Torah Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.