Five Themes of the Pentateuch: The World

In the previous article, the immanence and transcendence of God were discussed. This lesson will focus on God’s creative work in the world. Dr. Norman Geisler has suggested that God’s immanence and transcendence could be thought of as who God is (his attributes) and creation could be viewed as what God does (his activity).[1] God’s good creation is central to the theology of the Pentateuch and indeed the entire Bible, for it is the good creation that was corrupted at the fall that God is seeking to restore. In “Creation and Salvation,” Walter Wegner asserts:

These first chapters of the Bible, then, including the creation accounts, are not intended merely to explain how the world came to be but rather why Israel had to be and why in the person of Jesus Christ the Creator Himself had to enter the world of His creation in order to seek and to find His rebellious creatures and to bring them back to Him in gracious love.[2]

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). In this verse the word “create” (Hebrew bara) is used to describe how God created the material universe. This is a description of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). God did not use preexisting materials to create all things (as atheistic materialism teaches), nor did he break off a piece of himself to create the world (as pantheism teaches).[3] The Pentateuch establishes that the creation is distinct from the Creator. As a result, he is in no way contingent upon its existence, but the creation is completely contingent upon its Creator.[4]

God declared his creation “good” in the first chapter of Genesis (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The ancient Near East cultures of the Bible viewed creation not primarily in terms of making things. Instead, they understood acts of divine creation as bringing order and equilibrium out of chaos. With that in view, it could be understood that God “set up the cosmos to serve as His temple in which He will find rest in the order and equilibrium He has created.”[5]

However, in Genesis 3, God’s highest creation (humans) rebel against their Creator and bring chaos and disorder to God’s perfectly ordered cosmos. It is here that God’s true commitment to his creation can be seen, and it also establishes what Wegner calls “a schematic pattern of sin, judgment and grace” that “constitutes the story of creation with the giving of the promise to Abraham.”[6] God does not immediately destroy Adam and Eve, nor does he destroy the creation and simply start over. Instead, he shows them grace by preserving them. God is committed to making this creation “good” again. This motif is seen again in Genesis 6:5-8 where humanity had become so wicked that God regretted his decision to create them. Therefore, he determined to destroy all the living creatures on the land. But even here, God’s grace is displayed. Noah and his family find favor in God’s eyes. God preserves Noah, his family and the animals in the ark. God was committed to redeeming his creation, not destroying it. Noah became a second Adam of sorts. This can be seen clearly in God’s command to Noah and his sons to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” a direct reference to God’s command to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 1:28). God’s commitment and desire was to redeem his creation and to do it through humanity who introduced sin into the creation. This concept continues the fleshing out of the promise God made of “the seed of the woman” who would one day crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

The next step in God’s redemptive plan is seen in God’s twofold promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2. The first promise (v. 2a) is the promise of nationhood (heirs and inheritance), and the second is the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all nations. These promises are ratified in the distinct but related covenants of Genesis 15 and 17.[7] In Genesis 15, God makes a unilateral covenant in which Abraham is promised heirs (v. 5) and land (vv. 18-20) for those heirs. In Genesis 17, the covenant is that Abraham will be “the father of a multitude of nations” (v. 4). This covenant points to the final redemption that comes through Jesus Christ (v. 7). However, the enduring covenant of Genesis 17 is dependent upon the fulfillment of the temporal covenant of Genesis 15 (fulfilled once the nation had taken possession of the land).[8] All of this points to a new covenant which will finally and fully redeem God’s good creation.

The concept of creation is central to the book of Exodus as well.[9] “Exodus 1:7 also establishes a connection between the growth of the Israelites in Egypt and the divine word in creation. That is to say, God’s redemptive work on behalf of Israel stands in the service of God’s intentions for the creation as a whole.”[10] As Israel suffered in slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, God heard his people cry out for relief, and he sent Moses to deliver them from bondage. The plagues God unleashes on Egypt in Exodus 7-10 show his absolute rule over his creation. This is not a struggle between Moses and Pharaoh — it is a struggle between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel.[11]

God rescues his people from Egypt and leads them into the wilderness where he meets with them at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19). Here God mediates a new covenant with Israel through Moses, which renews God’s covenant with Abraham and reestablishes his relationship with Israel.[12] Wegner’s pattern of sin, judgment and grace soon becomes evident once again in Exodus 32. The people, when they saw Moses was delayed, colluded with Aaron to create a god for them to worship. When later confronted with his culpability in all of this, Aaron’s “mea culpa” was evasive and a bit comical. In Exodus 32:24, Aaron tells Moses, “So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” The people sin horribly, breaking the first commandment before Moses even delivers it, and God does bring judgment in the form of a plague (Ex. 32:35), but he relents and shows grace to Israel by not destroying the whole lot of them. God shows grace to Israel so that the whole world might know Israel’s God as he blesses the cosmos by redeeming it. This is made clear in Exodus 9:16 when he says, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

In the closing chapters of Exodus, the people build God’s tabernacle according to Moses’ instructions. The book of Leviticus instructs the Israelites how they are to approach God in the tabernacle worship. It also offers God’s moral standards for his people.[13] This was exceptionally important because God had manifested his presence at the tabernacle in a glorious way, thus announcing his dwelling with his people. The laws and procedures of Leviticus addressed how sinful men were able to dwell in fellowship with a holy God. Exodus 25-40 echoes Genesis 1-2 and depicts the tabernacle as “a partial return to the garden of Eden and Yahweh’s indwelling presence as the location and essence of creation’s blessing.”[14] In the beginning, Adam and Eve were holy as God was holy and thus had perfect fellowship with him. After the fall, sin made that fellowship no longer possible. By pointing the Israelites back to creation, and humanity’s initial holiness, the book of Leviticus also foreshadowed the new creation when 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). The holiness codes of Leviticus pointed them to that city where “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).

The second chapter of Numbers continues looking forward to the time God will dwell among his people, giving direction regarding how the camp of Israel was to be set up. The people were to be arranged by tribe, with the tabernacle, and thus God’s presence, in the center of the camp (Num. 2:1-2). This again points to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is to come. The pattern of sin, judgment and grace also returns in Numbers, perhaps most powerfully in Numbers 14 when the people rebel against God and refuse to enter the land he has promised to them. God shows that he is “‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Num. 14:18). He judges not the entire nation, but the generation of those who rebelled by making them wander in the wilderness for 40 years until they all perished, and in his grace he promises to give the land to the next generation of his covenant people. Again, God shows his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham and his determination to redeem the world through Abraham’s seed.

The book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches Moses delivers to Israel after the last of the rebellious generation had died and the nation sits on the edge of entering the Promised Land. They would finally enter and occupy the land God had covenanted to give to Abraham’s descendants so many years before. Therefore, the land and the ultimate blessing of all nations through Abraham takes center stage.[15] Ten different times, the Promised Land is referred to as “good land” (Deut. 1:25; 1:35; 3:25; 4:21,22; 6:18; 8:7,10; 9:6; 11:17): a reminder of God’s “good” creation in Genesis. The sin, judgment and grace pattern is also seen again in Deuteronomy 31:20-23 in which God gives Israel a song to remember all that he has taught them. He does this knowing that when they inherited the land, they would forget him and turn to other gods and serve them. Yet God in his grace and his faithfulness to redeem his creation continues on with this rebellious people.

By Justin Nash

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

References

[1] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: God Creation (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 14.

[2] Walter Wegner, “Creation and Salvation: A Study of Genesis 1 and 2” Concordia Theological Monthly 37, no. 8 (September 1966): 536. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials PLUS, EBSCOhost (accessed February 3, 2018).

[3] Geisler, 441-443.

[4] T. Desmond Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 855.

[5] Ibid., 161.

[6] Wegner, 532.

[7] Lionel Windsor, “The Fulfilment of the Covenants: An Acovenantal Perspective on Paul” (St. Michael’s Anglican Church, 2006), 10.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Alexander and Baker, 252.

[10] Ibid., 250.

[11] Gordon T. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 61.

[12] Alexander and Baker, 249.

[13] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 502.

[14] Alexander and Baker, 552.

[15] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 5.

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