Overview of the Books of Moses

This blog post is adapted from the Lutheran Bible Companion.

The Hebrew name for the Books of Moses is “Torah.” (The Greek title is “Pentateuch”). The conventional translation of “Torah” with “Law” is most lamentable. If it were possible to turn back the clock and expunge misleading renditions from our Bibles, this would surely be the place to start. It indisputably is one of the major culprits in reinforcing the stubborn prejudice that somehow the Old Testament is more legalistic.

If it were possible, it might be better not to translate the word, but simply to transliterate the Hebrew word “Torah,” as is the common Jewish practice. The word means something much more than Law; it means “instruction.” It relates both the impossible demand of God upon fallen man as well as the good news of God’s own meeting of His demand in the covenant—and in the promises attached to it. “Word of God” is often a superb equivalent of Torah as parallel examples in Hebrew poetry show (e.g., Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2; and examples in Psalm 119 and in Deuteronomy).

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Genesis Overview

The name for Genesis comes from the book’s Greek title. The word means “birth” or “genealogy,” topics that are important to the stories of Genesis and to its structure. It may be helpful to look at Genesis as an overview of world history written especially for the people of Israel, to define God’s place for them in history. In fact, a greater period of history is compressed in this first book of the Old Testament than in all the remaining 38 books combined. 

Genesis: Purpose/Recipients

The Book of Genesis describes God’s work as Creator of all things and creator of Israel through His chosen servant, Abraham. Using the thematic term generations (Hebrew toledoth), Genesis traces the passing of God’s promised salvation from generation to generation, culminating in the promises to the sons of Israel and especially to Judah, from whom the kings of Israel would descend—including Jesus of Nazareth, whom the New Testament describes as the Messiah and promised offspring of Abraham. In this way, Genesis defines the people of Israel and their unique, God-given role in becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth (12:3).

Exodus Overview

To the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God seemed to have forgotten His promises; the time seemed endless. “The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years” (Exodus 12:40). During these centuries God apparently had not moved to fulfill His promise to give possession of Canaan to Abraham’s
descendants. The patriarchs had lived temporarily in the Promised Land, but now the sons of Jacob were again in a foreign land.

Exodus gives no reason for this gap in salvation history, for God alone knows the “times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). But these silent years speak loudly of the need to depend on the promises of God, for with Him even a thousand years are but a day (Psalm 90:4), and without Him nothing will or can happen.

Near the beginning of Exodus, God said to Moses, “I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6:5). This statement bridges the intervening time. What God would do was as much a gift of undeserved goodness as the promises given to Abraham. His descendants also would be right with God as they received the assurance of His forgiving mercy. They, like Abraham, responded to His promise with obedience of faith.

The Book of Exodus gets its name from one of the major events it records—a matter of only a chapter (14), but of such towering significance theologically that the extension of the name to the entire book is entirely justified. Exodus plays a role in the Old Testament comparable to the Gospels in the New. The exodus event is the heart of the Old Testament “gospel,” and the word redeem comes to be forever bound to it.

Exodus: Purpose/Recipients

The Book of Exodus presents God’s deliverance of His people from the tyranny
of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and the formal establishment of the covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The theme of Exodus is “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7), which taught Israel about its unique place among the nations. The first part of the book (chapters 1–19) tells of the mighty deeds of God to create this nation by delivering it out of Egypt’s house of bondage. In the second part (chapters 20–40), God makes clear at Mount Sinai how the people are to acknowledge Him as their covenant God.

Leviticus: Overview

Among the ruddy granite peaks at the south end of the Sinai wilderness, the Lord gave the Law to His people through the prophet Moses. About 40 years earlier, Moses climbed a particular peak to view the burning bush where the Lord introduced Himself (ca. 1446; Exodus 3). Moses would refer to this peak as “the mount of the LORD” (Numbers 10:33). It never became a part of Israel’s territory, though it may have been a place of pilgrimage for believers as early as the ninth century BC (1 Kings 19). According to early Christian tradition, Jebel Musa is the particular peak hallowed by God’s nearer presence when He consecrated Israel and set apart the tribe of Levi for priestly service at the newly erected tabernacle.

The name Exodus (“the way out”) shows that the Book of Exodus tells about God’s people on their way out of Egypt. In a similar way, the name Leviticus (drawn from “Levites”) tells us that in the Book of Leviticus we learn about the duties of the people in their worship life, led by the Levites. This focus on worship follows naturally after the account of the construction of the tabernacle, the place for worship and sacrifice, in the last chapters of Exodus.

Although the Book of Leviticus seems to stand independently, it is actually part of a broader record of the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws God gave to Israel through Moses during the year Israel spent at Mount Sinai. The 56 chapters from Exodus 20–Numbers 8 contain very little history (as one finds in the other 97 chapters of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers). They are mostly laws, and present a unique body of material within the broader composition of the books. Divisions between Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers may have resulted from practical necessity, such as the length of text that could commonly fit on a scroll. Leviticus may, therefore, be a scroll-length division capped off with, “These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). These factors illustrate how the Books of Moses were likely composed together and in view of one another with the worship focus of Leviticus standing at their heart. Such an observation may also encourage modern readers to understand the value that the content of Leviticus held in the eyes of ancient Israel.

Leviticus: Purpose/Recipients

As the shortest book of the Pentateuch, Leviticus may seem like the longest because of its profusion of details about worship. The book is important because, as part of the covenant, it provides fuller instruction for Israel’s relationship to God. Rather than introduce new or different instructions, Leviticus elaborates, applies, and implements principles already set forth in Exodus, explaining what it means to be God’s holy people.

Numbers Overview

A reader easily recognizes in Numbers its progressive outline of events. By the end of the book, Israel is on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho, poised for the final step of crossing the river to conquer Canaan. Exodus 19:2 gave the previous progress report: They had “encamped in the wilderness . . . before the mountain.” Numbers provides the intervening events.

The Book of Numbers received its title in the Septuagint and Western translations from the two censuses recorded in chapters 1 and 26. Yet in this case the Hebrew name (derived, as usual, from one of the opening words), “in the wilderness,” is more descriptive. In some respects the book is a collection and quite innocent of an outline, though, upon deeper inspection, it is clear that it continues a pattern of composition established at least as early as Exodus 12. Its structure is basically historical, interspersed with additional legislation.

Numbers: Purpose/Recipients

Numbers, like Leviticus, adds another concentric circle of covenant legislation to the core provisions of Exodus. The pattern of blended legislation and history remains the same, but history takes a much more prominent place in Numbers than in Leviticus, and the laws are more incidental and largely occasioned by circumstances.

In contrast to Leviticus (at Sinai and covering just a few months), the events in Numbers take place at more than 40 places and during 38 years. In a general way, Leviticus tells us what God said to the covenant nation, and Numbers (more like Exodus) what God did to bring Israel to the Land of Promise. As a result, its legislative sections are interwoven into the historical narrative. In fact, Numbers contains some of the most dramatic events of the Old Testament.

Deuteronomy Overview

Deuteronomy continues where Numbers leaves off. The setting and time remain the same: the plains of Moab east of the Jordan in the fortieth and final year of the exodus. The two books also share an immediate and explicit concern for the people and the covenant “when you enter the land of Canaan” (Numbers 34:2). But in Deuteronomy a greater urgency dominates its message. The long-awaited event is about to happen, and the people must prepare for it. They must remember their past and commit themselves to the future under God’s gracious covenant.

“Deuteronomy” is a misnomer, based on the Septuagint’s mistranslation of 17:18. The Hebrew there commands the king to prepare “a copy of this law,” but the Greek translators mistakenly rendered it “this second law” (deuteronomion touto). That would imply that the book consists mostly of repetition of laws already encountered in previous books. This misunderstanding still appears to be widespread—or at least it is a charitable explanation for the common neglect of what is theologically one of the most important books in the Old Testament. There is some repetition of previous laws here, no doubt, but Deuteronomy’s major thrust is the theology of the Torah (“instruction”), that is, the good news of the Gospel, which empowers and motivates all valid obedience before God. The frequency of its citation in the New Testament is no accident!

Deuteronomy represents Moses’ last cycle of covenant instruction. Clearly centered in the Decalogue, this final concentric circle of legislation supplements and occasionally modifies previous laws. 

Deuteronomy: Purpose/Recipients

Use of history to elucidate and emphasize the key elements of the covenant becomes more meaningful when one considers the circumstances and the concerns of Moses. Previously, the people had in their midst the mediator of the covenant, but they had not often listened to him. Moses therefore makes one final grand plea for faithfulness to the covenant obligations. Knowing that he is about to die, Moses is concerned that Israel follow his successor as God’s appointed one.

An entirely new generation faced Moses. Not one (save Joshua and Caleb) of the original “signers” of the covenant at Sinai was present. This was a new people. They could shrug off all responsibility and say, “Our fathers may have said, ‘All that the Lord says, we will do,’ but we have made no such promise.” Does this new generation standing before Moses truly believe that the covenant made at Sinai was made with and for them and was not just a thing of the past? If so, do they understand with their heart, soul, and mind the implications of obedient commitment?

Furthermore, Israel had arrived just recently on the plains of Moab; yet two-and-a-half tribes already were situated in their permanent lands. Would they renege on helping the other tribes? When the people have taken possession of the land and have begun to enjoy its fruits, will they still feel a need for the Lord? Or will they be tempted to say, “The covenant was made in the wilderness for the wilderness; it does not apply to life in Canaan”? Since Israel had “played the harlot” at its first contact with idolatrous practice in Moab (Numbers 25), what would the people do when they would encounter it at every turn in Canaan? Would Israel actually kill or drive out the idolatrous people of Canaan and destroy their places of worship? These concerns shape the discourses in Deuteronomy and reveal the urgency in what Moses has to say “today” (4:40, et al.) if the covenant is to remain in force after the conquest of Canaan.


Text adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion (pp. 9, 13, 22, 59-63, 99-101, 127-28, 157-61) copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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