The Pentateuch: The Cornerstone of Scripture
The word “Pentateuch” is derived from the Greek pentateuchos, which means “five books” or a “five-volume scroll.” This was applied to the first five books of the Old Testament, commonly referred to in Hebrew as the Humash (“the five fifths”), or the Torah (“the law”).
In both Testaments, the first five books of the Bible are considered a unit. In the Old Testament, they are called:
- “the law” (Josh 1:7; Ezra 10:3; Neh. 8:2,7,14; 10:34,36; 12:44; 13:3; 2 Chron. 14:4; 31:21; 33:8)
- “the law of Moses” (1 Kgs. 2:3; Dan. 9:11; Mal. 4:4)
- “the book of the law” (Josh. 1:8; 8:34; 2 Kgs. 22:8; Neh. 8:3)
- “the book of the law of Moses” (Josh 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kgs. 14:6; Neh. 8:1)
- “the law of God” (Neh. 10:28, 29)
- “the law of the Lord” (Ezra 7:10; lChron. 16:40;2Chron. 31:3; 35:26)
- “the book of the law of God,” and “… of the Lord” (Josh 24:26; Neh. 8:18; and 2 Chron. 17:9; 34:14).
In the New Testament, the first five books of the Bible are referenced as:
- “the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10)
- “the book of Moses” (Mk. 12:26)
- “the law” (Mt. 12:5; Lk. 16:16; Jn. 7:19)
- “the law of Moses” (Lk. 2:22; 24:44; Jn. 7:23)
- “the law of the Lord” (Lk. 2:23,24)
- “his [Moses’] writings” (Jn. 5:46)
The names of the five books correspond in the Hebrew text to a word or phrase appearing at the beginning of the books. The titles in English translations are derived from the Septuagint [Greek Old Testament].
For example, the Hebrew title for the first book is bereshit, translated “in the beginning.” The title “Genesis” is taken from the Septuagint which means “beginnings.” This relates to the headings of its ten parts, “These are the generations of” (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12,19; 36:1,9; 37:2).
The scope of the Pentateuch is vast in terms of time. Chronologically, it covers more time than the rest of Scripture combined. Although the exact number of years cannot be determined, as once thought by Ussher (1581-1656), the time span ought to be considered in terms of thousands of years, and certainly not billions or even millions. There is no room in the inspired history of origins for evolutionary chronology.
The books of Moses relate to the era of beginnings (Gen. 1-11), the patriarchs of Israel (Gen. 12-50), oppression and deliverance of the children of Israel (Ex. 1-19), Israel’s encampment at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20-Num. 10), the wilderness wanderings (Num. 10-21), and the preparations for entrance into Canaan (Num. 22-Dt. 34).
For Israel, the Pentateuch included the legislative material given by God to Moses. The moral, civil, and ceremonial laws form the basis of the Hebrew theocracy – which was established at Mt. Sinai, and abrogated by the death of Jesus and the inauguration of the new covenant (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 9:15-17; 8:8-13).
The Pentateuch is tremendously important cosmically, historically, religiously, and practically.
Cosmically, Genesis stands alone in ancient literature. A contrast between the Genesis creation account, with that of the Babylonian “creation account” is revealing. Merrill Unger notes:
“By inspiration the author of the Pentateuch has the secret which the polytheistic writers of ancient Mesopotamia blindly groped after, the unifying principle of the universe. In an age grossly ignorant of the first principles of causation, Genesis stands out all the more resplendently as a divine revelation …. The Bible alone discloses that the universe exists because God made it and brought it into being for a definite purpose” (p. 185).
While Genesis’ sublime narration of the creation activity is unsurpassed in the stories of ancient nations, it has another remarkable feature that sets it apart from any other document of that age. Although it was born in a day of pre-scientific precision, it exhibits an unusual scientific accuracy. W.E. Albright, one of the world’s foremost archaeologists, said that “modern science cannot improve on it …. In fact, modern scientific cosmogonies show such a disconcerting tendency to be short-lived that it may be seriously doubted whether science has yet caught up with the Biblical story” (Allerman, 135).
From an historical perspective, the Pentateuch is intriguing. The books of Moses are not the systematic record of human history, as that expression technically is employed; rather, it should be considered a specific kind of history. It is the history of God’s scheme of redemption for mankind. Therefore, it omits things that may be of great interest to the academic historian, and includes things that may be of little importance to him. As this special kind of record unfolds and touches history, it is without flaw.
Religiously, the study of the Pentateuch is highly appreciated. As redemptive history, these inspired documents convey the character and relationship of God and man. The Creator has fashioned humankind in his own image providing for man physically, socially, mentally, and spiritually. As creatures of moral obligation and freewill, the first man and woman chose to rebel against God (Gen. 3). All of their children who are intellectually accountable have followed in their steps (Rom. 3:23).
The reader of sacred history learns of the origin, consequences, and progressive nature of sin. Likewise, there is the hope of redemption through the seed of woman (Gen. 3:15).
When considering the Messianic aspect of the Pentateuch, there are both direct prophecies and prophetic types. One recalls the words of Christ when he affirmed that Moses “wrote of me” (Jn. 5:46). The Lord also declared, “[A]ll things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me” (Lk. 24:44).
Note the direct prophetic references to Christ: the woman’s seed (Gen. 3:15); Abraham’s seed (Gen. 22:17); Shiloh ofJudah (Gen. 49:10; though there is controversy regarding this even among conservative scholars); and “the prophet” (Dt. 18:15).
Typological prophecies of Christ that are found in the Pentateuch are: Adam (Rom 5:12ff; 1 Cor. 15:45), Abel (Heb. 12:24); Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18; Ps. 110; Heb. 5:6,10; 6:20; 7:17); the Passover lamb (Ex. 12; Jn. 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7); the scapegoat (Lev. 16:20-22; cf. Heb. 9,10); the red heifer (Num. 19; cf. Heb. 9:13); the high priest (Heb. 9:23-28); and the brazen serpent (Num. 21; cf. Jn. 3:14).
Practically, the Pentateuch embodies timeless truths for everyday living. For instance, the account of Joseph is often more appreciated for its practical value than for its historical link in the history of Israel. One should be warned by Cain’s uncontrolled anger and Lot’s inclination towards Sodom. Encouragement is found in the example of Abraham who was “looking for a city whose builder and maker is God.”
The apostle Paul taught that these things were “written for our learning, that through the patience and comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). “Now these things happened unto them by way of example; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come” (1 Cor 10:11; cf. Rom. 4:12; Heb. 11).
The Pentateuch forms the introduction of God’s revealed plan for man’s redemption. From Genesis through Deuteronomy, the foundation is laid for the reader to understand the relation of God to man, the problem of sin, the development of God’s plan in Israel, and the redemptive wisdom of God which he has made known through the church (Eph. 3:9-11).
The importance of this body of divine literature is embodied in those words of Jesus to his Jewish kinsmen, “For if ye believed Moses, ye would believe me; for he wrote of me” (Jn. 5:46).
- Allerman, H. C. & Flack, Elmer. 1948. Old Testament Commentary. (Philadelphia, PA: Mulenhurg Press.
- Unger, Merrill. 1974. Introductory Guide to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.