By: A.D. Roberson
1. Overview of the Theology of the Pentateuch.
The Pentateuch is indispensable. It is the theological foundation on which the rest of the Bible is built. That foundation reveals fundamental truths about who God is, who man is, and the relationship between God and man.
God is eternal, sovereign, trustworthy, holy and pure. God created everything, and in His unsearchable wisdom, ordained the corruption of His creation so that He could redeem it and thus be glorified forever. God chose to use man—the crowning jewel of His creation but also the one responsible for marring it—to fulfill His redemptive plan of restoring creation and reconciling man to Him. God further chose to accomplish this via the establishment of a series of divine covenants with man. And He selected a particular man and nation—Abraham and the nation of Israel—as the people through whom He would do so, culminating in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, to be the ultimate blessing to the world.
The outworking of these divine covenants as a means of accomplishing God’s broader redemptive plan further reveal the love, grace, and mercy of God, as well as His necessary commitment to perfect justice—all of which are also crucial to a proper understanding of the theology of the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible.
Genesis narrates God’s creation of heaven, earth, and the human race; the entry of sin into the world; and God’s divine covenants to His people. The book consists of two major parts, the primeval history, which shows why redemption was needed, and the patriarchal history, which shows how God established and advanced His divine covenants.
Genesis presents God alone as the Creator of the universe. His creation was “very good.” God created man and woman “in his own image,” and blessed them with a mandate to “[b]e fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over” all the animals. This blessing echoes through the divine covenants in the remainder of the Pentateuch, indicating that although God’s covenants will be fulfilled in the future, their goal is to redeem God’s creation—in other words, to return creation to its original, perfect state. Redemption was necessary because man disobeyed God after being tempted by a serpent in the Garden of Eden, marring God’s perfect creation. God, being just, cursed man for his sin, but in the process, God also graciously and mercifully made a great promise that an “offspring” or “seed” of the woman would crush the serpent’s head.
After the Fall, man descended further into corruption and wickedness until God judged man by flooding the earth. God again showed grace by preserving Noah and establishing a covenant with him in which God repeated the creation blessings to Noah. But as men again filled the earth after the flood, their rebellion continued, resulting in God confusing their language and dispersing them throughout the earth because of their attempt to build the Tower of Babel.
At this point, the story turns. God chose a man named Abram and promised to turn him into “a great nation,” through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Although God’s covenants with Abram, who He renamed “Abraham,” narrowed the focus of God’s blessings to Abraham’s family by promising to multiply his descendants and give them a Promised Land (again alluding back to the creation blessing reaffirmed in the Noahic Covenant), they also ensured that through Abraham’s seed, blessings would be mediated to all families, pointing toward God’s ultimate redemption of creation through Abraham’s seed—a seed that extended back to Eve. God reaffirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to Abraham’s descendants, Isaac and Jacob (whom God renamed “Israel”). The book closes with the story of Joseph, Israel’s son, who saved Egypt and his own family from a famine after his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph’s story is not only a striking example of God using the sinfulness of men to bring about blessing, it also fulfilled an earlier statement God made to Abraham that his descendants would become strangers in a foreign land, where they would be enslaved and oppressed.
Exodus begins 400 years after the conclusion of Genesis, but its narrative is explicitly driven by the Abrahamic Covenant. Israel’s descendants had been “fruitful” and “multiplied” in the land of Egypt where they were enslaved, causing God to “hear their groaning” and “remember his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” Exodus also consists of two major parts, God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage, and God’s advancement of His divine covenants through the Mosaic Covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai.
Not only are God’s trustworthiness and faithfulness demonstrated by His deliverance of the Israelites in response to the Abrahamic Covenant, His power and sovereignty were on full display in His manipulation of nature and the heart of Pharaoh when He inflicted the plagues on Egypt and parted the Red Sea. Nonetheless, Israel’s groaning for God quickly turned to grumbling against God, a scene of the people’s faithlessness oft repeated throughout the remainder of the Pentateuch.
Three months after being delivered from Egypt, the Israelites encamped at Mount Sinai where God’s presence descended in a thick cloud of smoke, lightning, and fire. There, God established with Israel a covenant, which included the Ten Commandments and other obligations required to live in conformity with God’s holy character so that He would be their God and be present among them. As one scholar put it, “the entirety of the revelation on Mt. Sinai is framed and focused by the promise of presence.”  Israel eagerly accepted the terms of the covenant, saying they would obey, but almost immediately they violated the first two commandments by fashioning and worshiping a golden calf idol—a glaring example of Israel’s sinful and rebellious nature. After threatening to consume them, God relented when Moses appealed to the Abrahamic Covenant, but He still punished them severely—yet another demonstration of God’s mercy and justice. God graciously renewed His covenant and the people erected the Tabernacle so that He would “dwell in their midst.” It has been noted that there are many parallels between the Tabernacle and the Garden of Eden, where God was also present with man. Indeed, “God’s presence with His people is a pervasive reality in the Pentateuch,” the heart of the Mosaic Covenant is His intent to dwell with His people, and He persistently maintained that covenant through the rest of the Pentateuch despite the Israelite’s repeated violations of it. At the conclusion of Exodus, God’s presence filled the Tabernacle, but Moses was unable to enter it.
The Book of Leviticus begins by reiterating Moses’s inability to enter the Tabernacle, noting that God spoke to Moses from the Tabernacle. The book then details a series of laws and requirements for ritual sacrifices and offerings, the establishment of the priesthood, and ritual and moral purity that the Israelites had to follow to address their uncleanliness so that they could live in the presence of God. The resounding theme of Leviticus is God’s holiness and purity, made clear by His repeated admonitions that the Israelites must be holy because He is holy.
The detail and pervasiveness of the Levitical Laws served as an ever-present reminder that God’s holiness should affect every aspect of His people’s lives. And the Day of Atonement required an even deeper yearly purification of the people and the Tabernacle to maintain God’s presence in their midst. God’s acceptance of atonement from the people was rooted in His mercy and grace, guaranteeing His continued relationship with them. His desire to have a special relationship with the Israelites and to dwell with them harkened back to the Abrahamic Covenant. The relationship God fostered through the Levitical Laws provided an “amazing testimony” that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” This “highlights the constancy and long-lasting character of God’s love as shown by his forgiveness.” But God’s grace and mercy does not nullify His justice because it remains true that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”
The Book of Numbers begins on an optimistic note, with Moses able to speak with God in the Tabernacle, apparently as a result of God’s grace and mercy in providing the Levitical Laws, and the Israelites taking another step toward the fulfillment of God’s covenant by beginning their journey to the Promised Land. But the journey becomes characterized by their doubts, complaints, and repeated acts of disobedience instead of faith in God. In response, God inflicted harsh but just punishments on the people. Yet again though, He preserved them, demonstrating his steadfast love and trustworthiness to fulfill His covenant promises in the face of their unfaithfulness.
After taking a census and making other preparations, the people followed the cloud of God’s presence until they reached the border of the Promised Land. But in a tragic act of unfaithfulness, the people doubted God’s ability to deliver the land to them based on the bad report of spies they had sent to scout the land. God displayed His justice again by forbidding their generation—except for Joshua and Caleb, the only spies who returned a good report—from entering the Promised Land. Instead, they would wander for forty years in the wilderness until their generation died off. At the same time, however, God graciously promised to give the land to the next generation of Israelites. The wilderness wanderings were marked by repeated incidents of the people’s lack of faith. Each time, God justly punished the wrongdoers, while also mercifully preserving His people. Indeed, this “pattern of sin, punishment, and forgiveness” is “scattered throughout the Pentateuch” and is part of its intrinsic value. Tragically, even Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land for his transgression at Meribah. Also, noteworthy are the oracles of Balaam, whom God compelled to bless Israel despite his intent to curse them.
As their wanderings drew to a close, the People “journey[ed] on, both forgiven and judged, towards the goal of the promised land.” Another census was taken of the new generation, and after achieving several victories over the inhabitants of the outskirts of the Promised Land, the book ends with the new generation poised to enter into the land.
As the final book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy reiterates some of the key themes previously developed, most notably, God’s faithfulness to mercifully keep the gracious covenant promises that He made to Abraham, despite the sinfulness of the people of Israel. The book consists a series of speeches or sermons delivered by Moses to the people before His death and their entry into the Promised Land.
Moses retold the story of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the divine covenant at Sinai, their wilderness wanderings, and their recent military victories. He entreated the people to be more obedient to the covenant commands than their parents were, and reminded them that God chose them as His “treasured possession,” not because of their righteousness, but simply because God decided to set His deep, yearning, and enduring love upon them despite their unfaithfulness. Moses declared, “[t]he Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and implored them to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Moses then laid out a collection of laws and obligations, which included requirements for worship, for the people’s leaders, and for interactions among the people.
Finally, Moses mediated a renewal of God’s covenant with the wayward people, demonstrating yet again God’s everlasting love and forgiveness. Moses predicted that the people would still disobey and end up in exile, but he made clear that if they would turn back to God and trust Him, God would bless them and “circumcise [their] heart” so that they could love Him as they should. This statement highlighted that something was fundamentally wrong with the people’s hearts—a condition not unique to Israel but that affects all of humanity since the Fall. But it provides an even richer insight into God himself. Yes, His justice demands the punishment of sin, and His righteousness ensures that His punishments are always just. But God also seeks to forgive and restore. The law, however, memorialized on tablets of stone, cannot change man’s heart of stone because man cannot keep the law; instead only God can save man by giving him a heart of flesh and faith to believe in Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman promised long ago who descended through the line of covenant patriarchs to fulfill the law, defeat sin and death, and redeem His People.
After delivering his final warnings and blessings to the people, Moses went up to the top of Mount Nebo where before Moses died, the Lord showed him the Promised Land and said, “[t]his is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, I will deliver it to your offspring,” another clear reference tying together the entirety of the Pentateuch with God’s covenants to His people, covenants yet to be fulfilled.
The Pentateuch reveals how God graciously chose to redeem sinful man along with the rest of His creation, and established covenants with an imperfect people—Abraham and the nation of Israel—as the means to deliver His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to fulfill His redemptive plan. But the Pentateuch ends with God’s plan uncompleted. The Pentateuch does not simply describe a completed story of past events, however; it points to events yet to come. Echoes of the original, perfect creation reverberate through the progression of God’s redemptive plan as it moves through the corridors of time. So understood the story of creation is not merely the beginning, but also a picture of the end, and redemption is the means God has chosen to achieve that end, when Christ will make all things new and eternally dwell with sinless man in a new heaven and new earth.
Alexander, T. Desmond and Baker, David W., eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Baker, David W. “Aspects of Grace in the Pentateuch.” Ashland Theological Journal 29 (1997): 7-22.
Balentine, Samuel E. “Torah: The Promise and Mystery of the Presence of God.” The Theological Educator 35 (1987): 25-40.
Elliott, Charles, D.D. “The Unity of the Pentateuch.” The Hebrew Student 2.10 (1883): 304-08.
The English Standard Version Study Bible, (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Hamilton, Jr., James M. “God with Men in the Torah.” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 113-33.
Higginbotham, Lance. Lecture notes for (B01) Old Testament Survey I: Pentateuch and Historical Books, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 2018.
Hinckley, Robert. “Adam, Aaron, and the Garden Sanctuary.” Logia 22.4 (2013): 5-12.
Mauldin, F. Louis. “Singularity and a Pattern of Sin, Punishment, and Forgiveness.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 10 (1983): 41-50.
Och, Bernard. “Creation and Redemption: Towards a Theology of Creation.” Judaism 44 (1995): 226-243.
Sailhamer, John H. “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 241-61.
Skylar, Jay. “Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 22.4 (2012): 467-91.
Joshua E. “The Message of the Pentateuch.” Southwestern
Journal of Theology 52.1 (2009): 2-16.
T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 849-55.
Is 43:6-7; Jn 12:27-28, 17:1; 2 Thes 1:9-10. Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version, (ESV) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
Alexander and Baker, 143-55.
Charles Elliott, D.D., “The Unity of the Pentateuch,” The Hebrew Student 2.10 (1883): 306.
Alexander and Baker, 323.
Joshua E. Williams, “The Message of the Pentateuch,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 52.1 (2009): 5.
Gn 3:15; Robert Hinckley, “Adam, Aaron, and the Garden Sanctuary,” Logia 22.4 (2013): 7; Williams, 8.
Gn 8:20-9:17; Williams, 9.
Alexander and Baker, 14, 16-17, 139-48, 323, 357.
Samuel E. Balentine, “Torah: The Promise and Mystery of the Presence of God,” The Theological Educator 35 (1987): 32.
James M. Hamilton, Jr., “God with Men in the Torah,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 113, 121-29.
Lv 11:44-45,19:2, 20:7, 20:26.
Lance Higginbotham, lecture notes for (B01) Old Testament Survey I: Pentateuch and Historical Books, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 2018.
Jay Skylar, “Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 22.4 (2012): 490.
Higginbotham, lecture notes.
Skylar, 491 (quoting Ex 34:6-7 (NASB)).
David W. Baker, “Aspects of Grace in the Pentateuch,” Ashland Theological Journal 29 (1997): 9.
Skylar, 491 (quoting Ex:7 (NASB)).
F. Louis Mauldin, “Singularity and a Pattern of Sin, Punishment, and Forgiveness,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 10 (1983): 42-43.
Dt 7:6, 9:4-7; Baker, 9.
John H. Sailhamer, “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch,” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 243, 261; Williams, 9-16; Ez 36:26.
Bernard Och, “Creation and Redemption: Towards a Theology of Creation,” Judaism 44 (1995): 230.