Sample syllabus for using
Understanding the Pentateuch as A Scripture
by James W. Watts (Wiley Blackwell, 2017)
in an undergraduate introductory course on the Hebrew Bible


e University

Cover of Understanding the Pentateuch as
                          A Scripture

Course Description: This course surveys the Jewish Bible = Christian Old Testament (= Tanak = Hebrew Bible) in English translation: its literary form, its historical and religious context in the ancient Near East, the history of its development, and its role in Western religions and cultures. The course introduces students to the practice of biblical interpretation and raises their awareness of scripture's role in Jewish and Christian communities.

Audience: Students interested in the Bible and ancient religions and wanting to fill Humanities and Writing Intensive core requirements, as well as majors and minors in Religion, Jewish Studies, History and Literature.

Course Requirements: The course consists of class discussions, lectures, student projects, and, most of all, readings. This course is a reading course, and students' completion of all reading assignments is essential for their success. Assignments, discussions, lectures and tests all presuppose that students have read carefully and on schedule the assigned readings. 

Evaluation: Students are evaluated on the basis of their performance on:

  1. Daily reading content quizzes (20%): a short quiz at the beginning of each class will test for completion of all reading assingments. Missed quizzes cannot be made up, but the lowest five quiz grades will be dropped from the total.
  2. Four papers (70%), each of 1200 words, due on October 3, 28, November 18, December 12. The grades of late papers will be reduced by one grade level (e.g. B to B-).
  3. Participation in class discussions and activities (10%).

Textbooks: (available at the campus bookstore in Schine Student Center):

  • Required: James W. Watts, Understanding the Pentateuch as A Scripture (Wiley Blackwell, 2017)
  • Recommended: The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New Revised Standard Version, any edition) OR The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh translation, Oxford University Press)
  • Other required texts will be distributed in class or through Blackboard.

Topics & Assignments:

  • Reading assignments must be completed by class on the day listed.
  • Understanding = Watts, Understanding the Pentateuch as a Scripture. Readings in Understanding start and end at major section headings on the pages listed.
  • Bible = readings from the Bible by book name, chapter (before any colon) and verses (after the colon).
  • Online = online readings accessed by clicking the underlined word(s) in the syllabus on Blackboard's Course Information tab.
Reading Questions   
Reading Assignments
Mon Aug 29
Torah, Pentateuch


Wed Aug 31
Scripture, Torah and Ritual
What is a scripture? How are scriptures ritualized? What is the Pentateuch? What is the Torah? What is the place of the Pentateuch in Jewish, Samaritan and Christian scriptures? When did it become scripture?
Understanding, pp. 1-13;
Bible: Deuteronomy 6; Exodus 12:1-13

Mon Sep 5

Labor Day

No Class

Wed Sep 7

Scribes and Printers

How did scribes write manuscripts? How did the invention of printing change the look of biblical texts?

Manuscript and rare book display in Library Special Collections-- meet in Bird Library 6th floor

Mon Sep 12

Torah as Literature, Rhetoric, & Performance

Who was Ezra? What did he do? What was the Persian period in Judea? What is rhetoric? What is the story-list-sanction pattern? How does it apply to the Pentateuch? How do inset genres affect the Pentateuchís narrative?

Understanding, pp. 13-29; Bible: Nehemiah 8.

Wed Sep 14


What is God like in Genesis? How is Genesis organized? How is the world depicted in Genesis different from the settings of the rest the Hebrew Bible?

Understanding, pp. 29-37; Bible: Genesis 1-12; 15-18, 22, 28-32, 37, 39-41, 45, 47.

Mon Sep 19

Exodus, Pentateuchís Rhetoric

Who is YHWH? Who is Israel? How does Exodus establish their identities? What are the roles of Moses and Aaron in Exodus? What is the Pentateuchís enthymeme?

Understanding, pp. 37-42; Bible: Exodus 1-20, 24.

Wed Sep 21

Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Law, Sanctions

Why did the Israelites make animal sacrifices? How do lists of laws affect readers? What was the role of Israelís priests? What lessons do the stories of conflict in Numbers illustrate?

Understanding, pp. 42-56; Bible: Exodus 40; Leviticus 4-5, 8-12; 19; Numbers 13-14, 16-17

Mon Sep 26

God, Moses, Israel

Why do the law collections end with promises and threats? Whose voices dominate the Pentateuch? How do the laws characterize God? What is Mosesí role? Who is Israel?

Understanding, pp. 56-67; Bible: Exodus 32-34; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 6; 31-34

Wed Sep 28

Scrolls, amulets, arks

What is a textís iconic dimension? How is it ritualized for scriptures? What is a mezuzah? What is a Torah Ark? How are Torah scrolls made? How did the Israelites settle in Canaan, according to Joshua? What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Understanding, pp. 68-83; Bible: Joshua 1-8, 23-24; Online: browse Scrolls from the Dead Sea 

Mon Oct 3

Relics & heavenly books

Why have some people desecrated Torahs? What is a relic Torah? What are Torah myths? How does Judges describe the Israelitesí settlement in Canaan? How did kings come to rule over Israel? Who were the first three kings of Israel?

Understanding, pp. 84-92;
Bible: Ecclesiasticus 24; Baruch 3:9-4:4; Judges 4-5, 17-21; 1 Samuel 8, 16-18; 2 Samuel 1-2, 5-7; 1 Kings 5, 8, 11:41-12:33.

Wed Oct 5

Ancient Christian scriptures

How does a scroll and codex compare physically? How religiously? What part of the Bible are Christians most likely to ritualize iconically? How has printing changed Torahs and Bibles over the last 550 years? How does the Bible explain Israelís history from the settlement to the Exile?

Understanding, pp. 92-105; Bible: 2 Kings 17:1-14; 24:1-25:30; Nehemiah 9.

Mon Oct 10
Decalogues, amulets, publishing bibles

What do Ten Commandments monuments mean in America today? What do the tablets of the commandments represent in the Pentateuch? Where were they kept? What does the Ark of the Covenant represent in Israelís stories? What ancient artifacts does its biblical description resemble?

Understanding, pp. 105-113; Bible: Exodus 20:1-21; 25:10-22; Deuteronomy 10:1-5; 31; 1 Samuel 4-6; 2 Samuel 6.

Wed Oct 12
Josiah, Torah, Pentateuch

What are the Ketef Hinnom amulets? Where did Josiah find an old Torah scroll? What did he do with it? What did Jeremiah do with his scrolls? How does the Pentateuch prepare readers for Torah scrolls to replace the Ark?

Understanding, pp. 113-122; Bible: 2 Kings 22-23; Jeremiah 36; 51:59-64; 2 Maccabees 2:1-15.

Mon Oct 17

Reading Aloud

What is a textís performative dimension? How is it ritualized for scriptures? What affects does it have on those who hear it and perform it? Who may read Torah aloud in a synagogue?

Understanding, pp. 123-133; Bible or Online: 1 Chronicles 16; see superscriptions to Psalms 75-90; Luke 4:14-30; Acts 13:13-43.

Wed Oct 19
Cantilation, Translation and Scripture

Who uses translations for liturgical readings of the Bible? Why does oral performance tend to be more inclusive than scriptural interpretation? Why do many traditions chant or sing scripture aloud? What affect does it have?

Understanding, pp. 133-143; Bible or Online: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2

Mon Oct 24

Art and scripture

What is a biblical typology? How does art shape the imagination of readers of the Bible? How do biblical maps and illustrations influence readers? How are bible-films related to older art, theater and tableaus? How do biblical art, music and films function in secular modern culture?

Understanding, pp. 144-155; Bible: Exodus 25; 34:29-35; Numbers 20-21; and view maps at back of a Bible.

Wed Oct 26

Ancient  reading and recitation

Why did ancient scribes read aloud? Why did they read ritual texts aloud? Who read Torah aloud, according to biblical stories? Who heard the readings? Who should recite Torah? What kinds of songs does the Hebrew Bible contain?

Understanding, pp. 155-162; Bible: Exodus 24:3-8; Deuteronomy 6; Song of Solomon 1; Psalms 66, 137.

Mon Oct 31

Composing for reading and memorization

How has the Pentateuch been writing for reading aloud to a listening audience? How has it been written for study by expert scribes? How do its lists differ from its stories? Why might ancient Israelites have found the lists of laws interesting? Where in the Pentateuch can you find the audienceís oral responses?

Understanding, pp. 163-174; Bible: Deuteronomy 26; Exodus 15:1-21; Lamentations 1; Jeremiah 36.

Wed Nov 2   

Interpretation and expertise

What is a textís semantic dimension? How is it ritualized for scriptures? How did Ezra ritualize the Torahís semantic dimension? How have later Jews and Christians done it? Why is Jerome important for Christian biblical interpretation?

Understanding, pp. 175-185; Bible: Ezra 7;  Acts 13:13-41; Hebrews 7 (cf. Genesis 14).

Mon Nov 7

Religious identity and priests

How does the Torah ask readers to identify as Israel? How did the Pentateuch influence the politics of the Second Temple period? Why have different Jewish and Christian groups identified themselves with Israel in the Torah? What effects has this identification had on them?

Understanding, pp. 185-200; Bible: Exodus 12-13; Deuteronomy 30; 1 Maccabees 2-3.

Wed Nov 9

Threats and Promises, Interpreting Torah

How well did Israelís history before and after the Exile fulfill the Pentateuchís and prophetsí predictions? How did Apocalyptic literature respond to this history? What kinds of written rules did ancient people follow as authoritative? How did Second Temple, rabbinic, and early Christian literature interpret the Torah? How has biblical law influenced later legal systems?

Understanding, pp. 200-209; Bible: Jeremiah 1:1-10, 5:1-6:30; Isaiah 40; 45; 52:13-53:12; Ezekiel 1; 40:1-47; Daniel 7-8, 12.

Mon Nov 14

Bible, Science, and Human Nature

How does GenesisĎ description of the world compare to the Ptolemaic and Copernican models? How did Genesis 3 encourage experimental science? What is creationism? How do modern people read scripture differently than ancient people? How have interpretations of Genesis reinforced racism and patriarchy?

Understanding, pp. 209-215; Bible: Genesis 1-3, 9; Psalm 104; Proverbs 31:10-31

Wed Nov 16

Bible and History

Why do historians look for different sources in the Pentateuch? What effect has historical criticism had on Jewish and Christian denominations? What kinds of ancient texts have been discovered in the Middle East? How does literary criticism differ from historical criticism? How has interpretation of the Pentateuch changed in the last 50 years? How does the Pentateuchís rhetoric encourage the search for its origins?

Understanding, pp. 215-224; Online: Gilgamesh XI;
Bible: Genesis 6-8; Exodus 3:13-15; 6:2-8.
Nov 19-27 Thanksgiving Break: No Class
Mon Nov 28
Priests, exile, treaties and ritual texts
Why is wisdom literature especially associated with scribes? Are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes interested in Torah? What distinguishes P from Deuteronomy? What evidence is there for when P and D were written? What are memory variants? How does the Pentateuch contrast with the Deuteronomistic History? How do the Pentateuchís sanctions compare with the threats of the prophets Amos and Isaiah? Understanding, pp. 224-239; Bible: Proverbs 7-8, 10; Ecclesiastes 1-3, 12; 1 Samuel 2:12-36; 1 Kings 12; Amos 4:1-5, 5:14-24, 7:1-9; Isaiah 6-9.
Wed Dec 30
Origins of the Pentateuch
What are some contradictions in the Pentateuchís laws? How does the request by Zelophadís daughters change the Torahís inheritance laws? Is Exodus 21 related to Hammurabiís Law Code? How do scholars distinguish P from not-P and both from D? What archeological evidence supports the Pentateuchís stories? Where do biblical stories reflect ancient Near Eastern literary traditions? What themes tie the Pentateuch together?
Understanding, pp. 239-250; Bible: Numbers 22; 27:1-11; 36:1-13; Hosea 12; Online: compare Hammurabi's Code with Exodus 21.
Mon Dec 5
Tanak / Jewish Bible
What is a canon? What four people are associated with changes in biblical canons? Who was Judah Maccabee? Who were the Hasmoneans? How did expanding the Tanak change how people read scripture? Who was Judah ha-Nasi? What is the Mishnah?
Understanding, pp. 251-262; Bible: Jeremiah 1:1-3; Amos 1:1; Psalms 1; 150; Sira 45.
Wed Dec 7
Christian Bible
Who was Irenaeus? What are gospels? How do Jews and Christians differ in their use of the Torah/Pentateuch and the Tanak/Old Testament? How does binding Tanaks and Bibles in single volumes change how people read them?
Understanding, pp. 262-267; Bible: Ezekiel 1; Matthew 1.