You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

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Throughout Leviticus, Israel remains encamped at Mount Sinai while God appears in the Tent of Meeting, dictating to Moses his specifications regarding the Jewish ceremonial laws. The laws are extremely detailed, outlining every aspect of how and when religious offerings are to be presented to God. God gives the instructions himself, and his voice comprises the majority of the text. A brief narrative interlude describes the anointing of Aaron and his sons as Israel’s priests. At the ceremony, God appears and engulfs the altar in a burst of flames, eliciting shouts of joy from the people. Soon after, God also sends fire to consume two of Aaron’s sons when they neglect to make the right preparations for approaching the altar.

God lists various types of forbidden sexual behavior and discusses foods and physical conditions that can make a person unclean. Uncleanliness can result from things such as bodily discharge or touching a dead carcass. An unclean person must leave the Israelite camp or undergo physical cleansing, waiting periods, and religious sacrifices. Typically, sexual sins are punishable by death, but God also instructs the Israelites to kill a man who blasphemes, or curses God’s name. Of all his restrictions, God places particular emphasis on the prohibition against eating meat with blood still in it: doing so will result in banishment, not only from Israel but from God’s graces as well.

In the end, God promises to give Israel great abundance and success if it obeys these laws. If Israel is disobedient, though, God will send destruction and famine and “abhor” the Israelites (26:30). But the laws in Leviticus also set aside an annual Day of Atonement during which the priest is to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of the entire nation. As long as the Israelites confess and repent for their sins, God promises to keep his covenant and never leave them.

At the beginning of Numbers, Israel prepares to continue the journey from Mount Sinai to the promised land. God devotes one of the twelve tribes, the Levites, to assist Aaron in the work of the priesthood, maintaining and watching over Israel’s religious articles. After dedicating the Tabernacle, which houses the Ark of the Covenant, the Israelites leave Sinai, guided by the movements of a cloud that rests over the Tabernacle. Entering the desert, the people begin to complain about everything from the lack of interesting food to Moses’s leadership.

Moses sends spies into Canaan to explore the promised land. Upon returning, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, report that Israel can successfully conquer the Canaanite people with God’s help. However, some of the spies incite an uprising, arguing that it will be impossible to take the land from the Canaanites and that Israel should return to Egypt instead. God plans to destroy the people for their lack of faith, but Moses intervenes and convinces God to forgive them. God relents but delivers a heavy curse. He announces that the current generation of Israelites, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, will not be allowed to enter the promised land. Moses leads the people back toward the Red Sea to wander in the wilderness for a period of forty years.

Another revolt occurs when three men grow jealous of Moses’s leadership. God plans to destroy the entire nation because of the men’s jealousy, but Moses persuades God to destroy only the guilty parties. Moses warns the people that the men will die as a result of their own disobedience. God causes the ground to open and swallow the men, but the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the incident. Very angry, God sends a rapidly spreading plague through the crowd, killing thousands. Aaron runs out into the crowd and holds up the priest’s censer to atone for Israel’s wrongdoing, stopping the plague in its destructive path.

Following this event, Moses and Aaron themselves disobey God. The people continue to complain about the lack of water and express their longing to be back in Egypt. God instructs Moses to speak to a rock and command it to produce water. Moses, instead, hits the rock angrily with his staff. The rock proceeds to pour forth water, but God tells Moses and Aaron that they, too, will never enter the promised land because of this brash act. Aaron dies soon after, and the priesthood passes on to Aaron’s son Eleazar.

Israel wanders in the lands southwest of Canaan, requesting safe passage from the surrounding nations but receiving little hospitality in return. With God’s help, Israel conquers the Amorites and settles in their lands. Learning of the overthrow, the king of Moab summons a renowned sorcerer, Balaam, to come and pronounce a curse on the Israelites. The angel of God intercepts Balaam on the road to Moab, frightening Balaam’s donkey. When Balaam strikes the panicked animal, the donkey miraculously speaks, rebuking Balaam. The Lord points out the angel’s presence. The angel of God forbids Balaam to curse the Israelites before the king of Moab. Balaam arrives in Moab and delivers four cryptic oracles to the king, blessing Israel and predicting Moab’s destruction.

The Israelite men succumb to the surrounding native peoples by fraternizing with the local women and worshipping the pagan god Baal. God sends a plague on Israel that ends only when Eleazar’s son, the priest, kills an Israelite man and his Midianite mistress, stabbing them before all of Israel with a single thrust of his spear. Eleazar’s son’s impassioned act earns God’s approval, and God leads Israel in destroying the Midianites, plundering their wealth in the process. As the forty-year waiting period draws to a close, God appoints Joshua to eventually succeed Moses as the people’s leader.

The Book of Deuteronomy begins in the final, fortieth year of Israel’s wandering in the desert. Stationed east of the Jordan River, Moses addresses the new generation of Israelites in preparation for entering the promised land. He summarizes the events of the past four decades and encourages the young Israelites to remember God’s miracles and covenant with Israel. He forbids the worship of other gods or idols in the new land and repeats the Ten Commandments given by God at Mount Sinai. Most importantly, Moses gives explicit instructions to the Israelites to destroy all the native inhabitants of the promised land so that the Canaanites do not interfere with Israel’s worship of God. Moses restates many of the social laws and rules of conduct outlined in Leviticus, adding a few new laws, such as the requirement for the Israelites to cancel debts every seven years.

Moses stresses God’s love for Israel, describing God as someone who protects orphans, widows, and oppressed people. Israel is to love God intensely in return, with absolute devotion. The words of God’s laws are very important. Moses instructs the Israelites to meditate on these words and to write the laws on their bodies and on the doorframes of their homes. Moses argues that the love of God and a commitment to his laws will be considered goodness for Israel (6:25). While Moses predicts that Israel will eventually grow disobedient, he notes that God will welcome Israel back with abundance and prosperity whenever Israel returns to obedience.

At God’s direction, Moses composes a song that recounts Israel’s history of unfaithfulness and extols God’s everlasting compassion. Moses says the song will be a reminder to future Israelites of their covenant with God. He writes the song in the Book of the Laws and places the book with the Ark of the Covenant. Afterward, Moses ascends a mountain where God shows him a vision of the promised land. Moses dies and is buried by God. The author praises him as the only prophet in Israel’s history who performed such impressive miracles and who knew God “face to face” (34:10).


The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form the bulk of the Hebrew law, or Torah. Each text mixes procedural instructions and legal matters with a variety of narrative voices and action. The separate books are probably the collected writings of priests with different interests and perspectives, written sometime during Israel’s tumultuous exile in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. The three works document an important stage in the development of Israel’s identity as a people and a nation. The prose is frequently arduous and repetitive, but it functions as a long, concentrated pause in the narrative of the Old Testament. Israel’s wandering in the desert can be seen as the nation’s adolescence—a period of education and growth following the nation’s birth in the exodus from Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai.

The fact that the Israelites’ punishment for certain infractions is to isolate or expel the offending individual from the camp demonstrates the extraordinary desire of the people to remain part of the community. The Israelite camp is set up in concentric circles with the tabernacle at its center: Moses and Aaron are closest to the tabernacle, followed by the Levites who care for it, and the rest of the tribes surround them. Since uncleanness bars a person from approaching the sacred religious items, physical impurity places one farthest from the center of Israel. In this way, God’s injunctions challenge the Israelites to strive to remain near the nation’s center. The distinction between purity and impurity helps promote a distinction between an accepted, privileged “us” and an outcast “them” who are outside the circle of the community.

Moses’s emphasis on the word “heart” in his sermons is also critical to Israel’s understanding of itself as a unified people. Moses describes the physical and external regulations of the law by using spiritual and internal imagery. He says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). The idea that Israel as a whole has a “heart” or a group of “hearts” suggests that the nation has developed a set of personal or private experiences over the forty years of wandering in the desert. This waiting period distances Israel from Egypt and the laws at Mount Sinai, forcing the nation to form a collective memory of these events. When Moses instructs the people, “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul,” he encourages them to internalize and embrace these collective, national memories (Deuteronomy 11:18). Moses portrays the religious laws no longer as a list of actions to be performed in the future but as sacred words and ideas that are a part of a past and an internal life that is unique to Israel.

The description of God as loving and compassionate in Deuteronomy is perplexing in light of God’s intense wrath in Numbers. Moses, however, seems to see God’s violent reaction to Israel’s complaints and infidelities as an exercise or a test of Israel’s commitment to the covenant. Indeed, God’s destruction follows a consistent pattern in Numbers: the people complain and wish to return to Egypt; God threatens to destroy the people; Moses or another representative intercedes on behalf of the people; and God relents, punishing only a portion of Israel’s population. The climax in these exercises occurs when representatives of the people speak on behalf of Israel. The moment of intercession when the plague is stopped by Aaron running into the crowd or by Eleazar’s son stabbing the man and his foreign mistress are both climactic. Man’s intercession does not require God to stop his destruction, but it creates the opportunity for Israel’s leaders to display religious zeal and for God to show his mercy. God manifests his compassion and love not by what he does, but by what he does not do. Israel emerges from these encounters as a nation that has survived trials and hardship—a resilient people, with its weakest members now weeded out.