The first five books of the Old Testament were, according to both Jewish and Christian traditions, attributed to Moses until comparatively recent times. To be sure, there were some exceptions, but generally the Mosaic authorship of these books was not questioned until the era of the movement known as "higher criticism." Biblical scholars today almost universally agree that the Pentateuch is composed of at least four separate and distinct narratives written by different persons who were widely separated historically. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that within each of these four documents, the work of more than one author is present. Nothing in the first four of these books asserts, or even suggests, that Moses was the author. Deuteronomy, the fifth book, is presented as though it were an address delivered by Moses, but the contents of the book indicate quite clearly that it was written a long time after Moses' death. Hebrew authors commonly wrote as though the words they used had been spoken a long time before.
Early Judean History
The earliest of these four main narratives is known as the Early Judean History. The unknown author is designated by the letter J because supposedly he was a prophet of the southern kingdom of Judah. The narrative begins with the story of Creation as it is recorded in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis and concludes with an account of the establishment of the monarchy in the land of Canaan. There are several distinctive characteristics of this history. Yahweh is the name used for the deity and stands for a god who is conceived in terms that are crudely anthropomorphic, or humanlike. He possesses a physical body, walks in the Garden of Eden during the cool of the day, talks directly with Adam, and is a dinner guest in the tent of Abraham. In many respects, he behaves in a manner that resembles the typical chief of a primitive tribe. The place names that are used belong to the southern kingdom. The implied ethical standards are somewhat lower than those of later narratives. The various parts of the history are organized in a manner that sets forth the author's conception of the divine purpose to be realized on earth and the reasons why its fulfillment has been delayed.
This history appears to have been written about 850 B.C. The source materials used for its composition include not only the written documents available at that time but a number of traditions that were passed on orally from older generations. In the Creation story, man is formed out of the dust of the earth, and Eve, the first woman, is created from Adam's rib. The story of the Fall, which has to do with the eating of forbidden fruit, is followed by an account of the brothers Cain and Abel. Because sin has become so widespread over the face of the earth, Yahweh causes the Great Flood to appear but spares Noah and everything that is with him in the ark. After the flood, Noah pronounces a curse on Canaan and gives blessings to Shem and Japheth.
Abraham's calling to perform Yahweh's work is followed by an account of his journey to Egypt. After Abraham's return home, a promise is made to him concerning the birth of a son and the inheritance of the land of Canaan by his descendants. Although Abraham and his wife have reached an advanced age, Isaac is born in fulfillment of the promise. Isaac's two sons, Jacob and Esau, struggled in their mother's womb before they are born, thus indicating the strife that will continue for centuries between the Israelites and the Edomites. Jacob deceives his father and tricks his brother, Esau, out of his birthright. He then goes to a distant land, where he marries the two daughters of Laban and enters into an agreement whereby he obtains a large share of his uncle's property. On his return home with the members of his family, he meets his brother, and the two are reconciled.
Jacob's favorite son, Joseph, is sold by his brothers into slavery but eventually comes to hold a powerful place in the government of Egypt. Jacob and his sons and their families move to Egypt because of a famine in the land of Canaan. Their descendants increase in number, which causes an Egyptian pharaoh to become alarmed lest the Israelite colony become too powerful. Accordingly, the pharaoh begins a policy of oppression that places burdens on the Hebrews that are greater than they can bear. Moses is summoned by Yahweh to deliver his people from this oppression. After a series of plagues is visited upon the Egyptians, the Hebrews leave the land where they were enslaved and begin their march through the wilderness toward the land of Canaan. After a description of the difficulties that they encounter during this march, the author concludes his history with an account of their entrance into the land and the conquering of a portion of it.
The second of the four Pentateuch narratives is known as the Ephraimite History. The author is designated by the letter E for two reasons. E is the first letter in the word Ephraimite, which is used interchangeably with the northern kingdom. Because the place names in this history belong to the northern kingdom, it is assumed that the author was a native of this place. The second reason that E is designated for this material is that E is the first letter in the word Elohim, which is the name for the deity in that part of the history that precedes the story of Moses and the burning bush. In our bibles today, the J and E histories have been interwoven to present a single narrative. However, careful analysis reveals with a fair degree of accuracy the materials that belong to each of the original histories. The E narrative has several distinctive characteristics, including the use of the term Elohim, place names that belong to the north, a more advanced conception of the deity, higher ethical standards implied in the stories concerning the patriarchs, strong opposition to idol worship, and an unfavorable attitude toward the establishment of a monarchy.
This history is believed to have been written about 750 B.C., a century later than the J narrative. Although these two histories are in many respects parallel versions of the same events, the E version begins with the story of Abraham and makes no references to what may have happened prior to that time. The stories pertaining to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are told in a more favorable light than in the J narrative, indicating something of an advance in ethical ideals, for these heroes of the Israelite people are not regarded as guilty of acts of deception as they are in the J account of the same events. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac occurs only in the E narrative. Here, the purpose of the story is twofold: The author wants to illustrate perfect obedience to the will of God on the part of Abraham, and he also wants to make it clear that the deity no longer requires human sacrifices. Animals may be substituted in their place.
The great masterpiece of the E narrative is the Joseph story, which is related in greater detail than in J. The underlying motive of the story is that a divine purpose is being realized through the course of human events even though the individuals who are involved in it may not be entirely conscious of it. Moses, according to E, introduced the name of Yahweh to the Hebrew people. Although Yahweh may be regarded as the same god who appeared to the early patriarchs, he was not known by this name until the time of Moses. Not until after Moses returns from a lengthy sojourn in the land of Midian does Yahweh appear to him in a burning bush and call upon him to deliver his own people from the oppression of the Egyptian pharaoh. When Moses protests that he is slow of speech and unable to present his demands before the Egyptian ruler, Aaron, his brother, becomes his spokesman.
The experiences during the march through the wilderness are described at considerable length. When the people are encamped near Mount Sinai, Moses goes up onto the mount and receives the law tablets from Yahweh. The story of Aaron and the golden calf idols is told in a manner that is intended to make idol worship appear ridiculous. Because Moses is not permitted to enter into the land of Canaan, Joshua is chosen to be the leader in Moses' place. An account is given of an important meeting at Shechem, where representatives of the different tribes meet and form themselves into a confederacy. This action introduces the period of the judges, designed as a form of government in which Yahweh rules by communicating his will directly to those who have been appointed to receive it. This type of organization continued until the people clamored for a king to rule over them.
The third narrative, designated by the letter D, is found in our present Book of Deuteronomy. Like the other narratives, it appears to be written by several authors. Its distinctive characteristic is the body of laws that forms the book's main core. These laws are recorded in Chapters 12–26. Chapters 5–11 consist of an introduction to the laws. The remaining chapters are believed to be later additions to the original book, added in order that the entire book might be regarded as an integral part of a complete history that reaches from the time of Creation to the post-exilic period.
Although the introductory statements indicate that the words included in this part of the history were spoken by Moses, the contents of Deuteronomy tell a different story. Many, if not most, of the specific laws that are set forth are not appropriate to the time of Moses but rather are designed to deal with situations that did not arise until long after the era of Moses. For example, the story of the finding of a law book in the Temple, which is recorded in 2 Kings 22, is believed to be a reference to the Deuteronomic code of laws. If this story is correct, then the laws were formulated by disciples of the eighth-century B.C. prophets and were designed to correct those conditions that Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah had protested so vigorously. Especially prominent in this code is the law of the Central Sanctuary, which forbade the offering of sacrifices at any place other than the particular one designated for that purpose. Obviously, the authors had the Temple in Jerusalem in mind, but the naming of that place would have been inappropriate in a document attributed to Moses. Not until after the law book was discovered in the Temple during the reign of Josiah was this particular law either recognized or enforced.
Another important law is known as the Year of Release, which provided that at the end of each six-year period, all property that had been forfeited to satisfy debts should be returned to its original owners. This law was intended not only to prevent an undue accumulation of wealth on the part of a few but also to provide new opportunities for those who had been deprived of their possessions through unfortunate circumstances over which they had no control. Other laws were designed to protect people who had been falsely accused. By fleeing to one of the cities of refuge, the accused person would be safe until the charge had been thoroughly investigated.
Not all of the laws in Deuteronomy are of an ethical nature. Ritualistic requirements, such as the prohibition of eating certain kinds of meat, sowing mixed seed in the same field, purification rites, and numerous ceremonies, are included along with the other laws. The nationalistic character of this legislation is illustrated in the fact that Hebrews and non-Hebrews are not subject to the same requirements. For example, animals that died a natural death could not be sold to the Hebrews for food but could be sold to foreigners. The treatment of slaves was another instance in which Israelites were entitled to privileges denied to foreigners.
The introduction to the law codes is presented as an address given by Moses. The motive that should prompt obedience to these laws is gratitude for the way in which Yahweh delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. The Sabbath, for example, should be observed as a memorial to the people's deliverance and should constantly remind them of their obligation to treat with kindness the laborers in their employ. Later additions supplement the earlier portions of Deuteronomy by placing all the laws under the same historical setting. Blessings are pronounced on people who obey all the statutes and ordinances of the book; those who refuse to obey are cursed.
Late Priestly History
The fourth and last of the Pentateuch narratives is called the Late Priestly History and is designated by the letter P. Called a priestly history because it represents the point of view generally held by the priests, who were inclined to greatly emphasize ritualistic requirements, the date of its composition is usually placed somewhere near 450 B.C. Although written in the form of a history, it contains a number of law codes, one of which is known as the Holiness Code, as recorded in Leviticus 17–26. The P narrative includes many other regulations pertaining chiefly to the place, manner, and forms of worship. One of the priests' chief duties during the post-exilic period was to enforce these regulations.
The history begins with the Creation story as it is reported in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Although this narrative is now interwoven with the J and E histories, its unique characteristics make it somewhat easier to distinguish the materials that belong to it. Its style of writing is formal and legalistic, with a concern for exact and precise statements. For example, in the creation story, stating that the heavens and the earth were created by a divine act was insufficient; stating exactly what was accomplished on each of the six days of the creation week was necessary. Also, the age of each of the early patriarchs is recorded in an exact number of years, and the dates when Noah entered the ark and again when he left it are also recorded. The author's interpretation of history has much to do with such recording of particular events. For example, because a person's life span was supposedly proportionate to the amount of sin that that person had committed, the lives of the earliest inhabitants were said to have been much longer — eight or nine hundred years — than at the time when the history was written. As sin increased in the world, life spans became shorter and shorter.
Because it was important in the post-exilic period to give a new emphasis to the religious institutions that had been neglected, an attempt was made to show the very ancient origin of each of them. For example, the story of Creation culminates in the institution of the Sabbath. The Deuteronomic narrative indicates that the Sabbath is to be observed as a memorial to the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt, but in the P narrative, the reason for observing the Sabbath dates to the time of Adam and the creation of the world. The story of Noah and the Flood provides a setting for the laws that prohibit murder and the eating of blood. Circumcision, of a deep religious significance for the Hebrews, is now said to have been introduced by Abraham, and the Feast of Passover was established by Moses. Each of these religious institutions or practices was not only of ancient origin but was introduced by one of the great characters of the past.
The history of the periods covered in the J and E narratives is passed over quickly except for those particular points that needed special emphasis. The story of the march through the wilderness includes a great deal of material not found in the older narratives. This new material largely details instructions concerning the offering of sacrifices and other ritualistic performances. The reason for these in-depth instructions was the obvious desire on the part of the authors to show that the priestly requirements of the post-exilic age were really in force from the time when the Hebrews left Egypt. Although the law of the Central Sanctuary, which deals with the Temple in Jerusalem, is actually a later development, the P historians explain the ancient character of the law in their account of a moving sanctuary made according to instructions given to Moses and carried by the Hebrews as they journeyed through the wilderness. This moving sanctuary was no more than a tent, but it contained rooms and equipment that corresponded to the Temple of later years. Of the many ceremonies that are described in detail, the most important are those pertaining to the services to be performed on the Day of Atonement.
The Pentateuch, or what came to be known as the Torah or the Book of the Law, is regarded as the most authoritative and highly inspired of all the Old Testament writings, in large part because these books contain the laws given to the Israelites by Yahweh. These laws, like the source from which they are derived, were eternal and would forever remain the standard by which people's conduct would be judged. Because Moses has long been recognized as the great lawgiver who transmitted the words of Yahweh to the people of Israel, it seemed appropriate to attribute the writing of all the law books to him. Actually, we know from the contents of the Old Testament itself that the concept of divine law and its application to the problems and situations that occurred in Hebrew history was a developmental process that took place over a long period of time. Attributing all of these laws to Moses was not meant to deceive the people but rather was a device used to indicate the eternal character of the laws and a continuation of the spirit and purpose of Moses' work. Then, too, the laws constitute the basis upon which the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Hebrew people was established. The significance of the covenant idea in the Old Testament can scarcely be overestimated. The prophets constantly make reference to it by insisting that the fate of Israel will always be determined by the extent to which its people are faithful or unfaithful to the obligations placed upon them by the covenant.