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The first five books of Old Testament are, in Christian circles, known as the Pentateuch. This word comes from the Greek  words penta (= 5) teuchos (= scroll). So 'pentateuch' indicates a 5 scrolled book. As far as present evidence indicates the Pentateuch was first called that by Tertullian in the 2nd cent. C.E. In Jewish tradition it is also called the Torah.

The word "Torah" is often translated "Law" and understood in Christian circles somewhat negatively, partly through a misunderstanding of Pauline statements on the law, or maybe through our misunderstanding contributed to by Paul. But, in any event, the translation "law" is partly a misnomer. It really means "teaching, instruction". Essentially while there is a good bit of legal material in the Torah, the majority of the content of the Torah consists of stories: stories of creation, ancestors, exodus, Sinai, wilderness wanderings etc.

While we say that the Pentateuch is for the most part story, and has a unity to it, it is by no means a uniform, smoothly flowing story. Diversity is one of its main features. There is a diversity of material in terms of the type of literature and genre: prose, tribal, family and hero stories, genealogies, lists, regulations and myths etc.; poetry, blessings, songs, prayers, liturgies etc. There is a diversity of content: repetitions with variations (Exod 20; Deut 5); changes of name (Mt. Sinai v Mt. Horeb); chronological problems (Gen 12:6; 14:14; 36:31; Deut 34:5-10); time of revelation of the divine name 'YHWH' cf. Gen 4:26 and Exod 6:3; Lev18:28); variations in language and style etc. All this is indicative of a complex history of development for the Pentateuch.

What is the effect of recognising that this part of Scripture is largely in story form, as opposed to say all law etc.? D.J.A. Clines in The Theme of the Pentateuch (p.102) says that the hearer or reader is seized to a degree by a story they hear or read. He or she enters the 'world' of the story. If a story is powerful enough, or important enough, the story world becomes the hearer's world too. The Pentateuch as story creates a world for the reader and invites the reader to make that world their own. So as we read or hear a story it is not just a story about past people and events, it becomes one in which later generations participate.

Other aspects of the Pentateuch as story:

* There is a movement in the story within space and time. Travel stories are an important genre or type of story in many cultures. The Pentateuch is one great travel story or series of them. There is always tension in travel stories between settledness and unsettledness. As we enter into travel stories the tension in our own lives between settledness and unsettledness can relate to and be worked out in the movement toward settledness of the characters in the travel story (cf. Clines, pp.107-8). The tradition of seeing faith as a "journey" is not without connection here.

* In stories the movement through time is always purposeful and goal oriented.

* "Story creates order out of the flux of happenings by arranging them in ... such a chain of connectedness that leads one to speak of the end as the goal and middle as directed movement." (Clines, p. 105).

Date of the Pentateuch

Many scholars disagree about the process of formation of the Pentateuch and even the dating of its constituent parts. We will take this up further later. Regardless of the process of formation, the general trend is to see the final shaping of the Pentateuch taking place in the post-exilic era, i.e. sometime after 515 BCE.

A good number of scholars associate the final processes of formation of the Pentateuch with the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, that is the 5th cent BCE. The contents of the Pentateuch seem to tie in with the activities of Ezra especially, but also the social, religious and political situation at the time seems conducive (so Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, p.242).

If this is the case then the early audiences of the Pentateuch in its final shape were: people with the experience of exile in their communal memory; people whose hold on the promised land was not totally secure; and people who were governed to some degree by foreigners in that land. The story of the Pentateuch is thus a story for these people in more than one way.

"I teach kings the history of their ancestors so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past."
Djeli Mamoudou Kouyati, griot (singer) of Djeliba Koro, Guinea, Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali
Israel is thus like many peoples whose national traditions are passed on from generation to generation especially in oral or early written form. Looking backward is the way to understand the present and to move into the future.