Five Themes of the Pentateuch: Introduction

The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) comprise the Pentateuch. These books are also sometimes referred to as the “Torah” or the “Law of Moses.” The word Pentateuch is Greek for “five books,” and these books cover ancient history spanning from the creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) until the death of Moses (Deut. 34).[1] Some scholars believe that even though they have been transmitted in five books, they are, in fact, one book.[2] Authorship of the Pentateuch has been debated for some time. Many source critics have adopted the Documentary Hypothesis in explaining the origins of the Pentateuch. This view posits:

[T]he Pentateuch derives from four documentary sources … (1) a Yahwist (J) source, written in the south (Judah) in early monarchial times, (2) an Elohist (E) source, written in the north (Israel) somewhat later (these two sources being combined at some point, a combination referred to as JE), (3) a Deuteronomic (D) source, understood as the book of the law found in the temple during the Josianic reforms in 621 B.C.E., and (4) a Priestly (P) source, which was originally thought to be post-Exilic. These four sources were then combined by a Redactor (R) to form the Pentateuch in the form we know it today.[3]

The traditional view of Pentateuchal authorship views Moses as the primary author of the Pentateuch. This is the view this essay will work from for a number of reasons. First, it is acknowledged that the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was the traditional opinion of the Jews. Abundant evidence of this can be seen in the Old Testament, where Moses is credited with the material in the Pentateuch (e.g., 2 Kings 18:6; 2 Chron. 8:13; Ezra 3:2; 6:18; 7:6; Neh. 8:1, 18; Dan. 9:11, 13; Mal. 4:4). Further, the Pentateuch credits Moses as its author (e.g., Ex. 24:4; 17:14; Deut. 31:9, 24-25). More importantly, the Lord Jesus avers Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (e.g., Matt. 8:4; 19:7-8; Mark 12:26; Luke 5:14; John 8:5).[4]

Given a common author and a singular work of literature, it would be expected to find the books unified by an overall plot with common literary and thematic threads running through the books.[5] That is exactly what is found with each book building upon the previous to advance the “big” story of Scripture. Five key theological themes are seen in the Pentateuch: 1) God, 2) the world, 3) humanity, 4) sin and 5) salvation.[6]

God

The Pentateuch reveals a great deal about who God is and what he is like. Two major aspects of God’s ontological nature are prominent in the Pentateuch:

  1. Transcendence. This means that God is “separated from and independent of nature and humanity. God is not simply attached to, or involved in, his creation.”[7] This is seen clearly in Genesis 1:1 where “God created the heavens and the earth.”[8] The idea of God’s transcendence is foundational to the Pentateuch conception of God.[9]
  2. Immanence. This means God is within or present to the entire universe.[10] This idea is found throughout Scripture (e.g., Psalm 139:7-10) and especially in the Pentateuch as God speaks and interacts with humans (e.g., Gen. 1:28; 4:6-7; 6:13; Ex. 3:4-6; Num. 12:8).

The World

The world is understood to be the entirety of God’s creation, “the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God spoke the creation into being from nothing, and his creation was perfect, or as God called it, “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). This creation was distinct from its Creator. The goodness of God’s creation was a reflection of his own goodness.[11] This creation was fully a result of God’s will and desire. He had no need for this creation.[12]

Humanity

Humans were created on the sixth day of creation along with the other land animals (Gen. 1:24-27). Yet humans were different from animals in one very important way: they were created in the image of God (v. 27). This idea of “image” meant that, unlike the rest of creation, humans were in some way like God. Mankind, therefore, became the pinnacle of God’s creation. And because humans are made in the image of God and the divine character is to be manifest in their lives, God uses humans to advance the knowledge of himself.[13]

Sin

God’s perfect humanity falls in the third chapter of Genesis and brings sin and its consequences into the world. Sin can be defined as “any offense against life as God designed it. It is to miss the target that God designed for humanity, whether intentionally or unintentionally; it is the expression of an inner twistedness; it is finally to step over the bounds God has defined for humanity.”[14] This sin would lead to both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death.[15] These consequences would fall not only on Adam and Eve, but on their descendants and the entire creation as well (Romans 5:12; 8:20-23). God’s perfectly ordered creation was now in chaos.

Salvation

God was not content to leave his beloved creation in such a disordered and deadly state. So God’s plan to redeem and return it to its Edenic state begins early in the Pentateuch. In Genesis 3:15, God curses the serpent and promises, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This is the first proclamation of the good news of God’s mission to redeem the world and return it to the perfect order with which He created it. This redemptive narrative can be seen throughout Scripture. The foundations for this saving work are laid in the Pentateuch. Covenant and Law are two key concepts in the Pentateuch that are foundational to this redemptive plan.

By Justin Nash

(Justin Nash serves as Director of Church Health & Communications for the Advent Christian General Conference) 

References

[1] Gordon T. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Joshua E. Williams, “The Message of the Pentateuch” Southwestern Journal of Theology 52, no. 1 (2009): 2. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials PLUS, EBSCOhost (accessed February 4, 2018).

[3] Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue 33, no. 1 (2000): 58. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 2, 2018).

[4] William Henry Green, The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 31-39, PDF (accessed February 3, 2018).

[5] Williams, loc. cit.

[6] T. Desmond Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 846.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 312.

[8] Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references are to the English Standard Version (ESV) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[9] Alexander and Baker, loc. cit.

[10] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: God Creation (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 527.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Alexander and Baker, 163.

[13] Erickson, 456.

[14] Alexander and Baker, 856.

[15] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Sin Salvation. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 122.

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