From early Christian times, and possibly before, the first five books of the Old Testament have collectively been known as the Pentateuch. The name comes from two Greek words, penta meaning ‘five’, and teuchos meaning ‘a volume’. The Hebrews usually referred to the whole Pentateuch as ‘the law’ (2 Chron 17:9; Neh 8:14,18; Matt 5:17; 11:13; 12:5; Luke 24:44). It was originally one continuous book, but was divided into five sections for convenience. The English titles of the five separate books are taken from the early Greek translation known as the Septuagint.
Age-old Hebrew and Christian tradition recognizes Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, though the Pentateuch itself nowhere names its author (2 Chron 35:12; Neh 13:1; Mark 12:26; John 5:46). The Bible speaks frequently of Moses’ literary activity. He wrote down the law that Israel received from God (Exod 24:4; 34:27; Deut 31:9,24), he kept records of Israel’s history (Exod 17:14; Num 33:2) and he wrote songs and poems (Exod 15:1; Deut 31:22,30). Moses would certainly have been familiar with the family records, ancient songs and traditional stories that people had preserved and handed down from one generation to the next (cf. Gen 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27). Like all writers he would have used material from a variety of sources, particularly if writing about times and places other than his own (cf. Gen 26:32-33; 35:19-20; 47:26; Num 21:14).
In addition he received direct revelations from God and spoke with God face to face (Exod 32:7-8; 33:11; Num 12:6-8). In different eras, critics who reject Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch have suggested various theories for a much later composition. Most of these theories are based on the different names used for God, the similar or contrasting features in narrative accounts, the varying features of Israel’s religious system, and the usage of certain words and phrases. Broadly speaking, these critics have suggested four independent documents that date no earlier than the period of Israel’s monarchy, and that a later editor (or editors) combined into one. The four documents are referred to respectively as J (because it speaks of God as Jehovah, or Yahweh), E (because it speaks of God as Elohim), D (because it bases its content on Deuteronomy) and P (because it deals mainly with matters of priestly interest). These theories have been argued, answered, revised and contradicted many times over. Debating the mechanics of composition, however, may not always be profitable. The important consideration is not how the Pentateuch was written, but what it means. It stands in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a book whose unity is clear and whose message is the living Word of God (John 5:39,45-47; 7:19; Luke 16:31; Acts 15:21).
Genesis introduces the basic issues concerning God the Creator and the people and things he created. It shows that he created human beings good and wanted them to live in harmony with him. Instead of doing so, they rebelled and God punished them. In his grace, however, he did not destroy the human race, but gave it the opportunity for a fresh start. People went the same way as before, but God still extended his favour, promising to work through one of the few remaining believers (Abraham) to bring blessing to the whole world. God promised that Abraham would produce a notable line of descendants, that those descendants would enjoy a special relationship with himself, and that he would give them a national homeland. In due course Abraham started the family and his descendants began to multiply, but through a variety of circumstances they eventually found themselves slaves in Egypt.
The book of Exodus shows that God, faithful to his promise, gave them a leader (Moses) through whom he brought them out of Egypt, gave them his law, and established them in a special covenant relationship with himself. He was their God and they were his people. Leviticus and the beginning of Numbers give details of how the people were to maintain and enjoy their covenant relationship with God. The remainder of Numbers shows how the people moved on towards the promised land, and Deuteronomy shows the life God required of them once they settled in that land. The grace of God and the sovereign choice of God are prominent themes in the Pentateuch. The deliverance from Egypt was the turning point in the people’s history, the covenant was the basis of their existence, and the law was the framework for their behaviour. The purposes of God were on their way to fulfilment (cf. Gen 12:1-3; Gal 3:16; cf. Deut 18:18-19; Acts 3:18-23).