Historical Issues in the Pentateuch

The biblical story has so many theological and legendary elaborations that it cannot be read as strict history.

By John McDermott

The Pentateuch, or Torah, the foundational story for Judaism, is an important part of Scripture for Christianity and shaped many or the stories in Islam’s Quran. These first five books of the Bible tell of the creation of the universe, the promises God made to the ancestors of the Israelites, the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, their escape and journey through the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, and the covenant God made with them. Because of the religious importance the Pentateuch has had, it has been much studied. Indeed, the Pentateuch has been the subject of groundbreaking studies in source criticism, the role of oral traditions, archaeology and the Bible, form criticism, canonical studies, and literary studies.

In this article, I will focus on historical issues, including how the Pentateuch was written, to what extent the story it tells is based on real historical events, and how the historical circumstances at the time of its composition shaped its message. It should be remembered, though, that no one approach is adequate in itself. Historical study is a necessary approach to the Bible, but it is not a complete approach. A thorough interpretation must be informed by literary and theological concerns as well.

Composition of the Pentateuch

Traditionally, Moses was considered the author of the Pentateuch, but there have long been doubts about that claim. Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy, so obviously he did not write that part. In addition, Moses never crosses the Jordan into the promised land, yet there are statements that are from the perspective of someone who is in the promised land: Deuteronomy 1:1 refers to the land east of the Jordan as “beyond the Jordan.” There are also statements from a perspective long after the story takes place; Genesis 12:6 says, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land,” which is what someone might write during the monarchy or later.

With the rise of the critical approach to the Bible in the 18th and 19th centuries, interpreters began to develop new theories about the composition of the Pentateuch. The most important of these, the Documentary Hypothesis, was the claim that the Pentateuch was not the work of one author but was a combination of four sources written at different times. The Yahwist was written in the southern kingdom, Judah, early in the monarchy as a national epic. This source called God Yahweh and portrayed God interacting directly with people, much like a human character (e.g., Genesis 2:4—3:24). The Elohist was written in the northern kingdom, Israel, as an alternative epic.

It called God Elohim, had a particular concern for ethical issues, and portrayed God communicating indirectly with humans, through angels or dreams (e.g., Genesis 20). The Deuteronomist was basically the book of Deuteronomy, a law collection put together late in the monarchy as a basis for a religious reform. The Priestly source was written during the exile or later. Like the Elohist source, it called God Elohim, but emphasized rituals and purity, and portrayed God acting in an orderly, all-powerful way (e.g., Genesis 1:1—2:3). At some point during the Persian period (after the exile) the Pentateuch reached its finished form, combining the four sources, plus redactional material needed to tie it together.

In recent years, there have been many challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis, and few people accept every part of its original form. Most scholars do agree with the fundamental idea that the Pentateuch contains diverse material that was put together over a long period of time in the monarchy, exile, and Persian period. The nature of the written sources and the role of oral and liturgical traditions are among the issues being debated. Increasingly, scholars emphasize that the Pentateuch should be seen primarily as an exilic and Persian period work, rather than as a monarchic work. While it contains traditions that developed during the monarchy and some poetry that may be even earlier, its basic shape and message come from the time after the monarchy had ended. For example, except for Deuteronomy 17, it has nothing on establishing a king for Israel, which would hardly make sense for a people’s foundational story during a monarchy.

Ancestors of the Israelites in Genesis

The first problem in investigating the historicity of Abraham, Sarah, and the other ancestors is determining when they are supposed to have lived. The simple answer would be to say that Exodus 12:40 gives 430 years as the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt, and 1 Kings 6:1 gives 480 years from then until Solomon built the temple. Therefore, if Solomon ruled sometime in the 10th century BCE, the last generation in Genesis must have been in the 19th century BCE. But there are contradictions in the biblical chronology. The events reported in the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—from the time in Egypt up to the building of the temple—take more than 550 years, not 480 years.

Comparing the stories in Genesis with extra biblical evidence also provides no definite answer for when they might have lived. While some scholars have claimed that some of the names, such as Isaac, Ishmael, and Joseph, and some of the customs, such as inheritance, are similar to those found in texts from the early second millennium, others have pointed out that they can also be found in later periods as well. Also, there are anachronisms in the story; it has Abraham encountering Philistines (Genesis 21:32-34), but the Philistines and other Sea Peoples did not arrive in Canaan until well after Abraham would have lived.

The stories of the ancestors of the Israelites do not come from any one period but developed over time. It is best to see the ancestors as composite characters. Stories from the Shasu (nomadic people mostly south and east of Canaan), Apiru (gangs closer to the Canaanite cities), traders who traveled throughout the region, and residents of the Canaanite cities were passed down among the people who became the Israelites. The most important male characters in the final story—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—were likely revered ancestors or legendary figures of different groups of Israelites. The story makes them all part of one family as a way of strengthening Israelite unity.

The Exodus Story

Again, there are problems determining the date the exodus is supposed to have occurred. The dates mentioned above would give a date for the exodus in the 15th or 16th century BCE, depending on whether 1 Kings 6:1 is followed or the other periods mentioned are added up. But in fact, many scholars who believe there is a historical basis for the exodus argue for a significantly later date, around 1250, to account for other factors: the Israelites encountering Edomites, Moabites, and others on the journey; the Merneptah Stela, a monument put up by the Egyptian pharaoh in 1209 claiming to have fought and defeated Israelites in Canaan; and archaeological evidence that shows 1200 to 1100 to have been a time when new settlements were being established in Canaan.

If there is some historicity to the exodus, I believe the range of possible dates should be extended from around 1250 to 1050, taking into account the following facts. Biblical dates are often artificial or symbolic, so they should not be taken literally. The Israel of the Merneptah Stela is not necessarily the exodus group; more likely both were small groups who later became part of biblical Israel. And the changes that took place in Canaan ca. 1200 to 1100 are now considered by most archaeologists to be primarily a change within Canaan and not something caused by a new group arriving. An exodus group could have arrived at any time in this period and found a place in the evolving society.

It is possible there was an exodus event behind the biblical story, but if so, it involved a much smaller group than the Bible claims (certainly nowhere near the 600,000 men of Exodus 12:37). Egypt did use Semitic slaves, and occasionally some escaped. During the period of 1250 to 1050, the decline in Egyptian power and the changes taking place in Canaan would have made it possible for a group too small to dramatically change Egypt or Canaan by itself, but large enough to remember its story, to escape Egypt, and to make its way into Canaan.

The biblical story has so many theological and legendary elaborations that it cannot be read as strict history. But we should ask why it eventually became the national epic, if originally it was the story of only a small group. There are a number of possibilities, not mutually exclusive. Descendents of an exodus group may have become political and religious leaders and were in a position to propagate their story. Other groups who became part of the Israelites had also been under Egyptian domination, so the story would have appealed to them. And the finished form in the Pentateuch comes from the Persian period. The Persian Empire often got involved in local religions and would have approved of an anti-Egyptian story because it would have discouraged Jews from cooperating with Egypt to resist Persian rule.

Journey through the Wilderness

Journeys are used frequently in literature to represent a transformation. In the Pentateuch, the Israelites are transformed into a nation through their experiences on this journey. Wilderness is also a common literary motif. It is a place of purity and innocence, away from the decadence of the city, but also a place of danger from gangs, lack of food and water, and wild animals. The combination of purity and danger makes it an ideal place to encounter God. The wilderness journey in the Pentateuch thus serves literary and theological purposes but should not be read as a history. However, some historical information may be gleaned from it. For example, the concentration of events around Kadesh and in Transjordan suggests that traditions of groups from those places who became part of the Israelites have been incorporated into the national epic by giving them prominence in the journey.


The main event during the journey, of course, is the covenant God makes with the Israelites. God will be bound to them as national protector, and they will follow the laws of the covenant. The laws are quite diverse and come from throughout Israelite history. Scholars identify three major collections. The Covenant Code (Exodus 20:2—23:33) is the earliest, from sometime in the middle of the monarchy. The Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12—16) came late in the monarchy and was connected to King Josiah’s religious reform. And the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17—26) was completed during the exile and is related to writings from the Priestly source.

As an example of the historical development of biblical laws, consider Exodus 23:19, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” There is evidence from Ugarit of a Canaanite ritual of boiling a kid in milk, and thus the original purpose of the law was to separate Israelite religion from other Canaanite rituals. This is supported by the fact that Exodus 23:19, part of the early Covenant Code, puts the law with other liturgical laws. However, the same law occurs in the later Deuteronomic Code, but in a different context, with dietary laws (Deuteronomy 14:21). By the time the Deuteronomic Code was compiled, the dietary laws were becoming more important as a mark of Israelite identity, so the law seemed more meaningful in that context. In post-biblical times, the same law became the basis for not eating any meat and dairy products together. The long evolution was a process of the community responding to different historical circumstances, with the common thread of strengthening the community’s identity through distinct practices.

John McDermott is the author of Reading the Pentateuch: A Historical Introduction. Paulist Press, 2002.

Suggested Readings

Ahlstrom, Gosta. The History of Ancient Palestine. Fortress Press, 1993.

Axelsson, Lars. The Lord Rose up from Seir: Studies in the History and Traditions of the Negev and Southern Judah. Almquist & Wiksell, 1987.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. Doubleday, 1992.

Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 BCE. Doubleday, 1990.

McDermott, John. Reading the Pentateuch: A Historical Introduction. Paulist Press, 2002.

McDermott, John. What Are They Saying About the Formation of Israel? Paulist Press, 1998.

Stern, Ephraim. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. II: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods (732-332 BCE). Doubleday, 2001.

Van Seters, John. The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus—Numbers. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Van Seters, John. The Pentateuch: A Social-Science Commentary. Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Whybray, R. Norman. Introduction to the Pentateuch. Eerdmans, 1995.

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