The Theme of the Pentateuch

  • Sumo

A book I found very helpful in comprehending the first five books of the Bible is The Theme of the Pentateuch, by David Clines.

Preparing for a church series on Genesis 12-22, I thought it good to re-read the relevant statement of the theme, as formulated by Clines. Here it is:

The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a re-affirmation of the primal divine intention for man.The promise has three elements: posterity divine-human relationship, and land. The posterity-element of the promise is dominant in Genesis 12-50, the relationship-element in Exodus and Leviticus, and the land-element in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

When reading any part of the Pentateuch, it’s productive to ask, ‘How does this part contribute to the whole theme and unfolding story?’ I hope we will do this at church over the next few weeks!


An odd afterward. Clines’ book was re-published on its twentieth anniversary. He decided not to radically edit the original ten chapters, because he had changed thinking so greatly. Instead, he appended an eleventh chapter that says, in short, ‘I don’t think this any more.’

He now says there’s no such thing as a text’s meaning, no such thing as author’s intended meaning. Instead, meaning is created by readers: “the idea of responsibility to the author … fades away.” Why then did he write a book?!

The first edition of this book feels timeless and always useful. The second edition, 20 years later, feels already out of date because it was so tightly tied to yesterday’s postmodernism.