Introduction to the Pentateuch

A brief overview of the first five books of the Bible

"In the beginning ...". John Lund / Getty Images

Any good book needs to have a strong opening line, and the Bible is no exception: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1

Like any good opening sentence, this verse introduces both the major theme and major character of the Scriptures -- which is God. The Bible is the story of God's work in the world, beginning with creation and ending with our future redemption and glorification in heaven.

Speaking of openings, my purpose for this article is to offer a brief overview of the Pentateuch (pronounced pen-ta-took), which is the fancy name for the first five books of the Bible. (The word Pentateuch means "five vessels" or "five-volume book.") The Bible is organized by its different genres of literature: the books of the law (the Pentateuch), the histories, the wisdom literature, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, and apocalyptic prophecy.

So, the Pentateuch serves as the opening segment, or chapter, of God's Word.

The Basics

The books that make up the Pentateuch are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. That's almost 200 chapters of God's Word -- chapters that contain everything from the story of creation to establishment of the Israelites as a people group and their divinely orchestrated exodus from Egypt.

In addition, the stories and major themes contained in the Pentateuch set the stage for the major narrative arc of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, restoration, and glorification.

In other words, the Pentateuch is a vitally important division of God's Word.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Pentateuch is that it came directly from God's mouth. Now, all of the Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. However, the Pentateuch came about when God spoke His Word directly to Moses on Mount Sinai:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”

When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.
Exodus 24:1-4

So, Moses was the primary author of the entire Pentateuch -- all five books. In addition, most scholars believe that one or more editors adapted certain portions of the Pentateuch later in history, such as the description of Moses' death and burial in Deuteronomy 34.


Okay, so the books of the Pentateuch are large and important. But what can we learn from them? Without further ado, here is a brief overview of each of the five books in the Pentateuch of Moses.

The Book of Genesis: The word genesis means "beginning," and so it's fitting that the Book of Genesis details the beginning of many primary themes carried throughout the Bible. In addition to the creation of the universe, Genesis records the origins of sin (Genesis 3), the origins of the Jews as God's chosen people (Genesis 12:1-5), the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20), and the codification of God's Law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Not only that, but these important themes are connected with the stories of major Bible characters such as Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua.

The Book of Exodus: The Book of Exodus is an interesting mix of narrative story, history, and law. The narrative elements largely center on Moses' efforts as God's chosen leader of His people, including the exodus from Egypt and the Israelites' experiences while wandering in the wilderness. The law portion includes the 10 Commandments and other selected instructions God wanted Moses to emphasize to His people at the beginning of their life as a nation -- such as the dimensions and operating instructions for the Tabernacle. 

The Book of Leviticus: From a narrative standpoint, Leviticus picks up where the Book of Exodus ended -- with the Israelites in the wilderness, having just completed construction of the tabernacle.

However, Leviticus is a different book than Genesis and Exodus in that if offers very little stories or narrative arc. Instead, Leviticus features several components of the Law that were vital to the Israelites' spiritual lives, including specific instructions for sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and annual feasts.

The Book of Numbers: Like Exodus, the Book of Numbers picks up the history of Israel after the exodus from Egypt, yet before the entrance into the promised land. Specifically, Numbers records the Israelites' experiences while wandering in the wilderness. This was not a pleasant time for God's people. The Israelites did a lot of complaining, experienced hardship, and fought battles with many different enemies. Through it all, however, God remained faithful to His promises -- which is why Numbers ends with God's plan for dividing up the geography of the promised land among His people.

The Book of Deuteronomy: Like Leviticus, the Book of Deuteronomy contains a lot of references to the Law, regulations for sacrifices, and instructions for annual feasts and other ceremonies. The circumstances of this book are important. At the end of his life, Moses wanted to reiterate and reinforce God's Law to the Israelites before they entered the promised land. Thus, Deuteronomy serves to review the history of God's faithfulness and prepare God's people for the future.