Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Pentateuch at a Glance

Hey, I realize that all of you -- or both of you, or whatever -- are all excited about getting started with the Book of Joshua. Hell, I'm excited about getting started with the Book of Joshua too! But I'm going to make you wait for one more post.

The thing is, finishing up the Pentateuch last week was kind of a big deal. After all, those first five books are the Torah! The foundation of Judaism. And in the Christian tradition, too, those five books have a kind of authority, or at least a traditional prestige, that the rest of the Old Testament does not.

I sat down this afternoon and skimmed through in an hour the five books that I've spent the last year and a half reading up close and personal. It was worth doing. It was nice, for one thing, just to realize that I remember everything that's happened so far. But more importantly, stepping back and taking the quick skim made everything look a little more organized than it does when you are in there wrestling with the chaos of Biblical text.

In this post, I want to see if I can catch the big-picture sweep of the Pentateuch. Capsule summaries of the first five chapters, with a rough outline of their comments. Nothing fancy, but I think it will be a useful reference for me. Who knows, maybe it will be useful to you too.


The first fifth of Genesis is a collection of very spare stories that deal with either the direct creation of the world (in two slightly differing versions) or the origins of the human condition (Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; the Tower of Babel; and perhaps Noah and the ark). The remainder of the book is an increasingly detailed account of four generations of patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God promises these men, often in direct personal conversations, that their descendants will be his Chosen People, and will be given a large chunk of the eastern Mediterranean as their homeland.

Almost all of Genesis is narrative, in the form of stories or historical accounts. The only exception is the roughly four chapters of genealogical information.

The Chapters of Genesis

1: Creation, version 1
2: Creation, version 2
3: The Fall of Man
4: Cain and Abel
5: Genealogy
6-9: Noah and the Flood
10: Genealogy
11: The Tower of Babel; Genealogy
12-25: Abraham
(18-19): Sodom and Gomorrah
21-22, 24-27: Issac
27-35: Jacob
36: Genealogy
37-50: Joseph
(38): Judah & Tamar

Everything After Genesis

When I started this project, I don't think I fully realized the stature of Moses relative to, say, Jacob, Abraham, or Noah. Moses is huge! Almost every other figure of the Pentateuch has to settle for a piece of Genesis; but Moses gets the next four books basically to himself.


After a brief introduction to the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, we are shown the birth and early experiences of Moses. Charged by God with leading his people to the Promised Land, he calls down a series of plagues to threaten and impress the Egyptian court. Escaping Egypt, he leads the people across the Red Sea to a mountain in the Sinai, where God appears to him in person to provide him with a wide-ranging collection of civic and religious laws. After the incident with the Golden Calf, the Israelites renew their commitment to God and build the Tabernacle, a mobile temple, according to his exact specifications.

The first half of the book is highly narrative; from chapter 20 on, though, it is largely in the form of lists interrupted by occasional narrative passages.

Chapters of Exodus

1: Introduction
2: Birth of Moses
3: The Burning Bush
4-6: Preparation of Moses
7-11: The Plagues
12-19: The Exodus and trip to Mt. Sinai
20-23: Laws
24: Narrative
25-31: Instructions on how to construct the Tabernacle
32: The Golden Calf
33-34: Moses' personal encounter with God
35-40: Constructing the Tabernacle


Laws, laws, laws. Leviticus continues the long list of laws revealed to Moses by God. For the most part, this book focuses on religious practice, including the complex laws governing animal sacrifice and ritual cleanliness, the role of the priesthood, and holidays.

Leviticus is mostly structured in the form of lists of laws.

Chapters of Leviticus

1-7: Laws of Animal Sacrifice
8-10: the Priesthood
11-15: Laws of Ritual Cleanliness
16: The Day of Atonement
17-20: Laws and Punishment
21-22: Laws of the Priesthood
23-27: Holidays and Religious Laws


Numbers is a grab-bag of a book that reads like a handful of papers grabbed randomly from Moses' desk. It begins with the details of a census of the Israelites, drifts into instructions on religious procedure, and accounts for the contributions of the various tribes (all exactly the same) to the Tabernacle project. At this point, the narrative kicks in again as the Israelites leave Sinai, but are unable to enter the Promised Land due to the rebelliousness of the people. After some chapters on sacrificial and religious laws and the long, tangential story of Balaam and his donkey, there is a second census, some short bits of narrative, and more chapters of law.

Chapters of Numbers

1-4: The First Census and the Tribal Structure of the Israelites
5-6: Religious Procedures
6-10: Tabernacle Records
11-14: Narrative
15: Sacrifice Law
16-17: Narrative
18: Religious Laws and Procedure
20-21: Narrative
22-24: The story of Balaam
25: Narrative
26: The Second Census
27: Narrative
28-30: Miscellaneous Religious Procedures
31-34: Narrative
35-36: Laws


Deuteronomy, as I have said so often in the past few months, is essentially Moses' farewell speech to the Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land. It is a mixed bag of a speech, and includes retrospection, some general preaching and exhortations about the greatness of God and the importance of obedience, and the recapping and expansion of the laws covered in previous chapters. At the end of the speech, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, makes predictions about the future of the Israelites, and blesses each of the tribes in turn. In the final chapter, Moses dies.

Chapters of Deuteronomy

1-3: Retrospective
4: Preaching and Exhortation
5: Law
6-11: Preaching and Exhortation
12-18; 26-27: Laws of Religious Procedure
17; 19-25: Laws of Civil Procedure
28-30: Preaching and Exhortation
31-33: Wrapping Up: Predictions and Blessings.
34: The Death of Moses

This is Probably Crazy, but...

If you've ever been tempted to read along with MRtB, the start of the books after Deuteronomy would be a logical place to jump in. I'll probably start with Joshua 1-8 for the next post. Let me know if you are interested.


Karin said...

Thanks for doing all the hard stuff. It gets easier from here, well, you know, except for Job.

Exuberant Color said...

Thanks for the summary. It is good to see someone else's view.