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The Pentateuch

PENTATEUCH, THE (pĕn'ta-tūk, Heb. tôrâh, law or teaching). The first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books, whose canonicity has never been called into question by the Jews, Protestants, or Catholics, head the list of the OT canon. As a literary unit they provide the background for the OT as well as the NT.

Chronologically the Pentateuch covers the period of time from the creation to the end of the Mosaic era. Since the date for the creation of the universe is not given, it is impossible to ascertain the length of this entire era.

Genesis begins with an account of creation but soon narrows its interest to the human race. Adam and Eve were entrusted with the responsibility of caring for the world about them, but forfeited their privilege through disobedience and sin. In subsequent generations all mankind became so wicked that the entire human race, except Noah and his family, was destroyed. When the new civilization degenerated, God chose to fulfill his promises of redemption through Abraham. From Adam to Abraham represents a long period of time, for which the genealogical lists in Gen.5.1-Gen.5.32 and Gen.10.1-Gen.10.32 hardly serve as a timetable.

The patriarchal era (Gen.12.1-Gen.12.20-Gen.50.1-Gen.50.26) narrates the events of approximately four generations—namely, those of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Scholars generally agree that Abraham lived during the nineteenth or eighteenth century b.c., some dating him a century earlier and some considerably later. The contemporary culture of this period is much better known to us today through recent archaeological discoveries. In a.d. 1933 a French archaeologist, Andrè Parrot, discovered the ruins of Mari, a city located on the Euphrates River. Here he found numerous temples, palaces, and statues and some twenty thousand tablets—all of which reflected the culture of the patriarchal era. Nuzi, a site east of Nineveh, excavated about 1925-41, yielded several thousand documents that likewise provide numerous illustrations of customs that reflect the patriarchal pattern of living as portrayed in the Genesis record.

After the opening verses of Exodus the rest of the Pentateuch is chronologically confined to the lifetime of Moses. Consequently the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and their preparation for entrance into the land of Canaan is the prevailing theme. The historical core of these books is briefly outlined as follows:

Exodus 1-19, from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

Exodus 19-Numbers 10, encampment at Mount Sinai (approximately one year).

Numbers 10-21, wilderness wanderings (approximately thirty-eight years).

Numbers 22-Deuteronomy 34, encampment before Canaan (approximately one year).

The Mosaic Law was given at Mount Sinai. As God’s covenant people the Israelites were not to conform to the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians nor to the customs of the Canaanites whose land they were to conquer and possess. Israel’s religion was a revealed religion. For nearly a year they were carefully instructed in the Law and the covenant. A tabernacle was erected as the central place for the worship of God. Offerings and sacrifices were instituted to make atonement for their sins and for expression of their gratitude and devotion to God. The Aaronic family, supported by the Levites, was ordained to serve at the tabernacle in the ministration of divine worship. Feasts and seasons likewise were carefully prescribed for the Israelites so that they might worship and serve God as his distinctive people. After the entrance into Canaan was delayed for almost forty years because of the unbelief of the Israelites, Moses reviewed the law for the younger generation. This review, plus timely instructions for the occupation of Palestine, is summarized in the Book of Deuteronomy.

For study purposes the Pentateuch lends itself to the following analysis:

I. The Era of Beginnings (Gen.1.1-Gen.11.32)

A. The account of creation (1:1-2:25)

B. Man’s fall and its consequences (3:1-6:10)

C. The Flood: God’s judgment on man (6:11-8:19)

D. Man’s new beginning (8:20-11:32)

II. The Patriarchal Period (Gen.12.1-Gen.50.26)

A. The life of Abraham (12:1-25:18)

B. Isaac and Jacob (25:19-36:43)

C. Joseph (37:1-50:26)

III. Emancipation of Israel (Exod.1.1-Exod.19.2)

A. Israel freed from slavery (1:1-13:19)

B. From Egypt to Mount Sinai (13:20-19:2)

IV. The Religion of Israel (Exod.19.3-Lev.27.34)

A. God’s covenant with Israel (Exod.19.3-Exod.24.8)

B. The place of worship (24:9-40:38)

C. Instructions for holy living (Lev.1.1-Lev.27.34)

1. The offerings (1:1-7:38)

2. The priesthood (8:1-10:20)

3. Laws of purification (11:1-15:33)

4. Day of atonement (16:1-34)

5. Heathen customs forbidden (17:1-18:30)

6. Laws of holiness (19:1-22:33)

7. Feasts and seasons (23:1-25:55)

8. Conditions of God’s blessings (26:1-27:34)

V. Organization of Israel (Num.1.1-Num.12.10)

A. The numbering of Israel (1:1-4:49)

B. Camp regulations (5:1-6:21)

C. Religious life of Israel (6:22-9:14)

D. Provisions for guidance (9:15-10:10)

VI. Wilderness Wanderings (Num.10.11-Num.22.1)

A. From Mount Sinai to Kadesh (10:11-12:16)

B. The Kadesh crisis (13:1-14:45)

C. The years of wandering (15:1-19:22)

D. From Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (20:1-22:1)

VII. Instructions for Entering Canaan (Num.22.2-Num.36.13)

A. Preservation of God’s chosen people (22:2-25:18)

B. Preparation for conquest (26:1-33:49)

C. Anticipation of occupation (33:50-36:13)

VIII. Retrospect and Prospect (Deut.1.1-Deut.34.12)

A. History and its significance (1:1-4:43)

B. The law and its significance (4:44-28:68)

C. Final preparation and farewell (29:1-34:12)

The authorship of the Pentateuch has been a major concern of OT scholars for the last two centuries. According to the consensus of scholarship as developed since a.d. 1750, the Pentateuch was composed of four major documents, which actually reflected the historical conditions between Davidic and exilic times. These documents were then combined into one literary unit about 400 b.c. or even later. This is called the Graf-Wellhausen theory. It originated in the observation that Exod.6.2-Exod.6.3 appears to teach that the divine name, Yahweh, was not revealed until the time of Moses, whereas the Book of Genesis as we have it allows the knowledge of the name from Gen.4.26 onward. Since it is unreasonable that a single author would use the name virtually from the start and then say that it was not known until much later, it became fashionable to divide sections Genesis and Exodus into originally separate documents depending on whether the divine name was used or not. This process of sifting out original documents was then extended to the rest of the Pentateuch. In its classical form the Graf-Wellhausen theory held to four basic documents, for convenience named J (a document using the divine name Yahweh), E (a document using Elohim to refer to God), P (a document specializing in priestly material, genealogies, sacrifices, etc.), and D (the Book of Deuteronomy). Of these, J and E were the earliest (900 onward), D was the product of the reform of Josiah (650 onward), and P was postexilic (400 onward). This theory has been modified in specialist circles by the pressures of archaeology, which has shown that there is no need to count as late in time even the most advanced theological ideas (such as monotheism or God the Creator) found in the Pentateuch; and now it is more fashionable to think of streams of tradition, many of them reaching back to Mosaic times.

The Pentateuch itself, from Exodus to Deuteronomy, registers a pervasive claim to be Mosaic, not necessarily in that Moses wrote every word of it, but in the sense that by far most of the material claims to come directly from Moses, however it was written down. Like all leaders of the ancient world, Moses must have had his own secretary, and it would be taken for granted that written records would be kept. Moses was himself a highly educated man, brought up in the most advanced and sophisticated society of his day. For the interpretation of Exod.6.2-Exod.6.3, from which the Graf-Wellhausen theory developed, see Jehovah.

The Book of Genesis, unlike Exodus-Deuteronomy, registers no authorship claim, though it should be considered a reasonable understanding of the evidence that whoever is responsible for Exodus onward is also responsible for Genesis. Genesis gives evidence of quoting source documents, and Moses would have been better placed than anyone else to have access to the archives of his people.

Bibliography: O. T. Allis, The Five Books of Moses, 1943; G. C. Aalders, A Short Introduction to the Pentateuch, 1949; E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1949, pp. 47-153; J. A. Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name, 1959; M. H. Segal, The Pentateuch, 1967; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1970, pp. 19-82, 495-541; J. W. Wenham, “Moses and the Pentateuch,” NBC rev., 1970, pp. 41-43.——SJS and JAM