Introduction to the Pentateuch
THE WORD “PENTATEUCH,” from the Greek for “five (penta) books (teuchos),” has entered English by way of Latin as the designation for the first group of books in the Hebrew Bible, comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Unlike other canonical divisions, where there is significant debate within and between different religious traditions, both Jewish and Christian tradition view these five books in this order as a single unit, introducing the Bible. The unanimity of tradition and the initial placement of these five books reflect their significant place within both Judaism and Christianity.
Despite this unanimity of tradition, it is not so obvious how these five books cohere. They certainly do not form a single book in the modern sense, with a single author; modern scholarship has persuasively argued that each of these books is composite, reflecting many traditions and sources (see below). Nor is there complete coherence of plot among them. Without any question, Moses is the central human character of much of the Pentateuch, but he is only introduced in ch 2 of Exodus, the second book. Nor is the early development of Israel as a people the Pentateuch's unifying theme, as may be seen from the first eleven chapters of the Bible, which are concerned with the world from creation to the birth of Abraham (Gen 11.27 ). Various other suggested unifying themes for the Pentateuch, such as covenant, are also incorrect, since they do not really appear at the beginning of the Pentateuch and are continued well beyond it. The suggestion that the promise of the land unifies the Pentateuch is especially problematic, since this theme, though introduced in Gen 12 , is only fulfilled with the conquest of the land in Joshua, in which case the Hexateuch (“six books”: the Pentateuch plus Joshua) rather than the Pentateuch should be seen as the decisive unit.
The Hebrew terms torah and torat moshe (“the Torah of Moses”), already in use in late biblical literature to describe what is later called the Pentateuch (e.g., 2 Chr 23.18; Ezra 7.6; Neh 8.1; Dan 9.11 ), offer a better clue to the nature and unity of these books. Torah is often understood as “law,” and indeed this is one of its frequent meanings in the Bible, as in Ex 12.49 ; “There shall be one law [Heb torah] for the native and for the alien who resides among you.” Law is a predominant genre of the Pentateuch, which contains not only the Ten Commandments in Ex 20 and Deut 5 , but extensive legal collections in Ex 21–23, Lev 17–26, and Deut 12–26 , as well as selected laws within various narratives, such as the law of circumcision in the narrative about Abraham in Gen 17 and the law concerning inheritance of the land by women in Num 36 , embedded within a section about the possession of the land. Many narrative sections also contain material that is of legal significance. For example, the first creation story in Genesis culminates with the “creation” of the sabbath (Gen 2.2–3 ), though this would only be legislated in Exodus, first in ch 16 , and then as part of the Ten Commandments, in Ex 20.8–11 . Similarly, the story of the construction of the tabernacle (Ex 25–40 ), a temporary temple for God in the wilderness, is not narrated for its own sake, but as an introduction to the various laws of sacrifice, narrated at the beginning of Leviticus, the book that immediately follows these chapters.
Yet “law” is not the only possible translation of torah, and the Pentateuch should not be typified as a book of law. The Hebrew term torah also means “instruction” or “teaching,” as in Prov 1.8 , “Hear, my child, your father's instruction, and do not reject your mother's teaching [Heb torah].” Teaching is not confined to law; indeed narratives or stories are as effective a medium of instruction. Thus, given the predominance of narrative in significant portions of the Pentateuch, especially in Genesis, the beginning of Exodus, and Numbers, it is best to understand the biblical term torat moshe, the earliest extant term for these five books, as “the instruction of Moses.” This instruction was realized through narratives and laws, which together elucidate the proper norms of living and the relationship between God and the world.
The term torat moshe, found predominantly in various late biblical sections and books, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, refers to the Pentateuch more or less as it now exists, but it is not found in the Pentateuch itself. In fact, the Torah does not explicitly suggest that it was compiled by Moses himself. (The phrase “the Torah” in passages such as Deut 4.44 , “This is the law [Heb torah] that Moses set before the Israelites,” never refers to the complete Pentateuch.) It is easy to see how the tradition ascribing these five books as a whole to Moses developed. In several places, the Hebrew Scriptures suggest that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights (Ex 24.18; 34.28; Deut 9.9; 10.10 ). Clearly, this was too long a time for short legal collections such as Ex 21–23 to have been conveyed to him, and thus traditions developed that Moses received the entire written Torah from God at that point. According to the classical rabbis, Moses simultaneously received the oral law, which served as the authoritative interpretation of the written law. The written Torah would include, according to all rabbinic sources (which are followed by the early church), even the book of Genesis, which thus represents God's narration to Moses of the early history of the world and of Abraham and his family. Some rabbinic sources even suggest that the final chapter of the Torah, Deut 34 , which narrates the death of Moses, was dictated by God to Moses, who wrote them with his tears. The view that the Torah should be understood as the divine word mediated by Moses was the standard view of church and synagogue through the Renaissance.
This view is explicitly contradicted by the Torah's narrative, as was sometimes (though rarely) recognized in the Middle Ages. Thus, Abraham ibn (son of ) Ezra, active in the twelfth century CE, noted that Gen 12.6 states in reference to Abraham that “at that time the Canaanites were in the land.” The words “at that time” suggest that for the author, the Canaanites were no longer in the land; in other words, it appears that the text was written after the time of Moses, because during his time the Canaanites were still in the land. A small number of other places that suggest authorship later than Moses were pointed out by a few medieval scholars, but these were not systematized into a thesis that could challenge the dominant view concerning Moses’ authorship of the Torah.