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What is the Story of The Law Books in the Old Testament?

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The first five books of the Old Testament are called "The Law." In Judaism, they're called The Torah (which means law) or The Pentateuch (which means five scrolls). Although they are called The Law, they also include the history from creation to the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land. The books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Story

Genesis is all history. It starts with God creating the world, and Adam and Eve's sin, then Adam and Eve's descendants to Noah (chapters 1—5). Noah's Flood (chp. 6—9) is followed by the Tower of Babel (chp. 10—11). In the middle of chapter 11, God called Abraham to follow Him and promised Abraham his obedience would result in the establishment of several nations. Abraham obeyed God by moving his family from Ur to Canaan (chp. 11—25). Abraham's son Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob, who didn't get along at first (chp. 25—36). Jacob was also called "Israel," and his descendants were called the Israelites. Jacob's older sons sold his second-youngest, Joseph, into slavery. Joseph was taken to Egypt and, after spending time as a slave and a prisoner, became the second-in-command after the Pharaoh. When Canaan had a terrible drought, Joseph invited his father and brothers to live in Egypt (chp. 37—50).

Exodus picks up the story 400 years later. The Pharaoh Joseph had worked for died, and the new leadership had made the Israelites slaves. When the Israelites had enough people to make a good-sized nation that could hold their own land, God sent Moses to rescue them from slavery. The current Pharaoh wouldn't let them go at first, until God sent ten plagues to punish Egypt. Pharaoh said the Israelites could go, but changed his mind and followed them with his army. God parted the Red Sea and the Israelites got away. When the Egyptian army tried to follow, God collapsed the walls of water and Pharaoh's army drowned (Exodus chapters 1—14).

At first the people were grateful to have been freed from slavery, but the nomadic life quickly wore thin, and they began a habit of complaining about food and water. Moses still led them to Mt. Sinai where God gave him the law (Exodus 15—18). Afterward, he led the people to the southern border of Canaan (Numbers chapters 10—12). The Canaanites indulged in such horrors as child sacrifice and sex-worship of their pagan gods. Despite God's readiness to destroy them and their evil practices, the Israelites were scared when they learned how big the Canaanites were and refused to fight. As punishment, the current generation was rejected from inheriting the Promised Land (chp. 13—14). The Israelites wandered around the desert for forty years until the older generation had died. God took them around to the east side of Canaan (chp. 16—25). Moses died and Joshua took over (chp. 27). The Israelites conquered an area east of the Jordan River and prepared to cross into Canaan — the land God had promised Abraham (chp. 31—32).

The Law

The five books of the Law are a mix of story and rules. God gave Moses most of the Law when the Israelites were camped around Mt. Sinai. Sometimes, when new situations came up, God added appropriate legislation. God used the Law for two purposes: to show the world that people who follow Him acted different than people who don't, and to show the world that no one can ever be good enough to earn God's love. Both served as preparations for the coming of Jesus.

We've broken the Law into three categories, although in the Bible they're all mixed up.

The Civil Laws were what we think of when we think "law." Some of their Civil Laws covered the same things ours do, like murder and stealing. But some covered other things like what to do if you accidentally killed your neighbor's donkey. And the punishments were different. Where today we would send people to jail, the Israelites would have to pay back what they stole or destroyed, or sometimes endure physical punishment. There are many of their Civil Laws that we don't have to follow because we have a different country and a different government.

The Ceremonial Laws were used to tell the Israelites how to worship God. There were a lot of them. They explained who should take care of the Tabernacle or Temple, how to give sacrifices and when, what the feasts were for, and even what the people were allowed to eat. We don't follow these laws because we are a part of the Church and not Judaism.

The Moral Laws we do need to follow — sort of. Moral Laws define what is right and wrong. They include the Ten Commandments and how exactly to treat others. The difference is, where the Israelites were given very specific rules, Jesus tells us to be kind, to love others, and to love and respect God. Although the New Testament does not include step-by-step rules to tell us what to do, we are actually held to a higher standard as the Holy Spirit guides our hearts.

The Books

By mixing up the story with the Law, God shows us how much the Law was supposed to be a part of the Israelites' lives.

Genesis: This is the only book that is all story. It covers Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph, and the move to Egypt.

Exodus: "Exodus" means "leave." The book covers Moses, leading the Israelites out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, the Law, and building the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle equipment.

Leviticus: "Leviticus" means "book of the Levites." The Levites were the tribe that took care of the Tabernacle and Temple and included the priests. Most of Leviticus deals with the Ceremonial Law, which the Levites would have been in charge of.

Numbers: This book is called Numbers because it starts with a census of each tribe. The book mixes up more laws with the story of Israel traveling from Mt. Sinai to Canaan.

Deuteronomy: "Deuteronomy" means "second law." It starts with a recap of the end of the story in Numbers. Before the people went into Canaan, they reviewed the Law given in Leviticus and Numbers.


All five books are attributed to Moses, although Joshua probably wrote the account of Moses' death. There is a common belief called the documentary hypothesis which states the books were written over several centuries from 900–450 BC as opposed to sometime around 1400 BC (when Moses died). The argument is that a handful of passages seem to have been written sometime after the events (Genesis 12:6; Numbers 21:14; Deuteronomy 34:6), but the theory doesn't take into consideration that the books were written for posterity, not as daily news reports. The documentary hypothesis also downplays or rejects the supernatural elements of the books. The figures of the New Testament, including Jesus (Mark 12:26), Peter (Acts 3:22), and Paul (Romans 10:5) affirm Moses' authorship.

Related Truth:

Why should we read the Old Testament?

What is the basic timeline of the Old Testament?

What is the Story of the History Books in the Old Testament?

Why is knowing about the various characters in the Bible important?

What is the importance of genealogies in the Bible?

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