Torah Torah Torah 1

1 – Summary of the “documents” analysis:

The first five books of the Bible are called “Pentateuch” in Greek (“five texts”) or “Torah” in Hebrew (from a causative form of the verb “to throw”, the causative meaning roughly “to direct [another person’s] aim”). They contain no statement about who is writing, or when. The compulsion in antiquity to give every book a named author led to the convention that these were “the books of Moses”: never mind that the books include a description of the death of Moses; he was a prophet, after all, and could foresee that and write it down in advance (this is not a joke: that is seriously what you will be told if you ask that question). Medieval Jewish rabbis expanded this notion to the belief that God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai was not just the 10 commandments, but the entire five books of the Torah (which must have made Moses feel a helpless sense of deja vu for the rest of his life), plus an oral tradition interpreting the finer points (which God did not bother to write down, but which the Talmud infallibly reflects). The ultra-orthodox among the Jews continue to hold this viewpoint. Christians have never gone that far, but fundamentalists will still insist the whole five books are by Moses (although there is no warrant for that in the text) and this was the unanimous view through the Reformation.

The composite nature of the Torah was first understood in the 18th century. Among the numerous scholarly publications from this burst of activity, two stand out: Astruc’s 1753 division of the text into the “Jehovist” document, abbreviated J , which consistently uses the sacred name YHWH (rendered “the LORD” in the King James Version) and the “Elohist” document E which uses “Elohim” (“God” in the KJV); and Ingel’s 1798 recognition of the distinctive “First Elohist” strand, quite different in subject, tone, and language from the other authors, now called P for the “Priestly” source, since the initial impression that “First” Elohist was earlier than “Second” Elohist is the complete reverse of the truth. These scholars were too conservative to question the traditional view that Moses wrote all the books, and spoke only of “sources” which Moses must have “consulted”; more radical 19th-century scholars swung in the opposite direction, of decomposing the Torah into numerous “fragments” with no overall author; it is now apparent that there are other sources incorporated besides the big three, but that J/E/P do represent unitary documents by individual authors.

The Torah contains numerous “doublets”, in which the same story is told twice with slight variations, once by J and once by E . Abraham moves to a new country and tells everyone Sarah is his sister, since if it was known she was his wife, he might be killed by someone wanting to steal her; so the king takes her, and is divinely cursed, until Abraham fesses up. Once this happens in Philistia; once in Egypt: it is possible to believe that both stories are true, if you’re willing to believe that Abraham is rather dim and doesn’t learn his lessons well. In the story of Joseph, now vizier of Egypt, hiding valuables in the luggage of his brothers, now refugees who don’t recognize him, in order to arrest them and test their state of mind, one retelling consistently uses “bags” and the other “sacks”, as Elie Wiesel puts it: consistent dialectal differences in vocabulary usage (“pails”? or “buckets”?), well beyond the YHWH/Elohim difference, are the mark of the two strands. Sometimes the difference in the stories is rather significant: in J , God SPEAKS the 10 commandments and Moses carves them in stone; in E the stone tablets themselves are from “the finger of God”. Apparently E is only copied where it has something at least slightly new to say: J can be disentangled as a complete narrative, but E is fragmentary. The doublet of Noah’s flood is of a different kind from the others: the two retellings are intertwined verse-by-verse, and it takes some effort to pull them apart as two versions differing on some details (a pair of every animal? or a pair of every unclean animal and seven pairs of the clean?). Moreover, the alternate version is in the voice of P not E . E begins with Abraham, concentrates on the patriarchs’ relationships to northern sites like Bethel and Shechem, and centers the Exodus narrative on the Mt. Sinai experience. J begins with the Garden of Eden, concentrates on the patriarchs’ relationships to southern sites like Hebron and Beersheva, and centers the Exodus narrative on the long stay at Qadesh-Barnea.

P consists largely of genealogies and legislation: virtually every passage about “so-and-so begat so-and-so” or “the sin offering shall be two pigeons without blemish” are P . It does contain the seven-day creation in Genesis i, and the alternate flood, and several other pieces of narrative: but the remaining narratives are all for didactic purposes, to explain some later religious practice; and the overall style of P is dull as ditchwater: P is the main reason why people who try to read the Bible cover-to-cover get bogged down in Leviticus (a book which is almost entirely P ) and cannot bring themselves to continue. More objectively, P is distinguished from J and E by serious changes in the language: where J and E differ linguistically in a way typical of regional dialectal differences, P reflects centuries of subsequent change. Most strikingly, where the third-person pronouns are used (not often: usually in Hebrew the inflection on the verb suffices to indicate the subject, and no explicit pronoun is needed), the genders are reversed: hiy and huw used to be “he” and “she” respectively, but became “she” and “he”. Vowels which used to be short have often become long: the “front” vowels i and e are written with a yod , and the “back” vowels o and u written with a waw , only if they are long; many words include these letters (the “plene” spelling indicating long vowels) in P where J/E would omit them (the “defective” spelling indicating short vowels). These and other linguistic developments clearly showed a long time lag between P and the others: at first, as noted above, it was thought that P came first; archaeological evidence of the direction in which the language evolved forced the opposite conclusion, that P is by far the latest.

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