What is the Pentateuch, and what does the word mean? How significant is the Pentateuch for an overall understanding of the teachings of the Bible?
Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary defines Pentateuch as “the first five books of the Old Testament.” Pentateuch is from the Greek words penta, meaning five, and teuchos, meaning a volume, a book.
Authors William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush in their textbook Old Testament Survey state: “The ‘Pentateuch’ is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This word derives from Gk. Pentateuchos, ‘five-volume (book).’ Jews call the books the ‘Torah’ (i.e., ‘instruction’) often rendered in English as ‘Law.’ Nehemiah 8:8 states: ‘So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law [Torah] of God; and they [the Levites] gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.’”
Traditionally, the Hebrew Bible has been divided into three parts, the Law (Torah), the Prophets and the Writings. Evidence for this can be found in the New Testament and, in particular, the teachings of Jesus Christ after His resurrection.
“Then He said to them [the disciples], ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms [Writings] concerning Me’” (Luke 24:44).
This is a clear reference to the three divisions of the Old Testament. The first section, the Law, made up of the first five books of the Old Testament, became known as the Pentateuch.
The five books of the Pentateuch (the Law)
Let’s look at the five books of Moses included in the Pentateuch:
The name Genesis is translated from the Greek Septuagint and means “beginning” or “origin.” Genesis introduces God as the Creator and then proceeds to tell the origin and purpose of all He created.
The Hebrew title for the book is based on the first words of the book, “In the beginning,” which also includes an emphasis on origins.
Genesis describes the beginning of man, the beginning of marriage, the beginning of human sin, the beginning of human government, the beginning of nations and languages, including the nation of Israel.
A brief outline of Genesis: The first 11 chapters record the history of the world prior to Abraham (and four chapters are about Noah), and then the next 39 chapters are primarily about four men—Abraham (12-25), Isaac (25-28), Jacob (28-36) and Joseph (37-50).
One of the most important lessons recorded in the Bible is found in the first three chapters. The first humans, Adam and Eve, made a colossal mistake in their relationship with their Creator; and unfortunately this mistake has been perpetuated by succeeding generations, right up to the present. God spoke personally to Adam and Eve, instructing them in His way of life, giving them an opportunity to live a full, abundant life.
Events took a disastrous and tragic turn when Satan appeared on the scene. Adam and Eve chose to reject God’s clear instructions and, instead, partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This meant they rejected God’s laws and His way of life, which defines the right and wrong way of living. Since then, mankind has followed in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, which has led to greed, strife, violence, rebellion, wars and other evils.
Because they disobeyed God, they lost the direct, personal relationship and contact with their Creator.
Like the rest of the Pentateuch, the name comes from the Greek Septuagint. Exodus means “departure” or “a going out,” with an obvious reference to the departure of the nation of Israel from Egypt. The prominent person in the book is Moses, whose name means “drawn out” (from the river Nile). Through Moses, Israel was drawn out of Egypt, symbolically “baptized” in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
Exodus records the beginning of God working with Israel on a national level. Until this time He had mostly worked with individuals. Because the entire nation was involved, God gave civil laws, statutes and judgments. These were necessary for the proper governing of the nation. Furthermore, He established His festivals (Exodus 12; 23:14-17) and the priesthood (Exodus 40:13-15).
The 10 Commandments: At Sinai, God gave the nation of Israel the 10 Commandments, His eternal spiritual law, as a blessing and a great benefit for all humanity. The 10 Commandments show the way to a right and proper relationship with God, leading to a life that is happy and fulfilled.
Unfortunately, today people are taught that most of these laws no longer apply to our everyday life. This is taught despite the fact that the New Testament gives ample proof that keeping them is a requirement for every Christian.
James 2:12 makes the statement that we shall be judged by the “law of liberty.” By obedience to these laws, we are showing God that we love and respect Him. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
Why then do so many embrace the false notion that His laws are restrictive and a burden?
If you study the 10 Commandments, you will notice that the first four define how we relate to God, while the other six define the proper relationship with our neighbor. This ties in precisely with the statement Christ made in Matthew 22:37-40 when asked what the great commandment in the law was. Notice how the New Testament amplifies and supports the Old Testament teachings about the importance of the laws of God.
The English name comes from the Latin Vulgate version, which derived it from the title in the Septuagint. It basically means “the book pertaining to the Levites.” Aaron and his sons were set apart for the priesthood, but God chose the entire tribe of Levi to assist the priests with the service of the tabernacle. It was the duty of the Levites to transport the tabernacle and its furnishings when God ordered the camp to move to a different location.
The tabernacle was the focal point of worship. It was here that God met with His people. It was dedicated on the first day of the second year after the Israelites departed from Egypt. During the period of wanderings in the wilderness, God’s presence was evident in the form of a cloud that rested on it by day and a pillar of fire that was on it by night. God wanted the people to know that He was continually in their midst.
Sacrificial system: God gave Israel the sacrificial system to teach them the habit of obedience. The animal sacrifices were added because of transgression (Galatians 3:19) and were to be like a schoolmaster or tutor to teach and lead Israel to God (verse 24). The sacrifices pointed forward to the ultimate, total and complete sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The sacrifices were a shadow of things to come, and they were only temporary “until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:9-10; 10:1-3). When the Israelites were first brought out of Egypt, God did not give a command concerning the ritual sacrifices (Jeremiah 7:22). They were added later as a means to teach the people obedience.
You shall be holy: This is a recurring theme, as in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” If they walked in His ways, God would richly bless them (26:3-13); but if they disobeyed, curses would come upon them (26:14-39).
So in order to come before God, the members of the household of Israel had to be “holy.” When they sinned, the ritual system afforded them the opportunity to repent, to see that sin requires a sacrifice and that sin is destructive. God does not institute any system that is harmful and detrimental to people, and the sacrificial structure was meant to be a beneficial teaching tool for Israel.
The Hebrew Scriptures name the book from its first words, “In the wilderness” (Numbers 1:1); but its English name originates from the Septuagint. Numbers is so named because a census of Israel is taken twice: first at Sinai, then at the end of the years of wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 1 and 26).
Numbers contains the history of the Israelites from the time of their departure from Sinai, in the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt, until their arrival at the plains of Moab in the 10th month of the 40th year of their wanderings.
Numbers can be thought of as a book of testing and faith. After witnessing God bringing them out of Egypt by the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the people still lacked the faith necessary to enter the Promised Land.
The New Testament sums up these lessons for true Christians today in Hebrews 3:8-13 and 4:2: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).
Deuteronomy is the last of the books of the Pentateuch and means “second telling of the law” or “repetition of the law.” The book begins with Moses’ discourse at the plains of Moab in the 11th month of the 40th year after the Exodus, and ends with the death of Moses and mourning for him that same year. The book is a restatement of previous laws, along with further instructions to the generation about to leave the wilderness and enter their home in the Promised Land.
Since the people were well acquainted with God’s law, the major emphasis is to remember His instructions and obey them. They were to “carefully observe” the commandments (Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-6, 9, 14; 5:1), including the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:13-15).
Christ quoted Deuteronomy three times as His scriptural authority to withstand Satan’s attempt to master Him (Matthew 4:1-11).
Deuteronomy illustrated repeatedly God’s total and wholehearted love and devotion for His people. He is their “faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
Meditating on the Law—the Pentateuch
The Bible is a book that makes sense, and it is a valuable tool to provide daily guidance and direction in our lives. God, our Creator, inspired it to be written by men. It contains much needed teachings and truths in order for us to live happy and fulfilling lives.
Christ warns true Christians that they should “take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with … cares of this life, and that Day [His return] come on you unexpectedly” (Luke 21:34). Don’t allow the cares of this life to crowd out the time you should devote to the study of the Bible. David stated that those who “delight … in the law of the LORD” and meditate on His law day and night will be blessed (Psalm 1:1-2).
It is up to each of us individually to put God to the test and prove that this is true.