Delving the Depths of Scripture: The Word on Fire Bible: Vol. III

BOOK PICK: Read and ponder ‘The Pentateuch.’

‘The Pentateuch’ includes sacred art and insightful commentary to explain the word of God.
‘The Pentateuch’ includes sacred art and insightful commentary to explain the word of God. (photo: Courtesy of Word on Fire)



Word on Fire Institute, 2023

832 pages, $49.95-99.95

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“For Christians, the Old Testament, taken as a whole, represents a journey toward Christ,” the late Pope Benedict XVI wrote many years ago. “Only when it arrives at Christ are we able to see what its true meaning, gradually hinted at, really was.”

A good edition of the Bible, therefore, should help us through the tough spots. It should be a patient teacher that teases out the significance.

That brings us to The Word on Fire Bible: Vol. III, The Pentateuch. Produced by the Word on Fire Institute, which was founded by Bishop Robert Barron, now shepherd of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, Vol. I covered the Gospels, and Vol. II covered Acts through to Revelation.

This volume, which includes the first five books of the Old Testament, is massive, running to more than 800 pages. But given some of the difficult terrain it covers, the length is justified.

As in previous volumes of The Word on Fire Bible, it is replete with reflections from scholars, the saints and Bishop Barron himself. Reading this edition is akin to going to a master class on delving the depths of Scripture.

The beautiful holy art, too, also reminds us that, as Pope Benedict said, this is a journey to Christ. To illustrate the Exodus, when the Jews put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts before fleeing Egypt, the illustration shows Christ leaning on a blood-soaked post. The caption explains that the image alludes “to the cross he will one day carry, which will be stained not with the blood of an animal but his own blood.”

In the first chapter of Genesis alone, there are commentaries by Bishop Barron, Pope Benedict XVI, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and G.K. Chesterton.

These commentaries form the story into a crystal-clear diamond in which the faithful reader can contemplate Genesis through different angles, bringing out the richness of God’s word. The same goes for the other books of the Pentateuch.

For instance, why do we need to know the specifications of building the tabernacle?

A sample from Exodus 27: “Likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings one hundred cubits long, their pillars twenty and their bases twenty of bronze but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be silver.”

An excerpt from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae makes clear why it’s necessary to grasp what might seem like fussy details.

If we are to build great castles for human kings and queens, to make sure they are held in awe by the people, St. Thomas explains, then shouldn’t we do the same for the greatest King of all?

“Now man’s tendency is to reverence less those things which are common, and indistinct from other things; whereas he admires and reveres those things which are distinct from others in some point of excellence,” St. Thomas writes.

St. Thomas continues: “And for this reason it behooved special times, a special abode, special vessels, and special ministers to be appointed for the divine worship, so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God.”

Also in Exodus are the descriptions of sacred priestly robes, described down to the smallest part:

“You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and a moonstone; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst …”

Pope Francis reminds us that the sacred robes worn by the priests were not just for show but to symbolize the children of Israel and the 12 tribes of Israel.

“This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart.”

This doesn’t mean the writing in this part of Exodus becomes a breeze; God wrote for adults. But it explains why we need to pay attention to how the Israelites, our elder brothers and sisters in faith, gave God his due, and how that tradition has carried on in our own Catholic Church.

Leviticus 15 describes ritual cleanliness to an extreme point. Even someone who merely touches the bed of someone unclean must “shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water and shall be unclean until the evening.”

St. John of Damascus reminds us that, to the Israelites, “water has the power of purification. In the time of Noah, God washed away the sin of the world by water. By water every impure person is purified …”

We do something similar today: The water of baptism is used to cleanse original sin, making the child or adult ready to join the great community of faith.

Indeed, we must cleanse ourselves of sin through the sacrament of reconciliation in order to receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Bishop Barron tells us that Exodus 16, which outlines the priestly functions on the Day of Atonement, is the heart of the book. He writes: “Now we come to the moment when both sacrifice and priesthood reach their fullest expression.”

As St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the German Jewish convert Edith Stein, said, the “Day of Atonement is the Old Testament antecedent to Good Friday,” in which the Savior of the World takes the place of animal sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people.

It’s said the devil is in the details, but in the case of the Pentateuch, and the Bible as a whole, it is God who shines through. The third volume of the Word on Fire Bible makes that clear: Every word of Scripture is holy.