A Brief Introduction to the Pentateuch
By Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, at simplycatholic.com
The Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch or the Torah, are the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These texts are sacred in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions and hold a preeminent place in the Old Testament because of their teachings and stories, as well as the personages they feature. The Torah also helped shape morality, religious observance, culture, and art across centuries and empires. Each book of the Torah has unique features and contributes distinctively to this first section of the Bible.
The first book, Genesis, takes its name from the Greek word for generation or origin. In Hebrew it is called bĕrēʾšît, which means “in the beginning” — the first words of the book. The first 11 chapters focus on teaching the truth about human persons and the world as created by God. They also detail the entrance of sin into the world and the effects it has on human beings, their relationship to God, and their relationship to one another. In Chapter 12, “salvation history” truly begins, as God calls Abraham to go to a land that he does not know. Abraham responds in faith, and God promises to make Abraham a great nation, blessing all the peoples of the earth in him. The rest of Genesis moves through the story of Abraham, then his son, Isaac, followed by Isaac’s two sons, Jacob and Esau. The story of Joseph and his brothers finishes the book of Genesis. In this memorable saga, Joseph saves Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine and, in so doing, saves his family in Canaan from starvation and destruction. The entire family moves down to Egypt and dwells there.
The book of Exodus picks up generations later. The pharaoh of Egypt does not know Joseph and his story, even though the Hebrews have become quite numerous. Fearing an insurrection, the pharaoh reduces them to slave labor. Moses is then sent by God to converse with Pharaoh and secure the people’s liberation from slavery. Their deliverance happens after a dramatic 10-plague duel which can be understood as divine warfare. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does battle with the gods of the Egyptians, represented by various natural elements and animals. One by one, the Lord defeats the gods of Egypt. Finally, Pharaoh sends the people away, but then changes his mind, causing the famous scene of the crossing of the Red Sea. The waters miraculously opened up, allowing the Hebrews to pass through, but then collapsed upon the Egyptian forces to their utter ruin and destruction.
In their new found freedom, the descendants of Abraham, under the guidance of Moses, go to Mount Sinai, where the covenant between God and the Israelites was formally established. From this covenant we still have the Ten Commandments and the foundation of morality. The rest of the book of Exodus includes details about the covenant, the building of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. There is also an episode that describes the defection of the Israelites from the covenant where Moses intercedes for the people and God reestablishes their bond with him.
The book of Leviticus is at the center of the Torah. This emphasizes its importance — the center of a section or of a book is a sign of its value. This makes sense, because Leviticus explains the laws of sacrifice, along with the distinctions between what is profane and what is holy. “Profane” does not mean “bad” — it only means that such an object cannot mediate God’s presence and holiness. Leviticus provides the framework for the people to live the covenant, with all of its proper sacrifices, in order to truly become God’s holy people.
The book of Numbers describes the journeying of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, as they move from Mount Sinai to the edge of the land of Canaan, and then have to journey in the desert for another 40 years. This time of purification often has been interpreted as an analogy of the spiritual life. Each person must go through life as a preparation and a purification, a journey of faith, hope and love.
The last book of the Pentateuch is Deuteronomy, a name which means “second law,” and it presents a series of discourses given by Moses to the people of Israel on the plains of Moab. At this point, they have finished the 40 years’ journey and are preparing to enter into the land of Canaan. Moses prepares the people by recalling for them their history up to this point in time; he also reminds them of their obligations and God’s blessings upon them. He warns them, too, about the consequences of infidelity. Thus, the Pentateuch closes with a sense of foreboding: God is always faithful … but will the people be so as well?