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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Introduction to the Pentateuch

G. I. Davies

A. What is the Pentateuch?


The name ‘Pentateuch’ means literally ‘the work comprising five scrolls’, from Greek pente and teukhos, which can mean ‘scroll’. It has been used since at least early Christian times for the first five books of the OT, Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Jewish name for these books was usually and still is ‘the law’: Hebrew tôrâ, Greek nomos or nomothesia (the latter is literally ‘legislation’), and it is this name which appears in the NT: e.g. Lk 24:11 , ‘What is written in the law, the prophets and the psalms’, where we meet the threefold subdivision of the Hebrew canon that continues to be used, with the substitution of ‘writings’ for ‘psalms’ as the third section. Cf. also the Greek Prologue to Sirach (c.132 BCE).


But there is a much deeper way of asking, and answering, the question, ‘What is the Pentateuch?’, one which goes beyond merely defining its external limits to enquire into its nature. In other words, what sort of a thing is this section of the Bible? This question can only really be answered after a full examination of the text, and one justification for the kind of detailed critical analysis which has been popular in modern OT scholarship is that it enables us to give a well-judged (if complicated!) answer to that question. It is a question of considerable theological importance, as can be seen from an introductory look at a few answers that have been given to it, some of which will be examined more fully later on.


Four of the five books in the Pentateuch deal with the time of Moses, and one recent suggestion has been that we should think of the Pentateuch as a biography of Moses with an introduction, that is, Genesis. This attempts to answer the question in terms of the literary genre of the Pentateuch.


Its main weakness, however, is that it puts Moses as an individual too much in the centre of the picture, important as he undoubtedly is as the leader of his people Israel. We might do better to call the Pentateuch the story of Israel in the time of Moses, with an introduction (Genesis) which sets it in the light of universal creation and history.


To many, however, this would not be theological enough to do justice to the strongly religious element that pervades the story from beginning to end. Gerhard von Rad suggested that the Pentateuch (or to be more precise, the Hexateuch, that is the Pentateuch plus the sixth book of the Bible, Joshua—see below) was an amplified creed, more specifically an amplified historical creed, as will be seen in more detail later. The implication is then that the Pentateuch is a product and an expression of faith—it is preceded as it were by an implicit ‘I believe in God who…’, it is a confessional document, as one might put it. Of course the adjective ‘historical’ before ‘creed’ raises some problems, for example whether the story which the Pentateuch as a whole tells is real history, a question whose answer has important theological implications which critics of von Rad were quick to point out. But there are also problems of a simpler kind which relate specifically to its accuracy as a description of Genesis 1–11 . Von Rad was, for much of his scholarly career, fascinated by the historical focus of so much of Israel's faith, and he tended to overlook or play down its teaching about God the Creator. This may well have been due to an understandable wish on his part not to allow a foothold in the OT for crude Nazi ideas about racial supremacy grounded in the order of creation which were current at the time he wrote his earliest works on the Hexateuch. It is, nevertheless, necessary to emphasize that the beginning of Genesis is not about history in the ordinary sense of that word, or indeed in any sense, and the idea that the Pentateuch is a ‘historical’ creed is in danger of losing sight of the important theological statements about creation in those chapters.


A different way of representing the theological character of the Pentateuch is of course the traditional Jewish expression: the law. This is as characteristic of Judaism as von Rad's emphasis on faith is characteristic of his Lutheranism. If it seems at first sight to focus too much on the second half of the Pentateuch, where the laws are concentrated, and to give insufficient attention to the ‘story’ character of the earlier books, it is worth saying that this problem has not escaped the notice of Jewish commentators, and a very early one, Philo of Alexandria, in the first century CE, had what he thought was a perfectly satisfactory answer to it. It is that while written law is indeed mainly found in the later books of the Pentateuch, the personalities who appear in Genesis, for example, constitute a kind of ‘living law’, since through their example, and in some less obvious ways, it was God's intention to regulate human behaviour, just as he does later by the written law. Another way of making the description ‘law’ more widely applicable involves going back to the Hebrew term tôrâ. Although commonly translated ‘law’, its original meaning is something like ‘instruction’, and it could be used of other kinds of instruction as well as law in the strict sense. For example, the word tôrâ is found in Proverbs, where the context shows that the reference is to the kind of teaching contained there, not to the law as such. If we use tôrâ as a description for the Pentateuch in this more general sense of ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’, it can easily embrace the non-legal parts of these books as well as the legal ones. On the other hand, while tôrâ understood in this wider way does preserve an important truth about the Pentateuch (especially if it is thought of as ‘The Teaching’, with a capital T), it is in danger of being too vague a description to identify its distinctive character within the OT.


Another theological definition, which has the merit of combining the advantages of the last two, is to call the Pentateuch a covenant book, a document which presents the terms of God's relationship to his people, in the form of his promises to them and the laws which he requires them to obey. The support of the apostle Paul can probably be claimed for this description, for when he speaks of ‘the old covenant’ in 2 Cor 3:14 it is very likely that he means specifically the Pentateuch. He is clearly thinking of a written document, because he refers to the ‘reading’ of the old covenant, and the substitution of the expression ‘whenever Moses is read’ in the following verse points firmly to the Pentateuch (for ‘Moses’ as shorthand for ‘the books of Moses’ see Lk 24:27 ). A somewhat earlier Jewish reference to the Pentateuch as ‘the book of the covenant’ occurs in 1 Macc 1:57 . Despite the antiquity and authority of this description, it scarcely does justice to the narrative element in the Pentateuch, especially in Genesis.


A description which combines the literary and the theological aspects has been proposed by David Clines: he regards the Pentateuch as the story of the partial fulfilment of the promise to the patriarchs. This has the great advantage of highlighting the important theological theme of promise in Genesis, and of showing how Genesis is linked to the later books theologically, and not just by the continuation of the story. But of course it says nothing about Gen 1–11 , and one may wonder whether it takes enough account of the vast amount of legislative material in Leviticus and Deuteronomy especially.


One might legitimately wonder whether there can be any brief answer to the question which is not open to some objection or another! If nothing else these quite different descriptions, and the comments on them, should have shown that the Pentateuch is a many-sided piece of literature and one which has features which appeal to a variety of religious and other points of view. The final description that I will mention is that the Pentateuch is an incomplete work, a torso, because the story which it tells only reaches its climax in the book of Joshua, with the Israelites' entry into the land of Canaan. For von Rad, as we saw, the real literary unit is the ‘Hexateuch’, ‘the six books’, and he had many predecessors who also took this view. It was especially popular among the source-critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who believed (as some still do) that the sources out of which the Pentateuch was composed were also used by the editor or editors who composed Joshua. It is less popular today, because Joshua is generally treated as part of the long historical work which extends to the end of 2 Kings, the Deuteronomistic History. In fact since Deuteronomy formed the introduction to that work and, even when taken alone, its connection with the first four books of the Bible can seem very weak, some scholars therefore speak of ‘the Tetrateuch’, that is the four books from Genesis to Numbers, as the primary literary unit at the beginning of the Bible. From this point of view the Pentateuch would be not so much a torso as a hybrid, the combination of one literary work with the first section of another. If nothing else this view serves to underline the differences in character, concerns, and origin of Deuteronomy, as compared with the earlier books. Yet those differences should not be exaggerated, and it can be argued that Deuteronomy belongs as much with the Tetrateuch as with the books that follow it, and when we come to look at the theology of the Pentateuch in more detail that will become clearer.

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