Introduction to the Pentateuch


Introduction to the Pentateuch


The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are usually designated "the Law" or "the Pentateuch" (Greek pentateuchos, or "five-volume [book]"). They constitute the first and most important section of the Old Testament in both Jewish and Christian Bibles. The threefold division of the Hebrew Bible into Law, Prophets, and Writings can be traced back to the New Testament (Luke 24:44) and to the prologue to the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (c. 130 B.C.). The division of the Old Testament in Christian Bibles, based on the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint; c. 150 B.C.), also gives the Pentateuch pride of place.

Author and Date

References to the Pentateuch by such terms as "the Book of Moses" (2 Chron. 25:4; Neh. 13:1), "the Book of the Law of Moses" (Neh. 8:1), "the Law of the LORD" (1 Chron. 16:40; Ezra 7:10) and "the Book of the Law of God" (Neh. 8:18) are largely restricted to the writings after the exile. (It is uncertain whether references to "the law [of Moses]" in the earlier books refer to the Pentateuch or to parts of it [e.g., Josh. 1:8; 8:34; 2 Kings 14:6; 22:8]). The New Testament uses similar designations for the Pentateuch (Matt. 12:5; Mark 12:26; Luke 16:16; John 7:19; Gal 3:10). The attribution of these books to Moses underscored the binding authority of the Pentateuch. Mosaic authorship is indicated not only by these titles but also by the words of Jesus: "Moses . . . wrote of me" (John 5:46). Luke also asserts Mosaic authorship when he records that Jesus expounded the Scriptures "beginning with Moses" (Luke 24:27), and many other New Testament writers and characters do as well (Matt. 8:4; 19:7-8; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:3-4; 12:19,26; Luke 16:29, 31; 24:44; John 1:45; 8:5; Acts 15:21; 26:22; 28:23; Rom. 10:5, 19; 2 Cor. 3:14-15). The Pentateuch itself tells of Moses' decisive contribution toward its composition: He wrote the great legal code, the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 24:3-7), and his exposition of the law as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:24-26).

During the past two centuries, however, most interpreters who do not accept the Bible's own witness about its authorship have attributed its final composition to editors after the exile who creatively pieced together at least four earlier literary documents. Their view is commonly called the documentary hypothesis. On the basis of varying divine names (e.g., "God" [Elohim] and "LORD" [Yahweh]), vocabulary (e.g., different Hebrew words for "maid servant"), duplicate stories (e.g., the jeopardizing of the matriarchs [Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-19; 26:1-11]) and laws (e.g., of the Passover [Exod. 12:1-20,21-23; Deut 16:1-8]), and by the varying theologies, they regard the Pentateuch as essentially a composite of the Yahwist's narrative (J from German "Jahwist"; c. 950 B.C.); the Elohist's narrative (E; c. 850 B.C.); the Deuteronomist document, mostly Deuteronomy (D; c. 622 to 587 B.C.); and the Priestly document (P; c. 500 B.C.). During the second half of the twentieth century this point of view has been significantly modified. On the basis of literary forms and archaeological evidence, it became clear that all of the alleged documents contained much older material, some of which might even date back to Moses. Those who hold to the documentary hypothesis today generally believe that the writers of J, E, D and P were not authors but editors who collected and arranged earlier materials. Most recently a number of scholars, while still essentially recognizing these claimed documents in the Pentateuch, have called into question the goal and methods that led to the identification of these sources and have expressed admiration for the Pentateuch's unified structure.

To speak of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch is to say that he was its fundamental source and authority and that the books of the Pentateuch were originally composed, in largely the forms in which they exist today, during the life of Moses. We should readily admit, however, that, in conformity with known practices in the ancient Near East, Moses used literary sources. Sometimes these are clearly identified (e.g., Gen. 5:1; Num. 21:14); at other times they may be inferred from changes in literary styles (cf. Gen. 1:1-2:3 with Gen. 2:4-25). Later inspired prophets, who succeeded Moses in mediating God's authoritative word (cf. Deut. 18:15-20), kept the text up-to-date linguistically and historically and even added material such as Genesis 36:31 (See "Introduction to Genesis") and Moses' obituary (Deut. 34:1-12). The NIV sometimes places non-Mosaic material in parenthesis (e.g., Exod. 11:3; Num. 12:3).


The Pentateuch is both a composite of individual books and a seamless narrative that renders a complete story from creation to the death of Moses. To read it as merely one or the other would distort its text. On the one hand, each book in its own way guided Israel through the exodus from Egypt toward the conquest of Canaan. Genesis is distinctive on the basis of its unique literary focus on the primeval and patriarchal periods, thereby setting the backdrop for the accounts of the exodus and the conquest. Exodus highlights Moses' leadership, the law and the Tabernacle; Leviticus is a distinctly priestly manual to guide worship in Israel; Numbers focuses on Israel as the Lord's army marching toward Canaan; and Deuteronomy consists of three addresses by Moses on the plains of Moab, in which he expounded the law and directed covenant renewal.

At the same time these books are bound together into a continuous narrative. For example, Exodus is linked with Genesis by reference to the number of Israelites who went down to Egypt (Gen. 46:26, 27; Exod. 1:1). Moses, at the time of the exodus, quotes Joseph's deathbed request that the Israelites carry up his bones out of Egypt when God came to their aid (Gen. 50:25; Exod. 13:19). Leviticus 1-9 can almost be read as an appendix to Exodus 25-40. The latter text legitimates the building of the Tabernacle and the former its ritual. The priest's ordination service is outlined in Exodus 29 but does not take place until Leviticus 8-9. The dietary restrictions in Leviticus are based on the story of the exodus (Lev. 11:45). Numbers shares many connections with both Exodus and Leviticus. Large portions of the narratives of all three of these middle books take place in the wilderness of Sinai, and the books share similar liturgical regulations and concerns. At the beginning of his first address in Deuteronomy, Moses summarizes Israel's history from Sinai to Moab as recorded in Numbers, and in his second address he makes frequent allusions to Exodus, even repeating with slight modification the Ten Commandments and Israel's response (Exod. 20; Deut. 5).


The Pentateuch is primarily a blending of history and law. These themes are not unrelated: The narrative history explains the laws. For example, the law about circumcision is given in the recounting of God's announcement of his covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:9-14), and breaking the Sabbath is made a capital offense in the story about the man who gathered sticks on that day (Num. 15:32-36). But, as noted above, the Pentateuch's big story relates to God's covenants with the patriarchs; his later deliverance of their descendants, now a nation, from Egypt; and their obligation to keep God's laws as delineated in the covenant to which they agreed at Sinai and that Moses expounded in Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:20-25).

Genesis ends with Joseph's coffin in Egypt (Gen. 50:26), Exodus with the Lord's guiding glory-cloud over the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai (Exod. 40:34-38); Leviticus with the summary "These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites" (Lev, 27:34); Numbers with a similar summary but now "on the plains of Moab" (Num. 36:13); and Deuteronomy with the burial of Moses in Moab and provision for Joshua to succeed him (Deut. 34). This spatial and temporal progression from Egypt to Sinai to Moab can be traced back to Abraham's call to leave his homeland, Ur of the Chaldees, and God's offer to make of him a great nation in its own land, one that would bless all the other nations of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). The Pentateuch is a story about God's gracious, unfolding covenants to form a priestly, holy nation that would bring salvation to all peoples.

Genesis focuses on God's covenants with its fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which promise that God will make of their family a great nation. The narrative in Exodus through Deuteronomy deals with the nation's founder, Moses, and God's covenant mediated through him to make Israel a holy nation. That story and these covenants find their fulfillment in Christ and the new Israel as the sovereign God directs history toward its ultimate destiny. Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Related Resources:

Overview of the Book of Genesis
Overview of the Book of Exodus
Overview of the Book of Leviticus
Overview of the Book of Numbers
Overview of the Book of Deuteronomy

Articles on the Pentateuch
Q&A on the Pentateuch
Sermons on the Pentateuch


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.