Torah or Pentateuch


One of the most interesting problems that I have faced is what to call the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Pentateuch seems to be the easiest term, because these are the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. The Greek based old English word Pentateuch means five. Case closed.

However, the question still remains. Are these five books part of the Jewish Bible or the Old Testament Christian Bible? The answer at first glance is that they are part of both, a shared Bible. However, these books were established in some set format before the time that Jesus of Nazareth or any of his followers come on the scene. These five books have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Jesus and his followers knew about these books. Those that could read, probably read them. Nevertheless, these five books were adopted by the followers of Jesus, but only after a minor dispute with Marcion in the second century CE as to whether they were necessary for Christians. Certainly, Jerome in the fourth century CE made them part of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint. The Latin Vulgate became the Christian Bible that served all of western Christianity for over a thousand years and longer. For the sake of argument, we can simply say that Christians have accepted these five books, the Pentateuch, to be the first five books of their Bible, or more specifically the first five books of the Christian Old Testament.

Thus the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, was not created by Christians. The early Christians adopted these books, as they understood them, as part of their holy scripture, just as Jesus and his Jewish followers had also done.

Who then created these holy books? For many Christians, the answer is God. This is God’s word. How did God write or present these books to humans? These books were originally written in Hebrew, not Greek, nor in Shakespeare English, as some might believe.

So now we have to go to a Jewish source to find out about these books. Where did they come from? Jewish Hebrew writers appear to be the correct answer. Traditionally, these five books were called the Mosaic books, written by Moses. In fact, many Christians and Jews today believe that God dictated to Moses these written works that he wrote down. The Book of Deuteronomy seems to indicate that this is the case when it talked about Moses writing a book. Now let me make sure that you understand that Moses was not a disciple of Jesus.  Therefore, these books are not Christian in origin or purpose, no matter who wrote them.

These first five books of the Hebrew Bible are the Jewish Mosaic books. Both Christians and Jews believe that God inspired Moses or someone to write these holy books. Thus, they have become known as the holy writings, Holy Scripture, or the ‘Word of God.’ They are in fact words about God and sometimes even his own Hebrew words.

The Hebrew Bible is about God’s relationship to a group of people known as Israelites, a term that appears a lot. I translated it as Israelites, but others have used terms like ‘children of Israel,’ or ‘people of Israel.’ Israel was the name given to Jacob who had twelve sons from four different women that became known as the twelve tribes of Israel.

There are numerous Hebrew terms for God, but Yahweh is the predominate one, used over 6,800 times. As I am using the Jerusalem Bible, this was their exclusive term in their earlier editions. Quite often the term ‘the LORD’ appears in English translations. However, this is a particular English term with hints of feudalism in it. In fact, England does have a ‘House of Lords’ as the upper house of their parliament. Many religious have also appropriated this term to apply to their deity. Lord comes from the Greek kurios, but these were Hebrew writings.

Therefore, I stuck with the unique word ‘Yahweh,’ based on the non-vowel Hebrew Tetragrammaton ‘YHWH.’ Strangely enough, Tetragrammaton is a Greek word. I also know that many Jewish people do not use the term ‘Yahweh’ when reading or speaking about God, but use Adonai as the name of God when addressing God, especially since the demise of the Second Temple.  They feel that it is too holy of a name to pronounce. I am also aware that Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 recommended that Yahweh not be used in any Roman Catholic liturgical services, since it was offensive to Jews. However, the factual use of the term Yahweh better illustrates the uniqueness of the Hebrew God than the more generic ‘the LORD.’ Thus, I will continue to use this term, even if it is offensive to some people. In fact, Yahweh may have been the name of some gods among the Canaanites or Moabites around the first millennium, 1,000 BCE.

Now back to our Jewish Bible. The Hebrew canon of the Bible is called the Tanakh, which is an acronym for their three main divisions of the Bible, Torah, Nevi’im, and Katuvim, TaNaKh. The first of these three parts of the Tanakh is the Torah, or the law, the teachings, which consists of five books with the Hebrew title the first word of the book: (1) Bereshit, In the beginning, Genesis; (2) Shemot, Names, Exodus; (3) Vayikra, And He called, Leviticus; (4) Bəmidbar, In the desert Numbers; (5) Devarim, Things or Words, Deuteronomy. These are the five books that make up the Jewish Torah, the Jewish law, of the Hebrew Tanakh.

Thus, let me be clear. We are dealing with Hebrew sacred writings of the Jewish people. These writings were later accepted into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. This is where we come up with the Greek based English names that we use today, (1) Genesis, origins; (2) Exodus, going out; (3) Leviticus, relating to the Levites; (4) Numbers, numbering of the Israelites; (5) Deuteronomy, the second law.

There is no doubt that these are ancient oral stories that existed for hundreds of years before they were written down. We might call some of these stories folk tales or fairy tales. Most scholars agree that the ancient belief that Moses literally wrote all these books cannot be held today. The fact that it records his death goes against that literal interpretation. However, the opposite is also true. These are Mosaic inspired oral stories that cannot be disputed. There must be something behind these stories.

The nineteenth century four source theory put the actual writing of the texts between 800 and 450 BCE. Two of the sources were the Jahwist and the Elohist sources based on the name of God used in these texts. For me, the Jahwist dominated. These would be the older oral tales where Yahweh God is more capricious and angry. The Elohist God is more laid back. The other two sources were more concerned with laws and commandments. The Priestly God and the Deuteronomist God is more concerned about following the laws. However, the Deuteronomist source talks about following the law with love from your heart and soul. On the other hand, the Priestly source is more legalistic, and probably the final editor of these books. Nevertheless, there are many strains and stories combined within these five books. Somewhere around the fifth century BCE these Hebrew books got their final form.

However, the actual Hebrew text with all its uniformity of vowels and consonants does not occur until the early Middle Ages with the Masoretic texts in the Middle East from the seventh to the tenth century CE. This is precisely the same time when the western Christian monks were producing Latin versions of the Vulgate Bible in their scriptoriums.

The five books of Moses contain the following stories: 1) Prehistory before Abraham; 2) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 3) Joseph; 4) Moses; 5) Exodus from Egypt; 6) Covenant at Mount Sinai; 7) Building the Tabernacle; 8) Aaron and laws for sacrifice offerings; 9) Holiness Code; 10) Unbelief in the wilderness; 11) Forty year wanderings in the desert; 12) The capture of the east side of the Jordan River; 13) Moses speeches; 14) Deuteronomic Code; 15) the end of Moses; 16) and the new leader Joshua.

What did the Torah mean to the Jewish people? Everything, their whole life and being was dependent on these stories and the laws, ordinances, statues, and commandments contained in these books. Torah means teachings. This is not merely a story book or a legal document. They are bound together. The land was everything, tied to God, Yahweh, and his commandments. Everything came from Yahweh in this Theo-centric world. Everything made sense within this world with Yahweh as its leader. Moses was the great intercessor. He interpreted Yahweh’s words for the Israelite people. He pleaded with Yahweh to save his people. There was an intense relationship between Yahweh and Moses and his people, a great love-hate relationship, with betrayal and great forgiveness. However, it was a brutal world. People did die. People needed to be punished. The rewards were long life, many children, and a great land to prosper on. The punishments were separation from the community, uncleanness, and death.

If I were Jewish, I would call these books the Torah. However, Torah within the Jewish community has a wider meaning, since it also includes oral teachings not written down, sometimes referred to as Midrash or Talmud.

However, I am a Christian with a Jewish base. I accept and believe that the Old Testament or the Jewish writings are sacred divine writings, and part of the Bible. These human Hebrew words are the words that God wanted the Israelites to follow strictly, neither to the right or the left. Of more importance for a Christian is the fact that Jesus and his followers considered the Torah to be their law. So, whenever they talked about the law, they were referring to the Torah, which are the laws and commandments in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If we accept the fact that Jesus was certainly Jewish, then we have to accept the Hebrew writings as he did, the Torah. As I have finished reading and commenting on the first five books of the Torah, as well as the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. Let the debate continue.