Interview with Gary Edward Schnittjer, author of THE TORAH STORY: AN APPRENTICESHIP ON THE PENTATEUCH

Published on April 11, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Zondervan, 2006 | 592 pages

 

We may not usually think of the first five books of the Bible as “a story,” but Gary Schnittjer of Cairn University wants to change that.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking to Dr. Schnittjer today about his important book, The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship in the Pentateuch.

Gary, welcome! And thanks for talking to us today.

Schnittjer:
Fred, great to be with you. I appreciate the opportunity.

 

Zaspel:
Just broadly, what is “the Torah story?”

Schnittjer:
The Torah story is the beginning of the Gospel. In simple terms, I suppose, it’s about the Word of God to the human revolution against his Word. I usually think that these biblical stories, since they’re not over yet, we need to frame them, maybe, in terms of a question that a faithful person might ask. In this case, how will the Word of God overcomes the human revolution? That he will, there’s some real confidence in that, but how he is going to do it – that’s the way the story unfolds.

 

Zaspel:
What is the Story of Genesis? And how does each next book in the Torah reflect in its own way the story of Genesis?

Schnittjer:
That’s a pretty big question. I’ll just answer in brief. In the case of Genesis, of course, God initiates redemption through Hebrew ancestors. And, of course, that’s in many surprising and counterintuitive ways.

Exodus and the other books – I never know what to say – they are all Genesis-shaped, or is Genesis Torah-shaped? It’s hard to say. But Exodus begins with the filling of the land of Egypt, and this signals both the creator’s mandate and it also creates the reason for Pharaoh’s anti-Semitic agenda. The book of Exodus ends when God’s glory fills the tabernacle. And, of course, in between these two fillings is the great story of redemption – command, rebellion, and the big miracle of the whole book is God’s forgiveness of his rebellious people at Sinai.

In the case of Leviticus, of course, the people are in a new situation. It’s good and bad. The good is that God himself is dwelling with them. The bad news is that God is holy and they are in a very dangerous situation. The story of Leviticus is God’s merciful giving of his instruction to Israel so that they can worship and enjoy the fellowship of their holy God.

I think the case of Numbers is really interesting. As far as the social and moral world of Numbers, it’s shaped entirely by the book of Genesis. We see the intra-tribal relations and even the way the camp is arranged. It unfolds right out of the story of the tribal heads in Genesis. In the case of the international situation that Israel finds itself in Numbers – that all that echoes back to the ancestral stories of the nations in Genesis, as well. The really significant story, though, in Numbers is Israel’s persistent tendency to temptation. And, of course, God’s merciful provision for his people as they wander in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ words on his last earthly day. Moses spends his entire day explaining (that’s what Deuteronomy introduces it as) explaining Torah. In many respects, Moses’ reinterpretation of Torah stands as the most important commentary that there has ever been on Torah.

 

Zaspel:
Pressing forward another step, you mention that “The books of Moses are the first five of the nine-book serial narrative called the Primary Narrative.” Can you sketch that out for us a bit?

Schnittjer:
Yes, that’s really the thing. The Old Testament unfolds mostly in stories, and they are connected, they are serial stories. In case of the term, the primary narrative, the big story – that’s the story that’s in the Torah. And then there’s a huge serial sequel of the story of the rise and the fall of the Hebrew kingdoms. Those are told in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Traditionally they’re called the former prophets. These two major stories – the Torah, and the story of the rise in the fall of the Hebrew kingdom – together are the great story that we call the primary narrative. It begins with the creation of the heavens and the earth, and it ends with the fall of the city of God. At the beginning and end we see a little bit of closure. In the beginning, there is a rebellion and the first humans are exiled to the east of the garden, and at the end there’s a rebellion, of course, that comes to a culmination and Israel and Judah are exiled to the east of the land.

 

Zaspel:
I wonder how many Christians actually think of Genesis through Kings as a single story like that? I think it’s fascinating; it opens up the narrative wonderfully.

How, then, does this “Primary Narrative” shape the theological framework of the rest of the Old Testament?

Schnittjer:
We all make sense of things especially through story, and the great narrative of redemption in the Old Testament, especially held in the primary narrative, that’s sort of the framework to make sense of the other writings. Like the Old Testament prophets, the writing prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve Prophets. They’re preaching against a rebellious people and calling them to repentance and turning back to faithfulness in the Lord. Those prophetic messages make sense against the context of the book of Kings, I suppose, but that’s the end of a very long story. They are both preaching from Torah, but they’re also preaching to their congregation, the kingdom. The other books, like those that are written by the psalmists and the sages, present worship, wisdom, and they are constantly making allusion to the great story of God’s redemption. We understand those songs, those praises, those stories, the wisdom in its new clothing, but especially according to the great story of God’s redemption.

There are other narratives too. There is even what we call the secondary narrative. There’s a whole other version of the same story in a second serial narrative – Chronicles, which attaches naturally to Ezra and Nehemiah. That story begins with Adam (the very first word) and goes all the way through the rise and fall of the Davidic kingdom. And ends with Cyrus’s call for the people to go back and rebuild the Temple. So this great story in both of its versions really sets the framework for the whole Old Testament and there’s the lingering question – how will the word of God overcome the human revolution? I mean that’s really how the New Testament winds up answering.

 

Zaspel:
One last step:  How does this Torah Story inform the New Testament?

Schnittjer:
That’s something that especially Protestant parishioners really need to get a handle on, because there is, a lot of times, a sense of “Torah is one thing, and the gospel is something else, the New Testament is something else.” But there was Gospel and there was Christianity before there was a New Testament. We can imagine that, but there is no such thing as Messiah or Christianity without Torah.

The New Testament gets at this in so many ways. One example, of many, is – Christ has a very strange story about the underworld in Luke 16. In that, he has a conversation that he presents to his followers, of Abraham talking to a dead guy. Abraham winds up telling him, “they have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.” And the deceased wealthy person says, “no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Abraham replies, “if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.” The upshot of the story is so shocking to us, it’s almost as though the New Testament is entirely superfluous – just read the Torah and the prophets. And in many ways, that’s a good clue for us. The New Testament is a preaching of the Gospel of Christ according to the Torah and prophets. I guess more concretely, we can back up and say, Torah speaks life; Torah speaks death; and in many ways the New Testament shows how this word of death and life culminate in the Gospel of Christ.

I’m kind of fond of saying it this way – the Gospel of Christ is the great story of the Scriptures; and the Gospel starts with, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

 

Zaspel:
Is there any background story to this book – on your part, that is? How did this book come about?

Schnittjer:
On my own part, I was essentially minding my own business. I teach Torah constantly, both at the seminary level and the college level every semester. That’s what I’ve been doing for a couple of decades now. But many years ago, I was at a conference and was having breakfast with a gentleman a couple of times and we had very animated and terrific conversations. He asked me, at the end of breakfast one morning, would I consider giving him a proposal for a book for Zondervan, and I said, sure, I would be delighted to. So that’s how that got started.

 

Zaspel:
Was this part of your doctoral work?

Schnittjer:
No, not really. I did doctoral work on intertextuality and the Torah reading and how that affects the Synagogue situation. But, no, this comes more out of my teaching.

 

Zaspel:
This is really good material, and yet you’ve not pitched it simply to scholars. Who is your intended audience?

Schnittjer:
The intended audience is most definitely students. That was one of the tricks of all of this. I think anybody who has a terminal earned doctorate can maybe identify with what I’m saying, but the sort of education we go through makes my natural writing voice pretty technical, and my articles and conference papers reflect that. So what we tried to do in this case is… I honestly did spend some time praying and dedicating myself to the Lord and determined from the front end that I wanted to just talk to students, not to my peers or any colleagues. So what we did that year is, I taught my course (the University gave me a light teaching load that year, I just taught Torah) and I taught Torah on Tuesday. Whatever I said on Tuesday, I wrote it down on Wednesday. Whatever I said on Thursday, I wrote it down on Friday. It took another three to five years to finish the project, but the main way to get my classroom voice, not my academic voice, was in creating this sort of mechanism.

 

Zaspel:
Highlight some features of the book that you’ve prepared to be of help to the reader.

Schnittjer:
They did a wonderful job. It’s a full-color book with all the bells and whistles. The chapters – there’s the main section of each chapter, and then at the end there’s something that I’ve called, Another Look. Just a short pause, like a page or two, where there is opportunity to look back at how the passage under consideration connects to other parts of the Old or the New Testament. I wanted to get that sort of interconnectivity of the Scriptures all through the book. The other thing is, there’s abundant diagrams and charts to try to visualize some of these concepts. There is at the beginnings of the chapters all the normal stuff:  key terms to look for, focus questions all along the way, study questions, research options at the ends of chapters. I mean, it has all the kinds of things that someone needs to learn Torah.

 

Zaspel:
Yes, it’s very user-friendly.

And you have a video course on this available soon, right?

Schnittjer:
Yes, I was very pleased to find out I was invited by Zondervan to come up to their studios this past summer and shoot the course. It was really, honestly, a pain. I like to teach in the classroom and it’s really something else to be in the studio with somebody that knows what they’re talking about, stopping me to tell me about my mistakes. And video people telling me to go back and start again at this spot. But, for all the trouble that it is to film something like this, I have to say that I appreciated the opportunity a lot. Zondervan does a great job and I’m just grateful that they took the time to do this. I’m looking forward to coming out, myself.

 

Zaspel:
When does that come out?

Schnittjer:
It comes out at the end of this month.

 

Zaspel:
Oh, already? Okay, great! We will be sure to feature that for you as well.

We’re talking to Dr. Gary Schnittjer about his new book, The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship to the Pentateuch. It’s an excellent work that we happily recommend for any study of the first five books of the Bible – in fact, it’s a book that will help inform your study of the rest of the Bible too.

Gary, thanks for talking to us today.

Schnittjer:
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Fred.

 

Zaspel:
Dr. Schnittjer’s The Torah Story lectures are now available on DVD. You’ll want to check them out  here.

Buy the books

The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch

Zondervan, 2006 | 592 pages