Eugene H. Merrill


A theology of the Bible, or of any of its parts, must give careful consideration to the setting of the original composition—time, place, situation, and author—and to the matter of final canonical form and function. This is especially true of a theology of the Pentateuch, for it is universally regarded by both the Jewish and Christian traditions as being foundational to whatever else the Old and New Testaments say theologically. Attention to the background of the Pentateuch, in which such elements of setting are addressed, is of utmost importance.

The position of the Pentateuch at the beginning of every known arrangement of the biblical canon is in itself a confirmation of the premise that these five books are the fountainhead of theological inquiry. The very order of the books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—is, according to every tradition, intrinsic to original Mosaic composition as well as final canonical shape.

A theology of the Pentateuch must, then, take cognizance of the historical circumstances in which it was created and, more important, the theological concerns that motivated both its divine and human origination, and its precise form and function. Until such prolegomena are understood, it is impossible to understand and correctly articulate the theological message of the writing of Moses.


The Bible affirms (e.g., Ex. 17:14; 24:4; Num. 33:1-2; Deut. 31:9; Josh. 1:8; 2 Kings 21:8) that the Pentateuch was the creation of Moses, the great Exodus liberator, who communicated to his fellow Israelites the revelation of God concerning Himself and His purposes for His recently redeemed people. This took place on the plains of Moab, forty years after the Exodus, on the eve of Israel's conquest of Canaan and establishment as a national entity in fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchal ancestors. Though there no doubt had been an unbroken oral (and perhaps written) tradition about their origins, history, and purpose, it was not until Moses gathered these traditions and integrated them into the corpus now known as the Torah that a comprehensive and authoritative synthesis emerged. The significance of the Exodus and of the Sinaitic Covenant in light of the ancient patriarchal promises became clear. Beyond this, the role of Israel against the backdrop of creation and the whole world of nations took on meaning. In short, the setting of the Pentateuch was theological as much as it was geographical and historical. It became the written expression of God's will for Israel in terms of His larger purposes in creation and redemption.


The name Pentateuch reflects the size of the composition—it consists of five scrolls. A more accurate and informative term is used in the Jewish tradition itself, namely the Torah, which means "instruction." This name suggests that the purpose of the Mosaic writings was to educate Israel regarding the general meaning of creation and history and regarding its specific function within that cosmic framework. Where did the people originate? Why were they called by Yahweh? What was the meaning of the covenant? What were God's requirements for His redeemed people in civil, moral, and cultic regulations? What were (and are) His purposes for them in the future as related to the nations of the earth?

The unfortunate translation of "law" for tôrāh gives the impression that the Mosaic writings are essentially legal texts. Such texts in the corpus are well recognized, but they by no means predominate. Genesis is narrative and genealogical for the most part. Exodus 1-19 is mainly narrative, with the remainder divided between "legal" prescription and its implementation. Leviticus is basically cultic instruction, legal in the sense of prescribing regulations for worship. Numbers is of mixed genre, most of it clearly narrative with only a few chapters devoted to law. Deuteronomy is cast in the form of major Mosaic addresses delivered to Israel as a farewell speech just before Moses' death and Israel's conquest of Canaan. Form-critically Deuteronomy has come to be seen as a long covenant text including parenetic comments on various elements of its constituent documents. The "law" in Deuteronomy is, then, the stipulation section of a treaty text that regulates the behavior of the vassal Israel toward Yahweh the Sovereign.

Thus the Pentateuch is a collection of diverse writings. But this does not vitiate the traditional understanding of the collection as Torah, or instruction. By story, poem, genealogy, narrative, prescription, and exhortation the theological message is communicated with one single objective: that Israel might be instructed as to her meaning and purpose. Literary form, as helpful as it might be in specific instances, has little to say about the fundamental character of the Pentateuch as theological literature.


Though one might wish for a totally objective, unpredetermined approach to biblical theology, this is an impossibility, as all theologians freely confess. One can never come to his task with no preconceptions as to the shape and conclusions of his endeavor. Yet the goal is to engage in an inductive study of the literature so that it may yield its own categories and results. Even granting this as an indispensable methodological principle one still must make certain assumptions about the raw material under his purview and the stance from which he will examine it. The following assumptions undergird the present approach to the theology of the Pentateuch.

Assumptions about God. God exists and is unified, self-consistent, and ordered. It is clearly impossible to do anything other than a "history of Israel's religion," or "descriptive theology," unless one concedes the existence of God. One must also concede that God's purposes are noncontradictory and comprehensible at some level of human understanding.

God has revealed Himself in Scripture. This revelation is unified, consistent with Himself, and systematic. If theology is to be done, it must be done with data revealed by God for it to claim any authenticity and authority. God's self-revelation, moreover, was given in human terms, that is, it was communicated in such a way as to conform to human thought processes and verbal formulations.

God has a purpose for all He does and that purpose, granting its divine origination, must be noncontradictory, self-consistent, systematic, and knowable. This is not to say that all God's purposes are intelligible to human beings or even are communicated to them but that those purposes incumbent on them must be so.

Assumptions about revelation. The purpose of revelation is to reveal God and His purposes. The need or desire to communicate obviously presupposes the mechanism for communicating as far as God's objectives are concerned. It is unthinkable that God has requirements for His creation that He would not reveal in meaningful terms.

Revelation must express the purpose of God propositionally. If all that is in view is the noun (i.e., God), it may be that one could glean something by general revelation alone, for "the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:18-23). If, however, verbs (i.e., God's purposes) are to be revealed, they must be clarified in verbal statements, for mere isolated acts and events—or even patterns of events in a historical continuum—are at worst meaningless and at best ambiguous. "Event" must be accompanied and interpreted by "word" if it is to be revelatory.

The revelation of purpose may be derived either inductively from the text (by abstraction of a principle or a theme) or deductively (from a purpose statement) or both. In fact, the two are mutually informing and must continually be held in tension. A purpose statement that cannot be sustained in light of the total biblical witness is of course an invalid theological starting point.

Assumptions about purpose. Creation must from the outset be conceded as integral to the purposes of God, for though He could have existed forever independently and yet with purpose, creation has taken place and with it an implied purpose. If purpose, then, is bound up with creation (or vice versa), the statement(s) of creation's purpose should be in chronological and canonical proximity to the creation event itself. This naturally leads to the Pentateuch and specifically to the earliest portion of Genesis.

The statement(s) of purpose should be such that it can be validated by subsequent revelation as a whole, is adequate to accommodate the variety of biblical revelation, and is specific or restricted enough to make a meaningful statement about God (subject) and His purposes (predicate).

The statement(s) of purpose must suit the canonical structure of the entire Bible. Regardless of one's view of inspiration and revelation, the present canonical shape of the Bible clearly reflects the theological stance of the communities that received and molded it under the direction of the Spirit of God. Again, therefore, because it stands at the head and source of the canonical tradition, one would expect Genesis to yield the fundamental statements of purpose.

Assumptions about theological method. Within the present canon, whose arrangement reflects broad theological method and concerns (namely, the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings, and the New Testament), one must attempt to discover chronological order so that the progress of revelation might be discerned and brought to the service of more narrow theological interests. In the case of the Pentateuch this is an easy matter because universal tradition attests to the priority of the Pentateuch and the canonical form places Genesis first.

Once the purpose statement (also now to be construed as the center) has been determined, one must read the biblical revelation in that light, a reading based on proper attention to (1) well-established principles of hermeneutics, (2) literary/rhetorical criticism, (3) form criticism, (4) historical/cultural background, and (5) detailed exegesis.

The purpose statement must then be reevaluated to see if it still meets the criteria listed in the above purpose section.

Proper method for the Christian requires that the New Testament be viewed in continuity with the Old Testament and that both Testaments be seen as mutually informing. This does not mean that one can read the New Testament back into the Old, but that one must recognize that the two Testaments are indivisibly parts of the same revelation of the one God and that nothing in the Old Testament can in any way contradict the revelation of the New.


The foregoing discussion suggests that the revelation of Scripture is a unified, purposeful, self-consistent phenomenon reflecting the purposes of a self-consistent God who wishes to disclose His intentions to His creation. It has been argued that these intentions can be reduced to a statement to be expected at the beginning of the historical and canonical process. Unfortunately it is impossible here to trace that statement and its implications throughout the entire Bible because this chapter is concerned with the theology of the Pentateuch alone. But it is precisely in the Pentateuch that such a statement must first appear if the foregoing set of assumptions is to have any validity at all.

Though there may be an overarching, comprehensive statement of divine purpose (hereafter, center), there may be minor, secondary statements that are essential to the achieving of the one grand objective. The very occasion of the composition of the Pentateuch is a case in point. Clearly Moses prepared the written Torah as instruction on the origin, purpose, and destiny of the people Israel. The Exodus and the covenant relationship certified at Sinai were sufficient to prove beyond any doubt that whatever purposes God had for creation and all the peoples of the earth, these purposes somehow were to be served by the election of Israel to a position of special responsibility.

Exodus 19 and the theological center. The Sinai Covenant, made possible historically and practically by the miracle of the Exodus, is of central concern to the Old Testament. The text of that covenant is introduced in Exodus 20:1 and continues through 23:33, but its purpose is outlined in 19:4-6, a passage that is crucial to the understanding of the function of Israel and of the Sinaitic Covenant in biblical theology. It is so important that it could well be considered the central purpose statement concerning God's election and redemption of Israel.

After rehearsing His chastening of Egypt (Ex. 19:4a), His mighty act of Exodus deliverance (v. 4b), and His bringing of His people to Himself in covenant fellowship (v. 4c), Yahweh challenged them to be obedient to His covenant requirements so they could be His own special possession (v. 5), a kingdom of priests (v. 6). The redemptive prerequisite to covenant relationship is unconditional—God delivered them and brought them to Himself at His own initiative. What was conditional was their success in achieving His purpose for them, that they be a priestly kingdom, a holy nation.

Many theologians view this complex of events itself as the primary focus of Old Testament theology. Because the bulk of the Old Testament revelation is concerned with Israel and with Yahweh's relationship with Israel, it is argued that that must be the central concern of God's revelation. But theological significance cannot be measured by lines of text alone. There must be careful attention to exegesis, to literary and theological context. Granting that Exodus 19:4-6 is a fundamental statement about the divine plan for Israel, is there anything in this passage to suggest that God's purposes are limited to Israel? Or is there any suggestion as to the role Israel was to play, a role that in itself would lead to a far more comprehensive understanding of God's objectives?

The answer is to be found in the very nature of priesthood. Whatever else might be said of the office, the fundamental notion that comes to mind in considering the ministry of the priest is that of mediation and intercession. A priest stands between God and a person (or persons) who is in need of making contact with God. So Israel must be viewed as bearing a mediatorial responsibility, of serving as an intercessor between a holy God and all the peoples of the earth. But this suggests that Israel itself and its covenant relationship to Yahweh cannot be the focal point of biblical theology. Israel's role is not an ultimate objective but merely a means of facilitating that objective—that God and the peoples of earth might have unbroken communion. Israel's importance, then, is functional. For just as the priest did not serve for his own sake but only as a means of bridging the gap between the worshiper and the worshiped, so Israel was made a priestly nation to achieve communion between man and God. As will be emphasized later, even the form of the Sinaitic Covenant—a sovereign-vassal treaty—points to this functional meaning of Israel's existence.

If Exodus 19 is not a statement of ultimate theological purpose but only one outlining the role of Israel, is there a statement elsewhere that would satisfactorily explain the reason for the election and covenant responsibility of Israel in the first place? In line with the previous discussion of chronological and canonical indicators, it is proposed that the search for such a statement of center must begin precisely at the beginning—in the earliest parts of Genesis.

Genesis 1.26-28 as the theological center. Unquestionably the underlying purposes of God for man are bound up in His creation of the heavens and the earth, which provide the arena of His activity. One would naturally expect the Bible, as a historical and theological treatise, to commence its story with creation, the earliest possible event. If, however, there were theological concerns that transcended creation and its purposes, one could have every right to expect the inspired record to begin with these because the canonical shape is not always exclusively sensitive to chronological concerns. Therefore, the very priority of creation both historio-graphically and canonically should point to its theological centrality.

There are two complementary accounts of creation; Genesis 1, which is cosmic and universal in its scope; and Genesis 2, which is decidedly anthropocentric. This canonical structure alone suggests the climactic way the creation of man is viewed. He is the crowning glory of the creative process. This is clearly seen even in Genesis 1, for man is created last, on the sixth day of creation.

A mere description of the divine creative activity is not sufficient, however, to communicate the theological message involved, for there must be statements of motive to give the act intelligent and intelligible meaning. The fundamental question that must be asked of the creation accounts is, "So what?" Answers to this question are not long in coming. Following the creation of light, God said that it was good (Gen. 1:4). Similarly He endorsed the appearance of the dry land (v. 10), the emergence of plant life (v. 12), the placement of the heavenly bodies (v. 18), and the creation of marine and aerial life (v. 21) and of earthbound creatures (v. 25). The whole is summarized in verse 31: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good."

The judgment that all these things were "good" is of course a statement of purpose. It suggests that creation serves aesthetic ends at least. But aesthetics alone is an insufficient basis on which to build the eternal, divine objective. To see that objective in more concrete and specific terms one must ascertain the particular purposes attached to the creation of man, because it is man who is the image of God and for whom the rest of creation provides a setting.

This leads to Genesis 1:26-28, the first and foundational text to articulate the functional aspect of the creation of man. The formal, anthropological aspect is found in Genesis 2.

The first part of the statement of purpose is that man is made in the image and likeness of God (1:26a), a purpose reiterated as having been accomplished with the added nuance of gender distinction (v. 27). In line with recent scholarship, it is argued here that the translation of besalmēnū ("in our image") and kidmūtēnū ("according to our likeness") ought to be "as our image" and "according to our likeness" respectively. That is, man is not in the image of God, he is the image of God. The text speaks not of what man is like but of what he is to be and do. It is a functional statement and not one of essence. Just as images or statues represented deities and kings in the ancient Near East, so much so that they were virtually interchangeable, so man as the image of God was created to represent God Himself as the sovereign over all creation.

This bold metaphor is spelled out beyond question in Genesis 1:26b, which explains what it means for man to be the image of God: "Let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all creatures that move along the ground." The mandate to accomplish this follows in verse 28: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

The key words in this statement of purpose are the verbs "rule" (1:26, 28) and "subdue" (v. 28). The first verb appears in the jussive ("let them rule") and imperative ("rule ye") of the Hebrew rādāh ("have dominion, rule, dominate"). The second occurs also in the imperative plural, the Hebrew verb being kābaš ("subdue, bring into bondage"). Both verbs carry the idea of dominion. Both may be traced back to the verbal root meaning "to tread down." Hence, man is created to reign in a manner that demonstrates his lordship, his domination (by force if necessary) over all creation.

Two principal passages in the Old Testament provide glimpses of what human domination under God entails. The first is Genesis 2:15 (cf. v. 5), 19-20, and the second is Psalm 8.

As noted earlier, Genesis 2 gives the account of the creation of man in which he appears as the climax of the creative process, almost its raison d'etre. In this account, described in highly anthropomorphic terms, the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, making him a living being (v. 7). He then placed man in the garden "to work it and take care of it" (v. 15). This must be seen in light of verse 5, which points out that before the creation of man no shrub or plant had sprung up because there was as yet no rain and, more significantly, no man to "work the ground." Clearly, then, a major purpose for the creation of man was that he should "work the ground." Work by itself was not a curse; indeed it was the very essence of what it meant to be the image of God. To work the ground is one definition of what it means to have dominion.

A second definition may be found in Genesis 2:19-20, which states that man was given the responsibility of naming the animals. As is now well known, in the ancient Near East to name could be tantamount to exercising dominion. When Yahweh brought the animals to Adam "to see what he would name them," He was in effect transferring from Himself to Adam the dominion for which man was created. This of course is perfectly in line with the objects of human dominion listed in the pivotal text of Genesis 1:26: fish, birds, livestock, and "all the creatures that move along the ground."

The second major Old Testament passage that clarifies the meaning of man's function as sovereign is Psalm 8. The entire hymn deserves detailed discussion but only two points can be made here. First, a clear reference to the imago dei is conveyed by verse 5: "You made Him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned Him with glory and honor." As the NIV suggests in the footnote, "heavenly beings" may be translated "God" (Heb. ' ĕlōhîm). This in fact is the better translation in view of the well-established fact that this psalm is a commentary of Genesis 1:26-28. As God's image and viceroy, man himself is a king crowned with glory and honor.

What that kingship means is clear from Psalm 8:6-7, where man has been appointed ruler (causative of māšal) over all creation, with everything "under his feet." This image is reminiscent of the fundamental meaning of "have dominion" (rādāh) and "subdue" (kābaš) in Genesis 1:28, namely, to tread upon. The objects of the dominion are exactly the same (though in different order) as those of the Genesis mandate: flocks and herds, beasts of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea (Ps. 8:7).

—A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament