Reading The Pentateuch

Reading The Pentateuch

By John J. McDermott
Mahwah, N. J.; Paulist Press, 2002. Paperback, 250 pages.

Recently, I have been reading the works of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. By some she is considered to be a Catholic, but she was never properly baptized into its church. Today, scholars consider her and her work closer to the Middle Age Christian Gnostics, known as the Cathars, in part because of her rejection of much of the Old Testament. (Catharism rejected all of the Old Testament.) However, she accepted the first five books commonly known as the Pentateuch. I thought that if I could find an up to date, easy to read, scholarly book on the Pentateuch without a large number of footnotes, perhaps I might figure out why Simone Weil accepted these five books and the Cathars did not. McDermott's book satisfied all of my requirements, and may even have personally answered some of my posed questions.

Professor McDermott teaches the Old Testament at Loras College. He received his biblical licentiate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. I felt comfortable as I read the book, knowing he had years of experience in the classroom. The organization of the material in the book reflects the seasoning of classroom teaching.

The first two chapters begin with how the Pentateuch was written and its overall history. The remaining chapters are the details of the first five books in the Old Testament. One thing that makes each chapter easy to follow is the consistency of McDermott's presentation, He always begins with an overview of what material he will discuss, and the generalities of that material. Thus, I always knew where the following Bible chapters and verses were headed. Because there are a number of inconsistencies in the biblical material, this turns out to be important and very helpful.

For the true Bible scholar, McDermott provides all the references to other books of the Old Testament when needed, but this is done skillfully so the story line is not scattered. Fortunately, he spends very little time trying to explain how certain miracles occurred, but instead suggests that myths would provide better explanations in some cases.

Be prepared for some shocking revelations. In Numbers 5:11-30, he discusses The Test for an Unfaithful Wife. The test implies an induced miscarriage, or as we would say today: an abortion. In today's social climate, this can be a very difficult topic, but McDermott handles it very well. Another topic that is difficult to understand is the Biblical acceptance of the existence of slavery (Exodus, 21:1-11). Once again, McDermott. treats this in a very professional manner. I even found reading about the religious laws in Leviticus to be of interest.

For Theosophists who have labored mightily to get through Geoffrey Hodson's three volumes of The Hidden Wisdom in the Holy Bible, Dr. McDermott's book is here to ease the way. Keep in mind that Hodson, after three volumes, only gets up to Exodus, Chapter 17. Reading about Simone Weil’s life will give you an outlook from a Christian Gnostic view while McDermott's book will give you the depth to better understand her writings.


January/February 2004