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The Pentateuch, also known as the Five Books of Moses, is the first part of the Hebrew Bible, comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In Judaism, it is called the "Torah", and is the first part of the Tanakh, while in Christianity, it is the first part of the Old Testament.


A Sefer Torah opened for liturgical use in a synagogue service

Today most academic scholars say that the Torah has multiple authors, and that its composition took place over centuries.[1] According to John Riches, Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow:

The consensus of scholarship is that the stories are taken from four different written sources and that these were brought together over the course of time to form the first five books of the Bible as a composite work. The sources are known as J, the Jahwist source (from the German transliteration of the Hebrew YHWH), E, the Elohist source, P, the priestly source, and D, the Deuteronomist source. ... Thus the Pentateuch (or Torah, as it is known by Jews) comprises material taken from six centuries of human history, which has been put together to give a comprehensive picture of the creation of the world and of God's dealings with his peoples, specifically with the people of Israel. [2]

From the late 19th century there was a general consensus around the documentary hypothesis, which suggests that the five books were created c. 450 BCE by combining four originally independent sources, known as the Jahwist, or J (c. 900 BCE), the Elohist, or E (c. 800 BCE), the Deuteronomist, or D, (c. 600 BCE), and the Priestly source, or P (c. 500 BCE).[3] John van Seters states that this general agreement began to break down in the late 1970s and today there are many theories but no consensus, or even majority viewpoint.[4] Variations of the documentary hypothesis remain popular, especially in the United States of America and Israel, and the identification of distinctive Deuteronomistic and Priestly theologies and vocabularies remains widespread, but they are used to form new approaches suggesting that the books were combined gradually over time by the slow accumulation of "fragments" of text, or that a basic text was "supplemented" by later authors/editors.[5] At the same time there has been a tendency to bring the origins of the Pentateuch further forward in time, and the most recent proposals place it in 5th century BCE Judah under the Persian empire.[6][7]

According to Jewish tradition (later adopted by Christianity) the Torah was dictated to Moses by God, with the exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which describe the death and burial of Moses.[8][9] This belief is based on a narrative first recorded in the Mishnah,[10] (100 BCE – 100 CE) the Mishnah being the first time that orally transmitted traditions were put in writing.[11] Many Jews, including 55% of Israeli Jews,[12] believe that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God. The 8th principle of the 13 Principles of Faith that were established by Maimonides states "The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God".[13]

It is also based on the Hebrew Torah, which states in Deuteronomy 31:24–26,

Moshe[14] kept writing the words of this Torah in a book until he was done. When he had finished, Moshe gave these orders to the L'vi'im who carried the ark with the covenant of Adonai: "Take this book of the Torah and put it next to the ark with the covenant of Adonai your God, so that it can be there to witness against you."

Deuteronomy is often treated separately from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The process of its formation probably took several hundred years, from the 8th to the 6th century BCE,[15] and its authors have been variously identified as prophetic circles (because the concerns of Deuteronomy mirror those of the prophets, especially Hosea), Levitical priestly circles (because it stresses the role of the Levites), and wisdom and scribal circles (because it esteems wisdom, and because the treaty-form in which it is written would be best known to scribes).[16] According to the Deuteronomistic history proposed by Martin Noth and widely accepted, Deuteronomy was a product of the court of Josiah [17] (late 7th century BCE) before being used as the introduction to a comprehensive history of Israel written in the early part of the 6th century BCE; later still it was detached from the history and used to round off the Pentateuch.[18]


The five books of the Torah are known in Judaism by their incipits, the initial words of the first verse of each book. For example, the Hebrew name of the first book, Bereshit, is the first word of Genesis 1:1:

  1. Bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally "In the beginning")
  2. Shemot (שִׁמוֹת, literally "Names")
  3. Vayikra (ויקרא, literally "And He called")
  4. Bəmidbar (במדבר, literally "In the desert [of]")
  5. Devarim (דברים, literally "Things" or "Words")

The Christian names for the books are derived from the Greek Septuagint and reflect the essential theme of each book:

  1. Genesis: "origin"
  2. Exodus: Exodos, "going out"
  3. Leviticus: Leuitikos, "relating to the Levites"
  4. Numbers: Arithmoi, contains a record of the numbering of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai and later on the plain of Moab.
  5. Deuteronomy: Deuteronomion, "second law", refers to the fifth book's recapitulation of the commandments reviewed by Moses before his death.

The form of Torah is that of a narrative, from the beginning of God's creating the world, through the beginnings of the people of Israel, their descent into Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and ends with the death of Moses, just before the people of Israel cross to the promised land of Canaan. Interspersed in the narrative are the specific teachings (religious obligations and civil laws) given explicitly (i.e. Ten Commandments) or implicitly embedded in the narrative (as in Exodus 12 and 13 laws of the celebration of Pesach (passover)).

This combination is noteworthy, making Torah not just a narrative document like Homer's Odyssey, nor solely a legal document like the United States Constitution. This complexity of Torah is related to the complexity of the Jewish tradition, it cannot be understood solely within the Western concept of a religion. At the same time, the fact that the teachings are embedded in story, influences the flexible attitude that Jews take towards their code of life.

The narrative is in Biblical Hebrew prose. Interspersed are poetic fragments, from a single sentence (Genesis 1:27 creation of mankind) to expansive (Deuteronomy 32:1–43 Moses' song to the people). The poetic forms are flexible. In general a series of two or more phrases parallel each other at least in meaning ("Listen, skies, so I may speak/and let the earth hear what my mouth says" Deuteronomy 32:1 Richard Elliot Friedman tr.[19]) but they may also share the same number of stresses or even syllables. They may also parallel each other with alliteration. There are no strict meters and phrases almost never rhyme in the sense of western poetry.[20]

The stories in the narrative are linked together by a system of resonating word roots that can often only be appreciated in the original Hebrew. For example, within a story, (Genesis 2:25) after Eve's creation: "And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman and they were not embarrassed" (Hebrew word for naked is 'arum'). The very next line in Genesis 3:1 is: "And the snake was slier than any animal of the field" (Hebrew word for sly: 'arum).

An example linking different stories: The story of Joseph; his being favored by his father Jacob, tattling on his brothers, being sold into slavery, finally achieving success in Egypt. (Genesis 37–50) seems to be interrupted by an unrelated story about Judah and Tamar (38:1–30). Yet, both stories are linked together by the key word "to recognize". These linkages play a role in the traditional interpretation of Torah.[21]

According to the Oral tradition, the prose in the Torah is not always in chronological order. Sometimes it is ordered by concept according to the rule: "There is not 'earlier' and 'later' in the Torah" (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, Ein mukdam u'meuchar baTorah).[22] Some scholars understand confusions in chronology as a sign that the current text of the Torah was redacted from earlier sources.


Bereshit (Genesis) begins with the so-called "primeval history" (Genesis 1–11), the story of the world's beginnings and the descent of Abraham. This is followed by the story of the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), Joseph (Genesis 12–50) and the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel). God gives to the patriarchs a promise of the land of Canaan, but at the end of Genesis the sons of Jacob end up leaving Canaan for Egypt due to a regional famine. They had heard that there was a grain storage and distribution facility in Egypt.

Shemot (Exodus) begins the story of God's revelation to his people Israel through Moses, who leads them out of Egypt (Exodus 1–18) to Mount Sinai. There the people accept a covenant with God, agreeing to be his people in return for agreeing to abide by his Law. Moses receives the Torah from God, and mediates His laws and Covenant (Exodus 19–24) to the people of Israel. Exodus also deals with the first violation of the covenant when the Golden Calf was constructed (Exodus 32–34). Exodus concludes with the instructions on building the Tabernacle (Exodus 25–31; 35–40).

Vayikra (Leviticus) begins with instructions to the Israelites on how to use the Tabernacle, which they had just built (Leviticus 1–10). This is followed by rules of clean and unclean (Leviticus 11–15), which includes the laws of slaughter and animals permissible to eat (see also: Kashrut), the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), and various moral and ritual laws sometimes called the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26).

Bamidbar (Numbers) tells 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 Promised Land. 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 Kadesh to the plains of Moab opposite Jericho, ready to enter the Promised Land.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) is a series of speeches by Moses on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho. Moses proclaims the Law (Deuteronomy 12–26), gives instruction concerning covenant renewal at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27–28) and gives Israel new laws (the "Deuteronomic Code)".[23] At the end of the book (Deuteronomy 34) Moses is allowed to see the promised land from a mountain, but it is not known what happened to Moses on the mountain. He was never seen again. Knowing that he is nearing the end of his life, Moses appoints Joshua his successor, bequeathing to him the mantle of leadership. Soon afterwards Israel begins the conquest of Canaan.

God in Torah[edit]

The creation story in Torah differs from many creation stories in that the God of Torah is given no origins nor family life. He simply acts and things come to be. In the Hebrew, God is referred to varyingly as Elohim, El, and the tetragrammaton spelled with the four Hebrew letters yud heh vav heh. The tetragrammaton appears to be a personal name for God, but is not to be pronounced in the Jewish tradition. The word Elohim is considered in the tradition to refer to a more abstract universal aspect of God. While the Torah is concerned with God's relationship with the Jewish people primarily, the beginning of Genesis and other episodes establish that this god is a universal god. This is one of the major concepts of Judaism.


  1. ^ McDermott, John J., (2002). Reading the Pentateuch: a historical introduction. Pauline Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-8091-4082-4. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  2. ^ Riches, John (2000). The Bible: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-19-285343-1. 
  3. ^ Gordon Wenham, "Pentateuchal Studies Today", in Themelios 22.1 (October 1996): 3–13.
  4. ^ Van Seters, John (2004). The Pentateuch: a social-science commentary. T&T Clark. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-567-08088-2. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  5. ^ Van Seters, John (2004). The Pentateuch: a social-science commentary. T&T Clark. pp. 74–79. ISBN 978-0-567-08088-2. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  6. ^ Ska, Jean-Louis, Introduction to reading the Pentateuch (Eisenbrauns, 2006) pp. 217 ff.
  7. ^ For more information on the current debates surrounding the promulgation of the Pentateuch see The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (ed. Gary Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson; Winona Lake: Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007) ISBN 978-1-57506-140-5.
  8. ^ Louis Jacobs (1995). The Jewish religion: a companion. Oxford University Press. p. 375. ISBN 978-0-19-826463-7. Retrieved 27 February 2012 v. 
  9. ^ Talmud, Bava Basra 14b
  10. ^ Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1
  11. ^ Maimonides, Introduction to Mishnah Torah
  12. ^ Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Daniel Elazar Papers Index, Israel: Religion and Society [1]
  13. ^ Maimonides, Commentary on Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1, Article 8
  14. ^ Moshe is Hebrew for Moses
  15. ^ Miller, Patrick D., Deuteronomy (John Knox Press, 1990) pp. 2–3
  16. ^ Miller, Patrick D., Deuteronomy (John Knox Press, 1990) pp. 5–8
  17. ^ The bible in 2 Kings tells of a Torah in the times of Josiah, who was the king of Israel and a grandson of Solomon. 2 Kings 22:8 states; And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, "I have found the Book of the Torah in the house of the Lord." And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. Verses 10,11, go on to state; And Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, "Hilkiah the priest hath delivered to me a book." And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the Book of the Torah, that he rent his clothes. So it is clear that this book was not a product of the court of Josiah but of earlier times, and also the bible refers to this book as the Book of the Torah.
  18. ^ Van Seters, John (2004). The Pentateuch: a social-science commentary. T&T Clark. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-567-08088-2. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  19. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliot. Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation, Harper Collins 2001.
  20. ^ The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse edited by T. Carmi Viking Press 1981. pp. 58–60
  21. ^ Alter, Robert The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books , Inc., Publishers. 1981
  22. ^ Talmud Pesachim 7a
  23. ^ Coogan, Michael D. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 148–149