"Pentateuch" is from the Greek pente and teukhos. Literally, it means "five useful things." It is the same thing as the written Torah, which is the first five books of the Jewish and Christian Bibles. The term "Pentateuch" was first used by the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria.
There is some discussion as to who is the author of the Pentateuch. The JEDP theory says that the books were written by several different authors after the death of Moses, culminating in Ezra, who supposedly compiled the writings in the 4th Century B.C. There is no strong evidence for this view, and most reputable scholars believe Moses wrote all five books. In fact, Jesus (Mark 12:26; Exodus 3:1-3), Luke (Acts 3:22; Deuteronomy 18:15), and Paul (Romans 10:5; Leviticus 18:5) all attest that the author is Moses. Those few passages written after his death (Deuteronomy 34:5-8) could easily have been added by Joshua or someone else.
The Pentateuch is important to Jews because it chronicles creation through the Jewish nation's deliverance from Egypt, and outlines God's instructions to Israel. The Hebrew Bible is divided into The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings, which include poetry and history. The Pentateuch is The Law, and consists of five separate books.
Genesis - Genesis, or "origin," is the history of the nation of Israel. It begins with the creation of the world and follows Seth's generations through the Flood to Abraham. Genesis then chronicles the descendants of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob who lend their names to the Tribes of Israel. Genesis ends with the death of Jacob's son Joseph and the Israelites settled in Egypt.
Exodus - Exodus, or "departure," picks up the story four hundred years later with the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt. The first fourteen chapters describe the conditions of slavery in Egypt and God's deliverance through Moses. The middle section covers the grumblings and groanings of the Israelites as they travel through the desert. The last part goes over instructions for the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle—the tent-like portable temple.
Leviticus - Leviticus was named after the tribe responsible for caring for the tabernacle—the Levites. The theme is holiness, including requirements for the new priesthood as well as the general populace. The rituals were designed to set the Israelites apart from the pagan nations and identify them as followers of the one true God.
Numbers - Numbers is named after the census God told Moses to take in Numbers 1:1-2. It describes the experiences of the first and second generation of Israelites as they wandered the desert. Periods of rebellion and cursing were briefly punctuated by repentance and God's blessing. Many more laws were added, as well, as the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy - The last book of the Pentateuch is literally translated "second law." It is an extended version of the law given in Exodus. The refresher course was necessary for the second generation of Israelites who were not old enough to remember when the law was given in Exodus, or the miraculous escape from Egypt. In the last chapter, Moses dies and Joshua takes command.
For Christians, the Pentateuch is important for at least two major reasons. First, it outlines the law that God put into place—a law that is nearly impossible to follow completely and that cannot ultimately save us from sin. Secondly, it shows God's incredible grace and patience in the face of people who continuously, blatantly break that law. Both of these point us to the One who fulfills the Law and forgives us of our sin: Jesus (Matthew 5:17).
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