Lesson 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus

The Bible contains the word of God. God is the primary author who used human beings like Moses and Matthew as his instruments. So we believe that the Bible is inspired which means that it has a divine origin. The purpose of this course on the OT is to learn what is in the OT, not just the stories and the history but also the theology. So our main goal in this course is to discover the meaning of each book and the main ideas that run through the whole OT such as God's love for his creation, sin and covenant. Accordingly, we will use the synchronic approach, rather than the diachronic, that is, we will study each book and try to find the meaning of it. We will leave source criticism to further study (see "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," Origins, Vol. 23, No. 29, Jan. 6, 1994).

The same document offers us a useful definition of the Bible in one sentence. It says: "The Bible is a text inspired by God which has been entrusted to the Church for the nourishment of faith and for the guidance of Christian life" (Ibid., III, D, 1). Thus, God's revelation is directed both to our minds and to our wills.

The first five books of the Bible are called the "Pentateuch," which is a Greek word meaning five books. It is also called the Torah or the Book of Moses. Here we find the historical and theological foundation of all the other books of the Bible. According to tradition, Moses was the author of the first five books. So the basic material comes from Moses, but subsequent editing added some new material.

The basic outline of the Pentateuch is as follows. God creates the world and everything in it from nothing; he gives special attention to Adam and Eve who are disobedient and fall into sin (Gen. 1:1-11); in order to remedy the fall, God chooses Abraham and his descendants (Israel) as a faithful people who will be a light to all other nations (Gen. 12-50); through suffering in Egypt and deliverance from bondage, under the inspired leadership of Moses (Exodus), they learn the lesson of God's goodness and eventually become God's holy people united to him by an everlasting covenant (Exod. 19-24; Leviticus; and Numbers 1-10); then God will lead them into the Promised land (Num. 10-36); but there is a condition--they will have peace and permanent possession of the land if they are obedient to the Torah and worship only the Lord God (Deuteronomy).

The events related really happened, but the story is told from theological perspective. We are not dealing here with modern scientific history. This is "salvation history" because it has to do with God himself in his inner nature and his relations to the world and to mankind.

Briefly, what we find in the Pentateuch is: creation, sin, choice of a people (Abraham), giving a covenant (Moses), a law to be obeyed (Torah), and divine guidance through the wilderness to the Promised Land (Israel).

As believing Christians of the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, we should realize that everything in the OT refers to Christ and his Church in one way or another. As Augustine said, the NT is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in he New

Genesis (50 chapters)

Genesis means origin or beginning. The first book of the Bible tells us how the Lord God, who is wholly transcendent and not a part of the world, created the universe and everything in it from nothing. It describes how God out of sheer goodness and love created the first man and woman, how they rebelled or sinned against him, and how they were punished by being expelled from Paradise. Their sin has immense consequences for themselves and their children, as we see when Cain murders his brother Abel. Most of their children are drowned in the great flood, but God saves Noah and his family. One of his descendants is Abraham whom God chooses to be the father of a great family or people; God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises to make him the father of many nations. This is realized in Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons who go down to Egypt in order to find food and protection.

In chapters 12 to 50 we find the history of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--and the 12 sons of Jacob. They are important in the Bible because from them the whole house of Israel is descended. God's solemn promise to Abraham is a theme that runs through the whole Bible and all of revelation. The final fulfillment will come at the Second Coming of Christ on the Last Day.

Abraham is distinguished for his obedience to God and for his absolute faith in the promises of God to him. He was even willing to sacrifice his only son because God asked it of him (ch. 22). Divine Providence is shown in a special way in the fascinating story of Joseph who is sold into slavery by his brothers and taken down to Egypt (chs. 37-50).

Here are the key points to look for in Genesis: the absolute transcendence of God, the destructive power of sin, God's promise to Abraham, the covenant, divine Providence in history. Also one should note that Noah's ark is a symbol of the Church; Christ is the new Adam (see Rom. 5), and Mary is the new Eve.

Exodus (40 chapters)

Exodus deals with the departure of Israel, about 1290 B.C. under Moses, from Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. The two major themes of the book are that Yahweh, the God of Israel, by a series of great miracles liberated them from the slavery of Egypt, and that he made a covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai. A covenant is a contract or agreement between two parties to do certain things that are binding on both. In the background of all this is the self-revelation that God made of himself to Moses in the experience of the burning bush (ch. 3). The name of the God of Israel is Yahweh which means, "I am who am."

Exodus takes up where Genesis left off--in Egypt. About 400 years later they are numerous but slaves of the Egyptians; they long for liberation. God chooses Moses as the one to lead his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land--the present area of Palestine. After ten plagues Pharaoh lets them go; then he has a change of heart and pursues them with his army. By the power of God Moses parts the Red Sea so that the Israelites can pass over in safety; the Egyptians pursue them but Moses commands the waves to close in on the Egyptians and they all drown in the sea. The chosen people are now safe and make their way to Mt. Sinai where Moses seals a covenant with the Lord, who gives him the Ten Commandments. These are God's terms for the covenant; if Israel obeys them she will be blessed and protected; if she violates them, especially the First Commandment, then she will be punished severely.

The giving of the Ten Commandments and the sealing of the covenant are found in Chs. 20:22 - 23:33; this section is called the "Book of the Covenant." Chapters 25-31 give instructions on how to build the sanctuary or "Tent of Meeting" and chapters 35-40 describe the actual building of it; the two sections are very similar. In chapters 32-34 there is the account of Moses on the mountain for 40 days, the idolatry of the people of the golden calf, and Moses' destruction of it.

The idea of election or choice of certain people in salvation history is very evident in Exodus. God chose Israel as his people; he chose Moses to lead them, and his brother Aaron to help him. The ideas of promise and fulfillment are also present. The promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Genesis is now being brought to fulfillment.

Liberation, covenant, and the nature of God as "HE WHO IS" stand out as the main ideas in the second book of the Pentateuch. It should be noted, however, that the liberation of Exodus is not political; it is religious. Yahweh brings his people out of Egypt to get away from the false worship of the Egyptians; he leads them out into the wilderness where they can offer him the true worship that he deserves.

Leviticus (27 chapters)

Leviticus is the main liturgical book of the OT. It gives detailed directions for divine worship as well as regulations for priests and for national and personal holiness. The overall theme of the book is summarized in the admonition from the Lord: BE HOLY BECAUSE I AM HOLY (19:2).

The last verses of Exodus describe the descent of the Glory of the Lord on the Tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-38). Man must bow down in worship when he encounters the revelation of God's glory. So it makes sense that the directives on how to worship God correctly should follow right after Exodus. The book describes the different kinds of sacrifices: holocaust, sin offering, guilt offering, peace offering.

Here we find the rules for the consecration of levitical priests (chs. 8-10); the laws of purity--what is clean and unclean (chs. 11-15); rules for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (ch. 16).

The Holiness Code (chs. 17-26) spells out many rules for the people to observe so that they may remain in ritual purity. "Holiness" has the meaning of otherness, distinctiveness, and separation from all that is ordinary and profane. The last chapter deals with the laws governing release from vows.

The sacrifices of animals and cereals were intended to be external signs of the inner disposition of the heart. The purpose of all these rules is to produce and maintain a holy people who have a special relationship to the all-holy Lord God. The liturgical laws of Leviticus were provisional for the people of Israel until the final revelation that God made of himself in Christ Jesus. The Ten Commandments, however, are universal and so binding then and always on all men; the liturgical laws of Leviticus were abolished by the sacrificial death of Jesus on Calgary--the true Lamb of God.

A knowledge of Leviticus is essential for a proper understanding of the book of Hebrews in the NT where the author describes the High Priesthood of Christ in terms of the tabernacle, Holy of Holies, and blood sacrifices.

Reading Assignment

Carefully read Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. Use an edition that has abundant notes such as The Jerusalem Bible or The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford U. Press).

Read articles on the main persons in these books: Abraham, Joseph, Moses; and articles on the key ideas: creation, sin, promise-fulfillment, covenant, Promised Land, holiness, tabernacle. A good source is John McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on one of these topics: creation, sin in the Bible, covenant, holiness. 


Read a good commentary on one of the above books, such as The International Bible Commentary (The Liturgical Press, 1998).


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