Five Themes of the Pentateuch: God

God’s immanence (nearness) and transcendence (distance) speak of his relationship to his creation. They should not be thought of as attributes of God. Rather, they should be seen as aspects of God’s being that cut across his various attributes. These two ideas must be kept in balance, and each must be seen in light of the other or a biblical and orthodox view of God will be lost.[1]

God is self-existent. He is not derived from someone or something else, and his being is not contingent upon anyone or anything else.[2] The fact of God’s transcendence is immediately expressed in the Pentateuch. Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God was “in the beginning.” There was nothing before him — he is self-existent. This is made even more explicit in Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3:13-15. When asked his name, God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” In verse 15, God then declares, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” In this exchange, God makes it clear that he always has been, is and always will be who he is. God is not being evasive, he “defines himself as the One who Is, who exists, who is real.”[3] God’s transcendence is made explicit in this passage.

God’s transcendence is seen clearly in his divine attribute of holiness. Holy “describes that which sets apart the divine, and that which pertains to the divine, from the common or ordinary. It describes God’s otherness.”[4] Words having to do with holiness occur more than 200 times in the book of Leviticus.[5] Leviticus follows the Israelites’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai where he declares himself their God and them his people. Leviticus looks to address the question of how that covenant relationship was to be maintained.[6] At least in part, therefore, Leviticus seeks a solution for bridging the gap between a transcendent God and his creation.

The book of Numbers advances the relationship between the wholly other God and his people. One of the truly remarkable events recorded in this book is God making his presence visually known to the Israelites in Numbers 9:15: “On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning.” Here, God’s transcendence and immanence meet as the wholly other God condescends to give his people a sign of his dwelling in their midst. These visual phenomena not only acted as a constant reminder of God’s presence, but they also served as a guide to the movement of the nation (Num. 9:17-23).

Deuteronomy repeats many of the laws, including the Ten Commandments, which are found in the four previous books of the Pentateuch. But, it also recounts God’s dealings with his covenant people, Israel, and what they can expect as they enter the Promised Land.[7] As a result, the concept of God choosing Israel as his covenant people is a pervasive idea in the book of Deuteronomy. This concept originates in God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12.[8] The point of this is that God chose Israel — they didn’t choose him. They couldn’t choose him as he is transcendent.[9] Man cannot work his way to a right relationship with God. In the Pentateuch, the wholly other God chooses his covenant people as an act of his grace and love.

God’s immanence is also seen in the idea of God’s divine election of Israel. His election displays his unfailing love (Hebrew hesed) for his people. Hesed “speaks of the favor given to someone who does not have a right to that favor by someone who does not have to give that favor.”[10] Moses reminds the people that God is their Redeemer who has drawn near and now speaks, guides and protects (Deut. 1:29-31).

God’s nearness is also seen in Numbers. In Numbers 12:8, God says of Moses, “With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” The wholly other God draws near and reveals himself to one of his people in a way that was clear and easy for Moses to understand — God spoke to him using words. But this relationship is not a monologue. In Numbers 14, God consults with Moses regarding what to do with the rebellious nation that was refusing to receive the Promised Land. Then, in verse 13, Moses spoke to the Lord and the Lord listened.

This pattern of the Lord revealing himself in words is especially apparent in Leviticus. Twenty of the 27 chapters begin with the phrase “the LORD spoke to Moses.” This speaking was especially important because sinful people needed to know how to dwell in the presence of a holy and transcendent God who would draw near to the tabernacle in their midst. In Leviticus, God offers a detailed prescription to allow his people to avoid one of the effects of their sin: estrangement from himself. This would be made possible through the acts of atonement God delivered to his people (chaps. 1-9, 16).[11] As a result of the Levitical codes, the people of Israel had a means to reconcile themselves to the God who had redeemed them and drawn near.

In Exodus, God redeems his people from their slavery in Egypt, visiting them after more than 400 years of silence. In delivering Israel, God displays his sovereignty as absolute ruler over all creation, even using the free, sinful choices of a human leader (Pharaoh) to accomplish his will. The Lord was near enough to hear and see his people (2:24-25), and he drew even nearer to intervene on their behalf (chaps. 4-14). Finally, at Mt. Sinai, the Lord deepens the commitment he made with Abraham and his descendants by covenanting with Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” who would display God’s glory in the world (19:1-6).

In Genesis, while God is clearly distinct from his creation, he is still near it — as Genesis 1:2 states, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” God would draw even nearer to his penultimate creation: man. He walked and talked with Adam and Eve (2:16; 3:8-19). The Lord further connects himself with man by making covenants with Noah (9:11-13) and Abraham (chaps. 15, 17). It would be through the covenant with Abraham that God would advance his plan to redeem his creation through the promised seed, Jesus Christ. The transcendent God drew near to Abraham through a covenant so that one day, creation would be redeemed and the dwelling place of God would be with man. “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).

By Justin Nash

(Justin Nash serves as Director of Church Health & Communication for the Advent Christian General Conference)

References

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 302.

[2] T. Desmond Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 847.

[3] E. Schild, “On Exodus 3:14 – ‘I am that I am'” Vetus Testamentum 4, no. 3 (1954): 301. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 2, 2018).

[4] Alexander and Baker, 849.

[5] Ibid., 850.

[6] William Sanford Lasor et al., Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 80.

[7] Gordon T. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 123.

[8] Lasor, 120.

[9] Erickson, 315.

[10] Alexander and Baker, 850.

[11] Ibid., 855.

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