Deuteronomy 11:18-19. “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” When God commanded that His words be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch. God fully intends for us to teach the Books of the Law to our children, and I believe those five fundamental books were meant to be taught to them first. After all, He gave them to His own children first. The Pentateuch is the foundation of all His revelation to mankind. And yet, three out the five books are rarely taught to . . . . I started to write “to children”, but honestly, they are rarely taught to anyone who isn’t Jewish. Even the first two are taught in a hit and miss fashion, leaving out whatever is difficult or “boring”.
There are several possible reasons for this lack in the Christian church. One is the mistaken belief that, because we now have the New Testament, the Old Testament is obsolete. But God gave the Old Testament to His people to prepare them for what was to come in the New Covenant. It is arrogance to assume we are better than our forefathers and don’t need the revelations that were given to them. To try to fully understand the New Testament without any understanding of the Old is to attempt to plant our faith in untilled soil. The plants may grow, but they will be stunted, malformed, malnourished, weak. The Old Testament is the plow and the fertilizer, preparing the soil of our hearts to receive the full bounty of the seed of the New.
A second reason for the neglect of the Pentateuch is a misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of the Law itself. No one was ever saved by the Law. The books of the Law serve as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see the lack within our souls. Tip the mirror a bit, and there is Christ Himself, standing at our shoulder, waiting for us to notice Him. The Pentateuch is filled with pictures of Jesus, if we only care to look. The entire Old Testament describes God’s character and His plan for His creation, including His plan to send the Messiah. We miss so much of the heart of God by bypassing the bulk of His Word to us, the first and second courses of His carefully planned dinner, and going straight for the dessert at the end of the meal.
A lamentable, tragic reason for many who refuse to study the books of the Law is simple prejudice. Early on, the Christian church had striven to separate itself from its Jewish roots. It did such a good job of it, that it comes as a great surprise to many believers to learn that the Christ they worship is Jewish. To fully understand the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, one must have a fundamental understanding of Judaism. But most Christians don’t have this knowledge, and many don’t care to acquire it. How it grieves the heart of our Savior when His own people reject the forerunners of their faith. It is the scorning of an older brother by a younger brother, and the Father of both longs for reconciliation between them. But after persecuting the older brother for centuries, it is the responsibility of the younger brother to move towards that reconciliation, first by seeking understanding and knowledge of the truth, then by reaching out in love and gratitude to those who gave us our Messiah.
But admittedly, a difficulty in accessing the true worth of the Old Testament is a language and cultural barrier that has grown greater as the years have separated us from those first faithful men who saw and recorded the works of God at the beginning. The Books of the Law were not written in a vacuum: they were written in a specific language to a specific group of people at a specific time in history. It is imperative to come to an understanding of this language, this people, this history, in order to fully comprehend the Scriptures. The cultural divide is easily recognized and easily surmounted: there are many books devoted to educating minds trained in the thought processes of modern western civilization in the understanding of ancient Middle Eastern thought and cultural practices. I can recommend many, easily accessible books to any who are interested in furthering and deepening their understanding of Scripture. The language divide is less easily understood and overcome. The most basic way to enter into a real understanding of Hebrew Scripture would be, of course, to learn to read Hebrew. But anyone can begin the process of understanding Jewish thought by simply acknowledging that the Bible was not originally written in English and that no translation can ever completely and effectively convey the original meanings of the text. The problem is not just that they are two different languages. It is that English is a modern language and Hebrew is an ancient one.
I’m about to get technical, so please bear with me! Modern languages in developed countries have huge vocabularies with many synonyms conveying various and subtle shades of meaning. We who use a language of modern thought have been trained by our vocabularies to differentiate our thinking, to categorize our thought processes, to separate the literal meaning from the metaphorical. For example, if I said, “the light came on”, you would want to know the context of my statement in order to determine whether I meant a physical light or a symbolic light. In ancient languages, this barrier is unknown. The symbolic and the literal meanings are one and the same. Ancient minds, wiser than our own, were able to hold several different meanings in one thought without difficulty. Their vocabularies were smaller, much smaller, but their ability to convey meaning was much greater, far deeper. Hebrew is an ancient language rich in symbolic meaning. Each word is in itself a little story, and using a particular word means using that story to express a complete thought. You can see, then, the inherent problems of a literal translation of Hebrew Scripture into English. Every word would need its own explanation in order to completely explain the meaning behind it.
But take heart, English speakers! There is a way to overcome these problems. Using a good concordance, any English-speaking Christian can come to understand the Scriptures as it was meant to be read. It takes more time and effort, but the result is so very worthwhile. To encourage you to give it a try, I’ll give you an example. The word “Amen” is one of the most commonly used religious words in the Christian vocabulary. But what does it really mean? If you look it up in a Bible dictionary, you will find that it means “truth”, or “let it be true”. But if you go back to the root meaning of this wonderful Hebrew word, it means “doorway”. Think about that a minute. I might say “God is good”, and you might reply, “Amen”. To say “Amen” means to pray God will allow you to walk through the doorway of what has been said, in this case “God is good”, and enter into the truth of it. Here’s another example: The word “Atonement” is of major importance to Christian theology. But what does it mean? In Hebrew, it is the same word that is used to describe the pitch or tar with which Noah covered his ark in order to waterproof it. The word in Hebrew means literally “to cover” or “covering”, but it paints a picture of a thick, sticky substance used as a covering of protection. The Hebrews would have used this everyday word much as we might use the noun or verb “paint”. It was not a religious word to them, but a common one. To tell them that the blood of the sacrifice would atone for their sins “painted” a picture for them of the blood literally covering them to protect them. Am I the only one who thinks this is really cool?
As people of the Book, we really can’t get away with just perusing the Bible as if it were a novel. We must study it, using the tools we have available to us to help us gain a deeper understanding of the truth God so earnestly desires us to walk in. We must make good use of these tools to help us teach our children the foundational truths of the Pentateuch and then the entire Old Testament. And believe me, I know from experience: kids love this stuff! Just give them a chance to learn and they will devour the Word with enthusiasm.