Although the Pentateuch contains a great variety of materials of different origins (see below), and consists of five separate books, in its present form it is a continuous composition, and the three middle books in particular are closely connected with each other. There are more obvious gaps between Genesis and Exodus and between Numbers and Deuteronomy. Taken as a whole, the Pentateuch tells a story, which after relating the creation of the world and the early history of mankind, concentrates from Gen 12 onwards on the story of Israel, beginning with their ancestors in Gen 12-50, and then going on to tell of their escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, their arrival at the mountain alternatively called Sinai and Horeb, God’s revelation there of his commandments and his directions for setting up the Tabernacle for worship (all in Exodus), and further instruction and the institution of priestly worship in Leviticus. In Numbers we have more detail on the wilderness journeys of the Israelites and more instruction, then in Deuteronomy, as they stand on the borders of the promised land of Canaan, Moses gives them extensive guidance, laws, and instructions for their life in the land, before his own death.
Date and composition
Traditionally, the authorship of the Pentateuch is attributed to Moses, so that its teaching carries Moses’ authority. It is easy to see the objections to this. Moses would be writing about his own death (Deut 34), and knowledge of conditions long after his time is occasionally implied (Gen 12:6; Exod 13:17). The belief is rejected in most modern scholarship. But there is less unanimity over what to replace it with. Various theories of source criticism (see Documentary Hypothesis below) have been proposed. These have to explain the frequent contradictions and overlaps: for example, the contradiction between Exod 6:3 and several texts in Genesis (e.g., 15:7) where God uses the name YHWH (‘the LORD’ in most English versions) to Israel’s ancestors; or within the Flood story between Gen 6:19-20 and 7:2-3; or the different teaching on animal slaughter and sacrifice in Exod 20:24-26, Lev 17:3-9, and Deut 12. All of the theories therefore involve multiple sources.
The theory that ruled the field for 100 years or more, and is still accepted in much recent writing, is the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. This holds that the Pentateuch was composed by putting together a small number of earlier writings, known as ‘documents.’ Generally these are known as the ‘Yahwist’ document, or J, the ‘Elohist,’ or E, the ‘Priestly’ document, or ‘priestly code,’ P, and the Deuteronomist, D. The books from Genesis to Numbers are seen as composed out of J, E, and P, all three of which are thought of as broadly covering the whole story, while most of Deuteronomy belongs to D. J and E are responsible for most of the narrative in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, while to P is attributed a thin strand of narrative, and large blocks of ritual material such as the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus and the ritual laws in Leviticus and Numbers. The laws in Lev 18-26 are attributed to a separate code related to P and known as the ‘Holiness Code,’ or H. The separation of the documents was first carried through in Genesis, where J is distinguished by its use of the divine name YHWH, while E and P use elohim, ‘God’; the revelation of the divine name in Exod 3 and 6 is attributed to E and P respectively.
Julius Wellhausen, a scholar of the late 19th century, took up the widely accepted connection of D with the reform of King Josiah related in 2 Kgs 22-23 (622 BCE) and argued that P takes the reforms for granted while J and E show no knowledge of them: thus J and E would have originated earlier in the monarchy and P in or after the Babylonian exile. This dating was generally accepted for a long time, and still is by many. More recently, doubt has been cast on the early date of J, and on the separate existence of E. Others, chiefly in Israel, have argued for a much earlier date for P. But it is generally agreed that none of the documents originated from a single author: all have developed over time.
Some have argued strongly that the idea of a covenant between YHWH and Israel, which is a key turning point in Exodus (in J and E) and dominates much of Deuteronomy, originates in the Babylonian exile. If this is accepted, it undermines the Documentary Hypothesis radically, at least as formulated by Wellhausen, because it means that the non-priestly material, including Deuteronomy, can only have reached its present form in the 6th century BCE at earliest.
So-called redactional views of the composition of the Pentateuch (e.g., Reinhard G. Kratz) have become common recently. These apply a theory of development to the Pentateuch as a whole. The idea is that an original short narrative was repeatedly built on by adding material at different points. The narratives of the ancestors in Genesis and the exodus in Exodus are seen as originally distinct, alternative accounts of Israel’s origin only put together at a late stage, perhaps first by the writer of the P narrative.
The one point which all theories have in common is in distinguishing P from the rest, and usually the key move in creating the Pentateuch as we now have it is seen as the combination of P with the non-P material. But there is also a clear divide between Deuteronomy and the earlier books, and another key move would have been to add Deuteronomy to what now goes before it.
It is generally held that the Pentateuch reached something like its present form in the 5th century BCE or somewhat later. It is often connected with the mission of Ezra (Ezra 7-8; Neh 8), and it seems likely that the story of Ezra means to convey that he was responsible for ensuring that the Jewish community accepted the Torah. But whether this is factual history is hard to say: whether the law he is said to have brought with him (Ezra 7:14) and read to the people (Neh 8) was indeed the Pentateuch as we now know it, or even whether Ezra’s mission is historical at all.
The Torah can be understood as the foundation document of the people of Israel. It gives them their identity and enables them to understand their place in the purpose of God, and prescribes their way of life and behaviour. It is so understood and used by Jews and Samaritans, both of whom see themselves as Israel. It can be seen both as a narrative and as a compendium of God’s commandments. In both respects it functions in this foundational way. The narrative tells the story—or stories—of the origins of Israel in the providence and promises of God, and the commandments teach them the way in which they should order their life as a people and how they should worship their God.
The theme of the Pentateuchal narrative has been variously expressed. David J. A. Clines offers: ‘The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment—which implies also the partial non-fulfilment—of the promise to or the blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions for humanity’ (Clines 1997: 30). Walter J. Houston suggests that the theme of the Pentateuch is ‘how YHWH chose Israel as his people and prepared them for nationhood’ (Houston 2013: 40). There is almost no overlap between these formulations, which shows how theologically rich the Pentateuch is.
Two key features of the text that embody these various aspects are the promises and the covenants. The promises are found in Genesis (12:1-3; 13:14-16; 15:4-5, 18-21; 17:1-8; 22:16-18; 26:2-5; 28:13-15, etc.), made by God to the ancestors of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and partially fulfilled (see Clines 1997: 31-47) in the course of the Pentateuch. There are three main groups of promises: the ancestors are promised descendants, ultimately to be the ancestors of a nation or nations; land: they will possess the land where at present they are strangers; and relationship with God: YHWH will be their God, and they will be YHWH’s people. The first and third are fulfilled within the bounds of the Pentateuch; but the promise that Israel will possess the land is left for the book of Joshua. For this reason, many interpreters in the past have treated the books from Genesis to Joshua as a ‘Hexateuch,’ a set of six books, and the ‘documents’ of the Documentary Hypothesis as continuing into Joshua. But there is no evidence that such a collection has ever been recognised as a unit.
In two places (Gen 15:18-21 and 17) the promises are given as covenants, which implies a particular solemnity. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, however, covenants are expressions not of God’s promises but of God’s requirements of Israel, to be faithful to YHWH and to obey his commands. Israel accepts such covenants in Exod 24 and 34, and Deut 29. In this way the commandments given to Israel in the beginning are presented as binding on the people in perpetuity.
Force of law
It is another question, however, how this binding force is to be interpreted. Traditionally in Judaism, the Torah is understood as prescriptive law, that is, law as we generally understand it in modern society, to be interpreted according to its wording and applied by a court or other authority, if possible. In practice, of course, many of the laws cannot be put into practice and have to be treated as dead letters, and others are observed according to a non-literal interpretation. However, it has been strongly argued (e.g., by Michael LeFebvre) that originally they were not meant in this way, but rather as examples and ideals, statements of what true loyalty to YHWH and true justice mean. This is suggested by the fact, which few dispute, that law codes in the ancient Near East were not generally applied by courts, but were understood simply as demonstrating the king’s justice and teaching good practice. There is no evidence of the laws of the Torah being applied prescriptively any earlier than the 3rd century BCE, when LeFebvre suggests the political and social conditions would have encouraged this. Even the ritual laws are not applied literally in Ezra-Nehemiah.
The Torah is understood as the ultimate authority in Judaism, teaching the choice (‘election’) of Israel by God and the obedience owed by Israel to God’s law. Jewish commentary (midrash) is classified as halachah, relating to law, ritual, and behaviour, or haggadah, retelling the story.
But Jewish law is not generally derived directly from the Torah. In the 1st centuries BCE and CE there were different sects interpreting the Torah in different ways. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE rabbinic Judaism became dominant, but the Mishnah (about 200 CE), which codifies and discusses its halachah, does not explain the origin of the laws from the Torah, and includes laws that can be derived from the Torah only indirectly, for example the law that meat and milk or milk products are not to be eaten at the same meal (compare Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21). Following the Mishnah, the halachic midrashim undertook to explain how halachah was derived from the text, and this work was carried on by later Jewish commentators, such as Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105 CE).
Creative artistic interpretation of the text naturally focused on the narrative rather than the laws. The story is told and retold for its theological and moral impacts. The work begins in the Bible itself, in those psalms that retell the story from different points of view: Pss 78, 105, and 106, and Neh 9. Philo of Alexandria (about 20 BCE—50 CE) allegorised both the narrative and the law to interpret the Pentateuch from the point of view of Platonic philosophy. The Midrash Rabbah imaginatively retells the story to point up its theological and moral lessons, for example making Isaac an adult (reasonably) at the time of his near-sacrifice by Abraham (Gen 22), so that his faith as well as Abraham’s was tested. Many of the stories were retold in beautiful or powerful Hebrew poems in the medieval period. In the later medieval period, from Rashi onwards, literal interpretation comes to the fore.
The way in which the Pentateuch is viewed in Christianity is largely determined by Paul‘s wrestling with it, in Romans and Galatians in particular. Those who are saved by faith are no longer subject to the law’s demands; the law was a temporary measure (Gal 3:19-4:7; Rom 5:20), and does not lead to salvation. This means the commandments as commandments; the text itself, being of divine authorship (1 Cor 9:9), is holy (Rom 7:12). Paul found in its narrative the resources to marginalise its legal requirements: Abraham was blessed for his faith (Gen 15:7) long before the law was given and while still uncircumcised (Rom 4:10). Abraham thus becomes the type of the Christian believer. This typological interpretation, where an event or figure of the Old Testament, most often the Pentateuch, is seen as foreshadowing a New Testament event or figure, became one of the standard ways of interpretation in Christianity, alongside allegory and the literal understanding of the Pentateuchal story as the beginning of the history of salvation.
St Augustine (354-430 CE), following Paul, identifies the garden of Eden story (Gen 2-3) as the beginning of human sin (the ‘fall’), and the subsequent story of the Pentateuch as the beginning of God’s work of salvation fulfilled in Christ. Traditional Christian interpretation follows this scheme, and this is expressed artistically in such works as the English cycles of ‘mystery plays’ from the 15th century.
Typology informs many other fine artistic creations of the Middle Ages, including, for example, the windows of King’s College chapel in Cambridge (15th century), where a scene from the Old Testament, most often the Pentateuch, is paired in the same window with one from the New. In San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (6th century CE), the altar is surrounded in mosaic by scenes of sacrifice from the Pentateuch: Abraham regaling his three guests (thought to represent the Trinity) with the slain calf (Gen 18), and wielding the knife to slay his son Isaac (Gen 22); Abel sacrificing a lamb (Gen 4:4), and Melchizedek bringing out bread and wine (Gen 14:18). Moses appears approaching the revelation of God in the burning bush (Exod 3) and receiving the tables of the law (Exod 31:18).
The commandments remained a guide to how Christians ought to live, especially the Ten Commandments and the two love commandments (Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18; see Mark 12:29-31, etc.). Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) and later Catholic and Protestant teachers classified the laws of the Pentateuch into three groups: moral laws, primarily the Ten Commandments, to be observed by all; ‘ceremonial’ laws of Jewish religion, held to be now superseded; and judicial or civil laws, which might be valuable or provide models for how Christian society should be formed, without needing to be observed literally.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. London: SCM Press, 1992.
Clines, David J. A. The Theme of the Pentateuch. 2nd ed. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 10. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
Houston, Walter J. The Pentateuch. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press, 2013.
Kratz, Reinhard G. The Composition of the Historical Books of the Old Testament. London: T & T Clark, 2005.
LeFebvre, Michael. Collections, Codes and Torah. New York: T & T Clark International, 2006.
Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973 (original 1878).
For commentaries, see the pages on the individual books of the Pentateuch.