In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached the Bible’s Book of Genesis and Book of Exodus. They constitute the third reading in the fourth volume of The Great Ideas Program, Religion and Theology by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961).
Adler and Cain introduce the reading by describing Abraham and Moses, identifying the former as “a patriarchal ancestor” and the latter as “the founder of a people and a religion.” They conclude their introduction thus:
The Bible deals with the whole of human life as imbued with religion: mating and begetting, war and work, historical events and communal acts. In the Bible, domestic, ethical, and political activity‒as well as religious worship‒express and embody the service and imitation of God. These early books of the Bible help us to realize the full scope of the religious life. ( Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain, Religion and Theology, volume 4 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961, page 32)
Adler and Cain go on to explain what the Old Testament is and why they chose the passages that they did for the reading, to seek the “special Old Testament version of the relation between God and man” (Adler and Cain, Religion and Theology, page 34). Next they comment on the passages which they’ve chosen from Genesis about Abraham‒12:1-9; 13:14-18; 15; 17; 18:17-33; and 22:1-19. Then they comment on the passages which they’ve chosen from Exodus about Moses‒3-4 and about the Israelites‒6:1-8; 14-15; 19-20; and 24. Finally they ask and discuss some questions about the passages. Here I’ll just pose the questions which they ask and summarize what they say in response to the questions.
What, exactly, is a covenant, in the Biblical sense?
Adler and Cain had considered the Covenant on Mount Sinai in their earlier comments. Here they look at a few other covenants in the Bible, most between a higher party and a lower party. They describe the one at Mount Sinai as “a binding relationship with a people, bestowed by the higher power [God]. The higher power rules and guides; the lower one serves and obeys.” (Adler and Cain, page 42)
What is the religious meaning of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac?
Adler and Cain identify the two main interpretations of the episode, one seeing it as an advance from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice and the other stressing Abraham’s utter obedience and trust.
Is Old Testament religion essentially personal or communal?
Adler and Cain note that, although the experiences of Abraham and Moses were personal, they were done in the context of Abraham’s seed and the people. They ask a number of questions on the personal and communal elements of religion.
What does the name I AM THAT I AM mean?
Adler and Cain identify and discuss the two main interpretations of God’s giving it as His name, one holding that He is announcing Himself as eternal being (I AM) and the other that He is announcing His continual presence with Israel.
How can the God of one people be the God of the whole world?
Adler and Cain reword the question “[Is] the idea of a special revelation of the Eternal Being to a particular people at a particular place and time…not offensive to reason‒especially when the claim is made that this revelation discloses God’s nature, will, and purpose for all men at all times and places?” and discuss it at length.