Sorry, this post is long. Hopefully it's useful for those jumping in midstream or those who need a refresher.
The first five books are an interesting collection of ancient literature, pieced together from at least four sources or schools of authors (J, E, P, D) to form the backbone of the Israelites’ understanding of themselves:
We begin with a three-part book, collectively called Genesis, consisting of 1. Primordial history 2. Epic of the Patriarchs 3. Novella of Joseph
The primordial history is a collection of mythology with notable parallels to much older mythological texts from the region such as the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Epic of Atrahasis.
We get two versions of the creation of the Earth (the ancient notion of a three-level earth with stars set in a firmament) followed by the familiar Adam and Eve story, which ends with the couple disobeying God and getting locked out of Eden. Guards are posted at the tree of life; No immortality for humans. A plant that bestows immortality is a common motif in ancient near-Eastern mythology. Enkidu is prevented from eating it by a snake in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Cain (farmer) slays Abel (shepherd). Israelite tribal league of herdsmen = good, agriculturalist Canaanite foes = bad.
Humans are wicked. God wipes them out in a flood. Preserves Noah and his family (Utnapishtim in Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis in Epic of Atrahasis) plus some animals. Let’s cut the ancient authors some slack on this one. They couldn’t have possibly known there are millions of species on the planet, nor that rainfall that would cover the mountains in 40 days would sink an aircraft carrier. . .mythology, people.
Noahide covenant: Humans rule the earth, be fruitful and multiply, just don’t kill each other or eat blood and we’re all good. God won’t kill everyone (only entire people groups as we’ll see). Hangs up bow in sky = etiology story for rainbows.
People try to build a tower to heaven/sky (parallel of Icarus and Daedalus?) God gets nervous – sky is his domain after all – and curses them to all speak different tongues = etiology story for different languages.
The OCD-plagued P source connects all the characters of the primordial history to each other and to the patriarchs with monotonous genealogies.
The epic of the patriarchs tells the stories of Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, the ancestors of the Israelites according to tradition. They all have infertile wives so that every conception is a miracle.
Abrahamic covenant: Royal grant model. You, Abraham, are special and I will give you and your numerous descendants the coveted land of Canaan.
God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac but substitutes a ram at the last second when Abraham has raised the knife. Message – obedience is paramount, Abraham is super-dedicated, child sacrifice is . . .???
Can’t neglect the infamous Sodom story: Abraham’s nephew Lot goes to Sodom and is visited by two messengers of God. Citizens form a mob and demand that the two men be sent out for a gang-raping. Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. They all flee, God destroys the city. Lot’s daughters get him drunk and take turns having sex with him. Yeah, this is not a PG-13 book! The children that are conceived become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites: part of the family, but still incestuous bastards.
Jacob tricks his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing. He also uses a superstitious notion - that what a sheep sees when she’s copulating affects the coat color of the lambs she conceives - to cheat his father-in-law (don’t get any ideas ranchers, it’s just a story). Jacob wrestles with a man, who turns out to be God, and who renames him Israel. He then reunites with his brother Esau, from whom he rightly expects murderous rage, but actually receives forgiveness.
The god worshipped by the patriarchs is a limited, anthropomorphic, and very physical one, certainly not the omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent god that is later conceived of by monotheists. He is referred to by a number of epithets which are attributed to several gods of the region’s pantheon including El Elyon, Baal, and Yahweh. One source (J), however, insists that this god is Yahweh and that the patriarchs knew him by this name.
The novella about Joseph that ends Genesis functions to move the action to Egypt, where Exodus will begin. Joseph (a son of Jacob) is kind of a brat who pisses off his siblings by talking about his dreams that all say he is way better than all of them. They sell him into slavery and he is brought to Egypt, where he gains notoriety for interpreting dreams, becomes Pharaoh’s trusted advisor, and helps the nation survive a famine. Joseph invites his family to Egypt and the novella ends with Jacob foretelling the future of the 12 tribes of Israel (12 sons of Jacob).
Exodus begins with the descendents of the patriarchs enslaved in Egypt under a new, less sympathetic regime. Onto the scene steps the hero Moses, who borrows his birth story from King Sargon of Akkad (placed in a basket of rushes on a river, found by a drawer of water, raised in a foreign court) and lends the rest of his story to Michael Corleone as Bruce has pointed out.
While in exile for the slaying of an Egyptian, Moses is spoken to by a god who reveals that his name is YHWH (Yahweh), insisting that he is the same god that was known to the patriarchs, though they knew him by other names. Scholars suggest that the authors are preserving a tradition where their ancestors worshiped El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, while still promoting exclusive Yahweh worship.
Moses is called to liberate his people, which he does by means of increasingly nasty plagues to break the spirit of Pharaoh. Yahweh keeps hardening Pharaoh’s heart though, and he refuses to let Moses’ brethren go, necessitating worse and worse plagues until Moses makes Pharaoh “an offer he can’t refuse” (the killing of all the first-born in Egypt).
Hebrews flee, Egyptians chase, are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. Begin wanderings in Sinai.
Yahweh and the Israelites’ honeymoon is over quickly as much of the Sinai period is characterized by mutual buyer’s remorse, with the Israelites complaining about the conditions in the desert and Yahweh being enraged at their ungratefulness and disobedience.
The bulk of Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers involves Moses going up Mount Sinai to hash out the details of the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites.
Mosaic covenant: Modeled on the suzerain-vassal treaties used by ancient near-Eastern peoples. Lays out in detail the behavior that is expected of the vassals (Israelites) to ensure the protection of the suzerain (Yahweh). Stipulates that the covenant be written down and housed in a shrine (Ark) for safekeeping, and renewed on ritual occasions. Enumerates the blessings that await those that keep the conditions and the curses that will befall those that don’t.
Of the conditions of the covenant, the Ten Commandments are well known. Well, the version from Ex. 20/Deut. 5 are, not so much the set from Ex. 34 which have almost no overlap with the others and focus solely on the manner of Yahweh-worship and not at all on ethical behavior. However, at this point in the narrative where Moses goes up the mountain to receive the law, this seemed like a great place for the P (priestly) source to throw in massive quantities of cultic law in excruciating detail.
Very, very, very detailed instructions are given for the building of the Ark and the tabernacle to surround it. We also get specific protocols for the many types of animal sacrifices that the covenant requires. An impressive body of civil law is given as well as a holiness code, providing the requirements of symbolic cleanliness to participate in the cultic rituals and keep this people set apart for Yahweh. Israelites become ritually impure from contact with things that are un-godlike such as reproduction and death, and must avoid things that violate the natural order/categories of things (fish without scales, an ox yoked to an ass).
The book of Deuteronomy provides an introduction to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1,2 Samuel, 1,2 Kings) and a theological lens through which to read it. It recapitulates certain sections of the law with special emphasis on the laws banning anything associated with the worship of deities other than Yahweh and mandating the centralization of cultic sacrifice and ritual dedicated to Yahweh at a place to be determined (implied: Jerusalem). Another focus is on the notion that bad things will happen to the Israelites if they fail to keep the conditions of the covenant, which is exactly how events will be depicted in the Deuteronomistic History. The end of the book brings us to the border of Canaan, ready for the conquest to begin in earnest. First, Moses has to die since Yahweh has forbidden him from entering the land (apparently for a perceived slight earlier in the desert wandering that many readers find unsatisfying).So here we are. I’m itching to get into the promised land and meet some more Israelite heroes.