How (Not) to Preach the Pentateuch
The Pentateuch, sometimes called the Torah or the Law, refers to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you’ve ever preached from any of these books, you know they can be challenging. What follows are five pitfalls to avoid.
1. Don’t preach only the fun parts of the Pentateuch.
For most pastors, I suspect the fun parts are the stories. Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel, the patriarchs’ accounts, the Joseph cycle, the exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings—who doesn’t like the stories! Not only are they instructive, they’re enjoyable.
Or perhaps the fun parts for you are the obvious messianic prophecies and types. You love preaching about the serpent-crushing offspring, Melchizedek, the scepter in Judah, the bronze serpent, or the prophet like Moses.
Or maybe you get a kick out of preaching the genealogies, or the tabernacle measurements, or the holiness code. To each his own!
The point is, it’s tempting as pastors to preach only those parts of the Bible that personally interest us. We need to resist that temptation. God has breathed out all Scripture, which means every bit of it is profitable for shaping us into mature Christians who know how to live for Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15-17). That doesn’t mean you should preach a verse-by-verse exposition of Genesis–Deuteronomy, but it does mean you shouldn’t limit your preaching of the Pentateuch only to those parts you like, or that you think your people will like. From the grandeur of the creation account to the identification of the short-eared owl as covenantally unclean, God inspired all of it for the benefit of his people. Which means we should find a way to preach it all.
2. Don’t preach the Pentateuch as the books of Moses instead of the book of Moses.
The Pentateuch isn’t so much five books as it is one book. We’re meant to understand it as a whole. Multiple considerations support the Pentateuch’s unity: the fivefold division was likely the practical result of scroll length; each of the books presupposes knowledge of the others; it seems to have an overall literary structure hinging on four major poetic sections; plus, later biblical revelation consistently considers the Pentateuch to be a unit. On this last point, tellingly, the Pentateuch is never referred to as the books (plural) of Moses but always the book (singular) of Moses (e.g., 2 Chron. 25:4; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; Mark 12:26).
So what does the Pentateuch’s unity mean for our preaching? It means we must grapple not just with the message of each book on its own but in relation to the others. It means we should give thought to the plot and meaning of the Pentateuch as a whole. It means we can’t interpret our preaching text in isolation from the entire story Moses has built around it. It’s all meant to be understood together.
Lots of exciting work is being done on the message of the Pentateuch, and this article isn’t the place to survey the arguments (nor am I qualified to do so). But it might be helpful for me to highlight three key observations that seem foolish to ignore.
First, the story of the Pentateuch follows a covenantal plotline. After the fall of Adam, God promises to send a redeemer—an offspring of a woman to bruise the head of the serpent. This divine promise unfolds through a covenant with Noah, then Abraham, and finally with Israel. We need to understand how our preaching text fits within this covenantal plotline.
Second, the Pentateuch ends on a sad note: God prophesies Israel’s failure under the law, Moses dies, and God’s covenantal promises of a redeemer-offspring, land, and international blessing remain unfulfilled. If the Pentateuch were a play, it would be a tragedy! So any kind of triumphalist “you-can-do-it” preaching from the Pentateuch will be out of step with the work as a whole.
Third, Israel’s failure and the unfulfilled promises seem designed to stir up faith and hope within those who read the Pentateuch. Faith—because God’s people shouldn’t trust in their ability to keep the law. Even while living under the law, they should follow in the steps of Abraham, who believed God and whose faith was counted as righteousness. Hope—because God keeps his promises, and his covenant promises haven’t yet come to pass at the end of Deuteronomy. Where is the redeemer-offspring? We need him! Surely God will send him soon.
In short, the overall effect of the Pentateuch should be an erosion of self-reliance and an encouragement to trust in God, longing for the arrival of his promised redeemer. The preacher who approaches the Pentateuch as a disunified collection of books rather than as “the book of Moses” will likely miss this message.
3. Don’t preach the stories of the Pentateuch as mere moral lessons.
If we miss the main message of the Pentateuch, we’ll fail to see how the parts connect to the whole. Consequently, we’ll interpret the stories in isolation from the covenant plotline and totally miss how each one either advances or threatens God’s redemptive promises. All we’ll be left with is moral lessons about how to act or not act.
For instance, is Sarah’s barrenness merely an example of how to deal with disappointment in life? Is sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau merely an occasion to encourage families to get along? Is the Red Sea merely an opportunity to preach on how a miracle-working God can get us out of impossible situations? Is the bad report of the spies merely a chance to challenge people not to doubt their destiny?
I need to put in a good word for moral living. Being moral, as God defines it, is a good thing. Three cheers for morality! The Bible itself instructs us to learn from the examples of Israel that we see in the Pentateuch (1 Cor. 10:1–11). But morality is never an end in itself, and the stories of the Pentateuch aren’t told so that we’ll all just be better people. There’s no such thing as mere morality in the Bible.
So to answer the questions above: no. None of the stories I mentioned—nor any of the ones I didn’t—are given to us merely as moral lessons for living a good life. Moral wisdom will present itself to us as we interpret the stories, and insofar as it accords with life in Christ, we may preach it. But we must not confuse these secondary insights with primary meaning. In order to discern the intended meaning of the story, we must interpret it in light of the whole story of the Pentateuch, set within the context of the entire Bible.
Take Sarah’s barrenness as a case study. No doubt her barrenness was a source of disappointment to her. Most people will be able to connect with her disappointment through whatever lack they’ve experienced in their own lives. Seeing how God provided for Sarah will encourage them to trust the Lord. That’s not a bad moral lesson.
However, the real issue in the story is far more significant to their well-being than merely seeing an encouraging example of God’s provision. The real issue in the story has to do with how Sarah’s barrenness posed a threat to God’s covenant promises. God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude, and that he and his offspring would inherit the land, bless the nations, and enjoy God forever. And yet . . . Abraham’s wife was barren! Would God fulfill his promises? If so, how? And if not, is there any hope for redemption?
Miraculously, God opened 90-year-old Sarah’s womb and gave her Isaac. The threat of barrenness was wonderfully averted, and God’s covenant promises continued on toward fulfillment in Israel and ultimately in the offspring of Abraham, Christ Jesus himself. Understanding this story in light of both the Pentateuch and the entire Bible reveals its real significance: if God doesn’t overcome Sarah’s barrenness, his promises will have failed, Jesus never enters the world, and we cannot be saved.
If we’re to preach the gospel and not just mere morality, we must connect the parts to the whole. We must interpret each individual story in light of the whole story of both the Pentateuch and the entire Bible.
4. Don’t preach the law as if we’re still under the old covenant.
You can’t talk about preaching the Pentateuch without talking about how to preach the laws given in association with the old covenant. It’s vital to understand that Christians are no longer “under the law” (Gal 5:18). The old covenant is “obsolete,” having given way to a new and better covenant in Christ (Heb. 8:13). The result is that we serve God “in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom. 7:6).
However, we’re not antinomians. Though the law-as-covenant has been rendered obsolete, the laws themselves continue to shape our obedience. The Jerusalem Council, for example, when offering ethical instruction to Gentile believers, distilled laws about sacrifices, idol worship, and sexual immorality (Acts 15:28–29). Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments as exemplary of Christian love (Rom. 13:8–10), and even uses a law about muzzling an ox to commend the payment of pastors (1 Cor. 9:9). Jesus, Paul, and James each make a point of summarizing the believer’s ethical life according to the law’s great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8). Peter quotes from the law when encouraging Christian holiness (1 Pet. 1:15–16). Even the laws that are fulfilled and set aside remain instructive, such as the food laws, which help us understand the true source of human uncleanness and our need to reach the nations (Mark 7:18–23; Acts 10:9–29). Though the law-as-covenant has passed away, the law-as-Scripture remains profitable for the Christian.
Some traditions divide the old covenant into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories, asserting that the so-called moral law is still in effect. Such a division of the law is ultimately unnecessary. As a covenant, none of the law remains in effect. Jesus has fulfilled it all—moral, civil, and ceremonial. But as practical instruction in ethics and wisdom, all the law remains useful in shaping the Christian life—not just the Shema and the Ten Commandments! We must simply preach each law in light of its fulfillment in Christ.
5. Don’t preach any part of the Pentateuch as if Jesus hasn’t come.
This pitfall is the most crucial to avoid. Just about everything else in this article comes down to this. Don’t preach any part of the Pentateuch as if Jesus hasn’t come. Take up every bit of Genesis–Deuteronomy, interpret it in light of the whole, and show how it points to Christ and finds its fulfillment in him.
No doubt you’ve seen the “You Had One Job” memes. As Christian preachers, we have one job: preach Christ! We’re to preach Christ from the Prophets, preach Christ from the Writings, preach Christ from the Gospels, preach Christ from the letters, preach Christ from Revelation. And we’re to preach him from the Pentateuch, too! Which shouldn’t be too hard to do, for according to Jesus, “Moses wrote of me” (John 5:46).