The Torah

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The Torah


Five books that constitute the first section of the Hebrew Bible, set In the ancient Near East from c 2000–1400 BJCE. (according to die biblical chronology); completed and probably published in Hebrew by the fifth century BJCJL, in English in the fifteenth century C.E


A work of religious concepts and laws as well as narrative, the Torah recounts the development of the Israelites from Creation to the arrival of their 12 tribes at the border of the “Promised Land” of Canaan (later known as Palestine).

Events in History at the Time the Torah Takes Place

The Torah in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Torah Was Written

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The five books that comprise the Torah, the first section of the Hebrew Bible, are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Also called the Humash, “the Five-fold,” (in Greek, “Pentateuch”), they are viewed by Jews as the holiest and most authoritative of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible—the “Torah,” “Prophets,” and “Writings” (the Hebrew acronym is Tanakh). In the Torah a framework of narrative encapsulates a great body of legislation, believed to have been divinely revealed, reflecting a covenant, or treaty, between God and the community of Israelite slaves newly escaped from Egypt. There are also a few passages of poetry, a section of speeches in the Book of Deuteronomy, genealogies, and a scattering of other literary genres. Read on a yearly cycle in synagogues as part of the liturgy, the Torah has been the basis of Jewish life for 2,500 years. The composition of the Torah spanned at least 500 years before the probable date of its completion, in the mid-fifth century b.c.e.

According to the religious tradition of Jews and Christians, the Torah was written 3,500 years ago by Moses (hence the common appellation “Five Books of Moses”) at the direct dictation of God. Intense scholarly study has resulted in a consensus opinion that views the Torah differently. According to this scholarly opinion, the Torah, or “Book of the Law of Moses,” was brought by Ezra, a Jewish scribe and an official of the Persian government, from Babylon to the Jewish community of Jerusalem, newly returned from exile, about 450 B.C.E. The work was part of the attempt by authorities, both Jewish and Persian, to normalize and stabilize the religious and social life of the Jews. So successful was the attempt that the work has since remained the constitution of Judaism. Ezra’s book is thought by scholars to be the final form of the Pentateuch, expanded during the exile with a great mass of priestly cultic and ritual legislation. In essence, the work is the product of several centuries of historical turmoil of war, exile, and renewal. It is therefore unsurprising that scholars also see the Pentateuch as the product of centuries of literary growth, in its final form an accretion of a number of sources joined to and superimposed on each other. The earliest complete manuscripts of the Torah are no more than 1,000 years old, though substantial sections have been found among The Dead Sea Scrolls , which are more than 2,000 years old (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Overall, for a religious work, there is surprisingly little theological speculation in the Torah. The Five Books are predominantly a historical-legal work, in which religious ideas must be deduced from a mass of concrete detail. They form an altogether astounding amalgam of historiography and religion, one of whose most perplexing conundrums is whether or not to regard the narrative element as fact.

Events in History at the Time the Torah Takes Place

A matter of fact?

Jewish religious tradition regards the Pentateuch as a work written down in the fifteenth century B.C.E. As noted, modern scholarship understands its present form to be a product of the fifth century B.C.E. The problem is how to deal with the intervening millennium. Many scholars consider it safest to treat the narrative as a work of fiction, or, at best, legend, and to focus on the religious and literary values the Torah contains. They view its claim to history as an aspect of historiography only, a claim unsubstantiated by historical and archaeological evidence.

Archaeology has indeed shed much light on c. 2000–1400 B.C.E., the period of events described in the Torah from Abraham to Moses. In fact, the dates of this period are in contention; most modern scholars place the end date closer to 1250 B.C.E. But either way, the time spans various recorded events, depending on one’s environs. In Syria-Palestine the period covers the Middle and part of the Late Bronze Age, an era of city-states that toward the end became subject to Egyptian control. In Egypt, this same period covers the end of the chaotic First Intermediate Period, the peaceful Middle Kingdom, the Hyksos incursion, and the founding of the warlike New Kingdom. In Mesopotamia the time-span encompasses the end of the Sumerian revival in the Third Dynasty of Ur and the Isin-Larsa Period, the invasion of the West-Semitic Amorites and the establishment of the Old Babylonian kingdoms (most famously the one ruled by Hammurabi), and the occupation of Mesopotamia by Kassites. In Anatolia the Hit-tite state rose to prominence, and in the region of the upper Euphrates and Tigris, the kingdoms of Assyria and Mitanni.

Of all this, there is no direct mention in any part of the Torah’s narrative. Nothing of what modem historical and archaeological study has discovered corroborates any specific event or person named in the work. However, some scholars maintain that much circumstantial and background information has been discovered about the historical facets recounted in the work, although the significance of much of this information is open to debate.

The Torah, for example, speaks of the patriarch Abraham as coming from the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, a city that was indeed at the height of its prosperity around 2000 B.C.E.; it also, however, enjoyed a revival in the mid-first millennium B.C.E. and so could have been known to authors writing a thousand or more years after the supposed patriarchal age. Similarly, the ancestors of Israel are associated with the city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia and with a people called the Arameans. Both the city and the people, however, are also associated with the later period. Likewise, the patriarchal type of religion, which centers on the intimate connection between a protective deity and a clan, is attested to in antiquity, but again in connection with periods both contemporary with the patriarchs and from much later.

In truth, it would be safest to view the stories of the patriarchs as compounded of bits of traditional legends of the ethnic groups that were to form historical Israel and Judah after 1100 B.C.E. Much the same point can be made about the events of the exodus and wandering in the desert. The pharaoh who welcomed Jacob and his family in Egypt may have been one of the Semitic Hyksos who ruled Egypt in the sixteenth century B.C.E. Appearing in Egyptian records are slaves of the same Hebrew background as the ancestors of Israel, and there is much local Egyptian background in the Joseph and Moses narratives. As in the other cases, scholars debate whether these incidental details best fit the second millennium B.C.E., and so are authentic historical memories, or only fit the first millennium B.C.E., after the Torah purports to take place, in which case they would most appropriately be viewed as literary color.

The Torah in Focus

Contents summary—Genesis

The Pentateuch consists of narrative and laws. It is from the laws that it receives its traditional name Torah (Hebrew for “Instruction”). Spread over the five books that comprise the work, beginning with Genesis, the narrative plot line extends from creation to the arrival of the 12 Israelite tribes at the border of the Promised Land of Canaan.

The primeval history (in the first 11 chapters of Genesis) recounts the creation of the world from chaos by divine command (Genesis 1–2:4). God plants a garden in Eden, creates the first man and woman (Adam and Eve), and places them there to tend the garden, forbidding them to eat fruit from the trees of knowledge and eternal life. Adam and Eve are physically naked, and both are ingenuous. Tempted by the serpent, Eve eats the forbidden fruit of knowledge and shares it with Adam. They become aware of their nakedness and attempt to hide from God. As punishment, God expels them from the garden and places them under a curse: Eve will produce children with great pain; Adam must work the land with the sweat of his brow.

The pair have two sons, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. Both offer sacrifices to God, but Cain’s is rejected. Out of jealousy, Cain murders Abel; then, under a divine curse, Cain is ordered to wander the earth restlessly. Adam and Eve produce another son, Seth, and humankind multiplies for ten (in other biblical traditions, seven) generations. Over these generations, people become corrupt, engaging in acts of depredation and violence. God resolves to wipe out humanity in a great flood but spares righteous Noah and his family. Noah is told to build a large boat and fill it with pairs of animals of all species. The boat and its occupants survive the year while the flood rages, destroying all humanity except those in the vessel. After the flood subsides, Noah offers sacrifices to God, who promises never to destroy humankind again and establishes the rainbow as a sign of the promise. God also concedes that people have an unre-deemably evil urge and allows them to kill animals for food (earlier generations had been vegetarian). On dry land now, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and exposes himself. His pious sons, Shem and Japheth, rush to his aid by covering their father’s nakedness. Noah’s other son, Ham, has a son of his own, named Canaan, who looks on Noah’s nakedness, is cursed, and condemned to servitude. This is a foreshadowing of Israel’s later conquest of the land of Canaan.

People multiply and attempt a communal endeavor, the building of a great tower (the tower of Babel) that aims to reach heaven. God frustrates their plan by confusing their language so that they cannot understand one another. Humanity scatters over the earth and develops into 70 nations, which are listed in Genesis 10.

Next come the patriarchal narratives, which form the remainder of Genesis. From Genesis 11, the Pentateuch focuses on a single nation, Israel. Genesis 11–50 tell the stories of the ancestors of Israel—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their wives and their concubines, and their children. The single largest segment describes the career of Jacob’s son, Joseph.

The family of Terah, one of the descendents of Noah’s pious son Shem, migrates from Ur in southern Mesopotamia to Harran, in the far north of that region. A son of Terah’s, Abram, is commanded by God to leave Harran and travel to Canaan—land that God promises to give to Abram’s descendents. Abram travels to Canaan with his wife Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and builds an altar for God at the city of Shechem. Suffering a famine, the family makes their way to Egypt for sustenance. There, to save his own life, Abram passes Sarai off as his sister. When Pharaoh takes her into his harem, God intervenes by smiting Pharaoh’s household, and Abram and Sarai return to Canaan. A less fortunate Lot is captured by a coalition of foreign kings. The captive nephew is rescued by Abram, who afterwards receives a blessing from Melchisedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem).

Abram has a dream or vision of God passing between pieces of dismembered sacrificial animals (Genesis 15:17; in ancient times, people would customarily slice an animal in half and walk through the halves to seal a contract). He receives a divine promise of the land of Canaan for his descendants, which is later confirmed. Abram’s name is expanded to Abraham, explained as “father of a multitude of peoples,” and Sarai become Sarah (“princess”). On God’s order, Abraham now undergoes the rite of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. It is to be performed on all his male descendants.

Sarah is old and childless and offers Abraham her slave Hagar. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, she treats Sarah disrespectfully, so Sarah persuades Abraham to drive Hagar out. In the desert an angel rescues Hagar and tells her to return. She gives birth to Ishmael.

The story now turns to the fate of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who has settled in Sodom, a town that, along with its neighbor Gomorrah, is infamous for its wickedness. God determines to destroy both places. Back at Abraham’s abode, three men (actually, angels) appear. Abraham treats them with great hospitality, and the guests predict that Sarah (now 90 years old!) will give birth to a son. Sarah laughs. When one of the men reveals himself to be God and declares the coming immolation of the two towns, Abraham argues with him, pleading that the wicked cities be spared if as few as ten righteous men can be found. But in Sodom the inhabitants surround Lot’s house and demand that he deliver his guests to them for the sin of sodomy. Lot is commanded to flee with his family and not look back as fire and brimstone from heaven consume the cities. Defying the command, his wife does look back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

As predicted, the elderly Sarah gives birth to a son, whom she names Isaac (means “Laughs”). A few years later Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son, “sporting” with Isaac and persuades Abraham to again expel Hagar, this time with her son. They are rescued in the desert by an angel, who promises a prosperous, if somewhat unruly, career for Ishmael. God decides to test Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his remaining son, Isaac. Ready to comply, Abraham binds Isaac on an altar to perform the sacrifice, but an angel stays his hand. Abraham instead sacrifices a ram he finds entangled in a bush. God promises that Abraham’s descendents will make offerings on the site of the binding of Isaac, later identified with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

After Sarah dies, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in Hebron as a burial place. He then arranges for a wife for Isaac by sending his trusted steward, Eliezer, back to Abraham’s family in Harran. There Eliezer encounters Rebecca, sister of the wily Laban, and she agrees to marry Isaac. She gives birth to twins, wild, hairy Esau and smooth, sly Jacob (means “Tricks”). Rebecca persuades Jacob to deceive old, blind Isaac by stealing the parental blessing that will confirm the transfer of heirship from the older Esau to the younger Jacob (Esau, ravenous with hunger, had already sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup). To escape Esau’s wrath, Jacob flees to Harran. On the way, at Bethel, he has a vision of angels ascending and descending the ramp (“ladder”) to the heavenly abode of God. He prays for divine protection to bring him back home safely. In Harran he falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, and agrees to work seven years for her. But on the wedding night, his crafty uncle substitutes Leah, the elder and hitherto unmarriageable daughter. In order to marry Rachel too, Jacob works for Laban another seven years. Afterwards Jacob returns to Canaan and is reconciled with a generously forgiving Esau. It is at this point that Jacob becomes the recipient of the divine promise originally made to Abraham. After a nocturnal struggle with a mysterious stranger, who is either an angel or God himself, Jacob wins, though he is lamed in the process. He receives the additional name of Israel (“Wrestles with God” or “Divine Wrestler”). By now, Jacob’s family has grown to the 12 sons who will become the ancestors of the Israelite tribes. Two of them, Simeon and Levi, massacre the people of the city of Shechem after its leader’s son rapes their sister, Dinah.

When Jacob grows old, he is putty in the hands of his vain son, Joseph, the issue of his favorite wife, Rachel. The more Jacob favors him, the more his brothers hate him. Finally they ambush him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. There he rises in the service of Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s chief officers, until he resists the advances of his master’s wife. She accuses him of dalliance, whereupon Joseph is thrown into prison. A jailed Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s officials, and when the matter is brought to the attention of Pharaoh, he asks Joseph to interpret his royal dreams. Joseph predicts coming prosperity followed by severe famine. At this point, Pharaoh makes Joseph the head official, or vizier, a role that enables him to gather provisions and administer the land.

The predicted famine descends on Egypt. When it spreads to Canaan, Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt for food. They tremble before a remote, haughty Egyptian whom they do not recognize as their wronged brother. For a while, Joseph toys with them, accusing them of being spies. But when he sees how truly remorseful they are, he is overcome with pity for them and longing for his father, and reveals himself to them. He invites Jacob and his whole clan of 70 to move to Goshen, a fertile province of the Nile Delta.

Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and Joseph.


Exodus opens with a description of the spiraling increase in the descendants of Jacob, who soon evolve into the people of Israel. A new Pharaoh enslaves them in an attempt to control them, but when they continue to swarm, he orders that all males born to the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile River. To save her son, a “Hebrew” woman (used as a synonym for Israelite) sends him down the Nile in a little reed boat. He is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who draws him from the waters, naming him Moses (means


The Torah views the relationship between God and Israel as a covenant, or treaty, formed at Sinai (Horeb) with the ex-slaves from Egypt, in which Moses served as mediator The main Hebrew words for covenant are berit and edut White edut means “witnessing” or “testimony” (hence “testament,’ as in Old and New Testaments), berit has as yet no definite Hebrew etymology, The likeliest explanation is that it is related to Akkadian birit, “between” A covenant is literally a “betweenness’ a relationship between two parties. The terms of the covenant between Cod and Israel are found in a number of places, such as Deuteronomy 26:16–19: Yahweh promises to be Israel’s God and to give it the land of Canaan; Israel promises to obey the terms of the covenant (i.e., the commandments) and to be loyat to Yahweh alone, worshipping no other god.

There are two types of covenants in the Hebrew Bible:

  1. A promissory covenant, modeled on the ancient covenant of grant in which an overlord makes a free gift to a loyal vassal Such is the covenantal promise of descendants and land made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in Genesis. There are no obligations on the recipient other than the rite of circumcision, which Is viewed as a “sign” of the covenant (Genesis 17). Another such covenant later in the Hebrew Bible is the divine covenant with the House of David, granting it eternal kingship over Israel (and, eventually, through the Davidic messiah, over the world).
  2. A conditional covenant, in which both parties have obligations: lsral, to keep the commandments; God, to fulfill the promises of land made to the patriarchs This kind of covenant contains curses expressing the penalty Israel will pay for breach of the covenant (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 23). The Sinai covenant is of this type, later in the Hebrew Bible King Josiah of Judea is portrayed as renewing this covenant in 621 B.C.E. (2 Kings 22–23). Its final renewal in the Bible is the agreement made between Ezra and the returned exile community in Judah, around 450 B.C.E., in which the official text of the covenant was probably a form of the Pentateuch, at least its legal parts.

The form of the covenant is modeled on ancient treaties and contracts, especially suzerainty treaties between an overlord and his vassals. Such treaties often consisted of a historical prologue, summarizing the benefits the vassal had received from his lord in the past; a list of terms and stipulations; a list of blessings for maintaining the treaty and of curses for violating it; a requirement that the treaty be written on an upright stone, or stele, and placed at a shrine; a covenant ritual involving an oath; and a list of witnesses. Parts of this treaty pattern are discernible in the Pentateuch, especially in Exodus 20–23, Leviticus 26, and the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. But elsewhere covenants involve only human partners; only biblical religion took the treaty model as the expression of a national relationship to its Cod Despite the fact that the covenant has been the object of intense scholarly debate involving questions of historicity and date, it is clear that biblical religion took a legal form to express its basic religious intuitions The boldness of making humans the covenantal partners of a deity can be understood as an affirmation of man’s dignity. Since the covenant is presented in the Torah as having been agreed to willingly by Israel, it may also be viewed as an expression of the primacy of free will.

“drawn,” or in Egyptian “child”). He grows up as an Egyptian prince but is aware of his Hebrew background enough to murder an Egyptian he sees beating some Hebrew slaves (the slaves, characteristically, are quite ungrateful). Now a fugitive, Moses flees to the desert of Midian, where he marries a daughter of the local priest, Jethro, and becomes a shepherd. One day he is in the midst of leading his flock, when he receives a divine revelation at the “Mountain of God.” God appears as a flaming but unconsumable desert bush and, with some difficulty, commissions the tongue-tied Moses to shepherd people instead of sheep. With the help of his fluent brother, Aaron, Moses should return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out to a certain mountain—the mountain of the revelation. God reveals himself to be Yahweh, a name of uncertain etymology that, in the context of the narrative, is defined as “He Will Be With (Moses and Israel).”

When Pharaoh refuses to heed the divine command to let the Israelites go, ten plagues beset the Egyptians, culminating in the death of all the first born of Egypt. The Israelites daub the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doorposts, a sign to the “Destroyer” to “pass over” their houses and spare their first born. The detailed laws of the later festival of Passover, or Unleavened Bread, are here inserted. After 400 years of slavery (in other biblical traditions, four generations), the Israelites go forth (“exodus”) from Egypt, taking along the mummy of Joseph and a not inconsiderable amount of booty. Soon, however, Pharaoh repents of having freed the Israelites. He pursues them and is drowned with his army when the Reed Sea, which has miraculously split so the Israelites can pass dry-shod, sweeps suddenly back to its banks.

In the desert, the Israelites begin their long tradition of grumbling. God provides water and food in the form of manna, a white crust that, according to later tradition, tasted like whatever one wanted. Later, the people tire of eternal vegetarianism and demand meat, so miraculous flocks of quails arrive to satiate them to the point of disgust. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law appears in the Israelite encampment, sees that Moses is overworked, and advises that he share the burden of power. But his sage advice is immediately overshadowed by the great revelation at the “Mountain of God,” named Sinai (in other biblical traditions, Horeb). This is the mountain of the revelation (Exodus 19 and 20).

From Chapter 19 of Exodus through the remainder of that book, all of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers, the narrative recounts the Sinai revelation. Most of this text consists of detailed laws, civil and cultic. In the armor of a swirling storm, God descends on Sinai and the people hear the thundering Ten Commandments. Terrified, they demand Moses to henceforth act as mediator and alone receive the direct divine revelation. He ascends the mountain, receives a code of laws, returns, and reads them to the people, who accept them and agree to make a covenant, or contract, with their God. Ascending the mountain once again, Moses receives a detailed blueprint for the erection of a tabernacle, a shrine for the divine Presence in the midst of the people. It consists of an elaborate but portable tent, with all its ritual paraphernalia. Moses spends 40 days receiving this cultic revelation on two stone tablets of the covenant. In the meantime, the people, fearful and restless, induce Aaron to smelt the Egyptian booty into a golden image of a calf, which they proclaim to be the God who led them from Egypt. Moses returns, and, enraged, shatters the tablets of the covenant. He goes on to punish the apostates, intercede for the remainder of the people with an infuriated God, and trudge back up the mountain for a recreation of the covenantal tablets (which will eventually be placed in the holiest part of the tabernacle—the ark, a sacred box). The divinely instructed tabernacle is built and the Presence (called the “Glory”) of God descends on the completed shrine. So ends Exodus.

Leviticus and Numbers

Leviticus and much of Numbers deal with elaborate divine instructions for the sacrificial cult and other ritual matters. The tabernacle is dedicated, Aaron and his sons are appointed hereditary priests (two of them are incinerated by fire from heaven for a cultic lapse), and after a year’s stay, Israel leaves Sinai/Horeb to travel to the land of Canaan, promised long ago to the patriarchs. From a desert encampment, they send spies, who weaken the people’s resolve by bringing back news about the impregnability of the cities and the gigantic stature of the inhabitants. God grows angry again. To punish the Israelites, he proclaims that their entrance will be delayed 40 years, until the generation of the exodus is consumed by wandering in the desert. Most of this interim actually seems to be spent at a single place, the lush desert oasis of Kadesh. The most notable events here are the jealous charges brought by Moses’s brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, against Moses because of his marriage to a Cushite woman (perhaps Zipporah, Jethro’s Midianite daughter). This is only a pretext; the two want to share power with Moses. God rebukes them, punishing Miriam temporarily with leprosy. A further challenge to Moses by a cabal of elders, led by a man named Korah, results in the miscreants being swallowed alive by the underworld.

When the journey to Canaan resumes, the Israelites must do battle with the inhabitants of Transjordan, who attempt to block their transit. Balak, king of Moab, hires the seer Bileam to curse Israel’s progress, but God turns his curse into a blessing.

In an enigmatic incident, Moses and Aaron are denied entrance into the Promised Land through their failure to properly sanctify God. The incident transpired when the people demanded water; apparently Moses and Aaron struck a great rock with Moses’s miracle-working staff and took credit for the resulting flow. Aaron soon dies, and Moses’s days are also numbered. The Israelites are now in Moab, across the Jordan River from Canaan. Here they engage in cultic sexual rites with the Moabite women, ritually “yoking” themselves to the pagan god Baal. After the inevitable divine punishment, and a ferocious holy war against the Midianites (Moses’s relatives!), the Israelites are at the point of crossing the river into Canaan. All that remains is for Moses to die.


Moses’s death, however, is delayed to the last chapter of the next book, Deuteronomy (“Repetition of the Law”). The final book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy unfolds as Moses’s lengthy farewell speech. It consists of a retrospective view on the wandering in the desert; a set of admonishing sermons on the meaning of the Sinai (here called Horeb) covenant, which are major statements of biblical theology (two of the passages are the text of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism); and a repetition and elaboration (involving change and contradiction) of the earlier Pentateuchal laws. Finally, Moses ascends Mt. Nebo, views the Promised Land, dies at the age of 120, with undi-minished vigor, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Moab. That he is the central hero of the Pentateuch is proven by the fact that the work ends with his death, though the main plot line remains incomplete. It is only in the following book, Joshua, that the conquest of Canaan fulfills the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In terms of plot one must therefore speak of a Hexateuch rather than a Pentateuch.

Pentateuch as law

The Greek translation of Torah was “The Law” (nomos), which has led many to view it primarily as a legal document, a kind of constitution for the religious community. But in fact the laws are embedded in narratives and cannot be considered laws in any modern sense. They fall into two categories. Apodictic laws consist of simple dos and don’ts, and so are really commands or, in some cases, advice. These laws are intended as statements of principle, like the Bill of Rights in the United States. They tend to form lists, of which the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is the most famous but not the only example. Along with these apodictic laws, there are casuistic laws. This type of law contains two clauses, a case and its penalty. “Do not kill” is apodictic; “Whoever kills someone shall be put to death” is casuistic. Casuistic law grows out of the legal tradition of the ancient world, particularly Mesopotamia. The parallels between these and the famous laws of the ancient Babylonian ruler Hammurabi (1792–50 B.C.E.) are especially striking. But Hammurabi’s laws are also not laws as understood in Western culture. They are model decisions intended to demonstrate, less to his people than to the gods, that he was a just and therefore legitimate ruler. In other words, they had a religious and a political function. So, too, with the three main law “codes” of the Pentateuch—the “Covenant Code” of Exodus 21–23, the priestly “Holiness Code” of


“The Jewish confession of faith is the Shema, named after its opening word, “Hear ($hema) Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” The tsxi is Deuteronomy 6:4, Together with the following text (Deuteronomy 6:5–9, plus Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41), it comprises a set of passages collectively referred to as the Shema, which forms a central part of the Jewish liturgy. The first sentence, quoted above. Is often taken as an affirmation of divine unity, in opposition to Christian trinitarianism. In addition, the reference to God’s “oneness” is usually understood as a declaration of monotheism, that is, of the existence of only one deity. But the Shema dates from at least seven centuries before the rise of Christianity; and absolute monotheism, as a philosophical doctrine, was not part of the cultural and intellectual equipment of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Hebrew Bible arose. The concept of monotheism, which denies even the possibility of the existence of other than one deity, seems to have originated later, with the pre-Socratic philosophers, in the sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E Most scholars view biblical religion as henotheistic (focusing on one deity) or monolatrous (allowing the worship of one deity), Comparable religious developments occurred in ancient Mespotamian and Egyptian religions, most famously in the Aten cult sponsored by the heretic Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten in the fourteenth century B.C.E. However, the henotheistic or monotatrous movements elsewhere were marginal and shortlived compared with biblical religion. In fact, the statement that “the Lord is one” is most naturally taken in Hebrew as a statement of emotional rather than numerical singularity, as the following words in Deuteronomy 6:5 show: “You shall fove the lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your life, with all your strength,” In other words, God is declared to be Israel’s ’’one and only” in terms of love and devotion to him, on the analogy of human love The Shema Is therefore a statement not of an abstract doctrine, but of an intense relationship.

Leviticus 17–26, and the “Deuteronomic Code” of Deuteronomy 12–26. These are not like later law codes, but are mixtures of casuistic and apodictic laws intended to express religious principles. As the terms of a covenant—meaning a contract or treaty—they express loyalty to that covenant and so, ultimately, faith in God. From this standpoint, all the laws are religious, even those that are not narrowly cultic.

In many cases the laws express attempts at religious reform or a revision of an earlier view. So, for example, the later Deuteronomic Code aims at rejecting the principle of collective punishment for crime, which appears in earlier documents such as the Ten Commandments (God is said to punish sinners down to the fourth generation of their descendants); instead, Deuteronomy says, no one can be put to death for the crime of another. Deuteronomy also clearly elevates the status of women by separating them from household property and slaves. The law of circumcision reflects priestly viewpoints in the Holiness Code about the need for physical separation between Israelites and non-Israelites. In relation to social hierarchy, the Holiness Code tries to express notions of equality through such Utopian edicts as that of the jubilee, which required that all land return to its original owners after 50 years, an injunction as noble as it is impractical. The priests associated with this code furthermore viewed the Sabbath, or day of rest, as a quasi-mystical institution linked to creation, with human respite modeled on the divine “rest” on the seventh day. In the later Deuteronomic Code, the Sabbath is primarily a social and historical institution memorializing the exodus from Egyptian bondage. The laws of Passover in the three codes are especially linked to religious reform movements of the time when the codes were composed. The famous lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”), a principle already set forth, and in some cases literally practiced, in the laws of Hammurabi, appears in the earliest biblical code. Even here, however, it has evolved into a principle, a “law” of monetary compensation and social equality: there is to be one standard of recompense for personal injury.

Pentateuch as religion

As suggested, the Pentateuch is a work of historical narrative and laws, both embedded in religion, but it is not a work of theology; that is, it contains no speculation or theoretical discussion on the nature of God, divine omnipotence, omniscience, or similar topics. Indeed, the ancient Near East appears to have had no linguistic or philosophical tools to even discuss such matters before the advent of the Greeks. Biblical religion is expressed in concrete imagery and institutions, from which religious ideas must be extrapolated. For example, the religion of the Pentateuch is certainly monotheistic, maintaining that there is only one God for the Israelites. But the only way it can express the abstract, quasi-philosophical concept of monotheism is through the cult, through the insistence that God may be worshipped only in one place, the central shrine—one God, one temple. It is important to recognize this concrete way of expressing religious ideas, because on the surface the Pentateuch, with its mixture of narratives and laws, hardly seems like a religious book at all, especially when one considers the almost chaotic combination of contradictory traditions from different periods. The monotheism in the Torah is an implicit, not an explicit, concept.

The Pentateuch is dominated by two religious viewpoints, the priestly and the Deuteronomic, which often conflict in theology and practice. The priestly texts, represented by Leviticus and parts of Exodus and Numbers, view God as immanent, present (however mystically) in the sanctum of the temple. Deuteronomy holds that the Deity is transcendent, represented on earth only by the “name” He has placed on the shrine. As noted, many laws in the Torah are contradictory. For example, Exodus 12 (a priestly text) describes Passover as a festival meal of roasted lamb eaten by families at home. Deuteronomy 16 presents it as a meal of boiled beef or mutton consumed by pilgrims at the temple. When such contradictions and inconsistencies are added to the complications involved in superimposing both of these views on the mass of older legends, poetry, and law in the Pentateuch, the result is a work of astounding and often bewildering, if not mystifying, complexity.

Biblical religion is often said to have broken with ancient mythology by substituting “history” for myth. But the term here does not mean academic history. Rather it means the record of divine acts of intervention to rescue Israel, what scholars call “salvation-history.” The basic principle that guides biblical religion is the primacy of relationship. Nothing is abstract or static; all is dynamic, held in tension to other things. For example, the very covenant itself is between a human and divine partner, the Israelites and God—a relationship between equals who are yet unequals. Indeed, the covenant may be viewed as a concretization of the principle of relationship itself. The Pentateuch, like the rest of the Bible, is the record of the tortured relationship between the Israelites and their God. God himself is described in human terms. The anthropomorphism of biblical religion goes beyond mere metaphors; they are essential to it. In the Torah, God has a real personality: he can be petty, peevish, vain, as well as exalted, incomprehensible, holy.

The Israelite nation also has a personality, in its frequent querulousness and inability to rise to the heights demanded of it. Likewise, the great figures of the Pentateuch—Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Moses—are real personalities. The richness of personality is perhaps best compared to that of Shakespeare, who also revels in the concrete and human. In sum, religion in the Pentateuch, without ceasing to be God-centered, is a religion of and for humans.

Sources and literary context

The following survey represents the consensus of scholars who take a positive view of the possible historicity of at least some of the Pentateuch. First, the Garden of Eden story draws on ancient iconography on many points, such as the tree of life in the divine garden and the guardian cherubim. Primeval history of Genesis 1–11 must, of course, be viewed as essentially myth, although it contains much ancient Near Eastern, especially Mesopotamian and Canaanite myth and legend reworked (sometimes only slightly) from a monotheistic point of view. The flood story, for example, has direct Babylonian parallels. The Atrahasis epic (c. 1600 B.c.e) recounts the flood brought by the gods to counter human overpopulation. A later treatment, in theGilgamesh epic (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), tells of a wise hero named Utanapishtim, who was commanded by his patron deity, Ea, to build a boat and save his family. Many details are strikingly close to the biblical account, including the sending out of birds to determine if the earth had dried out, and the offering of a sacrifice after the emergence from the boat. Next comes the tower of Babel, which seems to reflect the great ziggurat, or temple tower, of Babylon, the top of which is said to have “reached heaven.” The patriarchal narratives may reflect West Semitic tribal movements of the second millennium B.C.E. Many details of the semi-nomadic way of life described in Genesis, as well as the type of names and specific societal customs, have been confirmed, at least as possibilities, by archaeology for the putative patriarchal period (c. 1800–1200 B.C.E.). They particularly fit the context of the Amurru (biblical Amorite) expansion of the early second millennium from the western desert into the settled regions of Mesopotamia and Canaan. However, it must also be admitted that most of these details pertain as well to life a millennium later, and that the patriarchal stories contain many anachronisms, such as the presence of camels as domesticated beasts, something attested to only after c. 1200 b.c.e.

Many of the legendary materials on which the stories of the patriarchs are probably based seem to have been passed down at ancient local shrines, then collected sometime after c. 900 b.c.e. They were expanded, perhaps with historical romance, totally revised according to later religious viewpoints, and probably put into their present form in the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century b.c.e. It was their final adaptation to the main storyline of the completed Pentateuch that occurred 100 years later, in the fifth century b.c.e.

Probably the present narratives that describe the events of the exodus from Egypt preserve shreds of the legendary traditions of at least some proto-Israelites (especially the tribe known as the Levites, some of whom, like Moses, Miriam, Phinehas, and Hor, possess authentic Egyptian names). The name of the city of Ramses, built by the Hebrew slaves, also seems to be authentic. The exodus tradition early became embedded in the historical consciousness of all Israel, probably no later than the ninth or eighth centuries b.c.e., since the prophets of that period already speak of it as a cherished, and ancient, sign of divine intervention. Details like the manna and clouds of quail that fed the Israelites in the desert, as well as the name of their encampments on the way to Canaan, reflect authentic details of desert life, but are undateable, and might reflect only later vivid storytelling. Scholars generally agree that the great account of the Sinai revelation and covenant are not well embedded in Israelite traditions older than the Pentateuch. The covenant spoken of here does reflect ancient treaty-making practices to some extent, but there is no definite information to link it to a historical era. The closest approximation of the treaty genre is the Book of Deuteronomy, which seems to reflect only later Assyrian practices of the first millennium b.c.e.; on the other hand, however, it may only be bringing an authentically old tradition up to date.

The classic theory about the origin and growth of the Torah is the “Documentary Hypothesis.” It posits that the earliest source is a southern composition—known by the rubric J or Y, for “Yahwistic source”—from the ninth or even tenth centuries b.c.e. According to the hypothesis, Y compiled and interpreted older, probably oral traditions, and became the first to give the Pentateuch its narrative shape. About a century later Y was augmented by material from a northern source, E, for “Elohistic source.” In 621 b.c.e. a “Book of the Instruction” was reported to have been found in the temple in Jerusalem. The book is known to have served as the basis of a great religious reform instigated by Josiah, the King of Judea, and scholars have identified it with Deuteronomy, now added to the proto-Pentateuch. Lastly P, for “Priestly source,” was joined to the others in the fifth century b.c.e. P gave the Pentateuch its chronological framework and added the great body of ritual and cultic law that forms a third of the final redaction. Though criticized and revised in the past century, the Documentary Hypothesis continues to form the basis for scholarly discussion of the Pentateuch. Conservative religious circles reject such a historical reconstruction, preferring to treat the Pentateuch as an object of faith.

Events in History at the Time the Torah Was Written

War, exile, and renewal

It is difficult to describe the historical context of so massive a work as the Torah, composed over so long a period, and so much the object of scholarly debate and factual uncertainty. Much of the narrative of the Pentateuch may hark back to traditions of the time it claims to represent, but it is more likely that the basic pattern and most of the actual text comes from the first millennium b.c.e., probably from the late eighth through the fifth centuries b.c.e. This was a chaotic and tragic time in the history of the states of Israel and Ju-dah. The former was wiped out by the Assyrians in 722 b.c.e. The latter, Judah, survived, and became the site in which the Torah probably began to take shape. But Judah was also destroyed, by the Neo-Babylonians in 586 b.c.e., and its leading classes were deported to southern Mesopotamia. There, after getting adjusted to the shock of uprooting, the exiles seem to have prospered. But many of them longed for restoration and renewal. The Babylonian exile was a time of intense literary activity, as old traditions were revised, expanded, and composed into large works, such as the historical books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and, presumably, also an early form of the Pentateuch. Some of the exiles returned when the Persians conquered Babylon, but the restored community struggled with extinction and assimilation, until the middle of the fifth century b.c.e., when the activity of Nehemiah and Ezra put them on firmer political, legal, and communal ground. As described, Ezra is credited with bringing the “Book of the Law of Moses” back from Babylonia; he is also credited with instigating major religious reforms on its authority.

A Persian subculture

As a completed work, the Torah must be viewed in the context of the interaction between the Judean elite and the Persian government in the mid-fifth century b.c.e. It was Persian imperial policy to encourage subject peoples to live by their own laws, provided they remained loyal to the empire. The struggling Jewish community of returnees around Jerusalem occupied an important geographic position on the border of Egypt, a province the Persians had much difficulty in controlling. Having the state of Judah as a strong and loyal vassal was highly desirable to them. Coincidentally imperial policy coincided with the attempt by the Jewish intellectual and religious elite in Babylonia to restore a purified temple cult in Jerusalem and to restore the authority of law as presented in the venerable tradition of Moses. Ezra, not only a priest and a scribe but also the “minister for Jewish affairs” in the Persian government, was given orders to return to Judah and impose strict Jewish law on the lax community of returned exiles. The final form of the Torah reflects this historical situation.

We do not know how the work achieved its present shape in the final redaction. It has been suggested that it was the result of a compromise between competing religious traditions, achieved by what in effect was a committee. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the final form of the Pentateuch was meant to address the situation of the Jews, both those still in Babylon and those who had already returned to Jerusalem. The fact that the Torah is incomplete in terms of narrative, breaking off with Moses’s death, before Israel enters the Promised Land, is supposed to correspond, in a kind of typology, to the position of the Jews on the threshold of restoration to that land upon their return as a result of Persian largesse in the mid-fifth century b.c.e. Their movement from Mesopotamia back to Judah was supposed to have been anticipated a thousand and more years earlier by the journey of their patriarch Abraham from Ur to Canaan. The implication is that if the Judean community remains strictly loyal to the covenant of Moses, it will relive the spiritual pattern of journey and renewal represented by their ancestors, the patriarchs and the Israelites of Moses’s age.

The Axial Age

The Torah must also be viewed within the larger cultural context of the eighth through fifth centuries b.c.e., a period known as the “Axial Age.” This was the beginning of the succession of world empires with totalitarian claims to exclusive power. The chain runs from the Assyrians to the Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. For small states such as Israel and Judah, the rise of these master empires threatened extinction, physical or cultural. A feeling of insecurity afflicted the masters too, because the very innovation of empire, as opposed to the older looser system of competing smaller states, brought peoples in contact with each other in new ways that shook and challenged cultural certainties. It gave rise to a cultural atmosphere that was, on the one hand, fraught with danger, but, on the other hand, invigorated with new opportunities. The older cultures responded by trying to return to their classical roots, reviving more ancient cultural forms and traditions. The classic type of literary document of the age was the “fraus pia,” the pious fraud, claiming to be composed in antiquity, but actually contemporary. Deuteronomy is the famous biblical example, purportedly written by the ancient prophet Moses, but actually a product of the late seventh century b.c.e. The Pentateuch as a whole must be viewed in this context, as an attempt by members of a troubled and threatened community to provide an authoritative ancient document for themselves. Whether the authors went about their task conscious of the implicit historical irony of addressing conditions in the present by reconstructing the past can only be a matter for speculation. In any case, the result was something quite new, a book-based religion that formed the basis of all of the major Western religious traditions that followed.


Traditional Jewish and Christian exegesis recognises a strongly prescient aspect to many narratives Actions ascribed to individuals such as the patriarchs are often intended to foreshadow events that will occur to their descendants (a principle the rabbis formulated as “the deeds of the fathers are symbolic of what will happen to their children”). For example, Abraham descends to Egypt His endangerment there and rescue by divine intervention clearly foreshadow the later enslavement and exodus of Israel The patriarchal dealings with their Canaanite neighbors, especially the destruction of the city of Shechem by Simeon and Levi (Genesis 34), anticipates the later conquest of Canaan under Joshua The rest of the Bible continues these chains of foreshadowing, or typology. The paradigm of slavery-redemption foreshadows the exile of the Jews from Canaan to Babylonia and the promised return to Jerusalem. Cod’s promise to Abraham uses language that fore shadows the monarchy of King David, even as the latter becomes the typological pattern for messianism.

Recent study by Meir Sternberg and many others has uncovered the sophisticated literary techniques that underlie the seemingly ingenuous narratives In addition to typology, for example, there are

  • Patterns of chiasm (inverted phrase, such as “Heaven and Earth… Earth and Heaven in Genesis 2:4)
  • Envelope structure (beginning and ending a section with the same phrase)
  • Artful juxtaposition of themes and narratives
  • The prevalence of ambiguity and paradox (whom exactly did Jacob wrestle with? man, angel, or God?)

Biblical narrative style is sparse and often laconic, Verbs are plentiful; adjectives, rare. Significant details are often left to the imagination, inviting personal interpretation, What did Abraham think when Cod commanded him to sacrifice his precious son Isaac? Did he accept the cruel demand with the blind faith of an automaton, or was he tormented by inner anguish and doubt? It is these silences that make the biblical stories so ’”‘fraught with background’” (Auerbach, p. 9).


A confluence of political, social, and religious motives among the Israelites of the fifth century b.c.e. caused the frequent logical incoherence of the Torah to fall into the background. In the mid-fifth century b.c.e., a large wave of Israelites returned to Judah from Babylonian exile. Ezra, a Jewish priest and Persian official, assembled the returned exiles in Jerusalem for a public reading of the Torah. The reading, authorized by the Persian Empire, aimed to establish a foundation of law and order in the province; no doubt even sages of the age could not have foreseen the tenacious role the Torah would play. It was at this point that the Torah began to take a central role in the religious life of the Jews. Afterwards, in the post-biblical period, religions like later Judaism and to some extent Christianity mistakenly viewed the Torah as a working legal system, and problems resulted from the inevitable gaps and internal contradictions. Readers of theTalmud (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times) are familiar with the legal-linguistic dexterity required by later commentators.

The stories of the Torah have embedded themselves deeply into Western religious, artistic, and literary culture (see The Gospel According to Matthew and The Quran , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). While traditional religion views the particulars of the stories simply as historical fact, others take a more literary approach, seeing in them powerful reflections of human emotions and universal needs. The narrative structure and devices of the Pentateuch have been much analyzed in recent years using various approaches, from psychoanalytical, to anthropological, symbolic, feminist, and de-constructionist (focuses on inherent internal contradictions). Along with the laws, the stories have given rise to a vigorous body of interpretations (Midrashim) over the ages, which serves as a continuing source of sermons and homilies. Interpretation of the Torah has been and continues to be the central process of traditional Judaism.

—Stephen Geller

For More Information

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.

Hayes, John H. An Introduction to Old Testament Study. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Shanks, Hershel. Ancient Israel from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.