I always hated missing the beginning of movies. Indeed, as a teen I had to make sure not to miss a moment of the never-ending trailers that ran before Back to the Future and the first few moments of Michael J Fox skateboarding through the Universal studio lot: couldn’t and wouldn’t miss it. While the silliness of the story was and is clear, even then I knew that missing this beginning also meant losing some of its key pieces. Those opening moments defined many characters, themes and situations that echoed through the many decades of that movie’s journey. Of course, I also refused to leave the theatre until the very end because I had to know exactly how things wrapped up for Marty McFly. Only when I reached the movie’s last frame as Dr. Brown lifted his DeLorean into the sky did I understand the whole story.
Instinctively, I understood that I had to consider the whole film, from first to last, to know the film. With a movie or a book, such knowledge is not so easily discerned because books and movie often speak in many voices. How do we overcome our lack of knowledge of the whole? We began by considering how it starts and finishes. That is, to read that movie or any story rightly, I needed an eye to how its beginning and end framed the whole because a director designs his film’s ending in light of the beginning and his beginning with an eye to its end. The careful viewer, therefore, anticipates such echoes at the edges of the film and also looks for these common features.
In far more complex pieces, considering the beginning and ending also bear fruit. To the viewers of the recent series LOST, for example, the beginning’s closeness to the ending was a common feature of each episode, season and the whole series. With each episode, season or across the whole series, LOST’s final frames intentionally echoed its opening moments because the series author, no matter how someone defines a film’s author, wanted to bind up the story’s many pieces into a whole. In each instance, the opening and ending moments highlighted that story’s most important pieces to frame how we should read all of its “in-between pieces.” By pointing the viewer to these most important things like a flood light on a stage, the author used this frame to direct us away from some issues and questions to his concerns and questions. So, for example, in a sad but intentional development, LOST never defined or fully answered a lot of questions that viewers had about the island. However, its opening and ending helped us to see the island and its story in the way most important to the author: the characters, their relationships and how they all end individually and together. While a significant segment of modern geekdom still debates the finer points of “what happened” on the island, the series’ bookends focused the viewer on the problem of redemption for fallen men in a fallen world through the eyes of Jack Shepherd. Together, his “eye-opening” terror of life in the midst of a disaster led ultimately to the “eye-closing” peace of his death in the redemption of his friends through his sacrifice. That is, (spoiler alert), Jack’s death in the finale provided the only answer to the problem embedded in the series’ opening moments.
We awoke with Jack in the midst of a crisis that the characters could not truly escape until Jack “redeemed” them in his death. From problem to solution and from dilemma to hope, the opening and final minutes of the series took us on a journey no further than the author wished. Indeed, the series ends with a blinding glance into the brightly lit edges of the ending that lies beyond its own ending. LOST shows us that another, greater story stretches beyond its story, but there was nothing more that this story could say, would say or did say about these men and women and their final destination. It was enough for the author to take us to the edge and show us a hope beyond our own grasp. This reading of LOST as one whole, therefore, improves how we read it. It holds the series together, and it also points back to stories long before it, even to the Torah. That is, as we watched Jack and his friends finale, the viewer stood on the edge of the next life, reminding us of Moses’ fate as he stood on the edge of the promised land at the end of his life and his book. Whether the author of LOST intended such a connection would be the topic of another discussion, but it leads us to a more important question about the Scriptures. Would looking at the beginning and ending of a biblical book help us to read the Scriptures, especially its first section? Does it help us to read the Torah and understand what comes after Moses’ death if we read it as one book? Yes, yes it does.
The academic argument for the Torah being one book is strong. First, the rest of the Old Testament reads Gen, Exod, Lev, Num and Deut as one book. This simple observation is borne out by examining the following texts: Jos 8:31; 23:6; 24:26; 2 Kngs 14:6; Ezra 7:6; Neh 8:1; 13:1; 2 Chr 34:14; 35:12. All of these instances show that the rest of the Old Testament considers Gen-Deut to be one book. Second, the opening and ending of each part of the Torah most definitely relate to other parts. For example, Exod 1:1–7 echoes Genesis, as the first clause of Leviticus, “And he read to Moses,” points back to the ending of Exodus for its referent. Third, even the faith traditions that break the Torah into five books still recognize that the Torah is a unit unto itself. It is, even for those who disagree with me, a book that is meant to be fit together. Fourth, the various parts of the Torah are meant to be read together, just as the three parts of the Lord of the Rings are meant to be read together. But, what happens to the meaning of the Torah if the opening of Genesis and the ending of Deuteronomy are read in concert? Do these parts guide the reader in any way? Yes, they most certainly do.
The Torah begins with creation and the preparation of a land (eretz) for the man (Adam) and his wife to live together with God. God brings this man to the land and gives him a perfect dwelling place with God and the rest of humanity. God commands him to subdue this land as God’s prophet, priest and king, but the man, of course, fails. God exiles him from the land and His presence with the promise of a future return to the land through a man who will come to subdue the serpent who led him and his wife astray.
The Torah ends with the death of Moses as he spies such a land (eretz) from afar. As Adam needed someone to bring him to the land, so does Moses, Israel and the reader. Moses and the reader can only glimpse the edges of this land, since Moses himself will not be the one to bring the people of Israel to it. However, the author asks the reader to wait for a prophet like Moses, the same man promised to Adam in his exile. This man who will come in the future will return man to God, to the land where He dwells, and will also perform miracles that surpass Moses because He is closer to God than Adam (who walked with Him) and Moses (who knew Him face to face).
The connections are obvious and helpful as we handle the rest of the book. We learn, at least, two main ideas that help us read the whole Torah and the whole Bible. First, man’s problem is his exile from God, and, second, man’s hope is found in waiting for this prophet like Moses (the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) who will return man to the land where God dwells. In other words, God’s good creation for Adam (Gen 1–2) anticipates His good redemption of Israel when this man will appear in the end of the days. Adam’s fall anticipates the dilemma and failure of Israel, Moses and the reader. The heart of man is so bound up in sin that it leaves us in exile from God. If Moses could not make it into the land where God dwells on his own, what about us? That is, Adam’s problem (Gen 3) is Israel’s problem (Deut 32) is Moses’ problem (Deut 34) is our problem. The good news is that Adam’s hope is Israel’s hope is Moses’ hope and our hope: Messiah Jesus.
Many of my readers at this point must fear that I am taking extreme liberty with the text and its literal meaning. Let me assure you that I never have any intention other than to trace out the authorially intended meaning of the text. I may fail at my task, but it always remains my goal. I will continue to insist that what the author claims the text meant must be what it means: period, end of discussion. The problem is that most Protestant’s understanding of literal meaning only considers semantic literalism as the level of the clause, one clause at a time. It is a painfully myopic reading that misses the big picture. Other Protestants stretch literal meaning beyond the level of one clause to individual sections (pericopes), genre by genre, but they also fail to see the relationship between genres and sections within the Torah that includes law codes, narrative, poetry and genealogy. These myopic tendencies lead us away from thinking of the whole and the author’s plan in the design of each piece by itself and every piece together.
What we often fail to consider in Protestantism is the simple truth that all of these clauses, all of these genres and all of these individual pieces do work together as a group, as a whole, as a book. We must ask, therefore, interpretive questions concerning the book’s arrangement before we can truly consider its literal, authorially intended meaning. The repetitions at the book’s edges and throughout the book create a series of comparisons and contrasts that guide us to how we should read it. That is, the author selects his material, adapts it to his purposes and arranges it to draw together the whole into one message, his message. As such, any truly literal reading of the Torah must take account of its beginning and ending by reading them together. There are many, many more comparisons in this book, but a truly literal reading must explain what the author compares, at least, at these points. When we do such, the Torah’s author literally compares creation in the garden (Gen 1–2) to the promised land (Deut 34) for which Israel, Moses and the reader long.
While most would view such reading as a theological imposition upon the text, readers have recognized for centuries that an author formed a real relationship between these points. The academic debate on these issues is ongoing with several acceptable views within the framework of orthodoxy. However, I want to ask quickly (without the needed analysis that is beyond our scope today), why is it that we won’t ignore such relationships in other stories but we often do as scholars with the Bible? The beginning and ending form comparisons that shine a light on how he wants us to read his text. So, how could this understanding, relationship and comparison be anything less than a part of the book’s literal meaning?
If our scholarship aims to build faith in Christ and give others hope that the Bible is truly the Word of God, how can we not fashion our understanding of literal meaning any other way? Those who divide a literal reading from a theological one offer a false, artificial choice of different “truths.” It is an interpretive path turning away from the one embedded in the Torah itself. As John Sailhamer once asked us as his students, “Isn’t it natural to read the Bible (even the Torah) as a spiritual discussion? Why impose a spiritual meaning on the Old Testament when one was already put there by the author?” That is, the author literally wrote the Torah as a spiritual discussion, even a theological one. Theology frames its beginning and ending and flows from story to story, law to law, poem to poem and through genealogies from Adam to the rest of humanity. We must ask, therefore, one question of our literal interpretation: “Are we caretakers of the way to the tree of life, or are we teaching others to walk down the text in a path contrary to the one imposed by the author?” By passionately seeking to grab every moment of the Torah, from beginning to end, and holding them together as one book, we will find the author’s message of the God who is life. As we turn back to the Torah to show us our past, present and future, we will find the author’s hope for the problem that plagues us all. If not, we will be wandering and lost, defining hope according to our own eyes.