Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox church
The first five books of the Bible, generally referred to as the Pentateuch (from the Greek word pente, “five,” and teuchos, “a tool” or “implement”), were written by the Prophet Moses during the forty years journey through the Sinai desert. Originally these books constituted a single collection of God’s revelations and were designated as the “Torah” which means “the Law” in Hebrew (Josh. 1:7). Sometimes these books were also called the “Books of Moses” (1 Ezra 6:18), “the Book of the Law” (Gal. 3:10); “the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:22) or “the Law of the Lord” (Luke 2:23, 10:26; Matt. 5:17).
The word “book” in reference to them should not be understood in its modern sense, for several different writing materials were used by Old Testament scribes, including papyrus and leather scrolls or sheets, pieces of broken pottery, clay tablets, and stone. The term “book” rather indicates that its content was in a written form as opposed to the oral tradition. The combination of divine authorship and human transmission gave the Law its supreme authority and made it The Book for the ancient Hebrews.
Because the books of Pentateuch were the first ever written, originally they had no unique titles like all subsequent books of the Bible. To distinguish in The Low one book from another the ancient Jews referred to them by their opening words of each of them, for example: “in the beginning,” “these are the names,” etc.. It was much later that each book of Pentateuch received its title in concordance with its context: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Apparently this naming convention appeared first in the Septuagint — a third‑century BC Greek translation of Old Testament, and also in the Samaritan Pentateuch, which is even earlier. This convention was retained ever since.
The Penteteuchal account of the creation of the world and man stands unique in all ancient literature. All non-biblical creation legends by their polytheistic crudity stand in striking contrast to the majestic account documented in Gen. 1:1‑2:3. The unifying principle of the universe in one omnipresent and omniscient God is revealed through inspiration in the majestic Genesis account. Ancient Mesopotamian writers blindly groped after this principle. The Pentateuch is all the more striking against the background of a world grossly ignorant of the first principles of causation. The discovery of secondary causes and the explanation of the how of creation in its ongoing operation is the achievement of science. Revelation alone can sense the “why” of creation. The Bible alone discloses that the universe exists because God made it and has a definite redemptive purpose in it. Regarding its account of creation as outlined in Gen. 1, the sequence of phases of creation that it lists is amazing in that it is in basic agreement with what the modern science has discovered — several millennia after the writing down of the Genesis account (see in the appendix “the Days of creation”).
In its account of the Flood the Pentateuch is also incomparably superior to the crudities and inconsistencies of the polytheistic account preserved in the eleventh book of the Assyro‑Babylonian classic The Epic of Gilgamesh. See in the appendix some thoughts on this topic.
The Pentateuch also records the most ancient history of humanity with particular attention to the development of the Hebrew people. Israel was not formed in a vacuum, but amid the age old civilization of Mesopotamia and the Nile. God providentially lead the Hebrews into Egypt, then prepared them for their high calling — to be the people of God, the prototype of Christ’s Church. The crying out of oppressed Israelites in Egypt provoked a striking intervention of God. God revealed himself to Moses as a savior, and the epic story of deliverance was recorded in the book of Exodus. This book also tells of the Sinai covenant, which is rightfully regarded as the key to the Old Testament. Through the covenant Israel becomes God's people, and God becomes Israel's Lord. This act marked the fulfillment of the first promise that Abraham will become the father of a great nation. Thus the sacred history was formed within the bosom of early Israel, guided by the spirit of God. It was sung beside the desert campfires, it was commemorated in the liturgical feasts, such as Passover, and it was transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation.
The activity of God is revealed with a great emphasis throughout the Pentateuch, and tells a great deal about His nature and His purposes for mankind. Because of this, the Pentateuch is not just a historical book. It is rather an account of creation and redemption. It has an all‑pervading purpose to include only such historical background as is essential for introducing and preparing the stage for the Redeemer. In other words, the Pentateuch is much more than history. It is history wedded to prophecy, a Messiah‑centered history combining with a Messiah‑centered prophecy. To consummate the redemptive plan it initiates, it has been called the philosophy of Israel's history.
In such a character, the Pentateuch catalogs the events concerning the origin of the Israelite people and many other nations. Archaeology has shed abundant light on many accounts of the Pentateuch. Babylonian cuneiform tablets illustrate the creation and particularly the Flood, yielding amazing parallels of detail. The longevity of the patriarchs is illustrated by the Sumerian king list. The Table of the Nations (Gen. 10) is shown by archaeological discoveries to be an amazing document. The patriarchal age is set in the framework of authentic history and the Egyptian sojourn, the Exodus, and the conquest are now much better understood as the result of the triumphs of scientific archaeology since 1800.
The Pentateuch is of great religious, historical, and cosmic importance. It is the foundation of all subsequent divine revelation. Both Christianity and Judaism rest on its inspired revelations. The primary names of Deity — Jehovah, Elohim, and Adonai — and five of the most important compound names occur in the opening book of the Pentateuch. Its content initiates the program of progressive self‑revelation of God culminating in the Messiah-Christ Who is at the center of all subsequent revelations.
Next a brief description of the content of each book of Pentateuch follows.
In the Holy Scripture, the first Book of Moses is called by its first word Bereshit which means “in the beginning.” The Greek name for this book — “genesis” points to its context: an account of the creation of the world, the first people and the first communities in patriarchal times. As was already stated, the description of the creation of the world follows a religious and not a scientific aim, specifically: to show that God is the primary Designer and Cause of all being. The earth and all that fills it did not originate haphazardly, but through the will of the Creator. Man is not just an animal, for he holds within himself the breath of God — an immortal soul, made in the likeness of God. Man was created for the highest aspirations — to perfect himself through virtuosity.
The devil is sinfully responsible for the fall of mankind and is the fountainhead of evil in the world. God constantly concerns Himself with the salvation mankind and directs it toward good. Here in a few words is that religious perspective with which the Book of Genesis describes the emanation of the world, mankind and ensuing events.
The Book of Genesis was written with the purpose of giving mankind a concept of the world and of mankind’s history, after traditions began to be forgotten, and to preserve in purity the first prophesies regarding the Messiah, the Divine Savior of mankind.
At a finer level of detail the content of Genesis can be subdivided as follows. It begins with an account of how the universe came into existence (1:1-2:14), creation of Adam, placing him in a special “garden,” Paradise, located to the East of Eden and the story of Eve (2:15-25) and their sin (3:1-13), the consequences of their sin, as well as the promise of the Savior given to Eve (3:14-24).
In the second section, (4-11) descendants of Adam are described — the crime of Cain and his impious descendants (chapter 4), preserving of faith through the longevity of the OT patriarchs (chapter 5), increased impiety and sinfulness and selection of Noa in order to preserve faith (chapter 6), disastrous flood and its subsiding, the sacrifice of Noa (ch. 7-8). Resumption of God’s promises after the Flood, and Noa’s prophecy about his children (chapter 9), nations spread across the Near East after the Flood and the separation of the tongues, the descendants of Shem are listed (chapters 10 and 11).
In the third section, that takes the final 39 chapters of Genesis, Abraham becomes prominent after obeying God's call (12:1-25:20), promises and covenants with him are also found here. Thereafter the narratives continue with Isaac and promises to him (25:20-28:1-9), and Jacob (28:10-38:30), the story of Joseph's life (chapters 39-47). This section concludes with the prophetic blessing of the sons of Joseph by Jacob (chapter 48), blessing of Jacob given to his own sons (chapter 19, this chapter also contains an account of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha, primarily for the sin of sodomy (homosexuality), death and burial of Jacob, Joseph’s faith in eventual return of the people of God into the promised land (chapter 50).
This book was originally called by its opening words “elle-shemot” which in Hebrew means “These are the names...” because it begins with the list of names of the descendents of Jacob who migrated to Egypt in the times of Joseph. The Greek name, Exodus, indicates the book’s contents: the exodus of the sons of Israel from Egypt.
The book relates how the sons of Jacob, a small tribe of wondering shepherds, became a God chosen nation. The covenant was central to this event. It bound God and Israel in an agreement by which God undertook to provide for all His people's material needs, including a land in which to live, if they would worship Him alone as the one true God and live as a holy community. Central to the rules of the covenant were the Ten Commandments, which are still fundamental to any relationship with God. The tabernacle was a portable temple of worship which was placed in the center of Israel's wilderness encampment, symbolizing God's presence in their midst. The religious and moral laws listed in the Book of Exodus did not lose their importance until this day, in fact, in His sermon of the Mount, Lord Jesus Christ has taught the deeper level of their understanding. In contrast, the civil laws and religious rites given to Hebrews and listed in the book of Exodus have lost their importance and were revoked by the Holy Apostles in the council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15).
This book deals with the miracle of Israel's deliverance from Egypt and with God's covenant relationship with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Exodus can be subdivided into two main sections, historical and that of the giving of the Law. Preliminaries to the departure from Egypt (Ex. 1:l-4:28), where the providential acts of the Lord in the life of Moses, chosen by God for the deliverance of His people are listed, followed by the circumstances leading up to the Exodus, including the ten plagues of Egypt and the celebrating of the first Passover (4:29-12:39). The deliverance from Egypt and the subsequent journey to Sinai (chapters 12-18) precede the giving of the Law of God through Moses, where chapter 19 describes the circumstances of the giving of the Law, and consecutive chapters contain the codex of the moral and civil laws, sealed by Hebrews entering into covenant with God (chapters 20-24). Next follow the laws related to church services and priesthood (chapters 25-31), transgression of the Law in intervals of idolatry (chapters 32-33). A renewal of the covenant relationship (chapter 34) is followed by narratives describing the construction of the tabernacle and implementation of the Lord’s directions by Moses (chapters 35-40).
It is instructive to put the accounts of Exodus in a historical perspective. Joseph was sold to Egypt by his brothers during the reign of the Hyksos, a Semitic tribe known as shepherd kings (some 2000 years BC). At that time Egypt was highly prosperous and mighty. The Pharaoh was most likely Amenemhet IV. He elevated Joseph in rank when he saved the Egyptians from famine and bestowed great blessings on him and his family. However, the ethnic Egyptian nobles united in Thebes and slowly drove out the Hyksos. Afterward there entered the 18th dynasty of the Pharaoh Amasis 1st (Ahmose I) The new rulers changed their relations toward the Jews. There began persecutions which turned to oppressive slavery. The new Pharaohs while working the Jews as slaves and forcing them to build cities, were at the same time concerned that the Jews would unite with outlying nomadic tribes and seize dominion in Egypt. The exodus of Jews from Egypt falls sometime in the mid 15th century BC. At that time the Pharaoh most probably was Thutmose I. The book First Kings 6:1 states that Solomon began building the temple “in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt.” Solomon is thought to have begun construction about 960 BC, a fact that also places the time of Exodus to the midst of the 15th century BC.
The Greek name of this book indicates that it contains the codex of rules, related to the service of the descendants of Levi (one of Jacob’s sons) in the Old Testament temple. These priests were responsible for teaching the Law to the people, conducting sacrificial worship in the tabernacle according to the directions given by God, and ordering the life of the community. Because Israel was meant to live as a holy people (Ex. 19:6), Leviticus contained regulations for both the spiritual and material aspects of life. These rules can be divided into the following sections: sacrificial laws (Leviticus 1-7); laws governing ordination (Leviticus 8-10); laws about impurities (Leviticus 11-16); laws about holiness (Leviticus 17-26); and rules governing vows (Leviticus 27).
All this material was divinely revealed to the nation of Israel directly from God. No part of it has been adopted from any other nation. The Year of Jubilee legislation (Lev. 25:8‑17) is unique in the Near East. Leviticus continues the narrative of Exodus, but it emphasizes the way in which God is to be worshipped and the manner in which His people are to live. Holiness must govern the community (Lev. 11:44); and this must be reflected by everyone, not just the priesthood.
This book follows the lead given by Leviticus in emphasizing the holiness of Israel. All the various elements that make up the book bear upon this important concept. The book can be divided into three broad sections: the departure from Sinai (1:1-10:11); the journey to Kadesh (10:11-20:21) and the journey from Kadesh to Moab (20:22-36:13). The holiness of the tabernacle is central, as is the important place that the Levites occupied (8:5‑26) in relation to the Aaronic priesthood. The description of the wilderness wanderings shows how quickly divine blessing could turn to severe judgment whenever God's commandments were broken.
This book contains a lot of laws, in part new, in part the same as already listed in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. These laws have lost their meaning in the New Testament times. As Apostle Paul wrote to Hebrews, the Old Testament sacrifices were the prototype for the redemptive sacrifice of our Lord and Savior at Calvary. The prophet Isaia wrote about this with much greater emphasis in the 54th chapter of his book. The priestly dresses, altars, candlestick and other ordinances of the OT temple worship were made by Moses after the examples directly revealed by God on Mt. Sinai, and are still used in modified form, in our church services.
The disobedience and idolatry of the Israelites is a sad theme in Numbers. Once even Moses was not totally obedient to God. Although he brought Israel to Moab and within sight of the Promised Land, he was not privileged to lead the nation across the Jordan River. The book ends with the nation looking forward to the settlement of Canaan.
The Greek name for this book indicates that it summarizes the laws given earlier, sometimes providing more details. This book may be described as a covenant‑renewal document that begins with a review of Israel's departure from Sinai (1:1-4:40); describes the religious foundation of the nation (4:44-26:19), reestablishes the covenant (chapters 27-30), and narrates the final days of Moses (chapters 31-34). In Deuteronomy Moses looks back upon God's blessing and provision while looking forward to the time when Israel will occupy the Promised Land.
The language of the book is noble oratory that glorifies the righteous and faithful God of Sinai and encourages the response of His people in obedience and faithfulness. The God revealed in Moses' addresses is not only the Judge of all the earth, but also the loving Father of mankind. Israel is reminded that the privileges of covenant relationship with Him also carry responsibilities. Moses predicts a dark future for the nation if it does not follow the covenant principles and remain faithful to God.
However, whatever similarities of detail there might have been with other ancient codes, the Law of Moses has nothing in common with them in its religious values. Indeed, the central message is the monotheism which the Hebrew people were the first to expound — the worship of one single, invisible and just God, and the rejection of every form of idolatry which was so prevailing among pagans. The first and most in most important of the Ten commandments was: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3).
Because at the time of Moses the tribes of Israel were forming into a nation the Mosaic Code goes far beyond religious observance. It deals with political, social and family affairs in a progressive spirit well in advance of its period. For example: there must be no arbitrary exercise of power; even a king must fear God and obey the law, “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).
Justice must be impartially administered, for rich and poor alike: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and subverts the cause of the righteous” (Deut. 16:18‑19).
Special protection is extended to the needy and the under‑privileged, to fugitive slaves, debtors, hired servants, orphans, widows and foreigners. Women must be respected, and a slander against the chastity of a wife is a crime. Even the ox may not be muzzled while it is treading the grain on the threshing floor, and the mother‑bird must be spared if eggs are collected from her nest. There must be fair practices in commerce — “a full and just weight you shall have, a full and just measure you shall have” (Deut. 25:15). Men shall be exempted from military service if they have recently built a house, planted a vineyard or betrothed a wife, or are faint‑hearted. Always, in his dealings with others, the Hebrew must say to himself: “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
For century after century, the Jewish rabbis and sages discussed and refined the Laws of Moses. Their commentaries were gathered together in the huge tomes of the Talmud, which a learned man might study all his life without exhausting them. In this fashion was shaped the distinctive outlook and way of life which the Jewish people carried with them to all the countries of their dispersion. Through Christianity, the Law of Moses profoundly influenced the civilization of the Western world.
A note regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch. Jesus Christ names Moses as the author of Pentateuch: “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46, Mark 12:26; John 7:23). The Pentateuch itself depicts Moses as having written extensively (see Ex. 17:14, 24:4, 34:27, Num. 33:2, Deut. 31:24). Acts 7:22 tells us that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” In the notes accompanying the text we observe a number of loan-words from Egyptian that are found in Genesis, a fact which suggests that the original author had his roots in Egypt, as did Moses. Deuteronomy identifies the book's content with Moses: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel” (1:1). “Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests” (31:9) may well refer to his writing of the entire book as well. “Moses” name appears nearly forty times in the volume, and the book clearly reflects Moses’ personality. The first person pronoun used freely throughout its pages further supports Mosaic authorship. Both Jewish and Samaritan tradition are unanimous in identifying Moses as the author. In the post‑exilic writings the Law, or Torah, was often attributed directly to Moses (Neh. 8:1; 2 Chr. 25:4; 35:12). Also Apostles Peter and Stephen Christ acknowledges Moses as the author of the book's content (Matt. 19:7; Mark 10:3‑4; Acts 3:22; 7:37).
The Pentateuch contains several important Messianic prophecies: About the “Seed of the woman,” Who will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15); about the descendant of Abraham, in Whom all the nations will be blessed (Gen. 22:16-18); about the coming of Messiah in times, when the tribe of Judas will fall from power (Gen. 49:10); on the Messiah, in the image of the Rising Star (Num. 24:17); and about Messiah, as the greatest Prophet (Deut. 18:15-19).
Jesus Christ, scorning the unbelieving Jews, remind them of these prophesies: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me” (John: 5:46). Here these prophecies are listed together with references of their fulfillment.
The Messiah shall be
born of a Woman
Genesis 3:15 And I [the Lord] will put enmity between thee [Devil] and the Woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Explanation: In this first prophecy about the Messiah the Lord promises that the Descendant of the Woman (Virgin Mary) will crush the Devil, although in doing so He will suffer physically. The prophecy was fulfilled when He died on the Cross.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 3:15 (ancient rabbinic literature): “And it shall be that when the sons of the woman study the Torah [the books of Moses] diligently and obey its injunctions, they will direct themselves to smite you [the serpent] on the head and slay you; but when the sons of the woman forsake the commandments of the Torah and do not obey its injunctions, you will direct yourself to bite them on the heel and afflict them. However, there will be a remedy for the sons of the woman, but for you, serpent, there will be no remedy. They shall make peace with one another in the end, in the very end of days, in the days of the King Messiah.”
Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.
1 John 3:8 For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.
Matthew 8:29 [Seeing Jesus, the demons] cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?
Luke 10:18-19 [Jesus to His disciples:] I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.
Also Romans 16:20.
Revelation 12:11 And they [the faithful] overcame him [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
Son of Abraham
Genesis 22:18 [The Angel to Abraham:] And in thy Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Galatians 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one: And to thy Seed, which is Christ.
The Scepter from Juda
Genesis 49:10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from his loins, until Shiloh comes [He, to Whom it is determined to come]; and He is the expectation of nations. [Septuagint translation]
Explanation: The Jews always had rulers from their own tribe. King Herod, being an Idumean, was the first ruler of foreign descent. Precisely during his reign the Messiah was born, fulfilling the prophecy. “Shiloh” most probably means “Conciliator.” Jesus reconciled us with God.
Romans 9:5 Of whom [Jews] as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever.
Hebrews 7:14 For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.
John 18:31 Then said Pilate unto them [the Jewish authorities, accusing Jesus], Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. [Here the Jewish authorities recognized that they lost the power to administer the death penalty].
He Shall be a prophet
Deuteronomy 18:18-19 [God says to Moses:] I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And whatever man shall not hearken unto My words which that Prophet shall speak in My name, I will take vengeance on him.
Explanation: The postscript, made at the end of the book of Deuteronomy more than 450 years B.C., states that among the many prophets which were sent to the Jews not one was as great and important as Moses. The Jews always expected to see in the coming Messiah their greatest prophet and lawgiver.
Ralbag (Gersonides, ancient rabbinic literature) comments on the above text: “A prophet from the midst of thee. In fact the Messiah is such a Prophet... “
Matthew 21:11 And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.
Luke 7:16 And there came a fear on all, and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.
John 7:40 Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, of a truth this is the Prophet.
Acts 3:20-23 [Deacon Stephen to the Sanhedrim:] God shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you, Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.
The Star out of Jacob
and the light of the world
Numbers 24:17 I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. [i.e. He will destroy all the enemies of God]
Matthew 2:1-2 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Revelation 22:16: I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.
John 8:12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
Acts 13:47-48 For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
Explanation: Jesus is called the “Star” because He guides all to their salvation.
Moses is the most majestic figures in the Old Testament. His role is so central that the Pentateuch is called the Five Books of Moses, and the code of religious laws, the Law of Moses. No one else in the Old Testament had such close relationship with God as he, because “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11). This special place of Moses among the Forefathers is also prominent in the New Testament, for example in the account of Transfiguration of Christ.
The story of Moses’s life opens in Egypt. Patriarch Jacob and his family had settled as a pastoral clan in the land of Goshen in the northeast corner of the Nile delta. Here their descendants lived and prospered for four centuries, till “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8. This was possibly the Pharaoh Thutmose I who ruled in the middle of the 15 century BC (some say that he was Pharaoh Rameses II, in the 13th century BC — the greatest builder in Egyptian history). The Pharaoh decided that the Children of Israel had become too numerous and strong. He turned them into slave laborers, and put them to work under Egyptian taskmasters on the construction of two treasure cities, Pithom and Rameses, “And made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field” (Exod. 1:14). When this did not reduce their numbers, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill every male infant at birth. The midwives evaded this decree on the pretext that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them” (Exod. 1:19). The frustrated ruler then charged his people to throw the male babies into the river, and drown them.
Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses, were of the priestly house of Levi. When the child was born, his mother kept him hidden for three months. She then enclosed him in a basket woven of rushes and sealed with pitch, and concealed him among the reeds at the river's edge.
Pharaoh's daughter came to bathe at this spot and when she saw the basket she sent a maid to fetch it. On opening it, the baby started crying and the princess felt pity for it, realizing that it was one of the Hebrew children her father had ordered killed. Moses's elder sister Miriam had been posted a little distance away to watch. She approached the princess and offered to find a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child. This was agreed, and she ran off to fetch Moses's mother. When he was older, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and gave him the name of Moses, “Because I drew him out of the water” (Exod. 2:10. The Hebrew form, Moshe, means “to draw out”).
The boy grew up at the royal court but remained aware of his Hebrew origin. One day Moses, now a grown man, went off alone to find out what was happening to his kinsmen. He saw an Egyptian overseer flogging an Israelite slave. Thinking himself unobserved, Moses slew the Egyptian and buried his body in the sand. Next day he intervened in a fight between two Israelites and was alarmed when one of them said pointedly: “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exod. 2:14). Report of his deed reached Pharaoh, and he had to flee for his life eastward into the Sinai desert.
Pausing to rest at a well, Moses assisted some young women to water their flocks. When they told their father Jethro (or Reuel, Iothoros) about the helpful stranger at the well, he invited Moses to eat with them. Jethro was the priest of a tribe of desert nomads from Midia. Moses remained with him and married one of his seven daughters, Zipporah. She bore him a son whom he called Gershom, since Moses was a stranger (Heb. ger) in a strange land.
Moving deep into the desert in search of pasture for his father‑in‑law's flocks, Moses came to the mountain of Horeb (or Sinai). He turned aside to examine a strange sight: a bush that was burning without being consumed. God's voice came out of the bush commanding him to halt and remove his shoes, as he was on holy ground. Moses was told that he had been chosen to lead his brethren out of their oppression and bring them to the Promised Land. Moses shrank from this task, saying: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exod. 3:11) To reassure him, the name of the Lord (“Jehovah”) was revealed to Moses, and he was given certain miraculous signs to impress Pharaoh and the Israelites: turning his staff into a snake, making his hand white with leprosy and turning water into blood. Still reluctant, Moses pointed out that “I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exod. 4:10). The Lord became impatient with him, and replied that his brother Aaron could be his spokesman.
Moses took leave of Jethro and set out with his wife, his eldest son Gershom and his newly‑born second son Eliezer.
Aaron came to meet Moses and was told what the Lord required of them. They called together the Israelite elders, and in Moses's presence Aaron conveyed the Lord's message and performed the magic signs. The people were convinced that God was about to liberate them and sank down in worship.
Moses and Aaron then gained an audience with the reigning Pharaoh (probably the successor of the ruler from whom Moses had fled). In the name of the God of Israel they requested him to “Let my people go” (Exod. 5:1). They did not dare suggest that the Israelites would leave the country for good. Instead, they claimed that sacrifices had to be made to their God at a place three days' journey into the wilderness.
Pharaoh bluntly rejected the request. He charged the Israelites with laziness, and issued instructions that they should no longer be supplied with straw for making bricks. They would have to seek their own straw, without lowering their daily output. The people reproached Moses for having added to their hardships, and Moses complained to the Lord that his mission had only done harm. “For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he has done evil to this people, and Thou hast not delivered thy people at all” (Exod. 5:23). The Lord declared that he had hardened Pharaoh's heart in order that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Exod. 7:5).
The whole of Egypt has experienced a series of plagues, except for the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived. As each plague became intolerable Pharaoh agreed to let Moses's people go, but changed his mind when the affliction stopped.
First, Aaron and Moses smote the water of the Nile with the rod and it turned to blood before the eyes of Pharaoh and his court. “And the fish in the Nile died and the Nile became foul, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:21).
When Pharaoh refused to give way, frogs came swarming out of the river and spread everywhere, as Moses had warned Pharaoh they would, crawling “into your house, and into your bedchamber and on your bed, and into the house of your servants and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls” (Exod. 8:3).
The third plague was one of lice which sprang from the dust and infected man and beast alike. There followed swarms of flies; cattle disease; an epidemic of boils; a fierce hailstorm that smashed the trees and flattened the crops; vast clouds of locusts that devoured all growing things; and three days of pitch darkness.
The tenth calamity was the most dreadful of all — the slaying of the first‑born. The Lord commanded Moses and Aaron that on the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, each Israelite family should slaughter a lamb or kid and roast its flesh for a sacrificial meal. “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's Passover” (Exod. 12:11) Blood from the slaughtered animal was to be daubed on the lintel and door posts so that the Lord would recognize and pass over family, and even among the domestic animals. There was grief and panic throughout the country. That same night Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and begged them to leave at once with their people, together with all their herds, flocks and possessions. The Egyptians handed over to them jewels and other valuables to speed their departure.
They set out at once from the city of Rameses that their forced labor had helped to build. In fulfillment of an ancient promise, the remains of Joseph were carried with them for burial in Canaan. “Four hundred and thirty years,” says the Bible (Exod. 12:40), had passed since their ancestor Jacob had first come to live in Egypt. Forty years of wandering lay ahead of them before they would reach their journey's end. Moses was at this time eighty years old and his brother Aaron eighty‑three.
Each year Jews commemorate the Exodus in the seven‑day spring festival of Passover, as enjoined in Exod. 12. They eat “matzoth” (flat cakes of unleavened bread) to recall the haste with which their ancestors departed. At the “Seder” or ceremonial meal, bitter herbs are the symbol of the bondage in Egypt, and a roasted shank‑bone represents the paschal lamb eaten that fateful night.
The great highway from Egypt to Canaan and beyond lay along the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai desert. From the edge of the Nile delta to Gaza it was but a week's march for armies or trading caravans. But that direct and well‑traveled route was the most dangerous for the Israelites; and the coastal plain of Canaan to which it led was held by hostile inhabitants. A mob of runaway slaves would not have been able to fight its way through to the Promised Land. So Moses turned away from the coastal road “lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17). Instead, they headed southeast, towards the open desert.
The first halt was at Succoth, thirty‑two miles from the city of Rameses, and the next at Etham on the edge of the desert. They were trying to move as fast as they could, fearing that Pharaoh would pursue them. “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and night” (Exod. 13:21).
Their haste was warranted. Pharaoh's courtiers said to him, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” (Exod. 14:5) He set out in pursuit with a mobile force that included six hundred chariots. When the Israelites saw them coming, they trembled with fear and cried out to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod. 14:11) They were at this time at the edge of the Reed Sea (incorrectly translated into English as the “Red Sea'). Nothing but a miracle could save them. At the Lord's behest, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and a strong east wind pushed the water aside, so that the Children of Israel were able to cross dry‑shod to the other side. Dashing after them, Pharaoh's chariots were engulfed for “the waters returned” (Exod. 14:28), and men and horses were drowned. (This may have happened in the area of the Bitter Lakes, through which the Suez Canal now passes.). When the Israelites “saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore” (Exod. 14:31), they sang a song of thankfulness to the Lord, while Moses's sister Miriam played on a timbre (tambourine) and led the women in dance.
The elation of their new‑found freedom was short-lived. They now entered the wilderness of Shur in the Sinai peninsula — a wasteland of sand and gravel, intersected with limestone ridges and dry watercourses, in the beds of which a little sparse scrub could be found for the flocks. The sun scorched them by day and the cold was sharp at night.
The chief problem was water. After trekking for three days, they reached a spring of brackish water at Marah (which means “bitter”). Moses threw a certain bush into the water which made it drinkable. A day's march further on they were able to camp in the oasis of Elim, “where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees” (Exod. 15:27). Soon they ran out of food and railed at Moses and Aaron for taking them away from the “flesh pots” (Exod. 16:3) of Egypt. The Lord would come to the rescue, Moses promised, and would provide “in the evening flesh to eat and in the morning bread to the full” (Exod. 16:8). Flocks of migrating quails sank down to rest among the scrub at night and could easily be snared (as the desert Arabs do today).
In the early morning, when the dew vanished, the ground was strewn with manna, and “it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exod. 16:31). Moses told them the manna was bread from the Lord. They were to gather and prepare just enough to satisfy their hunger, for what was not eaten would go bad in the heat of the day. On the sixth day a double portion could be gathered, and would remain fresh over the Sabbath. (It has been suggested that the manna may have been the resin‑like substance that is exuded by the tamarisk trees in the desert, and drops on the ground when dry.).
The Israelites moved deeper into the southern part of the Sinai desert and came to Rephidim. Once more they were without water, and complained loudly. Moses was told by the Lord to gather the elders together and in their presence smite a rock. He did so and fresh water gushed out. Moses called the place “Massah and Meribah” (meaning “testing and contention,” Exod. 17:7).
They now faced a human threat, being attacked by a party of Amalekites, fierce desert raiders. The Israelites were not yet organized or trained to fight. Moses sent for Joshua the son of Nun, a young Ephraimite, and told him to select and lead a group of Israelite defenders. Moses himself climbed to the top of a hill together with Aaron and Hur (traditionally Moses's brother‑in‑law); and from here they witnessed the battle. While Moses held up his hands with the sacred rod, the Israelites gained, but they were pushed back when his arms dropped from weariness. His two companions seated him on a stone and, standing on either side of him, held his arms raised in the air until nightfall, when the battle was won and the Amalekites routed. Moses built an altar to the Lord.
In the third month after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the wild and rugged terrain of the wilderness of Sinai. In its center a cluster of gaunt granite peaks of a dark‑red color rose to a height of eight thousand feet, with deep canyons around them. The Israelites camped on the open ground before a peak called Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb. It was here that Moses had heard the voice of the Lord from the burning bush many years before. Jethro now came to see Moses, bringing Zipporah and their two sons, who had been on a visit to her family. Moses welcomed the old man warmly, and they sat for a long time in the tent talking about all the wondrous things that had happened since Moses had gone back to Egypt. The Midianite priest exclaimed: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods” (Exod. 18:11). Jethro offered a sacrifice on the Hebrew altar and Moses invited the elders to a feast in his honor.
Jethro was present next day while Moses gave judgment in the disputes and claims brought before him. In the evening Jethro offered his son‑in‑law some sage advice. It was too burdensome for Moses to deal personally with every trivial matter, while scores of people stood around awaiting their turn. Why should Moses not delegate authority to able men, and put each in charge of a fixed number of persons? Moses agreed, and appointed “rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses” (Exod. 18:25-26). Moses charged them to “judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien that is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God's” (Deut. 1:16‑17). Having instigated this system of administration, Jethro took his leave and returned to his own land.
It was timely for Moses to be relieved of routine duties, for the Lord was about to call on him to fulfill a loftier purpose. The stage was set for one of the most awesome moments in human history: the handing down of the Law on Mount Sinai.
God called Moses up to the mountain and instructed him to tell the Children of Israel that if they would keep his covenant “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). They were ordered to wash and purify themselves for two days, and on the third day they gathered before the mountain that was covered with a thick cloud. Out of it came thunder, lightning and the loud blasts of a trumpet. “And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exod. 19:18). Then the voice of God rolled forth, solemnly pronouncing the Ten Commandments:
1. I am the Lord your God … thou shall have no other gods before Me.
2. Thou shall not make for thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shall not bow down to them, nor serve them.
3. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days thou shall labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long upon the earth.
6. Thou shall not kill.
7. Thou shall not commit adultery.
8. Thou shall not steal.
9. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10. Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife; thou shall not covet thy neighbor's house, nor his field … nor anything that is thy neighbor's. (Exod. 20:2‑17).
See in the appendix a commentary on the Second Commandment. Other Commandments are covered in our booklet “The Ten Commandments.”
A number of other laws were then made known to Moses. He built a stone altar with twelve pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and instructed young men to sacrifice oxen on it. Moses read out “the book of the covenant” (Exod. 24:7) and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the people as “the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exod. 24:8).
He then left Aaron and Hur in charge of the encampment and disappeared into the cloud that still covered the mountain. There he remained for forty days and forty nights, communing with the Lord. At the end of that time God gave him “two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18).
Down in the camp, the Israelites had lost faith when Moses failed to reappear. They came in a body to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod. 32:1). Aaron felt obliged to appease them. He asked for all the gold earrings worn by the men and women, melted them down, and molded a golden calf. The people made burnt‑offerings to it, and they sang, feasted and danced naked around it.
On the mountain the Lord told Moses what his “stiff‑necked people” (Exod. 32:9) were doing, and threatened to destroy them. Moses pleaded for them, and the Lord relented. But when Moses came down and saw the spectacle with his own eyes, he was seized with rage and dashed the two stone tablets to the ground, breaking them. Moses threw the golden calf into the fire, ground it up, mixed it with water and made the Israelites swallow it. He upbraided Aaron, who tried to defend himself, saying, “you know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exod. 32:22). Moses felt a drastic purge was needed. He rallied round him the men from the priestly tribe of Levi (to which he and Aaron belonged) and ordered them to put to the sword a large number of the idol‑worshippers.
This painful experience left Moses with a sense of failure, and he asked the Lord to relieve him of the leadership. The reply was that the journey to the Promised Land should continue as before. Moses again ascended the sacred mountain, carrying two stone tablets he had hewed to replace those smashed. Once more he stayed there forty days and nights without food or water. When he returned with “the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exod. 34:28) engraved on the tablets for the second time, Aaron and the Israelites observed that his face shone with such light that “they were afraid to come near him” (Exod. 34:30).
The Lord had given Moses precise instructions for the construction of an Ark of acacia wood covered with gold, and a tabernacle with an open‑air altar. They were to form a portable temple for the Israelites' wandering life.
The Ark containing the tablets of the Law was placed in the Tabernacle, which was consecrated by Moses in the presence of all the people. As long as the pillar of cloud or of fire stood still over the Tabernacle, it was a sign that the Israelites should remain at that spot until the pillar moved forward again.
In the second month of the second year the Children of Israel moved northward from Mount Sinai towards the wilderness of Paran, in the central plateau of the Sinai peninsula. Soon trouble broke out again, this time over the monotonous diet of manna. As refugees are apt to do, they became nostalgic for the land they had fled. Tearfully they asked, “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:4-5).
Moses felt weary of leading the discontented community he had brought out of slavery. He said to the Lord: “I am not able to carry all this people along, the burden is too heavy for me. If thou will deal thus with me, kill me at once” (Num. 11:14-15) At this cry of distress, the Lord saw that Moses needed help in carrying the burden. He had Moses summon seventy elders to the Tabernacle, and inspired them, so that they would serve as a council to share responsibility with him. As for the people's demand for flesh, the Lord taught them a lesson. Huge flocks of quail were blown inland from the sea and piled up all round the camp. For two days the Israelites gorged themselves on the meat of the birds until they fell violently ill and a number of them died.
At their next camping place Aaron and Miriam started speaking against Moses, of whom they had become jealous. The Lord was angry at this attack, and Miriam was stricken with leprosy. Moses prayed that she be forgiven, and she recovered after seven days of isolation in the desert outside the camp. Oddly enough Aaron was not punished — perhaps because of his priestly role.
The Israelites resumed their journey northward, and came to rest at Kadesh‑barnea, a green and well-watered oasis some fifty miles south of Beersheba. They were now nearing the southern rim of Canaan, but it was for them unknown country. Moses decided to send into it a scouting party of twelve picked men, one from each tribe to “see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many” (Num. 13:18) — also, whether the inhabitants lived in fortified towns or in tents, and whether the soil was fertile.
The spies crossed the Negev, passed Arad on the plateau above the Dead Sea, and traveled through the central hill country of Canaan. The party reached Cadet safely after a forty‑day trip and reported that Canaan was truly a land flowing with milk and honey. Nevertheless “the people who dwell in the land are strong and the cities are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there” (Num. 13:28. Anak is Hebrew for “giant”). They also reported on the Amalekites who dwelt in the arid south of Canaan, and the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and other peoples in the settled areas further north. As Moses had requested, they brought back specimens of the fruit they had seen: figs, pomegranates and a bunch of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole slung between two men. They had picked it near Hebron at the brook of Eshcol, a name which means “grape cluster.”
One of the scouts, Caleb of the tribe of Judah, proposed that in spite of the dangers they should advance into the country without delay and trust the Lord to help them overcome resistance. He was supported only by Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim. The other ten were much more discouraging. They submitted “an evil report of the land that devours its inhabitants; all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature... and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers” (Num. 13:32-33). The gathering that listened to the report was cast into gloom. What was the good of bringing them to the Promised Land, they said, in order to be slain in it? It would be better to find a new leader who would take them back to Egypt. A wrathful Lord decreed that for their lack of belief in Him, they would stay wandering in the desert for forty years, till that generation had died out, except for Joshua and Caleb.
The Children of Israel now settled down for some decades to the life of nomad shepherds and cattle‑herders roaming the wilderness of Zin, with their base at the oasis. “So you remained at Kadesh many days” (Deut. 1:46). During this period Moses developed the religious code and the rituals of worship. The stern discipline with which observance was enforced was illustrated by the case of the man who gathered sticks for firewood on the Sabbath and was ordered to be stoned to death.
The leadership of Moses and Aaron was challenged by a revolt — all the more serious because it started with their own tribe of Levi, which was dedicated to priestly duties. It was led by the Levite Korah the son of Izhar, together with two Reubenite brothers, Dathan and Abiram, and they were supported by two hundred and fifty respected men. Punishment was swift. The earth split open and swallowed up the three rebel leaders with their households. The two hundred and fifty supporters were consumed by fire from the Lord. Moses felt the need of some act to bolster the status of Aaron and the priests. He collected and placed in the Tabernacle a stave from each of the tribes, with the Levites represented by Aaron's own rod. When they were taken out and shown to the people next morning, it was seen that Aaron's stave had sprouted with blossom and borne almonds. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, died at Kadesh and was buried there.
After nearly forty years had gone by, most of them spent at Kadesh, the time had come to resume the march towards the Promised Land. Unable to penetrate Canaan from the south, the Israelites now set out on a lengthy detour in order to enter from the east, across the Jordan river. The route northward into Transjordan lay along the ancient caravan route known as the King's Highway. Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom, to say, “Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, neither will we drink water from a well; we will go along the King's Highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left, until we have passed through your territory” (Num. 20:17). The king refused, and Moses thought it prudent to bypass Edom from the west, traveling up the great rift of Wadi Araba towards the Dead Sea. On the way, Aaron died on top of Mount Hor where he had been taken by Moses and by Aaron's son Eleazar, who succeeded him as high priest.
The Israelites now had a taste of the warfare that lay ahead. They were attacked and a number of them killed and captured by Canaanites from Arad, that lies on the plateau west of the Dead Sea. Further on, they passed through a region infested with venomous snakes and some of them were bitten. Moses stuck a brass serpent on a pole, and looking at it served as a magic cure for snake bite.
From the southern end of the Dead Sea, they turned eastward into the mountains, through the precipitous valley of Zered that divided Edom from Moab. They emerged on the plateau and skirted round Moab to the deep gorge of the river Arnon that entered the Dead Sea from the east.
The country north of the Arnon had recently been conquered by the Amorites under King Sihon. He also refused the Israelites passage and attacked them. He was defeated and his capital Heshbon occupied. The advance continued northward into the fertile land of Gilead, up to the Yarmuk river. Og, the giant king of Bashan (the Golan Heights) gave them battle and was repulsed. Thus ended the first phase of the Israelite invasion.
The Israelites started to cohabit with Moabite women, and were drawn into the cult of the local deity, the Baal of Peor. The Lord smote them with a plague but was mollified by the act of an outraged priest called Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron. He seized a javelin, rushed into a tent where an Israelite was lying with a Midianite woman and with one blow transfixed them both.
The camel‑riding Midianites in the region seem to have been involved in this Israelite immorality. An Israelite expedition was sent against them, with a thousand men from each tribe. They wiped out the Midianite encampments with religious zeal, sparing only the young girls. Moses ruled on the division of the captured livestock: half to the fighting men and half to the rest of the community, with special shares for the priesthood.
A census was taken and showed that none of the men of the Exodus was left alive, except for Joshua, Caleb and Moses himself. A new breed of Israelites had grown up as free men, hardened by the rigors of desert life and disciplined by the laws Moses had taught them. Out of the craven and unruly bondsmen that had emerged from Egypt, Moses had in forty years molded a small but stalwart nation, ready to meet its destiny in the Promised Land. He was not to share that destiny; his own task was nearly done.
In three farewell addresses, recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recalled for the Israelites the story of their wandering; expanded their religious and legal code; and instructed them about their coming settlement in Canaan.
To a desert‑weary people Moses painted a pleasant picture of the country they were about to enter: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deut. 8:7‑9).
Moses composed a song of praise to God, whom he had served so humbly and faithfully, and gave his blessing to each of the tribes in turn.
Before he died, Moses was given a distant view of the Promised Land from “Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho” (Deut. 34:1). On a height jutting out from the great escarpment, Moses stood with his back to the Moab plateau, stretching away to the empty desert beyond the eastern horizon. Before him a tremendous panorama unfolded. Thousands of feet below glittered the Dead Sea, the lowest body of water on the earth's surface. Beyond it rose the dun‑colored rampart of the Judean desert, with Jerusalem and Hebron and other Canaanite cities hidden behind its rim. To the right, the Jordan River looped snake‑like through lush green banks. And the Lord said: “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there” (Deut. 34:4).
After this single view Moses died and was buried by the Lord “in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth‑Peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut. 34:6). At his death he was a hundred and twenty years old, but “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7). For thirty days the Children of Israel wept and mourned for the great leader and teacher they had lost, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10).
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“I believe in the One God, our Father, All-Encompassing, the Creator of the heavens and earth and all that is visible and invisible” — we confess in our everyday prayer at home and in church. Therefore, the universe to us is not only a subject of scientific knowledge but of faith as well. Regardless of the particular mysteries that the science uncovers in the realm of physics, chemistry, geology, cosmology, etc., the fundamental questions of regarding the universe remain unanswered: where did the laws of nature and the elements that form our universe come from? And what is the purpose of everything that surrounds us and of our own lives? Science is not only incapable of answering these worrisome questions; indeed, they lie beyond the grasp of science. The answer to these questions is found only in the God-given Bible.
In the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, the Prophet Moses reveals to us the story of God’s creation of Earth and man. Until recently, science was unable to offer any convincing explanation of the origins of the world. Only in the 20th century, thanks to advances in astronomy, geology and paleontology, the history of the origins of the world has lent itself to scientific study. And what has science found? That the world originated in the precise order that Moses had recounted!
Though the purpose of Moses was not to give a detailed scientific explanation of the origins of the universe, his account preceded current scientific discoveries by several thousand years. His description was the first to evidence that the world is not eternal, but was created in time and developed in an evolutionary manner. The same conclusion — that the universe has not always existed — has been reached by contemporary astronomers, who have discovered that the universe is expanding like a balloon. Fifteen to twenty billion years ago, the entire universe was condensed into a microscopic dot, which, having exploded, began to expand in all directions, creating in the process our world.
Moses divided God’s creation of the world into seven periods, which he symbolically referred to as “days.” During six days God created the world, and on the seventh, “rested from His labors.” Moses doesn’t say how long the days lasted: the seventh day, which has seen the entire development of the human race, has been continuing over a period of millennia. The figure “seven” is often used in the Bible with a symbolic, not literal meaning. It indicates fullness, completion.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” — with these words the Bible encompasses all that God created: our visible physical world as well as the invisible angelic world that lies beyond our powers of physical perception. The word “created” indicates that God made the world from nothing. This conclusion is also being reached by many scientists: the deeper nuclear physics probes into the basis of matter, the more obviously it sees its emptiness and immateriality. Apparently, even the “quarks” that comprise protons are not basic and hard particles. It seems that matter is some inexplicable form of energy.
Returning to the biblical description of the world, we see that in its general form it confirms what current scientific theory has to say on this issue. Skipping the particulars of the appearance of galaxies following the original “In the beginning,” Moses’ account focuses on the creation of our Earth and everything that inhabits it. On the first “day,” “God said: let there be light.” These words probably relate to the moment when the interstellar dust and gases that formed our solar system became so condensed under gravitational influences that a thermonuclear reaction (hydrogen becoming helium) took place, causing a great emission of light. In this way, the sun was formed. Light is the key factor in the appearance of life on earth.
The same gases and dust from which the sun formed also formed comets, meteorites, asteroids, protoplanets, etc. This whole circulating and rushing mass of gases, dust and rocks was called “water” by Moses. Mutual gravitational pulls caused it to form into planets. This is “the separation of the water that is below the earth from the water that is above it,” which took place on the second day of creation. In this manner, the solar system, or Biblical “heavens,” took its final form.
In the beginning, the Earth, along with the other planets, was red-hot. Evaporating water from the depths of the Earth enveloped it in a thick atmosphere. As the surface of the Earth cooled, water began to fall in the form of rain, creating oceans and continents. Then, thanks to water and light, plant life began to appear — this was the third “day” of creation.
The first green plants, water-borne microorganisms, and later huge land plants began to clear the atmosphere of carbon monoxide gases and produce oxygen. Up to this moment, if one were to look up from the Earth at the sky, he would see no more than the outlines of the sun, moon and stars, because the Earth was covered by a thick and opaque atmosphere, of approximately the same type as the planet Venus now has. This is why Moses places the appearance of the sun, moon and stars on the fourth “day,” following the appearance of plant life. Ignorant of this fact, atheists and materialists of the beginning of our century often made light of the Bible’s ordering of the appearance of the sun following plant life. According to the Bible, dispersed sunlight reached the Earth’s surface from the first day of its existence, even though the contours of the sun were indiscernible.
The increase of oxygen in the atmosphere made possible the appearance of more complex life forms — fish and birds (on the fifth “day”), and later — mammals, and finally — human beings (on the sixth “day”). Scientific knowledge is in complete agreement with this order of evolution.
The Biblical account does not dwell on the details of the development of life on Earth that interest contemporary science. But it must be kept in mind that the purpose of the Biblical account is not to list details, but to expose the Original Cause of the Creation and the wisdom of its Author. Moses closes his story with the following words: “and God saw what He had made and it WAS GOOD!” In other words, the Creator had a specific goal in mind: that all should serve good and lead to good. Nature has retained the seal of goodness and continues to remind us not only of the wisdom, but of the blessedness of the Creator.
According to the Book of Genesis, last to be created was man. Current scientific thought also agrees that man appeared relatively recently, following the appearance of other living organisms. In the question of the appearance of man, the main difference between religion and science is in the area of methods and goals. Science attempts to detail the physical appearance of man — of the body, whereas the Bible speaks of man in his complete form, having, besides a body, a judicious soul in God’s image. The Bible also confirms that man was made from “earth,” i.e. out of the same elements as other creatures. This fact is important because it alludes to the close relationship between man and the animal kingdom. Yet at the same time, the Bible underlines man’s special position among the animals as blessed with “God’s breath” — an eternal soul. Thanks to his soul, created in God’s image, man is capable of discerning good from evil. This spiritual feeling causes him to seek God’s company, to follow the path of moral perfection. In the end, earthly pleasures alone cannot satisfy man’s spiritual thirst. These facts confirm the Bible’s statement that man is not merely the highest form of animal evolution, but a representative of two worlds: the physical and spiritual. Understanding this mystery helps man to find his place in the world, heed his calling to do good and become closer to God.
In concluding this brief sketch of God’s creation of the universe, it should be noted that both in this account as well as in the later story of the life of our ancestors in Eden there are symbols and allusions, the full meanings of which are beyond our powers of understanding. The purpose of the symbols is that they give the reader the opportunity to understand the main points that God wishes to open to us, without getting bogged down in complicated details: in this case the reasons for evil, sickness, death, etc.
Science continues to study the world around us. It uncovers new and interesting facts that help us to better understand the Bible. Yet often “we cannot see the forest for the trees”; for this reason the general principles are far more necessary to us than the details. The purpose of the Bible is to open to us the principles of existence, and for this reason its significance will remain eternal.
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(Adopted from an article of Fr. Victor Potapov)
The Second Commandment defines his worship, warning against the worship of false, pagan gods: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
Does the Second Commandment prohibit making the sacred images called icons? We have a distinguished answer by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky: One of the outward forms of worship of God and the veneration of the saints is the use of sacred images and the respect shown to them. Among the various gifts of man that distinguish him from other creatures is the gift of art or of depictions in line and color. This is a noble and high gift, and it is worthy to be used to glorify God. With all the pure and high means available to us, we must glorify God according to the call of the Psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name” (Psalm 102:1). All that is within me refers to all the capabilities of the soul. And truly, the capability of art is a gift from God.
In the Bible we read:
“Of old under Moses, the Lord hath called by name Bezaleel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; and to devise skilled works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work. And He hath put in his heart that he may teach [others] . . . Them hath He filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer” (Exodus 35:30-35).
Skilled artists made sacred material objects first for the tabernacle of Moses and later for the Temple of Solomon. Although some were merely sacred adornments, others sacred material objects were revered as exceptional places of God's glory. For example, so great was the Ark of the Covenant that its very touch without special reverence could cause death (II Samuel): at the time of the transfer of the Ark under David, Uzzah was struck dead because he touched the Ark with his hand. Just as holy was the Cherubim of Glory over the Ark, in the midst of which God deigned to reveal Himself and to give His commands to Moses. “There I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two Cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:18-22). These were the visible image of the Invisible God, in the expression of Metropolitan Macarius.
The Old Testament Temple had images on the walls and curtains, but no depictions of the departed righteous ones, such we see in Christian Church. They did not appear because the righteous ones themselves were awaiting their deliverance, waiting to be brought up out of hell. Christ's descent into hell and His Resurrection made their delivery possible. According to the Apostle, they without us should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:40). These righteous ones were glorified as saints only in the New Testament.
So Sacred Scripture strictly prohibits worship of idols, but it does not prohibit Christian icons. Idols are images of false gods, demons, or imaginary thing by worship of lifeless objects of wood, gold, or stone. The Sacred Scriptures strictly insist that we separate holy and unholy, unclean and clean (Leviticus 10:10). Whoever cannot see the difference between sacred images and idols blasphemes and defiles the icons. He commits a sacrilege condemned in Sacred Scripture; Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? (Romans 2:22).
Ecclesiastical archaeology has shown that the ancient Christians used sacred images in the catacombs and their other places of assembly for prayer, and then later in their churches. Certain Christian writers (such as those at the Council of Elvira, Spain, in 305) set themselves against statues and similar images, but they probably had contemporary pagan idol worship in mind. Their cautions and prohibitions also fit their historic conditions, when, for example, Christians needed to hide holy things from their often hostile pagan persecutors and non-Christian masses. From the start, the Christian missionary ideal had also been to draw people away from pagan idol-worship. Only later could the fullness of the forms for glorifying God and His saints in colors emerge in sacred images.
Records of the Seventh Ecumenical Council define expressed the Orthodox dogma of sacred icon veneration in the following words: “We therefore . . . define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images . . . should be set forth in the holy churches of God for veneration . . . For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation (that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, the angels and saints who are depicted in the icons), by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them. And to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence [Greek: timitiki proskynisis], not indeed that true worship of faith [Greek: latreia] which pertains alone to the Divine nature; but to these . . . incense and lights may be offered . . . For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents.” (Seven Ecumenical Councils, Erdmans, p. 550).
Orthodox canons say nothing about veneration of the statues in the religious art of the West in the middle ages and later. However, the virtually universal tradition of the Orthodox Church of both East and West and of the Eastern Church in later centuries has been to create two-dimensional depictions and bas-reliefs, but not to allow statues in the round. The reluctance seems to lie in the inevitably greater realism of three-dimensional images, which make them suitable for representing the things of this world (for example, statues of emperors), but not those of heaven, which neither our worldly thoughts nor our realism can capture. Two-dimensional icons, on the other hand, are windows to heaven.
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