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The first five books of the Bible (see Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy), known as the Pentateuch (Grk. “five‐volumed work”), are essentially in the form of a narrative running from the creation to the death of Moses just before the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although these books contain a great deal of law (principally in Exod. 20–40, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), they are not law books in essence. The Hebrew term Torah, by which the Pentateuch is known, is indeed conventionally translated as “law,” but its meaning is better represented as “instruction” or “guidance.” Thus, the narratives of the ancestors in Genesis 12–50 are as much “torah” as are the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, since they too offer instruction about the nature of Israel's God, the relationship of Israel to him, and the moral behavior appropriate to life in relationship to him. The “guidance” offered by the more legal parts of the Pentateuch is explicitly directive, as in the many social laws, whether in the style of legal maxims (e.g., Exod. 21.16) or of hypothetical cases (Exod. 21.2–6). Only in a few cases, though, as in the rules governing sacrifice (Lev. 1–7) or in the instructions for the building of the tabernacle (Exod. 25–27), is the legislation systematic. In the book of Deuteronomy, chaps. 1–26 being represented as a farewell speech of Moses, there is indeed a distinct hortatory tone in the recollection of the nation's past history (chaps. 1–11) and in the presentation of laws for life in the Promised Land (chaps. 12–26), but the historical setting keeps before the reader the fact that a particular generation in the nation's history is here directly addressed. In the more narrative materials, the “instruction” is indirect and implicit. In some cases the reader is presented with models for imitation (as in the case of Abraham's faithfulness or Joseph's uprightness), but even here, and more especially in the stories like those of Abraham's deceptions or Jacob's trickery, there is little direct moralizing. So the Pentateuch does not present itself as a comprehensive set of rules for life, nor does it develop a cohesive theological system, nor does it typically narrate the past for the sake of illustrating obvious or explicit moral truths.


Although the Pentateuch has in most centuries been known as “the five books of Moses,” perhaps because he is the major human figure in the narrative, it has long been recognized that he cannot have been the author, and that the Pentateuch is in fact anonymous. The Jewish tradition of referring to everything in the Pentateuch as the work of Moses, which is reflected in the New Testament (Matt. 8.4; Luke 20.37; Acts 3.22), proves nothing about its authorship, since it had obviously become customary to refer to these books as “Moses” (Luke 24.27; 2 Cor. 3.15). Within the Pentateuch itself, Moses is indeed credited with the authorship of a relatively small portion of its content: Exodus 21–23, the laws known as the “Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 24.4–8); Numbers 33, the itinerary of Israel in the wilderness (see Num. 33.2); Deuteronomy 5.6–21, the Ten Commandments (see Deut. 31.24). These sections are, as it happens, among the elements generally considered most ancient by historical scholars. Whether or not Moses can be called the author in a literal sense of anything in the Pentateuch, it is reasonable to hold that his work and teaching were the initial stimulus for the creation of the Pentateuch.

Origins and Date.

The overwhelming tendency in biblical scholarship has been to explain the origin of the Pentateuch as the outcome of a process of compilation of various documents from different periods in Israelite history. According to the classical Documentary Theory of the Pentateuch, formulated by Julius Wellhausen and others in the nineteenth century (see Interpretation, History of, article on Modern Biblical Criticism), the oldest written source of the Pentateuch was the document J (so‐called from its author, the Jahwist or Yahwist, who used the name Yahweh for God) from the ninth century BCE. The E document (from the Elohist, who employed the Hebrew term ʾĕlōhîm for God) came from the eighth century, and the J and E sources were combined by an editor in the mid‐seventh century. The book of Deuteronomy, a separate source dating from 621 BCE, was added to the JE material in the mid‐sixth century. The final major source, the Priestly Work (P), was combined with the earlier sources about 400 BCE. The Pentateuch as we know it thus came into existence no earlier than the end of the fifth century BCE.

No item in the foregoing reconstruction remains unchallenged, and indeed the theory as a whole can no longer be called the consensus view; nevertheless, no other theory has gained any wide support, so this one remains the point of departure for all study of the date and origins of the Pentateuch. Among those who still hold that it is essentially correct, there has been a tendency to date the Yahwist's work a century earlier, in the time of the united monarchy, to favor an eighth‐century rather than a seventh‐century date for the composition of at least the core of Deuteronomy, and to allow that the Priestly work, set down in writing during the exile in the sixth century rather than after the exile in the fifth, may well preserve much older material. More radical revisions of the theory include the proposal that the Yahwist's work should be seen as the latest, not the earliest contribution to the Pentateuch, and that it rather than the Priestly work gave the definitive shape to the whole.

A valuable development of the theory in recent decades has been the attempt to reconstruct the intentions of the authors of the presumed sources as theologians anxious to convey by their presentation of Israel's traditional history a message to their contemporaries. Thus, the Yahwist's message has come to be seen as an address to the age of Solomon, urging Israel to prove itself to be a blessing to the nations in accord with the command to Abraham of Genesis 12; the Elohist's work is an appeal to ninth‐century Israel to live in the “fear” of God in the face of persuasive foreign cults. The Deuteronomist's work is seen as a program for national reform, emphasizing the unity of Israel despite the political reality of the divided kingdom and calling for a unified worship of Yahweh. The Priestly work, then, is addressed to the Babylonian exiles, reiterating the authenticity of Israel's religious and cultic traditions and renewing the divine promise of blessing and superabundance in the land (Gen. 1.26) to a generation who had all but given up hope for the future.

Other techniques of analysis beside the detection of sources can sometimes be integrated with the documentary analysis, and sometimes run counter to it. The form‐critical approach, by which the literary forms (such as saga, tale, and moral story—sometimes called legend) are analyzed in order to discover the role they played in everyday life, has on the whole proved congenial to the documentary analysis. Its concern has been to press back behind the literary sources of the Pentateuch to reconstruct the original life settings of its diverse materials, and to postulate patterns of growth of the traditions prior to the existence of any written source. Thus, for example, one influential analysis, by Martin Noth, fully accepted the documentary reconstruction but detected behind them five major “themes” or organizing ideas around which the total material of the Pentateuch had gradually gathered: the promise to the ancestors, the Exodus from Egypt, the guidance in the wilderness, the giving of the Law, the guidance into the land.

On the other hand, studies in the techniques of oral composition and transmission of oral literature have tended to call into question the theory of an essentially or ultimately literary growth of the Pentateuch. It is possible, for example, to see the whole of Genesis as one large oral composition, in which differing influences have left their mark in the form of relatively minor discrepancies and disagreements in representation, but which was intended to be heard as a whole, later elements in the story deliberately reflecting and building on earlier (so, for example, with the so‐called ancestress in danger stories of Gen. 12.10–20; 20.1–18; 26.1–16). Other researches on the processes of literary composition as disclosed by the present shape of the Pentateuch have suggested that we should envisage individual authors creating large blocks of its material rather than editors interweaving a number of narrative strands, as the documentary theory supposed.


The question here is, what is the organizing principle of the Pentateuch as a whole, considered as a literary entity? An initial answer is, of course, that the subject matter of the Pentateuch is sufficiently unified to create the impression of general coherence in the work. The last four books in particular, beginning as they do with the birth of Moses (Exod. 2), and ending with his death (Deut. 34), have a strong narrative connection. But it would be wrong to regard the Pentateuch as primarily a biography of Moses, for then there would be no evident connection between its last four books and Genesis, for Genesis is a narrative of the ancestors of Israel in general and not especially of Moses' forebears.

Some have suggested that certain brief summaries of the Pentateuchal narrative found at Deuteronomy 26.5–10 and 6.20–24 (cf. Josh. 24.2–13), having the character of Israelite confessions of faith in the God who had directed their history, indicate the fundamental story line of the Pentateuch as a whole. The essential elements in this “little creed” (Gerhard von Rad) are the forebears' origins and divine election, their descent into Egypt, and the entry of the people into the promised land. This outline does indeed correspond roughly with the content of the Pentateuch, though it makes the remarkable omission of the events at Sinai, which constitute a major section of the Pentateuchal narrative. We may perhaps seek a more conceptually unified theme in the Pentateuch than a mere summary of its narrative.

The mainspring of the action of the Pentateuch seems to be the divine promise of Genesis 12.1–3 (repeated with varying emphases in 15.4–5, 13–16, 18–21; 17.4–8; 22.16–18; and alluded to in scores of passages throughout the Pentateuch). This promise contains three elements: a posterity (“I will make of you a great nation”), a relationship (“I will bless you”), and a gift of land (“the land I will show you”). It is the fulfillment, and the partial nonfulfillment, of these promises that may be said to be the theme of the Pentateuch.

The theme of the posterity is plainly the theme of Genesis. In the Abraham cycle of stories, the theme appears mostly in the shape of anxious questions: Will there be a son at all? What will become of him? Here lies the significance of the many Genesis narratives of threats to the family's survival: the sterility of matriarchs, the strife between brothers, often with near‐fatal consequences, and the repeated famines in the land of promise.

The theme of the divine‐human relationship comes most strongly to expression in Exodus and Leviticus. Both at the Exodus and at Sinai it becomes plain what the words of the promise (“I will bless you,” “I will make my covenant between me and you,” “I will be your God”) meant. The blessing comes in the form of salvation from Egypt and in the gift of the law. The covenant of Sinai, of which the opening words are “I am Yahweh your God,” formalizes the relationship adumbrated by the covenant with the forebears. Leviticus spells out how the relationship now established by Yahweh is to be maintained: the sacrificial system is to exist, not as a human means of access to God, but as the divinely ordered method whereby breaches of the covenant may be repaired and atoned for.

The theme of the land dominates Numbers and Deuteronomy. Numbers begins with preparations for the occupation of the land, and ends with the actual occupation of that part of it lying to the east of Jordan by two and a half of the tribes. Deuteronomy sets before the people laws for their life under God, explicitly “in the land which Yahweh, God of your fathers, is giving to you” (Deut. 4.1).

None of the promises is fully realized within the Pentateuch itself: the posterity as numerous as the sand on the seashore (Gen. 22.17) is a promise that has only begun to achieve fulfillment by the time the Pentateuch is over, the relationship of blessing and of covenant is a continuing and never wholly fulfilled promise, and the land, at the end of the Pentateuch, is a promise that is only partly fulfilled. The whole structure of the Pentateuch, then, is shaped by the promises to Abraham, which are never final but always point beyond themselves to a future yet to be realized.

David J. A. Clines

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