Genesis and the first half of Exodus will be easy, fun reading, filled with great stories about Abraham, Sarah, Rebekah, Jacob, Tamar, Joseph, Moses, Miriam and the gang. We will go from Creation to the covenants with Noah and Abraham, to how the Hebrews ended up in slavery, culminating with their subsequent release through Moses and the revealing of the Ten Commandments.
The last half of Exodus will be less exciting. It contains laws such as “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” You will also find instructions for building the tabernacle as well as the kind of clothes the priests should wear. According to the storyteller, YHWH (the Lord) delivers these instructions to Moses on the mountain. Don’t get frustrated if you get bogged down. There is no prize simply for reading every word! Get a flavor for the detail. The headings in the NRSV Bible are quite helpful. At the least read a few of the sections to get an idea of issues these early tribal people faced in regard to their laws and worship. Ask yourself as you read, “What is the significance of these rules and regulations?” Skim when you get bored.
Leviticus is similar to the last half of Exodus. The first 16 chapters contain instructions for worship, ordination of priests, the various sacrifices, purification of women(!), how to test for leprosy and so on. The section containing chapters 17 through 26 is referred to as the “Holiness Code.” It contains laws typical of tribal cultures of this period as well as rules unique to the Hebrews as they understood themselves called to be “Holy” or “set apart” as YHWH’s people. The laws are often mundane, sometimes profound (ie. chapter 25 “Year of Jubilee”), and sometimes offensive. Skim if bored but don’t pass it up!
The book of Numbers details the lives of the Hebrews during their forty-year excursion through the Wilderness. Sure it has some boring stuff (there were 32,200 men from the tribe of Manasseh!) But it also has some cool stories involving spies, talking donkeys, walking sticks that produce almonds, and poisonous snakes. Throughout Numbers, the Hebrews rebel, are punished, forgiven, and start over only to rebel again. They learn the hard way what it means to trust in God.
Deuteronomy is written in the form of a sermon. As the Hebrews are poised to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, Moses recounts for them their history and reminds them of the importance of living in God's way in their new land. In 1630, aboard the Arabella, John Winthrop preached "A Model of Christian Charity" to his fellow Puritans as they approached the New World. Fashioned after Deuteronomy, Winthrop exhorted his people not to be seduced by "our pleasures, and proffitts, and serue them" but to "loue the Lord our God, and to loue one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements...that wee may liue and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse vs in the land whether wee goe to possesse it...." I wonder how this exhortation might be translated in our global era?