Was Moses for Real? Part 1

806“There has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”

A quote from Talmud or one of the medieval rabbis? Actually no, it is from Deuteronomy 34:10.

I have been for a few years now re-evaluating my beliefs about God, the Bible, and theology. Sacred cows have been tipped. Yet it is also interesting how many valued beliefs have not changed for me. Change for its own sake has no value.

One of the questions that has weighed on me, and which will get a lot more time in coming years as I prepare for doctoral work in the Hebrew Bible, is the question of Moses and his relationship to the Pentateuch or Torah. Opinions begin on one extreme that Moses wrote it all, even the updates that came after his death, the account of his own burial, and even embarrassing self-praise like, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). On the other side, some might say there is no evidence a man like Moses ever lived, but at most he is a legendary figure about whom we have little or no real information. In this view, the earliest parts of the Pentateuch, except for a few bits of poetry carried through time in the national consciousness, are from after the Babylonian exile (after 516 B.C.E.).

I’m not tackling the entire topic in this post. I simply want to reflect on some recent reading in Umberto Cassuto, from his recently reprinted The Documentary Hypothesis. Cassuto (1883-1951) has long been a favorite of mine, ever since John Walton made me read his Genesis commentary in my undergraduate studies. I’m glad he did.

Cassuto is in a category by himself, a man so well read and yet so accessible in his writing, he occupies a short list of writers such as C.S. Lewis on the Christian side and Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Jewish side. Some people know a little and write a lot. Others bring to any topic an immense amount of learning which the words cannot bear. Cassuto is that kind of writer, with an authority that looms largely and makes his words an honor to read.

A Brief Description of the Documentary Hypothesis
In re-evaluating my beliefs, I have certainly been willing to question treasured ideas, such as the idea that Moses was largely or totally the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

Unless you are committed to cast away all intelligence and make tradition absolute, you have to admit Moses did not write every word of the Pentateuch. I won’t back that statement up at this time, but there are statements spread throughout the first five books of the Bible that were clearly added later and which indicate so.

But there is a theory, one you will almost always hear in a university class or in academic commentaries, that the Pentateuch was partially or completely a product of a number of anonymous sources, none of which have anything to do with Moses. You have perhaps heard of J, E, D, and P (and now we hear of H). They represent theoretical anonymous writers from different periods of history, whose writings were combined by an editor (there are a variety of theories about the stages and how these different storytellers and lawmakers got their work combined into what we now have):

J = the Yahwist (Y and J and interchangeable in German, or something like that).
E = the Elohist.
D = the Deuteronomist.
P = the Priestly redactor.
H = the Holiness redactor.

Cassuto’s List of Five Bases for the Documentary Hypothesis
Some people can’t imagine the Bible any other way than the way they have been taught to see it. If you learned the Bible in a community of faith, you have been inducted into the world of Moses and the prophets. The strange view of the university professors about sources may seem impossible to you. If you learned Bible in a university, you have been inducted into the world of rationalist thought, generally excluding miracles and prophecies and searching behind texts for theories that do not take them at face value.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there is value in only one side or the other. Scholarly skepticism has exposed a number of documents in history that deserved deconstructing (The Donation of Constantine, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on).

But if you read the Bible in a faith community and the traditional view of Mosaic authorship is all you have ever known, I wouldn’t want you to think that the academics have started trouble for no reason at all. The documentary hypothesis is a theory which tries to explain some of the unusual features of the Pentateuch, features which rabbis and church fathers have also dealt with in different ways. Cassuto lists five reasons for the idea that the Pentateuch is a pastiche of sources:

(1) The use of different names for the deity. Notice that Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 uses, for example Elohim (God), while the rest of Genesis 2 uses the personal name (yod-hey-vav-hey, the Lord, also referred to as Hashem or the tetragrammaton). Alternating use of divine names seems to happen in sections throughout the Pentateuch. Could this mean different sources were combined, one preferring Hashem and the other Elohim?

(2) Variations of language and style. This is particularly true of certain details of Hebrew grammar and spelling (as for example the spelling of the pronoun he). Could this variation in language indicate sources combined into a whole?

(3) Contradictions and divergencies of view. May animals found dead be eaten (Lev 17:15) or not (Deut 14:21)? Did Abraham know the name Hashem (as used in Genesis) or only El Shaddai (as in Exodus 6:3)? Examples abound. Do these (seeming) contradictions indicate different sources put together without careful editing to remove the inconsistencies?

(4) Duplications and repetitions. How many times did Abraham pretend Sarah was his sister to avoid trouble with a foreign ruler? The Pentateuch has many duplicate stories. Are these evidence of the same stories from different sources which the editor unwisely put forward as differing events?

(5) Signs of composite structure in the sections. Many scholars feel they can see seams, places where a later hand had modified the language of earlier sources. Are these seams in the story and laws of the Pentateuch evidence of sources?

Cassuto and the Orthodoxy of Source Criticism
In future installments, I will present some information from Cassuto and perhaps from others. I am reading and will soon write a review for the Kesher journal of Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words, in which an evangelical Christian explains why he believes the documentary hypothesis and how one can still believe the Bible in spite of it.

I am not up to speed on the present state of scholarship (working on it). But I do think that many scholars and writers are tired of the question of the Pentateuch’s authorship. Dogmatism about the source theory has been fading for some time. Yet jumping right back to traditional theories is not likely either. Many works on the Pentateuch skirt the issue or touch on it with some degree of ambiguity and only as necessary.

Cassuto reminds us the the Documentary Hypothesis (or source theory of the Pentateuch) was only a theory. It became for some an assured result of modern scholarship. Cassuto, way back in the 1940’s, made a strong case against the documentary hypothesis, on the basis of his study of Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Was Moses for real? And if so, how can we see his hand in the Pentateuch? Cassuto has some great ideas and is one of the early voices calling the assumptions of source theory into question.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Was Moses for Real? Part 1

  1. Derek, excellent post. You made a good scholar-to-lay translation of some pretty complicated texts and theories. I’m interested to know where you land on this topic at the end of your studies. Keep up the good work!


  2. Dan Benzvi says:

    Derek, good post.

    I am curious to know where does faith come into this? What I mean is, that if we take by faith the mystery of the dual nature of Messiah, then the question of whether Moses wrote or did not write the Pentateuch pales against it.

    Like to hear your thoughts.

  3. Dan:

    The question of faith and reason is not an easy one. Right now, I don’t have a good answer. The rationalist in me would like to turn to some old categories, but I am in the process of questioning them. Augustine said, “I believe that I may understand.” This saying, which can be interpreted different ways, is not a bad starting place. We have to believe in something and nothing is provable. Therefore (critical realism), I choose to believe what seems to exist. If it is an illusion, I can know nothing anyway.

    Still, the question of Moses and the Pentateuch is not simply about faith and reason. Does the Pentateuch show evidence of being written (largely) by Moses? Is there reason to put faith in Mosaic authorship? Some would say, “Yeshua said it so we must believe it.” Yet Yeshua may have referred to Moses because his generation believed that. So that is not a 100% case.

    I am looking more from the point of reason and interpretation here. My faith does not absolutely require one view or another (that may not be true, actually — I will be working out whether our faith requires belief in Mosaic authorship).

    For now, I am not ready to give answers, though you may see which direction I am inclined to go (more Moses than not).

  4. musicofrain says:

    Certainly no other Hebrew of the day was as well educated as Moses. I strongly suspect we have him to thank for the Hebrew alphabet.

    If the creation account came from Adam to his sons, who for the most part lived right up to the flood, and if old Noah and his sons lived to see the day of Abraham, who would have shared what he knew with his son and grandson, who in turn shared their history and blessing with their children, then surly it isn’t such a stretch for the educated Moses to begin his journey in the wilderness (as a young husband and father) by writing down the history of his family for his own sons when he was not tending sheep. The authorship of the most ancient of stories does not seem difficult to me. The end of Torah being penned with respect by a descendent of Aaron or Joshua himself does not bother me. I can hardly wait to see what you are learning about the person who penned the bulk of the Torah. Press on.

    Deborah …admittedly a woman of faith who draws on reason as evidence of the unseen.

  5. Deborah (musicofrain):

    Thank you for sharing of your faith. I should be reluctant to say anything that will potentially disturb it. But I want to open up for you a world of history that may seem to be disturbing for such a faith as you have expressed, but which I think will widen it and grow it instead.

    Hebrew is not the oldest language. Hebrew is a dialect of the Semitic languages of the Ancient Near East. It’s close cousins include Canaanite dialects such as Ugaritic. It is related in many ways to the larger language groups such as Akkadian and Aramaic.

    The alphabet it would appear we owe to the Phoenicians. Ancient Hebrew is very similar to Canaanite, so that at times ancient inscriptions are hard to identify as Canaanite or Hebrew.

    Also, the idea that Noah’s sons were alive in Abraham’s day is based on the assumption than Biblical genealogies do not skip generations.

    The truth is often more complex than we realize. The journey of learning is worth the work and the occasional unsettled feeling we get.

  6. peterygwendyta says:

    At present I am reading Legends of the Bible which tells a lot of the Jewish stories surrounding the stories of the Bible. I am not saying that I believe everything in it but much of it seems quite believable and fills in a lot of blanks. One thing it mentions is that Shem was around in Abrahams day and even taught Isaac and Jacob. It also mentions that Shem is the same person as Melchisidek. What do you think of this and would you give it much wait. It won’t do anything to my faith one way or the other but it is interesting none the less.

    Thanks again Derek for your blog. In a way like you over the last few years I have questioned thing that a few years ago I would never have questioned. They have never shaken my faith in God or Jesus (Yeshua) but have shaken me none the less and even made me doubt on occasions whether we could ever know the truth. I am a great reader and I think that this has partly been my problem. The more I read the more confused I become that in the end I begin to loose focus on what is important to my faith and focus on other things. It is true when they say that faith is a journey.

  7. Peter:

    I do not take midrashic stories literally and in many cases I don’t believe the sages did either. It seems to me (Carl Kinbar may have me for lunch if I am wrong) that the midrashic stories (aggadah) are an indirect and enjoyable way of discussing the gaps in the text.

    The fact that the genealogies, if taken as absolute and without skipped generations, would have Shem still alive in Abraham’s time, is such a gap. It doesn’t make much sense. Where is the people of faith, Noah’s family, in Abraham’s time if Shem would still be alive? Why isn’t there a strong community of faith already? Why would God choose Abraham and not one of those closer to Noah?

    Likewise, the sudden appearance of a Canaanite king who is apparently a henotheist (a practical monotheist) is surprising. How can we explain it? The Shem hypothesis is one way.

    But the story that Shem = Melchizedek is just a story to explore the gaps and raise issues. It is not an article of faith.

  8. tnnonline says:

    I appreciate the thoughts in your post, especially those about the telescoped genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11. The fact that there are 10 specific people, similar to the 14 generations in Matthew 1, should be a clue that not everyone who actually lived is listed.

    Of course, these issues are well known in evangelical theology, but not very many in today’s broad Messianic community are aware of them. A good resource (and ironically it is a bit dated) for people to access would be R.K. Harrison’s Introduction to the Old Testament. It affirms Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and explains some of the other difficult issues from a relatively conservative position.

  9. musicofrain says:

    Thank you for the blessing of your knowledge. It doesn’t shake me, and if it did then I would surly need a good shaking. Your gentleness is appreciated.

    I don’t disagree with your understanding of original language. I’m sorry if I communicated that I thought Hebrew was the first language. I do not even think that Hebrew was the first written language. It could not have been. Here I find a clue about why oral tradition is so important to the faith of the Hebrew.

    What I have come to understand is that Moses was raised and educated in the House of Pharaoh. There was no finer education in that era. I suspect that he was educated in the written language of Egypt. I also suspect that he was not much of a talker (for whatever reason) so the written language may have been precious to him. I suspect that he was gifted enough to develop what we know as Hebrew in pictograph. If he drew on languages other than Egyptian in his search for a way to communicate the heritage of his people then I am not shook up about that. When I look at “alaph” in pictograph I see a character born in Egypt. If I were to place a bet I would guess that ancient pictograph Hebrew was developed while Moses was a fugitive in the house of Jethro. The only actual time marker I have with the Hebrew alaph-bet is that by the time Moses received the covenant on Sinai, it was written by HaShem and Moses could read it!

    To Peter: That is an interesting idea. What do you do with the statement of Noah and his sons and the wives of each of them being the only souls that survived the flood? I do not know what you believe about the Brit Chadashah letter to Messianic Hebrews (Hebrews), but the author does say that Melchizedek was without genealogy. While Shem’s genealogy is quite short it is still a genealogy.

  10. tnnonline says:

    Respectfully, other than some fringe teachers, no one in Ancient Near Eastern or Semitic studies recognizes the legitimacy of so-called Hebrew pictographs. Ancient Egyptian did not function on the same kind of pictographic level as you might think, as hieroglyphics of birds, animals, etc. actually were used to represent specific sounds in the Egyptian language. I made a point when I visited London last Summer to get a copy of How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphics, published by the British Museum.

    The Hebrew letter pictures teaching might sell a lot, and people might think that they can “really” understand Hebrew without taking a class–but it has no scholastic basis.

  11. musicofrain says:

    Thank you T. I’m kewl with being known as no one.

    To clarify, I do not see Hebrew and Egyptian as being similar. My point was that Moses more than likely could read it. If there was confusion in my jump from that statement to Moses developing written Hebrew, then I am the one who respectfully apologizes. The pictograph (if not pictograph then what would you prefer to call the antique letters?) for alaph brings to mind one of the gods of Egypt.

    Deborah… looking out from the fringe

  12. tnnonline says:

    It is best to refer to the more ancient letters as the Phoenician script, versus the Babylonian or block script used today.

  13. peterygwendyta says:

    Derek thanks for your reply. It is probably quite true that a lot of these stores are not literal but are interesting none the less. The one point I would make is that since I came in contact with different messianic groups over the last few year I have noticed that some actually take these stories very literally. I know of some who actuall accept the books of Jasher, Enoch, and Jubillees are actually inspired as well. What is your few on this? If my memory serves me correct I think that Jasher and Jubillees also mention Shem as Melchisedek. I am not saying I believe this but it is an interesting view none the less.

  14. peterygwendyta says:

    Musicofrain – By the way I do take the New Testament as inspired as the Old Testament. Concerning Melchizedek in Hebrews, it is a very good point and I don’t have a ready answer, although over the years I have been given many answers, including that it is a pre-incarnate Jesus, the Angle of the Lord and now Shem. What ever the true answer is it does not affect my faith but I just find it interesting. I have had many pre-conceived ideas challenged over the last few years but so far my faith has held out to them.

  15. Peter:

    The book of Jasher is particularly of no interest to me, being an 18th century writing. I would not give that book a second of your time.

    Enoch and Jubilees are highly important. But unless you are a serious student with time to not only study the Bible and theology, but also the Pseudepigrapha (Enoch and Jubilees are among the writings known as the Pseudepigrapha), I wouldn’t spend much time on them either. The Torah, the Bible, Jewish tradition, Christian tradition, and theology are plenty for most people who study. I’d give them priority.

    If you do want to study the Pseudepigrapha, you should start by purchasing the two volume set by Charlesworth (it’s on amazon). These books are not sacred, but part of Jewish and Christian history. Their theology is not orthodox. Enoch has some gnosticism and other elements that are foreign to the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s