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Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai?
The Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish People. Initially, it asserts a pre-history and a purpose of the ancient Judahite kingdom to which contemporary Jews trace their emotional and often actual genetic origin, setting forth the kingdom’s legends and lore, its poetry and prose, its customs and commitments.
But the Torah is more than the purported history contained in it. When its contents were reduced to writing, text trumped tradition as the source of both political and religious authority in the Judahite world. (See generally, Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge 2004) at 91-117.)The result initiated nothing less than a textual revolution.
Moreover, in the words of Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter historian Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a “lineage of literacy” followed. (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012) at 15.) Transmitted over millennia and eliciting commentary which itself then begot more commentary, the written Torah has bound and continues to bind the Jewish People together over space and across time as they read it, study it, participate in its interpretation and organic growth and act out its lessons. Here, the Torah has served, and continues to serve, as trans-national and trans-generational glue.
Jewish tradition ascribes the highest honor to the Torah. Honoring one’s father and mother, performing deeds of kindness, and making peace between one man and another are all deserving of the greatest reward, but, according to the ancient sages, “the study of the Torah is equal to all of them.” (Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1.) Why? In part because the tradition sees Torah as the word of God, and that teaching has been transmitted intact to the present day.
The traditional view has been that the Israelites left Egypt in the Spring of the year 2448 (After Creation), which corresponds to 1312 BCE. The Talmud relates that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and then gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. (See Pirkei Avot.) The latter were understood as a group of 120 prophets and sages who, during the Second Temple period beginning in the fourth century BCE were the final religious authority for the reconstituted Jewish community in Judea.
The notion that contemporary Jews are the inheritors of this transmitted Torah is still expressed widely today. Take a look at a siddur (prayerbook) in any Orthodox, Conservative or Reform (though not Reconstructionist) congregation and turn to the conclusion of the service for the reading of the Torah. At the conclusion of the service, the Torah is lifted and the community joins in reciting the words “V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi YHVH b’yad Moshe,” that is, “This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites, from God’s mouth through Moses’s hand.”
Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student not only defends this position, but expands upon it in an essay titled On the Text of the Torah. Based on passages in the Torah and commentary in the Talmud, Student argues that when God dictated the Torah to Moses, Moses wrote thirteen copies of the text, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, plus one which was maintained and safeguarded by the priests and ultimately deposited in the First Temple. Student concedes that what happened to the priests’ copy is not clear, but that after the exiled Judahites in Persia were allowed by Cyrus (c. 538 BCE) to return to Judea in the sixth century BCE, they found three Torah scrolls. Ultimately led by the priest and scribe Ezra (c. 458 BCE), where there were differences in the wording, they reconciled the texts by majority vote of the scrolls. The resulting text was then protected by the priests of the Second Temple. (See “On the Text,” above, at 4-6/21.)
Of course, the premise of Student’s argument – that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses – is a claim that the Torah itself does not make explicitly, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis has recognized in his discussion of revelation in the Conservative movement’s edition of the Torah text. (See Etz Hayim (Rabbinical Assembly 2001), at 1394.) Moreover, even if the Torah did make a claim of divine authorship, the problem inherent in a text (self-)serving as its own prooftext is obvious.
Nor are references to statements of Talmudic sages necessarily persuasive to any except those predisposed to accept their authority. The statement at the beginning of Pirke Avot upon which Rabbi Student builds his case was written not by eye witnesses but well over a millennia after the original purported transmission and, further, by men who, however well meaning, had an interest in presenting themselves as the primary interpreters and adjudicators of Jewish law and practice.
A Talmudic debate not referenced by Rabbi Student is, however, instructive. Considering what God gave Moses and when, one rabbi stated that the entire Torah as we know it was given scroll by scroll. Another claimed that it was disclosed in its entirety. Yet another thought that certain passages were revealed before others, as needed. (See Talmud Gittin 60 a-b.) The rabbis, of course, were trying to fill the gaps in the sparse Torah text. Ironically, and no doubt unintentionally, this debate underscores the lack of certainty about what God gave Moses and when.
In addition, recent archeological investigations and new understandings of literature from the Levant strongly suggest (1) that a key story in the text, the exodus from Egypt, did not occur as represented and (2) that some other smaller details are anachronisms which demonstrate that the Torah could not have been written at the turn into the thirteenth century BCE. Thus, the traditional view that a single author, whether directed or inspired, wrote the entire Torah text at that time is undermined by different but consistent streams of evidence which agree that the Torah we have today was written and edited much later and over a number of centuries by several individuals or schools. (For more, see, e.g., The Camel’s Nose and Let my People Know.)
Nevertheless, the idea that the Torah we possess today, what Rabbi Student calls the textus receptus, is identical to that given by God to Moses is a powerful one, and, as evidenced by its promotion by Rabbi Student and its acceptance in contemporary prayer texts and elsewhere, persists to this day. So let’s revisit the claim, this time taking the contents and physical nature of the Torah we have today as we find them and ask how, if at all, the received text compares to the presumed original Torah text that Moses may have written over three millennia ago. As we proceed, we are faced, analytically, with at least five issues which must be addressed: contents, language, script, security and transmission. This essay will cover the first three. Security and transmission will be discussed subsequently.
The contents of Moses’s sefer haTorah
The only mention of sacred writings in our Torah, other than the two sets of tablets on which God and Moses respectively wrote, occurs at the end of Deuteronomy when the story relates that Moses, then one hundred and twenty years old and impaired, wrote down “haTorah.” (See Deut. 31:2, 9, 24.) The term Torah could mean “law,” but is better understood here as “teaching” or “instruction.” (See Jewish Study Bible (Oxford 1985) at 2.) Moses then gave the “sefer haTorah,” to the Levitical priests, who were in charge of the Ark of the Covenant. (See Deut. 31:26.) The contents of the sefer haTorah are not expressly delineated.
Other passages surrounding Moses’s inscription and conveyance may provide a clue, though. In anticipation of crossing over the Jordan into Canaan, Moses had directed the people previously to erect large stones after their passage and to write on them all the words of “haTorah.” (See Deut. 27:3-8.) Subsequently, Joshua reportedly wrote on stones a copy of the “Torat” (sic) that Moses had written. (See Josh. 8:32.) Joshua then read all the words of “haTorah,” the blessing and the curse, as written in the “sefer haTorah.” (See Josh. 8:34.)
What could Joshua have written? Consider the logistics. If two tablets could hold only ten commandments (see Ex. 20:1-14, 31:18), how many would be necessary to contain all 613 in the Torah we have today, plus the many stories and genealogies? In addition, today a trained scribe requires about a year to write a Torah on parchment. An effort to chisel an entire modern Torah on stone would require even more time. But time was not available as neighboring kings were preparing to attack the invading Israelites. (See Josh. 9:1-2.) All this suggests that the “sefer haTorah” Joshua chiseled was limited in scope, perhaps to the terms of another covenant that we find in Deut. 27:11-28:68. And that, in turn, suggests the same for what Moses may have written in the sefer haTorah he handed to the priests. But we simply cannot know for sure.
The language and the script of Moses’s Torah
If we are unsure about the words Moses wrote, what do we know about the language and script he used? The language of the Torah we have is predominantly Hebrew, with some Aramaic phrases included. It is not contemporary Hebrew, however. Rather, most of the language of our Torah is what scholars call Biblical Hebrew, or Classical Biblical Hebrew. Whether Moses and the biblical Israelites actually spoke Hebrew of any sort is, however, doubtful.
According to the biblical story, Moses’s writing came at the end of a forty year journey which followed over two hundred years of life in Egypt for the descendants of the patriarch Jacob, much of which was spent in slavery. (See The Chumash (The Stone Ed. – Mesorah (1993)), at 359 n.40.)Taking the story as true for present purposes, what was the likely language Moses used while writing his sefer haTorah? Again, the text we have today is conspicuously silent on the subject, but one fact and one assumption relate to this issue.
First, whatever language Jacob and his immediate family may have spoken, there is no evidence that during the time tradition ascribes to Jacob’s life (c. 1653-1506 BCE) that language was Hebrew, as opposed to, for instance, a Canaanite dialect of the time. Second, given the American experience with both slaves and immigrants, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that when Jacob’s family arrived in Egypt under the protection of Jacob’s son, Joseph, who was acting as Governor of Egypt, the family began to learn the language used by their Egyptian hosts. Further, when Jacob’s descendants became enslaved, it is similarly reasonable to assume that they used the language of their overseers. Of course, it is possible that the descendants of Jacob were isolated sufficiently from the Egyptian population so that they could have maintained their original language, whatever it was, but that is just more speculation. The question remains: if Moses intended that the recently freed Israelites understand the words he wrote, did he write it in the language of Egypt or in some other tongue?
Intimately related to the question of the language Moses used is the issue of the script he wrote. As might be expected, the rabbis in the Talmudic period speculated about the script used in the original Torah. And, as might be expected, they disagreed.
The possibilities, for these rabbis, involved two types of lettering and the dispute was about which was used and when. The two candidates, both West Semitic scripts, were Ivri and Ashuri. Ivri, or Paleo-Hebrew, script was an offshoot of Phoenician. Ashuri originated in Aramean kingdoms, evolved, was promoted by the Assyrians, and ultimately became a precursor to the square Hebrew lettering in use today.
One of the rabbis, Rav Elazar HaModal, contended that the script was always Ashuri. Another, either Mar Zutra or Mar Ukva, opined that the original lettering was Ivri, but that in the time of Ezra it changed to Ashuri. A third argued that it was originally in Ashuri, later changed to Ivri and then reverted to Ashuri once again. (See Talmud Sanhedrin 21b and 22a.)
The factual bases, if any, for the rabbis’ opinions are unknown. What is known is that they did not have the benefit of recently developed information. What modern archeology and studies of near eastern literature, linguistics and lettering teach us is that the Assyrians encouraged the use of their chosen script in the second half of the eighth century BCE. (See History of Hebrew Aleph-Bet, at 4-5/27.) But that was over five hundred years after Moses reportedly wrote the sefer haTorah.
So what script might he have used? To try to answer that question we have to go back in time, initially to the mid-ninth century BCE and start with the Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone. Discovered in the last half of the nineteenth century CE, in what is present day Jordan, the Mesha Stele is a basalt slab about a meter tall which contains one of the earliest and clearest examples of writing with some Hebrew characteristics. The stele describes the exploits of King Mesha of Moab, who is also discussed in the Hebrew Bible. (See 2 Kings 3:4-27.) The script here displays no evidence of square letters, however, and would be unrecognizable to any Hebrew school or even rabbinic student. It more resembles Phoenician writing of the same period. Some would characterize the letters as Paleo-Hebrew.
An older inscription, being a record of agricultural events, was found in 1908 in the old biblical city of Gezer, located between Jerusalem and what is now Tel Aviv. Known as the Gezer Calendar, this 11 by 7 centimeter limestone tablet dates to about 925 BCE, the time of the Biblical King Solomon. The script is Canaanite. The structure of the letters is nothing like that of contemporary Hebrew.
Apparently older still is a fragment of a storage jar, discovered in Jerusalem in 2012 at the southern wall of the Temple Mount. The wall in which the fragment was found has been tentatively dated to the tenth century BCE. The fragment itself contains writing in a Proto-Canaanite script which has been dated to the eleventh or tenth century BCE.
From these three bits of evidence, we can draw two tentative conclusions. First, the script used by Moses could not have been Ashuri as Ashuri was not invented until centuries after the Exodus date. Second, even two to three hundred years after the Exodus date, the script used in Canaan was barely, if at all, recognizable as Hebrew. Presumably, therefore, whatever script Moses may have used must have been even further removed from yet unborn Hebrew and closer to the then current script used in Egypt or in international commerce at the beginning of the thirteenth century BCE.
A prime example of the kind of lettering which might have been used can be seen in the El-Amara Tablets, a collection of almost 400 clay tablets first discovered in 1887 in Amara, located between Cairo and Luxor in Egypt. The messages are mostly from kings in communities throughout the Middle East and are dated to 1350-1300 BCE, the traditional time calculated for the Exodus.
Despite the location of their discovery, however, the El-Amara tablets were not written in Egyptian, but in Akkadian infused with various Canaanite dialects. The script was not Egyptian hieroglyphics, but cuneiform wedges. The quantity and origins of these tablets suggest that there was at the time, at least for commercial purposes, a language and a script that was commonly used not only in Egypt and Canaan, but also northeast to Assyria and east to Babylon. If not in the hieroglyphics of their despised Egyptian task masters, and not in as yet uninvented square lettered Hebrew, might Moses have written the sefer haTorah in something like the cuneiform found in the El-Amara Tablets?
In short, even a basic review of the circumstances and evidence related to the content, language and script of Moses’s sefer haTorah casts doubt on the statement that our Torah today is identical to anything that Moses may have written. We will consider the issues of security and transmission of the sefer haTorah in the near future.