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Dr. Larry Arnn on the Pentateuch

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HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, our weekly walk through one of or many of the texts of the canon of the West. Dr. Arnn, before we begin on Deuteronomy, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, I wanted to ask you, because on week from today is the application deadline for Hillsdale College, February 15th,, who ought to go there and finish that application this week? They may be thinking about it, or their mom and dad might be urging them to look at, but who do you want to apply?

LA: You need two qualities – willing and able. So the willing and able. Willing to what? The answer is, if you want to know and become deeply informed about the ultimate purposes of your life, about the great controversies that are raging in the country today, it’s a lot of work, but that’s what we do. And at our place, everybody does it. And because of that, it’s a college. The word college means partnership, something a bunch of people do together. And this is a very high thing. Also, you can pick a major, and you can qualify yourself for a career. But that is then, that. And we’re good at that, and our kids get jobs like crazy, and by the way, we’re cheap compared to any other college ranked like we are. But it’s a fact that the main thing we do is equip somebody to talk about subjects like the ones we’re just about to talk about, you and me.

HH: And does it matter at all that people have waited until late in the day, that there’s only a week left? Because often, people will assume last to arrive, first to be rejected.

LA: No, it doesn’t work that way. We gather them all up, and we look at them all impartially. And if you’re interested, send an application. We’ll pay attention to it. It’s a really good idea to call us after you send in the application and say look, I just want you to know I’m really interested, because remember, willingness, if you go to college, you’ve got to do the work. We’re looking for kids who really want to do the work.

HH: Now let’s do the work of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And I begin by saying this is really the story of Moses, but much, much more. If you missed our conversation about Genesis over the last two weeks, that’s available at How do you want to approach this, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, so the Pentateuch is five books. That comes from a Greek word which means five vessels, something like that. And these are the core of the Old Testament, the Torah, the part most studies. And we talked about Genesis last time. And the other four books, you can understand them in a group. We can leave out Leviticus if you want to, because it’s full of public health regulations and stuff. They really are public health regulations, much of it. But they do some really great things, and by the way, some monumental things in the memory and story of the Western world, because of course, the escape of the Jewish people from Israel, that is, you know, all over both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, the New Testament, those facts are so often rehearsed as the great things the Lord has done for us. They were led into Egypt by Joseph, and they were led out by Moses. And God did wonders to make that possible. And of course, those wonders are magnificent. You know, if you go watch the movie, The Ten Commandments, but better read Exodus, because they’re fantastic. And those, so that’s the one thing that happens.

HH: Let me begin by interjecting, yesterday, for two hours, I discussed with Mark Oppenheimer, who’s the New York Times religion columnist, and authored a cover story for SI, and we debated it for a couple of hours, and he’s a Conservative, capital C Jew, who began our conversation by flatly saying this didn’t happen. There was no exodus, the Jews weren’t captured in Egypt. When you encounter that among a college student, does it matter to how you read the text?

LA: No, because the text is the story of a people and their purpose, and their relationship to God. And it’s, from my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether the Earth, the Heavens and the Earth were created exactly as they are said to have been created in Genesis. The point is that God made them, and for a purpose, and in an order. And it doesn’t matter exactly what happened in the story of the Jews. It becomes their story. And remember last time, I said in the covenant with Abraham that the Jews have understood themselves from earliest times, from the timing, from the writing of the earliest parts of the Bible, to be a people carrying a messaging and doing a duty for all mankind.

HH: Right. Now in Exodus, obviously we come up on Moses, and Moses’ story is of abandonment and renewal and recovery, and then encounter with God. This is the story that has launched a million sermons in Christian churches, Larry Arnn. What is it about him? Is it his historical significance? Or is it in his character?

LA: Well, it’s both, right? Like one of the ways I understand Moses is there’s this fantastic sculpting of Moses by Michelangelo in Rome. And it’s a great thing to do to look at the Pieta by Michelangelo nearby in St. Peter’s Basilica, and then look at Moses. Moses is a symbol of strength and gravity. He looks like thunder itself sitting there carved in marble. And Moses, remember, is of the tribe of the priests. There are twelve tribes of Israel, and the sons of Levi, one of the sons of Israel or Jacob are appointed to be the priests. And they’re a class apart. They don’t have land in the Promised Land. They’re given a city, or cities to live in, but they live at the behest of others, and they are ministers. And Moses is the greatest of the ministers of God, to God’s chosen people.

HH: Now the statue to which you refer, I believe, it’s in St. Peter and the Chains. And it’s this massive, he’s not very welcoming as a leader. And from that, do you generally reason the idea that most leaders have to be that way?

LA: Well, yeah. Yes, he is, but of course, there are other aspects of Moses’ character that also show what it’s like to be a leader. Moses does a lot of justice. And he pleads for his people. And you know, so often, it’s not the duty of Moses to be bringing good news. God takes the people out, but there are enormous risks. And their lot suffers because of his ministrations in the beginning. They’re forced to work harder. They are, many of them are killed as he fights to get them out of Egypt. And then he takes them out in the desert, and they reveal their great character of the Old Testament. They are a stiff neck people. And while he’s up there on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, that’s the second thing I want to talk about at least in Exodus, while he’s up there on the mountain and getting that, they begin to worship other gods. And he breaks the Commandments, but they’re…so what is the result of that? They are required to wander in the desert for decades, learning to get the slavery out of themselves, and to live a harsh life, and become a strong enough people to be God’s people.

HH: Learning to get the slavery out of themselves?

LA: Yeah, that’s what I think was going on. I think that they were slavish. They had been enslaved for a long time. And so what do they do? Well, I’ll save it for after the break. When Pharaoh doubles their burdens, they cry out against Moses.

HH: Yeah.

LA: At least we got security here.

HH: That is fascinating.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, we went to break, and we were talking about the stiff necked people called out for double burden from Pharaoh. They got mad at Moses, and this is before Passover, and before the Red Sea. So my question is going to come after that. But what was your comment about when they call out…that is the evidence of their slavishness?

LA: Yeah, because what they’re called to do is to be the people representing and living under God’s law for all people. But what do they do? They keep, you know, they’re enslaved, and they don’t like it, but on the other hand, every time things get bad in the desert, and even during, while they’re still in Egypt, and Moses and God are conducting their negotiations with Pharaoh, is they cry out. No, leave us here and safe. And so the question before them is physical security and a survival, and enough to eat, against service to the Lord and faith in the Lord. And you know, the Lord feeds them by miracles, and then they cry out against that and want a different diet. And He gives them one, right? So they’re a people that are not ready to enter into the Promised Land, and be ready, and be an example before the nations of God’s people.

HH: The thing that has always struck me about these books, Larry Arnn, is that when they leave, they quickly…how quickly can you forget the Passover? How can you forget the Red Sea? How can you forget manna and quail and water from a rock? How does that actually happen?

LA: Well, but that’s…first of all, that’s easy to understand as a parable, like you know Victor Hanson. I’ll bet you’ve had him on your show.

HH: Many, many, many times, yeah.

LA: And of course, and one of his favorite themes, and he’s a wise man, is when people get rich, it’s not really good for their discipline. And what happens, and I mean in your own life, I can tell you about my own, I live, I have a very high pressure job, and I work really, really hard. And the week after commencement, I’m usually a whining dog, because by the way, I don’t want to work anymore, but I’ve got to. And then, you know, by the time it finally calms down, if it ever does, getting close to July, I usually have a week where I’m just useless. And what’s that about? What that’s about is pressure when it’s relieved relaxes discipline in people. And the Jews are an example of that. And they are, and their story, because remember, the story is couched in terms. And think how long ago these books were written. You know, that’s three thousand, four thousand years ago? It is couched in terms from the outset, from the earliest books, that these are lessons for all mankind, and to be a necessary blessing to all mankind. It seems to me the story becomes more understandable when it’s like that. And let’s say the story is false. Why has it survived? Why? And it may be because it contains a meaning that has a permanent relevance.

HH: Now I’m sure you hear the objections, but it’s also a convenient way to get us where we are, and it’s a good myth, and I’m sure the nations surrounding Israel say that’s just it, it’s just a claim on land that was doctored up in order to justify this. But it doesn’t necessarily ought to guide us. So why does it have a right to guide us now?

LA: Well, there…C.S. Lewis writes about this one time in a way that I like. He says, and I’ll paraphrase him, he said I used to think that I couldn’t believe something, especially something about God, unless it made sense to me. And I still think that, he said. So after he had become a Christian, he still thinks it, right? In other words, the first reason you’d believe it is because it makes sense. And you know, the second thing I want to talk about is the Ten Commandments. And one question you can ask is, do they make sense? And indeed, if you think that through for a minute, it’s not that they’re incredible, it’s that they are common sense. And by the way, the forgetting of them does carry heavy penalties, does it not?

HH: Yup.

LA: And so, they’re worth talking about for a minute, because remember, what goes on in the Pentateuch, right, is there’s this story of Creation, I said that at the beginning of this, in Genesis, a story of Creation which is less specific and more shrouded in the midst of what, you know, the beginning before any time. And then there’s the story of an establishment of a people. And the rest of the Pentateuch is really about that, and about the provision of their laws, the laws for this people.

— – – –

HH: We are at the Ten Commandments, Larry Arnn. Take it away.

LA: Okay, well, there are two tables, and the two tables are interesting, both because of the distinction between them, and because of an overlap. First of all, the story, the blessing that God gives the Jewish people, the Israelites in the desert is not survival and preparation to rule independently themselves in a land. Those are powerful blessings. The blessing He gives them is the law. And the law is a way to live. And this way to live in the first table has mainly to do with man’s relationship with God. And in the second table, there are two tablets, right, and there are ten, so there are five on each. And the second table has mainly to do with man’s relationship with other men. And so the first table establishes a radically vertical relationship between man and God. And by the way, the whole law does that, the whole teaching of the Jewish law. By the way, the Declaration of Independence does that. Look at the references to God in the Declaration of Independence and ask yourself who does it presume to be superior?

HH: Sure.

LA: So God is above us. He is One. Nothing is to be above Him. He is so great that you are not to us His name except rightly, never wrongfully. His name, you’re to be shy of speaking it. Cautions in the New Testament echo this when there are cautions against swearing oaths on God. So that’s the first table. And the second table is about how you ought to treat other people. And it, by the way, you could summarize this as do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, it’s the Golden Rule. You’re not to kill them, you’re not to commit adultery on your loved ones, your wife. You’re not to steal, and you’re not to lie, and you’re not to envy precious things that your neighbors have. And the Golden Rule goes beyond these things, but both establish a profound regard for others. And so the ethics of the law is a common sense ethics. God is greater than man, proper conduct of one man to another under the providence of God requires respect, understanding of the equality of man. So the Ten Commandments are, by the way, the fact that we have a controversy about them today, about explain them, about whether they’re just a religious thing or not, the miraculous thing about them, or the marvel about them, is how little they are a religious thing, really, because if you understand the way the beings work, you know that the implication in the arrangements of the human person, in the soul and the body, in the better and the worse parts of the person, and in the relationship of man to the other animals, points up toward God. And the direction of God is upwards. And this great teaching, remember how remarkable it is, that this law would be given to this people, and it would establish a God that’s a God for all people, and a God that demands good comportment and behavior from one man to another.

HH: I want to skip to the end of Deuteronomy, because the man who brought those commandments down, Moses, ends up denied, Larry Arnn, the opportunity to enter into the Promised Land. There’s this incredible, he screws up in the course of his life of leadership, and doubts, and the penalty that he pays is he does not enter into the Promised Land, and he sings his song of Moses, and he gives his blessing. What’s that tell us about God?

LA: Well, He’s a very demanding God, right? And Moses, his agent, and you know, Moses got a lot from God. I mean, it’s hard duty. Moses is a symbol of the chosen people. You’re going to get this incredible privilege, and you’re not always going to like it very much. But it’s going to be good for you. And you know, the wrong that Moses did was to lose faith in God before the cries of his people when they were thirsty. And so that story, by the way, is not told very clearly about exactly what the wrong was. I think it’s at the rock of Meribah.

HH: Right.

LA: But later accounts, and when it’s used as a judgment against Moses, what he did was he forgot to do the one thing his ministry demanded of him, and that was to trust to God to repair the problem. And so that was a pride, right, or a failure of faith. And so the punishment for that was you can look, but you cannot go.

HH: Now he’s succeeded by Joshua, and we may talk about Joshua and the balance of the Old Testament story next week, but a leader, a land that is led, and a people that is led by a great leader like this, at the end when that leader leaves them, how often do they lose their way, Larry Arnn? And are you surprised that the Jews did not?

LA: Well, by the way, they did, of course, but not immediately.

HH: Not immediately.

LA: And that’s because, by the way, the people that walked across the Jordan River toward Jericho was a very different crowd than the ones that left Cairo.

HH: Oh.

LA: Because they’d been worked on for a while. And there had been trials, you know, who is on the Lord’s side, right? And Joshua steps forward and says I am on the Lord’s side. And there was enormous pressure not to be there. So he had had many opportunities to prove himself. The hard thing about succession is that, you know, in King Lear, the Shakespeare play, one of its central themes is great statesmen cannot get succession right.

HH: Yup.

LA: …because the excellences they possess are rare, and not likely present in the next generation. But remember that the Moses to Joshua story, that’s one example. But the story of the Jewish people, and the rest of the Old Testament, is full of counter examples.

HH: Yes, and we will come back to those next week. What are we going to do next week, by the way? Are we going to cover the whole, entire Old Testament?

LA: Well, we could, yeah.

HH: All right, that’s what we’ll do, and we’ll make sure that you are well and truly launched. And if you are intrigued by this or the previous conversations on the Iliad, the Odyssey, Genesis, they are all available at, or go directly to Sign up for the Western Civilization courses.

End of interview.


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