The Torah — also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses — is the compilation of the first five books of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”). Jewish tradition holds that the Torah was dictated from God to Moses, letter by letter. This post, however, will delve into the origins of the Torah from an archeological and linguistic perspective, not a spiritual one. If that will upset you to read, please skip this post.
Today the Torah is widely viewed as a religious document with little to no basis in history for two main reasons: (1) the universalization of the Torah due to the Christian and Islamic appropriation of the text; in other words, the Torah was removed from its original and intended tribal and national context, and (2) Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, struck an agreement with Europe’s Jews: in exchange for freedom of religion, Jews could no longer exist as a distinct cultural and ethnic minority but instead were forced to assimilate into French society as French citizens. This fundamentally shifted the way in which Jews understood their identity.
In reality, the Torah is much more than a religious document. In fact, the word “religion” does not exist in Hebrew. The closest terms are “dat” (“law”) and “emuna” (“belief”). From an archeological, linguistic, and secular perspective, Torah is actually two things: (1) the mythologized story of the origins of the Israelite nation (think Greek mythology), and (2) a document outlining the laws of the Israelite nation.
Consider this: Josephus (37-100 CE), the first “secular” Jewish historian, considered the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) to be a fully historic document. Of course, today, we know that the truth is a little more complicated.
Archeologists and linguists today widely agree that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites were an offshoot of the ancient Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the region of the Land of Israel. The Canaanites were semi-nomadic peoples during the second millennium BCE (2000-1001 BCE) who worshipped a complex pantheon of gods. Among the two most important gods was El (remember this: it’ll come up in the next slide). To this day, the word “el” is the generic word for “god” in Hebrew. Yahweh, the Hebrew god, is not in the Canaanite pantheon and was likely brought to the Land of Israel from Egypt.
Tensions arose between the Canaanites who worshipped multiple gods and those who worshipped a single god. In the earliest written texts of the Torah, we see that the writers are determined to differentiate the Israelites from the Canaanites in both explicit and subtle ways. The Torah both recounts the enmity between the Israelites and Canaanites and the Canaanites are depicted negatively. Something more subtle happens in Bereshit (Genesis): in ancient times, entities such as the sun (Shemesh) and the moon (Yareach) were equal to the names of the gods. For this reason, we see that the writer has avoided using them entirely, lest anyone worship them instead of God: “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” To reiterate: neither the sun nor the moon are mentioned to describe light and darkness.
In 1040 BCE, a loose confederation of Hebrew tribes united to form the first centralized state in the Land of Israel, known as the Kingdom of Israel. Given that each of the tribes had their own identities and mythologies, the Israelites needed a unifying national narrative. Thus began the approximately 500+ year-long process of the writing and compilation of the Torah, based on earlier oral traditions and histories. Many scholars believe that the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) is one of the oldest poems in the history of literature, dating as far back as the thirteenth century BCE, making it among the oldest portions of the Torah.
Historians widely agree that the Torah was composed by three or four authors: the Elohists, the Yahwists, the Deuteronomists, and the Kohanim (priests). Some scholars today doubt that the Elohists wrote a cohesive document; instead, they argue that the Yahwists incorporated earlier Elohist narratives that already existed in the Land of Israel into their own Yahwist document.
The “documentary hypothesis” posits that the Elohist source was written sometime in the ninth century BCE. In the Elohist documents, God is always referred to as “El” or “Elohim” (plural, meaning “gods”). As you will recall, El was one of the two most important gods in the polytheistic Canaanite pantheon. The Elohist source was likely written in northern Israel and was probably brought down to the southern Kingdom of Judah by Israelite refugees fleeing the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom of Israel (720 BCE).
The Yahwist source, on the other hand, refers to God as YHWH (Yahweh). As mentioned prior, Yahweh did not exist in the Canaanite pantheon and was likely brought to the Land of Israel via the Egypt-Israel caravan trading route. Yahweh is described as an anthropomorphic figure, both physically and mentally. The Yahwist source focuses largely on the traditions of Judah, suggesting that it was written in the southern Kingdom of Judah sometime between the ninth and the tenth century BCE.
The third source, the Deuteronomist source, was likely written sometime in the seventh, sixth, and fifth centuries BCE. Scholars today believe that the Deuteronomists were either country Levites, prophets, or sages and scribes from the royal court. Scholars also agree that Deuteronomy was written independently from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; in other words, it was written by different writers.
Deuteronomy is highly associated with the Assyrian invasion (740-720 BCE) and the Babylonian exile (587/6-539 BCE). The writers of Deuteronomy try to explain the trauma and pain of those events by admonishing the Israelites for their disobedience to God. According to the Deuteronomists, the covenant between Israel and God is conditional. If the Israelites disobey God, then they will lose their land, which is, of course, precisely what happened with the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the Land of Israel.
The last source is the priestly source; that is, the source written by the Kohanim (the inherited priestly class). Most historians agree that this portion was written sometime in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, during the exilic and post-exilic period (that is, during and after the Babylonian Exile, which took place between 587/6-539 BCE). However, a minority of Jewish historians are now challenging this theory, believing that the priestly source was written much earlier, given the archaic version of the Hebrew language used in those sources.
The priestly source focuses on priestly matters, such as genealogy (given that the priestly class was an inherited class), laws, and rituals. During the Babylonian Exile, law and ritual was the only way that the Israelites could preserve their identity.
The Torah plays three roles: (1) it tells the story of the creation of the world, according to the ancient Israelites, (2) it tells the origins and the story of the Israelite nation, and (3) it outlines the laws of the Israelite nation.
The Torah includes five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. However, each of the books was not written all at once, nor were the books necessarily written in chronological order. Instead, they were compiled together later, based on earlier writings.
For example: Genesis tells the story of the creation of the world, as well as the “pre-history” of the nation of Israel (e.g. the story of the matriarchs and patriarchs, such as Abraham). Leviticus and Deuteronomy largely focus on rituals and laws. Exodus and Numbers tell the history of the People of Israel, from the exodus from Egypt (if you will recall, YHWH was brought to the Land of Israel along the Egypt-Israel caravan trading route) to the resettlement in the Land of Israel.
Scholars believe that the Yahwist source is responsible for parts of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, nearly the entirety of Leviticus, and, perhaps, one of the accounts of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomist source is, of course, responsible for Deuteronomy. The priestly source is responsible for parts of Genesis, parts of Exodus (which the priestly writers added onto the already existing Yahwist narrative), parts of Numbers, and a small part of Leviticus. The Elohist source is responsible for small fragments of Genesis and Exodus.
The canonization of the Torah is the process during which the various texts were collected, compiled, and sequenced into the Torah that we know today. Throughout this process, many prior Israelite texts were discarded and possibly lost to time.
As I explained in a previous slide, the books of the Torah were written throughout the course of hundreds of years, based on even older oral histories. Historians widely agree that the Torah — that is, the Five Books of Moses — were canonized during the Babylonian period, though there is evidence to suggest that the complete canonization of the Torah was not completed until the Persian period (539-332 BCE). During the exilic period (587/6-539 BCE), 25 percent of the Judean population was exiled to Babylon, including the most prominent and educated upper class that knew how to read and write. Prior to the exile, Jewish culture and spiritual life was deeply centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. However, with the Temple destroyed and the Judeans displaced, the compilation of Torah texts allowed the exiled Jews to continue practicing their culture from afar.
Other historians, however, suggest that the canonization of the Torah was not completed until the Persian period. The Persians were known to impose policies of nationalized law codes to the ethnic groups that they conquered. As such, it would make sense that the Jews (and Samaritans) would compile a cohesive and final text for geopolitical reasons.
We do know that some version of a unified and canonized Torah existed as early as 444 BCE, given that Ezra the Priest would give public readings of the Torah in Jerusalem. As a side note, the Hebrew words for “to read” and “to call out” come from the same root, because in ancient times, when only about 15-20 percent of Israelites could read, the Torah was recited aloud for all to hear.
It’s important to note that the canonization of the Torah is not the same thing as the canonization of the Tanakh. The rest of the Tanakh was not canonized until 200 BCE-200 CE.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
There are various methods that historians have used to date the texts of the Torah. Among the most common is the linguistic method. Classical Hebrew (pre-Babylonian Exile) and Late Biblical Hebrew (post-Babylonian Exile) have significant differences. Additionally, the dialects spoken in northern Israel were different to those spoken in southern Israel (Judah).
There is, however, a bit of a conundrum with linguistic dating. The Torah writers were sophisticated, and sometimes they used different linguistic choices to illustrate the different time periods and characters in the Torah. For a modern reference, for example, imagine that you are an American in 2022 writing a novel about Ireland in the 1800s. You’d likely have the characters speak in the time and location-appropriate dialect, even though you are writing your book in 2022. The Torah writers sometimes took this same approach.
Another method is to use extra-Biblical contemporary sources. For instance, the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates (third-second century BCE) indicates that the Torah was translated into Greek in 285–247 BCE, meaning that a canonized Torah must’ve existed at that point.
In 1979, two silver scrolls were uncovered near the Old City of Jerusalem, which contained portions of Numbers. The scrolls were dated paleographically to the seventh or sixth century BCE.
Finally, another method of dating is to compare the archeological records to the narrative of each text.
A disclaimer: you are, of course, entitled to your religious beliefs. But if you want to understand the history of the Jewish People, it’s important to recognize that the earliest Christians (particularly during the Christianization of the Roman Empire) and the earliest Muslims appropriated a sacred Jewish and Samaritan spiritual text and then exploited such texts to oppress Jews both in Europe and in the Middle East.
Christianity, for example, used — and changed — the Israelite concept of the Messiah. When the majority of Jews did not accept this new concept, they were persecuted. The Islamic Caliphates (empires), on the other hand, turned Jews into “People of the Book,” or dhimmis, meaning second-class citizens subject to extra taxation. Because we were “People of the Book,” but not Muslim, we had limited rights (as opposed to those who were not People of the Book, and thus had no such rights).
The Torah only makes sense as the mythologized history and laws of a people of we look at it in its proper and intended context. The concept among Indigenous Peoples that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/God is quite universal, though of course Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous, and as such, different tribes across the world have different beliefs and different ways through with which they exercise their stewardship over their lands. Similarly, the Hebrew God states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that God had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation.”
Taken out of its tribal context, however, this sounds a lot like…well, colonialism.
I personally believe that much of the resistance of the world to understand Jews as Indigenous Peoples is that in doing so, they’d have to understand that the Tanakh (or “Old Testament,” as non-Jews call it), the very foundation of so many societies, was appropriated from a confederation of Indigenous tribes.
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