Five Themes of the Pentateuch: Sin

Sin is a concept that was absent from God’s perfect creation in Genesis 1-2. God’s world was one that was perfectly ordered in the beginning. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin entered into the cosmos. Sin can be defined as “any offense against life as God designed it. It is to miss the target that God designed for humanity, whether intentionally or unintentionally; it is an expression of an inner twistedness; it is finally a step over the bounds God has defined for humanity.”[1] The entrance of sin into the world displayed two overarching truths: obedience to God’s law brings blessing and disobedience to God’s law (sin) brings cursing (Gen. 2:15-17). This striking contrast is seen when God blesses what he creates (Gen. 1:22, 28; 2:3; 5:2) and then curses it because of sin (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11).[2]

Because of God’s justice, sin could not be left unpunished — it couldn’t simply be swept under the rug. God is perfect and complete in his holiness, and the law is not something impersonal or foreign to God. It is an expression of his person and will. Therefore, to sin (i.e., to break God’s law) is not to transgress some arbitrary statute, it is to offend God himself. To bless God by obeying him is to be blessed and to curse God by disobeying him is to be cursed.[3]

The first humans were now cursed, and their guilt and the consequences of their actions would be transferred to the whole human race that would follow them (Rom. 5:18-19). While the consequences would be many, the greatest of these would be death. The Old Testament makes it clear that God’s divine justice requires the death of those who violate his law.[4] However, God was not content to allow mankind to stay mired in sin, and so he begins a divine, righteous and loving process to restore humanity and his creation as a whole to a sinless state. The Pentateuch displays God’s love and mercy as he teaches his covenant people the way to be redeemed, and being in right fellowship with God was through atonement.

The Hebrew word most commonly used for atonement in the Old Testament was kaphar or one of its derivatives.[5] The word means to “wipe clean.”[6] Through the sacrificial system God puts into place in the Pentateuch, he offers a means to cleanse his people and, more importantly, to point the world to the ultimate and final cleansing that would come through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament is about making it possible for sinful people to have fellowship with a holy God.[7]

One of the earliest examples of the codification of this sacrificial system (and its substitutionary atonement) is in Exodus 12: the Passover. When the Israelites were obedient to God’s demands regarding the Passover sacrifice, they were blessed as their oldest sons would be allowed to live. However, if the ritual was not followed, the curse of death would fall on the home that disobeyed. God institutes the Passover observance in which the lamb served as a substitutionary sacrifice for the Israelites’ firstborn sons.[8] The Passover celebration would become a perennial feast for the nation of Israel that reminded them of God’s deliverance and redemption of his covenant people. This deliverance and freedom presents an Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ ultimately delivering mankind from sin through his substitutionary death on the cross.[9]

Sin is a terrible thing, deeply offensive to God and worthy of his divine wrath. The “Old Testament sacrifices declared, emphasized and magnified sin and its consequences.”[10] This is seen throughout the book of Leviticus as God’s holiness is juxtaposed against human sinfulness. Holiness is a key theme in the book with the word “holy” appearing more than 200 times.[11] Leviticus offers in-depth precepts regarding how sinful people could dwell with a holy God. William D. Barrick writes,

The holiness themes of Leviticus reveal the bad news that God’s holiness cannot allow for sinful human beings to have access to Him. On the other hand, however, Leviticus presents the good news that God provides a means for sinners to be accepted and to enter His presence through Levitical sacrifices. (159)

The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 is an excellent example of what it takes to remove the barriers sin creates between God and his people. God’s glorious presence was manifest in the tabernacle, which sat at the center of the Israelite community. The Day of Atonement was a way of purifying the tabernacle so God’s presence could dwell there.[12] Both sin and uncleanness must be wiped clean in order for God to dwell in the midst of this sinful people. The scapegoat showed that sin must be removed (Lev. 16:7-9) and the goat for the sin offering showed that God’s wrath must be satisfied (vv. 15-16) if Israel was going to have fellowship with a holy God.

In Numbers 14, Israel loses the blessing of inheriting the Promised Land and receives the curse of God’s judgment. The curse would be upon the generation that refused to enter the land. They would all die as wanderers in the wilderness (Num. 14:20-23). But, God was merciful with his people and preserved a new generation who would inherit the Promised Land some 40 years later. Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 also shows the necessity for following God’s commands and approaching him only when properly purified. In Numbers 16:3, Korah says, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” Korah and his rebels argued that there was nothing special about Moses and Aaron and that all the people of Israel were holy and worthy to be in God’s presence. Korah and his men offered burning incense to the Lord (Num. 16:17-19), but in verses 31-35, the rebels are consumed by God’s holy wrath. Sin is serious and has grave consequences.

The curse of sin and the blessing of obedience is explicit in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 where God, through Moses, says,

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Blessing in the land would come when they showed their love for the Lord through their obedience to him. However, their disobedience (sin) would lead to their perishing.

The concept of sin and its consequences fill the pages of the Pentateuch. However, along with the curses are the blessings of God’s goodness. Numbers 14:18 is a reminder that “‘The Lord 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.’” God’s grace is often seen when he makes accommodations for his people to draw near for fellowship with him through sacrifices. The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 is especially powerful as it points the reader to a day when God will forever dwell in the midst of his people because his people have once for all been made holy by the blood of another shed on their behalf.

By Justin Nash

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

References

[1] T. Desmond Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 856.

[2] William D. Barrick, “Penal Substitution in the Old Testament” The Master’s Seminary Journal 20, no. 2 (2009): 151. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials PLUS, EBSCOhost (accessed February 6, 2018).

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 802.

[4] Barrick, 149.

[5] Erickson, 805.

[6] Lance Higginbotham, lecture notes for M-BS2210-OL-A01-SP-18 Old Testament Survey I: Pentateuch and Historical Books SP-18, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 2018.

[7] Barrick, 155.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Alexander and Baker, 310.

[10] Barrick, 155.

[11] Alexander and Baker, 850.

[12] Higginbotham, lecture notes.

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