The Pentateuch: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series

The Pentateuch: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series


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The Pentateuch: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series by Terence E. Fretheim

In this volume, Terence E. Fretheim seeks to introduce the Pentateuch to modern readers, stressing its continuing capacity to speak a word of—or about—God. The two chapters of Part One provide an orientation to the critical study of the Pentateuch and present a proposal for reading the Pentateuch in terms of its rhetorical strategy. That strategy, Fretheim argues, is designed in such a way as to have a certain effect upon its readers, most basically to shape their faith and life. The five chapters of Part Two focus on the individual books that comprise the Pentateuch.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687008421
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 07/03/2012
Series: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 671,130
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

2001 TERENCE E. FRETHEIM is Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and has been on the faculty of 7 seminary schools, including Princeton, Graduate Theological Union, Vancouver and McCormick. He has authored or contributed to eighteen books, four by Abingdon and a forthcoming commentary on Jeremiah.

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The Pentateuch

By Terence E. Fretheim, Gene M. Tucker, Charles B. Cousar

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-00842-1


The Study of the Pentateuch


The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five books of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least. When it assumed this five-part form is not known. Though it may always have had such a form (the division is known to Philo and Josephus and probably earlier), the flow of the Sinai narrative from Exodus 19 through Leviticus to Numbers 10 suggests a later division. The five-part division may have been a formal move dictated by convenience in scroll handling (Exodus and Numbers are similar in length; Genesis and Deuteronomy are more independent in character). Yet, the shorter length of Leviticus, its particular content, and its place midpoint in the Pentateuch suggests that it was separated for religious purposes, reflecting the centrality of its concerns for the implied audience (see below).

The biblical texts make no reference to this five-part form. They do refer to "(the book of) the law" (Ezra 10:3; Neh 8:3), but it is unclear whether this wording refers to the laws or to the entire Pentateuch (completed by 400 BCE or so). Moses is associated with "the law" from early in the postexilic era (2 Chron 23:18; 30:16), but its scope is again uncertain. The New Testament references to (the law of) Moses (cf. Luke 24:27, 44) assume this association (see Sir 24:23). Such references are likely a shorthand reference to the Pentateuch, as also in the phrase "the law and the prophets" (see Matt 5:17; Acts 13:15; Rom 3:21), and probably many other NT references to "the law" (e.g., Rom 7:1).

To the extent that these recurrent allusions to "the law" refer to the entire Pentateuch, they are misleading, whether they refer to its literary form or its most basic content. The basic form of the Pentateuch is not law, but narrative, moving from the creation to the eve of Israel's settlement in the promised land; laws have been woven into this narrative structure at various points. Moreover, the basic content of the Pentateuch is not legal in character; it is the story of God and (primarily) a people called Israel, often in interaction with each other. While a theological use of law, as revealing of Israel's sin, is present throughout the Pentateuch (see Deut 31:26), liberating words about God's gracious actions also punctuate the narrative. The Hebrew word torah can be more properly used if it is broadly defined as instruction, and hence could include both law and narrative. But, given the usual meanings of the word "law," it should not be used as a shorthand reference to the Pentateuch in its entirety.


Interpreters through the centuries have found a home in the Pentateuch at several points. From the number of citations, Jesus and the New Testament authors seem especially attracted to Deuteronomy, perhaps because of its hortatory character. The preeminence of the law in early Judaism has long been noted. In more modern times, Genesis is the favorite, probably because of the creation texts and the family stories. This has been less true in scholarly circles, which have tended to lift up the book of Exodus, because of historical interests, a particular understanding of "salvation history," and a recognition of the constitutive character of the exodus and accompanying events for Israel as the people of God.

In the church, the Pentateuch has had more than a preparatory function for the Christian gospel; it has actually spoken an effective Word of God to ongoing communities of faith by calling, warning, exhorting, judging, redeeming, comforting, and forgiving. Because the church through the years has experienced the Pentateuch as Word of God in these ways, its liturgies, its preaching, and its catechetics have been filled with references to these texts.

Young Christians have been reared on the Pentateuch stories in particular, from the creation to Noah's ark with its parade of animals to the tower of Babel; from the near-sacrifice of Isaac to Jacob's wrestling to Joseph's coat of many colors; from the baby Moses set adrift on the Nile to Israelites walking through the sea on dry land to the gifts of water and manna in the wilderness. Catechisms that include the Ten Commandments have been impressed upon their memories and have given shape to their speech and action. Liturgies have had built into their very center the themes of Passover and unleavened bread, and Exodus 15 has been appointed as a text for Easter Sunday, so cosmic is the victory of God seen to be.

The New Testament discerns many continuities between the Pentateuch and the experience of the early church, with texts cited as warning (1 Cor 10:6-11), apologia (Acts 7:17-44), instruction (1 Cor 9:8-12; 10:11; 2 Cor 8:14-15), specifications of what love requires (Rom 13:8-10; Matt 19:16-22), paradigms of sin and failure (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22), examples of faith and faithfulness (Romans 4; Galatians 3; Hebrews 11), reminders of its missional purpose (1 Pet 2:9-10; Rev 1:5-6; 5:10), and resources for an eschatology (Rev 8:6–9:21; 15:1-5; 21:1-3; 22:4).

The Christian understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been shaped decisively by these Pentateuchal texts. Abraham's response to God's command to sacrifice his "only son" is echoed in the Passion narratives of the Gospels. Jesus, like Israel, is called "out of Egypt" and tempted in the wilderness (Matt 2:15; 4:1-11). His being "lifted up" recalls Moses' lifting up the snake in the wilderness, which brought healing to the community of faith (John 3:14). He not only celebrates the Passover (Mark 14:12-25; Matt 26:28) but, in a radical theological extension, is himself identified as the "paschal lamb" (1 Cor 5:7; 11:25) and the "spiritual rock" who followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). He assumes the role of a new Moses as he teaches his disciples from the mountain (Matthew 5–7). And, in the most remarkable move of all, Israel's God "tabernacles" in his very person (John 1:14). Drawing upon all sorts of existing interpretive vehicles, the New Testament writers use the Pentateuch to interpret and proclaim God's act in Jesus.

Theologies of various sorts have drawn on these Pentateuchal texts with abandon, from understandings of creation and human sinfulness to theories of atonement and the sacraments to issues of divine agency and human responsibility to ethical systems to more recent theologies of liberation from communities that know what oppression is all about. Christians understand their sinfulness in terms not unlike those mentioned in Genesis 3, know deeply in their own being the meaning of the cry, "Let my people go," and make their confession of faith in Abrahamic terms, "And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). In view of such experience, the Pentateuch's witness to God's character remains integral to the testimony of every generation: "A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exod 34:6). The God of Israel is our God; Israel's confessions and songs have become ours.


An interesting combination of factors enlivens current study of the Pentateuch. On the one hand, the Pentateuch continues to enjoy a high status in those communities for whom the Bible is authoritative. Also, newly framed literary approaches in the academy have generated a vigorous interest in the narratives in particular. On the other hand, critical study is in disarray. Longstanding hypotheses have been found wanting, and no comprehensive alternative has yet captured the field. Even more, the continuing religious value of some texts has been questioned in view of their problematic perspectives on matters as diverse as the environment, the role of women, and the age of the universe. A brief survey of basic approaches to Old Testament study, in which the study of the Pentateuch participates, will give some sense of these developments. We use the following threefold outline as a convenient ordering of the discussion: the world behind the text; the world within the text; the world in front of the text.

The World Behind the Text

This phrase represents author-centered approaches, focused on the production of the text. The meaning of the text is what the author intended and can be discovered within the text itself. This is commonly called the historical-critical method (or historical criticism) and includes such approaches as source criticism, textual criticism, tradition criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, canonical criticism; historiography (the history of Israel in its ancient Near Eastern setting); various sociological and anthropological approaches; and history of religions (comparison of Israel's religion with other ancient Near Eastern religious traditions). The historical-critical method has been the dominant approach to the Pentateuch from the late-eighteenth century to the last third of the twentieth century. Hence, for introductory purposes, we will give more attention to it than to other approaches. But in subsequent chapters we will not often pursue historical matters, the reasons for which will become evident as we proceed.

Generally for this approach, the text is to be read as a historical document, the result of a complex historical process, wherein it was shaped by the circumstances of the times and places in which it was produced. The goal is the fullest description of the world of the author(s) as is possible, on the basis of which one can determine what the text meant. In pursuance of these tasks, one must seek to understand as much of that ancient world as possible—language, history, society and culture, literary conventions, and religious ideas and institutions.

The word "historical" is used in three basic senses, which give shape to differing but related tasks: (1) the history in the text, that is, the story of Israel as the Bible itself tells it; (2) the history behind the text, that is, the actual history of Israel as it can be reconstructed on the basis of biblical and extrabiblical data. The assumption is that the Bible itself does not tell us all that can be known about this history nor does it portray this history in a straightforward way; and (3) the history of the text, that is, the origins and formation of the biblical literature as it has developed over time. This would include two related components: (a) the first is the history of the literature, that is, how it evolved in the hands of authors and editors. Texts are often composite, having reached their present (= canonical) form in stages over a period of time; (b) the second is the history of interpretation, that is, the varying ways in which these authors and editors expressed the significance of the past (e.g., the Exodus) in the texts they were transmitting to a new generation.

This approach makes clear that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience; it exposes interpreters to a world that is other than our own, helping break us out of our cultural insularity, our narrow visions, and our limited experience. Such study informs readers about matters of content (e.g., events, persons, customs) that the author assumed the ancient reader knew and hence did not have to explain. Moreover, such an approach offers students an embodied text, having to do with real-life situations in a world other than our own. From this perspective, postbiblical communities of faith may more readily see continuities (and challenging discontinuities!) between that time and their own.

But this approach also complicates biblical study. The Bible can become simply another ancient artifact. Such an approach tends to stress the distance of the text from our world, the gulf between the past and present, a gulf that must be bridged for any contemporary appropriation. This is sometimes expressed in the phrases "what it meant" and "what it means" (see below). This raises a major interpretive issue: What is the nature of this bridge (often called "hermeneutics")? Interpreters have to traverse a bridge in both directions if they are going to get from then to now, but first they have to build the bridge or (more commonly) walk across someone else's construction. This is a difficult enterprise and can be discouraging to readers.

Such an approach has also neglected the treatment of the text as it now stands in favor of a search for origins. It assumes that what the text meant can be retrieved from an original setting, and that this meaning is to be privileged. In this process it often has been thought that an objective and neutral historical analysis is possible, insufficiently recognizing that the historian's own perspective deeply affects such an analysis. Moreover, a premium is placed on the use of a proper methodology, which tends to place the scholar (and those who appeal to such scholarship) on a pedestal and to privilege their interpretations. At least implicitly, it expects readers to become informed critics before they can claim any kind of confidence in biblical interpretation. In this and other ways it has neglected the reader (see below). Generally, such critics are probably more confident in their historical statements than they ought to be. The available historical data is actually quite sparse and difficult to interpret. Historical studies of Israel and its literature become dated quickly.

We survey here only three historical approaches, important not least because they have dominated the study of the Pentateuch over the last two centuries. The first two sections pertain to the third use of the word "historical" noted above; the third section to the second use.

1. Source Criticism. Long the dominant scholarly approach to the Pentateuch, source criticism is a literary-historical analysis that seeks to determine the origins of a text, and hence focuses on such questions as authorship, the oral and written sources used, and the editorial stages through which it may have passed.

For centuries the author of the Pentateuch was assumed to be Moses. Questions about this tradition began to be raised in medieval and Reformation times. These questions were prompted by difficulties within the text itself (anachronisms; changes in style and vocabulary; inconsistencies; and repetitions or doublets), as well as the witness that sources were used in ancient times (see Num 21:14, 27; cf. Josh 10:13). This analysis eventually led many to deny authorship to Moses; this viewpoint is now so commonplace that voices to the contrary sound like special pleading. At the same time, it should be made clear that this source-critical approach often has been undertaken by persons interested in the religious and theological value of these texts.

Two basic tasks are involved in discerning sources: (1) literary observations. For example, more than one hundred doublets exist in the Pentateuch (cf. Lev 11:2-23 with Deut 14:4-20); or, shifts occur in vocabulary usage, such as names for God (cf. the use of the name Yahweh [= Lord] in Exod 6:2-3 and Gen 4:26), which became a key basis for delineating multiple sources; or, shifts in style and perspective (cf. Genesis with Deuteronomy). (2) the correlation of such sources with the development of ideas and institutions in other Old Testament literature, e.g., the bulk of Deuteronomy appears to be the basis for the reform of Josiah in 2 Kings 22–23.

The classical formulation that resulted, associated especially with Julius Wellhausen, spoke of four major sources—Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P)—with some additional texts (e.g., Genesis 14; 49). These sources, from persons with different institutional bases and ideological commitments, were dated from the ninth to the fifth century BCE; they were gradually interwoven with one another over this time by a series of redactors. While debates about the unity, scope, and dating of these sources have been ongoing, the basic shape of this "documentary hypothesis" was fundamental to most studies of the Pentateuch until quite recently, and many scholars still work from this perspective.


Excerpted from The Pentateuch by Terence E. Fretheim, Gene M. Tucker, Charles B. Cousar. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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