam. The setting is the Plains of Moab where the people of God had arrived, at the edge of the Promised Land. Here Moses is called to take another census of the fighting men. The reason is simple - the old generation had all died out one by one in the desert, except for Moses, Joshua and Caleb. The children of the older generation had now grown up in the 38 years of wandering. The census was needed to show how faithful God was to his people. Even though one generation had died, they are replaced by an equally big number (around 603,000).

Hence, with the two censuses and the concern for the number of God's people, the name 'Arithmoi' is an adequate and relevant name. From the Greek, the Latin translation took the word 'Numeri' and this has come to our English translation as 'Numbers'. Now you know why we call the fourth book in the Torah as 'Numbers'. It is indeed about numbers. The book makes good reading as a parallel of our own spiritual life. Just as the Israelites left Egypt, we have left the kingdom of darkness. As they travelled in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land, so we journey on this earth as pilgrims on our way to Heaven. Along the way, the people of God went through numerous trials and testings. So do we in our journey on this earth. They grumble against Moses and the leaders, so do we grumble at our church leadership! Try reading this excellent book by reflecting on our own spiritual walk. You may be surprised at how relevant and contemporary this book of Numbers is.

Wednesday, 11 June 2003

The third book in the Torah is Leviticus. Hey, you would be thinking immediately inside you - who would ever in his or her right mind want to read Leviticus today? Well, it is partly true. It is a book full of antiquated laws, of 'dos and don'ts' and so on. The first 7 chapters deal with the various types of sacrifices, followed by chapters on detailed regulations governing the levitical priesthood, followed by the elaborate laws governing the feast days and so on.

Many of the rituals and requirements in Leviticus are no longer observed by Christians today. Even for the Jews, some of these laws no longer function today because there is no more Temple. When the last Temple built by Herod was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, Temple sacrificial worship ceased for the Jews. Thankfully, they already had in place a parallel system of worship - the synagogue which began sometime in the post-exilic period. With the destruction of the Temple, no further animal sacrifices could be offered, as there was no altar for the burnt offering. Eventually, the Jews adapted to their new form of 'bloodless' worship where psalm singing, prayers, intercession, recital of the laws and preaching of the Word took over. Observation of some of the laws from Leviticus still persist e.g. the Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement, laws governing the feast days like Passover or Pesach, Pentecost or Shavout and Tabernacles or Sukkoth and rules concerning tithes and oaths.

So what would we do with a book like Leviticus today when most of its laws are outdated and obsolete? I would suggest not abandoning the book altogether but to continue to read the book from a more profitable angle. Read it to understand the principles behind their formation. For example, why did God permit the Jews to have such an elaborate sacrificial system, together with an elaborate priesthood? One possible reason was God wanted to show that for every degree of sin, great or small, there was a way to offer restitution. An animal had to take the sinner's place to pay the price of sin and to 'ransom' the sinner from the debt of sin. The greater the sin, the greater in size of the animal. Hence, for a relatively small sin, a turtle dove would suffice but for a major sin like killing, a bull was required. Yet, there were also various types of sacrifices - sin offering, peace offering, freewill offering, burnt offering, wave offering. There were sacrifices for different occasions to meet the different needs. Together with the priesthood, God provided for the Jews 2 avenues to find forgiveness - the animal sacrificial system to pay the price and the priesthood to offer the sacrifice on their behalf. You cannot find forgiveness with only 1 of the avenues - you need both. In a way, Jesus came as both the sacrificial lamb and as the High Priest who present the sacrifice. Read the book of Leviticus to see how the laws provided the Jews with a way to find forgiveness from their sins (sacrifices and priesthood), how they could celebrate and worship God through the calendar year (feasts), how God forgives the sins of the whole nation each year (Yom Kippur) and what governs their life together as God's people (tithes, oaths etc). We can then begin to see how in the New or Second Testament, these rules and regulations also find their fulfilment and place in the Christian community.

Saturday, 7 June 2003

The second book in the Torah is exodus. Again, the word originally was not an English word but has come into our vocab today. We speak of an 'exodus' of refugees etc. So how did the early Greek-speaking Jews decide on this name for the second book when in Hebrew the book was called 'semot' (names -of)? Remember, in the earlier posting, i mentioned that the Jews had a simple way of calling their books - they took the first word that appeared in the book as the natural title of the book. In this case, they read through the contents of the book of Exodus. What was very clear was the story of the exodus or fleeing of the Jews from Egypt. God heard their cries under Pharoah's oppression and sent a deliverer called Moses. Moses, acting on behalf of God, confronted Pharoah with a series of signs and finally led his people out of Egypt into the Sinai desert to the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Law. The Greek word 'exodus' is made up of 2 Greek words - 'ex' which is a preposition meaning 'out of' and 'hodos' which means 'way, path'. Taken together, the combined Greek word 'exodos' means 'the way or path out of (Egypt)'. Wow, that's a great name to sum up the contents of the book effectively. The Greek form 'exodos' came through the Latin translation of the Vulgate as 'exodus' and our English word is a transliteration of the Latin, retaining the 'u' at the end of the word. So the next time we read the book Exodus, we already know what the contents of the book are from its name!

Tuesday, 13 May 2003

The first book of the torah is genesis. when i was a young christian (and that was a long time ago), i did wonder what the name 'genesis' meant. later, it was natural to think of phil collins' rock band GENESIS! a clue lies in the name. genesis is not english but comes from the greek through the latin. the original hebrew word for the first book of the torah (or our old testament) is 'bereshith' (which means 'in the beginning'). the hebrew people had a simple way of calling their books - they took the first word that appears in the book as the title of the book. thus, in the first book, the first word in hebrew that appears is 'bereshith'. however, we do not call the first book in the o.t. with this name (thankfully). if not, one can guess how difficult it is to remember all the names of the 39 books in the o.t. using the hebrew names. what happen then to the hebrew name?

somewhere around the 2nd century bc in alexandria in egypt, the jewish people living there wanted to have the jewish scriptures in greek. they had lived under the greek rule for a century and began to speak more greek than hebrew. in fact, hebrew was already relegated to the religious level as aramaic, a close dialect, was already in common use after the persian empire (prior to the coming of the greeks). the jewish community translated the jewish scriptures into the language of the greeks (this was the first ancient version or translation of the o.t.) and was called the septuagint (greek for '70' due to a legend that 70 elders took 70 days to each separately translated the jewish scriptures in greek). when the translators came to the names of the books, they had to struggle with either retaining the jewish names or give something in greek as an equivalent. reading through the book of genesis, one would immediately be struck by the repetition of the theme of origins or beginnings, as genesis is a book about beginnings - the beginnings of the universe, humankind, about the entry of sin, the fall of human beings, the effect of the fall on humanity, the call of abraham and sarah as the founders of the jewish nation, the 12 sons of jacob who were to form the 12 tribes (the precursor to the nation of israel).

to name the book with this theme would be a good and wise choice, hence, the word 'genesis' was chosen as 'genesis' itself means origins or beginnings. what a stroke of genius! today we do not need to bother to remember all the jewish names (except for a few) but need to understand the meaning of the greek words. from the greek version, the o.t. was later translated into latin with the version being called the vulgate. genesis in greek was the same as genesis in latin and hence, the english word today has been formed based on the latin. thus, if one has a clue to the meaning of the strange names in the o.t., he or she can immediately grasp the contents and themes of the whole book. more later.

Friday, 9 May 2003

the torah is not merely rules and regulations. it represents the national and religious history of the jewish people. if you want to know about the origins of the jewish people, here is the place to look. it will answer questions like 'how did the jewish race begin?' and 'why did the jewish race begin?'. yet, the torah goes far beyond merely recording the origins of the jewish people. in fact, the torah speaks about the origins of the world and the universe itself, the origins of the human race, the origins of when human sin began etc. to understand god's salvation history (heilsgeschichte - salvation history), one has to begin with the torah. in it, we see how because men and women fell into sin, god had to initiate his salvation plan, beginning with abraham and sarah aand their descendants, the jewish people, and climaxing in jesus' incarnation on earth and culminating in his final return (the second coming).

how does one go about reading the torah profitably? one suggestion is to see all five books as representing a single block of material that has a beginning and end, which are tied together with common themes (like covenant, election, deliverance, promise, land) and has a natural flow. i always suggest to my students to find a long weekend, go somewhere quiet like the beach or the highlands, and read through genesis to deuteronomy in one sitting. this is to capture the majestic sweep and flow of the narrative. i can guarantee that this is far better reading than any of hollywood or bollywood's epics or mills and boon's romantic novels. very often, we don't do this synchronic reading (like slicing a cake from the side through the whole cake). we do what is called diachronic reading (cutting the cake just straight down into different slices). most of our bible reading is done diachronically, especially if you use the american daily bread for your daily readings. you end up reading a little here and a little there but do not read a whole book and thus do not see the whole picture. try a synchornic reading of the torah. it will blow your mind (i.e. to comprehend the salvation plan of god. and this is just the 1st part)!

Monday, 5 May 2003

the first section is called the torah (which in hebrew means 'instruction, teaching'). unfortunately, it has been commonly called 'law' (although we should not read our modern understanding of 'law' into the word for 'torah'). torah means more than mere rules and regulations. they are instructions for life, or teachings given to enable god's people to live their lives to the fullest. how sad christians sometimes have the idea that the ot law is 'bad' or 'restrictive' (becaue of the notion of 'thou shall not do this' and 'thou shalt not do that'). the torah as given to the jews, who are by race god's chosen people, was something that was to be a delight in their eyes. to keep the torah was to find life and meaning to life.
there are 613 commandments in the torah. while it is true christians today are not expected to keep all the 613 commandments in order to be 'blameless' in god's sight, jesus reminded us that all the laws can be reduced to 2 - you shall love the lord your god, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. in essence, christians still 'keep' the torah albeit in a different way from the jews. while the jews still see observance of the torah as the way to salvation, christians see the torah as part of god's total instructions for his people. with the coming of the nt, we no longer observe and keep the ceremonial and ritual laws as these have been fulfilled by jesus' death on the cross. yet the moral laws, e.g. the 10 commandments, are still abiding for us.
so, what do we do today with the torah? well, we can still read it profitably because they represent the national and religious history of the jews. as christians, we have adopted the jewish scriptures as part of ours. hence, by faith, although we are all gentiles, the torah becomes our scripture too. the torah is the right place to begin to understand our christian roots as well as the jewish roots. here, you find the beginnings of the universe, the beginnings of the human race, the origin of sin, the calling of abraham to be the father of a nation, and the beginnings of the nation of israel.

Thursday, 24 April 2003

one way to understand the ot is from the jewish perspective. the jews divided their scriptures (which is similar to our ot) into 3 sections called Torah, Prophets and Writings. Under the first section, Torah, there are 5 books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The second section, Prophets, has two sub-parts - Historical books (consisting of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and Prophetic Books (consisting of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets). Note the Jewish way of counting is different from the Christian. Samuel and Kings were originally only 2 books (we have split them further to make 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). Also the Twelve Minor Prophets were counted as one book (since they were written in a single large scroll).
The third section, Writings, consists of the rest of the ot books - Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the 5 Scrolls (Song of Songs, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther), Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Note again, Chronicles was originally 1 book and so was Ezra and Nehemiah. That makes 24 books in all in the Jewish scriptures cf. with the Christian counting of 39 books.

Tuesday, 22 April 2003

one reason why many christians do not read the ot is out of sheer ignorance. they do not understand the book or fail to see any relevance in reading it today. i can understand because the ot has 39 books in all. many of them are obscure and difficult to read. e.g. who would want to read the book of leviticus today? seriously, what can any christian get out of reading about laws of sacrifices, consecration of priests etc? it all depends how you read the ot. i choose to read it from a literary perspective - treating the ot not just as God's word but also human beings' words. it was written by many different people thousands of years ago, but each with his or her literary talents and gifts that God employed. like any ancient literature e.g. Homer's Iliad or the Mahabrathra, one can employ literary techniques and skills to read and enjoy the high literary qualities of the ot that makes us wonder how God's word written in human words can still be powerful and life-transforming.