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

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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

The five individual books of Moses compose a continuous narrative of the approximate 2500 years from creation to the death of Moses.  Genesis begins with the Creation and shortly thereafter, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden after being tempted by Satan (Ge 1-3).  This resulted in the steady increase of evil on the earth that led to the flood, followed by grace in the form of blessing to Noah and a new beginning for mankind (Ge 4-9).  Man still possessed his sin nature however, so it wasn't long until we encounter the Tower of Babel and scattering of nations (Ge 10-11).  The first eleven chapters of Genesis, spanning approximately 2000 years, is often referred to as “Primitive History”.

The remain chapters of Genesis (12-50) is known as “Patriarchal History”, in which God takes the next steps in His plan (that continues today thru Christ) to rescue His people from the effects (eternal death) of the fall.  These chapters span approximately 350 years beginning with the birth of Abram (~2166 BC).  God makes a covenant with Abram (who name He would change to Abraham) promising to make his descendants into a great nation (His chosen people), and to give them the Promised Land of Canaan.  We then see the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise with the birth of Abraham’s promised son Isaac (Ge 25-35) followed by the birth of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.  After a short synopsis of Esau’s line (Ge 36), the remainder of Genesis (37-50) is concerned with the chosen line of Jacob (Israel), particularly Judah and Joseph.  God preserves Abraham’s descendants during the great famine by sending the family to Egypt.  The book closes with God's promise to rescue His people from Egypt.

Exodus begins where Genesis leaves off, with the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) still living in Egypt approximately 400 years later.  The Israelites had greatly increased in number, but a new Egyptian ruler had enslaved Abraham’s decedents.  God continues his promised rescue with the birth and miraculous preservation of Moses (Ex 2-4).  Chapters 5-12 describe the events leading up to the Israelites exodus from Egypt.  When Pharaoh refuses Moses’s demand to free the Israelites, God sends ten plagues on Egypt, culminating with the death of the first-born children, except those of the Israelites observing the Passover.

This leads to the exodus events, including crossing of the Red Sea, where God parted the waters and destroyed the Egyptian army (Ex 12-14).  The next section (Ex 15-24), chronicles the Israelites journey to Mt Sinai and the giving of the Law which established the Nation of Israel as a Theocracy.  The final chapters (Ex 25-40) contain various narratives such as instructions on materials and furnishings for the Tabernacle, then more directives, the golden calf, and renewal of the covenant.  The book ends with the Glory of God filling the Tabernacle after its construction is completed.  Exodus ends with the Glory of God filling the Tabernacle.

Leviticus then opens with God speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle) at Mt Sinai.  Moses records these instructions  pertaining to the sacrificial system, along with some additional directions for the Levites (priests) in the first seven chapters.  In chapters 8-10, we witness the institution of the priesthood, as Aaron and his sons are ordained as the first priests.  In chapters 11-15, God provides the laws on ritual cleanness, teaching the people how to be pure and acceptable for worship.

We come to the focal point of Leviticus in chapter 16, the annual Day of Atonement on which the High Priest made sacrifices for himself and for the people.  This pre-figured the ultimate Day of Atonement at Calvary, where the blood of Jesus washed away the sins of those who had or would believe in Him.  The remainder of the book (Lv 17-27) can be referred to as the holiness codes.  In this final section, we find the significance of the blood, blessing and curses, and addition moral instructions along with the establishment of several Jewish Holy Days.

The book of Numbers opens about a year after the Exodus event (Ex 12-15).  The Israelites are still camped at Mt Sinai, which began in Exodus 19 and continued through Leviticus, whose events spanned only a few weeks.  The events in Leviticus probably overlapped somewhat with the first ten chapters of Numbers, that recorded a census taken of all the tribes who came out of Egypt, and various events related to the camp and Tabernacle.  After breaking camp, the Israelites, following God manifested as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, travelled to the southern border of Canaan.  From there, spies were sent into the land (Nu 13).  The spies returned with a report that the land was indeed, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, but that the occupants were strong and the cities well fortified.  The people became afraid rather than trusting God’s promise (Nu 14), so He sentenced all but Moses, Joshua and Caleb to wander in the wilderness for forty years until dead, with only their children to enter the land.

Chapters 15-25 deal with events occurring during the wilderness wanderings, such as Moses’ sin at Meribah (Nu 20) that would prevent him from entering the land.  After the first generation dies, a census is taken of the second generation (Nu 26).  During this time at Moab, arrangements were made for Joshua to succeed Moses (Nu 27) and boundaries were established for settling Canaan (Nu 32-34), along with cities for the Levites (Nu 35).  The book of Numbers ends with the Israelites camping just across the Jordan River from Jericho.

Deuteronomy opens with Israel still camped in Moab, just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land.  Moses is about to die, so he will use his final days reminding the new generation of their history, renewing the covenant with God and transferring leadership to Joshua.  Most of the original generation has now died and their children were grown, so in the first few chapters (Dt 1:1–4:43), Moses gives a historical recounting of some of the events that brought the Israelites to the brink of entry into the Promised Land.  He then restates the general and specific provisions of the law (Dt 4:44–26:19) that was given to their parents at Sinai.  This dialogue included instructions for proper worship, a call to remain faithful to God and His covenant, and directives on various subjects relating to life, property, business and other matters.  Next (Dt 27:1–30:20), Moses renews the covenant and sets before Israel the choice of life or death, blessing or curses (the consequences of obedience or disobedience to the covenant), and advises them to “choose life”.

In the closing section of the book (Dt 31:1-34:12), we find Moses wrapping up some loose ends in preparing the people to enter the land.  He commissions Joshua as his successor and bestows some final blessing on the Israelites.  He then climbed Mt Pisgah, where he viewed the Promised Land, and died in the presence of the Lord, still with good eyesight and the vigor of youth.  The book concludes with Israel ready to begin the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua.

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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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