Moses And The Pentateuch Part 1

Some critics say that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch. Read what the Head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature in the University of Sheffield has to say.

The first five books of the Old Testament have traditionally been called the Books of Moses, or (comprehensively) the Book of the Law of Moses. We may find them referred to in this way in both the Old and New Testaments. They have received this name not only because, from the second chapter of Exodus to the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is the dominant figure; but also because of a belief that he wrote at least a substantial part of them. Some Jewish Rabbis went so far as to declare that he even wrote the account of his own death in the last chapter of Deuteronomy “with tears” by the spirit of prophecy.

In the pages of the Pentateuch itself (as these five books are commonly called, from Greek pente, “five,” and tenchos, “a roll”), Moses is explicitly said to have put various things in writing. These are (1) a record of the Israelites’ journeys through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 33. 2), in which he included such items as (2) the divine decree against Amalek (Ex. 17. 14); besides this journal he is said to have written (3) the first body of legislation delivered to him on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24. 4), and (4) subsequent additional matter (Ex. 34. 28); (5) the Deuteronomic legislation nearly 40 years later (Deut. 31. 9, 24), and (6) the “Song of Moses” recorded in Deut. 32 (Deut. 31. 19, 22).

To the question whether Moses could have written this or anything else a plain answer can immediately be given. Certainly he could. There were current in his time not only the complicated hieroglyphic script of Egypt and the cuneiform (or “wedge-shaped”) writing of Western Asia, but also the earliest kind of alphabetic writing, which had been introduced two or three centuries before his time and brought the arts of reading and writing within the capacity of common people. Moses, brought up as he was in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7. 22), was probably well versed in all three methods of writing, and perhaps others as well. No well-informed person now argues (as quite well-informed persons did 50 years ago) that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, just as Homer could not have written the Greek epics ascribed to him, because writing was not known in their days.

A good part of the Pentateuch consists of legislation – both civil law and what we should nowadays call canon law (that is, the law affecting the manner of divine worship). Now, law-codes were commonplace in the Middle East in the second millennium B.C. We know of the law-codes of the Babylonians and Assyrians in Mesopotamia, of the Hurrians (who are called Horites in the Bible) in North-eastern Mesopotamia, and of the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor. These nations also had their ritual laws. And much interesting information about the ritual practices and religious beliefs of the Canaanites has been discovered in tablets found nearly 20 years ago at Ras Shamra, in North Syria, which are to be dated more or less around the time of Moses.

When we compare the Pentateuchal legislation with these other records, we are struck by important contrasts; the Biblical laws are throughout dominated by a sense of the unspeakable holiness of Jehovah, the God of Israel, who will tolerate no worship beside His own; and they breathe, too, a humane and democratic spirit which excludes the thought of “one law for the rich and another for the poor,” which appears in these other law-codes. But the existence of these other law-codes at this time does show that there is nothing anachronistic in the Biblical record of the Israelites having also had an elaborate law-code then.

Many readers of the Old Testament laws must have wondered what was the point of the repeated prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23. 19; 34. 26; Deut. 14. 21). To this day observant Jews, by an extension of the supposed principle of this prohibition, avoid taking milk and flesh at one and the same meal, and thus are unable to have most forms of what we know as a “cooked tea.” Christian commentators have generally concluded that some humanitarian principle is intended. But the discoveries at Ras Shamra throw light on the matter. The particular action here prohibited was in vogue among the Canaanites as part of a magical rite; the Israelites were thus enjoined not to imitate this or similar practices which formed part of Canaanite paganism. But note: this prohibition can be understood only against the background of the 14th century B.C. or thereabout. This is one example out of many where the ritual legislation of the Pentateuch has been proved to reflect (by contrast as much as by comparison) the conditions prevailing in Western Asia at that time – which was roughly the time of Moses. Other examples ate provided by the technical terms for many of the sacrificial offerings enumerated in the Book of Leviticus. These were not late inventions; the names for “whole burnt offering,” “offering made by fire,” “guilt offering,” and so forth, are found in those same Ras Shamra tablets. True, they are found there in a pagan and polytheistic context, whereas they are used in Leviticus in association with the pure worship of the one living and true God; but that is not the point with which we are concerned at present. It has often been contended that the course of religious development demands that a complex system of ritual such as we find in Leviticus must be the result of a long process of evolution. In fact, the converse is the truth; the complex comes early, the simple comes late. In the first books of the Bible we have the complex Levitical ritual; in the last books of the Bible we have the simple, spiritual Christian worship with a marked freedom from rites and ceremonies and detailed regulations about procedure.1 The Levitical ritual belongs to an early period, and archaeological findings suggest that that period is exactly the period to which the Old Testament record itself ascribes the Levitical ritual. And what is true of ritual we shall see in future papers on this page to be true in other spheres as well.



If it be argued that the development of elaborate ritual in some Christian communities from the simple practice of New Testament times disproves this contention, the answer is that this “development” is thoroughly retrograde in character. But this is a long story which cannot be treated in a footnote.


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