The names of the first five books of the Bible sound rather strange: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
What do these names mean, and where do they come from?
The name Genesis is easier for us to understand, but for a rather ironic reason.
Everybody knows that the book of Genesis is about the beginning. It starts with the beginning of the world, it goes on to describe the beginning of God’s people, Israel, and along the way it describes a lot of other beginnings as well.
Thus it’s no surprise that the name of the book has become a metaphor for beginnings. As a result, we might today speak of the genesis of modern science, the genesis of the Civil War, or the genesis of the Internet. In each case the word genesis is used to refer to the beginning of the thing in question, and most people perceive this as a metaphor based on the name of the book of Genesis.
The word genesis comes into Enlglish through the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, and the Vulgate got it from the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.
The irony is that in Greek the word genesis actually means “beginning.” So it originally meant beginning, became the name of a biblical book, and is now perceived by many people as a metaphor for “beginning,” based on the name of that book.
Why is the book called Genesis in Greek? Is it just because the book deals with beginnings or is there more to it?
Actually, there is a bit more: In Hebrew–the langauge in which the book was originally written–it is known as B’r'shit.
B- is a preposition in Hebrew that means “in.” R’shit means “beginning.” So the book in Hebrew takes its name from its opening words, commonly translated in English as “In the beginning . . . ” (Gen. 1:1a).
This is another case where we get the book title from the Latin Vulgate, which took it from the Greek Septuagint, though the ending of the word changes a bit. It’s Exodus in Latin but Exodos in Greek (this is normal when a word is brought from Greek into Latin).
In English, the word exodus basically means “departure,” “journey away from,” or “emmigration.”
The Greek term is derived from two Greek words: the preposition ek, which means “out” or “from,” and hodos, which means “road.”
An exodos thus means taking the road out, or just going out, and in the book of Exodus, the children of Israel go out of the land of Egypt under Moses. That’s why it has the Greek name it does.
This has nothing to do with its Hebrew name, though. In Hebrew, it is called Sh’mot, which means “Names.”
As before, that’s a reference to the opening of the book in Hebrew: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household” (Exodus 1:1).
This is another Greek to Latin to English special. In Greek, it’s Leuitikos, which gives us the Latin and English Leviticus.
So what does it mean?
It’s based on the Greek word for “Levites” (Leuites), which refers to members of the priestly tribe of Levi.
All told, Leuitikos means “relating to the Levites” or “concerning the Levites,” and it is this book that contains most detailed regulations regarding what the priests and other Levites are supposed to do in the conduct of their ministry. In fact, the first seven chapters are detailed regulations about how to offer sacrifices.
In Hebrew the name of the book is Va-yiqra (“And he called”), from the opening words: “And he(the LORD) called Moses” (Leviticus 1:1).
At last! A book with a straight-forward English name!
“Numbers” is an English translation of the Latin name: Numeri (“Numbers”), which is a translation of the Greek name Arithmoi (same root as “arithmetic”).
So we all know what numbers are, which makes the name of this book easy to understand, right?
Not so much.
Despite what you’d think, this book does not have a lot to do with mathematics.
Instead of being used in its standard, familiar sense, the term “numbers” is being used in a somewhat specialized one that might be better rendered “numberings.”
The reason is that at the beginning and the end of the book, they take a census (a counting, a numbering) of the children of Israel. There are two censuses in the book, so it’s the book of numberings, or Numbers.
As before, the Hebrew name is based on the first words of the book. It’s B’midbar, which means “In the desert” (note the same “b-” preposition as in B’r'shit).
The opening verse reads: “The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).
Although Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers have names that are or have passed into English as familiar words, Leviticus and Deteronomy don’t. We’ve already seen what Leviticus means, but what on earth does Deuteronomy mean?
Once more, we’re getting it from Latin (Deuteronomium) from Greek (Deuteronomion).
It comes from two Greek words meaning second (deuteros) and law (nomos).
It’s called that because in Deuteronomy Moses delivers the law to the children of Israel for the second time (not just the Ten Commandments, but a much broader body of rules and regulations).
The generation that originally received the Law ended up dying in the wilderness, and now that their children are about to go into the Promised Land, and thus complete the exodus from Egypt begun several books ago, Moses sums up for them (with some variations) the teaching God has given in the interim. Hence, a second giving of the Law.
The Hebrew title is Devarim (“Words”), from the opening words in Hebrew: “These are the wordsthat Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1a).