2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious texts

Pentateuch (Πεντετεύχως) ("five rolls or cases") is the Greek name for the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible: the name is derived from two Greek words: pente, meaning "five", and teuxos which roughly means "case", a reference to the cases containing the five scrolls of the Laws of Moses.

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy

In Christianity, these books are found in the Old Testament.


This is a brief summary of the contents of the books of the Pentateuch. For details see the individual books.

Genesis begins with the primeval history: the story of creation and the garden of Eden (Genesis 1-3), the account of the descendants of Adam to the rise of Noah who survives a great flood (Genesis 3-9), and the account of the descendants of Noah through the tower of Babel to the rise of Abram ( Abraham) (Genesis 10-11). Next follows the story of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the life of Joseph (Genesis 12-50). God gives to the patriarchs a promise of the land of Canaan, but at the end of Genesis the clan of Jacob ends up leaving Canaan for Egypt because of a famine.

Exodus describes the rise of Moses who leads Israelites out of Pharaoh's Egypt (Exodus 1-18) to Mount Sinai/Horeb where he mediates to them God's covenant and laws (Exodus 19-24), deals with the violation of the law when Israel makes the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-34) and instructs them on building the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31; 35-40).

Leviticus begins with instructions about how to use the tabernacle that they had just built. (Leviticus 1-10) This is followed by rules of clean and unclean (Leviticus 11-15), the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), and various moral and ritual laws sometimes called the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26).

Numbers takes two censuses where the number of Israelites are counted (Numbers 1-3, 26), and has many laws mixed among the narratives. The narratives tell how Israel consolidated itself as a community at Sinai (Numbers 1-9), set out from Sinai to move towards Canaan and spied out the land (Numbers 10-13). Because of unbelief at various points, but especially at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 14), the Israelites were condemned to wander for forty years in the desert in the vicinity of Kadesh instead of immediately entering the land of promise. Even Moses sins and is told he would not live to enter the land (Numbers 20). At the end of Numbers (Numbers 26-35) Israel moves from the area of Kadesh towards the promised land. They leave the Sinai desert and go around Edom and through Moab where Balak and Balaam oppose them (Numbers 22-24; 31:8, 15-16). They defeat two Transjordan kings, Og and Sihon (Numbers 21), and so come to occupy some territory outside of Canaan. At the end of the book they are on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho ready to enter the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy consists primarily of a series of speeches by Moses on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho exhorting Israel to obey God and giving further instruction on the laws. At the end of the book (Deuteronomy 34) Moses is allowed to see the promised land from a mountain, but dies and is buried by God before Israel begins the conquest of Canaan.


The Pentateuch was traditionally believed to have been written down by Moses. Hence Genesis is sometimes called the first book of Moses, Exodus the second book of Moses, and so forth. In its current form, each successive book of the Pentateuch picks up and continues the story of the previous book to form a continuous story. Hence Genesis tells how the Israelites went to Egypt while Exodus tells how they came to leave Egypt. Exodus describes the building of the tabernacle at Sinai while in Leviticus Moses is given rules while at Sinai for offering sacrifice and worship at that tabernacle. In Numbers the Israelites leave Sinai and travel eventually to the plains of Moab, while in Deuteronomy Moses gives speeches about the law on the plains of Moab.

The Pentateuch can be contrasted with the Hexateuch, a term for the first six books of the Bible. The traditional view is that Joshua wrote the sixth book of the Hexateuch, namely the Book of Joshua and so it was separated from the five books of the Pentateuch ascribed to Moses. But as a story the Pentateuch seems incomplete without Joshua's account of the conquest of the promised land. The Book of Joshua completes the story, continuing directly from the events of Deuteronomy, and documents the conquest of Canaan predicted in the Pentateuch. This has led some scholars to propose that the proper literary unit is that of the Hexateuch rather than the Pentateuch. Still others think that Deuteronomy stands apart from the first four books of the Pentateuch, and so speak of the first four as the Tetrateuch (Genesis through Numbers). This view sees Deuteronomy as the book that introduces a series of books influenced by Deuteronomy called the Deteronomistic History consisting of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. This view was expounded by Martin Noth.

Documentary Hypothesis

In classical Documentary Hypothesis, as most popularly proposed by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), the Pentateuch is composed of four separate and identifiable texts, dating roughly from the period of Solomon up until exilic priests and scribes. These various texts were brought together as one document (the Pentateuch, or Torah) by scribes after the exile. The traditional names are:

  • The Jahwist (or J) - written circa 850 BCE. The southern kingdom's (i.e. Judah) interpretation. It is named according to the prolific use of the name "Yahweh" (or Jaweh, in German, the divine name or Tetragrammaton) in its text.
  • The Elohist (or E) - written circa 750 BCE. The northern kingdom's (i.e. Israel) interpretation. As above, it is named because of its preferred use of "Elohim" (Generic name for "god" in Hebrew).
  • The Deuteronomist (or D) - written circa 621 BCE. Dating specifically from the time of King Josiah of Judah and responsible for the book of Deuteronomy as well as Joshua and most of the subsequent books up to 2 Kings.
  • The Priestly source (or P) - written during or after the exile. So named because of its focus on levitical laws.

There is debate amongst scholars as to exactly how many different documents compose the corpus of the Pentateuch, and as to what sections of text are included in the different documents.

A number of smaller independent texts have also been identified, including the Song of the Sea and other works, mainly in verse, most of them older than the four main texts. The individual books were edited and combined into their present form by the Redactor, frequently identified with the scribe Ezra, in the post-Babylonian exile period.

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