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Introduction to the Pentateuch

The First Five Books of the Bible

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The Bible begins with the Pentateuch. The five books of the Pentateuch are the first five books of the Christian Old Testament and the entire Jewish written Torah. These texts introduce most if not all of the most important themes that will recur throughout the Bible as well as characters and stories that continue to be relevant. Thus understanding the Bible requires understanding the Pentateuch.

What is the Pentateuch?

The word Pentateuch is a Greek term meaning "five scrolls" and refers to the five scrolls which comprise the Torah and which also comprise the first five books of the Christian Bible. These five books contain a variety of genres and were constructed from source material created over the course of millennia.

It is unlikely that these fives books were originally intended to be five books at all; instead, they were probably considered all one work. The division into five separate volumes is believed to have been imposed by Greek translators. Jews today divide the text into 54 sections called parshiot. One of these sections is read each week of the year (with a couple of weeks doubled up).

What are the Books in the Pentateuch?

The five books of the Pentateuch are:

The original Hebrew titles for these five books are:

  • Bereshit ("In the beginning")
  • Shemot ("Names")
  • Vayikra ("He called")
  • Bamidbar ("In the wilderness")
  • Devarim ("Things" or "Words")

Important Characters in the Pentateuch

  • Adam & Eve: The first humans and the source of Original Sin
  • Noah: Had enough faith to be spared by God from a world-wide flood
  • Abraham: Chosen by God to be the "father" of Israel, God's "chosen people"
  • Isaac: Abraham's son, inherited God's blessing
  • Jacob: Abraham's grandson whose name God changed to "Israel"
  • Joseph: Son of Jacob, sold into slavery in Egypt
  • Moses: Leads the Hebrews out of Egypt and towards Canaan.
  • Aaron: Moses' older brother
  • Pharaoh: Unnamed ruler of Egypt, responsible for keeping the Hebrews enslaved
  • Joshua: Moses' successor as leader of the Israelites

Who Wrote the Pentateuch?

The tradition among believers has always been that Moses personally wrote the five books of the Pentateuch. In fact, the Pentateuch has in the past been referred to as the Biography of Moses (with Genesis as a prolog).

Nowhere in the Pentateuch, however, does any text ever claim that Moses is the author of the entire work. There is a single verse where Moses is described as having written down this "torah," but that most likely refers only to the laws being presented at that particular point.

Modern scholarship has concluded that the Pentateuch was produced by multiple authors working at different times and than edited together. This line of research is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.

It began in the 19th century and dominated biblical scholarship through most of the 20th century. Although details have come under criticism in recent decades, the broader idea that the Pentateuch is the work of multiple authors continues to be widely accepted.

When Was the Pentateuch Written?

The texts that comprise the Pentateuch were written and edited by many different people over a long span of time. Most scholars tend agree, however, that the Pentateuch as a combined, whole work probably existed in some form by the 7th or 6th century BCE, which puts it during the early Babylonian Exile or shortly before. Some editing and adding was still to come, but not long after the Babylonian Exile the Pentateuch was largely in it's current form and other texts were being written.

The Pentateuch as the Source of Law

The Hebrew word for the Pentateuch is Torah, which simply means "the law." This refers to the fact that the Pentateuch is the primary source for Jewish law, believed to have been handed down by God to Moses. In fact, almost all biblical law can be found in the collections of laws in the Pentateuch; the rest of the Bible is arguably commentary on the law and lessons from myth or history about what happens when people do or do not follow the laws handed down by God.

Modern research has revealed that there are strong connections between the laws in the Pentateuch and the laws found in other ancient Near-East civilizations. There was a common legal culture in the Near East long before Moses would have lived, assuming that such a person even existed. The Pentateuchal laws didn't come out of nowhere, fully-formed from some imaginative Israelite or even a deity. Instead, they developed through cultural evolution and cultural borrowing, like all other laws in human history.

That said, though, there are ways in which the laws in the Pentateuch are distinct from other legal codes in the region. For example, the Pentateuch mixes together religious and civil laws as if there were no fundamental difference; in other civilizations, the laws regulating priests and those for crimes like murder were handled with more separation. Also, the laws in the Pentateuch exhibit more concern with a person's actions in their private lives and less concern with things like property than other regional codes.

The Pentateuch as History

The Pentateuch has traditionally been treated as a source of history as well as of law, especially among Christians who no longer followed the ancient legal code. The historicity of the stories in the first five books of the Bible have long been cast into doubt, however. Genesis, because it focuses on primeval history, has the least amount of independent evidence for anything in it.

Exodus and Numbers would have occurred more recently in history, but it also would have occurred in the context of Egypt — a nation which has left us a wealth of records, both written and archaeological. Nothing, however, has been found in or around Egypt to verify the Exodus story as it appears in the Pentateuch. Some has even been contradicted, like the idea that the Egyptians used armies of slaves for their building projects.

At best, there may have been a long-term migration of Semitic peoples out of Egypt which got compressed into a shorter, more dramatic story. But such an explanation sounds suspiciously like an attempt to rationalize and salvage a story which has no real support so it should be taken with a grain of salt. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are primarily books of laws and thus wouldn't have independent historical evidence anyway.

Major Themes in the Pentateuch

Covenant: The idea of covenants is woven throughout the stories and laws in the five books of the Pentateuch. It's an idea that also continues to play a major role throughout the rest of the Bible as well. A covenant is a contract or treaty between God and humans, either all humans or one specific group.

Early on God is depicted as making promises to Adam, Eve, Cain, and others about their own personal futures. Later God makes promises to Abraham about the future of all his descendants. Later still God makes a highly detailed covenant with the people of Israel — a covenant with extensive provisions that the people are supposed to obey in exchange for promises of blessings from God.

Monotheism: Judaism today is treated as the origin of monotheistic religion, but ancient Judaism wasn't always monotheistic. We can see in the earliest texts — and that includes almost all of the Pentateuch — that the religion was originally monolatrous rather than monotheistic. Monolatry is the belief that multiple gods exist, but only one should be worshipped. It isn't until the later portions of Deuteronomy that real monotheism as we know it today starts to be expressed.

However, because all five books of the Pentateuch were created from a variety of prior source material, it's possible to find tension between monotheism and monolatry in the texts. Sometimes its possible to read the texts as the evolution of ancient Judaism away from monolatry and towards monotheism.

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