The Theme Of The Pentateuch

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The Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament – seems to be fundamentally fragmented in form. Genesis tells of creation and of the early history of Israel up until preparations to leave Egypt, the next three books consider Israel’s drift through the desert and the laws formed on these travels, while Deuteronomy exists for the most part as a collection of laws and legislative poetry by Moses.

Can such fragments make a good story? However, while the Pentateuch is both divided into five parts and appears to be fragmented in style and subject, the Pentateuch manages to show a unity in narrative1.

What do we today understand by the term ‘a good story’? I would suggest that a clear beginning, middle and end are essential to hold onto narrative meaning and coherence as a story.

The beginning must be powerful, must be able to address universal problems and questions and must both set the scene and introduce essential characters. The middle must intrigue, excite and be meaningful, while the end must seek to wrap up any questions or problems addressed and wrap up the narrative. I believe that to some degree, the Old Testament manages to do this.

Genesis 1 is most definitely a powerful beginning. Surely nothing can be more grand and universal in scale that the very creation of the universe? Genesis also acts to introduce the main character of the Pentateuch, God, and His creation of man and the world.

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The first chapters of Genesis have to be seen to act as a universal framework for the way that we are to understand God, and indeed the world. But the story of creation must not be literally interpreted, or thought of as myth. The use of the word ‘myth’ to describe this section of Genesis is frequently used, but can be misleading.

The Theme Of The Pentateuch

Myths are often based on fantasy and fiction, but the creation story must be seen as aiming to give a true portrayal of the world and of humanity in the world in relation to God. Genesis establishes Him as the fundamental base and character through which all is to be interpreted. Genesis aims to set the scene for the way in which we are to understand the relationship between man and God. The overarching theme is that even though man’s disobedience seems to isolate him from God, darkness and potential death are turned around.

It appears that, “salvation is identical with creation”. 2 The first story of this kind in Genesis is that of Adam and Eve. Their disobedience of God in search of ‘the fruit of knowledge’ and hence the attempt to become gods themselves, is met with severe punishment – through the Fall they are separated from paradise and are met with pain and suffering. God, however, dresses them in skins which shows that life with God is not totally broken. Similarly, the story of Noah and the Ark shows how the evil and disobedience of man is punished with obliteration.

Yet still potential life with God can be seen through the relationship of God and Noah. Noah’s obedience of God’s word saved him and his family. These two stories are stories of the human condition – to disobey God and to act evilly. Each one, however, ends in a glimmer of hope that suggests life with God. This possible life with God is articulated in His relationship with Abraham which begins in Genesis 12. The relationship between God and Abraham shows the reader emphatically how God deals with the human condition described in Genesis 1-11.

This relationship is the realisation of a new beginning with God at the helm, and although the relationship is with Abraham alone and therefore seems to narrow down the extent of God’s work, this relationship holds a universal importance. God’s covenant with Abraham (seen in Genesis 15) can be seen as turning the darkness of the evil of man into a true life with God. However, even though the central theme is that God is offering as the saviour of Israel, he tells of a dark and terrifying future; a future of slavery and oppression. Faith is therefore an integral part of the story of Abraham.

This is best shown when God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The sacrifice of Isaac, his only son from his wife Sarah, would surely lead to an awful and dark place in his life. God rewards Abraham’s faith by sparing Isaac’s life, but also Abraham is to be blessed with offspring, “… as numerous as the stars of heaven… and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves… “3 God shows universally that, if you obey God and have faith in His word, then you be blessed and find life with God.

The story of Joseph is, however, the first great masterpiece of the Pentateuch. The point of the story is that God’s will is being articulated even though the individuals who are involved in it may not be entirely conscious of it. It appears to be the most coherent story met yet in the Pentateuch. Indeed, G. von Rad writes that, “… the stories about Joseph are clearly distinguished from those about Abraham and Jacob, and are a real connected narrative and not a compilation of many previously independent traditions”. 4 Coherence, it seems, appears to be integral to unifying the narrative of the Pentateuch.

The most powerful, dramatic and coherent story in the Pentateuch, however, must surely be Israel’s escape from Egypt with Moses – a story that is also of utmost importance for the remaining parts of the Pentateuch. Exodus, the second book of the Pentateuch, essentially traces the escape from Egypt and Israel’s stay at Mount Sinai. We are shown very early on that this story will be central to both the Pentateuch and the Old Testament, as it is here that the real name of God, Yahweh, is revealed – both in Exodus 3:15 and 6:2. Through Moses, God works to save Israel from the Egyptians, most notably by sending ten plagues on Egypt.

Eight of these plagues affected agriculture – in ancient times society depended heavily on agriculture to trade and to survive at all. Therefore, eight plagues affecting Egypt’s agriculture must not be passed over as insignificant, but instead taken to be as deadly serious. As the Israelites exit Egypt, the story becomes sincere and soft in tone – shown in Exodus 12:42, “… that same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations,” – followed by directions of how to act on this Holy day.

This quiet, however, is shattered by the hugely dramatic pillars of cloud and fire, by which God lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The almost physical form of God here emphasises God integral involvement in the present and future of Israel, and that Moses liberated the Israelites through the power of God. The crossing of the Red Sea shows the reader both the great power of God working through Moses, and God wrath for those who are disobedient – all the pursuers are drowned, showing that all those who act against His people, those who reject the word of God, shall die and themselves be rejected from a life with God.

This coherent narrative, and the following story of the Israelite’s stay at Mt. Sinai, makes an important impact on the story of the Pentateuch as a whole. Much of the rest of the book of Exodus is of a legislative nature, as is Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. However, as extensive areas of these books are of a legislative nature, can they really be said to make the Pentateuch a ‘good story’ or in fact help to give a sense of overarching unity to the work as a whole? A narrative unity can be traced in the Pentateuch, although it is not at all times clear.

Genesis acts as a prologue, while Exodus begins the story of Moses and the Israelites, but the story is broken with legislation surrounding the stay at Mt. Sinai. The Book of Leviticus acts to show what the Israelites must do for God, after showing them in Exodus what he had done for them – in fact the instruction-like form of much of the scripture surrounding the stay at Mt. Sinai stretches from Exodus 19 – Numbers 10; a significant body of work. One may ask how such interruptions to the narrative strengthen the Pentateuch as a story.

It is important to understand that, “… aw lay at the foundation of Israel’s religion… “5 Those who were disobedient to God in the past had been severely punished (Adam and Eve for example) and therefore God’s law became fundamental to Israel’s life and society. However, while there is definitely a narrative unity in the Pentateuch, it is often extremely thin and loosely scraped together. 6 Deuteronomy seems to be quite a separate collection of speeches all together. It is distinct in form, literary style and language and most scholars accept that Deuteronomy dates from the 7th century BCE – obviously a far later work than Genesis through to Numbers.

I am of the opinion that the collection of such obviously separate sources in Deuteronomy has resulted in a very uneven and inorganic whole. However, the Pentateuch does not exist without Deuteronomy, and the book does display narrative similarity with the previous books. For example, the Ten Commandments are restated in Deut 5 and Moses, the key figure in Israel’s history, both reminds Israel that God has cared for them, and himself acts as a symbol of God’s work. Deuteronomy can be seen as an expression of God’s basic will for Israel’s future, and ultimately acts as the culmination of the whole Pentateuch story.

The book acts to emphasise that the Pentateuch has become the foundation story of Israel, a story that shapes and regulates Israel ever after, and a story that has become the canonical story of Israel. So what, if anything, is the unifying and underlying base of the Pentateuch as a story? Is there a thematic unity alongside the narrative? If the narrative exists as pearls on a necklace, is there a string upon which the narrative rests? God’s covenant could indeed be this theme, as it is an important feature of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy. 7 One may also argue that Moses is the key theme.

Although not present in Genesis, God’s word and action is articulated through Moses in Exodus-Deuteronomy. Scholars such as D. Clines argue that, “The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment… of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs… “8 Clines thinks that this ‘partial fulfilment’ can be seen in three stages: Genesis deals with the promise of descendants and great future generations, Exodus and Leviticus deal with promises surrounding the two way relationship between God and man, while Number and Deuteronomy deal with the promise of a land for Israel.

The third stage is left unfulfilled at the end of the Pentateuch; the story is left seemingly incomplete. However, this can act to show modern readers that they are not simply looking back at the past, but that the Pentateuch is not a closed story – it looks forward and therefore involves the modern reader in a story that regulated the life of Israel. Perhaps, also, the apparent failure of the Pentateuch to “wrap up” the loose ends must be viewed in the light of the New Testament? The Pentateuch could just be a signpost of that which is to come – ultimately the Messianic prophesy.

For example, the sacrifice of Christ can be seen as being prefigured by the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. If the Old Testament can be thought of as inconclusive and thought to require a ‘sequel’, then surely the New Testament is exactly this. God worked through Moses in the Old Testament; therefore, perhaps the embodiment of God in Christ in the New Testament can be seen to conclude perfectly the story that the Old Testament told. I would argue that the Pentateuch does tell a good story, and that it has both a narrative and thematic unity.

Criticisers of the Pentateuch often make no attempt to ask, “… ow stories or literary complexes from originally discrete sources were to be read and understood when combined with one another… “9 Negative evidence that suggests the disunity of the Pentateuch can be used constructively. It can show that consistent works can have their integrity destroyed by editorial attempts to mould them together. The Pentateuch, in the form that it exists today, can be seen as not only a collection of narrative sources, but also as a collection of theological concerns set against and integrated with one another, which together act in the past and the present to shape the life of Israel – a life with God.

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The Theme Of The Pentateuch. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

The Theme Of The Pentateuch
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