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The Pentateuch – An Overview (From Genesis to Numbers)

Topography of Paradise – A. Kircher (1602-1680)

The first and most fundamental part of the Pentateuch is Genesis 1-11. They put the history of Israel, which will be narrated from Genesis 12, as part of all humanity. The chapters do not speak of a series of events ordered in chronological sequence. Rather they make important questions: who created all that exists? (Genesis 1-2) Why suffering exists? Why men and women are forced to work with fatigue? (Genesis 3) How the humankind was before the flood? (Genesis 4-9) Why on earth people speak different languages? What is the origin of the various peoples of the earth? (Genesis 10-11)

At chapter 12 begins the story of the so-called “patriarchs of Israel”, i.e. the fathers from whom every good jew descends. The story begins with the first and most important patriarch: Abraham (Gen 12-25:18). God promises to Abraham a land and an endless descent. By virtue of these promises, God is committed not only with Abraham, but also with all his descendants, until everything is perfectly accomplished. The Bible emphasizes the Abraham’s unflinching faith (Gen 12), his courage (Gen 22) and also his shrewdness (Gen 20). The second patriarch is Isaac (Gen 25:19-35:29). More than him, Genesis speaks rather of one of his two sons: Jacob (until Gen 50). Jacob, in fact, will be the real founder of Israel, because his twelve children are the eponyms of the twelve tribes’ Israel (cf. Gen 30 and 35:18.22-26). The Bible emphasizes the Jacob’s cunning (Gen 25:29 ff.; 27; 30:25 ff.) and his strength (Gen 32:23-33). Genesis ends with the extraordinary story of one of the twelve sons of Jacob: Joseph (Gen 37-50). His story is well known and serves as a bridge between Genesis and Exodus. His eleven brothers – who had sold him to a foreigner – go down to Egypt because of a famine. They didn’t recognize him, because he had become the viceroy of Egypt. Joseph, instead, recognized them immediately. When, at the end, he made himself known, he ordered his entire family to move to Egypt. Egypt is the scene of the events narrated in the Exodus.

The book of Exodus is literary related to the book of Genesis (cf. Ex 1:1-5). It opens with the oppression of the Jews from the Pharaoh and the killing of all jewish newborn (Ex 1:8-22) . One of these children escaped the massacre – Moses – because he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. When he was young he began to take up the defense of the Jews. But he failed and he was forced to flee to Midian (Ex 2:1-22). God revealed to him His name and ordered him to return to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to let the Jews leave (Ex 2-4). The first attempt failed and Moses was discouraged. After having renewed his call, the Lord sent Moses and Aaron back to Pharaoh (Ex 5-7:13). Pharaoh will not listen, and the Lord sent ten terrible plagues (Ex 7:14-12). After the celebration of the Passover (Ex 12-13:16), the Pharaoh finally decided to let them go. After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, Jews come to Mount Sinai (13:17-18:27). Here the Lord gave Moses the tablets of the Law (“The Ten Commandments”) and other laws that were to govern the life of the future Israel (Ex 19-24). Moreover, the Lord gave Moses detailed instructions for the construction of the sanctuary and for the Israel’s worship (Ex 25-31). But the people rebelled (Ex 32) and the Lord gave the new tablets of the Law to Moses (Ex 33-34). Eventually Moses ordered the Israelites to build the sanctuary as instructed by the Lord (Ex 35-40).

The Book of Leviticus is closely related to the previous context (cf. Ex 40:36-38 and Lv 1:1). The book opens with a set of instructions on the various kinds of sacrifices that characterize the worship of Israel (Lev 1-7). It follows the ritual for the investiture of the priests (Lv 8-10) and the complex regulation on the clean and the unclean (Leviticus 11-16). The so-called “code of holiness” (Lv 17-26) rules the whole life of the Israelites, called to be “holy as the Lord.” An appendix lists the rules for the fulfillment of the votes (Lv 27).

Connected to the previous book (cf. Lv 27:34 and Nb 1:1), the book of Numbers begins with a census of the Israelites (Nb 1). Then there is the description of the camp in the desert with the twelve tribes of Israel (Nb 2) and the special tribe of the Levites (Nb 3-4). After the description of special votes, laws and various consecrations (5-8 Nm), the book tells the resume of the journey in the desert after the long stop at Sinai (Nb 9-10). After the first stages in the desert and some lamentations of the people (Nb 11-12), some Israelites are sent out as scouts in the land of Canaan, the land where they were going. Their report demoralizes the Israelites, who rebel against Moses. But they are punished by God (Nb 13-14). After a series of laws on the sacrifices, the book tells of another revolt against Moses and of the powers granted to the priests and Levites (Nb 15-19). Then the Jews resumed the journey to the Trans-Jordanian of Canaan (Nb 20-25). After a new census, there is the description of other laws and of the Israel’s feasts (Nb 26-30). After that Israel defeats some trans-jordanian populations. The tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses to not cross the Jordan and to remain at the east of the river (Nb 31-32). The book ends with a summary of the journey along the desert and a number of provisions on the future division of Canaan (Nb 33-36). (To be continued)

Simone Venturini


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