Torah Essay - Critical Essays



Torah c. Fourth Century B. C.

(Also known as the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, Hummash, Mikra, and Law.) Hebrew history.

One of the most important religious documents in the Western world, the Torah is composed of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The books contain an account of the events from the creation of the world to the death of Moses, and within that narrative is outlined the covenant between God and the Hebrew people and the laws they must adhere to in order to fulfill this relationship. Although historiographers disagree about the tenability of Mosaic authorship, the Torah forms the basis of the Jewish religion both as a historical account of Hebraic origins and as a written account of divinely-legislated morality.

Plot and Major Characters

The narrative of the Torah begins with an account of God's creation of heaven and earth, the introduction of sin into the world, the beginning of civilization, and the growth of the world's population. Adam is created upon the earth and permitted access to everything, with the exception of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The animals on the earth do not provide him with suitable companionship, so God creates for him a woman named Eve. But the Devil in the form of a snake persuades Eve, and through her Adam, to eat the fruit of this tree, and they are driven from Eden. Eve later bears Cain and Abel; Cain kills his brother, and the initial evil spreads throughout the growing society. As civilization spreads, sin grows, until God creates a flood that destroys the human race, except the family of Noah, whose descendants repopulate the earth.

In the tenth generation after Noah, God tells Abram (later Abraham) to emigrate from Babylonia to Canaan with the promise that he will found a great nation. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, bear a son, Isaac, in their old age; God tests Abraham by ordering Isaac's sacrifice, but allows Isaac to live when Abraham is found willing to obey. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, later bear Esau and Jacob, the latter of whom secures Abraham's birthright and blessing. One of Jacob's sons, Joseph, arouses the jealousy of his brothers, who plot to kill him. However, Joseph survives and is carried to Egypt as a slave, where he rises to the highest position in the service of the Pharoah. Compelled by famine, Joseph's siblings eventually move to Egypt, where they are reconciled with Joseph and grow into a powerful tribe. The succeeding Pharoah attempts to exterminate them by ordering the massacre of Hebrew infants, but one baby, named Moses, survives and is brought up in the Pharoah's palace as an Egyptian.

Moses later witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew worker and kills the Egyptian, burying the body. When word of the homicide spreads, Moses flees to Midian, where he marries Zipporah, daughter of a priest. While guarding sheep, Moses is visited by YHWH (Yahweh, or I Am Who I Am), God of the Hebrews, who instructs him to lead his oppressed people out of bondage. With his brother Aaron, Moses succeeds in freeing them, but only after YHWH visits several plagues upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of their firstborn children. The Hebrews head into the wilderness and are pursued by the Egyptian army; the Red Sea parts to let the Hebrews cross, but the Egyptians are destroyed by the closing waters.

The Israelites eventually travel to Sinai, where Moses receives a revelation from YHWH; first, the ten commandments are delivered to the people, then a collection of further laws are communicated to Moses. During Moses's absence, however, the Israelites begin to doubt YHWH and to worship an idol. God punishes them for this betrayal by allowing only their children to enter into the promised land; the adults will all die in the wilderness. The Israelites are unsuccessful in invading Canaan, so they proceed to Moab, east of Jordan. Preparations are made to enter the land on the west bank, but before they enter, Moses reminds his people of their covenant with God and instructs them in laws they must follow in their new land. Moses dies at the age of 120 and is succeeded by Joshua.

Major Themes

The first group of books in the Old Testament is called Tōrāh ("law") because it contains nearly the entire Jewish legal system. The unifying subject of the books is God's promise to Abraham-that he shall be the beginning of a great nation blessed by God (Genesis 12:1-3)-and the covenant based upon it, so that the Torah is primarily constituted by two related themes: tracing the historical formation of the Israelites as the people of God, and the legislative restrictions that are to provide them with the means to fulfilling this special relationship. The first task is covered from the beginning of the world to the Hebrew Patriarchs in Genesis, and in the organization of Israel and its settlement in Canaan described in the other four books. Legal material comprises more than one-third of the narrative and is to some extent covered in all of the books, most notably in Leviticus, which consists entirely of laws. Outlined in the Torah, this way of living dictated by the covenant between God and the people of Israel forms the basis of Jewish morality.

Textual History

According to traditional Judaism, God gave the Torah to Moses during the revelation on Mount Sinai. Early proponents of this view, such as Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and the Babylonian Talmud, as well as modern critics, cite thematic and stylistic continuities as well as portions of the Old and New Testaments that refer to the Pentateuch as the Five Books of Moses to defend the assumption of Mosaic authorship of all but the final account of Moses's death. During the Reformation, however, some scholars began to voice doubts about Mosaic authorship, including Isaac ben Jasos, Ibn Ezra, Martin Luther, and Andreus Masius, because they found it difficult to reconcile some passages with the hypothesis that there was a single author. Despite these views, the belief in Mosaic authorship was generally maintained, despite later thinkers such as Benedict de Spinoza, who contended that the books attained their present form under Ezra, and others, most notably Richard Simon in his A Critical History of the Old Testament (1678), who argued that a group of Hebrew historiographers composed the books, which were collected by Ezra.

Modern critics generally have adopted, with revisions, the stance of Jean Astruc, who was the first to maintain that Moses drew on earlier historical sources from which he compiled the Pentateuch; according to Astruc, two principal sources-the Elohistic and the Yahwistic (or Jehovistic)-and several minor sources were incorporated into Genesis, in whole or in part, by Moses, who wrote the other four books. Later theorists expanded on Astruc's hypothesis, calling attention to different linguistic styles and word-uses to support the opinion of multiple authors. Although some scholars have even claimed that the books are composed of an agglomeration of numerous fragments with no inherent connection, a more modest position has gained prominence, according to which the Pentateuch is composed of at least four documents that originally existed independently, either in oral or written form: E (Elohistic document), characterized by its use of the divine name "Elohim"; J (Jehovistic document), characterized by its use of the divine name "Jehovah"; D (Deuteronomic Code), comprising the bulk of Deuteronomy; and P (Priestly Narrative), combining history and law. Although the chronology of the compilation of these four sources is still being debated, it is generally agreed among those who now deny Mosaic authorship that J and E were first combined by a redactor. The unified work JE, after circulating for some time, was further enlarged by redactors who added D and P.

Critical Reception

The Torah is considered the word of God by millions of people; its description of the Hebrew people's divine covenant with God forms the basis of Judaism and, more generally, all subsequent revelations of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus Christ. Some critics claim that denying Mosaic authorship tends to undermine the historical basis of biblical religion, that the stories were probably transmitted orally for centuries, from generation to generation, and were subject to all the dangers of such transmission. But others insist that whether they were divine commandments communicated through Moses or the product of a number of writers from Moses to Ezra, the legislative principles of the Torah reflect the convictions of a nation's experience over thousands of years and embody a unique understanding of the relationship between God and human beings, providing us with a text rich in religious, moral, and literary value.

Principal English Translations

The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary. 5 vols. [translated by J. H. Hertz] 1929

The Torah: A Modern Commentary [translated by W. Gunther Plaut and Bernard J. Bamberger] 1981

The Torah: The Five Books of Moses [translated by the Jewish Publication Society] 1981

The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy [translated by Everett Fox] 1995


William H. Green (essay date 1892)

SOURCE: "Pentateuchal Analysis" in Moses and His Recent Critics, edited by Talbot W. Chambers, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892, pp. 101-37.

[In the following essay, Green focuses on the first eleven chapters of Exodus to claim, contrary to many other critics, that there is no convincing evidence for the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was composed by several authors who combined and enlarged three or four distinct treatises.]

In the limited space allowed in these essays it is impossible to undertake the full discussion of the critical division of the Pentateuch in all its length and breadth, to which such a multitude of volumes has been devoted, and upon...

(The entire section is 8700 words.)

Alexa Suelzer (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Themes of the Pentateuchal Narratives" in The Pentateuch: A Study in Salvation History, Herder and Herder, 1964, pp. 22-100.

[In this essay, Suelzer examines the themes that structure what he takes to be an essentially unified Torah.]


The partition of the Pentateuch into the individual books of Moses was a practical measure undertaken to render the massive work more manageable and intelligible. The essential unity of the work as a whole however was not impaired, for no matter what additions and redactions the Pentateuch underwent it ever retained a basic constant in the light of which disparate traditions were...

(The entire section is 25913 words.)

Norman C. Habel (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Interpreting Literary Sources: The Yahwist and the Promise" in Literary Criticism of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, 1971, pp. 43-64.

[In the following essay, Habel dissects the literary structure and style of the Yahwist in order to recognize the writer's characteristic way of interpreting Israel's past.]

As a literary artist the Yahwist1 has been compared to Homer and as a theologian to St. Paul. These accolades may be true but they may also prove a smoke screen for the beginning student of the Pentateuch. He wants to see the evidence for a Yahwist source beyond the texts of Genesis 2-9. We could, of course, follow the lead of most...

(The entire section is 8967 words.)

Richard Elliott Friedman (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Sacred History and Theology: The Redaction of Torah" in The Creation of Sacred Literature: Composition and Redaction of the Biblical Text, edited by Richard Elliott Friedman, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 25-34.

[In this essay, Friedman claims that the Priestly redaction of the Torah—the combination of the Priestly source with the Elohist-Jahvist documentsignificantly shaped the Pentateuch's conception of God and the portrayal of the magnalia Die.]

One of the significant consequences of the enterprise of source criticism is the demonstration that the Torah (and ultimately the Hebrew Bible), more than perhaps any...

(The entire section is 5872 words.)

Bernard J. Bamberger (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Torah and the Jewish People" in The "Torah:" A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, pp. xxix-xxxvi.

[In the following excerpt, Bamberger explores the role of the Torah in forming the Jewish community.]

The Torah was always the possession of all Israel. It was addressed to the entire people, who were to learn its contents and teach them diligently to their children. A number of biblical passages, in particular Psalms 19 and 119, testify to the love which the Torah evoked and the widespread concern of the people with its teachings.

The Book of Nehemiah (chs. 8-10) reports a public reading of the...

(The entire section is 3873 words.)

Douglas A. Knight (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Pentateuch" in The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, edited by Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker, Fortress Press, 1985, pp. 263-96.

[In the essay that follows, Knight examines the literary structure and intentions of the author(s) of the Torah through a critical survey of Pentateuchal scholarship.]

It would be difficult to overestimate the role that the Pentateuch has played in the course of biblical scholarship. In all likelihood, these first five books have been subjected to scrutiny more than any other single block of the Bible, with the sole possible exception of the Gospels. It is significant that the Pentateuch has generally...

(The entire section is 14619 words.)

Wilson G. Baroody and William F. Gentrup (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy" in A Complete Literary Guide to the "Bible," edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993, pp. 121-36.

[In the essay that follows, Baroody and Gentrup examine the literary structure of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in order to establish the complex interrelationship between their narrative elements and the presentation of Torah as law.]

The life of Moses, from his birth and early years in the opening of Exodus to his death and legacy at the close of Deuteronomy, provides the narrative frame for most of the Pentateuch. As...

(The entire section is 6786 words.)

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Torah as Narrative and Narrative as Torah" in Old Testament Interpretation: Past, Present, and Future; Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker, edited by James Luther Mays, David L. Petersen, and Kent Harold Richards, Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 13-30.

[In this essay, Eskenazi surveys the literary approaches to the Torah that have recently emerged in an effort to understand how they provide for a fuller religious and historical appreciation of the text.]

When, in time to come, your children ask you, "What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our God has enjoined upon you?" you shall say to your children, "We were...

(The entire section is 8124 words.)

David L. Petersen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Formation of the Pentateuch" in Old Testament Interpretation: Past, Present, and Future: Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker, edited by James Luther Mays, David L. Petersen, and Kent Harold Richards, Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 31-45.

[In this essay, Petersen examines the compositional history of the Pentateuch and its effect on interpreting the literary and historical unity of the text.]

The title of this essay betrays one way of thinking about the Pentateuch, namely, a concern with its history, how it came to exist. To be sure, not all scholars today are interested in this issue. Some would prefer to talk about the literary configuration of the...

(The entire section is 6411 words.)

Mordechai Breuer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Study of Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven: Compatibility or Contradiction?" in Modern Scholarship in the Study of "Torah ": Contributions and Limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy, Jason Aronson Inc., 1996, pp. 159-80.

[In this essay, Breuer asserts that the Torah was directly written by God and that its different styles reflect different qualities of God.]

The topic assigned to me implies a possible contradiction between the study of Bible and yirat shamayim (fear of heaven). The God-fearing student of the Bible must confront this presumed contradiction and seek to resolve it. Failing to do so, his wisdom will take precedence...

(The entire section is 8859 words.)

Frank Crülsemann (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Pentateuch as Torah: The Way as Part of the Goal" in The "Torah": Theology and Social History of Old Testament Law, translated by Allan W. Mahnke, Fortress Press, 1996, pp. 329-67.

[In the following essay, Crusemann explores the social and political context in which the Pentateuch was produced in an effort to understand the development of the Judeo-Christian Torah. According to him, the Pentateuch unifies the strictures of a monotheistic religion with regulations of justice set against the background of Persian law.]

There came a voice of revelation saying,
"These and those are words of the...

(The entire section is 24034 words.)

Further Reading

Baker, D. W. "Diversity and Unity in the Literary Structure of Genesis." In Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives, edited by A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, pp. 197-215. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1980.

Studies the internal divisions of the Hebrew text of Genesis and comments on their implications.

Bissell, Edwin Cone. The Pentateuch: Its Origin and Structure. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910, 484 P.

Discusses the history of critical approaches to the authorship of the Pentateuch.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the "Bible." New York: Doubleday, 1992,...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)