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HomeBeliefsA Catholic commentary on the writing of the Torah – Part II

A Catholic commentary on the writing of the Torah – Part II


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The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Israel and her relationship with God. The story unfolds from the beginning of creation, illustrating the eternal divine plan of election and formation. The first five books, the Torah, were traditionally believed to have been written by Moses and pre-date the prophets and writings. In this way, the Torah provided the hermeneutic key to interpret the prophets and writings since disobedience and idolatry are featured in both. However, the majority of Bible scholars now accept variations of Wellhausen’s JEPD hypothesis as it relates to the multiplicity of sources. Some scholars argue that the Torah books were redacted into their final form during the same time periods as the prophets and writings. In this light, thematic divisions do not build on one another as much as they inform one another. Furthermore, the time period most accepted for final redaction is the Post-Exilic era (c. 5th-3rd c. BCE) which could mean that it is the exile that functions as the hermeneutic key to the Hebrew Bible in total.

Although allusions to the exile are more prominent in the prophets, indications of this theme can also be found in the Torah. The Post-Exilic community attempted to restore the ties of Jewish community and family through a renewal of religious identity. They compiled and edited existing documents and oral traditions into what they thought was a cohesive, ordered story of origin. The Torah begins with the creation of the natural world and humanity and later ends on the brink of the creation of Israel as a people in their own land. Along the way, divine election and formation is shown to be eternal and consistent. A Post-Exilic Israel is not a new creation, but a restoration of God’s ideal intent for them.

Genesis deposits heroic ancestors in the communal memory of Israel. The stories explain how humanity was first imagined and how they came to be separated from that origin (Genesis 1:26-2:25, 3:1-4:16). This exile is common to all people, not a specific punishment of Israel. Noah and Abraham are found to be righteous by God, who calls them to procreate anew the people of the land. Abraham and Jacob have several didactic adventures through which Israel can remember her identity as one who struggles with God. Yet throughout Genesis, God does not abandon his people. While the redactors endeavored to fashion a primeval story, hints of their present experiences can be found. Genesis 21:34 and 26:14, 18 both refer to the presence of Philistines. The Philistines did not appear in the area until the 12th c. BCE; however, Genesis is usually thought to reflect an understanding of 2000-1500 BCE, a difference of at least 300 years.  Likewise, Genesis contains etiologies for Philistine city-states not yet existent: Edom (36:1), Moab (19:37), and Ammon (19:38).

The book of Exodus also references the Philistines (13:17) regarding an event that allegedly took place during the 1400s BCE, a difference of at least 100 years. The Exodus account furnished Post-Exilic Israel with another memory of having been lost and then found again by God. Importantly, the Israelites of Exodus represent all of Israel. During both the Babylonian Conquest only the upper classes of the Judahites were forced into exile, such as the government and temple leaders as well as the most experienced builders and artisans. Upon return, the Post-Exilic community had to develop origin stories inclusive of all Israel (those who remained in the land) in order to convince them of the need for the religious and political reforms idealized as past precedents in the Torah.

The books of Leviticus and Numbers delineate these reforms as re-imagined in the words of YHWH through his prophet Moses.  Therefore, it is not the vision of the Post-Exilic community leaders motivating liturgical norms and legal observances but God himself. Moreover, these liturgical and legal commands are demonstrated to be omnipresent factors of the divine eternal plan for Israel. Torah laws pay particular attention to the primacy of the Temple as the worship space chosen by God as well as anti-idolatry measures and punishments. The prophets evidence the connection made, either at the time of the Babylonian Conquest or as a reflection on it, between defeat and exile and temple worship and idolatry.

A history of covenantal relationship between Israel and God runs throughout the Torah.  Incrementally, God guided Israel to her rightful place in the land and among the nations. Each step along the way, whether it is original creation, Noah, Abraham, Exodus, Sinai, or Moses, Israel is expected faithfully uphold the commands of God. Israel’s disobedience is usually manifested as pagan worship or the presence of multiple worship sites. At the time during which these Torah episodes are supposed be taking place, before c. 2000-1400 BCE, Israel was not a unified nation but probably more like loosely affiliated tribes. While this is indeed the description of Israel during their desert years between Sinai and Canaan, archeological evidence is inconclusive in determining their geographic placement, movement patterns, and eventual settlement.

At the end of the Torah, the author of the book of Deuteronomy describes Moses speaking to all of Israel “beyond the Jordan-in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph” (1:1).  According to Deuteronomy. 3:27, Moses can see the land from Pisgah, which is the area around Mount Nebo just southeast of the Jordan River. Since “suph” usually translates as “sea” as in Yam Suph (Red Sea), it is difficult to interpret where Israel is exactly. Does Suph refer to a body of water or to an actual village or other geographical feature? The Red Sea is over 240 miles south of Mount Nebo. Verse two indicates a location in the vicinity of Kadesh-barnea, which is close to 100 miles southwest of Mount Nebo. 1:1 also includes Paran as a geographic marker; however, this too is about 160 miles southwest of Mount Nebo. Apparent unfamiliarity and/or confusion of where Moses gave his final address to Israel just before their entrance to the land indicates either an anachronism undetected by the redactor or simply a mesh of traditions that redaction did not determine important enough to separate.

Israel is also remembered as having defeated King Sihon of the Amorites (1:4). The Amorites held power in the area c. 1900-1600 BCE, emerging from Babylon. This time period is also the same time frame as the writing of the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. It is possible that armed conflict between Hebrew tribes and Amorites is a valid historical memory.  It is also important to recognize the possible influence of the Amorites legal code on the oral traditions of Hebrew tribal legal culture. Deuteronomic legal concerns and descriptions of religious reforms also reflect the work of Josiah and Hezekiah in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Although redaction and arrangement makes it appear as though Kings and Chronicles depict later episodes, they are actually concurrent with the same concerns of the Torah.

Interpreting the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible as consonant with one another allows for more flexibility in considering the social and religious concerns of Israel as she endeavored to survive conquests, syncretism, and foreign enculturation in the post-Exilic period. In this way, historical accuracy, archeological evidence, and anthropological theories can independently exist from a theological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible at the same time offer informative context. In addition, recognition of the later dates of compilation and redaction than those of the presented materials, permits scholars to compare Hebrew Bible literary forms to those found in neighboring cultures, which may assist in interpretation of symbols, motifs, and genres for both literary and theological purposes.

Read part one of this series here.

Colleen McLean
Colleen McLean
Colleen McLean is a life long Roman Catholic with a few pagan adventures along the way.  She has been active in lay ministry in two states and four dioceses.

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