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Nephi was told that “they have taken away [from the Bible] . . . many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 13:26–27). Understanding the Pentateuch as a covenant might be one of those plain and precious things.
The Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), sometimes also called the Pentateuch, has long been considered a single unit. Jews, ancient and modern, refer to it as a unit called the Torah, or Law. The basis of the law was the two “tables of the covenant” that Moses received on Sinai (Deuteronomy 9:9). In their final form they were to be read to Israel at the feast of tabernacles (31:10-13) as part of a covenant renewal ceremony so that they could “learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 31:13) and “observe to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12).
The connection of the Law of Moses to the covenant extends to the very structure of the Pentateuch. Other “tables of the covenant” from the time of Moses have survived archaeologically and allow us to see a particular pattern in use. The covenant began with a preamble or title discussing the covenant. This was followed by a historical prologue that gave the historical background of the relations between the two parties and the basis for the covenant. This was followed by stipulations, the various terms of the covenant. Various stipulations might also have explanations of historical circumstances that made the various stipulations necessary. This was followed by witnesses to the covenant. After that followed blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it. The deposition of the covenant is also described although the exact placement of this element can vary.
This individual covenant pattern is repeated in a number of places within the Law of Moses, such as Exodus 10:1-25:9; 34:8-28; 35:1-19; Leviticus 11-15; 18-20; 24-27; and Deuteronomy 1:1-32:47. The general structure also applies to the entire Law of Moses.
Genesis and the first nineteen chapters in the book of Exodus detail the historical background between God and the children of Israel, telling the relations between the two parties stretching back to the creation of world, and the previous covenants made between the parties. The creation story even serves as a preamble to the history of the covenant that follows.
Exodus through Deuteronomy detail the various stipulations pertaining to the covenant. The stipulations are the specific terms of the covenant. They are usually in the form of commandments. Each of the ten commandments, for example, is a stipulation in the covenant. Various individual stipulations may have individual historical prologues to the various stipulations. For example, the story of the revolt of Korah over rights of the priesthood in Numbers 16-17, immediately precedes the regulations concerning the rights of the priesthood in Numbers 18. The stipulations in Exodus focus on the construction of the tabernacle. The stipulations in Leviticus focus on what is done in the tabernacle.
At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the children of Israel erect large stones to serve as witnesses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 27:2-8). The five books of Moses themselves also serve as a witness: “Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee” (Deuteronomy 31:26).
The twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy details a series of blessings for those who keep the covenant and a series of curses on those who do not. Though there are other promises of blessings and curses scattered throughout the Pentateuch (e.g. Exodus 20:12), the most thorough and sustained list of nine blessings and forty curses is reserved for the end, as fits the covenant pattern, “according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:21).
To ancient Israel, the law and the covenant were synonymous (Psalm 78:10; 105:10; Hosea 8:1). Thus Jesus, in the Book of Mormon, reminds the Nephites: “Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel” (3 Nephi 15:5), just before he reminds them that the covenant was greater than the law itself. Because the Pentateuch is structured as a covenant, it should be read with the covenant in mind. Elements unnecessary to the covenant were not included. Thus the creation account does not provide all the details of the creation but only those necessary to understand the covenant. Much of the history of the world between Adam and Noah and Abraham is omitted, except as necessary to link them and the covenants between them.
When you read the Five Books of Moses, look for the pattern of this covenant. And look for this covenantal pattern when you read other portions of the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the New Testament. God wants to be in covenant relation with His people and the covenant God made with His people at Sinai, which was regularly renewed at Passover, then at the Last Supper, and now through the Sacrament, is the major covenant permeating the scriptures.