(pehn' tuh teuhch) First five books of Old Testament The word Pentateuch comes from two Greek words Penta “five” and teuchos meaning “box,” “jar,” or “scroll.” Originally the word was used as an adjective meaning “a five-scrolled (book).” The common Jewish arrangement calls the first five books of the Hebrew Bible Torah, law or teaching. The early church fathers beginning with Tertullian (about A.D. 200) called them the Pentateuch. The fivefold division of the Pentateuch is older than the Septuagint or earliest Greek translation (about 200 B.C.). The Hebrew names of these five scrolls come mainly from the opening word(s) of each scroll. Genesis is called bereshith, “in beginning”; Exodus, we'elleh shehymoth, “These are the names”; Leviticus, wayyikra, “and he called”; Numbers, bemidbar, “in the Wilderness”; and Deuteronomy, elleh haddebarim, “These are the words.” The names of the books in the English Bible, come through the Latin from the Greek Septuagint and are intended to be descriptive of the contents of each book. Genesis means “generation” or “origin”; Exodus means “going out”; Leviticus refers to the Levitical system; Numbers refers to the numbering of the tribes, Levites, and first born (Numbers 1-4,Numbers 26:1); and Deuteronomy means “second law” (Deuteronomy 17:18).
The dividing lines between the individual books of the Pentateuch generally mark a change in the direction of the materials. At the end of Genesis (Genesis 50:1), the stories of the Patriarchs end, and the story of the people of Israel begins in
Exodus 1:1. The division between Exodus and Leviticus marks the change from the building of the tabernacle in
Exodus 35-40 to the inauguration of worship (Leviticus 1-10). Numbers begins with preparation for leaving Sinai, and Deuteronomy stands out sharply from the end of Numbers in that
Deuteronomy 1:1 begins the great speech of Moses which covers thirty chapters (Deuteronomy 1-30). We do not know when the Pentateuch was divided into five books. The division may have taken place only when the whole material now united within it had been incorporated into one unit and that this division was aimed at producing sections of approximately equal length, corresponding to the normal length of scrolls.
Contents The division of the Pentateuch into five books does not indicate adequately the richness of the contents nor the variety of the literary forms found in the whole. A division of the Pentateuch based on the contents may be outlined as:
Genesis 1-11, Primeval history, from Creation to Abraham;
Genesis 12-36, Patriarchal history;
Genesis 37-50, Joseph stories;
Exodus 1-18, The Exodus;
Exodus 19:1—Numbers 10:10, Israel at Sinai;
Numbers 10:11-21:35, Israel in the Wilderness;
Numbers 22:1—Deuteronomy 34:1, Israel in the Plains of Moab. Within each of these larger narrative sections are a number of smaller sections dealing with various themes and subhythemes couched in many literary forms.
Themes The first theme in the Pentateuch is God is Creator (Genesis 1-2). This is followed closely by a chapter on the beginning of sin (Genesis 3:1).
Genesis 4-11 tell of the increase of world population and sin, and the judgment of God on the whole world. The themes of electon, covenant, promise, faith, and providence are introduced in the remainder of Genesis (12–50).
Divine deliverance is the major theme of
Exodus 1-18. Covenant and law are themes of
Exodus 19-24. Worship and social ethics are the concerns of
Exodus 25:1—Numbers 10:10. Guidance of a rebellious people through the great and terrible wilderness marks
Numbers 10-21; and preparations for going over Jordan and conquering Canaan are the major topics of
Numbers 22:1—Deuteronomy 34:1.
Literary forms and genres The Pentateuch includes many literary forms and genres: narratives, laws, lists, sayings, sermons, and songs. Narratives describe creation, judgment (flood), travel (wilderness wanderings), buildings (Ark, tabernacle), marriages (Isaac and Rebekah), and births (Moses).
Although the Pentateuch is often refered to as Torah or law, laws comprise only a small percentage of the text. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1: 2-17;
Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are frequently called law, but they are not law in the technical sense because no penalties or sanctions are connected with them. Other groups of laws in the Pentateuch are: the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:19); the laws of sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7); the laws of purity (Leviticus 11-15); the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26); and the Deuteronomy Code (Deuteronomy 12-26). No laws appear in Genesis. Four out of forty chapters in Exodus (Deuteronomy 20-23), most of Leviticus and a small portion of Numbers contain laws. Fourteen out of thirty-four chapters of Deuteronomy consist of legal material. See Deuteronomy 20-23; Deuteronomy 20-23; Deuteronomy 20-23; Deuteronomy 20-23; Deuteronomy 20-23. The 65 laws in the Book of the Covenant (see
Exodus 24:7) include rules about images and kinds of altars (Exodus 20:22-26); Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:1-11); offences penalized by death (Exodus 21:12-17); bodily injury (Exodus 21:18-24); offences against property (Exodus 21:25-22:17); miscellaneous social and cultic laws (Exodus 22:18-23:9); a cultic calendar (Exodus 23:10-19); blessing and curse (Exodus 23:20-33).
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) is named from the expression, “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2;
Leviticus 20:7,Leviticus 20:26). The Holiness Code stresses moral and ceremonial laws rather than civil and criminal laws.
Leviticus 23-26 are directed to the people;
Leviticus 21-22 are directed to the priests and the house of Aaron. This Code deals with the slaughter of animals and sacrifice (Leviticus 17:1-16); forbidden sexual relations (Leviticus 18:1-30); relationships with neighbors (Leviticus 19:1-37); penalties (stoning, burning); rules for personal life of the priests (Leviticus 20:1-22:16); the quality of sacrifices (Leviticus 22:17-33); a cultic calendar (Leviticus 23:1-44); rules for lights in the sanctuary and the shewbread (Leviticus 24:1-9); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-23); the sabbatic year and jubilee (Leviticus 25:1-55); blessings and curses (Leviticus 26:1-46).
The Holiness Code says very little about agriculture. Much more is said in this Code than in the Book of the Covenant about forbidden sexual relations, including homosexuality (compare
Leviticus 20:13). All forms of witchcraft, augury, and the occult are forbidden (Leviticus 17:7;
Leviticus 19:26,Leviticus 19:31;
Leviticus 20:2-6,Leviticus 20:27). Two significant passages in this group of laws are: “For the life… is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:14 RSV), and, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). The expression “I am the Lord your God” and similar expressions occur 46 times in
The Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26) is part of Moses' address to the twelve tribes just before they crossed the Jordan to go into Canaan. These are “preached” laws, full of admonitions and exhortations to heed and obey so that the Lord may bless them and they may live in the land (Deuteronomy 12:1,Deuteronomy 12:13,Deuteronomy 12:19,Deuteronomy 12:28;
Deuteronomy 15:10,Deuteronomy 15:18;
Deuteronomy 17:20,Deuteronomy 17:29). Many of these 80 laws are new because they are addressed to a new generation. See Deuteronomy. The restriction of worship or sacrifice to one legitimate altar is limited to the Deuteronomic Code as is the expression: “the place where I will make my name to dwell.” Permission for private slaughtering and eating animals is given only in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12:15). Laws for judges, prophets, priests, and kings occur only in Deuteronomy. The laws for Hebrew slaves and the calendars of worship are different in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy the Passover is to be observed only at the one legitimate place and the lamb is to be boiled (Deuteronomy 16:7), but in Exodus, Passover is a family affair and the lambs are to be roasted (Exodus 12:9). The laws for the tithes are different in
Deuteronomy 14:1 from those in
Numbers 18:21-32. Laws of holy war are given only in Deuteronomy. Idolatry and the First Commandment are major concerns of all the codes.
Many attempts have been made to classify the laws in the Old Testament according to their types. Some recent scholars have used the terms “apodictic” and “casuistic” to refer to the two main types of laws. Apodictic refers to those authoritative, unconditional laws such as the Ten Commandments which begin, “Thou shalt not,” “You shall,” or laws calling for the death penalty. Casuistic laws are usually case laws which begin “When a man,” or, “If a man.” This classification is helpful in identifying the literary form, setting, and perhaps the origin of a law. Christians often speak of Old Testament laws as moral, civil, and ceremonial, but the Old Testament does not use those categories to classify its laws. In the Pentateuch, laws of every kind are jumbled together and interspersed with narrative and descriptive sections. Rather than attempting to isolate certain moral laws, it would be better to try to detect moral and ethical principles in all types of Old Testament laws. Some recent scholars have classified the laws in the various parts of the Old Testament as: criminal law, civil laws, family laws, cultic (worship) laws, and charitable (humanitarian) laws.
Old Testament laws were given in the context of the covenant. The people had experienced deliverance (salvation) at the Exodus. God took the initiative and by grace redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt. God acted first, then called the people to respond. Old Testament laws were given to redeemed people to tell them how to live as people of God.
The Pentateuch contains many lists: genealogical (Genesis 5:1;
Exodus 5:1), geographical and ethnographical (Genesis 10:1;
Genesis 26:1), tribal (Genesis 49:1;
Deuteronomy 33:1); offerings (Exodus 35:1); census (Numbers 1-4;
Numbers 26:1), and campsites in the wilderness (Numbers 33:1).
The Old Testament contains many “sayings” of various kinds. Some are poetic. Some are proverbial. Some are prose. These sayings may have been remembered and passed from generation to generation. Some familiar examples are:
This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Genesis 2:23 NIV).
For dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19 NIV).
Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord (Genesis 10:9 NIV).
I… will be gracious to whom I will be gracious (Exodus 33:19).
Deuteronomy is the only place in the Old Testament where long sermons are found. Even the laws in Deuteronomy are “preached” laws. The fact that many admonitions and exhortations occur throughout the book may indicate that the book was used as a covenant renewing document.
One other major literary genre is found in the Pentateuch—that of song: Israel was a singing people. They sang in times of victory (Exodus 15:1), at work (Numbers 21:17-18), in times of battle (Numbers 21:14-15,Numbers 21:27-30), and in worship (Numbers 6:22-26;
Date and Authorship The problem of the date and authorship of the Pentateuch is one of the major critical problems of the Old Testament. Dr. John R. Sampey wrote,
Possibly the higher criticism of the Pentateuch is the most important critical problem confronting students of the Old Testament. Fundamental and difficult it calls for patience, industry and the ability to sift evidence and estimate its value. It requires logical discipline and a well-balanced mind [John R. Sampey, Syllabus For Old Testament Study (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1924), p. 52].
The existence of sources for its writing is not the major issue, but its inspiration and reliability in its present form.
One reason the question of date and authorship of the Pentateuch is difficult is that the books themselves are anonymous. Most English Bibles carry the titles of the first five books as “the books of Moses.” These titles are not in the Hebrew manuscripts. They came into England through Tyndale's version and were probably derived from Luther's translation which used only the numerical titles, “First Book of Moses,” and so on to the fifth.
Although the books of the Pentateuch as a whole are anonymous, a number of passages refer to Moses writing at least certain things (compare
Deuteronomy 31:9,Deuteronomy 31:22). Late in the Old Testament period, the tradition arose which seemingly refers to the Pentateuch as the “Book of Moses” (2 Chronicles 35:12). This tradition was carried on by Jews and Christians until after A.D. 1600. Some Jews and Christians raised occasional questions about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch during all that time, but the Renaissance and the Enlightenment led to the questioning of all things including the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. One passage in the Pentateuch which contributed to the serious questioning of Mosaic authorship is
Deuteronomy 34:5-8, describing Moses' death and the following period of mourning. Other post-Mosaic references are to Dan (Genesis 14:14; compare
Judges 18:28-29), and the conquest of Canaan (Deuteronomy 2:12). The way the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch is written today is nothing like it might have appeared in Moses' day. For hundreds of years, the Hebrew text was copied by hand. In the process of copying, the shape of the letters was completely changed. Vowel points and accents were added. Words were separated word by word and divided into verses and chapters.
We do not know who wrote the completed Pentateuch. The Pentateuch makes no claim that Moses wrote all of it. Many theories and hypotheses have been advanced to explain its origin. The classical literary critical theory is associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen, a nineteenth century German scholar. He popularized and synthesized the views of many Old Testament scholars and said that the Pentateuch was a compilation of four basic literary documents identified as J, E, D, and P. J stood for Jehovah or Judah and supposedly was written in the Southern Kingdom about 850 B.C. E stood for Elohim, a favorite Hebrew name for God in this document. It was supposedly written about 750 B.C. D stands for Deuteronomy and was written according to this hypothesis about 621 B.C. P stands for the Priestly document and was written about 500 B.C. The Priestly writer might have compiled the whole Pentateuch according to this theory.
Many other theories and modifications of older theories have arisen in the twentieth century. Critical scholarship's earlier agreement on the four sources has disappeared in the 1980s. Some date P early. Some date J very late. Some see D as the dominant author. Many are more interested in the literary art of the Pentateuch than in literary sources. Scholars are thus no closer to a solution to the problem of the authorship of the Pentateuch than they were when they first asked questions about it.
Even the most conservative scholars who defend Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch admit that Moses did not write every word of the Pentateuch. All accept the possibility of later minor alterations and additions to the work of Moses in the Pentateuch. Many discuss some development of the material in the Pentateuch along independent lines, after Mosaic composition. This is especially true linguistically. There is no reason why conservatives cannot often use such symbols as P and H as a convenient shorthand to refer to certain blocks of material. Recent conservative scholars speak of sources Moses may have used.
Conclusions No agreement has been reached as to the final solution to this most difficult problem. However some things are clear: (1) We should avoid the two extreme views that Moses wrote all the Pentateuch or that he wrote none of it. We should take the claims of the Bible concerning itself seriously but keep our minds and hearts open to new and different possible interpretations. (2) We should recognize the legitimacy of certain critical methods. W. T. Conner, who taught Systematic Theology at Southwestern Seminary for almost 40 years (1910-49), said, “There are certain questions of date, authorship, historical reliability and so forth, that must be settled by historical and literary criticism. There is no other way to settle them” [W. T. Conner, Revelation and God (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1943), p. 99]. (3) It is not necessary that we know the date and authorship of a book in the Bible before we can read it with profit. At times we must sacrifice our need for security in certainty to God's nature as sovereign mystery. See Authority; Inspiration; Revelation.
Ralph L. Smith