Chapter 1.
The Five Books of Moses

AIM: To introduce the Pentateuch.

THEME: Ancient books for modern man!

From ancient times the first five books of the Old Testament have been considered a literary unit. These five books are known collectively as the Torah ("Law") or Pentateuch ("Five Scrolls"). The New Testament refers to these books as "the law of Moses" (Luke 24:27), "the writings of Moses" (John 5:46, 47), or simply "Moses" (Mark 7:13). The divine authority of this section is indicated by Jesus when he bestowed upon it the title "the word of God" (Mark 7:13).

The importance of the Pentateuch hardly can be overstated. This section of God's Word is important historically, for here is an accurate record of the most primitive periods of the human adventure. The Pentateuch is important theologically, for here is the explanation of the predicament of the race. These books reveal the origin of sin and the necessity of redemption through shed blood. The Pentateuch is also important scientifically, for here the Creator reveals details about the formation and filling of the earth which empirical investigation could never discover. The Pentateuch is important legally, for herein is contained one of the oldest, and certainly most influential, law codes known to man. The Pentateuch is also important sociologically. These five books reveal the origins of the basic unit of society, the family.

By way of introduction to the Pentateuch, six areas are examined in this chapter: (1) scope, (2) authorship, (3) unity, (4) structure, (5) chronology, and (6) teaching of the first five books of the Old Testament.


The Pentateuch consists of five books divided into 187 chapters. This material constitutes a little over twenty percent of the Old Testament. One would have to read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians to read an amount equivalent in length to the Pentateuch.

The five books of the Pentateuch were clearly intended to be viewed as separate entities, as Brevard Childs has pointed out. Genesis is structured around a genealogical formula ("these are the generations of") which sets that material off from the other four books. Genesis contains family history, not national history, yet the material here is integrally connected with the history of the nation of Israel which begins in the following book.

Exodus begins with a recapitulation of material from Genesis which is designed to introduce a distinct literary product (compare Ex 1:1-5 with Gn 46:8ff.). The second book concludes with the building of the Tabernacle and a summary of its role in the future wandering of God's people.

The setting of Leviticus is the same as that of Exodus, but the structure of the book is quite different. Thematically, Leviticus deals with the implementation of the cultic apparatus which is constructed in Exodus. This book employs a topical approach which often breaks the logical and chronological sequence of its continuity with Exodus. Leviticus concludes with a summary which clearly sets it apart from the book which follows.

The Book of Numbers focuses on the laws of the camp during the wandering period. The book begins with a precise date formula which indicates a new section of material. Numbers ends with a summary which sets it apart from the fifth book of the Pentateuch. In Leviticus God's people are stationary at Mt. Sinai, but in Numbers they are on the move from Sinai to Kadesh to the Plains of Moab.

Deuteronomy shares the same geographical setting with the concluding chapters of Numbers, yet a sharp break separates the one book from the other. The last book of the Pentateuch has a clear introduction and conclusion. The homiletical style of this book sets it apart as an independent work.


The authorship of the Pentateuch has been debated for decades. On the one hand, conservative scholars maintain the traditional view that these five books were authored by Moses. Modem biblical scholarship, however, refuses to recognize any significant role for Moses in the production of these books.

A. Biblical Claims

No specific claim of authorship appears in Genesis, but the claims are abundant in the other four books. Thus in Exodus the claim is made that "Moses wrote down everything the Lord had said" (24:4); and "the Lord said to Moses, Write down these words" (34:27). About thirty-five times in Leviticus Moses is said to have received directives from the Lord. In Numbers about half the chapters begin with the claim that God communicated with Moses. Deuteronomy claims to contain the last words of Moses spoken just before his death. Without question, then, the Pentateuch makes repeated claims that its content originally was communicated to and through Moses.

The claims of the Pentateuch are echoed throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Dozens of times the Law is connected with Moses. Three examples of this claim are 1 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 14:6 and Ezra 3:2.

Jesus also connected Moses' name with the Law. He told the cleansed leper to offer the gift which Moses commanded (Matt 8:4). He associated the name of Moses with the divorce law (Matt 19:7-8). He quoted two specific laws regarding respect for parents and attributed them to Moses (Mark 7:10). He directed the Sadducees to consult the "book of Moses" (Mark 12:26). After his resurrection he explained how all the Scriptures "beginning with Moses" pointed to him (Luke 24:24-27). He rebuked the unbelief of his auditors by claiming "Moses wrote about me" (John 5:46).

Following the lead of their Master, the inspired apostles frequently made the connection between Moses and the Law. Peter quoted the Messianic prophecy from Deuteronomy 18 and attributed it to Moses (Acts 3:22). James, the half brother of Jesus, claimed that Moses was read in the synagogues on every Sabbath (Acts 15:21). Paul quoted passages from Exodus (Rom 9:15) and Deuteronomy (Rom 10:19) and attributed them to Moses. He spoke about the veil which covered the hearts of Jewish auditors when Moses is read (2 Cor 3:15). The writer of Hebrews affirmed that Moses proclaimed every commandment of the Law to Israel (Heb 9:19).

B. Critical Conjectures

For almost two hundred years most biblical critics have denied that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. At first they claimed that writing had not yet been invented in the days of Moses. Archaeological investigations have now made clear that writing was common in the ancient Near East fifteen hundred years before Moses. The critics pointed to certain passages in the Pentateuch which they argued could not have been written by Moses. When correctly interpreted, however, no passage in the Pentateuch rules out Moses as author with the exception of the account of his death in the last chapter of Deuteronomy. This account was most likely added by Joshua who succeeded Moses as the leader of Israel.

The critical conjecture regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The documentary hypothesis is the theory that the Pentateuch was a compilation of selections from several different written documents composed at different places and times over a period of several centuries. Nearly every individual critic has his own version of the theory. Most critics, however, see four distinct and contradictory strands interwoven within the five books. The Pentateuch is not Mosaic, it is a mosaic! Older critics held that these strands represented evolutionary stages in the development of Old Testament religion. More recent critics see these strands as equally ancient. Each strand evolved on its own until finally it was woven with the other three at the conclusion of Old Testament history. This revised version of the theory regarding the origin of the Pentateuch is no more compatible with the biblical claims than the older version!

The key name in the long history of the documentary hypothesis is Julius Wellhausen who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century. Wellhausen offered four literary arguments for his theory. (1) He pointed out that two names for God (Yahweh and Elohim) are used in Genesis. This, he speculated, indicated two authors. (2) Wellhausen pointed out what he regarded as duplicate and contradictory accounts of some events in the Pentateuch. (3) He found evidence of different and contradictory styles of writing, vocabulary, moral and religious ideas in these books. (4) When the sections and paragraphs assigned to the hypothetical strands were put together they (allegedly) formed a connected whole. Conservative scholars like E.J. Young, W.H. Green, Gleason Archer and O.T. Alias have responded to these arguments decisively.

Wellhausen also turned Old Testament history upside down in an effort to show an evolutionary development. He then attempted to correlate this revised history with the four basic "documents" which he thought he had discovered through the literary analysis of the Pentateuch.

The Bible claims that God revealed to Moses a complex worship system about 1400 BC. This revealed religion, among other things, provided for (1) an elaborate, centralized worship center (the Tabernacle); (2) a tri-level priesthood (Levites, priests, high priest); (3) multiple sacrifices; and (4) a complex religious ritual. The critics claim, however, that all the above elements of Israelite religion evolved over a thousand years. They say what is described in the Pentateuch is the status of Israelite religion in the time of Ezra, a thousand years after Moses!

The issues at stake in this debate are substantial. If Moses did not write these books, then they are a forgery. At the heart of the argument is the very nature of Old Testament religion. The biblical view is that Old Testament religion is a product of revelation; the modern view is that it results from evolution. Ultimately the authority of Christ is involved in the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch, for he unquestionably subscribed to the Mosaic origin of these books.


Pentateuchal studies have entered a dramatic new phase within the past quarter-century. Older criticism focused on hypothetical sources and internal contradictions. Recent studies have tended to view the Pentateuch holistically. Microscopic examination of textual minutiae has given way to analyzing the unifying theme of the five books as a whole. The concern today is on articulating what the Pentateuch "in its final form" is all about. A new appreciation has emerged for the literary genius of the one responsible for this work.

The Pentateuch is a distinct, unique and independent literary entity. For centuries Jews, Samaritans, Christians and even Muslims have so regarded it. Critics point to the fifth century BC as the time when the Pentateuch in its present form was created and recognized as Scripture by the masses. Conservative scholars would argue that the Pentateuch essentially in its present form is a thousand years older than what the critics imagine. Be that as it may, recognition of the thematic unity of the Pentateuch is a positive breakthrough in Pentateuchal studies.

The key to the meaning of the Pentateuch, as David Clines has pointed out, is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. That promise was repeated and amplified to Isaac and Jacob in the remaining chapters of Genesis. Three major ingredients of the promise are (1) progeny, (2) position, and (3) possession. In the first ingredient God promised to make the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into a great nation. In the second God promised to bless the Patriarchs and enter into a covenant with them. He would be their God, and they would be his people. They would have a unique position among the peoples of the earth. The possession which was promised to the Patriarchs was the land of Canaan. These ingredients are interrelated and interdependent and are in fact facets of one promise.

Excluding the first eleven chapters of Genesis which constitute a kind of preface, the Pentateuch narrates the movement of God's people chronologically, geographically and spiritually toward the fulfillment of the Patriarchal promise. The individual books of the Pentateuch are seen by Clines to focus particularly on one of the three ingredients of that promise. Each book concludes with a thematic pointer indicating that faith in the Promise, though tested by circumstances, was still alive.

Genesis 12-50 explores the psychological, physical and spiritual tensions which resulted from snail's-pace fulfillment of the progeny aspect of the Promise. By the end of Genesis the covenant family has survived all manner of adversity and has safely settled in Egypt. They have not, however, become a great nation, and they are away from the Promised Land. Before his death, recorded in the last chapter of Genesis, Joseph made the sons of Israel swear that they would take his bones with them when God delivered them from Egypt (50:25). This expression of confidence in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt reminds the reader that the Patriarchal Promise is yet to be fulfilled and the story is to be continued in the following book.

Exodus and Leviticus emphasize the position aspect of the Promise. God entered into a covenant at Sinai. There he revealed the standards which set Israel apart from all other nations. There he also revealed the procedures for maintaining the special position with their God. Exodus concludes with the glory of the Lord taking up abode in the newly constructed portable shrine. That glorious cloud would serve to direct the travels of Israel during their journey to the Promised Land (40:36-38). Thus Exodus closes with a reminder that the Promise yet awaited fulfillment. Leviticus similarly concludes with a future orientation. The laws found in the final chapters of this book anticipate occupation of the Promised Land.

In Numbers and Deuteronomy the orientation is toward the possession of the land. In Numbers the march toward Canaan resumes. The book concludes with Israel camped "in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho" (36:13). Deuteronomy is set in the same locale as Numbers. Of the five books, this last has the most decided future orientation. Deuteronomy is virtually a handbook of do's and don'ts to be observed once the entrance into Canaan has been effected. As Deuteronomy closes, the Promise still has not been realized. With the death of the great lawgiver one could even say that the Promise was in jeopardy.

Thus the Pentateuch is a masterpiece of literature, carefully crafted by its author to underscore how faith in God's original Promise survived every challenge. Though full of accounts of false starts, failures, and reverses of every sort, the Pentateuch is basically optimistic. However slow and painful, progress toward the realization of God's Promise was ongoing.


The structure of the Pentateuch can be described from several perspectives. On the most obvious level, the Pentateuch consists of five separate books, each displaying its own distinct literary characteristics. On another level the Pentateuch could be described as a literary bifid. The first sixty-nine chapters of the Pentateuch (Gn 1-Ex 19) are mainly history; the last 118 chapters are mainly legislation. On still a third level, markers exist within the text itself to indicate how the author intended to structure his work. A pattern of narrative, poetry and epilogue appears with regularity in the Pentateuch. The author appears to have shaped his work by the positioning of poetic discourses within the prose narrative.

Three major predeath discourses divide the Pentateuch into its largest units. All three discourses contain blessings and curses upon sons and their descendants. In Genesis 9:25-27 (epilogue 9:28) Noah makes his predictions concerning his sons Shem and Japheth and his grandson Canaan. Genesis 49 (epilogue ch. 50) contains Jacob's predictions concerning the destiny of his sons. Finally, in Deuteronomy 33 (epilogue ch. 34) Moses just before his death announced the future of the various tribes of Israel. The strategic placement of these three similar passages in the Pentateuch suggests that the author viewed his work as covering three major epochs:

  1. the Primeval age (Gn 1-9).
  2. the Patriarchal age (Gn 10-50).
  3. the Mosaic age (Ex 1-Dt 34).

Even within these epochs the author has signaled the movement from one period to another by means of poetic insertion. The Primeval age is divided into the Edenic (Gn 1-3) and Antediluvian (Gn 4-9) periods. Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of Adam and Eve, their habitation of the Garden and their expulsion from Paradise. This Edenic material concludes with a poetic utterance by God (Gn 3:14-19 + epilogue vv. 20-24). The Patriarchal age also has two phases, the Postdiluvian or Pre-Canaan (10:1-12:5) and Post-Canaan (12:6-50:26). The poetic call of Abram out of Haran (Gn 12:2-3 + epilogue vv. 4-5) marks the transition.

The Mosaic age is broken by poetic discourse into three subdivisions. The Egyptian or Exodus narratives conclude with the Song of Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 15:1-18 + epilogue vv. 19-21). The wilderness narratives are marked off by the citation of some anonymous poets (Nm 21:27-30 + epilogue vv. 31-35). The final section, which might be called the Moab narratives, concludes with another Song of Moses (Dt 32:1-43 + epilogue vv. 44-52). The structure of the Pentateuch as indicated by this literary device is displayed in Chart 1.


A vast amount of time, the exact duration of which cannot be determined, is covered in the Pentateuch. The key to the chronology of these books is furnished by 1 Kings 6:1 which dates the construction of Solomon's Temple 480 years after the Exodus. On independent grounds the Temple project can be dated to about 967 BC. Adding the 480 years to that date places the Exodus in 1447 BC. The Exodus inaugurated a new era, and several passages mark time from that event (e.g., Ex 19:1; Nm 10:11). Using data supplied by the Pentateuch itself, and working forward and backward from that fixed point, the chronological framework of these books can be established.

The Mosaic age extended from (roughly) the birth of Moses in about 1527 BC to his death in about 1407 BC. To this span of 120 years the Bible devotes 138 chapters—all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. As noted above, the life of Moses is divided by the text into three periods: the Exodus, the wilderness and the

Chart No. 1: Structure of the Pentateuch

Genesis 1-3 Genesis 4-9 Genesis 10:1-12:6 Genesis 12:7-50:26 Exodus 1:1-13:21 Exodus 15:22-Numbers 21 Nm 22-Dt 32

Chart No. 1: Structure of the Pentateuch

Moab periods. The chronology of the Mosaic era can be summarized as follows:

1. While the Exodus period covers eighty years (Ex 7:7), most of the biblical material is concerned only with the single year in which God afflicted Egypt with plagues and subsequently freed his people.

2. The Exodus period ended and the Wilderness period began with the crossing of the Red Sea in about 1447 BC. The key characters of the Wilderness period were Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The period of wandering following the Exodus lasted about four decades (Nm 33:38). The biblical text, however, concentrates only on the first and last years of that period.

3. The Wilderness period terminated with the crossing of the Brook Zered in the fortieth year after the Exodus (Dt 1:3; 2:13-15). The events in the plains of Moab prior to Moses' death lasted about three months (Nm 33:38; Dt 1:3).

Working backward from the Exodus in 1447 BC the following chronological notes are found in the text. The Israelites were in Egypt 430 years (Ex 12:40). This would mean that the Eisodus—the going down into Egypt—must have occurred about the year 1877 BC. Jacob was 130 at the time of the Eisodus (Gn 47:9) and therefore must have been born about the year 2007 BC. Isaac was sixty when Jacob was born (Gn 25:26) and therefore must have been born about 2067 BC. Abraham was a hundred when Isaac was born (Gn 17:17), and therefore must have been born about 2167 BC.

Abram (as Abraham was earlier known) entered Canaan when he was seventy-five (Gn 12:4) about 2092 BC. The family of Jacob left for Egypt about 215 years later in 1877 BC. With the call of Abram the Canaan phase of the Patriarchal era began. Genesis 12-45 focuses on the four main characters of this period: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

The duration of the earliest periods of Pentateuchal history is not known. No clue is given in the text regarding the length of time which elapsed between creation and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The time covered in Genesis 4-9—the Antediluvian period—is also uncertain. Based on the figures which are given in Genesis 5 one would have to conclude that at least 1656 years elapsed between the expulsion from the Garden and the Flood.

The time lapse between the Flood and the call of Abram in about 2092 BC also cannot be established with certainty. The chronological data in chapter 11 necessitate a span of at least 427 years. The most important event during this period was the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Key characters of the Postdiluvian or Pre-Canaan period were Shem, Ham and Japheth (the sons of Noah) and Nimrod, who may have been the builder of the Tower of Babel.


The Old Testament prepared the way for the coming of Christ. Several writers have suggested the following outline of the major divisions of Old Testament literature:

Foundation for Christ The Pentateuch (Genesis—Deuteronomy)
Preparation for Christ The Historical Books (Joshua—Nehemiah)
Anticipation of Christ The Devotional Books (Job—Song)
Expectation of Christ The Prophetic Books (Isaiah—Malachi)

Chart No. 2: Teaching of the Pentateuch


Chart No. 2: Teaching of the Pentateuch

The teaching of the Pentateuch is foundational to the rest of biblical revelation. The theme of each book reflects God's relationship with his people Israel. The five overriding lessons taught here are truths fundamental to the scheme of redemption. These matters, which are summarized in Chart 2, will be developed at length in the pages which follow.


Listed below are works which provide background material, commentary or devotional application respecting the Pentateuch as a whole.

Aalders, G. Ch. A Short Introduction to the Pentateuch. London: Tyndale, 1949.

Allis, O.T. The Five Books of Moses. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1949.

_________. God Spoke by Moses. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958.

Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody, 1964.

Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960.

Brooks, Keith L. The Summarized Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975 reprint.

Cassuto, U. The Documentary Hypothesis. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961.

Clines, David J.A. The Theme of the Pentateuch. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1984.

Eason, J. Lawrence. The New Bible Survey. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963.

Erdman, Charles R. The Pentateuch. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1968.

Geisler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.

Green, W.H. The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch. New York: Scribner, 1903.

Hamilton, Victor. Handbook on the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982.

Hendriksen, William. Bible Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961.

Keil, C. F. "The Pentateuch." In Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Trans. James Martin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959 reprint. 3 vols.

LaSor, William S., David Hubbard, and Frederic Bush. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Livingston, G. Herbert. The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974.

Mackintosh, C.H. Notes on the Pentateuch. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1951 reprint. 6 vols.

Meyer, F.B. The Five Books of Moses. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1955.

Newell, W.R. Studies in the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1983.

Phillips, John. Exploring the Scriptures. Chicago: Moody, 1965.

Thomas, W. H. Griffith. Through the Pentateuch Chapter by Chapter. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.

Wolf, Herbert. An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. Chicago: Moody, 1991.