LEARNING FROM RECURRING THEMES IN THE PENTATEUCH
by Doug Ward
In our family Bible studies this year, we have been taking a close look at the Pentateuch--the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. As I consult the works of expert Christian and Jewish commentators in preparation for our weekly studies, I am continually struck by the literary quality of these first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Here I do not mean to imply that the Bible is a mere work of fiction; no, I am thoroughly convinced of the historical validity of the scriptures. But in addition to being a reliable historical document, the Bible is also a literary work of great beauty and depth, a fact that actually can lend further support to the believer's conviction that it is divinely inspired.
One especially important literary feature of the Bible is its repetition, beginning in the Pentateuch, of certain key themes. As the themes are revisited, the text often makes reference to previous episodes in the story, inviting the reader to compare present and past events. When we become aware of such references and carry out the comparisons, we can better appreciate the full meaning and impact of many passages (see for instance [1, chapter 5], ).
In this article, I will discuss several examples from the Pentateuch in which our understanding of a scriptural passage can be enhanced when we view it in light of previous passages as part of the Bible's presentation of some recurring theme. These examples, which come from the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, involve major turning points in the history of Israel.
Onward to Egypt?
Our first example is from the life of the patriarch Jacob. Late in his life, Jacob finds out that his missing son Joseph, whom he had long ago presumed to be dead, is actually alive and well in Egypt. In fact, Joseph is serving as prime minister to the mighty Pharaoh.
Upon learning this wonderful news, Jacob determines to visit his favorite son (Gen. 45:28). We now pick up the story in Gen. 46:
``So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.
And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, `Jacob! Jacob!' `Here I am,' he replied.
`I am God, the God of your father,' he said. `Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph's own hand will close your eyes''' (vv. 1-4, NIV).
These verses seem to imply that Jacob is worried about something, since God comforts him with the words, ``Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt....'' What is Jacob worried about? Let's see if we can figure out what Jacob might be thinking as he sets out to see Joseph in Egypt.
First, we should remember that Jacob is not the first of the patriarchs to seek refuge in Egypt during a time of famine. (This is one of those recurring themes or motifs to which I refer above.) Jacob's grandfather Abraham had visited Egypt briefly because of an earlier famine (Gen. 12:10-20). On that occasion, Abraham had shown a surprising lack of faith in his reluctance to reveal to the Egyptians that Sarah, the attractive woman who accompanied him, was actually his wife. Even so, God had watched over Abraham and Sarah in Egypt and brought them back safely to Canaan with increased wealth.
God later revealed to Abraham that his descendants would one day live in Egypt for four hundred years, where they would be enslaved but ultimately rescued (Gen. 15:13-14). By Jacob's time, this prophecy remained unfulfilled. Indeed, when Jacob's father Isaac had apparently contemplated a trip to Egypt during another famine, God had commanded Isaac to remain in the land that God had promised to him and his descendants (Gen. 26:1-6). Jacob himself had left Canaan only one previous time in his life, and that had been in an emergency. In the face of death threats from his angry brother Esau, he had fled to the home of his uncle Laban (Gen. 27:41-45). God had promised Jacob at the outset of that journey that He would watch over him and bring him back to Canaan (Gen. 28:15).
Taking all of this history into account, we can see that Jacob must have a lot on his mind when he stops in Beersheba to offer sacrifices. The text in Gen. 46:1 refers to God as ``the God of his father Isaac,'' a possible indication that Jacob is thinking especially at this point about God's previous instructions to Isaac. God had ordered his father to stay in Canaan. Was it advisable for him to leave now?
For several reasons, Beersheba was an appropriate place for Jacob to seek God's will at the outset of his contemplated journey. It was a place where Isaac had worshipped, received encouragement from God, and spent much time (Gen. 26:23-25). It was the starting point of Jacob's earlier trip to Haran (Gen. 28:10). In addition, it lay near the southernmost border of Canaan (see e.g. Judges 20:1; I Sam. 3:20), so it would have been an appropriate place to apply to God for an ``exit visa.''
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag  suggests that the type of offerings given by Jacob could give us a further window into Jacob's thoughts. The Hebrew word for ``sacrifices'' in Gen. 46:1 is zevachim, which is elsewhere used specifically in connection with peace offerings (see Lev. 3:1, 3, 6, 9; 4:10, etc.). Peace offerings (or ``fellowship offerings'' in the NIV) were often given as expressions of thanksgiving (Lev. 7:12). Surely Jacob's peace offerings must be, at least in part, a statement of his gratitude that Joseph is still alive.
Peace offerings later also marked some important milestones in Israel's history and mission. For example, the same Hebrew word zevach is used for the Passover sacrifice in Exodus 12:27, for the peace offerings given at the ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:5, and at the dedication of the tabernacle (Lev. 9:18). Jacob's sacrifices show how much this journey to Egypt means to him. Here was a chance to be united with all twelve of his sons and to pass along his blessing to them (see Gen. 48-49). Observe that in Gen. 46:1-4, Jacob is designated by his name Israel, which stresses his role as father of a whole nation that would share a special relationship with God.
So far we have noted that the motif of Egypt as both a place of refuge and a place of servitude forms a key part of the background and context of Gen. 46:1. Another significant biblical motif appears in verse 2, where God calls to Jacob and Jacob responds by saying, ``Here I am.'' This response (Hineni in Hebrew) points back to the time when God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. At that time, Abraham answered in the same way (Gen. 22:1, 11), expressing that he was at God's disposal, willing to do whatever God asked him to do. Similarly Jacob, with the simple word Hineni, shows that he too seeks God's will. (Later Moses gives the same response at the burning bush-notice the similarity between Gen. 46:2 and Ex. 3:4.) If God does not wish for Jacob to go to Egypt, then Jacob will not go, even though he longs to see Joseph again.
God then assures Jacob that it is indeed His will for Jacob to go to Egypt-and not just for a brief reunion with Joseph. With the words ``I will make you into a great nation there,'' God reaffirms the promises He has previously made to Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 12:2; 21:8; 26:3-5). He also promises to bring the new nation back from Egypt, as he had said to Abraham in Genesis 15:14.
Following God's instructions, Jacob and his family now move to Egypt to begin another phase in God's plan for His people. Gen. 46:1-4, a rather simple passage at first glance, is seen upon closer examination to describe a dramatic moment in the story of that plan.
A Second Ark
In Egypt, Jacob's extended family prospers and multiplies dramatically, just as God had promised (Ex. 1:7). Eventually the Egyptians, using the excuse that they are being overrun with these aliens, place the Israelites in cruel slavery (vv. 8-14). Jacob's descendants continue to multiply, however, prompting the Pharaoh to impose even harsher measures. First, midwives are directed to kill all male Israelite babies. Then, when the midwives refuse to comply, Pharaoh orders the Israelites to throw all of their male babies into the Nile (vv. 15-22).
In this dire situation, God sets the stage for the deliverance of His people by preparing a special leader. The story continues in Exodus 2:1-4:
``Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.''
Significantly, the Hebrew word for ``basket'' in verse 3 is tevah, a word used in only one other context in the Bible-in reference to Noah's ark in Gen. 6-9 [3, p. 16]. This choice of words invites us to look for parallels between the two contexts, and such parallels are easy to find. In Noah's time, the sins of mankind had brought the human race to the brink of destruction, and man's survival hung on the fate of the eight people in the ark. Similarly, Israel is threatened with genocide in Egypt, and the hopes of the nation are pinned on the baby in his basket on the Nile. In a larger sense, the future of all mankind is at stake in this instance too, since it is through Israel that God plans to bring a blessing to every nation (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). 1
According to Jewish tradition, the distinction between an ``ark'' and a conventional boat or ship lies in the fact that an ark has no steering mechanism and no sail or other means of propulsion. In other words, setting out in an ark is an act of faith; one who travels by ark is placing his destiny in God's hands. That is certainly the case with both Noah and Jochebed, the ``Levite woman'' in Exodus 2:1. When Noah spent years preparing his massive ark, he demonstrated great faith in his Creator. Similarly, to save her son, Jochebed has to let him go, trusting God to take care of him.
Waters of Life and Death
As we know, Jochebed's faith is rewarded. Pharaoh's daughter rescues the baby and names him Moses, an Egyptian name that sounds like the Hebrew for ``draw out.'' That name is prophetic, since God would use Moses eighty years later to ``draw out'' the Israelites from Egypt.
A pivotal scene in the story of Israel's deliverance is the parting of the Red Sea. We read about it in the fourteenth chapter of the book of Exodus:
``Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left'' (Exodus 14:21-22).
The drama of this moment is heightened when we recognize it as part of a larger theme that spans the books of Genesis and Exodus: God's power over water in both sustaining and taking life. During the creation week, God had set aside dry land by gathering up the waters that covered it (Gen. 1:9-10). Later, when violence and immorality filled the earth, God had sent the flood, covering the land with water once again.
For the Egyptians in Moses' time, the waters of the Nile made life and prosperity possible. In fact, the Egyptians worshipped the Nile [3, pp. 60-61]. However, God set out to demonstrate to Egypt and Israel that He alone controlled those waters. First He used them to rescue the baby Moses, as we have noted above. He then brought the plagues of blood and frogs, making the Nile a source of death as well as life for the Egyptians (Exodus 7-8).
Various elements of the water motif come together at the shores of the Red Sea. There God again displays His sovereignty over the waters, gathering them up as before to create dry land. The Israelites follow this temporary trail to a new life of freedom on the eastern side of the Red Sea. On the other hand, the Egyptians, who had tried to destroy the Israelites by drowning them in the waters of the Nile, now see Pharaoh's army drown in its stubborn pursuit of God's people.
Noah, Abraham, and Moses
After the initial triumph at the Red Sea, Moses faces many challenges in leading Israel toward the Promised Land. For the Israelites, it is much easier to walk away from Egypt physically than it is to escape the mindset of slavery and the traditions of paganism.
A crisis is reached at Mt. Sinai, where God reveals the words of the covenant. While Moses is away on the mountain receiving instruction about true worship and holy living, the people build an idol (Ex. 32:1-6). Their golden calf may be patterned after Apis, an Egyptian fertility god depicted as a bull [3, p. 65]; or Hathor, a goddess portrayed as a heifer.
As a result of this blatant breach of the covenant, God proposes to destroy the idolatrous Israelites and start afresh with Moses and his family:
```I have seen these people,' the LORD said to Moses, `and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation''' (Exodus 32:9-10).
How will Moses respond? Given the continual headaches that the children of Israel have already caused their longsuffering leader, the opportunity to start over again might be an attractive possibility. Moses, however, does not quietly accept God's offer. Instead, he urges the Creator to reconsider, arguing that God's reputation among the nations and promises to the patriarchs are at stake (vv. 11-14).
Moses' intercession on behalf of his people is remarkable, especially when viewed against the backdrop of previous occasions when God had planned to bring judgment upon a group of sinners and announced His intentions in advance to one of His servants. Centuries before, God had informed Noah of His plan to destroy humankind in a flood and begin anew with Noah (Gen. 6:17-18). As we have noted earlier, Noah was a man of obedience and faith (see Gen. 6:9; Heb. 11:7). The apostle Peter later called him a ``preacher of righteousness'' (2 Peter 2:5). Still, there is no record of any attempt on his part to intervene for the sake of humanity. Jewish tradition has questioned Noah's apparent lack of concern for his fellow men. Rabbinic commentators, noting that Noah was said to be ``blameless among the people of his time'' (Gen. 6:9), wondered whether he would have been evaluated as favorably if he had lived in a less corrupt time [3, pp. 248, 303].
Later, when the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah prompted divine judgment, God told Abraham about His intention to destroy those cities (Gen. 18:17-21). Abraham responded by taking up the cause of a possible righteous remnant of Sodom and Gomorrah. In a famous exchange with God, Abraham persuaded the Holy One to spare the evil cities if even as few as ten righteous people could be found in them (Gen. 18:22-33).
Now consider Moses' actions in light of these previous events. Instead of making a claim for the righteous among the Israelites, Moses confesses their sins and appeals to God's mercy and abiding love. All of the people, including his brother Aaron, share responsibility for the golden calf. While Abraham stopped at the possibility of ten righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses is apparently willing to continue right down to the number zero. In fact, he even offers to give up his own place in the book of life for Israel's sake (Ex. 32:31-32). No wonder Moses is considered to be the greatest of the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures!
A Generation Gap
Israel spends most of a year at Mt. Sinai, carefully preparing for the march to Canaan. As the departure date nears, Moses looks ahead eagerly to the blessings God has in store for them. His excitement is evident when he invites his brother-in-law Hobab to accompany them:
``We are setting out for the place about which the LORD said, `I will give it to you.' Come with us and we will treat you well, for the LORD has promised good things to Israel'' (Num. 10:29).
Unfortunately, most of the people do not share Moses' vision. Almost as soon as they break camp, complaints about the hardships of the journey and the monotony of their diet begin (Num. 11:1-6). Moses is disheartened at the people's shortsightedness (vv. 10-15), and God gives support to him by equipping seventy elders to share the burdens of leadership (vv. 16-17).
The greatest disappointment occurs shortly thereafter in the Desert of Paran, just south of the Promised Land. There the Israelites, influenced by a negative report from ten members of the advance scouting party, rebel again. They accuse God of bringing them into the wilderness to die, and they actually talk of choosing a new leader and returning to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4).
Given the people's refusal to accept His gracious promises, God again proposes to destroy the rebels and start over through Moses (vv. 11-12). Moses, despite the discouragement he must feel at Israel's continuing lack of faith, passionately intercedes for them yet another time (vv. 13-19). In particular, he appeals to the merciful nature that God had proclaimed at Mt. Sinai and had shown throughout the journey. (Note vv. 17-19, in which Moses quotes Ex. 34:6-7.)
True to that nature, God spares the Israelites, but they would not go unpunished. The people would now spend another thirty-eight years in the wilderness, during which time all but a few of the older generation would die. Their children, those whom they had accused God of endangering, would then inherit the Promised Land (vv. 20-35).
The Bible does not give us many details about the long years in the wilderness. As those years pass, more and more members of the older generation die. Significantly, the nineteenth chapter of the book of Numbers shows how ceremonial cleansing is to be carried out after one has touched a dead body. This chapter may symbolize the fresh start that God gives to the second generation of the Exodus. How will this next generation do? We return to the story in Num. 20:1:
``In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.''
The text does not specify the year in which this chapter begins. It is generally believed to be the fortieth and final year in the wilderness, based on a comparison of the time reference in Num. 33:38 with Num. 20:22-29. At this point in the journey, the Israelites are again not far from the borders of Canaan.
Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, believed that the phrase ``the whole Israelite community'' in Num. 20:1 implied the completeness of that community and its readiness, at long last, to take over the land. However, as we read on, it appears that little has changed:
``Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, `If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!''' (vv. 2-5)
These verses remind us of the several occasions when the previous generation of Israelites complained about a lack of food or water (Ex. 16:3; 17:1-3; Num. 14:5-6). However, there is also a major difference here from the earlier complaints. While the older generation had looked back wistfully on the steady diet they had enjoyed as slaves in Egypt (Ex. 16:3; Num. 11:5), members of the new generation have their sights set on the blessings that lie ahead in the Promised Land. The foods they mention in verse 5-grain, figs, grapes, and pomegranates-are crops from Canaan rather than Egypt (see for example Deut. 8:8). Instead of longing to go back to the security of Egypt, the second generation, which has little or no memory of Egypt, is anxious to leave the desert and move forward to claim the abundant land of Canaan.
When Moses and Aaron seek God's guidance, the Almighty makes gracious provision for the needs of Israel. He instructs Moses,
``Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink'' (Num. 20:8).
Here God's response seems to be calm and matter-of-fact, perhaps an indication that He judges the new generation of Israelites to be impatient and overeager rather than actually rebellious. In contrast to an incident forty years before at Rephidim (Ex. 17:1-6), God tells Moses and Aaron to ``speak to'' the rock rather than to ``strike'' it. This may imply that Moses and Aaron are to provide Israel with encouraging words rather than a stern rebuke. Instead, however, Moses lashes out at the people:
``...Moses said to them, `Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?' Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank'' (vv. 10-11).
Moses has dealt patiently with the Israelites for forty years, but this time he fails to reflect God's merciful character to them. It may be that the years have taken their toll and Moses has little patience left. At any rate, God determines that new leadership is necessary for a new generation (v. 12). Moses and Aaron had brought Israel to the borders of Canaan, but Joshua and Eleazer would lead the people into the land in their place. As the Pentateuch closes, Moses views the land from Mt. Nebo, then dies at age 120 (Deut. 34).
The motifs we have discussed in this article reappear often as the story of God's plan and promise unfolds. Israel continues through the centuries to have a love-hate relationship with Egypt. For example, righteous king Josiah is killed in a battle with Egypt (2 Chron 35: 20-26), but Joseph and Mary find refuge there during the infancy of the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:13-23). God calls faithful leaders who, like Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, place themselves in the Eternal's hands with the simple declaration ``Hineni'' (I Sam. 3; Isa. 6:8). Sometimes these leaders are pushed to the limit, as Moses was. Elijah, for instance, faces discouragement and depression (I Kings 19), and Elisha is called upon to continue his work.
God brings Israel into the Promised Land by dividing the waters of another river, the Jordan (Joshua 3). Later, the prophets foretell that waters would be parted again for a future exodus of God's scattered people back to the land (Isa. 11:15-16; Zech. 10:10-11). Just as the original rescue at the Red Sea was followed by a song of praise (Ex. 15), so will the future one be (Isa. 12). The Red Sea miracle and the flood also look forward to Christian baptism and our own rescue from bondage to sin and death (I Cor. 10:1-2; I Peter 3:20-21).
These are just some of the wonderful themes that bind the Bible together into one perfect whole. Many of the themes, like that of Moses' intercession on the people's behalf, point forward to the life and mission of the Messiah--the greatest theme of all. Although the Bible was penned over many centuries by a diverse group of writers, these unifying themes testify to its divine origin and inspiration. As we study God's Word, we can rejoice in the unity and beauty of His revelation to us.
1. Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, BasicBooks, New York, 1992.
2. Walter C. Kaiser, Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.
3. Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.
4. Menachem Leibtag, ``Parshat Vayigash-From Breishit to Shmot,'' commentary on Parshat Vayigash available online at http://www.tanach.org/breishit/vayig/vayigs1.htm.
1The fact that Jacob's family in Egypt originally numbered seventy (Ex. 1:5) has also been seen as a symbol of Israel's role as a representative of all nations, since seventy is the traditional number of the nations of the world.
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