October 22, 2020

The Big Picture of the Torah


Abraham and the Angels, Chagall

In our studies of the First Testament this month, we will assume the canonical order of the Hebrew Bible, which differs from the order of the books in the Christian Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible is Tanakh, the three consonants being an acronymn for its three major divisions:








Joshua         Isaiah

Judges         Jeremiah

Samuel        Ezekiel

Kings           The Twelve



Psalms       Ecclesiastes     Nehemiah

Job            Lamentations    Chronicles

Proverbs     Esther

Ruth           Daniel

Canticles     Ezra


Today we start with a consideration of the big picture of the Torah.

(1) The Torah is to be understood as a single book, a “pentateuch” — a five part scroll with an overall unity. The word “Torah” is often translated “Law,” but this gives an inadequate understanding of what the word means and what the book is like. It is not only (or primarily) a book of legal statutes or moral commandments. Torah is better understood as the teaching of a father. The book contains many different genres of literature, including stories, genealogies, poems, sermons, speeches, liturgical rites, songs, as well as collections of laws, statutes, ordinances and commands. Together, these are designed to inculcate wisdom in those who read and absorb its teachings into their lives.

(2) The Torah is primarily a story, not a book of laws. It tells how God dealt with his people from creation to the end of Moses’ life. The sections of law are part of the story. We learn about the laws God gave to Israel under the Sinai Covenant and why he gave them. We learn how Israel was to live while under these laws and examples of how they actually lived. We find specific commentaries about the law and what it could and could not do for them. The Torah is not a book of law in the sense that it is a manual of rules that we are to follow. It is the account of the people of Israel and the laws God gave them.

That does not mean we have nothing to learn from these laws. They reveal the character of God and provide examples from which we may learn. But we do not live “under” this law. These are the rules of the covenant that God gave to Israel under Moses.


Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, Chagall

(3) The Torah is a biography of two main characters from Israel’s history: Abraham and Moses. Most of the material in Genesis is about Abraham and his family, while Exodus-Deuteronomy focuses on the Moses and the Hebrew people.

Abraham, chosen by God to be the founding father of Israel, is portrayed as a model of faith. He was counted righteous before God because he believed God’s promises (Gen. 15:6). Even though he lived long before the Sinai Covenant, he is described as one who fulfilled the Mosaic Law (Gen. 26:5). God’s ultimate promise was that he would bless the whole world through Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). Though flawed and sinful, Abraham and his family were heirs of the promise by grace through faith.

Unlike Abraham, who lived before the Law, Moses lived under the Law. God raised him up to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where he made them his chosen nation by entering into a a covenant with them. A large part of the Torah is devoted to the time the infant nation spent at Mt. Sinai, where God gave them laws for their life together and their religious practices. Though Moses was a faithful servant of God, he was ultimately prevented from going into the Promised Land because of unbelief (Numbers 20:12).

The Torah thus contrasts the life of faith apart from the Law, which leads to justification and blessing within God’s promise with life under the Law, which leads to unbelief and exile from God’s place of rest and blessing.

(4) The Torah is a book shaped to encourage eschatological hope in God’s coming Kingdom. One of the best insights I ever received about the Torah came from Dr. John Sailhamer, who examined the literary patterns in the Pentateuch and found the following.

In the early chapters of Genesis, the author establishes a literary pattern:

  • Stories are told in narrative prose.
  • And the end of the stories, there is a poetic speech.
  • The speech is followed by an epilogue.

So, for example in Genesis 1-2:

  • 1:1-2:22 — stories of creation
  • 2:23 — poetic speech by author
  • 2:24-25 — epilogue

And, in Genesis 3:

  • 3:1-13 — stories of temptation and sin
  • 3:14-19 — poetic speech by God
  • 3:20-24 — epilogue

And, in Genesis 4:

  • 4:1-22 — stories of Cain and Abel
  • 4:23-24 — poetic speech by Lamech
  • 4:25-26 — epilogue

Having noted this pattern, Sailhamer than stepped back and looked at the Torah as a whole and discovered the same literary style at work in the larger structures of the work.

  • Genesis 1-48: stories from creation to Jacob’s family
  • Genesis 49: poetic speech by Jacob
  • Genesis 50: epilogue
  • Exodus-Numbers 22: stories from Mt. Sinai and wilderness
  • Numbers 23-24: poetic speeches by Balaam
  • Numbers 25: epilogue
  • Numbers 26-Deuteronomy 31: stories and sermons from the plains of Moab
  • Deuteronomy 32-33: poetic speeches by Moses
  • Deuteronomy 34: epilogue

What Sailhamer discovered when he looked at this more closely is that each poetic speech in the larger structure of the Torah is a significant eschatological passage.


The Candlestick, Chagall

Each poetic speech is a summarizing “blessing” passage in the Torah at the end of an important era.

  • Gen. 49 — Israel’s (Jacob’s) blessings on his twelve sons (end of patriarchal stories)
  • Num. 23-24 — Balaam’s blessings of Israel (end of wilderness journeys)
  • Deut. 32-33 — Moses’ song and blessing of Israel (end of Moses’ life)

Each poetic speech is given by a main character who calls an audience together and proclaims what will happen in “the last days.”

  • Gen. 49:1 — Jacob tells what will come to pass in the last days
  • Num. 24:14 — Balaam tells what will become of Israel in the last days
  • Deut. 31:28-29 — Moses tells what will happen after his death, in the last days

Each poetic speech contains a promise about the coming Messiah (King):

  • Gen. 49:10 — Shiloh, the coming ruler, the lion from the tribe of Judah
  • Num. 23-24 — The royal Star that will rise from Jacob
  • Deut. 32:43 — The one who atones for sin and brings joy to the nations (see Romans 15:10)

By shaping the Torah in this fashion, the editors of its final form transformed it from a book of history into a book of eschatology. It is more focused on the future than the past. Though it contains many stories from the past, they serve as pointers to future events. The past events, in fact, foreshadow the future.

The exiled people of Israel who first received the Torah in this final form were meant to take hope from this book that illustrates the failure of the Law, the blessings of faith, and the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom.


  1. Interesting Chaplin Mike! 😀

  2. Another Mary says

    Thank you for that study outline. I wil be using in my morning devotions. I am always so encouraged when reminded that this timeless faith is ultimately hopeful. More so now it seems, when so much seems hopeless and dark.

  3. There are parts of the Torah that seem to portray the law as a good and gracious gift from God to the people he had graciously chosen and rescued, and I believe contemporary scholarship says this is essentially how second-temple Jews viewed the law. How does this fit into the law-Gospel division? I’ve

    • As Paul affirms in Roman, God’s Law is holy, righteous, and good. The problem with the Law is the people to whom it is given. We prove ourselves incapable of keeping it time and time again. This is the point of Romans 7.

  4. The beginning of Deuteronomy 30 is probably a good explanation. Actually the last few chapters of Deuteronomy, including the Song of Moses, provide a pretty good overview of where this is going.
    I am working with a Bible Study group studying the Pentateuch. Given the outline Chaplain Mike has provided (from Sailhamer) , we marked our Bibles with the 3 main “latter days” statements and highlighted the poetic sections. Then we went through, as quickly as we were each able, and read the whole Pentateuch. Then we read the poetic sections again, looked for themes. Themes we found were faith, covenant, law, promise, blessing. We picked through the poetic sections for a couple of weeks, analyzing them. Then we read it all through again. Long process but very fruitful.
    There’s so much more, it’s really amazing!

  5. For what it’s worth, I m doing a similar study on my blog over at Reboot Christianity to start the year. My organizational structure is slightly different but I look forward to learning from this as we go through it together!