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What Is the Pentateuch: A Short Intro to the Bible’s First Five Books

What is the Pentateuch in the Bible? The first five books of the Bible, often referred to as the “law of Moses,” are also referred to as the “Torah” or the “Pentateuch.” “Torah” is a Hebrew word that means “instruction” or “law.” So when it’s used to refer to the first five books of the Bible, it emphasizes these books as God’s law. The term “Pentateuch” (from Greek, pentateukos) starts with “penta” (Greek for “five”) and highlights these books as a five-volume compilation: Genesis through Deuteronomy.

It can be a little confusing to set out to read the five books of the law and realize that, instead of lists of laws, it starts with stories. In fact, much of the content of the first five books of the Bible is narrative. Although these books do include the content of the laws God provided Israel, they are set in the unfolding of history as God shaped his chosen people. These first five books provide ancient Israel with a historical perspective of their development into a people beginning with the first man, Adam, and culminating with their preparation to receive the promised land of Canaan.

The order of the first five books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—follows a chronological order of historical events.

Genesis

After narrating God’s creation of the world, Genesis describes the apostasy of mankind (Genesis 3–11) and then the formation of a chosen people through Abraham (Genesis 12–50). Genesis gives ancient Israel a documented history of their founding in the twelve sons of Abraham’s grandson Jacob/Israel (the “twelve tribes of Israel”) and their subsequent move to Egypt to survive (through God’s providentially working through Joseph) during the famine (Genesis 50:19–20). This ultimately sets up the reader to prepare to understand their dramatic exodus from Egypt (narrated in the book of Exodus).


What is the Pentateuch? “After narrating God’s creation of the world, Genesis describes the apostasy of mankind and then the formation of a chosen people through Abraham.”


Exodus

After the Jewish people in Egypt were enslaved, God brought them out of Egyptian bondage through Moses (Exodus 3:7–11). The reader is invited into the experience of how God moved Israel from being slaves in a foreign nation to becoming his covenant people. After God delivered them from Egypt through a series of miracles, they received God’s law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–24).

Leviticus

We read many more of God’s laws in the book of Leviticus as well as in the book of Numbers. Leviticus is named after the Israelite tribe of Levi, which was set apart to serve in the temple; hence, Leviticus contains laws detailing such rituals as temple sacrifices.

Numbers

Numbers narrates how the Israelites were numbered according to tribe in order to prepare for their entrance into the promised land. The people of God had lost their resolve to enter the promised land, so they wandered, even as God led them, in the wilderness. They wandered for decades before they were ready to finally enter the land.


What is the Pentateuch? “They wandered for decades before they were ready to finally enter the land.”


Deuteronomy

At the culmination of this wandering, Moses prepared Israel to take possession of the promised land prior to his death. Before entering, the new generation was reminded of God’s law, which was told to them in the book of Deuteronomy (a word meaning “second law”).

The Theological Purpose

From a theological perspective, these first five books begin to unfold God’s purpose to destroy the works of the serpent, who tempted the first humans to reject God’s authority (Genesis 3). God created a good world that was cursed when Adam and Eve chose to obey the serpent’s words over God’s. In Genesis 3:15, God declared his purpose to eventually defeat evil through the “woman’s offspring.” This prophecy is commonly referred to as the “proto-evangelium” (Greek for “first gospel”) in which God declared that the offspring of the woman would be victorious over the offspring of the serpent, resulting in the crushing of the serpent’s head. This enmity between the people of God and the forces of evil was displayed throughout Old Testament history, beginning with the conflict of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1–8) and continuing on through the church’s perpetual conflict with Satan as they follow Jesus in the face of persecution.

This promise of victory over the serpent was ultimately achieved by Jesus:

“The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8, NIV)


What is the Pentateuch? “These first five books begin to unfold God’s purpose to destroy the works of the serpent, who tempted the first humans to reject God’s authority.”


Similarly, Paul declares victory for the church over Satan during the days of antagonism from the Roman Empire:

“Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” (Romans 16:19–20, NIV)

To this end, clearly the events of the Pentateuch should be understood through its own announcement of the promise of God to destroy the works of the serpent, later revealed to be Satan himself (Revelation 20:2). Every subsequent move of the hand of God in the history of humanity, Israel, and the church is to fulfill this promise.


Excerpted from Orpheus J. Heyward, God’s Word: The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Renew.org, 2021). To check out the book, click here.

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