Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.
It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.
But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.
Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so. Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.
One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.
Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.
The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.
The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.
This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?
I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.
Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.
The Christian Application
Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.
The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.
So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.
Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?
Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials, both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.
But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.
Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper.