Pentateuch or Torah

The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are often referred to as the Pentateuch, literally five books or five scrolls. More importantly, however, they are referred to as the Torah or the law. Michael LeFebvre outlines the importance of this designation in chapter six of his book, The Liturgy of Creation. It is not that the books contain the law, as though the designation torah was restricted to the specific regulations laid down (you shall not murder, you shall not steal etc.). Rather the five books in all their complexity as a whole comprise the law.

This is important. Although the books of the Pentateuch relate a history, the purpose is legal rather than historical. LeFebvre explains:

Normally, a historical narrative is written to tell us what happened in the past. But as part of Israel’s Torah, the narratives of the Pentateuch have an anticipatory purpose. They are histories bout the past told in a manner to instruct audiences in the present and the future. Every historical narrative in the Bible has instructional value (1 Cor 10:11), but the narratives in the Pentateuch – as Torah narratives – provide a more precise, technical kind of instruction. They participate in the legal guidance of ancient Israel, by which we mean instruction in the rituals, institutions, and regulations that defined Israel as an ordered kingdom. The historical narratives of the Torah are more than models of faith (though they certainly are that; see Heb 11:1-31). They are legal definitions of the various institutions and regulations of ancient Israel in story form. (p. 96)

In the earlier posts on this book we looked at the way the dates in the Pentateuch defined a rhythm of worship and remembrance for the people of Israel. LeFebvre also pointed out that a number of the passages clearly used a schematic calendar (12 months of 30 days each giving a 360 day year). In the ancient world, schematic calendars were used to make forward looking projections and proclamations. They were used for legal purposes because of the vagaries of the actual lunar calendar. The schematic calendar simplified accounting, “the cultic calendar – rooted in actual sightings of the sun and moon – governed the actual cadence of life and worship and the actual payment of salaries, rents, and other outlays.” (p. 99) The use of a schematic calendar is unnecessary today – but it was invaluable in the ancient world. Both archaeological evidence and the text of the Bible indicate the use of schematic calendars in ancient Israel. LeFebvre argues that the use of a schematic calendar points us to legal nature of the Torah. It relates history, but it is not a historical narrative. As an expression of law, dates are assigned in a “speech-act” to govern the rhythm of life, remembrance, and worship, not to identify specific dates of occurrence.

Understanding the shape, form, and intent of the Pentateuch as Torah will help us to read it with ancient rather than modern eyes, and to better understand the message that it carries.  This is true not only in the story of the exodus, but in the opening chapters of Genesis as well. In particular, LeFebvre argues, in the first chapter of Genesis – the creation week. And this is where he turns in the remainder of his book. More on that in the next posts.

What does it mean to refer to the first five books of the Bible as the Torah?

How does this shape the way that we read and understand them?

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1 Response to Pentateuch or Torah

  1. Here is my understanding based on my studies. Pentateuch is a Greek term meaning 5 books. Torah is a Hebrew term. The term Torah broadly means instruction, in the case of Scripture, God’s instruction(s). In Hebrew, Torah can refer to a single law, while the phrase Written Torah refers to the Tanakh and the Pharisees had what they called their Oral Torah which was later written down in the Mishnah. When the Jewish thinking authors of the Apostolic Scriptures/NT were writing in Greek, they used the Greek word that seemed closest to the concept, nomos, which has a primary meaning of law. It is true that the Torah contains laws but it also contains many other genres of literature. Thinking that Torah = law or laws is a trap that one can easily fall into because of the common use of the Greek definition for nomos rather than the Hebrew idea behind it.

    Whenever the term nomos or law is found in the Apostolic Scriptures/NT one needs to figure out which of the possible meanings was intended. It might be Greco-Roman law or laws or Jewish law or laws; it might refer to just the Torah of Moses or the Written Torah/Tanakh or the Oral Torah/Mishnah. Not knowing which is being discussed can easily be a source of large amounts of confusion.

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