PART 1 • Torah Prologue to the Torah 15



PART 1 • Torah Prologue to the Torah 16

Prologue to the Torah

1 Introduction

2 Composition Analysis

3 Narrative Design

4 Text and History

Study Guide


Ancestral covenant, Anthropomorphism, Covenant, Deuteronomic source, Documentary hypothesis, Elohim, Elohist source, Five Books of Moses, Historicity, Pentateuch, Priestly document, Source analysis, Tetrateuch, Torah, Yahweh, Yahwist, Yahwist narrative, Yhwh

Reading the Torah

Reading the Torah

The Torah is the foundation document of Judaism and the heart of the Hebrew Bible. This Jew is intently studying a Torah scroll near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Notice the prayer shawl and the tefillin (boxes that hold Torah texts) on his forehead and the strap holding one to his left arm. Torah readings and Torah ceremonies take place daily at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall, called the kotel in Hebrew, dates to the first century BCE and is a surviving portion of the retaining wall of the temple mount. It is the closest Jewish point of contact to the site of the second temple of Judaism.

Photo by Barry Bandstra, 1996.


As you learned in the “Introduction,” the Hebrew Bible, or Tanak, consists of three parts: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Each part is a collection of individual books. The Torah consists of five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. After explaining certain key terms, this chapter summarizes the story line of the Torah and then introduces general issues in the study of the Torah.

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1.1 Torah Terms

The term Torah has a variety of meanings and possible connotations. It can refer to the “T” part of the Tanak. But it can also have a much broader meaning. In early biblical tradition, torah primarily designated oral instruction and teaching of various kinds, often delivered by priests and other community leaders. According to Schniedewind, oral torah came to be written down relatively late in biblical history, and from then on it became Torah with a capital “T,” designating a corpus of documents.

In certain religious contexts, such as within temple and synagogue circles, Torah is another way to refer to divine revelation generally or the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. The Torah in its widest sense was Israel’s constitution and the foundation of its spiritual and communal life. The Torah corpus can also be referred to as the Five Books of Moses because the traditional view, examined later in this prologue, held that in addition to being the central figure in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, he was also responsible for writing the Torah books. The Torah translations of Fox (1995) and Alter (2004) both bear the title The Five Books of Moses.

Although Torah is the traditional name for the set of books that includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, many modern readers tend to call it the Pentateuch. This is a term derived from the Greek word for “five scroll jars,” which then came to designate the five scrolls themselves. You will probably find that the term Pentateuch is more often used in academic settings and the term Torah more often in religious ones.

1.2 The Torah Story

The books of the Torah tell a story that begins before the creation of the world and ends with the death of Moses. Here is a summary of the Torah’s contents, which is outlined in Table 1. Genesis contains two accounts of origins. The first relates the creation of the world, culminating with the appearance of humankind in the image of God. The second relates the creation of the first human couple, Adam and Eve. The story of subsequent human history is related beginning with the episodes of Cain killing Abel and the growth of violence on the earth. Although positive cultural developments occurred, human violence convinced God to send a flood. This flood destroyed all life on earth, except for Noah, his family, and a remnant

TABLE 1 Outline of the Torah Story

Creation Hebrews in Egypt Ritual law Ritual law Sermons of Moses
Adam and Eve in Eden Birth of Moses   Wilderness wandering Death of Moses
Noah and the flood Ten plagues      
Tower of Babel Reed (Red) Sea crossing      
Abraham Ten Commandments      
Isaac Golden calf      

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of animal life. Humanity again multiplied, but when their urban building project threatened God, he scattered them about the earth.

The remainder of Genesis relates episodes centering on the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This intergenerational family received God’s special favor along with the promise that it would inherit the land of Canaan.

The book of Exodus begins with the offspring of Jacob residing in Egypt where they were slaves to the Pharaoh. God raised up Moses to be the leader of these Hebrew people, also called the Israelites. He mediated the series of disasters that came upon the Egyptians, which paved the way for the departure of the Hebrews, called the Exodus, along with its biggest moment, the crossing of the Reed (Red) Sea. This event of disaster with deliverance was celebrated as the Passover, which is still marked today in both Jewish and Christian communities.

Moses became the channel through whom God communicated a divine design for their life as his people. The content of the constitution was delivered at Mount Sinai and consisted of the Ten Commandments, along with a large collection of other moral and ritual laws. These instructions are contained in the books of Exodus (the second half), Leviticus, and Numbers (the first half).

After building God’s portable tent dwelling, called the tabernacle, they left Mount Sinai and headed toward their eventual homeland, Canaan. Along the way, they challenged the good intentions of their God and the leadership of Moses. In response and as punishment, God relegated them to live out their existence in the wilderness of Sinai. Although God sustained their lives with miracles of food and water, the entire first generation of Hebrews perished in the wilderness without stepping foot on the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy consists of speeches that Moses addressed to the next generation, reviewing the divine laws and counseling them to remain faithful so that they would be permitted to remain in the promised land once they arrived.

The story of the Torah is presented in a linear historical fashion. It begins at the very beginning and spans the period from the appearance of the habitable earth to the point where the Israelites can enter the homeland that had been divinely set aside for them. The elaborate body of biblical law delivered through Moses is all set within this stream of historical events, not as an abstract or theoretical collection of rules. The Torah is rich with drama, narrative detail, memorable characters, and remarkable interaction with a deity who had taken up their cause. It lays the foundation for Israel’s subsequent history told in the prophetic literature, which will be examined in Part 2 of our book.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Torah is the most intensely studied section of the Hebrew Bible, both within Judaism generally and within the academic community of biblical scholars. Consequently, there is a wealth of scholarship that attempts to sort out where it came from, how it is organized, and what it means. A good deal of this study wrestles with the issue of who wrote these books and how they composed them.


Ancient practices of authorship and text production differ significantly from those of today. In biblical culture, writers did not sign their works, though some clay tablets do record the name of the scribe. The shaping of what today we call biblical “books,” in their earliest form probably parchment scrolls, came about through the collaboration of many parties and may have taken a lengthy period of time from the

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earliest oral stories to the final written product. Van der Toorn traces the emergence of scribes in Israel and their role in committing oral tradition to writing.

None of the five books of the Torah state who the author was. Other books of the Hebrew Bible use phrases such as “the Torah of Moses,” but in light of the ambiguity of the term torah, this does not necessarily imply the Mosaic authorship of any particular biblical book. In the absence of specific claims, the authorship of each book can only be based on hints and clues contained within the books themselves. Scholars offer many proposals as to the dating and authorship of the books of the Torah, but they have not achieved final agreement. As with much biblical scholarship, research can greatly increase our understanding of the text, but results are typically provisional and subject to refinement. As we will see, this is especially the case with Pentateuchal investigations.

2.1 Mosaic Authorship

Premodern Judaism and Christianity assumed that Moses was the author of the Torah, and this view is still held by some people. Early authorities, including the Jewish philosopher Philo, the Jewish historian Josephus, and various New Testament writers (see Matthew 19:7–8 and Acts 15:1), all first century CE sources, assumed that Moses was the Torah’s author, as did the Babylonian Talmud (see Baba Bathra 14b).

The assumption of Mosaic authorship developed because a number of biblical texts outside the Pentateuch appear to attribute the Torah to Moses, and people assumed the Torah was the equivalent of the books Genesis through Deuteronomy. For example, Joshua built an altar using the specifications given in “the book of the Torah of Moses” (Joshua 8:31). David charged Solomon to keep the commandments “as written in the Torah of Moses” (1 Kings 2:3). Ezra read from “the book of the Torah of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1). About this same time, the Chronicler referred to a passage from Deuteronomy as being from “the book of Moses” (2 Chronicles 25:4).

If such references to a Torah written by Moses are found in the Bible itself and in other worthy sources, why would anyone think otherwise, and why would scholars challenge Mosaic authorship? A close reading of the Torah itself reveals that the issue of authorship is actually rather complex. For example, there is the issue of the death of Moses as recorded at the end of the fifth book of the Torah. Common sense informed scholars as early as the Middle Ages that Moses could not have written the account of his own death (Deuteronomy 34:5–12). Some suggested that Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, might have appended it. Other features of the text suggest non-Mosaic authorship and a complex process of development. The text often refers to Moses in the third person he rather than the first person I, suggesting someone other than Moses wrote those sections.

In addition to linguistic clues, there are a number of what some readers consider literary lapses. In three distinct places, Genesis contains the ploy of a patriarch lying about his wife’s marital status to protect his own life—twice with Abraham and Sarah (12:10–20; 20:1–18) and once with Isaac and Rebekah (26:6–11). This suggests to scholars that one basic story circulated in three versions in different underlying documents, with all three variants being included in the final text.

Some readers affirm that Moses finalized the Torah, often out of what they feel is a principled commitment to the veracity of the text as the inspired Word of God, with its presumed references to a book of Moses. Other readers are convinced that the Torah was given its final shape much later than the lifetime of Moses. While differing

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considerably in how they reconstruct the underlying sources and the process of composition, both positions typically acknowledge that the Torah was composed from different types of oral and written material. The following section summarizes the approach of source analysis (also called source criticism), widely known as the documentary hypothesis, which attempts to rationally explain how the various materials came together. This theory posits the existence of a collection of written documents that preceded the Torah as we now have it and served as the basis for it. These documents are hypothetical in the sense that they are reconstructions done by biblical scholars, and they do not physically exist today. Scholars developed this theory as a way to account for the many inconsistencies and irregularities they observe in the Torah. Friedman (2003) is a useful tool that color codes the sources of the Pentateuch to make identifying them easier.

2.2 Documentary Hypothesis

The study of ancient texts, both secular and sacred, in their original languages blossomed during the Renaissance and Reformation. This inspired a new look at the Hebrew Bible. The existence of similar stories in Genesis (such as the aforementioned duplicate stories of Abraham and Sarah) prompted Richard Simon (1638–1712) to develop a theory that the Pentateuch was compiled from a number of sources, some of which may have derived from Moses. He claimed that the final Pentateuch was produced by Ezra in the postexilic period (400s BCE).

A variation in the way Pentateuchal texts refer to God, either as Elohim (translated as “God”) or Yhwh (pronounced Yahweh or Yahveh and rendered “the LORD” in most English translations), prompted Jean Astruc (1684–1766) to argue that Moses compiled the Pentateuch from two different written documents and other minor materials. Ironically, the approach to Mosaic authorship that Astruc advocated gave birth to the documentary hypothesis, which ultimately took the Pentateuch out of Moses’ hands.

Over the next two centuries, the documentary hypothesis developed into the dominant explanation for the authorship and composition of the Pentateuch. Essentially, this hypothesis deconstructs the Pentateuch into four primary underlying documentary sources: a Yahwist narrative dated to the 900s or 800s BCE, an Elohist source dated to the 800s or 700s BCE, a Deuteronomic source dated to the 600s BCE, and a Priestly document to the 500s or 400s BCE (see Figure 1). The

Sources and Composition of the Torah

FIGURE 1 Sources and Composition of the Torah

This time line illustrates the growth of the Torah through its various stages.

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Growth of the Torah

FIGURE 2 Growth of the Torah

documentary hypothesis goes by the acronym JEDP for the four sources in their presumed chronological order.

The classical documentary hypothesis uses five literary features to distinguish and identify the sources:


• Repetition of stories or laws

• Different ways of referring to deity

• Local geographical and political perspectives

• Variations in vocabulary and style

• Evidence of editorial activity to combine sections


The editorial work of combining the various sources took place in stages. The editor (sometimes called the redactor by scholars) who joined the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources into JE put them together shortly after 721 BCE when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Around 500 BCE, a different editor added material from a Priestly source (P), giving rise to an edition of the text called JEP, resulting in the books Genesis through Numbers essentially in the form in which we have them today. Although the Deuteronomic source was independently composed in the 600s, it was added to JEP around 400 BCE, resulting in the complete Torah as we now have it (see Figure 2).

Although none of the actual writers of the sources have been definitively identified by name, we can piece together some general features of the people responsible. Each of the sources has a distinctive style, vocabulary, and theology; each came out of a particular period in Israel’s history; and each reflects the attitude and perspective of a particular constituency within Israel (see Figure 3). Each source reflects a particular region’s political and social perspectives at particular times in Israel’s history.

2.2.1 Yahwist Narrative (J)

The earliest written source of the Torah is the Yahwist narrative. It got this name because it uses the divine name Yhwh to refer to God. Its story line formed the backbone of the Torah narrative with the other sources building upon it. The Yahwist is sometimes considered an epic because with broad historical scope it tells the story of how humankind developed and how one branch became the people of God. It frequently makes use of anthropomorphism; that is, it often describes the deity as having human characteristics, such as when Yhwh “walked” in the garden of Eden.

The Yahwist source is referred to as J in scholarly literature because German scholars first formulated this source analysis, and Yhwh begins with a J in

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Sources of the Torah by Geographical Location

FIGURE 3 Sources of the Torah by Geographical Location

German. It appears to contain the first account of where the nation of Israel came from and why it was special to God. This national story provided a common identity for all the people united under the rule of the Davidic dynasty. The Yahwist composed his story sometime during the reign of Solomon (961–922 BCE), though some scholars would date it as much as a century or more later. One way to

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remember to associate the Yahwist, or J source, with the early monarchy in Judah is that both begin with J.

The Yahwist source was written out of love for the royal house, providing a sense of history and destiny for the grand new kingdom of David. The Solomonic era was most conducive to such a historical project. This golden age had the resources and provided the opportunity to write a national epic. Royally sponsored scribal schools provided the training, royal income supported the work, and the increased international contact afforded by the new status of Israel stimulated historical reflection and perhaps even prompted the need for a national story.

The Yahwist was especially interested in those traditions that supported the legitimacy of Davidic rule and the centrality of the tribe of Judah. He (or she, if Bloom, 1990 is correct) believed that God’s plan was working itself out in the rule of David and Solomon. The Yahwist came from Judah, so understandably thought highly of King David. David was originally from Bethlehem in Judah, and first ruled from Hebron, an influential city in Judah, for many years. The Judah connection is evident in the Yahwist’s interest in Abraham. The bulk of the Abraham traditions are associated with locations in and around Judah. For example, several Yahwist stories of Abraham have him living in Hebron (Genesis 13:18; 23:2). On the other hand, the Jacob stories are generally located in the north or in Transjordan.

There are other obvious connections between the patriarch Abraham and the kingdom of David. The covenant that God made with Abraham promised that his descendants would possess the land “from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18–21). Not coincidentally, this turns out to be the extent of the nation under King David. Thus, the Yahwist epic provided supportive history and a theological foundation for David’s new empire. Going back to its primeval stories, it first exposed the need for an enlightened empire by painting a picture of human sin and natural rebellion. Then, by unfolding the groundwork of the empire in Yhwh’s promises to Abraham, it revealed the plan of Yhwh. David’s empire was its culmination.

The Yahwist is bold and honest in his portrayal of Israel’s early history. He does not overly glorify the role of Yhwh’s chosen ones and has a keen eye for human failing. Yet his eye stays fixed on the promises of Yhwh, which wend their way to fulfillment within the crucible of Israelite history.

As you read the Pentateuch, watch for these features of the Yahwist source:


• Divine promises and a curse on disobedience

• Sin as the impulse of humans to become divine

• Geographical locations within Judah

• Use of anthropomorphic imagery in relation to deity

• Use of the divine name Yhwh from beginning to end

Go to the companion website for a table showing major episodes of the Yahwist narrative and additional details of the Yahwist story line, style, and theology.

2.2.2 Elohist Source (E)

The Elohist source was written after the Yahwist source and was composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 800s or early 700s BCE by a priest. The Elohist source gets its name from its use of the Hebrew word elohim to refer to the deity. Elohim is a general word for God, as opposed to the personal divine name

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Yhwh. The -im ending of the word is the typical plural ending of nouns. Occasionally this leads to ambiguity because technically elohim could be rendered “gods” or “god.” When the word elohim appears in the Hebrew text, typically we will render it Elohim rather than translate it as deity, god, or God. The Elohist source has survived only as fragments that were inserted into the Yahwist narrative. It is not nearly as extensive, at least in its recoverable form, as the other sources.

Fragments of the Elohist source can be found in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers and maybe even in Joshua and Judges. The Elohist source appears for the first time at Genesis 20 in which Elohim appeared in a dream rather than directly to individuals as we tend to find in the Yahwist epic. The Elohist source favors a distant deity who comes in dreams or in the form of an angel. In contrast to the Yahwist narrative, the Elohist source refers to Sinai as Horeb and to the Canaanites as Amorites.

The Elohist author lived in the northern kingdom after the breakup of the Davidic kingdom, probably sometime in the 800s BCE. The northern kingdom was ruled by a succession of dynasties. The largest tribal territory in the northern kingdom, called Israel after the breakup, was Ephraim. Because the tribe of Ephraim was immense and politically dominant, the whole northern territory was sometimes called Ephraim. An easy way to remember that this source is from the north is that both Elohist and Ephraim begin with E.

The Elohist was a reflective theologian and probably a Levite. Based on his attitudes, he probably did not hold a position in the royal court, but authorities cannot be more precise than this. Whoever he was, his perspective was conditioned by the theological and political difficulties of Israel in the 800s BCE.

While the Yahwist believed that God would overcome the problem of sin and extend blessing to all the families of the earth through the Davidic empire, the Elohist lived at a time when the national mood was less optimistic. Israel was struggling with its identity. Deity seemed distant; the people were spiritually adrift, finding themselves drawn to Canaanite Baal worship. The Levites had something to say about this and drew upon stories that reinforced Israel’s special relationship with God.

As you read the Pentateuch, watch for these features of the Elohist source:


• Sensitivity to the moral implications of human decisions

• The fear of God as a recurring human reaction

• God revealing himself in dreams

• Heroic faithful individuals presented as prophets

• Use of the term Elohim for deity or the divine name El until the time of Moses, after which it is Yhwh

Refer to the companion website for a table showing major episodes of the Elohist source and additional details of the Elohist story line, style, and theology.

2.2.3 Combined Yahwist–Elohist Epic (JE)

The joining of the Yahwist and Elohist sources into JE—what some scholars call the “Old Epic” tradition and others the “Jehovistic source”—took place shortly after the fall of Israel in 721 BCE. The northern Levite author of the Elohist source fled south to Judah after the Assyrian invasion, taking his writings with him. He ended up in Jerusalem, and King Hezekiah used both the Elohist and Yahwist materials as the manifesto for a national religious revival. Putting these two traditions together supported the legitimacy of the Davidic line, of which Hezekiah was a part,

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and also promoted the religious and moral devotion that was at the heart of the Elohist tradition.

The Yahwist source remained the primary text, and material from the Elohist source was incorporated into it. It is understandable that the two sources would be joined together. Both had the same basic scope, though the Elohist did not have any preancestral stories, and both the Yahwist and Elohist sources shared the fundamental convictions that Yhwh is the God of the Israelites and that he must be worshiped by his people. Perhaps the combination of these two national stories, one from the north and one from the south, also promoted a sense of unity among the people. Those from the north who fled to the south and found a home there after 721 BCE now had a voice in the national story.

2.2.4 Deuteronomic Source (D)

Scholarly consensus has it that the core of Deuteronomy, or the Deuteronomic source (D), is the book that Hilkiah found in the temple and presented to Josiah in 622 BCE (see 2 Kings 22). Thus, the Deuteronomic source follows the Yahwist, Elohist, and JE sources in composition order. It differs significantly in that it was not combined with the other sources into a larger work. Although the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly sources were combined together to create Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the book of Deuteronomy stands apart from these four books. It does, however, continue the story line of the preceding books and provides the conclusion to the life of Moses.

Deuteronomy also differs from the preceding four books of the Pentateuch in that it is not so much an account of events as it is a collection of Moses’ sermons to the Israelites just before they entered the promised land. It has a style quite different from that of the preceding books. Most of it is addressed directly to the Israelites.

Deuteronomy is distinctive and has the following characteristics:


• Its core consists of Moses’s sermonic addresses to the second-generation of Israelites who had left Egypt.

• It takes place in Transjordan immediately before the conquest of Canaan.

• It generally refers to deity as Yhwh and also employs the phrase “Yhwh your Elohim.”

• It refers to Mount Sinai as Horeb, as does the Elohist source.


Although Deuteronomy was composed later than J and E, it contains traditions such as Deuteronomy 33 that can be traced back to Israel’s tribal origins. It appears that Levites, who previously lived in the northern kingdom of Israel, are the ones responsible for preserving this material and shaping it into the book. In this regard, it has certain affinities with the Elohist source. Details of the style and concepts of Deuteronomy will be dealt with in more detail in RTOT Chapter 5.

2.2.5 Priestly Document (P)

The Priestly document is the last of the four great Pentateuchal documents. It comes out of the circle of priests who revived Israel’s soul after the political and spiritual tragedy of the Babylonian exile. Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in the early 500s BCE, and many survivors of the disaster were taken to Babylonia as refugees. The trauma of this exile prompted the survivors to conclude that the

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tragedy happened because they had forsaken their covenant with God. In exile they were at risk of losing their social and religious identity, so priests took the initiative to sustain the faith of the refugees and rebuild their identity. In the absence of temple worship, these priests gave traditional religious practices new significance, particularly the observance of the Sabbath day and the covenant ritual of circumcision.

The Priestly source is usually dated to the period of the Babylonian exile (587–539 BCE) or to the postexilic period immediately thereafter. The priests recovered and recorded religious traditions so that the identity of the community would not be lost. They sought to reinforce covenant practices in repentance for past neglect and to avert a subsequent and possibly worse tragedy in the future.

The Priestly tradition also dealt with the problem of defining Judean faith in contrast to Babylonian religion. How do other nations and empires fit into our God’s plan? How can we affirm the power of our Yhwh when we live in a world dominated by Babylonians, who trumpet the power of their god, Marduk? Why does our God seem to be silent as we suffer? By addressing such issues in its writings and rituals, priestly theology sought to adapt Israelite faith to circumstances in the 500s BCE.

The writer of the Priestly source envisioned a world ordered and controlled by Yhwh. Israel’s history was progressing according to their deity’s predetermined plan. God was in total control, and the world was secure and stable. Israel’s relationship with Yhwh was ordered by covenant. Even when Israel alienated itself from its deity, there were sacrifices and rituals that could atone for faithlessness. Indeed, Yhwh was a demanding God, but what he wanted was to bless Israel. These assurances inspired hope in the hearts of demoralized and struggling Israelites.

As you read the Pentateuch, watch for these features of the Priestly source:


• Divine blessing becomes evident in population growth.

• Covenants define stages in human relationships with deity.

• Genealogies indicate connections among individuals and peoples.

• Priests have prominent social and religious roles within the community.

• References to deity change from Elohim in the primeval period, to El Shaddai in the ancestral period, ending with Yhwh in the Mosaic period.

Go to the companion website for a table showing major episodes of the Priestly document and additional details of the Priestly story line, style. and theology.

Table 2 shows the characteristics of all the sources.

TABLE 2 Characteristics of the Sources


Yahwist Source

Elohist Source


Priestly Source
Abbreviation J E D P
Dates BCE 900s 800–700s 600s 500–400s
Location Judah Israel Judah Exile or Judah
Divine designation Yhwh Elohim Yhwh Elohim (primeval story)
    El   El Shaddai (ancestral story)
Yhwh beginning with Moses
Yhwh (Israel)

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2.3 Current Status of the Documentary Hypothesis

Academic biblical scholarship never stands still; one generation’s “assured” results will inevitably be reexamined and revised by the next generation. This is certainly the case with the classical documentary hypothesis. Although some scholars continue to reject source analysis outright because it conflicts with their preconceived notions of divine inspiration and biblical authorship, many scholars accept the general outlines of the theory. The hypothesis continues to be taken seriously by scholars and continues to be taught because it takes the data of the text seriously and tries to make sense of it. Just because features of the hypothesis continue to be debated does not mean that thinking about the Torah as the result of a lengthy process of composition is in question.

Recent scholarly discussion regarding the documentary hypothesis strives to align it more accurately with other literary and historical research generated in the field of biblical studies. On the basis of linguistic data, Friedman (2003) advocates an earlier date for the Priestly source, placing it shortly after JE rather than the traditional exilic/postexilic date. The coherence of the Yahwist narrative and the claim that is the epic core of the Pentateuch has been called into question (see Dozeman, 2006). The existence of an originally independent Elohist source has always been problematic. There has also been more focus on the composition history of the reputed individual sources J, E, D, and P themselves. Despite such uncertainties and questions of detail, the field has established that the Torah has a composition history spanning many centuries, and there is no going back to the time before the documentary hypothesis.

Go to the companion website for a discussion of the documentary hypothesis: refinements, revisions, and alternate hypotheses.

The documentary hypothesis has continued to be a force in biblical studies—attested, for example, by the popularity of Friedman’s many books and articles that continue to promote it—and needs to be understood by all students of the biblical text. Any recent decline in interest is due more to new ways of reading the Torah than to questions about the theory’s validity. Newer approaches tend more to focus on the overall literary shape of the text (structuralism and new literary criticism), or on conceptual relationships to other biblical books (canonical criticism), or on the way these texts have shaped or can shape social and cultural values (liberationist and post-colonial criticism).

Whether the sources were oral or written or a combination of both is not entirely clear. When they arose is not clear either. Still, for many students of the Torah, continuing to view it as having arisen out a combination of basic sources is a productive way to begin thinking about the shape of the literature and the theology of the writers. Reference to sources and their implied background permeates scholarship on the Torah and continues to be actively employed. One cannot join the conversation on the Pentateuch without a knowledge of source analysis.

The use of source analysis in RTOT does not imply a full endorsement of it. It is used alongside other reading techniques, including literary and linguistic analysis, form criticism, canonical criticism, and postmodern prespectives. All these methods together constitute the toolkit of an informed readership. Our goal as students of the text is to immerse ourselves in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, and the use of these methods forces all of us to face the Bible on its own terms. Reading the text closely is

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where the real fun of interpretation begins. If these methods help us attend more closely to the text and our context of reading it, then they are worth using.


If we read the Torah with our eyes focused only on the microfeatures of the text, especially if we are looking for underlying sources, we risk overlooking the architectural unity of the text. The Torah has a remarkable wholeness and unity that overcomes the complexity of its composition, and we need to note and affirm this before we dig into the texts themselves. Keeping the macrostructure in mind will serve to keep our close readings in perspective.

The Torah achieves its narrative unity in a number of ways. First of all, the story moves in linear fashion from creation through the period of ancestors to the nation of Israel, and this makes it easy to follow. The deity who directs this story retains the same character and upholds the same promises throughout, even if he is known by different names at different times. The following sections describe other complementary schemes that work together to achieve narrative unity.

3.1 Priestly Covenants

The Yahwist narrative may have been responsible for the backbone of the event line in Genesis involving the creation of humanity, the first rebellious impulses, and the turn to Abraham. This sequence set the parameters of God’s challenge to create a people obedient to him. The Elohist source supplemented this story line, and the Priestly writers added their own episodes and created continuity to the event line by using genealogies.

In addition, the Priestly writer employed a series of covenants to add theological structure to Israel’s relationship with God and a macrostructure organization to history. In the biblical world, a covenant was a basic structure, a legal metaphor, whereby two parties pledge their abiding commitment. The general schema of history developed by the Priestly writer is worked out in three covenants (Table 3). Each covenant was accompanied by a distinctive indicator or sign, labeled with the Hebrew word ‘ot, as evidence that it was in force. The Priestly writer also distinguished each era by the name that the deity used to make himself known to people.

TABLE 3 Covenants and Signs

The Priestly source contributes a sequence of three covenants to the narrative that function to structure it into three successive historical periods. Each period has a distinctive way in which people relate to deity.






‘ot Text
Primeval All creatures Elohim Noah Rainbow Genesis 9:12
Ancestral Patriarchs El Shaddai Abraham Circumcision Genesis 17:11
All Israel
Exodus 31:13, 17

3.1.1 Creation Covenant

Elohim made the first covenant with all living things through Noah after the flood. The covenant contains the promise that God will never again destroy the earth by flood and gave the rainbow as a natural sign of hope. This is the first recorded

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covenant in the Hebrew Bible. It established a binding relationship between God and the earth. In this covenant, there is no reciprocity, no return pledge of loyalty from humankind or any other creature. All living things are the gracious recipient of God’s promise to preserve life indefinitely. The rainbow signifies God’s eternal commitment to this covenant.

3.1.2 Ancestral Covenant

The ancestral covenant through Abraham, recorded in Genesis 17, is more restricted, being tribal in scope. In this covenant, God assures the ancestral family that it will become a nation under his care and protection. This covenant differs from the creation covenant in that it required the ancestral family to demonstrate commitment on its part: the circumcision of all males in the ancestral household.

3.1.3 Israelite Covenant

The third great Priestly covenant was mediated by Moses at Mount Sinai and marks the last defining moment of divine–human bonding in the Priestly history. This covenant, made with all the people of Israel, was regulated by an extensive set of laws and regulations, which are now contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The people expressed their solidarity with God in this covenant by observing the Sabbath day, called the “sign of the covenant” in Exodus 31:12–18, and by keeping the other laws.

3.1.4 Covenant and Exile

Each of the three covenants marks a significant development in God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Each covenant has a specific sign attached to it whereby the continuation of the covenant would be evident. The special importance of the last two signs becomes clear in the context of the origin of the Priestly source in the Babylonian exile. All three are called eternal covenants (Genesis 9:16, 17:7; Exodus 31:16), and the signs of circumcision and Sabbath observance became the covenant community’s primary identifying symbols in the exilic period and after.

During those times when the people were expatriates, as the result of conquest and deportation or by choice, these rituals became the primary means of expressing religious affiliation because they could be practiced anywhere. Even though the people might not be in Jerusalem—the only place where temple rituals and sacrifices could be rightly performed—they could still do their religious duty by performing circumcision and observing the Sabbath.

3.2 Promissory Structure

In addition to the series of Priestly covenants that structure history, the Torah views Israel’s experience as the fulfillment of divine promises. It presents Israel’s history as goal oriented and divinely driven. The promises specifically concerned posterity, eventually leading to nationhood, a homeland, and a perpetual divine presence.

Clines (1978, 29) argues that promise is the heart of the Torah:

The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfillment—which implies also the partial non-fulfillment—of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions for man. The promise has three elements: posterity, divine–human relationship, and land. The posterity-element

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of the promise is dominant in Genesis 12–50, the relationship-element in Exodus and Leviticus, and the land-element in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

If promise and fulfillment are the defining issues of the Torah, then the question must be asked why the Torah ends without fulfillment. Deuteronomy concludes with the death of Moses and the Israelites on the edge of the promised land without possession of it. This tension raised a rather large issue that bears on the overall meaning of the Torah and concerns how Deuteronomy relates to the preceding four books.

By the end of the fifth century BCE, there were two major collections of material. The first was constituted by JEP and consists of Genesis through Numbers. Scholars call this the Tetrateuch (on analogy with the term Pentateuch)—a set of four books. The second was Deuteronomy through Kings, the Deuteronomistic history (we will study this in depth in RTOT, Part 2.) The Tetrateuch covered the early history of the nation from creation to conquest. The Deuteronomistic history told the story of the rise and fall of Israel, from conquest to exile. Each collection has its own integrity and perspective.

The compilers of the Hebrew Bible did not, however, divide their material along these lines; the major break in the canon comes after Deuteronomy, not before it. Theologically speaking, a Tetrateuch would be more natural because those books share the three sources J, E, and P. Why then did the early Jewish community of faith structure the early books as a Pentateuch and not a Tetrateuch when they designed the Hebrew Bible?

The answer has a great deal to do with when and where the Torah took shape. The Torah was formed in an exilic or early postexilic setting to provide a theological vision for the Jewish people. These people came to reside not just in Palestine but also throughout the Persian empire. Those who survived the exile needed a narrative and legal tradition that could ground their communal and religious life. The priests naturally turned to Moses as the great lawgiver. Because, in addition to Exodus through Numbers, Deuteronomy provided legal material attributed to Moses, it was included in this core community document, thus creating a Pentateuch.

More particularly, the Torah took shape as a document for a people “on the road,” which is to say, an alienated and disparate people who have not yet reached the promised land. For many, it was still a geographical alienation; for most, it was also a spiritual and existential alienation. In positing a Pentateuch, with the resulting major break falling between Deuteronomy and Joshua, the community of faith affirmed this basic historical and theological fact: The people of Yhwh are continually moving from promise to fulfillment. They have not yet “arrived”—they never really do. Like Moses, the exilic and postexilic people can only view the promised land from a distance. By not including the conquest of Canaan, as recorded in the book of Joshua, the hope of these people resonated with that of their forefathers. Like their forefathers, they too would gain possession of the land . . . someday. The structure of the Pentateuch affirms that Yhwh’s people are ever and always a community of hope.


The Torah begins at the beginning, with creation. The exact date of creation presumably could be calculated by following the genealogical notices of the Hebrew Bible—many genealogies provide life spans—and working backwards. Bishop James

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Ussher (1581–1656) did just that and determined that the universe was born on 4004 BCE. Based on the Priestly genealogies of Genesis 1–11, the span from creation to the flood was 1656 years and from the flood to Abraham, 290 years. Because these genealogies incorporate immense life spans, as many as 969 years in the case of Methuselah, they are of questionable value in determining real dates. Yet Ussher’s chronology was widely accepted and was printed in the margins of many Bibles even into the twentieth century.

Of course, establishing the chronology of the Hebrew Bible is not quite so simple, and contemporary science tells us that the universe is at least 15 billion years old. Here is what we can say about Torah and time. The books of the Torah are in chronological order, with events moving in a linear fashion from creation through the ancestors and into the period of Moses and early Israel. But there is no Torah-internal dating scheme that positions events absolutely in reference to each other, nothing like the notations BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) that we use today.

Within the Hebrew Bible, the exodus out of Egypt seems to be the pivotal point of history, and other events are dated in reference to it. For example, Aaron’s death (Numbers 33:38) and the construction of the temple (1 Kings 6:1) are specified relative to the Exodus. The internal evidence for the ancestral period enables us to determine that the time from Abram’s migration to Canaan until Jacob and his family moved to Egypt was 215 years; the length of time that the Hebrews were in Egypt was 430 years (Exodus 12:40). After the Exodus, Israel remained in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan for 40 years.

The time indication that can be correlated most directly with absolute chronology is the 480 years from the Exodus to the beginning of temple construction in Solomon’s fourth year, as stated in 1 Kings 6:1. Because the fourth year of Solomon’s reign can be dated to 964 BCE, this places the Exodus in 1444 BCE. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the evidence of Exodus 1:11, which mentions that the Hebrews were engaged as slaves to build the Egyptian cities Pithom and Rameses. These cities in turn have been associated with the reign of the pharaoh Ramses II (1290–1224 BCE). The result is a discrepancy of approximately two centuries. Based on the confluence of archaeological, historical, and textual evidence, the generally accepted date of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt is around 1280 BCE.

There is no definitive way to locate the ancestors within absolute chronology. There is no external Egyptian or Mesopotamian evidence that can verify when or even if the patriarchs and matriarchs existed. About all that authorities are left with is to infer from circumstantial evidence when Abraham, Sarah, and the other ancestors best fit in, based on linguistic and cultural features of the biblical stories about them. Some interpreters place them in the Middle Bronze I Age (2000–1800 BCE). This is based primarily on the description of the ancestors as seminomadic clans similar to the Amorites who moved through the Old Babylonian empire, as described in documents from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari. Other interpreters place them in the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BCE), based on certain social practices that are attested at another ancient city called Nuzi.

So-called historical minimalist scholars argue that the ancestral stories were written very late and that we should not infer that the events really happened or even that the ancestors ever existed (see Davies, 2000). Others argue that the stories, although admittedly written well after the fact, retain a valid remembrance of historical figures

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and fit what we know of the second millennium based on other sources (see Dever, 2000, and Maidman, 2006). With Moses and early Israel, the situation is only slightly better. Though Moses is not attested outside the Bible, there are some clues in Exodus that may provide connections to Egyptian and Palestinian history (the relevant data will be treated later in the appropriate chapters of RTOT).

Uncertainties regarding biblical chronology and the question of the very existence of the early figures of biblical history inevitably raise the question of the Bible’s historicity. Readers may want to know if the events described in the Torah—and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible for that matter—are fictional or true. And if they happened, was it in the way described? Our discussion of the written traditions of the Torah suggests this is not an easy issue. The biblical text that we have before us is surely not a firsthand travelogue, nor can it be in its entirety an eyewitness record of what happened. It has been deliberately shaped and molded so as to present Israel’s historical experience in a way relevant to the concerns at the times it was written.

This is not to suggest that subversive or misleading intentions lurk behind the process. Rather, the contemporary framing of past experience is inevitable, and it is a good and necessary thing. All history writing is a selective and intentional appropriation of the past. Recollection of the past on the part of biblical writers is imperfect at best, which is no doubt especially the case with the earliest historical eras of the book of Genesis. All history writing is done inevitably from a certain point of view that incorporates the writer’s individual personality and larger cultural setting. Source analysis in all its forms and permutations attempts to identify just such factors.

Although there is a necessary subjectivity to history writing, this does not imply that all history writing is equally subjective. Some writing may be more or less faithful to the events themselves, and personal or political agendas may distort that writer’s account of events. That is why critical study of the biblical text, indeed of all writing, is essential. Understanding a text involves more than just understanding what the words mean. It also involves grasping the reasons why it was written, in light of who wrote it and when. This is an imperfect science, an impossible achievement, yet a necessary goal.

It’s also a fascinating one, too, especially where the biblical text is concerned. The Hebrew Bible presents us with an account of Israel’s history and ancestors. By reading between the lines, it also presents us with how Israel’s thinkers interpreted these events and how they related these events to their concept of deity. By doing our historical and literary research, we are able to reconstruct their worldview—for them, their human experience in the context of divine reality.

With all serious study, there can be a range of positions on the basic issues. When it comes to the study of Israel’s historical works, this is especially true. On one side are those who accept every historical statement in the Hebrew Bible as fact, pure and simple. Often such readers are predisposed to the Bible’s complete accuracy out of their conviction that it must be inerrant if it is the Word of God. On the other side are those who are suspicious of every biblical statement and tend to consider the text fundamentally unreliable because the biblical writers believed that a God actually intervened in human history. Such readers are sometimes called historical minimalists and tend to view all Torah sources as late.

This book is somewhere in the middle. It values the contributions of modern studies of the Pentateuch and advocates their use as a means to enter into the

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mind and worldview of the ancient writers. While it takes a rational, or what is in biblical studies called a historical–critical, approach to the text, RTOT also honors the Hebrew Bible as a sacred text. Of course, this position will be unsatisfying to parties on the poles, with precritical readers charging that it tears apart the Bible and hypercritical readers charging that a moderate position is historically naive. No doubt the debate will continue long after this book is out of print.


Key Concepts

1. Mosaic authorship. What are the main arguments for and against Mosaic authorship of the Torah?

2. Documentary hypothesis. Why did the modern study of the Pentateuch give rise to the documen- tary hypothesis? Why and in what ways has source theory been questioned in recent scholarship?

3. Source documents. What are the four literary sources of the Pentateuch according to the documentary hypothesis? What are the distinguishing characteristics of the sources?

4. Torah themes. What are some unifying themes of the Torah?

5. Historicity. What is the most probable date for the time of Moses? What problems arise in trying to establish dates for the early figures of Israel’s history?

Discussion Questions

1. Composition. How might compositional issues in the study of the Torah affect your attitude toward the biblical text and its truth value?

2. Factuality. Is it important to prove that Israel’s ancestors and Moses actually existed?

Reading the Text Today

The Five Books of Moses, by E. Fox (1995), is a transla- tion of the Torah done in such a way that it recovers the rhythm and power of the original language more effectively than most other renditions. It expresses all names in their Hebrew phonetic form, which has the effect of making the text more authentic and culturally distant, which it most certainly is. For close study of the Pentateuch in the mode of the documentary hypothesis, Sources of the Pentateuch: Texts, Introductions, Annotations, by A. F. Campbell and M. A. O’Brien (1993, 2000), is indispensable. It provides the source documents in continuous form, along with detailed notes and conceptual summaries.