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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour

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Like an experienced tour guide, How to Read the Bible Book by Book takes you by the hand and walks you through the Scriptures. For each book of the Bible, the authors start with a quick snapshot, then expand the view to help you better understand its message and how it fits into the grand narrative of the Bible.
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Books by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

How to Read the Bible Book by Book

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

How to Read

the Bible

Book by Book

A Guided Tour

Gordon D. Fee

Douglas Stuart


How to Read the Bible Book by Book

Copyright © 2002 by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Zondervan.

EPub Edition © June 2009 ISBN: 978-0-310-85364-0

Requests for information should be addressed to:

Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fee, Gordon D.

How to read the Bible book by book : a guided tour / Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-310-21118-2 (pbk.)

1. Bible — Reading. 2. Bible — Criticism, interpretation, etc.

I. Stuart, Douglas K. II. Title.

BS617.F44 2002



Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Most New Testament Scripture quotations are taken from the New Testament edition of the Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version®. TNIV®. Copyright © 2001 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Scripture references marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in;  the USA. Used by permission.

Scripture references marked NEB are from the New English Bible, copyright © 1970 by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.

05 06 07 08 09 / DC/ 15

For Walker, Maia, and Emma

Joshua, Julia, Cherisa, Nathan, and Benjamin

Zachary and Jackson

Maricel and Annalise


Meriwether and Honour

and Mcaela

that they may learn to read the Story well

and love Him whose Story it is

(Psalm 71:14–18; Psalm 103:17)



Gen Genesis


Song of Songs Isa Isaiah

Exod Exodus



Lev Leviticus



Num Numbers



Deut Deuteronomy



Josh Joshua



Judg Judgesxy



Ruth Ruth



1–2 Sam 1–2 Samuel



1–2 Kgs 1–2 Kings



1–2 Chr 1–2 Chronicles



Ezra Ezra



Neh Nehemiah



Esth Esther



Job Job



Ps/Pss Psalms



Prov Proverbs



Eccl Ecclesiastes




Matt Matthew

1–2 Thess

1–2 Thessalonians

Mark Mark

1–2 Tim

1–2 Timothy

Luke Luke



John John



Acts Acts



Rom Romans



1–2 Cor 1–2 Corinthians

1–2 Pet

1–2 Peter

Gal Galatians

1–2–3 John

1–2–3 John

Eph Ephesians



Phil Philippians



Col Colossians

A.D. anno Domini (in the year of [our] Lord)


and the following one(s)


id est, that is

B.C. before Christ



ca. circa, about, approximately


New Testament

cf. confer, compare


Old Testament

ch(s). chapters)



e.g. exempli gratia, for example


parallel (textual parallels)

esp. especially



et al. et alii, and others


number of times a form occurs

etc. et cetera, and the rest

Table of Contents

Cover Page





The Biblical Story: An Overview

The Narrative of Israel (Including the Law) in the Biblical Story









1 and 2 Samuel

1 and 2 Kings

1 and 2 Chronicles



The Writings of Israel in the Biblical Story





Song of Songs


The Prophets of Israel in the Biblical Story

















The Gospels and Acts in the Biblical Story

The Gospel according to Matthew

The Gospel according to Mark

The Gospel according to Luke


The Gospel according to John

The Epistles and Revelation in the Biblical Story


1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John


The Revelation

Glossary of Terms

Appendix: A Chronological Listing of the Biblical Books

NIV—Most Read. Most Trusted.

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This book is intended to be a companion to How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. That book was designed to help people become better readers of Scripture by taking into account the various kinds of literature that make up the Christian Bible. Through an understanding of how the various types “work,” how they differ from one another, and how they raise different kinds of hermeneutical questions, we hoped that one might learn to read the Bible in a more informed way.

The success of that first book has given us the courage to try another. The aim is still the same: to help people become better readers of Scripture. What we hope to do here is to go a step beyond the first book: Assuming the principles of the first book, here we try to help you read—and understand—each of the biblical books on its own but especially to help you see how each one fits with the others to form the great narrative of Scripture.

But this book has undergone its own form of evolution. Some years ago we were asked to write a Bible survey textbook of the kind that many students have been exposed to over the years. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because we could never get our hearts into it, that project simply did not work out. To be sure, we hope this book will still serve the purposes of survey courses, but we have intentionally tried to write something quite different. These differences, as we perceive them, are several.

First, our goal is not simply to dispense knowledge about the various books of the Bible—the kind of knowledge that allows one to pass Bible knowledge exams without ever reading the Bible! Such books and exams usually deal with a lot of data but very often with little sense of how the various books of the Bible function as entities on their own or of how each fits into God’s story. Our present concern is almost altogether with the latter. And in any case, the concern is with your becoming a better reader of Scripture; if you begin to learn some other things about each book along the way, all the better.

Second, we want to show how the separate entities—each biblical book—fit together as a whole to tell God’s story. So much is this a concern that our book is introduced with a brief overview of the biblical story—what those who study narratives call the metanarrative of Scripture. This is the big picture, the primary story, of which all the others form a part so as to shape the whole.

Third, in coming to the various biblical books, one by one, we follow a generally consistent format that isolates questions of introduction at the beginning as “Orienting Data for…” These kinds of issues (authorship, date, recipients, occasion, and the like) take up much of the space in most surveys. For these (sometimes important) matters there are several surveys, introductions, and Bible dictionaries for both the Old and New Testaments that you may consult. But these matters are often debatable and therefore consume a lot of time that is not always immediately relevant to the reading of the biblical text in its larger setting. Thus, we simply offer some options, or note the traditional view, or settle on one as the perspective from which this guide is written.

But a further word is needed about the matter of authorship, especially for the Old Testament books, since authors in that period did not normally attach their names to what they wrote (with the exception of letters—and there are none of these as books in the Old Testament). When individuals speak about themselves within a given book (e.g., Moses, Nehemiah, Qohelet [“Teacher” in Ecclesiastes]), we may learn something about probable or possible authorship that we wouldn’t otherwise know. But for the most part, modern concerns about matters of date and authorship were not given the same attention in ancient Israel; this is made obvious by their absence from most of these books. Many books (e.g., nearly all the historical and poetical books) are entirely anonymous. And even though the source of the content of some books is given—by way of an editorial title at the beginning—and assumptions can often be made that the source also functioned as author, the concern over the book’s actual author is not prominent in the book itself. As to dating, just four books—Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Haggai—date any of their material, and of those only Haggai does so consistently. Thus we have chosen to minimize authorship in this reading guide, leaving it entirely alone when the biblical book itself is anonymous (one can say “unknown” only so many times!). Our interest is in your reading the biblical document in its final canonical form, not in debating the issues of dates, sources, and authorship.

Most of our energy, therefore, has gone into the three major sections of each chapter. The first, “Overview of…,” is designed to get you into the book by giving you a sense of what the whole is about. In some ways it is a brief elaboration of the “Content” sentence(s) in the “Orienting” section. The second, “Specific Advice for Reading…,” tends to elaborate the “Emphases” from the “Orienting” section. Here we offer a way of reading the text, some key themes to keep in mind as you do, or some crucial background material—all of which are designed to help you as you read the text for yourself. The final section, “A Walk through…,” then takes you by the hand, as it were, and walks you through the book, showing how its various parts work together to form the whole. Sometimes this takes more of an outline form; at other times, because we have purposely tried to keep our chapters brief, you will walk with giant steps. The books of Psalms and Proverbs were understandably the most difficult to fit into this pattern; yet even here we have tried to help you see how the collections are put together.

Above all, we have tried to write a book about the books of the Bible that will not be a substitute for reading the Bible itself. Rather, we hope it may create a desire in you to read each of the biblical books for yourself, while helping you make a fair amount of sense out of what you are reading.

NOTE WELL: The key to using this book is for you to read the first three sections of each chapter (“Orienting Data,” “Overview,” “Specific Advice”), and then to read the biblical text in conjunction with the section titled “A Walk through…” If you read “A Walk through” on its own, it will become just more data for you to assimilate. Our intent is for you first to have some important preliminary data in hand, then truly to walk with you through your reading of the biblical book. This will, of course, be far more difficult for some of the longer books, just as it was for us to condense so much material into the brief parameters we allowed ourselves. But even here, while you may be reading over a more extended time period, we hope you will find this a helpful guide. A glossary is provided for those who need some guidance through the maze of technical terms that biblical scholars tend to use without forethought (see p. 437). We have also supplied a suggested chronological listing of the books for those who wish to read them in that order (see the appendix at the back of the book, p. 443).

We have tried to write in such a way that you will be able to follow what is said, no matter which English translation you are using, provided it is a contemporary one (see ch. 2 of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth). For the New Testament, Professor Fee regularly had Today’s New International Version (TNIV) in front of him as he wrote; for the Old Testament, the New International Version (1984 edition) was used. Typically, when Bible verses are cited in this book, they are taken either from the NIV or from the New Testament edition of the TNIV

A couple of words about presuppositions. First, while we have not assumed that the reader will already have read How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, we do refer to it from time to time (as How to I, with page numbers always referring to the third edition [2003] after the tenth printing of this book, all copies prior to the tenth printing refer to the second edition [1993]) so that we don’t have to repeat some presuppositional things from that book (for example, sources of the Gospels). In the case of Acts and Revelation, which received individual chapters in How to I, that material is reset for this book, but one will still be helped by reading those chapters as well.

Second, the authors unapologetically stand within the evangelical tradition of the church. This means, among other things, that we believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired the biblical writers (and collectors) in their task—even though most often we speak of each document in terms of what the (inspired) human author is doing.

At the same time, in most cases we have tried to be apprised of and make use of the most recent biblical scholarship—although any scholar who might venture to look at this work may well wonder whether we have consulted her or his latest work. Along with our own reading of the text, we herewith gratefully acknowledge that we have incorporated suggestions—and even language—from others too many to mention by name. Those who might recognize some of their ideas in what we have written may, we hope, take pleasure in such recognition; we trust they will also be generous to us when we have chosen to go our own way rather than to be beholden to any other scholarly endeavor.

The authors with gratitude also acknowledge the following: Regent College, whose generous sabbatical policy made it possible for Professor Fee to work on the book during spring term 1998 and winter term 2001; colleagues and friends who have read selected chapters and offered many helpful comments: Iain Provan, V Philips Long, Rikk Watts, John Stek, Bruce Waltke, and Wendy Wilcox Glidden. Professor Fee’s wife, Maudine, has taken great interest in this project by reading every word and making scores of insightful suggestions that have made it a better book. And during the month of March 2001, when Professor Fee was recuperating from surgery, she joined him in reading the entire manuscript and the entire Bible aloud—resulting in scores of changes to the book, as our ears often heard better than our eyes saw. We cannot recommend strongly enough the value of the oral reading of the Bible!

We dedicated How to I to our parents, three of whom have now passed on to be with their Lord. We dedicate this present endeavor to our grandchildren—as of this writing, twelve for the Fees, the oldest of whom are now teenagers, and three for the Stuarts. Thus, in some measure, this book is our own reflection on Psalm 71:14–18.

The Biblical Story: An Overview

When the authors were boys growing up in Christian homes, one of the ways we—and our friends—were exposed to the Bible was through the daily reading of a biblical text from the Promise Box, which dutifully found its way onto our kitchen tables. Furthermore, most believers of our generation—and of several preceding ones—had learned a kind of devotional reading of the Bible that emphasized reading it only in parts and pieces, looking for a “word for the day.”

While the thought behind these approaches to Scripture was salutary enough (constant exposure to the sure promises of God’s Word), they also had their downside, teaching people to read texts in a way that disconnected them from the grand story of the Bible.

The concern of this book is to help you read the Bible as a whole, and even when the “whole” is narrowed to “whole books,” it is important for you always to be aware of how each book fits into the larger story (on this matter, see How to I, pp. 91–92). But in order to do this, you need first to have a sense of what the grand story is all about. That is what this introduction proposes to do.

First, let’s be clear: The Bible is not merely some divine guidebook, nor is it a mine of propositions to be believed or a long list of commands to be obeyed. True, one does receive plenty of guidance from it, and it does indeed contain plenty of true propositions and divine directives. But the Bible is infinitely more than that.

It is no accident that the Bible comes to us primarily by way of narrative—but not just any narrative. Here we have the grandest narrative of all—God’s own story. That is, it does not purport to be just one more story of humankind’s search for God. No, this is God’s story, the account of his search for us, a story essentially told in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. In this story, God is the divine protagonist, Satan the antagonist, God’s people the agonists (although too often also the antagonists), with redemption and reconciliation as the plot resolution.


Since this is God’s story, it does not begin, as do all other such stories, with a hidden God, whom people are seeking and to whom Jesus ultimately leads them. On the contrary, the biblical narrative begins with God as Creator of all that is. It tells us that “in the beginning God…”: that God is before all things, that he is the cause of all things, that he is therefore above all things, and that he is the goal of all things. He stands at the origin of all things as the sole cause of the whole universe, in all of its vastness and intricacies. And all creation—all history itself—has the eternal God, through Christ, as its final purpose and consummation.

We are further told that humanity is the crowning glory of the Creator’s work—beings made in God’s own likeness, with whom he could commune, and in whom he could delight; beings who would know the sheer pleasure of his presence, love, and favor. Created in God’s image, humankind thus uniquely enjoyed the vision of God and lived in fellowship with God. We were nonetheless created beings and were thus intended to be dependent on the Creator for life and existence in the world. This part of the story is narrated in Genesis 1–2, but it is repeated or echoed in scores of ways throughout the whole narrative.


The second chapter in the biblical story is a long and tragic one. It begins in Genesis 3, and the dark thread runs through the whole story almost to the very end (Rev 22:11, 15). This “chapter” tells us that man and woman coveted more godlikeness and that in one awful moment in the history of our planet they chose godlikeness over against mere creatureliness, with its dependent status. They chose independence from the Creator. But we were not intended to live so, and the result was a fall—a colossal and tragic fall. (To be sure, this is not a popular part of the story today, but its rejection is part of the Fall itself and the beginning of all false theologies.)

Made to enjoy God and to be dependent on him, and to find our meaning ultimately in our very creatureliness, we now came under God’s wrath and thus came to experience the terrible consequences of our rebellion. The calamity of our fallenness is threefold:

First, we lost our vision of God with regard to his nature and character. Guilty and hostile ourselves, we projected that guilt and hostility onto God. God is to blame: “Why have you made me thus” “Why are you so cruel” are the plaintive cries that run throughout the history of our race. We thus became idolaters, now creating gods in our own image; every grotesque expression of our fallenness was reconstructed into a god. Paul puts it this way: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles…. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Rom 1:22, 24–25).

In exchanging the truth about God for a lie, we saw God as full of caprice, contradictions, hostility, lust, and retribution (all projections of our fallen selves). But God is not like our grotesque idolatries. Indeed, if he is hidden, Paul says, it is because we had become slaves to the god of this world, who has blinded our minds, so that we are ever seeking but never able to find him (see 2 Cor 4:4).

Second, the Fall also caused us to distort—and blur—the divine image in ourselves, rolling it in the dust, as it were. Instead of being loving, generous, self-giving, thoughtful, merciful—as God is—we became miserly, selfish, unloving, unforgiving, spiteful. Created to image, and thus represent, God in all that we are and do, we learned rather to bear the image of the Evil One, God’s implacable enemy.

The third consequence of the Fall was our loss of the divine presence and with that our relationship—fellowship—with God. In place of communion with the Creator, having purpose in his creation, we became rebels, lost and cast adrift, creatures who broke God’s laws, abused his creation, and suffered the awful consequences of fallenness in our brokenness, alienation, loneliness, and pain.

Under the tyranny of our sin—indeed, we are enslaved to it, Paul says, and guilty—we found ourselves unwilling and unable to come to the living God for life and restoration. And in turn we passed on our brokenness in the form of every kind of broken relationship with one another (this is writ large in Genesis 4–11).

The Bible tells us that we are fallen, that there is an awful distance between ourselves and God, and that we are like sheep going astray (Isa 53:6; 1 Pet 2:25) or like a rebellious, know-it-all son, living in a far country among the hogs, wanting to eat their food (Luke 15:11–32). In our better moments, we also know that this is the truth not only about the murderer or rapist or child abuser, but also about ourselves—the selfish, the greedy, the proud. It is no wonder people think God is hostile to us; in our better moments we know we deserve his wrath for the kind of endless stinkers we really are.


The Bible also tells us that the holy and just God, whose moral perfections burn against sin and creaturely rebellion, is in fact also a God full of mercy and love—and faithfulness. The reality is that God pitied—and loved—these creatures of his, whose rebellion and rejection of their dependent status had caused them to fall so low and thus to experience the pain, guilt, and alienation of their sinfulness.

But how to get through to us, to rescue us from ourselves with all of our wrong views about God and the despair of our tragic fallenness; how to get us to see that God isfor us, not against us (see Rom 8:31); how to get the rebel not just to run up a white flag of surrender but willingly to change sides and thereby once again to discover joy and meaningfulness—that’s what chapter 3 of the story is all about.

And it’s the longest chapter, a chapter that tells how God set about redeeming and restoring these fallen creatures of his so that he might restore to us the lost vision of God, renew in us the divine image, and reestablish our relationship with him. But also woven throughout this chapter is that other thread—the one of our continuing resistance.

Thus we are told that God came to a man, Abraham, and made a covenant with him—to bless him and, through him, the nations (Genesis 12–50)—and with his offspring, Israel, who had become a slave people (Exodus). Through the first of his prophets, Moses, God (now known by his name Yahweh) freed them from their slavery and made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai—that he who had rescued them would be their Savior and Protector forever, that he would be uniquely present with them among all the peoples of the world. But they would also have to keep covenant with him, by letting themselves be reshaped into his likeness. Thus he gave them the Law as his gift to them, both to reveal what he is like and to protect them from one another while they were being reshaped (Leviticus-Deuteronomy).

But the story tells us they rebelled over and over again and looked on his gift of law as a form of taking away their freedom. As shepherds who were being brought into an agricultural land (Joshua), they were not sure their God—a God of shepherds, as they supposed—would also help the crops to grow, so they turned to the agricultural fertility gods (Baal and Ashtoreth) of the peoples who surrounded them.

So they experienced several rounds of oppression and rescue (Judges), even while some of them were truly taking on God’s character (Ruth). Finally, God sent them another great prophet (Samuel), who anointed for them their ideal king (David), with whom God made another covenant, specifying that one of his offspring would rule over his people forever (1–2 Samuel). But alas, it goes bad again (1–2 Kings; 1–2 Chronicles), and God in love sends them prophets (Isaiah-Malachi), singers (Psalms), and sages (Job; Proverbs; Ecclesiastes). In the end their constant unfaithfulness is too much, so God at last judges his people with the curses promised in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Yet even here (see Deut 30) there is promise for the future (see, e.g., Isa 40–55; Jer 30–32; Ezek 36–37) in which there would be a new “son of David” and an outpouring of God’s Spirit into people’s hearts so that they would come to life and be transformed into God’s likeness. This final blessing would also include people from all the nations (“the Gentiles”).

Finally, just before the last scene, with its final curtain and epilogue, we are told of the greatest event of all—that the great, final “son of David” is none other than God himself, the Creator of all the cosmic greatness and grandeur, come to be present on the human scene in our own likeness. Born as the child of a peasant girl, within the fold of an oppressed people, Jesus the Son of God lived and taught among them. And finally with a horrible death, followed by a death-defeating resurrection, he grappled with and defeated the “gods”—all the powers that have stood against us—and himself bore the full weight of the guilt and punishment of the creatures’ rebellion.

Here is the heart of the story: A loving, redeeming God in his incarnation restored our lost vision of God (took off the wraps, as it were, so that we could plainly see what God is truly like), by his crucifixion and resurrection made possible our being restored to the image of God (see Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18), and through the gift of the Spirit became present with us in constant fellowship. Marvelous—well nigh incredible—that revelation, that redemption.

The genius of the biblical story is what it tells us about God himself: a God who sacrifices himself in death out of love for his enemies; a God who would rather experience the death we deserved than to be apart from the people he created for his pleasure; a God who himself bore our likeness, experienced our creatureliness, and carried our sins so that he might provide pardon and reconciliation; a God who would not let us go, but who would pursue us—all of us, even the worst of us—so that he might restore us into joyful fellowship with himself; a God who in Christ Jesus has so forever identified with his beloved creatures that he came to be known and praised as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:3).

This is God’s story, the story of his unfathomable love and grace, mercy and forgiveness—and that is how it also becomes our story. The story tells us that we deserve nothing but get everything; that we deserve hell but get heaven; that we deserve to be wiped out, obliterated, but we get his tender embrace; that we deserve rejection and judgment but get to become his children, to bear his likeness, to call him Father. This is the story of the Bible, God’s story, which at the same time is also our own. Indeed, he even let his human creatures have a part in writing it!


Because the story has not yet ended, the final chapter is still being written—even though we know from what has been written how the final chapter turns out. What God has already set in motion, we are told, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit is finally going to be fully realized.

Thus the one thing that makes this story so different from all other such stories is that ours is filled with hope. There is an End—a glorious conclusion to the present story. It is Jesus, standing at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, telling Lazarus’s sister Martha that Jesus himself was her hope for life now and for the life to come: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told her, “anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die”—because Jesus is the resurrection. And because he is also the life, he went on: “and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25–26). And then he proceeded to validate what he had said by raising Lazarus from the grave.

Jesus himself became the final verification of those words by his own resurrection from the dead. The wicked and the religious killed him. They could not tolerate his presence among them, because he stood in utter contradiction to all their petty forms of religion and authority, based on their own fallenness—and he then had the gall to tell them that he was the only way to the Father (see John 14:6). So they killed him. But since he himself was Life—and the author of life for all others—the grave couldn’t hold him. And his resurrection not only validated his own claims and vindicated his own life on our planet, it also spelled the beginning of the end for death itself and became the guarantee of those who are his—both now and forever.

This is what the final episode (the Revelation) is all about—God’s final wrap-up of the story, when his justice brings an end to the great Antagonist and all who continue to bear his image (see Rev 20) and when God in love restores the creation (Eden) as a new heaven and a new earth (see Rev 21–22).

This, then, is the metanarrative, the grand story, of which the various books of the Bible are a part. While we have regularly tried to point out how each book fits in, as you read the various books, you will want to think for yourself how they fit into the larger story. We hope you will also ask yourself how you fit into it as well.

The Narrative of Israel (Including the Law) in the Biblical Story

We should begin by noting that the arrangement of the Old Testament books in the Hebrew Bible is a bit different from that in our English Bibles. Ours comes to us by way of the second-century B.C. Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts: the Law (the Pentateuch, or “five books of Moses”), the Prophets (the Former Prophets, including Joshua through Kings [minus Ruth], and the Latter Prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve [the so-called Minor Prophets]), and the Writings (the Psalms [including Lamentations], the Wisdom books [Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs], Daniel, and the four narrative books of Ruth, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles). In this book we will follow the English order, except for Lamentations in the Old Testament, which is placed among the Writings, and Acts in the New Testament, which properly belongs with the Gospel of Luke.

As noted in How to 1 (p. 22), despite the way many of God’s good people handle the Bible, it is, in fact, no mere collection of propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather, the essential character of the Bible, the whole Bible, is narrative, a narrative in which both the propositions and the imperatives are deeply embedded as an essential part. And so the Bible begins with a series of narrative books—which is true even of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which may appear otherwise because they are composed largely of laws, but which, in fact, cannot be properly understood apart from the narrative structure in which they are placed.

Thus the beginning of the biblical story takes root in the lengthy narrative that tells the story of God’s chosen people, Israel. The first of the five books of Moses (Genesis) relates the beginnings of everything (Creation and Fall) and then focuses especially on God’s call and covenant with Abraham and his seed, promising both to make them a numerous people and to give them the land of Canaan. After rescuing the people from slavery in Egypt (the exodus), God meets with them at Mount Sinai in the vast Sinai wilderness. Here he makes a second covenant with Israel that takes the form of “the law,” which includes the building of a tabernacle (Exodus), the place where God will dwell among his people and where they are to worship him with proper offerings and sacrifices (Leviticus) as a part of the way they uphold their end of the covenant.

As the people prepare to leave Sinai and make their way to the promised land, the number of men twenty years old and older are counted (those who will be Israel’s warriors) and placed around the tabernacle in battle formation (Numbers). Thus they are prepared to take their place in the holy war by which they are to gain the land God had promised to their fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Before they embark on this conquest, Moses gives them a review of this history, another overview of the law, and the blessings and curses (promises and threats) of a kind that accompany ancient covenants; in their case, disobedience to God’s covenant meant exile, but with a promised, even more glorious restoration in the form of a new exodus (Deuteronomy).

After the story of the initial conquest and occupation of the land (Joshua) come stories of their failures to keep covenant with God, their true King (Judges). In this latter story (including Ruth), we are prepared for the next major turn in the main story line—that God will rule Israel through an earthly king. The books of Samuel thus tell the story of David, with whom God makes another covenant—that one of his sons will never fail to sit on the throne in Israel, as long as they keep covenant with God. As in many ancient kingships, David himself was also understood to embody the people, a key element in many of the psalms and in the final unfolding of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. But alas, the story of Israel repeats itself, as one king after another leads Israel astray to pursue other gods (1–2 Kings). Indeed, within two generations David’s kingdom is divided into two parts. The northern kingdom (Israel; sometimes called Ephraim by the psalmists and prophets) falls to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and for all practical purposes ceases to exist as a distinct entity. The southern kingdom (Judah) falls to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. In this case, the leading people carried into exile in Babylon thus form part of the remnant through whom God will still work out his redemptive plans.

The exile brought untold misery and trauma to God’s people, since they lost their promised land and their temple—the primary evidence of God’s special presence and of their being his people. Especially through the prophetic ministry of Ezekiel, the exiles were held together. Many. though by no means the majority, were finally restored to their land under the Persians and rebuilt the temple (Ezra 1–6); about a century later, Ezra and Nehemiah led a further return of exiles and were instrumental in bringing about a significant reform (Ezra 7–10; Nehemiah). During this same overall restoration period, the story of Judah is retold from a more positive perspective (1–2 Chronicles), while Esther tells the story of the Jewish exiles throughout the Persian Empire being saved from annihilation.

As you read through the books in this section of the Bible, you will find various threads that hold the larger narrative together: God’s covenants with his people; God’s faithfulness to them despite their repeated unfaithfulness to him; God’s choice of the lesser and the unfavored ones (his choosing the “weak to shame the strong” [1 Cor 1:27]); God’s redeeming his people from slavery to make them his own; God’s dwelling among them in tabernacle and temple as the gift of his renewed presence on earth (lost in the Fall); God’s gift of the law in order to reshape them into his own likeness; God’s provision of a sacrificial system—the “red thread” of blood poured out for the life of another—as his way of offering forgiveness; God’s choice of a king from Judah who would represent him on earth and thus prepare the way for his own coming in the person of Jesus. These are the matters that make the whole story hold together as one story. Be watching for them as you read.



Content: the story of the creation, of human disobedience and its tragic consequences, and of God’s choosing Abraham and his offspring—the beginning of the story of redemption

Historical coverage: from creation to the death of Joseph in Egypt (ca. 1600 B.C.)

Emphases: God as the Creator of all that is; God’s creation of human beings in his image; the nature and consequences of human disobedience; the beginning of the divine covenants; God’s choice of a people through whom he will bless the nations


For modern readers Genesis might appear to be a strange book, beginning as it does with God and creation, and ending with Joseph in a coffin in Egypt! But that strangeness is evidence that even though it has integrity as a book in its own right (careful structure and organization), it is at the same time intended to set the whole biblical story in motion. Indeed, its opening word (Bereshith = “in [the] beginning”) both serves as its title and is suggestive as to what the book is about. Thus it tells of the beginning of God’s story—creation, human disobedience, and divine redemption—while it also begins the Pentateuch, the story of God’s choosing and making a covenant with a people through whom he would bless all peoples (Gen 12:2–3).

The narrative of Genesis itself comes in two basic parts: a “prehistory” (chs. 1–11), the stories of creation, human origins, the fall of humanity, and the relentless progress of evil—all against the backdrop of God’s enduring patience and love—and the story of the beginning of redemption through Abraham and his seed (chs. 12–50), with focus on the stories of Abraham (11:27–25:11), Jacob (25:12–37:1), and Joseph (chs. 37–50). These stories are structured in part around a phrase that occurs ten times: “This is the account [genealogy/family history] of,” a term which can refer both to “genealogies” proper (as with Shem, Ishmael, and Esau) and to “family stories.” You will see that the major stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in each case come under the family story of the father (Terah, Isaac, and Jacob).

The overall narrative of Genesis thus begins immediately after the prologue (1:1–2:3) with the first human family in the Garden of Eden and works successively from Adam’s family through Noah and Shem to Terah and Abraham and finally through Isaac to Jacob (Israel) and thus to Joseph. At the same time, the family lines of the rejected sons (Cain, Ishmael, Esau) are also given so that the “chosen seed” and the “rejected brother” are set off in contrast (the one has a story, the other only a genealogy). Finally, watch for one further framing device that holds the major part of the book together: God’s use of Noah to preserve human life during the great deluge (chs. 6–9) and of Joseph to preserve human life during the great drought (chs. 37–50).


As you read this first book in the Bible, besides being aware of how the narrative unfolds according to the family stories, also be watching for both the major plot and several subplots that help to shape the larger family story, the story of the people of God.

The major plot has to do with God’s intervening in the history of human fallenness by choosing (“electing”) a man and his family. For even though the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the major players, you are never allowed to forget that God is the ultimate Protagonist—as is true in all the biblical narratives. Above all else, it is his story. God speaks and thereby creates the world and a people. It becomes their story (and ours) only as God has brought this family into being and made promises to them and covenanted with them to be their God. So keep looking for the way the major plot unfolds and for how the primary players become part of God’s ultimate narrative.

At the same time, keep your eyes open for several subplots that are crucial to the larger story of the Old Testament people of God—and in some cases of the people constituted by the new covenant as well. Six of these are worthy of special attention.

The first of these—crucial to the whole biblical story—is the occurrence of the first two covenants between God and his people. The first covenant is with all of humankind through Noah and his sons, promising that God will never again cut off life from the earth (9:8–17). The second covenant is with Abraham, promising two things especially—the gift of “seed” who will become a great nation to bless the nations, and the gift of land (12:2–7; 15:1–21; cf. 17:3–8, where the covenant is ratified by the identifying mark of circumcision). The second covenant is repeated to Isaac (26:3–5) and Jacob (28:13–15) and in turn serves as the basis for the next two Old Testament covenants: the gift of law (Exod 20–24) and the gift of kingship (2 Sam 7).

The second subplot is a bit subtle in Genesis itself, but is important to the later unfolding of the theme of holy war (see glossary) in the biblical story. It begins with God’s curse on the serpent, that God “will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [seed] and hers” (3:14–15). The crucial term here is “offspring” (seed), picked up again in 12:7 with regard to the chosen people. This curse anticipates the holy-war motif that is accented in Exodus in particular (between Moses and Pharaoh, thus between God and the gods of Egypt; see Exod 15:1–18), is carried on further in the conquest of Canaan and its gods (which explains the curse of Canaan in Gen 9:25–27), and climaxes in the New Testament (in the story of Jesus Christ, and especially in the Revelation). Although in Genesis this motif does not take the form of holy war as such, you can nonetheless see it especially in the strife between brothers, between the ungodly and godly seed (Cain/Abel; Ishmael/Isaac; Esau/Jacob), where the elder persecutes the younger through whom God has chosen to work (see Gal 4:29).

God’s choice of the younger (or weaker, or most unlikely) to bear the righteous seed is a third subplot that begins in Genesis. Here it takes two forms in particular that are then repeated throughout the biblical story. First, God regularly bypasses the firstborn son in carrying out his purposes (a considerable breach of the cultural rules on the part of God): not Cain but Seth, not Ishmael but Isaac, not Esau but Jacob, not Reuben but Judah. Second, the godly seed is frequently born of an otherwise barren woman (Sarah, 18:11–12; Rebekah, 25:21; Rachel, 29:31). As you read through the whole biblical story, you will want to be on the lookout for this recurring motif (see, e.g., 1 Sam 1:1–2:11; Luke 1).

Related to this theme is the fact that the chosen ones are not chosen because of their own goodness; indeed, their flaws are faithfully narrated (Abraham in Gen 12:10–20; Isaac in 26:1–11; Jacob throughout [note how dysfunctional the family is in ch. 37!]; Judah in 38:1–30). God does not choose them because of their inherent character; what makes them the godly seed is that in the end they trusted God and his promise that they would be his people—an exceedingly numerous people—and that they would inherit the land to which they first came as aliens.

A fourth subplot emerges later in the story, where Judah takes the leading role among the brothers in the long Joseph narrative (chs. 37–50). He emerges first in chapter 38, where his weaknesses and sinfulness are exposed. But his primary role begins in 43:8–9, where he guarantees the safety of his brother Benjamin, and it climaxes in his willingness to take the place of Benjamin in 44:18–34. All of this anticipates Jacob’s blessing in 49:8–12, that the “scepter will not depart from Judah” (pointing to the Davidic kingdom and, beyond that, to Jesus Christ).

A fifth subplot is found in the anticipation of the next “chapter” in the story—slavery in Egypt. Interest in Egypt begins with the genealogy of Ham (10:13–14; Mizraim is Hebrew for “Egypt”). The basic family narrative (Abraham to Joseph) begins with a famine that sends Abraham to Egypt (12:10–20) and concludes with another famine that causes Jacob and the entire family to settle in Egypt, whereas Isaac, while on his way toward Egypt during another famine, is expressly told not to go there (26:1–5).

Finally, the interest in detailing the origins of Israel’s near neighbors, who become thorns in their sides throughout the Old Testament story, forms a sixth subplot. Besides the major players, Egypt and Canaan (10:13–19), note, in turn, Moab and Amnion (19:30–38) and Edom (25:23; 27:39–40; 36:1–43), as well as the lesser role of Ishmael (39:1; cf. Ps 83:6).


1:1–2:3 Prologue

Although written as prose, there is also a clearly poetic dimension to this creational prologue. Part of the poetry is the careful structure of this first “week,” where day 1 corresponds to day 4, day 2 to day 5, and day 3 to day 6. Notice how the two sets of days respond to the earth’s being “formless and empty” (1:2): Days 1–3 give “form” to the earth (light, sky, dry land), while days 4–6 fill the form with content. Thus:

Day 1 (1:3–5) Light

Day 2 (1:6–8) Sky and seas

Day 3 (1:9–13) Dry land/plant life

Day 4 (1:14–19) Sun, moon, stars

Day 5 (1:20–23) Sky and sea animals

Day 6 (1:24–31) Land animals eat plant life

Day 7 (2:2–3) God rests from this work

Watch for several emphases as you read, some of which are picked up later in the biblical story—that God speaks everything into existence (cf. Ps 33:6; John 1:1–3); that God blessed what he created, including the material world, calling it all “good”; that human beings, male and female, are created in God’s own image and are given regency over the rest of creation; that God rested on the seventh day and set it aside as holy (thus setting the pattern of six days of work and one for rest; cf. Exod 20:8–11, God’s great gift of rest to former slaves).

2:4–4:26 The Account of Human Beginnings

This is the first of the six “accounts” that make up the prehistory of Genesis 1–11. It falls into three clearly discernible parts, following present chapter divisions. It begins (2:4–25) with human beings created and placed in Eden, with its centerpiece of the two trees (of life; of the knowledge of good and evil—both reflecting God’s own being); included are the warning not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, with emphasis on their mutuality and partnership. Note how the story descends rapidly from there. The serpent beguiles them into disobedience (3:1–13), followed by God’s cursing the serpent and the land and judging the woman and the man (3:14–19) and, after a momentary alleviation (3:21), by their punishment—the loss of God’s presence (3:22–24). It is important to be reminded here that Eden is seen as restored in the final vision of the Revelation (Rev 22:1–5)!

The descent is completed with the story of Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, and Cain’s further banishment from God’s presence (4:1–28-18), concluding on the twin notes of the arrogance of Cain’s descendants (4:19–24) and of the birth of Seth, with the hopeful note that “at that time people began to call on the name of the LORD” (4:25–26).

5:1–6:8 The Account of Adam’s Family Line

This genealogy stands in contrast to Cain’s line (compare the difference between the two Lamechs at the end of each). Note two important things about this genealogy: First, it begins (5:3) and ends (5:29) with echoes from the prologue (Seth is in Adam’s likeness; Noah will bring comfort from the curse). Second, one man in this lineage, Enoch (5:21–24), continues to experience God’s presence. Despite some puzzling details, don’t miss the point of 6:1–8: The utter degeneration of the human race leads God to act in judgment (6:6–7); mercifully, however, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (6:8).

6:9–9:29 The Account of Noah

This narrative is so well known that you could easily miss its significant features. Note at the beginning how Noah’s righteousness echoes Enoch’s “walking with God” (6:9). Observe also how the story echoes the original creation story, so that in effect it becomes a “second creation” narrative: The flood returns the world to its state of being “formless and empty” (1:2), but Noah and the animals provide a link with the old while yet starting something new. The covenant with Noah is full of echoes from Genesis 1–2—the reestablishment of the seasonal cycles (8:22; cf. 1:14); the command to multiply (9:1, 7; cf. 1:28); humankind in God’s image (9:6; cf. 1:27). Here God is starting over, and thus he makes a covenant never to destroy the whole earth in such a fashion again. Alas, the story ends on a sour note (9:20–23)—a “fall” again, leading to the curse of Ham’s seed, Canaan—but it concludes with the blessing of Shem (from whose seed redemption will emerge).

10:1–11:9 The Account of Shem, Ham, and japheth

Here you find the development of human civilization into the three basic people groups known to the Israelites. Singled out in particular are Mizraim (Hebrew for “Egypt”) and Canaan (10:13–20). Capping these accounts is the story of Babel, which leads directly to the Abraham narrative, as the story returns from the scattered nations to one man who will found a new nation through whom all the nations will be blessed.

11:10–26 The Account of Shem

This list of names isn’t riveting reading, but it gets you from Noah’s son Shem to Abram (Abraham), and thus to the “father” of the chosen people.

11:27–25:11 The Account of Terah

You can hardly miss seeing that Terah’s son, Abraham, dominates this family story. Here you can watch how skillfully the narrative is presented. It introduces Abraham’s family, who have moved partway to Canaan (11:27–32), with a special note about Sarah’s barrenness (11:30). The key moments are in 12:1–9, where God calls Abraham to leave Haran and “go to the land I will show you” (12:1) and promises to make him “into a great nation” and to bless “all peoples on earth” through him (vv. 2–3). After obediently traveling to the land inhabited by Canaanites (vv. 4–5), Abraham traverses the whole land and then is promised, “To your offspring [seed] I will give this land” (vv. 6–7), whereupon “he built an altar there to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD” (vv. 8–9). In the rest of the narrative, you will see these several themes played out in one form or another: The promised land will be given to the promised seed, who will become a great nation and thus a blessing to the nations—even though the Canaanites now possess the land and Sarah is barren!—and so Abraham trusts and worships the God who has promised this.

Thus the first narrative, which is about Abram’s failure in Egypt (12:10–20), has to do with God’s protecting the promised seed. The first Lot cycle (chs. 13–14) focuses on great nation and promised land while introducing Sodom and Gomorrah, and indicating Abraham’s considerable significance in the land. The back-to-back narratives of chapters 15–16 come back to the promised seed from a barren woman, while the centerpiece narrative of chapter 17 focuses on all the themes together. The next narrative focuses again on the promised seed from a barren woman (18:1–15), which is picked up again in the series of three narratives in chapters 20 and 21 (Abimelech, the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Ishmael). These narratives bookend the second Lot cycle (18:16–19:38), which begins with the great nation that will be a blessing on the nations (18:18). Here the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incestuous conception of Moab and Ammon stand in contrast to Abraham’s trust in God for the promised land, a theme picked up again in 21:22–34.

Four crucial narratives then conclude the family story of Terah. First comes the testing of Abraham as to whether he would be willing to give up to God his firstborn son (ch. 22). In this crucial narrative, be sure to note

(1) the renewal of the promises (vv. 15–18),

(2) Abraham’s obedience and implicit trust in God throughout,

(3) God’s provision of a sacrifice in place of Isaac.

Taken together, the deaths of Sarah (ch. 23) and of Abraham (25:7–11) complete the promised-land motif—a piece of the future promised land is purchased so that their bodies can rest there, waiting for the future to be fulfilled! These enclose the story of Isaac’s marriage, which is included in the Abraham series because it continues the promisedseed motif, as does the introduction to the narrative of Abraham’s death (25:1–6).

Note finally that unwise choices made in moments of shaky faith do not thwart God’s purposes (the Pharaoh and Abimelech stories in chs. 12 and 20, and Hagarinch. 16), while Abraham in his turn “believed the

LORD, and [the LORD] credited it to him as righteousness” (15:6, a text that becomes especially important in Paul’s letters). Thus Abraham’s regular response to God is worship and obedience (12:7–8; 13:4, 18; 14:17–20; 22:1–19).

25:12–18 The Account of Ishmael

This, the briefest of the origin stories, confirms that God fulfilled his promise (16:10) to make Ishmael, not just Isaac, into a great twelve-tribe nation.

25:19–35:29 The Account of Isaac

The Isaac story is mainly about Jacob, who represents the chosen lineage. Note how the promises made to Abraham are repeated for both Isaac (26:3–5) and Jacob (28:13–15). Again, following prayer, the promised seed is born to a barren woman (25:21–26). Esau’s despising his firstborn right (25:29–34) shows his character (cf. Heb 12:16) and by implication that of his descendants, the Edomites—perennial enemies of Israel (see the book of Obadiah). In chapter 26 Isaac repeats Abraham’s failure (chs. 12, 20) and, as before, God intervenes to protect the promised seed. In chapters 27–28, despite Jacob’s cheating Esau out of his father’s blessing (and thus living up to his name, “he deceives”), note that God renews the Abrahamic covenant with him (28:10–22). This event also marks the beginning of a change in Jacob’s character, evidenced in the events surrounding his reconciliation with Esau (chs. 32–33; note especially the narrative where his name is changed from Jacob to Israel).

In chapters 29–31 you begin to follow the expansion of the nation of Israel. The chosen family now numbers twelve sons whose offspring will form the twelve tribes, a concept reflected later in the tribal districts of the land and later still in Jesus’ choosing twelve disciples, and even in the final architecture of the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (Rev 21:12, 14, 21). Unfortunately, Jacob’s sons (ch. 34) reflect the character of the younger Jacob, a factor that plays a huge role at the beginning (37:12–36) of the final family story in Genesis (chs. 37–50).

36:1–37:1 The Account of Esau

Esau’s lineage, the Edomites, became a great nation as promised but are also another of the neighbors who continually threaten the chosen people and their security in the promised land.

37:2–50:26 The Account of Jacob

The final family story is primarily about Joseph, whom God uses to rescue Israel (and the nations, thus blessing them, 12:2–3) from famine so that the promised seed can be preserved. You will find reading this story to be a different experience from what has gone before, since it is a single cohesive narrative (the longest of its kind in the Bible), with just three interruptions (the story of Judah in ch. 38, the genealogy in 46:8–27, and Jacob’s “blessing” in ch. 49). Note how it begins and ends on the same note—his brothers bowing to him (37:5–7; 50:18; cf. 42:6). Look for the various themes that hold the story together: God overturns the brothers’ evil against Joseph; he allows Joseph to languish in prison (which came about because of Joseph’s refusal to sin) but finally rescues him and elevates him through his divinely given ability to interpret dreams (note the repeated “the LORD was with Joseph,” 39:2, 3, 21, 23)—again, God works through a younger, despised son. Note also at the end (ch. 48), Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two sons continues the pattern of God’s choosing the younger (the unfavored one).

Finally, you will want to observe the role Judah plays in the narrative. Although his beginnings are anything but salutary (ch. 38), Judah later shows a repentant heart for his past role in the story (44:18–34). And eventually he is blessed as “the lion” through whose lineage will come the Davidic king (49:8–12) and eventually the messianic king himself, Christ Jesus.

Although the narrative ends with Joseph in a coffin in Egypt (50:26), this too anticipates the next part of the narrative, the book of Exodus, where special note is made that the Israelites took the bones of Joseph with them because he had made them swear an oath, “God will surely come to your aid” (Exod 13:19).

Genesis begins the biblical story with God as Creator, human beings as created in God’s image but fallen, and God’s response through a redemptive creation of a chosen people—and doing so through all kinds of circumstances (good and ill) and despite their faults.



Content: Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, her constitution as a people through covenant law, and instructions for and construction of the tabernacle—the place of God’s presence

Historical coverage: from Joseph’s death (ca. 1600 B.C.) to Israel’s encampment at Sinai (either 1440 or 1260 B.C.)

Emphases: God’s miraculous rescue of Israel from Egypt through Moses; covenant law given at Mount Sinai; the tabernacle as the place of God’s presence and Israel’s proper worship; God’s revelation of himself and his character; Israel’s tendency to complain and rebel against God; God’s judgment and mercy toward his people when they rebel


You may find Exodus a bit more difficult than Genesis to read all the way through. The first half (chs. 1–20) is easy enough, since it continues the narrative that began in Genesis 12, but after that you get a series of laws (chs. 21–24), followed by detailed instructions about the materials and furnishings for the tabernacle (chs. 25–31). The narrative then returns for three chapters (chs. 32–34), only to be followed (chs. 35–40) by a repetition of chapters 25–31, as the tabernacle and its furnishings are constructed exactly per instructions. Both the details and repetitious nature of chapters 25–31 and 35–40 can serve to derail you unless you keep them in the context of the big picture, both of Exodus itself and of the larger story found in the Pentateuch as a whole.

The narrative portion begins with Israel’s enslavement in Egypt (ch. 1), followed by the birth of Moses, his flight and subsequent call (where Yahweh’s name is revealed), and his return to Egypt (chs. 2–4). This is followed by the exodus itself (5:1–15:21), including Israel’s forced labor, Yahweh’s conflict with Pharaoh in the holy war by way of the ten plagues, the Red Sea miracle, and a hymn celebrating God the Divine Warrior’s victory over Pharaoh. The rest of the narrative (15:22–19:25) gets Israel to Sinai in preparation for the giving of the covenant law (chs. 20–23) and its ratification (ch. 24). Part of this narrative is Israel’s constant complaining to God, which in chapters 32–34 becomes full-blown idolatrous rebellion, followed by judgment and renewal of the covenant.

The book concludes with a final moment of narrative (40:34–38) in which God’s glory (his presence) fills the tabernacle, the last essential act of preparation, thus making the people ready for their pilgrimage to the promised land. Note especially how the two parts of this short scene anticipate the next two books of the Pentateuch: The glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle/Tent of Meeting leads directly into Leviticus, where God speaks to Moses (and thus to the people) from the Tent of Meeting and gives instructions on the uses of the tabernacle (Lev 1:1; “Tent of Meeting” and “tabernacle” are used interchangeably thereafter), and the cloud reappears in the narrative early in Numbers, to give guidance when Israel finally breaks camp and sets out toward the promised land (Num 9:15–23).

The parts of the law enclosed in the Exodus narrative include the Ten Commandments (ch. 20), the Book of the Covenant (chs. 21–23)—various laws dealing mostly with relationships among the people—and the instructions regarding the tabernacle (chs. 25–31), followed by its construction and implementation (35:1–40:33).


Any sense of confusion as you read this book may be lessened greatly if you have a sense of the why of its overall structure. Why especially the instructions about and construction of the tabernacle in this narrative Why not wait until Leviticus, where it would seem to fit better The answer is that Exodus narrates the crucial matters that define Israel as a people in relationship to their God, Yahweh. As you read, therefore, watch especially for the three absolutely defining moments in Israel’s history, which cause this narrative with its embedding of portions of the law to make sense: (1) God’s miraculous deliverance of his people from slavery, (2) the return of the presence of God as distinguishing his people from all other peoples on the earth, and (3) the gift of the law as the means of establishing his covenant with them.

First, the crucial defining moment, and the one referred to over and again throughout both the Old Testament and the New, is the exodus itself. Israel is repeatedly reminded that “it was because the LORD loved

you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh” (Deut 7:8); Israel itself repeatedly affirms, “The

LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut 26:8).

Watch for the ways the narrative highlights this event—that the story of Moses is given solely with his role in the exodus in view; that Israel’s desperately hopeless situation is overcome by God’s miraculous intervention on their behalf; that this is God’s victory above all else, over both Pharaoh and the gods he represents; that God’s victory is commemorated with the first of two celebratory hymns in the Pentateuch (15:1–21; cf. Deut 31:30–32:43), emphasizing his unrivaled greatness and his triumph in the holy war. Yahweh here “adopts” Israel as his firstborn son, who is to be set free so that “he may worship me” (Exod 4:22–23). Notice finally in this regard how the narrative is interrupted twice, on either side of the actual exodus (12:1–28; 12:43–13:16), in order to give instructions for the Passover (the annual celebration of the exodus) and for the consecration of the firstborn male (as a reminder of God’s rescue of them as his firstborn while protecting their own firstborn).

Second, the divine presence, lost in Eden, is now restored as the central feature of Israel’s existence. This theme begins with the call of Moses at “the mountain of God” (3:1), where he did not dare “look at God” (3:6). It is picked up again in chapter 19, where the people encamp “in front of the mountain” (19:2) and experience a spectacular theophany (a visible manifestation of God), accompanied by warnings against touching the mountain. The awesome nature of this encounter with the living God is further highlighted by the ascending and descending of Moses “up to God” (19:3, 8, 20) and “down to the people” (19:7, 14,25).

The pivotal nature of this motif can be seen especially in chapters 25–40 and helps to explain the repetition about the tabernacle on either side of chapters 32–34. For the tabernacle was to assume the role of “the Tent of Meeting” (40:6) and was thus to function as the place where Israel’s God would dwell in their midst (after he “left” the mountain, as it were). Thus the debacle in the desert (ch. 32) is followed by Moses’ pleading for Yahweh not to abandon them, for “if your Presence does not go with us… what else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth” (33:15–16, emphasis added; later identified in Isa 63:7–14 as the Holy Spirit). Notice, finally, that Exodus concludes with God’s glory covering the tabernacle/Tent of Meeting, which means the Israelites are now ready for their journey to the promised land. At the same time, these final chapters (25–40) prepare the way especially for the regulations for worship and sacrifice that appear in the next book, Leviticus.

Third, there is the giving of the law with its centerpiece of the Ten Commandments (ch. 20), followed by the Book of the Covenant (chs. 21–24). These laws together focus on Israel’s relationship with God and with one another, the latter as an expression of their living out God’s character in those relationships. This first expression of the law in the narrative of Exodus thus prepares the way for its further elaboration in the final three books of the Pentateuch. On the nature of these laws and how they function in Israel, see How to 1, pp. 169–75.

It is also important to note here that these laws are patterned after ancient covenants known as “suzerainty treaties,” where a conqueror made a treaty with the conquered in which he benefited them with his protection and care as long as they would abide by the treaty stipulations. There are six parts to such covenants:

1. Preamble, which identifies the giver of the covenant (“the LORD your God,” 20:2)

2. Prologue, which serves as a reminder of the relationship of the suzerain to the people (“who brought you out of Egypt,” 20:2)

3. Stipulations, which are various laws/obligations on the part of the people (20:3–23:19; 25:1–31:18)

4. Document clause, which provides for periodic reading and relearning of the covenant

5. Sanctions, which describe the blessings and curses as incentives for obedience

6. List of witnesses to the covenant

You will note that only the first three of these six covenant ingredients are found in Exodus. It is only the first portion of the full covenant that continues on in Leviticus and Numbers and finally concludes at the end of Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, already in Exodus the key elements of the covenant are evident—(1) the revelation of who God is and what he wants from his people, and (2) the enumeration of obedience as the path of covenant loyalty and thus of maintaining its blessings.


1:1–2:25 The Setting: Growth and Oppression of Israel in Egypt

Here you find the two primary narratives that comprise the setting for the exodus: (1) the multiplication and subjection of the Israelites under Pharaoh, including infanticide in a vain attempt to control their population (ch. 1); (2) enter Moses, an Israelite who grows up as a privileged Egyptian but sides with his own people (2:1–15). Years later, as an escaped elderly outlaw settled in Sinai (vv. 16–22), he is a most unlikely candidate for the role of deliverer of Israel (vv. 23–25), picking up a central motif from Genesis.

3:1–6:27 The Call and Commission of Moses

Watch for several important features in this narrative: God’s revelation of himself to the unsuspecting Moses, including the disclosure of his name (Yahweh, “the one who causes to exist”; translated in small capitals [LORD] in most English versions); God’s repeated announcement that he has seen the misery of his people in Egypt and intends to deliver them by his mighty power; Moses’ fourfold “thanks but no thanks” response to the call; and his first encounter with Pharaoh, which leads to increased oppression and Israel’s rejection of Moses. The startling episode in 4:24–26 reminds us that Moses as an Israelite father had not even circumcised his own son, so poorly was he prepared for this task.

6:28–15:21 The Miraculous Deliverance from Bondage

This narrative is in four parts, each blending into the next. Watch for them as you read. First is the confrontation with Pharaoh (6:28–11:10), which begins with Aaron’s staff becoming a serpent and swallowing those of the Egyptian sorcerers (perhaps echoing the curse of the serpent in Eden), followed by nine plagues and the announcement of the tenth; each of these strikes at the heart of Egyptian idolatry and arrogance.

The second part (12:1–30) is a careful weaving together of the institution of the Passover and the actual narrative of the tenth plague. The reason for the instruction here is that the Passover meal is to be an annual celebration in which the momentous event of deliverance is recounted. Notice also the foreshadowing of redemption through the shedding of blood, which in the New Testament happens when God’s “firstborn” sheds his blood (Col 1:15–20), as he assumes the role of the lamb and thus lives out this narrative in reverse.

Part 3 is the account of the exodus itself (12:31–14:31). Note especially how reminders of the first two parts are carefully woven into this narrative: It begins with additional Passover regulations and the law of the firstborn; the actual crossing of the Red Sea involves one final confrontation with Pharaoh—and ends with the demise of his whole army. Here also you are introduced to the grumbling motif (14:10–12; cf. 5:21) that will become the main theme of the next section of narrative.

Part 4 is the celebratory song of Moses, Israel, and Miriam (15:1–21). Note that it begins as a celebration of the triumph of God the Warrior over Pharaoh and his gods (vv. 1–12) and concludes by anticipating the same victory in the conquest of Canaan (vv. 13–16) and Yahweh’s future settled presence on Zion (vv. 17–18; cf. Ps 68). It may be helpful to note how often this aspect of God’s victory continued to be celebrated in Israel’s hymns (Neh 9:9–11; Pss 66:5–7; 78:12–13; 106:8–12; 114:3,5; 136:10–15).

15:22–18:27 The Journey to Mount Sinai

The first thing you meet after Israel’s great deliverance is a series of three episodes in the desert in which the people grumble against Moses and thus test God (15:22–17:7); these episodes foreshadow many such moments throughout the rest of the story. This is followed by their first encounter with opposition along the way (17:8–16), which also anticipates future encounters of this kind, as well as the future leadership of Joshua. The story of Moses as he takes Jethro’s advice about shared leadership, especially for judging (ch. 18), not only prepares for the later organization of the tribes but also for many of the laws in the Book of the Covenant (21:1–23:19; e.g., 21:6, 22; 22:8–9).

19:1–24:11 The Covenant at Sinai

The prelude (ch. 19) is especially significant to the narrative. Note how it begins (vv. 3–6). Here God combines his deliverance of Israel “on eagles’ wings” (v. 4) with the call to obedience and his adoption of them as his own treasured possession (much of the language in these verses is picked up by New Testament writers with reference to the church). The rest takes the form of a great theophany, with the reminder of the awful distance between the holy and living God and his people.

Note also that God speaks the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Words,” 20:1–17) directly to the people (20:18–21)—a sign of their primacy. Here fundamental responsibilities to both God and neighbor are addressed in proper order (first “vertical,” then “horizontal”). When the people plead for indirect communication with God, the first order of business is to repeat the injunction against idolatry (20:22–26).

The Book of the Covenant (chs. 21–23) gives specifics as to what the Ten Words mean in practice. Note that they primarily cover various aspects of societal living—treatment of slaves/servants (standing first in order and in stark contrast to their conditions in Egypt), compensations and penalties for injuries, property law, rape, fairness in dealings with others, and worship. They conclude with a promise of divine guidance and the eventual conquest of Canaan, predicated on the people’s obedience to the covenant (23:20–33). The covenant is ratified by Israel’s consent, the sprinkling of blood, and a theophanic meal for Israel’s elders in the presence of God (24:1–11).

24:12–31:18 Instructions regarding the Tabernacle

As you read these instructions, keep in mind the reason for their many and very precise details—that the tabernacle will be the place of God’s presence among them. This not only is said expressly (25:8, 22; cf. Lev 16:2), but it also accounts for the order of the instructions. The ark, where Yahweh dwells between the cherubim (25:22; cf. Lev 16:2), stands in first place, followed by the table on which will sit “the bread of the Presence” (25:30). All the rest of the furnishings, including the bronze altar and the priests’ attire, are predicated on the primary reality that Yahweh has chosen to dwell here on earth in the midst of his people. Note, for example, that the reason for the priests’ attire is “to give him/them dignity and honor” (28:2, 40). And when you come to Leviticus, you will see that the reason for the bronze altar is for sacrifices, so that the priests may approach Yahweh on behalf of the people. Note how this section ends with a renewal of the Sabbath commandment, which is related especially to Yahweh’s “rest” (repeated here because this is God’s gift to former slaves who worked all day, every day of the week).

32:1–34:35 Rebellion, Covenant Breaking, Covenant Renewal

Note the contrast: While Moses is atop Sinai receiving instructions for the place of Yahweh’s dwelling among them, his brother is below, leading the people in constructing and worshiping idols (32:1–26)—although note that they are allegedly worshiping Yahweh (v. 5). Punishment (32:27–29) is followed by Moses’ intercession for the people, thus securing God’s promise that his own Presence will accompany them and thus distinguish them from all other peoples (32:30–33:23). This is the significance of including here the brief narratives about the Tent of Meeting (33:7–11) and the (foretaste) vision of God’s glory (33:18–23). In chapter 34, the covenant is renewed (vv. 1–28; a brief condensation of the Book of the Covenant [chs. 21–23] is included) in the context of another significant theophany. The language of Yahweh’s self-revelation in verses 4–7 is one of the more important moments in the biblical story and is appealed to throughout the rest of the Old Testament. The concluding narrative—having to do with Moses emerging from the Tent of Meeting with a face that radiates God’s glory (34:29–35; cf. 2 Cor 3)—anticipates the glory that will descend on the tabernacle when it is finished (40:34–38).

35:1–39:43 The Construction of the Tabernacle and Its Furnishings

This lengthy repetition of the matters from chapters 25–31 serves further to highlight the significance of the tabernacle as the place of Yahweh’s presence. Note that the order changes slightly so that the tabernacle will be in place before the symbol of the Presence (namely, the ark) is constructed. But it begins with the Sabbath command (35:1–3). Even something as important as the construction of the tabernacle must not supersede the gift of Sabbath.

40:1–38 The Tabernacle Is Set Up and the Glory Descends

Note how this final event in Exodus follows the preceding pattern: Instructions on setting up the tabernacle (vv. 1–16), followed by the implementation (vv. 17–33). All of this so that the glory of Yahweh—the same glory that had so impressed the Israelites when it was seen on Mount Sinai—might fill the tabernacle (v. 34; cf. 1 Kgs 8:10–11), taking the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (v. 38), a constant visible reminder of God’s presence with his people.

Exodus plays an especially important role in the rest of the biblical story, since it tells the basic story of God’s saving his people from bondage and of his giving them the law so that they will become the people of his presence. Exodus also serves as a pattern for the promised “second exodus” in Isaiah (esp. chs. 40–66) and thus for Jesus’ own “departure” (exodus) that would be accomplished in Jerusalem (Luke 9:30, spoken in the presence of Moses[!] and Elijah).



Content: various laws having to do with holiness before God and with love of neighbor, including sacrifices, ritual cleanness, and social obligations, as well as laws for the Levites regarding their priestly duties.

Emphases: getting it right with regard to worship, for both people and priests; institution of the priesthood under Aaron; laws protecting ritual cleanness, including atonement for sins (the Day of Atonement); laws regulating sexual relations, family life, punishments for major crimes, festivals, and special years (sabbaths and jubilees)


The title of this book (by way of Latin from the Greek levitikon) means “pertaining to the Levites,” which not only aptly describes its basic contents but also gives a clue as to why it is so often unappealing to contemporary readers—not to mention that it has so little narrative (chs. 8–10; 24:10–23 are the exceptions). But with a little help, you can come to a basic understanding of both its contents and its place in the narrative of the Pentateuch—even if the nature of, and reason for, some of the laws themselves may escape you (for this you may wish to consult a good commentary; e.g., Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [see How to I, p. 268]).

It is important to note that Leviticus picks up precisely where Exodus left off—with the Lord speaking to Moses “from the Tent of Meeting” and saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say…” From that point on, the movement from one section to another is signaled by the phrase, “The LORD said to Moses” (4:1; 5:14; 6:1, 8; and so forth). It will be no surprise, then, to discover that the first main part of the book (chs. 1–16, commonly known as the Levitical Code) has primarily to do with regulations for the people and the priests related directly to the tabernacle, which appeared toward the end of Exodus (chs. 25–31; 35–40).

This code outlines easily. It begins with offerings by the people (1:1–6:7), followed by instructions for the priests (6:8–7:38). These are followed (logically) by the institution of the Aaronic priesthood (chs. 8–9) and the judgment on two of Aaron’s sons who thought they could do it their own way (10:1–7), with further instructions for the priests (10:8–20). The next section (chs. 11–15) then begins with a new rubric, “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron” (11:1, emphasis added; see also 13:1; 14:33; 15:1, but nowhere else in Leviticus). Here you find laws that deal especially with ritual cleanness (purity)—with a view to avoiding what happened to Aaron’s two sons. Here also appears for the first time the very important injunction, “Be holy, because I am holy” (11:44, 45). This is followed, appropriately, by the institution of the Day of Atonement (ch. 16).

What follows (chs. 17–25) is commonly known as the Holiness Code, which is governed by the repeated charge to “be holy, because I am holy” (beginning in 19:2 and throughout). But now a significant part of being holy is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Thus the section is a collection of various laws dealing with one’s relationship both to God and to others. At the end are requirements for the sabbath and jubilee years (ch. 25), while the book concludes with covenant blessings and curses (ch. 26) that provide a formal conclusion to the covenant structure that began in Exodus 20. The book itself concludes with an appendix on vows and tithes (Lev 27).


In order to get the most out of your reading, you need to remind yourself of two things: (1) These laws are part of God’s covenant with Israel, and therefore they are not just religious rites but have to do with relationships, and (2) Leviticus is part of the larger narrative of the Pentateuch and must be understood in light of what has preceded and what follows.

To pick up the second point first: Just as the legal portions of Exodus make good sense when you see their place in the larger narrative, so you need to see Leviticus as a longer expression of the same before the narrative resumes in Numbers. Crucial here is the fact that Israel is still camped at the foot of Sinai—a wilderness area—where they will spend a full year being molded into a people before God will lead them toward the conquest of Canaan. Here they will need double protection—from diseases of various kinds and from one another! Therefore, in order for these individuals who grew up in slavery to be formed into God’s people, there is great need for them to get two sets of relationships in order, namely, with God and with one another. Note, then, that Leviticus continues with the same ordering of things found in the Ten Commandments (first vertical, then horizontal).

The covenantal aspect of these various laws is their most important feature. Recall the parts of the covenant noted in our Exodus chapter (p. 37). God has sovereignly delivered these people from slavery and has brought them to Sinai; here he has promised to make them his own “treasured possession” out of all the nations on earth (Exod 19:5), who will also therefore be for him “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). That is, their role as a “kingdom” is to serve as God’s priests for the world, and to do so they must bear his likeness (“be holy, because I am holy”). Thus, God covenants with them on his part to bless them (Lev 26:1–13); what he requires on their part is that, even though they are his treasured possession, they maintain a holy awe and obedience toward him. So note in this regard how often, especially in chapters 18–26, the requirement is punctuated with the words, “I am the LORD [Yahweh]” or “I am the LORD your God.”

Thus the first set of laws in Leviticus has to do with their “getting it right” when they come to God with various sacrifices. You will note that they are not told what the sacrifices mean (which they already knew), but how to do them properly—although we can infer some things about their meaning from these descriptions. The covenantal nature of these sacrifices appears in three ways: First, the sacrifice constitutes a gift on the part of the worshipers to their covenant Lord; second, some of the sacrifices imply fellowship on the part of the worshiper with God; third, sacrifice sometimes functions as a way of healing a break in the relationship—a form of atonement.

So also with the laws of purity. Here the concern again is that the people have a proper sense of what it means for God to be present among them (see 15:31). At issue here is who may be in the camp, where God himself dwells at the center, and who must remain outside (because they are unclean). Included is the separating out of certain animals and insects that are clean or unclean. At the heart of all of this is the fact that “God is holy” and therefore his people also must be holy.

But holiness does not deal simply with rites and being clean. God’s holiness is especially seen in his loving compassion that made the Israelites his people. Therefore, the laws—particularly in the Holiness Code—demand that God’s people bear God’s likeness in this regard. Since the Israelites are thrown together (in a very orderly way, of course!) in this very tight camp where God dwells in the midst of them, they must display his character in their dealings with one another. Thus, even though this code also contains further “relationship with God” laws, it is especially concerned with how people in community treat one another. And it includes treating them justly and mercifully, which is why the collection ends with the sabbath and jubilee years, so that the land also may “rest,” and a time to “proclaim liberty to all” may occur on the sabbath of the sabbath years (25:10).

If you look for these covenantal moments as you read these laws, you may find it to be a far more interesting experience than you might have expected.


1:1–7:38 Instructions for the Five Offerings

You need to know that Israel’s offerings (sacrifices) were regularly crucial elements in symbolic meals. A portion of the sacrifice was burnt on the altar as God’s part, but the rest was eaten by the worshipers and priests as a fellowship meal—a meal at God’s house, in God’s presence (see Deut 14:22–29), with God as the host (see Ps 23:5–6; cf. “the Lord’s table” in 1 Cor 10:21). This is especially important in your reading these laws about offerings, since what is described is not their function or meaning but only their proper preparation. Not all were sacrifices for sins. Some offerings were for fellowship and had different covenantal functions altogether.

Note that only the burnt offering (ch. 1) was dedicated entirely to God and thus burned entirely as an atonement for sin. Again, the principle was this: If you are to live, something must die in your place (see Exod 12:1–30). Leviticus 2 describes the grain offering (various options for oil and flour ingredients within a balanced meal). Chapter 3 addresses the fellowship offering (sometimes translated “peace offering”), which was an animal offering with the general purpose of keeping one in fellowship with God. The sin (also “purification”) offering (4:1–5:13) provided atonement for accidental sin, since “transgression” is not limited to intentional disobedience. Finally, the guilt (sometimes “reparation”) offering in 5:14–6:7 provided a means for making amends for the transgression. The rest of the section (6:8–7:38) reviews the role of the priests in supervising the five offerings, as well as prescribing their share of the sacrificed animal.

8:1–10:20 Priesthood Begins

Since priests specially represented God to the people and the people to God, Aaron and his sons were ordained to their assignments (chs. 8–9), and Aaron’s first official sacrifices are listed. Note that his sons failed to follow clear rules and so died, showing the importance God placed on proper worship, further emphasized in various commands from Moses (ch. 10).

11:1–16:34 On Cleanness and Uncleanness

You need to know that clean here means acceptable to God in worship. Unclean means unacceptable to God and banned from the tabernacle, or sometimes (in the case of skin diseases) from the encampment itself. This mixture of food, health, sanitation, and ritual laws is thus aimed at helping the covenant people to show that they belong to God and reflect his purity (holiness, 11:44–45). The laws seem to be partly a matter of simple hygiene and partly symbolic obedience, but always in light of the divine presence (15:31).

Thus certain animals, for reasons not given, are unclean (ch. 11). Childbirth (ch. 12) and some diseases (ch. 13) require ritual cleansing (ch. 14) before one is restored to purity. The Israelites were to regard any bodily discharges as unclean (ch. 15, perhaps because in general these are unsanitary). The Day of Atonement (ch. 16) was a special solemn day of forgiveness that not only cleansed the people of their sin but also purified the tabernacle itself and kept it a holy place for worship.

17:1–25:55 The Holiness Code

Notice that the first part (17:1–20:27) concentrates on personal and social holiness in daily life. It begins with prohibitions regarding non-regulated sacrifices and drinking blood (17:1–16), aimed especially at countering Canaanite practices (idolatry and drinking blood in an attempt to capture its life force; cf Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), followed by rules for sexual behavior (Lev 18) and for neighborliness, which means truly caring for others, not just for those who live near you (ch. 19). Here occurs for the first time the second love command, “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), picked up by Jesus (Mk 12:28–34 and par.) and his followers (e.g., Rom 13:8–10). Note how the punishments for serious crimes in Leviticus 20 respond directly to the prohibitions in chapter 18.

With chapter 21, note the shift back to holiness in matters of religious observance—rules for priests (ch. 21); for the proper offering and eating of sacrifices (ch. 22); for observing the religious festivals, both weekly (sabbath) and annual (ch. 23); and for lamp oil and offering bread at the tabernacle (24:1–9).

Finally in 24:10–23 you come to another narrative—about punishment for blasphemy (cursing God)—that is used to introduce prescriptions for various crimes. At the end of Leviticus are laws concerning the seventh (sabbath) and fiftieth (jubilee) years, which provided liberation for those indebted or enslaved (ch. 25), and a sabbath for the land as well.

26:1–4 6 Covenant Sanctions

These sanctions (blessings and curses as incentives to keep the covenant) both conclude the Sinaitic covenant and anticipate the conclusion of the covenant in Deuteronomy 27–28.

27:1–3 4 Redemption Laws

This appendix deals with the cost of redeeming persons who have been promised to God and of redeeming tithes (material goods belonging to God).

Leviticus is the part of God’s story where the Israelites are given instructions on how to be holy, on how to be truly acceptable to God and in good relationship with one another—which they could not achieve without his special provision.



Content: the Israelites’ long stay in the desert as they journey from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab, with supplemental covenant laws

Historical coverage: forty years, a period within which the generation that left Egypt died off

Emphases: preparation for military conquest of the promised land; God’s covenant loyalty toward Israel with regard to the land; Israel’s repeated failure to keep covenant with God; God’s leadership of his people and affirmation of Moses’ leadership; preparations for entering and worshiping in the promised land; conquest and settlement of the land east of the Jordan River


If Leviticus tends to be an unappealing book to contemporary readers, then Numbers must be one of the most difficult in terms of “what in the world is going on” The problem for us is that it is such a mixture of things—narrative, additional laws, census lists, oracles from a pagan prophet, the well-known Aaronic blessing—and it is not easy to see how it all fits together.

Numbers primarily records the pilgrimage of Israel through the desert from the foot of Mount Sinai to its encampment in the plains of Moab (on the east bank of the Jordan River), poised for conquest. But it is the second generation that ends up on the east bank—because the exodus generation refused to enter by way of the more direct southern route (at Kadesh) and so were judged by God as unworthy to enter at all. The basic travel narratives are found in 9:15–14:45 (from Sinai to Kadesh, including the refusal to enter and the declaration of God’s judgment) and 20:1–22:1 (from Kadesh to the plains of Moab along the Jordan). There are four other major sections of narrative that have slightly different functions: (1) 7:1–9:14 records the preparations for the journey; (2) chapters 16–17 speak to the issue of Moses’ and Aaron’s God-given (and recognized) leadership; (3) the Balaam cycle (22:2–24:25) and the seduction at Shittim with the Baal of Peor (ch. 25) anticipate both the fulfillment of God’s giving them the land and their own capacity nonetheless to be seduced by Canaanite idolatry; (4) chapters 31–36 narrate events on the east bank as they prepare for conquest.

Interspersed among these narratives, but at the same time adding meaning to them, are two census lists (chs. 1–2; 26–27), plus a genealogy/account of Aaron’s family and of the Levites (chs. 3–4), as well as several collections of laws (chs. 5–6; 15; 18–19; 28–30), most of them picking up items from the Levitical Code (Lev 1–16; 21–22).

This, then, is what Numbers is all about: the journey to the edge of the promised land and further laws pertaining to proper worship. The question is, Can one make sense of its arrangement as narrative


In order to appreciate how the narrative of Numbers works (both the journey and the various surrounding matters), you need to recall several items from Genesis and Exodus.

First, the primary driving force behind everything is God’s promise/covenant with Abraham that his seed would inherit the land of Canaan. This is what keeps the narrative going in all of its parts. And God will bring about the fulfillment of that covenant promise, even in the face of Israel’s reluctance and disobedience.

Second, the conquest of the land involves the second stage of the holy war. The first stage—against Pharaoh in Exodus—even though led by Moses, was carried out by God the Divine Warrior through miraculous intervention. In this second stage, God intends his own people to be involved. He rescued them from slavery in order to make them his own people and place them in the land, but they must take ownership of the actual conquest of the land. This accounts for the two census lists, which count the men who can fight and put the tribes in battle formation around the tabernacle. The list at the beginning (from which Numbers derives its name) prepares the first generation for conquest by way of Kadesh; the second prepares the second generation for conquest by way of the Transjordan. This motif also accounts for the various narratives at the end, including the succession of Joshua (27:12–23) and the various matters in chapters 31–36 that anticipate the conquest.

Third, recall that in Genesis 12:7, immediately following the promise of the land, Abraham built an altar to the Lord. As you now read the various law portions interspersed within this narrative, you will find that they focus primarily on the Israelites’ relationship with their God. Thus both the central role of the tabernacle and the priestly matters in Numbers continue to focus on two previous concerns in the Pentateuch to this point: the presence of God in the midst of his people—both his being with them and his guiding their journey—and the proper worship of God once they are settled in the land.

Finally, God’s people themselves do not come off well in Numbers. You can hardly miss the relentless nature of their complaints and disobedience. In fact, apart from the future blessing that God speaks through a pagan prophet, there is hardly a good word about them in the entire narrative. The same complaints against God and his chosen leader Moses that began in Exodus 15:22–17:7—and then some—are repeated here (Num 11–12; 14; 16–17; 20:1–13; 21:4–9). This is simply not fun reading. In the New Testament, the Israelites’ disobedience serves as warning for us (1 Cor 10:1–13; cf. Heb 3:7–13); in the Old Testament, even though their sins are expressly remembered, so also is God’s “great compassion” on them (Neh 9:16–21; cf. Pss 78:14–39; 106:24–33, 44–46; see also the invitation and warning in Ps 95).

Thus, even though the narrative has some abrupt shifts of focus, Numbers carries on the burden of the Pentateuch in grand style. You are not allowed to forget that, despite Israel’s waffling, this is God’s story above all, and God will keep his part of the covenant with Abraham regarding his seed inheriting the land. At issue is whether Israel will keep covenant with God—and Numbers reminds you over and again that the divine provision for them to do so is always ready at hand.


1:1–2:34 The Census at Sinai

This introduction to Numbers is in two parts: (1) the census and (2) the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting (the place of God’s presence). Note that the census is for those “twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army” (1:3) and that the arrangement of the tribes concludes in each case, “All the men assigned to the camp of…” These are preparations for their engagement in the holy war; former slaves are being transformed into an army.

3:1–4:49 The Account of the Levites

Observe how this section begins with the narrative theme formula of Genesis (“This is the account of…”). As you read, recall two things from before: (1) the central role of the Tent of Meeting with its ark of the covenant, the place of God’s presence, for the journey to Canaan—and beyond—and (2) in making covenant with Israel at Sinai (where they still are), Yahweh adopted them as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Hence the reason for this material: This is part of what makes them a “kingdom of priests,” a nation set apart for God.

5:1–6:27 Cleansing the Camp

Note how this section is structured around the rubric of Leviticus: “The LORD said to Moses” (Num 5:1, 5, 11; 6:1, 22), who in turn is to instruct the people. Remember also their calling to be a “holy nation.” Thus the narrative about purifying the camp (5:1–4) is followed by three sets of laws: (1) the restitution of wrongs (5:5–10, they must be in accord with one another); (2) purity/faithfulness in marriage (5:11–31, thus keeping the holy “seed” pure); (3) the Nazirites, laypeople who dedicate themselves to God’s service, as special illustrations of Israel’s holy calling (6:1–21). The section concludes with the Aaronic blessing (6:22–27), a reaffirmation of God’s covenant promise as the Israelites look toward the promised land.

7:1–9:14 Final Preparations for Departure

Notice how 7:1 picks up from Exodus 40:2, so that each part of this section deals with final preparations for their journey. Everything now centers on the tabernacle, the place of sacrifice (worship) and of God’s presence. Thus the narrative proceeds from the twelve-day dedication of the altar (Num 7:1–89), through setting up the lamps (8:1–4) and the purification of the Levites (8:5–26), to the celebration of the Passover as they set out (9:1–14; cf. Exod 12).

9:1 5–14:45 From Sinai to Kadesh

Israel is now ready to go, so observe how this narrative begins: with the reminder from Exodus 40:34–38 of God’s presence, symbolized especially by the cloud that would lead them (Num 9:15–23), and with the blowing of the trumpets (10:1–10). And so they take off in battle formation (10:11–28). See also how each day ends: with a call for God the Divine Warrior to lead in battle and to return to Israel (10:35–36).

You can hardly miss the emphasis in the rest of the narrative (11:1–14:45): Israel complains to God and rejects Moses’ leadership. Note how much of this recalls Exodus 15:22–18:27 and 32:1–34:35, where Israel complains rather than offers praise and gratitude to God and where God gives them what they need but also judges them; Moses’ intercession for the people (in Num 14:18, recalling the very words of Exod 34:6–7); the seventy elders, who now also anticipate Spirit-empowered prophecy in Israel; God’s reaffirmation of Moses’ leadership. Note also the crucial roles of Joshua and Caleb (from Ephraim [the northern kingdom] and Judah [the southern kingdom]). Their stories will continue (Num 27:12–23; the book of Joshua; Judg 1:1–26), as will the roles of the two tribes they represent (1–2 Kgs).

15:1–41 Supplemental Laws

Since the next generation will enter the promised land, this section records God’s giving his people laws in anticipation of that time. Note that it includes provisions even for unintentional sins, no matter how the failure occurs. Note also how the death of a Sabbath violator (15:32–36) carries forward the theme of covenant obedience both from the beginning of the whole story (Gen 2:1–3) and from the beginning of the covenant (Exod 20:8–11).

16:1–19:22 The Crisis over Leadership and Priesthood

The narrative portion of this section (chs. 16–17) has to do with Moses as God’s chosen leader and with Aaron as God’s chosen high priest. This second matter explains the placement here of the law portion as well (chs. 18–19).

20:1–25:17 From Kadesh to the Plains of Moab

As you read this next portion of the journey narrative, look for several narr