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Introduction to the Pentateuch OT Books of the Law (Moses)

Table of Contents

General Info, Author and Date

The first five books of the Bible are called by many names.  The Jews know them as the "Torah", a Hebrew term meaning "law" or "teaching".  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) refers to them as the Pentateuch from the Greek penta (five) and teuchos (volume or scroll).  The books are sometimes called the "Books of Moses" or the "Law of Moses" due to the authorship of Moses (Deut 31:9, Josh 1:7, 8:31-32, 1Kg 2:3, Neh 8:1,Dan 9:11-13, Lk 24:44, Jn 7:19, Rom 10:19, Heb 10:28).  There are numerous internal references in the Pentateuch which clearly proclaim portions were written by Moses.  There are also references throughout the Old and New Testaments, including many from the words of Jesus (Jn 5:46, for example).  In addition, early Jewish and Christian traditions, historians Josephus and Philo, the Talmud, the Apocrypha and many church fathers attributed these books to Moses.

It is possible that some minor portions were later added by scribes, such as the account of Moses' death (Dt 34, probably added by Joshua if not pre-written by Moses, Dt 3:23-28; 31:1-7), but the evidence points to Moses as the author of the essential content.  It is also possible that Moses, like the Apostle Paul, may have dictated part of the writings.  His finest Egyptian education would have provided the literary skills to compose the Books of the Law (Pentateuch) from Israel’s traditions and records while under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, unlike other writers of Scripture who wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, Moses also spoke directly with God (Dt 34:10).

The authorship of Moses went unquestioned for over 3000 years.  Many modern liberal “scholars” however, do not accept that Moses wrote Genesis.  The prevailing critical view, called the Documentary Hypothesis, is that Genesis was compiled from various sources by different groups of people over a long period of time, eventually reaching their final form in the fifth century BC.  In such approaches, divine revelation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit is seldom mentioned, and almost anything other than natural explanations are usually outright rejected.

In recent decades, scholars have become increasingly doubtful about these ideas.  The arguments for the late composition of the Pentateuch from multiple redactors are flimsy and not supported by conclusive evidence.  In addition, recent intensive archaeological evidences tend to undercut many of these theories, and literary research has called in question some of the very presuppositions and methods used by the critics (see Introduction to Modern Bible Criticism for more info).  This is not to deny that the books may contain some post-Mosaic elements.  Hebrew scribes may have modernized a small portion of the text somewhat, such as place names and archaic language, in order to preserve the sacred text for the understanding and instruction of later generations.  We can be assured that these books, written during the desert wanderings in the 1400's BC, contain the inspired accurate Word of God.

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Brief Survey

In progress.

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History and Timeline

See the "Historical Background" chapter of each individual Book of Moses introduction for more information.

The Pentateuch covers the period from Creation (~4000 BC) to just prior to Israel's entry into the Promised Land (~1400 BC).  The first book, Genesis covers a period of over 2000 years, while the other four cover a period of only forty years.  There is a gap of approximately 400 years from the end of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus.  All dates are approximated.

~ 4000 BC (1) Creation (Genesis 1)
~ 2350 BC Noah and the Flood
~ 2166 BC Birth of Abraham
~ 2066 BC Birth of Isaac
~2006 BC Birth of Jacob (aka Israel)
~ 1915 BC Birth of Joseph
~ 1875 BC Jacob moves to Egypt
~ 1805 BC Death of Joseph (Book of Genesis ends)
~ 1550-1295 BC Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty
~ 1525 BC Birth of Moses (Exodus 2)
~ 1479-1425 BC Reign of Thutmose III as Egyptian Pharoah
~ 1446 BC (2) Moses leads Israel's exodus from Egypt; Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 1-18)
~ 1446 BC Ten Commandments and other Laws at Mt Sinai (Exodus 19-24)
~ 1446-5 BC Instructions for  and Construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-40)
~ 1445 BC Israelites Camp at Mt Sinai (Exodus 19-40, Leviticus, Numbers 1-12)
~ 1446-1407 BC Israelites wander in the desert (Numbers 15-19)
~ 1406 BC Israelites Camp at Plains of Moab (Numbers 20-36, Deuteronomy)
~ 1406 BC Death of Moses; Joshua assumes leadership of Israelites (Deut 34)
~ 1405 BC Israelites Enter the Promised Land (Book of Joshua)

(1) Based on the genealogies of the Bible, Archbishop Usher (1581–1656) calculated that the creation of the world occurred in 4004 BC.  Using similar principles, Orthodox Jews hold that man was created on Tishri 1 of year 1 (October 7, 3761 BCE).  As I write this in December of 2008, it is 5769 CE (common era) on the Jewish calendar.

(2) The date for the exodus from Egypt is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus.  Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC.  Many scholars believe that the "480 years" is symbolic, placing the exodus  in the early 1200s BC during the reign of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great, aka Ramses) of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty.  Many conservatives (including ourselves) tend to lean toward the earlier date.  A separate article would be required to cover the various arguments on both sides of this debate.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The Pentateuch is the story of our Sovereign God's faithful provision for His people, the nation of Israel.  It was written not only to provide true historical information, but to reveal the character of God and strengthen our faith.  It emphasizes the sovereignty of God in creation and history.  In fact, the entire OT consistently presents theological truth in a historical setting.

Collectively, these books establish the historical and theological foundations for the remainder of the Bible.  It serves to prepare the reader for  the rest of the biblical story line.  It introduces the key promises and covenants that reveal God's purposes in history and begins laying the groundwork for the coming of Christ in the fullness of time.   These books of the law give insight into God's character and his moral and ethical standards.  It illustrates His goodness, benevolence, justice and his righteousness.   Subsequent books of the Bible then appeal to the authority of the Torah as they evaluate people's deeds, attitude  and character.

Other principle themes are the fallen condition of man and God's offering of the gift of salvation.  Man's fall resulted from his own sin, but fortunately, the compassionate and loving God, based only on His mercy and grace, provided the means for us to be reconciled (made peace) with Him.  He freely pours out His saving grace on the needy Israelites, and through Christ, this becomes our story as well.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The Pentateuch, or Torah, contains much history and laws, but most are essentially delivered within narratives.  Much of the material in these books can be seen as instruction, for they provide us with many moral and ethical examples to follow.  See our Genre Analysis of the Laws and Narratives, and the introductions to the individual books of the law for more information.

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