The Challenges of Ancient Near Eastern Antecedents to the Torah
I. The Ancient Near East and Torah Min HaShamayim
The last approximately 150 years have witnessed a massive expansion in our knowledge of the ancient Near East. Disciplines such as archaeology, Egyptology and Assyriology have shed much light on the world into which the Torah came and provided us with information and background not available to earlier generations of Jews. It is these developments, more than any others, which seem to me to have the most significant ramifications in terms of how an intellectually honest contemporary Orthodox understanding of Torah min HaShamayim should be shaped. This article will suggest a possible approach to some of the challenges raised by our knowledge of the ancient Near East.
Barry L. Eichler has noted that when considering the advances in our understanding of the ancient Near East from an Orthodox theological perspective,
[T]he most serious tensions to be faced stem from the undeniable commonality of cultural and literary motifs that the Bible shares with the civilizations and literatures of the ancient Near East.
Neil Gillman clearly articulates the challenge to the traditional view of the Torah as the Word of God:
[M]any of the traditions in the Bible, including its narratives, laws, and even some of the most basic institutions of biblical religion such as the brit (covenant) are paralleled in the literature of the other ancient Near Eastern cultures that flourished prior to and contemporaneously with biblical Israel. These traditions may well have been revised in the process of Israelite appropriation, but the traces of their origin are beyond dispute… It is simply far-fetched to assume that God would use the common core of ancient Near Eastern materials in His verbal revelation to Israel – often quoting these texts verbatim!
II. Propositional Revelation
A plausible way of responding to this challenge is to affirm, rather than a doctrine of verbal revelation, a doctrine of propositional revelation, according to which God communicated the Torah not always through words but, at least sometimes, communicated the ideas, and left the choice of words in which to express the ideas to Moses.
In this section of the article I will aim to show that the idea of propositional revelation is clearly grounded, in various ways, in some traditional Jewish sources. In section III, I will apply the notion of propositional revelation to some of the challenges to traditional belief in Torah min Hashamayim arising from Ancient Near Eastern texts.
Despite the pervasiveness within contemporary Orthodox consciousness and, historically, in the minds of traditional Jewish believers, of the word-for-word-Divine dictation-to-Moses model of Torah min HaShamayim, there is an alternative voice in Jewish sources. A brief survey of expressions of this alternative voice has recently been presented by Amnon Bazak.
Midrash Lekah Tov
One example Bazak provides is the comment of R. Tuvia ben Eliezer, compiler of Midrash Lekah Tov (c. 1100, also known as Pesikta Zutreta) on Exodus 10:2. R. Tuvia writes:
פסוק זה למשה אמרו, למען תספר בתורה להודיע לדורות.
“This verse was said to Moses, ‘in order that you tell’ in the Torah to make it known to future generations.”
It certainly sounds from this comment as if R. Tuvia’s view is that Moses is being instructed by God to relate God’s miracles in Egypt in the Torah, but that the choice of words is up to Moses. If God is going to give Moses the precise wording of the whole Torah, there is no need to command him to include any particular content.
An Editor (Sadran) of the Torah
Moreover, R. Tuvia’s references elsewhere to additions made by the sadran (“arranger”, “editor” or “compiler”) of the Torah suggest, even on the most conservative reading, some independent role for Moses in formulating the language of the Torah, and constitute an undeniable departure from the word-for-word dictation model.
R. Tuvia references the role of the sadran, for example, in the story of the scouts, which begins with Moses telling them what to look for, including a report on the local fruit. This command ends with a comment about the season in which this mission took place (Num 13:20). R. Tuvia writes:
והימים ימי בכורי ענבים. זה ספור הסדרן להודיע שבחה של ארץ ישראל:
“Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes” – this is being told by the compiler, in order to express praise for the land of Israel.
R. Tuvia explains that the compiler added a gloss to the story for the sake of clarity, so the reader understands how impressive a display of fruit the scouts would be seeing. Certainly, this cannot be squared easily with the word-for-word dictation model.
R. Menahem ben Shlomo, compiler of the twelfth century Midrash Sekhel Tov, mentions the sadran on several different occasions in his commentary, utilising the concept in the same way as Midrash Lekah Tov.
As an example from the Sekhel Tov, we turn to the Joseph story. During the famine in Egypt, Joseph uses the opportunity of his holding all the food to purchase the entire land of Egypt for the crown, except for the land of the priests. In describing this acquisition, Gen 47:26 includes a temporal clause, that this is the situation in Egypt up to the time of the writing of this verse, upon which R. Menahem comments:
עד היום הזה. אלו דברי הסדרן:
“Until this day” – these are the words of the compiler.
As did R. Tuvia, R. Menachem seems to believe that the sadranhas room to insert explanatory glosses in the Torah.
R. Yosef Bekhor Shor: The Book’s Author
Around the same time, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, one of the early French Tosafists and Torah commentators, was working with a similar concept of an individual like a sadran, whom he called ba’al hasefer or kotev, “the author of the book.” For example, in Genesis 32, Jacob decides to send gifts to Esau before the two of them meet. The Torah explains Jacob’s motivation (v. 21), upon which Bekhor Shor comments:
כי אמר אכפרה פניו – בעל הספר פירש כי על כן עשה יעקב כל זאת להעביר ממנו פנים של זעם אם כוונתו לרעה…
“For he reasoned, ‘I will propitiate him…’” – The author of the book is explaining that Jacob did all this to remove Esau’s anger with him, if he was in fact angry…
Noting that the Torah is explaining Jacob’s intentions parenthetically, Bekhor Shor explains that it is an editorial gloss from the author.
While the concepts of sadran and ba’al hasefer focus on editorial glosses, and are not the same (even if we understand the sadran or ba’al hasefer as Moses) as the more expansive notion of Moses selecting words in which to express the content of God’s revelation implied by Lekah Tov on Exod. 10:2, they are only a short step from it. Crucially, these concepts both embody the idea of some independent role for Moses in framing the language of the Torah and demonstrate that traditional sources do not uniformly endorse the word-for-word dictation model.
Despising the Word of God?
It is true that the Talmud, followed by Maimonides’ Eighth Principle of Faith, states that one who asserts that even a single verse of the Torah was authored independently (mipi atzmo) by Moses has “despised God’s word.”
ואפילו אמר: כל התורה כולה מן השמים, חוץ מפסוק זה שלא אמרו הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא משה מפי עצמו – זהו כי דבר ה’ בזה.
Even if some says: “The entire Torah is from heaven except for a certain verse which the Holy One did not say but rather Moses said it of his own accord – this counts as (Num 15:31), ‘for he has insulted the word of God.’”
The expression mipi atzmo is ambiguous, however. It might well be intended to outlaw the view that Moses independently invented even a single Torah verse, rather than to exclude the idea that God sometimes allowed Moses the choice of language in which to express the content of Divine revelation. As Moshe Greenberg points out, it is striking that even traditional biblical commentators who adhere to the word-for-word dictation model still leave room for Moses’ own phraseology in the Torah. For example:
- Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains that the Book of Deuteronomy and Moses’ prayer during the episode of the Golden Calf are Moses’ own words that God then endorsed and instructed him to write in the Torah.
- R. Hayyim ibn Attar (1696-1743) in his Or Hahayim commentary to the opening verse of Deuteronomy also states that the words of Deuteronomy are Moses’ own, and repeats this regarding at least part of the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue in his commentary to 5:15.
Greenberg rightly praises the intellectual integrity of such commentators and their openness to the literary evidence. In responding to the literary evidence now before us from our knowledge of ancient Near Eastern texts, we are following this tradition of intellectual probity.
III. Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Propositional Revelation
Key examples of ancient Near Eastern texts that necessitate changes in our understanding of the Torah are the well-known Gilgamesh Epic – containing in tablet 11 a Flood story with Utnapishtim as the counterpart of Noah in the biblical narrative – and the Code of Hammurabi, texts that chronologically precede the Giving of the Torah.
For the many generations of Jews who lived prior to the discoveries of these documents, the understanding of the germane Torah texts was more straightforward. For us, however, the Torah passages to which texts like Gilgamesh and Hammurabi bear significant resemblance must be understood in their light.
Explaining the Torah’s Flood Story
Joel B. Wolowelsky suggests a reading of the Genesis Flood narrative based on the Kaspian adaptation of the well-known rabbinic concept of dibberah Torah kilshon bnei Adam, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” Wolowelsky’s interpretation fully acknowledges the close similarities between the flood story in the Gilgamesh Epic and the Flood story of the Torah while preserving the traditional doctrine of Torah min HaShamayim. According to this interpretation,
[The Flood narrative] is neither allegorical nor historical, but ki-leshon benei adam, expressing things as they were discussed by the multitudes and not necessarily as they were in actual detail. This frees us from such questions as how did animals from frigid climates survive in the Mediterranean climate (let alone how they got there and back), and whether native Peruvian Indians and Australian aborigines are really descended from Noah himself.
In other words, the Torah describes the Flood, according to Wolowelsky, using the literary devices familiar in the ancient world in which the Gilgamesh Epic was well-known.
It seems to me that a more plausible position would be that God allowed Moses to frame the Flood narrative in his own words, and Moses formulated it in a way very similar to the framing in the Gilgamesh Epic even while polemicizing against it, for example by emphasising a monotheistic rather than polytheistic theology.
The Codes of Eshnunna and Hammurabi: Propositional Revelation as a Plausible Response
The close resemblances in both language and content between the Code of Hammurabi and some of the laws of the Torah must be acknowledged. A plausible explanation of the resemblances needs to be offered. In some instances, it is reasonable to argue that the Torah is deliberately challenging Hammurabi’s prescriptions and those of other ancient Mesopotamian law codes. As Maimonides famously explains in the Guide of the Perplexed, familiarity with idolatrous beliefs and practices of the ancient world enables us to better appreciate the reasons for many of the Torah’s laws.
One can respond in the same way to similarities in the Torah to the ancient priestly texts of other cultures – the Torah is providing a quite deliberate response and alternative to the influential cultures of its time. But why, for example, in the case of the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 1800 B.C.E., several centuries prior to the Torah) relating to an ox goring another ox, is the language of the Torah and some of the detail of the law so closely similar?
After many caveats concerning the need for caution in claiming historical connection between two textual sources, Eichler concedes that,
[O]ne must conclude that there exists a very strong probability that the biblical rule of an ox goring an ox, which is identical in legal substance and formulation to the Mesopotamian rule, shares a common Mesopotamian literary tradition.
Eichler briefly suggests two Orthodox responses. The first is that the probability of a shared literary tradition regarding an ox goring an ox “would add new dimensions to the rabbinic concept of yeshivat shem ve’eber” [the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever].” The idea here is presumably that there was some kind of detailed Divine revelation of laws prior to the giving of the Torah which through the teaching of ancient sages such as Shem and Ever became the common currency of ancient Near Eastern civilization, were subsequently somewhat distorted or deliberately changed by the authors of other Mesopotamian law codes, and were later revealed again in their pristine form in the Torah.
This simply seems far-fetched, and involves extending the notion of yeshivat shem ve’ever well beyond its original meaning. Moreover, this line of reasoning fails to explain why the influence of Shem and Ever on the authors of the ancient Near Eastern law codes should have extended only to some detailed laws, while entirely failing on central themes such as monotheism.
Eichler’s second suggestion, based on Nahmanides’ commentary to Genesis 34:13, is that one of the Seven Noahide Laws, namely “Laws” or dinim, included detailed provisions covering, inter alia, damages. Again the idea is that a pre-Sinaitic revelation to humanity explains the similarities between the Torah and the other codes. This suggestion is more direct and less far-fetched than the deployment of yeshivat shem ve’ever in that it draws on a major rabbinic teaching concerning Divine revelation of laws to all of humanity, but it relies on one contested opinion concerning the nature of dinim, namely that of Nahmanides.
Amnon Bazak argues that similarities between some of the laws of the Torah and earlier ancient Near Eastern legal codes are unproblematic because the Torah does not always “start from scratch,” as it were, but in many instances assumes and builds on already accepted legal practices and procedures that it considers unobjectionable. Thus, for example, the Torah appears to assume that it is already known how marriages are contracted and that first-born sons inherit a double portion. There is no reason, argues Bazak, for the Torah to ignore or change laws or legal procedures of which it does not disapprove. But this does not satisfactorily explain close similarities in detail and language between other codes and the Torah.
The most plausible explanation of those seems to me to be the propositional revelation which Bazak himself shows is grounded in Jewish tradition but oddly fails to deploy in his discussion of the ancient Near Eastern texts. It seems reasonable to surmise that God revealed to Moses the content of the relevant laws and that Moses framed them in the language of the influential Near Eastern legal codes of the time while, where appropriate, highlighting the differences between the morally superior provisions of the Divine law and those of the other codes.
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September 14, 2016
March 23, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Michael Harris is the rabbi of Hampstead Synagogue, a Research Fellow at The London School of Jewish Studies and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, of the University of London, and an M.A. in philosophy from the Hebrew University. Harris is the author of Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives and Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy.
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