Continuing the series on God's Law & the Christian Believer begun here
The Hebrew Bible is traditionally divided into three sections which together form the acronym Tanakh.
Our focus is to be upon the first of these, the Torah (law, instruction) which consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy
In fact our study will in time narrow down still further to that legislative section of the Torah containing the 613 Mosaic regulations which are so intriguingly bracketed between the two songs of Moses (Exo 15; Dt 32).
We will through the year examine many of these laws, in search of their meaning, their intent, and their applicability to the modern Christian’s life.
However we cannot proceed very far with our study of the Torah without addressing the issue of authorship.
Jewish tradition has always universally ascribed these books, also known as the Pentateuch (Gk for five books) to Moses himself.
“and Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord…” (Ex 24:4)
Conversely, modern liberal scholarship has repeatedly tried to tear the books apart and some have envisaged as many as 40 different writers contributing at different times!
The Documentary Hypothesis, associated strongly with the German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen asserts that the text of the Pentateuch that we have today is the end result of centuries of compiling and re-editing from different sources with the work not completed until after the Babylonian exile.
The book of Leviticus especially is held to be post-exilic and represents the completion of a shift from the free religious worship of early Israel to a much more formal legalism in later times.
Needless to say, such a theory, if proven, would make the notion of Mosaic authorship redundant.
As popular as this hypothesis is today, we must insist that it is one that is held on the scantest of evidence. Moreover such evidence as is presented often lends itself better to other dating schemes.
For instance that the levitical sacrifices take place exclusively in the tabernacle is often taken by those who favour a post-exilic date as confirmation that King Josiah’s suppression of all worship sites other than the temple in Jerusalem (2 Kin 23) had been successfully enforced.
However wouldn’t a more natural interpretation of this emphasis upon the tabernacle (not temple!) be that the original environment into which these statutes were introduced was the wilderness in which the twelve tribes were gathered en masse around the tabernacle as the necessarily exclusive focal point of worship?
The text of the Pentateuch talks repeatedly of the tabernacle and never of the temple. Moreover everything we read summons up an image of austere wilderness rather than the settled urban life of Jerusalem, such as the location of lepers outside of the camp, and not the city (Lev 14:3).
If these pentateuchal works, or even large parts of them, are the work of later Jerusalem scribes then those men certainly succeeded in creating a remarkably convincing forgery for the pointers towards early authorship are many and telling.
Gleason Archer in his excellent Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (pp 46-54) notes how trees and animals mentioned are native to Egypt or the Sinai Peninsula & how so many incidental details are given which we would not expect to be within the knowledge of later Israel-based scribes.
He observes that the climate & weather are typically Egyptian including accurate local information pertaining to crop sequence in relation to the plague of hail (Exo 9:31-32). Would a city-dwelling scribe in Israel know such things?
Convincingly, Archer shows this also in geographical references such as in Gen 33:18
“And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram...”.
Shechem later became one of Israel’s chief cities and it would be bizarre to describe it in this way to a generation of Israelites who would know the city very well, and had long since ceased to speak of a land called Canaan! The reference is clearly early, and prior to the occupation of the land.
Many such examples could be cited pointing to Mosaic authorship, or at least to the time of Moses. Liberal scholars used to mock at the idea that anyone of that time (c1400BC) could have been literate, but in fact we now know that literacy predated Moses by over fifteen centuries.
We can therefore be certain that the Israelite leader with his Egyptian royal education would have been familiar with both the Hebrew language as well as the Egyptian hieroglyphic script (Acts 7:22).
Indeed a lot of words borrowed from the Egyptian language are used in the text of the Pentateuch which makes sense if it be the work of a former Egyptian prince, but not if it is written by a later Jewish scribe in post-exilic Israel.
Of course this does not have to mean that every word of the Pentateuch was penned by Moses himself. The description of his burial and of Joshua’s succession (Dt 34) can be safely assumed not to be the work of Moses at least!
Also “Now Moses was the humblest man on all the earth” (Numbers 12:3) strikes many people as not being the sort of thing that the humblest man on all the earth would actually say about himself. It is clear from such clues within the text that a narrator other than Moses is at times present.
There then arises the issue of the book of Genesis which is describing events that occurred hundreds, and - in the case of chapters 1-11 - thousands of years prior to Moses’ birth. How did the writer come by this information?
But the stories of the Genesis patriarchs were critically important to the identity of the Israelites and would certainly have been well-known to those descendants of Abraham living in Egypt (especially since the final story explained why they were actually in Egypt!)
Unquestionably this family history would have been passed on from generation to generation.
As for those earlier events in the book of Genesis (chapters 1-11), we would certainly not rule out the possiblity that Moses received knowledge of these by direct revelation from God.
However, (and more likely in my view) he could have been prompted by the Spirit to pull together already existing sources and utilise them as part of a single inspired book (Genesis).
Walter Kaiser Jr in his The Old Testament Documents (p16) suggests evocatively that terms like “the generations of” (Gen 2:4; 5:1) are introducing us to the very first things that God ever revealed to mortals. Such information would have been carefully preserved even if only through oral transmission.
Seeing this data as having been passed on for a very long time prior to Moses’ enscripturation of the records is really little different to the process that Luke employed when making use of existing records to compile his Gospel (Lk 1:1-3). Such a process in no way undermines the notion of inspiration.
The editing of texts and the involvement of more than one human hand in a single book of the Bible ought not to be troubling to us. We recall that both Paul & Peter used secretaries for some of their letters (Rom 16:22; 1 Pet 5:12) and John’s Gospel has clearly had a pen other than the apostle's associated with it (Jn 21:24).
The human writer is not actually that important. Many books of the Bible are anonymous including all four gospels & this has never detracted in the slightest way from their authority. We assert that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate Author and that editing as well as writing can be inspired!
If the Pentateuch was edited, then all the evidence points to it having been done at a very early date, with some of it perhaps done by Moses’ direct successor Joshua who is himself connected with the delivery of God's Word to His people (Exo 17:14).
What is important is the strength of the historical association with the man Moses himself.
So powerful is this that even fourteen centuries later Jesus could simply say “Moses said…” and the people knew immediately that He was speaking of the Five Books.
For the Christ-follower that ought to be the end of the debate.
If the association with Moses was good enough for Jesus then it ought to be good enough for us.