Tour of the Bible, part 1: the Books of Moses

This is the first installment of our Tour of the Bible—a series of posts examining each section of the Bible in turn. Here’s a complete list of what we’ve covered so far:

If you’ve ever visited Bible Gateway’s keyword search page, you may have noticed this drop-down menu, which you can use to restrict your search to a specific part of the Bible:

Each item on that list represents a particular group of books in the Bible. This is a common way to separate the 66 Bible books—which vary widely in style, literary genre, and authorship—into distinct sections.

But for those of you who don’t instinctively know what books constitute, say, the Epistles, we’d like to help. Over the next few months, we’ll walk through each of these categories, one at a time. Today we’ll begin with the Books of Moses, which happen to be the first books in the Bible.

The Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch (“five volumes”), are the first five books in the Christian Bible. They’re also known collectively in Judaism as the Torah (“law, instruction”). They’re foundational to the rest of the Bible, telling the story of God’s relationship with humanity, the nature of human sin, and the promise of a Savior. That makes them important both historically and theologically.

The Pentateuch consists of these five books:

  • Genesis: Covers the creation of the world, God’s covenant with the great patriarch Abraham, and the cultivation of God’s people through a motley crew of sinners and saints.
  • Exodus: Tells the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, their journey through the desert toward the Promised Land, and the establishment of God’s law.
  • Leviticus: A compilation of the laws by which God expects His people to live. These rules, regulations, and holidays—all focused on the theme of holiness—provide a moral core upon which much Christian theology is built.
  • Numbers: Israelite society is ordered in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land, with God’s patience on display many times in the face of Isarel’s disobedience.
  • Deuteronomy: God renews His covenant with Israel, further establishing His law and expectations. Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses and the commissioning of Joshua as leader.

The Bible doesn’t provide an exact date for the writing of these five books, nor do we know for certain who wrote them. However, the Bible elsewhere suggests that Moses wrote most of the Pentateuch (excepting specific passages obviously written by somebody else, such as the account of Moses’ death). If we assume they were written during Israel’s travels through the desert, a date sometime in the 1400s BC seems plausible. Many alternate theories about the authorship and date of the Pentateuch have been advanced, but this traditional view remains commonly accepted.

The Books of Moses have always presented a serious challenge to readers of the Bible—in fact, it’s not uncommon to hear of well-intentioned Bible readers losing their momentum partway through the Pentateuch. There are many reasons these aren’t easy books to read: they’re written in many places as ancient legal documents, which don’t always make for thrilling reading; they’re very focused on details of holiness that don’t seem relevant to modern culture; and the people and events populating the Books of Moses are marked as much by sin, violence, and disobedience as they are by faithfulness and godliness. And perhaps most of all, these books of ancient history and law feel very distant from the familiar stories of Jesus and his ministry.

But to set aside or skip over these first five books of the Bible would be a mistake. There’s a reason the New Testament contains so many quotes from and references to the Pentateuch: without the Books of Moses, we would have no context for our faith in Jesus. Without God’s law against which to measure our lives, we would not recognize our need for a Savior. We would not understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s earliest promises. It might not be obvious from a cursory read, but nearly everything else in the Bible builds upon or responds to the events of these first five books.

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Posted by Andy

Filed under Bible Study, Tour of the Bible