October 13, 2010

How to Read Stories, Rituals, Laws, and Poems in the Pentateuch

 Communication is all about connecting—and people living in the twenty-first century connect in abundant ways.
As you read this article (either in printed form or online on your smartphone, iPad, or computer), you most likely already sent out a number of quick e-mails to friends and business partners. You may have also sent a text message via your phone to your spouse (“C U later”) or tweeted about something that came your way. Just imagine, somebody living in the Middle Ages or in biblical times coming across a text message or e-mail that you sent. He or she would be flabbergasted and most likely would have no idea what you were trying to say.
Text Types and Genre
Fact is, in order to understand a text, we need to first understand its text type or genre. Genre recognition usually works on a subconscious level. When you flip through the classifieds of your newspaper or hit the obituary section, you automatically frame the information in its correct context. We don’t need to consciously remind ourselves that the ad for that Volkswagen Passat, model 2008, with only 28k miles, followed by a dollar sign and a number offers a specific car and mentions the asking price and the mileage of the engine.
We deal with dozens of different written genres (and visual genres are being added daily—who would have thought some decades ago that people would voluntarily live in a glass house and allow millions to watch?). In most cases, we know how to “read” a particular text type—call it intuition or familiarity or experience. However, when it comes to Scripture, we come across text types (or genres) that are unfamiliar and require us to dig deeper in order to appreciate them. In the coming months, you will find a number of articles by Adventist Bible scholars that will help bridge the cultural, linguistic, and historical gap that separates us from the biblical texts and particularly focus upon text types. This first installment will introduce you to the Pentateuch and its varied genres—thus reading from the beginning.
2010 1533 page24Taking Stock
In the Old Testament, the Pentateuch (from Greek for “five books”) is known as the Torah, “the law, instruction,” and comprises five literary units that are carefully interconnected and should be read as a whole. They are framed as a story, a narrative talking about origins, but also include many other text types. Genealogies (Gen. 5; 10; etc.), as well as legal texts (Ex. 20–23; etc.), are included. Ritual texts (e.g., Lev. 1–7 [types of sacrifices]; 8 [ordination ritual]; Num. 5:5-31 [the test for an unfaithful wife]; etc.) comprise a major part of Leviticus, the center of the Pentateuch. At crucial points we can even find poetry that connects major units.1 In this article we will focus upon ritual and legal texts, as they are extremely prominent in the Pentateuch and don’t appear in such density in other sections of the biblical canon. We will leave genealogies, historical narrative, and poetry for a later installment of this series, as they figure notably in the historical and poetic books of the Old Testament (including Joshua, Judges, 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings, 1/2 Chronicles, Psalms, etc.). Suffice it to say that we can detect a movement from the universal to the more specific in the narrative framework. Following the story of the origins of humanity (including creation, fall, universal flood, and main people division) in Genesis 1–11, the next chapters (Gen. 12–50) tell the story of the patriarchs, concentrating upon one family and its descendants. Finally, Exodus 1 to the end of Deuteronomy focuses upon a specific people that is brought out of Egypt and is on its way to the Promised Land.2
Ritual Texts
Take a random poll in your church and ask how many people are reading Leviticus for their devotional reading. My guess would be—close to zero. Somehow, people living in the twenty-first century, in a Western context, don’t enjoy ritual texts. They are strange, they are repetitive, they are often very bloody, they are detailed (involving details you never knew existed), and they seem to smack of works (as opposed to grace).3 However, they are also highly significant as they connect directly to the sanctuary motif and represent Lego-type explanations of how salvation (and the sanctuary) works. They are also inspired and part of God’s revelation to the world (2 Tim. 3:16). As a matter of fact, the sanctuary not only is in the center of the Pentateuch, but also links the Old Testament to the New Testament and connects humanity to God—remember Exodus 25:8 and God wanting to literally “tent” in the midst of His people.4
From the outset, it may be good to quickly define ritual. Scholars have developed literally dozens of definitions. I like this one: “Ritual is repeatable, stylized and often condensed actions and behavior that is understood by a particular group or community as an expression of something that goes beyond the mere understanding of the individual acts.”5 To put it in less technical language: ritual is an excellent communicator of key values and information and needs to be understood in a specific context—in our case the biblical context. Just think of a New Testament ritual, Communion, involving the foot-washing rite. In most cases, we don’t wash each other’s feet because they are dirty. Rather, we do it because we want to humbly serve somebody, following the example of Jesus. Similarly, sin wasn’t really resolved by offering a sacrifice. Rather, it was an illustration of the coming “Lamb of God,” who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). It highlighted the fact that at-one-ment requires the shedding of innocent blood. Embedded into the larger religious system of the Old Testament, it also told the story of the special Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) that was required to cleanse the earthly sanctuary from its defilement.
How Then Shall We Read?
As readers living in a culture and time so far removed from biblical times, how then should we read? Here are some helpful hints and some references if you want to dig deeper.6 First of all, determine if your text is prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive texts tell the reader what to do, while descriptive texts tell us what actually happened (Leviticus 8 describes the priestly ordination ritual while Exodus 29 contains the prescription). Second, pay attention to the important elements of ritual. Here are some very important ones—though by no means all.
Time is of essence in ritual. Just imagine an Israelite trying to put his hands on the head of the sacrificial animal after it had been killed. You are right—it would not make sense.

Space is also key to ritual. Sacrifice is allowed only on the tabernacle/Temple altar, as it directly relates to God’s call to exclusive worship and how sin is actually removed. Israel had trouble with this particular one, as the witness of the prophets suggests. The high places didn’t only have a nice view but were linked to flawed worship, including also sacrifice.
Action is another key element of ritual—without it there would be no ritual. Action can be accumulative and sometimes involves long sequences, while at other times few actions are noted in the biblical text.7 List the action as you read and see if you can find similar lists elsewhere (computer search programs are making this task much easier).
What objects are used in a ritual is another important dimension. Blood, water, vessels, altars, and knives are all too familiar to readers of Old Testament rituals. Try to discover their importance and significance.
Participants play a major role. Some of them are more passive (as, for example, the congregation during the ordination ritual in Leviticus 8), but nonetheless very important as their presence often validates the ritual. Other participants are very active. Who is doing what, when, and why? is a good question to keep in mind.
Finally, and one of the most difficult to discover elements of biblical ritual, is the question Is language or sound involved in this particular ritual? If so, what kind of sound or spoken language is involved?
You noticed, by paying attention to these key elements, that you already stopped by the ritual text much longer than you previously did. You begin to pay attention; you make connections to other biblical texts; you start to see the bigger picture and understand God’s immense desire to communicate effectively. Interestingly enough, most non-Western cultures can connect much easier to ritual, as rituals form a much bigger part of their daily life.
Legal Texts
Another important genre of the Pentateuch involves legal texts. In a sense, there is a close connection between legal and ritual texts—particularly the prescriptive type. Both describe a divinely ordained ideal. Comparing biblical law to extrabiblical material, scholars have noted significant differences (as well as some similarities). There are two types of biblical law: case law and apodictic law. Apodictic law is absolute and the Ten Commandments fall into this category. There is no “if . . . then” sequence as in case law. It is just plain imperative: “Remember the Sabbath day,” “Honor your father and your mother,” “You shall not murder.” Some of the legal texts of the Pentateuch were given to legislate specific social and cultural realities. Exodus 21:1-11 deals with servanthood and slavery—a reality that is (thankfully) not prevalent these days. Other laws, while not falling into the same category as the Ten Commandments, are nevertheless good guidance for God’s children living in the twenty-first century. Have you ever read the laws concerning justice and mercy in Exodus 23:1-9? “Do not spread false reports” (verse 1), “do not follow the crowd in doing wrong” (verse 2), “do not deny justice to your poor people” (verse 6), “do not accept a bribe” (verse 8) are still good pieces of advice in harmony with the ten great Words that God spoke from Sinai.
Read, Read, Read
As we linger longer with unfamiliar text types and spend time with God’s Word, something will happen. Pieces will fall into place. When we know what to look for and how to read effectively, God’s Spirit will be able to talk to our hearts and minds. Suddenly, what used to be boring and dry becomes engaging and challenging and we read not only with understanding but with enthusiasm. This is the type of joy that comes from spending time with the Creator and Redeemer—Jeremiah already knew that (Jer. 15:16), but do we?

1The major poems of the Pentateuch include Gen. 49 (Jacob’s blessing), Ex. 15 (song at the Sea of Reeds), Num. 23–24 (Balaam’s oracles), and Deut. 32–33 (song and blessings of Moses). See Martin G. Klingbeil, “Poemas en medio de la prosa: poesía insertada en el Pentateuco,” in Inicios, fundamentos y paradigmas: estudios teológicos y exegéticos en el Pentateuco, edited by Gerald A. Klingbeil, SMEBT 1 (Libertador San Martín: Editorial Universidad Adventista del Plata, 2004), pp. 61-85, including numerous references to further studies.
2Compare Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Historical Criticism,” in T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), p. 404.
3See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Between Law and Grace: Ritual and Ritual Studies in Recent Evangelical Thought,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 13, No. 2 (2002): 46-63.
4Adventist scholar Roberto Ouro has noted this repeatedly in his helpful Old Testament Theology: The Canonical Key, vol. 1: Pentateuch/Torah (Zaragoza, Spain: Lusar Reprográficas, 2008), pp. 24-37.
5Based on Jan Platvoet, “Ritual in Plural and Pluralist Societies,” in Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn, eds., Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, Studies in the History of Religions 67 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), p. 41.
6Those interested in a more detailed discussion and further reading strategies and examples may consult Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements 1 (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007).
7Compare the synthesized action of an altar-?construction ritual in Gen. 12:8 (“built an altar . . . called on the name of the Lord”) to the roughly 100 verbal forms denoting action in the priestly ordination ritual in Lev. 8.


Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who enjoys reading from right to left and against the grain. This article was published October 14, 2010.