God's Instructions for God's People

What Is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Bible. The word Pentateuch comes from a Greek word that means "five vessels or scrolls." In Hebrew, this section is known as Torah. Commonly translated as "law," torah is better translated as "instruction." This way, the Torah is not limited to legal sections, but it includes everything in the Pentateuch: genealogies, stories, laws, discourses, and songs.

On one level, the Pentateuch is a collection of books. On a deeper level, the Pentateuch is God's gracious provision for his people. It provides an identity for God's people. It provides the answers to the questions, what does it mean to be God's people, and how can we be God's people? The Pentateuch is God's instructions for a nation learning to be God's people while living in the world.

For this reason, the Pentateuch lays the basis for the rest of the Bible. It explains the origin of the universe, of the nations, and of God's people. It explains the need for God's direct intervention in human history—human sin. The stories show how God acts in the lives of his people.

Who Wrote the Pentateuch?

This is a difficult question. Some scholars argue that Moses wrote the whole of the Pentateuch, and they offer good arguments in favor. Other scholars argue that the collection of books underwent a long writing process, which ended centuries after Moses' life. Still others will grant that Moses wrote a portion of the material. Scholars still debate how much of that material Moses wrote—and how much was written in a long process of editing and rearranging of the material.

The two main arguments for recognizing Moses as the author of the Pentateuch are:

However, even supporting Moses as the author, many scholars still recognize that Moses did not write everything in the Pentateuch.

Other scholars have taken the idea of ancient sources beyond those two mentioned in the text itself. Although earlier scholars took their critical views too far and with little support, many scholars today continue to see an important history of composition of the books. Despite of how we think the collection was written, the Pentateuch is the Word of God and lays the theological groundwork for the rest of the Scriptures.

Characteristics of the Pentateuch

Literature: Most of the Pentateuch is prose narrative of a high literary quality. That means that besides being divinely inspired books which teach us truths about God and the world he created, the books of the Pentateuch are also beautiful writings. The Pentateuch has two main kinds of literature: stories and laws. The laws—Exodus 20, for example—are framed with stories. The stories help us make sense of the laws, and the laws give boundaries to our lives so we can be God's separate people. This way, we come to understand that the Pentateuch is not about Moses; it is not a Moses biography. Rather, the Pentateuch is about God and God's people.

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