Edward Feld is a Conservative rabbi, writer, and liturgist who has written on Jewish theology, prayer, and the Hebrew Bible. After publishing a volume on the Psalms, he recently produced The Book of Revolutions, an easy-to-read yet scholarly and deeply spiritual commentary on the Pentateuch. Whereas many popular commentaries on the Pentateuch prioritize the well-known narratives in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, this volume focuses on the legal texts predominantly in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, using an academic historical-critical analysis of the texts to trace the development of the Torah over centuries. The word Torah has too often been translated as “law,” with all the negativity implicit in the supposed Pauline dichotomy between law and freedom, letter and spirit. However, Torah means more than law; it is divine instruction intended to help humans live according to God’s will revealed in God’s word. For Christians, the Torah offers a deep insight into who Jesus is as the incarnation of the Word (John 1:14) and the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17).
Christian readers often skip over the legal texts in the Pentateuch, focusing uniquely on the narratives that tell of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. However, the legal texts are the core of the first five books of the Bible. The very heart of the Pentateuch is the book of Leviticus, in which there is very little narrative. In fact, half of the Pentateuch’s 187 chapters are focused on the Sinai revelation of the Torah (Exodus 19 to Numbers 10—fifty-eight chapters of the Pentateuch) and the giving of the Torah again forty years later in the land of Moab (Numbers 25 to Deuteronomy 34, forty chapters). The first section covers the year spent at Sinai, when the Israelites receive instructions for living as the people consecrated by God. The second section covers the last days of the wandering in the wilderness: the people reach the land of Moab and, standing on the banks of the Jordan facing Jericho, receive the Torah again (deutero-nomos in Greek meaning “the law again”). The first generation, who refused to enter the land for fear of the giants who lived there—an expression of their lack of faith—must die in the wilderness. The next generation receives the law again from Moses and enters the land, crossing the Jordan led by Joshua. In these two sections of the Pentateuch, there is little narrative and much law, as well as exhortation to observe it.
Feld focuses on four moments that are revealed when one looks closely at the legal texts, recognizing the major sources that were brought together in order to create the Pentateuch. The oldest legal code is known as the Covenant Code (Exodus 21–23), analyzed in the context of the revolution spearheaded by the prophets in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in the first half of the eighth century BC. A second code is the one found in Deuteronomy (12–26), implemented during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the second part of the seventh century BC. A third code is the Holiness Code, promulgated by the priests and found in the second part of Leviticus (17–27), developed during and after the exile in the sixth century BC. The fourth moment, an essential one, is the bringing together of various materials to constitute a united work in five books, attributed to Moses. This editorial work was done by the priestly elite in the fifth century BC and the result is the foundation of the Bible collection. Rather than imposing coherence on the final literary product, the editors conserved the diversity and differences of the various layers of law. Feld proposes that within each of these layers a religious-spiritual revolution can be discerned that points to the contribution of the people of Israel to the religious history of all who see in the Pentateuch the foundation of biblical language, teaching, and religious life. The author believes that the insights brought to life by the revolutions “have meaning beyond their time even to our present day, for they constituted a search for a fundamental understanding of the meaning of faith in God and the way of life that faith demands.”