A tale of two Pentateuchs: Christian appropriation of Israel’s imperial constitution

In the columns below I’ve juxtaposed summaries of the Pentateuchal books as they are understood by two divergent hermeneutical models—the one christological, the other political.

The former model, on the one hand, interprets Israel’s founding documents so as to corroborate the Christian divine-savior myth—a psycho-religious system according to which humans attain personal otherworldly salvation through the sacrificial death of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.

The latter model, on the other hand, views these same writings as the manifesto of ancient Israel’s great-nation myth—a political-religious hope according to which God works in history to subjugate the pagan nations to the “great nation” once pledged to the Patriarchs.

As we compare these two Pentateuchs notice how each frames the fundamental problem with the world. For the Christological approach, that problem is personal sin and its fatal consequences for the individual—a problem solved by faith in Christ’s atoning death. For the political approach, however, that problem is pagan political power and its consequences for the nation of Israel and thus for the reputation of Israel’s God—a problem solved by Israel’s piety in conjunction with God’s integrity vis-à-vis a promised Israelite empire.

The one interpretive model, I would argue, scours Israel’s Torah so as to substantiate an alien doctrine of transcendent salvation; the other lays hold of the Pentateuch for what it is: Israel’s imperial constitution.

The Divine Savior myth

God’s futile covenant with a feeble Israel cries out for a savior to undo the effects of Adam’s fall.

The Great Nation myth

The peoples of the earth will come to honor God when they see the blessings he has bestowed upon Israel.

Genesis

Chs 1-3: Sin and death infect God’s good world through an act of human disobedience inspired by the Devil. God promises to one day send a serpent-crushing-savior to deliver sinful humanity from its newfound corruption.

Chs 4-11: A few righteous souls notwithstanding, humans become increasingly violent and arrogant before God and neighbor. The need for a savior deepens.

Chs 12-50: In accordance with Abram’s faith, and despite the failings of his family, God promises to raise up the savior of mankind from among his descendants.

Chs 1-12: The creator God suppresses his troublesome human creatures and frustrates their presumptuous city-building but preserves two God-fearing patriarchs from his wrath (Noah & Abram).

Chs 12-50: In the shadow of godless Babel, God promises to make Abram’s offspring into a great and mighty nation, one that will bear God’s reputation and broker God’s favor among all the tribes of the earth. Despite various setbacks, Abram’s family grows and prospers in accordance with the promise.

Exodus

God rescues Israel from physical slavery in Egypt and in so doing foreshadows the salvation from spiritual slavery that will be accomplished by the true Passover Lamb.

Israel becomes enslaved in Egypt but God remembers the promises he made to their fathers. With an outstretched arm this arcane deity humiliates the pagan empire, terrifies the surrounding peoples, and readies his people for theocratic nation-building in the land of the promise.

Leviticus

God gives Israel a complex and bloody sacrificial system so that they might make continual restitution for their sins until the true Scapegoat arrives to take away sin once and for all.

God’s life-giving presence in the Promised Land—manifested chiefly in fertility and strength—will depend upon Israel’s commitment to a distinctive cultic code over against pagan practices.

Numbers

Israel sins and is punished in the wilderness but God gives them glimpses of the coming savior. Bread from heaven, a brazen serpent, and Balaam’s oracles bear witness to the eternal salvation that is to come.

The generation brought out of Egypt proves unworthy of possessing the land and its dominion. God allows the succeeding generation to inherit Canaan in their parents’ place in order to confirm his promises and safeguard his incipient international fame.

Deuteronomy

God’s Law stands as a perpetual reminder of sin’s dominion over the human heart. Yet a prophet like Moses—the long-awaited savior—will one day inaugurate a new and better covenant.

Israel’s exclusive fidelity to God as mediated by a single lawbook and a single cultic site will promote the nation’s political supremacy over the pagans and stave off disasters such as famine and exile.

7 thoughts on “A tale of two Pentateuchs: Christian appropriation of Israel’s imperial constitution

  1. Did this scouring of the Pentateuch to substantiate a doctrine begin with the Christians or do we see this in the Prophets with the introduction of messianic expectations?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Messianic expectation in the Prophets emerges from two sources I believe. 1) The Pentateuchal hope for a Judahite king who will definitively manifest the Great Nation myth, and 2) the recognition that Israel and her leaders have continually failed to uphold the covenant and thus failed to bring the Great Nation to fruition.

      In this Prophetic context the Messiah-myth still serves the historical-political Great Nation myth—the Messiah comes to establish an Israelite empire—but the Messiah does this, at least in part, by enabling Israel to uphold their Law. The Messiah provides the spiritual tools (e.g. Law on hearts, forgiveness, God’s presence, spirit-power) necessary to materialize the physical kingdom.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.