The first five books of the Bible set the foundation for everything that comes after them. What background information will help you better understand these ancient books and see how to apply them in today’s world?
The Bible is the story of two families, the divine and the human, and they are both introduced in the first chapter of Genesis.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…
“Then God said, ‘Let us make people in our image, to be like ourselves…’ So God created people in his own image; God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:1, 26-27).
The apostle John identifies the One who did the creating as the Word, the one who became Jesus Christ, the Son of God the Father (John 1:1-3, 14). This divine family planned the entire creation for the purpose of creating the human family. And why did they create the human family?
God’s great purpose is revealed throughout the Bible, but let’s look at the end of the book and see this clear statement:
“He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son” (Revelation 21:7).
It’s the most incredible story ever told: God wants to welcome more children into His divine family!
The Starting Point
“The Holy Bible is like no other book in all the world. It is the only book which presents itself as the written revelation of the one true God, intended for the salvation of man, and demonstrating its divine authority by many infallible proofs” (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 15).
The Bible starts with God and His human creation. The story of the first five books of the Bible lays the groundwork for all that follows, and the New Testament writers quote extensively from these first five books. Overall, the Old Testament is quoted about 250 times, and there are nearly 1,000 clear allusions to the Old Testament in the New (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 630).
What does the Bible say about its purpose and how we are to use it?
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…
1 Corinthians 10:11-12
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.
2 Timothy 3:15-17
…and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The Bible is how God speaks to us today. The recorded examples and the words of the prophets, apostles and Jesus Christ Himself are preserved to teach, admonish and encourage us.
In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul uses the Greek term theopneustos, which is translated “inspiration.” Theo means “God” and pneustos means “breathed.” So, as some translations put it, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” meaning it came from the mouth of God. The Bible sets doctrine (teaching), refutes error, gives correction and provides instruction in the right way to live.
How did Jesus Christ describe the Old Testament, including the first five books called the Law?
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
“Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke 24:27, 44
And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself…
Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”
The Bible is a unified whole. There are no contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. They both reveal the same God, with the same spiritual laws, approach and purpose. Jesus tells us that the Bible is true and cannot be broken (John 10:35; 17:17).
The New Testament writers cite more than 130 messianic prophecies of the Old Testament that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s first coming
Many other prophecies and passages point to Christ’s current work and His future second coming. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and the Kingdom of God He will establish are the central focus of not just the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well.
Notice that Jesus described the Old Testament in three parts: the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (which was the major book of and stood for the entire section known as the Writings). In this series on “Exploring the Bible,” we will cover the Law of Moses in this lesson, then cover the Prophets in three parts (Former, Major and Minor) and then the Writings.
By referring to Moses as the author of the first section, Jesus isn’t necessarily saying that Moses wrote every word of the first five books. The mention of Moses’ death may have been added later (Deuteronomy 34), and he apparently used earlier written records for portions of Genesis (for example, “the book of the genealogy of Adam” in Genesis 5:1). But the biblical evidence does not support the documentary hypothesis promoted by biblical critics such as Graf, Kuenen and Wellhausen in the 19th century.
Their theory was that the books were compiled from four or more “written documents composed at different places and times over a period of five centuries, long after Moses” (Archer, p. 81). Dr. Archer concludes, “When all the data of the Pentateuchal text have been carefully considered, and all evidence, both internal and external, has been fairly weighed, the impression is all but irresistible that Mosaic authorship is the one theory which best accords with the facts” (p. 109).
For more about the authority and accuracy of the Bible, see Basic Info About the Bible.
Now let’s explore a brief introduction to each of the five books of Moses.
Genesis is a book of beginnings. Genesis is a Greek word meaning origins, and this book gives the origins of the human family, of sin, of death and of God’s revelation of His plan to buy humans back from sin and death. We will see the themes and motifs of Genesis woven throughout the Bible, and especially in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, where Paradise lost is regained.
The first 11 chapters of Genesis give only the essential stories and connections of more than two millennia of human history. These highlights include the creation of man in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27); the first marriage (2:23-24); the first temptation and sin (3:1-6); the first prophecy of Christ (3:15); the first murder (4:3-8); the utter depravity of humanity and God’s decision to start over with Noah after the Flood (6:5-14); Babel, the forerunner of all humanistic societies and governments (11:1-9); and the calling of Abram out of the idol-worshipping world to become the father of the faithful (11:31; 12:1; Galatians 3:7).
Genesis 12 through 50 then focus on Abram (whose name was changed to Abraham) and his family, especially Isaac, Jacob (later called Israel) and Joseph.
“Genesis is a shocking book. In it we find magnified images of sin—stories of sibling rivalry, family conflict, hatred, rape, incest, sexual perversion, deceit, and a host of other destructive behaviors…
“But we also find heightened images of virtue in Genesis. Half of the roll call of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 come from the pages of Genesis” (Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III, editors, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 110).
Of all the heroes in Genesis, Abraham looms largest. His example and the promises God made to him are foundational to the message of the rest of the Bible.
How did Abraham become the father of the faithful?
…just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
Abraham believed God, and his belief was demonstrated by his actions. He set the example of faithful obedience that God calls on all His children to follow. Now that is not to say the “prosperity gospel” or the “faith healing by prayer and gestures” not condoned in the Bible has any credence, but it is to say that because He first loved us, we also do demonstrate our actions for Him out of love!
What were the key promises given to Abraham?
I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.
Galatians 3:8, 14-16
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”
…that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it.
Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.
God made physical and spiritual promises to Abraham. The physical promises involved physical greatness for his descendants. These physical, national promises contained assurances of land and other blessings (Genesis 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:18).
Also contained in the promises to Abraham was the more important spiritual promise of salvation to all men who would become Abraham’s “seed” (his descendants). Through Abraham all families of the earth were to have access to God’s blessings (Genesis 12:3). God confirmed the promises to Abraham because he obeyed God’s commandments (Genesis 22:18; 26:5).
The apostle Paul understood that salvation was not just for Jews or Israelites, but for all humanity. He explained that the “Seed” to whom the promises applied was Jesus Christ, and that all must become one in Him (Galatians 3:8, 14-16, 26-29).
The book of Genesis ended with Abraham’s descendants living in Egypt. Over time the Egyptians became frightened of this growing clan of Israelites and began to oppress them in slave labor. Baby boys like Moses were to be killed, but God worked to save him—surprisingly in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s own household!
After 40 years of living like royalty, then fleeing and living 40 years as a humble shepherd, Moses heard God call him out of a burning bush. God was ready to use Moses to lead His people to the land He had promised Abraham.
Exodus chapters 1 through 19 tell the story of how God worked with Moses and performed great miracles such as the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to free the Israelites from slavery. Then in chapter 20 comes the momentous highlight of the book, as God gave His Ten Commandments to His people.
What are the basic spiritual laws spoken by God and written with His finger?
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
“You shall have no other gods before Me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
The giving of the Ten Commandments was accompanied by thunderings, lightning flashes and loud noises (Exodus 20:18). God wanted to impress on the Israelites and us the importance of these laws. And He wrote them on the stone tablets Himself (Exodus 31:18).
These commandments were a foundational part, but only a part, of the agreement God offered them—the Sinai Covenant or Old Covenant. The people accepted the agreement by saying, “All the words which the Lord has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3).
But God knew that there was a problem with the Old Covenant from the start, and that problem was the rebellious human heart. “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments,” God said (Deuteronomy 5:29). The fault was with them, not the commandments (Hebrews 8:8). But God planned a New Covenant to solve this by writing these perfect eternal principles on our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit: “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10).
These commandments are eternal principles that have been part of God’s covenants from Abraham’s time (Genesis 26:5).
Exodus chapters 21 to 24 discuss various laws and the people’s agreement to God’s covenant. Exodus 25 through 31 describe the design for the tabernacle that would be the Israelites’ center of worship. But in Exodus 32, the Israelites were already reverting to pagan worship with the golden calf incident. The book concludes with renewing the covenant and the construction of the tabernacle, a type of God’s dwelling place (Hebrews 10:11, 23-24).
The book of Leviticus was named after the tribe of Levi, the tribe God had given the responsibility to carry out the rules of worship. These rules emphasize and remind us of the holiness of God. Leviticus is “a series of revelations from God about how God’s people may approach Him through sacrifice and honor Him in holy living” (The Nelson Study Bible, 1997, p. 173). The holy God says, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). But please notice that God does not call us to be “perfect” as some say, for He knows that as mere mortals we cannot be! I need to say this to help clear up some of the misconceptions that are out there.
Leviticus chapters 1 through 7 give rules about the sacrificial system. The animal sacrifices pointed the Israelites toward the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay for our sins. Animal sacrifices were only a type and could not forgive us (Hebrews 10:1-4).
Leviticus chapters 8 to 10 address the priesthood and the tabernacle, including Nadab and Abihu’s sin. Chapters 11 through 15 give laws concerning what is clean and unclean, which points to the reason God meant “You shall be holy, for I am holy” pertaining to which types of meat can be eaten, are we still under that law? No. Leviticus 16 discusses the special ceremonies ancient Israel acted out each year on the Day of Atonement
Leviticus chapters 17 to 27 give more laws for holy living.
What are the seven annual “feasts of the Lord”?
Leviticus 23:4-6, 16, 24, 27, 34-36
“‘These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times.
“‘On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover.
“‘And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread…'”
“‘Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord…'”
“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation…'”
“Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord…”
“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the Lord.
“‘On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it.
“‘For seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. It is a sacred assembly, and you shall do no customary work on it.'”
A highlight of the book of Leviticus is this listing of the seven annual festivals God gave to His people: Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Pentecost (also called the Feast of Weeks), Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles and the Eighth Day (or “Last Great Day”, as you may know we now call it “The Lord’s Day”).
“Numbers covers 38 years in the history of Israel: the period of desert wandering in the Sinai peninsula. It begins two years after the escape from Egypt. It ends on the eve of entry into Canaan. The title comes from the ‘numbering’ (census) of Israel in the early chapters and chapter 26. The book might have been called ‘The grumblings of a nation.’ It is one long sad story of complaining and discontent” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 185).
The first 25 chapters recount the story of the first generation’s wanderings in the wilderness. Numbers 26 through 36 tell of the second generation’s march to the Promised Land.
Why wasn’t the first generation allowed to enter the Promised Land? What can we learn from this?
And they returned from spying out the land after forty days.
Now they departed and came back to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land.
Then they told him, and said: “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
“Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak (giants) there.
“The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.”
Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”
And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature.
“There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
“…because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it.
“But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it.”
1 Corinthians 10:5-6
But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.
As Israel neared the Promised Land the first time, Moses sent out a man from each tribe to spy out the land. They found a productive and fertile land, but 10 of the spies focused on the giants and the dangers and discouraged the people to the point they wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb for trying to encourage them to trust God (Numbers 14:9-10). Even after all the miracles they had seen, they let fear destroy their faith, and they rebelled against God. So the whole generation over age 20 died out during the 40 years of wandering.
As the apostle Paul showed in 1 Corinthians 10, this should serve as a warning for us today as well.
“With the nation of Israel poised at the entrance of Canaan, Moses seized one last opportunity to prepare the people for their new life in the land of their inheritance. Since Moses would not be entering the land with the people, he wanted to make sure that the nation did not forget its covenant with God. Moses’ careful review of the laws of God is recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy” (The Nelson Study Bible, 1997, p. 290).
Deuteronomy is made up of three speeches by Moses to the Israelites. The first one (1:6-4:43) reminds the people how their unbelief caused the 40 years of wandering. The second speech (4:44-28:68) repeats many of the laws from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, then concludes with a list of blessings that would come if they obeyed and curses that would come if they disobeyed God. The third speech (29:1-30:20) also addresses the covenant in relation to blessings and curses. Deuteronomy ends with Moses’ blessing on the tribes and his death and the transition of authority to Joshua.
Restating God’s laws and reminding this new generation of Israelites of God’s great miracles and of their sins and failings was Moses’ way of giving them a pep talk. It was his reminder of the cause-and-effect relationship of obeying or disobeying God’s laws.
What will happen if we obey God’s laws?
“Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth.
“And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God:
“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country.
“Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, the produce of your ground and the increase of your herds, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.”
What will happen if we disobey God’s laws?
“But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
“Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country.
“Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
“Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks.
“Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.”
Please read the whole of Deuteronomy 28 to see the full force of the cause-and-effect relationship God wants us to learn. When we have this firmly in mind, we will be better prepared to make the commitment God wants us to make:
“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live…”
Obeying God brings many blessings in this life, but God has much more in mind for us. After repentance and conversion to follow God’s way of righteous obedience, we can look forward to eternal life in the Kingdom of God (John 3:16; Matthew 19:17)!