Introduction to the Pentateuch
The title “Pentateuch” is derived from the Greek word pentateuchos, which means “five-volume work.” This title, which goes back to the third century AD, refers to the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In Jewish tradition these five books are known by the Hebrew term Torah, which is often translated “law,” but a better rendering would be “instruction.”
According to Deuteronomy, before the Israelites entered the promised land, Moses gave them “the law” to guide them for the future. Moses instructed the Levites to place a written copy of this law beside the ark of the covenant (Deut 31:26). Every seven years the priests were to read this law to the people (Deut 31:9–13). The law that was recorded and read publicly was probably Deuteronomy 5–26 (or 5–30). Joshua, who led the Israelites into the promised land, was commanded by God to meditate on this material day and night (Josh 1:8). Various titles are given to this ancient book of instructions: “the Book of the Law of Moses” (e.g., Josh 8:31), “the Law of Moses” (e.g., 1Kgs 2:3), and “the Book of Moses” (e.g., 2Chr 35:12). At some point, this shorter book was incorporated into the longer narrative that comprises the Pentateuch. Subsequently, the title “Law” was adopted for all five books. In the prologue to Ecclesiasticus (dated about 132 BC) the author uses “Law” to denote the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy.
While in Jewish tradition the “Law” is viewed as a distinctive entity, readers must realise that the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy form part of a larger literary work that includes the books of Joshua to Kings. The Pentateuch itself is an unfinished story. It anticipates future developments, fulfilling God’s promises to the patriarchs. These include the expectation that their descendants will possess the land of Canaan. The story of the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan is recorded in Joshua to Samuel. When reading the Pentateuch, its close relationship to the books that come immediately after it should be highlighted.
The Pentateuch establishes an important foundation for understanding the whole of the Bible, forming the initial part of a divinely inspired metanarrative that addresses important questions regarding humanity’s relationships with God and the rest of creation.
Genesis begins by highlighting God’s intention that humans should rule over the earth, commissioned as God’s vicegerents (Gen 1:26–28). Set apart from other creatures, they enjoy a privileged relationship with God. The expectation is created that as humans fill the earth, they will establish God’s kingdom with God dwelling among them. Through the malevolent influence of a mysterious serpent, however, Adam and Eve betray God when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:1–6). By paying attention to the serpent, the human couple fail to fulfil their duty as God’s vicegerents. Unwittingly, they concede their authority to govern the earth to the serpent. In addition, their own human nature becomes corrupted. Subsequently, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and prevents them from having access to the tree of life (Gen 3:22–24).
The existence of a serpent who stands in opposition to God reveals that Adam and Eve are not the first creatures to rebel against God’s authority. Elsewhere in Scripture, this serpent is identified as the devil or Satan (Rev 12:9; 20:2).
The tragic consequences of Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God are highlighted in the events narrated in Genesis 4–11. Rather than filling the earth as God’s vicegerents, humans fill the earth with violence (Gen 6:11–13). Grieved by their actions, God intervenes and punishes the earth’s population by sending a great flood. Noah is an exception to this overwhelming cataclysm, finding favour in God’s eyes because he was righteous and blameless (Gen 6:8–9). He and members of his immediate family are rescued from the flood waters, along with other creatures. Although Noah and others survive the flood, human nature remains corrupted (Gen 8:21). Despite this ongoing corruption, God graciously makes a guarantee to Noah via an everlasting covenant and his descendants that he will not send another flood to wipe out “all flesh” (Gen 9:9–17).
The experience of the flood does not prevent humans from pursuing objectives that run counter to God’s hopes for the world. Wanting to make a name for themselves, people construct a city in southern Mesopotamia with the intention of challenging God’s authority in heaven itself (Gen 11:4). God created people with an innate desire to live in community, but the city of Babylon — Babel is the Hebrew name for Babylon — is the antithesis of the city that God wishes to have constructed on the earth. To curtail humanity’s ability to work together for evil purposes, God imposes linguistic barriers (Gen 11:7–9).
Genesis 3–11 records the negative consequences of humanity’s alienation from God. Despite this, however, these chapters hold out hope that the chaos initiated by the serpent will be reversed. This hope begins with God’s judgment on the malevolent serpent. The Lord God predicts that one of Eve’s offspring will strike the serpent with a fatal blow (Gen 3:15). This promise introduces an expectation that is integral to almost everything that is said in the rest of Genesis.
The expectation that one of Eve’s descendants will overcome the serpent is placed in jeopardy when out of jealousy Cain kills Abel (Gen 4:2–4). Cain’s short family history ends by recording how Lamech murders a young man. In his boasting, Lamech perceives himself to be even greater than Cain (Gen 4:23–24).
With Lamech, Cain’s patriline comes to an end. Unexpectedly, however, the Genesis narrative records that Eve had another son, Seth. Eve remarks, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Gen 4:25). Importantly, whereas Cain’s patriline ends with Lamech, a bigamist and murderer, Seth’s patriline concludes by focusing on another Lamech, who is the father of Noah (Gen 5:28–31). This latter Lamech hopes that his son will bring relief from the curse imposed upon the ground by God (Gen 3:17–19). When God decides to blot out all of humanity due to their wickedness (Gen 6:5–7), Noah alone finds favour with God (Gen 6:8).
The patriline from Adam to Noah continues through his son, Shem. Genesis 11:10–26 records how the unique lineage moves through ten generations from Shem to Terah, the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. At this point in the quest for Eve’s offspring who will overcome the serpent, Genesis gives prominence to Abram, later renamed Abraham (Gen 17:5).
Against the background of God’s displeasure with humans, the Lord summons Abraham to be a source of blessing for the families of the ground (Gen 12:3). With Abraham, the hope associated with Eve’s promised offspring is developed further.
Despite his wife’s inability to have children, God promises Abraham that he will become a great nation (Gen 12:2). This is later guaranteed through a covenant that God makes with Abraham (Gen 15:16–21). Subsequently, God establishes another covenant with Abraham that involves him becoming the father of many nations (Gen 17:4–6). As their metaphorical father, Abraham will bring God’s blessing to all who acknowledge him as their spiritual parent. The eternal covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17 subsumes the earlier covenant of Genesis 15, which focuses on Abraham’s fatherhood of only one nation.
The outworking of the covenant of circumcision is intimately tied to the patriline that moves from Abraham to Isaac (Gen 17:19, 21). Although all the male members of Abraham’s household are circumcised, God states that his covenant will be established only with Isaac, who is yet to be born. Circumcision, as a sign of the covenant, draws attention to the importance of the patriline that leads to the one who will overcome the serpent. For this reason, after testing Abraham’s obedience, God swears that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through one of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 22:18). Later, this expectation is associated with a future king who belongs to the Davidic dynasty (see Ps 72:17).
The divine promises made to Abraham are passed to Isaac (Gen 26:3–5) and then Jacob (Gen 35:9–12). In the case of Jacob, he inherits the promises because Esau, his older brother, sells his birthright to him for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29–34). Esau despises his birthright and places no value on it.
Within Jacob’s family Joseph receives the status of firstborn, despite being one of the youngest sons (1Chr 5:1–2). The birthright is then passed to Ephraim, in another case of an older brother being passed over (Gen 48:14–20).
To complicate the picture, Genesis 38 focuses on Judah’s firstborn, concluding with another instance in which an older brother is pushed aside by a younger sibling (Gen 38:27–30). Although the midwife marks Zerah as the firstborn, Peres breaks out of the womb before his twin brother.
Beyond Genesis, the books of Joshua to Samuel reveal that in the time of Samuel God rejects the tribe of Ephraim in favour of the tribe of Judah. As a result, the royal lineage that begins in Genesis moves from the tribe of Ephraim to David, the son of Jesse (Ruth 4:18–22). Psalm 78:67–72 confirms the divine rejection of Ephraim and God’s choice of David. From David the royal line continues to Jesus Christ, who brings to fulfilment the divine promises given to Abraham (Matt 1:1–17; Acts 3:22–26; Gal 3:16).
Genesis stands apart from the rest of the Pentateuch. Whereas Genesis covers a long span of history, the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy are framed by Moses’ birth and death. Beyond Genesis attention moves from the promised king to the relationship that develops between God and Abraham’s descendants in Exodus to Deuteronomy. Emphasising God’s holy nature, the books associated with Moses record God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their eventful journey towards the promised land.
While Genesis gives special attention to a divinely promised king, the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy describe how the biological descendants of Abraham come into a unique covenant relationship with God that will result in God residing among them in the land of Canaan. The account of this relationship reveals how God overcomes the barriers that have alienated people from him.
Behind God’s dramatic deliverance of the Israelites from exploitation under a despotic Egyptian ruler is the expectation that they will dwell with God on his holy mountain in the land of Canaan (Exod 15:17). With this goal in view God guides the Israelites to another mountain. At Mount Sinai God prepares the Israelites for a future lived in his holy presence. Anticipating what lies ahead, the report of the Israelites’ relatively short stay at Mount Sinai occupies the central part of the Pentateuch, running from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10.
At Mount Sinai God establishes a covenant relationship with the Israelites that requires their exclusive allegiance. This relationship is not imposed on the people. God is not like the Egyptian Pharaoh, who compels the Israelites to serve him. If, however, the Israelites commit to this special relationship, they are bound by the obligations of the covenant, which include the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17).
At Mount Sinai the Israelites experience God’s holy presence in a new way. God arranges to dwell among them. This involves the construction of a special tent, where God will reside. Intimately connected to this holy residence is the appointment of a high priest who will meet daily with God as the people’s representative. God’s presence also requires the establishment of rituals, involving offerings, that will enable the Israelites to live in proximity to a holy deity. The priesthood plays an important role in preventing the ritual uncleanness of the people from defiling God’s dwelling place.
The preparations undertaken at Mount Sinai anticipate the people living with God on his holy mountain in the promised land. Importantly, the structure of the portable sanctuary mirrors Mount Sinai. The Holy of Holies, the Holy Place and the courtyard correspond with the summit, slope, and foot of the mountain, each with different levels of holiness. The people’s experience at Mount Sinai continues to be replicated in the rituals linked to the portable sanctuary. These will later form the basis of cultic worship in the Jerusalem temple.
Through the instructions recorded in Leviticus, God teaches the Israelites that holiness is associated with wholeness, whereas uncleanness—the antithesis of holiness—is associated with imperfection. Holiness brings life; uncleanness brings death. Holiness requires moral perfection if the Israelites are to dwell securely with God on his holy mountain.
The journey of the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the promised land is recorded in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. Due to a lack of trust in God, the Israelites fail to invade the land of Canaan and are forced to live for 40 years in the wilderness. Only after the death of all the adults who came out of Egypt, apart from Joshua and Caleb, does God permit the next generation to enter Canaan. Before they do, Moses addresses them at length, challenging them to renew the covenant that was made at Mount Sinai. While the immediate prospects are encouraging, the final chapters of Deuteronomy anticipate the failure of the Israelites to remain faithful to God.
The story of God’s deliverance of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt offers a paradigm for comprehending how those alienated from God may come safely into his presence. At the heart of this process is Passover, which consecrates the firstborn males so that they belong to God (Exod 13:2; Num 3:12–13; 8:17–18). Building on this, the events at Mount Sinai are intended to make the Israelites into a holy nation (Exod 19:4–6). Unfortunately, their rebellious nature, as witnessed especially in the book of Numbers, prevents them from enjoying the full benefits of being God’s people. While the ongoing story highlights the failure of the Israelites, their divine rescue foreshadows a greater exodus and better second covenant that will embrace people from all the nations of the earth.
As the central human character in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy, Moses is closely associated with the Pentateuch. Jesus refers to the Pentateuch as “the Book of Moses” (Mark 12:26), “the Law of Moses” (Luke 24:44; cf. John 1:45), and just simply “Moses” (Luke 24:27; cf. Luke 16:29). While it is nowhere stated in Genesis to Deuteronomy that Moses composed the Pentateuch, he is said to have recorded parts of it (e.g., the “Book of the Covenant” in Exod 21–23 and the “Book of the Law” in Deut 5–26; see Exod 24:4; Deut 31:9, 26). These factors explain why there is a long tradition ascribing authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses. No other candidate is immediately obvious.
If Moses was responsible for shaping the Pentateuch, we should observe that for the book of Genesis, he probably relied on already existing materials, which he may have reworked when creating the larger narrative. We should also recognise that there are some statements in the Pentateuch that presuppose an awareness of events that took place after Moses’ lifetime. For example, Genesis 14:14 mentions the city of Dan, but this name was not used in the time of Abraham. The ancient town of Laish was renamed Dan when the Israelites captured it (Judg 18:29). This and other examples should make us cautious about stating that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch as we now know it. The issue of authorship may be more complex than we imagine. Unfortunately, we have no record of what happened and can only make deductions from the text of the Pentateuch itself.
The question of authorship is complicated further by the fact that the Pentateuch consists of a rich variety of literary materials. There are, among others, stories of different length and complexity, genealogies, poetic blessings, songs, covenant obligations, sample case-laws, directions for constructing cultic items, and instructions for undertaking cultic activities. These and other types of material have been skilfully combined to form the literary collage that is the Pentateuch. Yet, despite the variety of contents, the Pentateuch is a remarkably unified narrative spread over five interconnected books.
The issue of who created the Pentateuch should not distract us from the important task of understanding its message. Although modern readers may find the complex narrative of the Pentateuch chronologically and culturally distant, it explains the origins of our presently dysfunctional world. More importantly, it reveals God’s plan for the redemption of humanity and the rest of creation.
T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2022).
T. D. Alexander and D. W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003).
M. Armgardt, B. Kilchör and M. Zehnder, eds. Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research. (BZABR 22; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019).
L. S. Baker, K. Bergland, F. A. Masotti and A. R. Wells, eds. Exploring the Composition of the Pentateuch. (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements, 27; University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2020).
V. P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).
G. J. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament. Vol. 1: The Pentateuch (London: SPCK, 2003).