The Rational Believer

A Five Volume Series on Jewish Faith

Vol. 1, The Torah: G-d-Given or Man-Made?

Who Wrote the Torah?

Overview: In this fascinating chapter, we discuss who wrote the Torah, known as the Five Books of Moses, how to deal with terminology issues, and the consequences of the different answers to this question.

Jewish tradition states firmly that Moses wrote the Torah—that is to say, not only were the Laws and Commandments given to him to teach the Israelites, but he also wrote the very text of the Torah. How does this fit in light of the Documentary Hypothesis that analyzes the Torah, attempting to find differences in wording between various chapters to prove that there were in fact multiple authors to the Torah? In fact, computer programs designed to detect authorship by means of literature such as choice of wording have found the Torah to contain multiple authors.[i] This is regarded as a major blow to believers. So how can this be explained?

For starters, is there any source within the Torah stating that Moses wrote it, or is it only a rabbinic tradition?

Although not absolutely clear, Moses’ signature does seem to appear toward the closing of the Torah in the end of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 31:24 says:

“And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion.”

This seems to be referring to the Pentateuch and not merely a smaller chapter within it. Now, although “Torah” is actually defined as “instruction” and doesn’t originally mean the Five Books of Moses, here it would seem that it is going on the usual definition of Torah—the Five Books of Moses. This is because the verse doesn’t come after any list of Mitzvos (which can be called “Torah”—i.e. instructions) but rather after a story-line. Moreover, taking a look in another place in Scripture sheds light on the meaning of Torah here. Here it says “when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll…” The term “this Torah Scroll” is also used in Deuteronomy 28:61, referring to the Pentateuch and not merely a set of laws mentioned before it (because no laws were mentioned before it). That verse indicates that the phrase “Torah” as a reference to the Pentateuch was already established within the terminology of the Torah itself. Hence, when it says, “Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll” it would seem to be referring to the Pentateuch and not just a specific chapter of it containing Mitzvos.[1]

Despite this, though, there still is the possibility that the word “Torah” was only referring to the last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. It is only our tradition that tells us that it was Moses who wrote the entire Pentateuch.

But there do seem to be various places in the Torah which seem to exclude the possibility of Moses being the author of the Torah. We will now go through them and attempt to explain how it fits with the “Moses model”:

The last eight verses of the Pentateuch describe Moses’ death. How could the author himself describe his very own death?

There are two approaches to this question in the Talmud.[ii] The first and more fitting one is that Moses himself wrote it at the command of the Lord; as if this is the only biblical prophecy![2]

Another approach is that Joshua, the disciple and successor of Moses, completed the last eight verses. Ibn Ezra, a twelfth-century rabbinic commentator, takes this even further. He suggests that Joshua wrote these last verses in addition to a few other editions to the Bible,[iii] including the verses we are going to discuss. His suggestion, though possible, seems unfitting, for there’s no reason to say what he is suggesting based on the answers we are going to now provide for those instances.[3]

And no man knows the [area of] his burial to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). This phrase is easily understood based on the opinion cited earlier that Joshua wrote this verse. According to the other opinion that Moses wrote these verses prophetically, the will of the Lord that no one should ever know Moses’ burial site was also prophesied. So whenever one reads this verse—at any given time—the phrase would apply to his times as well. This is similar to the earlier phrase of “And Moses died… and was buried”—both in the past tense for the sake of the reader’s perspective—not the author’s. This explanation can be applied as well to the will of G-d that no prophet in the future shall surpass Moses’ level of prophecy: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

 

“And Abram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land. (Genesis 12:6)

The inclusion of the word “then” seems to exclude a different time-frame in which Canaanites weren’t in the Land. This time is generally thought to be the time after which the Jews conquered the Land from the Canaanites. This, though, only happened after the days of Moses, so how could he have written it?

According to the Moses Model, we can easily explain the word “then” to exclude a different time in which the Canaanites didn’t occupy the Land. Rashi suggests that the Land was originally, i.e. prior to the days of Abraham (of whose times the verse speaks of), inhabited by the children of Shem and it was only afterwards that the Canaanites conquered it from them. The Torah in this verse specifies that when Abraham traveled to Canaan it was already after the time in history that the Canaanites conquered the Land from the Semites.

Moreover, we can even explain the term “then” to be in contrast to later, when the Jews would conquer the Land. Moses was certain that the Jews were about to conquer the Land from the Canaanites. So, because the primary recipients of the Torah were the succeeding generations after Moses’ time—and not just his very contemporary generation (even though many of them would also be entering the Land of Israel)—he therefore wrote it talking to them, as if from their perspective.

 

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.” (Deuteronomy 1:1)

Israel/Canaan is separated from Jordan by a river known as the Jordan River. The “other side of the Jordan [river]” was a reference to literally the other side of that river. Moses, for some reason, chose to write “the other side” of the river when describing the place where he was at that very time! That seems odd, to say the least. Skeptics get a kick out of this and claim that obviously the Torah had to have been written in Israel at a later time in history—but not by Moses.

But this question can be easily answered. The Jews were then coming from Egypt and the Wilderness and crossed over to the other side of the Jordan River.[4] Now, even though they were already on the Jordanian side of the River when the Torah was written by Moses, Moses still preferred to write “the other side of the Jordan [River]” to describe the very location where he was at. The reason is simple: the location was known as such from the geographic locations of Egypt and the Wilderness (which are both west of the River just as Israel/Canaan is)—the places where the Israelites were coming from.

Additionally, we can explain based on the explanation given earlier regarding Canaan, that because the primary recipients of the Torah were the later generations who were to reside in Israel, he therefore wrote things from their perspective—this included.

 

“And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the children of Israel:(Genesis 36:31)

The first King of the Jews was Saul who reigned about three hundred years after Moses had died. So why did Moses write “before any king reigned over the Children of Israel”? To which Jewish King was he referring to? The wording suggests that a late author of the Torah wrote this verse after the times of Saul, and therefore found it important to write such a statement.

But the Moses Model has it easy here as well. Firstly, Firstly, Moses was pretty much a king in most regards. For example, see Deuteronomy 33:5 where he is called a king. So our verse in discussion may have been referring to him.

Secondly, Moses was a Prophet and could have easily known that the Jews would soon have a king. Just as by the previous verses in discussion, here too we can suggest that Moses was writing in the perspective of the primary recipients of the Torah who were the later generations who were to have kings (and Moses knew they would have a king because of the commandment to have king[iv]).

It should be noted that the rabbinic commentator Ibn Ezra indeed hints out the possibility for Joshua to have written some of these verses we finished discussing.[v] However, this seems unfitting in light of the general rabbinic outlook of the authorship of the Torah being exclusive to Moses.

 

Now, having established the basis and support of the rabbinic belief in the Moses Model, we still need to address the issue of how multiple authors seem to be represented in the literature, as Bible scholars and software programs suggest.

In the Moses Model there is the possibility for there to have been multiple authors. But isn’t Moses just one person? Yes, he is; but it is and was a normal thing for works of great people to be written by their scribes. We can suggest that Moses had multiple scribes working under him writing what he commanded them to and afterwards he would look-over and edit the works. The work would then be considered to have been his work.[5] It was a typical practice for kings at the time to have scribes although their writings are attributed to the king himself.

Similarly, another possibility is that Moses indeed wrote the Torah himself, except that the choice-of-wording in his vocabulary changed throughout the 40 years in the Wilderness. The Torah was written—by Moses—at separate times throughout the 40 years and not necessarily in one shot—as is suggested in the Talmud[vi] and as it seems from the Torah itself.[6]

 

Leaving this whole Moses Model approach aside, we can even hold of the Documentary Hypothesis of which Moses doesn’t even know of the Torah. Let us take the possibility for the rabbinic tradition to have been flawed regarding the origins and authorship of the Torah (—a possibility I personally don’t hold of yet consider a remote possibility). Moses didn’t write the Torah; it was written by later Prophets. Let us regard the verses which seem to bear Moses signature as not clear enough (especially relative to the evidence that suggest multi-authorship). Yet despite this position, will this bear any significance to the accuracy and divine origins of the Torah? Why can’t it be that the late authors were legitimate Prophets who wrote what the Lord told them to?[7] The Pentateuch is known as legitimately divine based off the evidence discussed earlier and that would apply whether or not Moses was the author or not.[8]


[1] We make no mention of Deuteronomy 31:9 because that would seem to be referring (more) to the specific book of Deuteronomy, as rabbinic Law has the very proceeding Mitzvah of reading that very same “Torah” by Hakhel to be limited to the Book of Deuteronomy.

[2] See Deuteronomy 28 for more examples of prophecy.

[3] Regarding the accuracy of the text of the Bible, in light of this approach, see chapter “Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?”

[4]  They didn’t literally cross over it but passed south of it. Because the Jordan River collects at the Dead Sea and ends there, the Jews were able to travel south of the Dead Sea.

[5] When the Talmud says (such as Bava Basra 15a) “the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears” it doesn’t need to mean that the Torah was literally word-for-word from what G-d told Moses to write. It is possible that G-d gave Moses the concepts and information to write of which Moses would later write it in his own words or give it to his scribes to write in their own words. It is also possible that the Talmud here speaks non-literal, as it frequently does, in order to bring out the point that the Torah is divinely inspired to the core as if G-d were writing it word-for-word.

The Sages constantly learn out numerous laws based off extra or weird wording that was written in the Torah. This is known as the Derivation Tools, discussed at length in Vol. 2 of The Rational Believer Series. That works even in light of multiple scribes. Either when they wrote the Torah or when Moses would edit it, G-d would give them or Moses the divine Spirit to write in a fashion that includes the extra or weird wordings that allow for derivation. Besides for those extra or weird words, there were many possibilities and varieties in the choice-of-wording in which they each took their preferred path—of which each would be regarded as normal and wouldn’t be considered as extra or weird wordings to have something learned out of them.

[6] See Deuteronomy 31:22, 24, where it seems that only “the song” was written on that day and with completion of that the Torah was sealed. It also seems that different parts were written at different times from the fact that there are random breaks in between various lists of laws where it suddenly says “and the Lord spoke to Moses the following…” This indicates that there probably was an actual break in between the revelation of the laws.

[7] There would be a need for a few authors to add on to each-others work based on the necessity of the time. For, until their times all the laws would have been kept in an oral transmission because from the Torah it is clear that all laws originated from Moses. But when laws would begin getting forgotten, the Prophet would write up the laws. At a later time, when laws of a different section (for example Sacrificial laws) would begin to get forgotten, a later Prophet would write it (at the command of the Lord of course).

[8] It wouldn’t be rational to allow the possibility that undivine-inspired men tampered with the text because if G-d wants us to keep His Torah He would preserve it and won’t allow anyone to tamper with it.


[i] https://www.haaretz.com/israeli-software-supports-theory-that-bible-was-written-by-multiple-authors-1.370384

[ii] Bava Basra 15a.

[iii] See his commentary Deuteronomy 34:1 and on Deuteronomy 1:2 and 34:6.

[iv]  See Deuteronomy 17:15

[v] See his commentary on Deuteronomy 1:2 and 34:6.

[vi] Talmud Gittin 60a.

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