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Is Moses the Author of the Torah?
by George Byron Koch
In a science fiction story that I can no longer place¹, an advanced civilization one day sends all of its bureaucrats and middle managers out into space, telling them that the sun is about to explode. Since they are the most vital members of society they are to go first and establish civilization again on a distant planet, in a distant galaxy. The others will follow in additional ships. The bureaucrats and middle managers, already full of themselves, believe this and submit to suspended animation. Waking up centuries later as the new planet is approached, they are surprised to discover that there are no additional ships following behind.
Once on the planet, they begin work by setting up committees. One of the first is assigned the task of developing the wheel. A space “hitchhiker”, forced down on to the same planet with them, watches them in amazement, dumbfounded that they can discuss this at great length and never actually build or use a wheel. He wanders off and explores the planet for a year. On returning, he finds that the committee is still meeting, and still has not built a wheel.
“I can’t believe you’re still talking about a wheel, and after a year haven’t built one!” he says. A committee member turns to him, sneering, and says, “Oh yeah? If you’re so smart, what color do you think it should be?”
The question of whether “Moses” wrote the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) risks our falling into a similar argument. Were J, E, P and D² the authors? Was it rewritten by a redactor? Was it from whole cloth, or just an assemblage of local myths with a few Hebrew twists of plot and theology? Should we study it using form criticism, or would literary be better? Perhaps structural, or canon³?
Though the error is not so plain as the wheel committee’s distraction with color, there is a problem here. It is not the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem of missing the large message by being lost in minutiae (though this is a problem too).
Rather, the problem is one of venue. In any debate where one side frames the argument, defines the terms, and sets the rules, not even an impartial observer can be expected to discern the genuine issues or draw an accurate conclusion. By allowing ourselves to be drawn into argument about sources, we accept tacitly both that there are sources to be argued about, and that “sources” is the proper topic to be discussed. What is really but one way to consider the Torah instead creates the boundaries, the box, within which the Torah is allowed to be considered: What color should the wheel be?
Caught in this box, faced with all its many options – literary, redaction, form, etc. – and faced with only its options, we find we can reject them only by retreating to words like “synecdoche” and “epononymic”. We end up appealing to a Moses who is a symbolic “figure,” a label we attach to the Torah as its author, but which even a space bureaucrat would see as semantic fraud.
It is fundamental to breaking free that we understand the need to see and reject subversive premises.
There are several conceptual “boxes within boxes” here. An inner box is the detailed effort to discern separate sources for the various themes that intertwine in the Torah. This takes many forms, all of which can be labeled ‘critical method’. Outside of this is the zeitgeist, the mindset of our time: This is the Rational Venue, the philosophical heritage of the Enlightenment. The RationalVenue posits both that all things can and should be disassembled and explained – without recourse to “superstitious notions” of divine revelation – and that the Torah in particular is susceptible to such disassembly and explanation.
None of this is provable. By definition it is all premise. Yet in discussing Moses as the author of the Torah, we risk having already conceded the debate, and allowing others to set its terms and frame the argument, when we accept this framework for our discussion. Thus are we subverted.
To reject all the forms of critical method so sweepingly, to consciously beg the question, is clearly an arational position, yet it must be seriously regarded on two grounds:
First, God surely cannot be confined by rational means – if He chooses to communicate with us personally, in the present, through an inspired Word, He can do so. That this does not fit a “rational” worldview is irrelevant.
Second, the Rational Venue itself is the child of a “mechanistic” worldview, That is, it sees the universe as a machine, Uncaused, Uncreated, which follows physical laws and is the product of a clear and unbroken chain of cause and effect.
But this is 17th century science, 17th century zeitgeist.
Quantum mechanics and all of modern physics have long since abandoned this mechanistic notion of how the universe works. Cause and effect are believed to be more “loosely coupled”. A given event may have several possible effects; probability describes which is most likely to occur, but it is not certain. It is not predestined. It is not a clock, once wound up, merely running its unavoidable course. This is not to say 20th century science is any more right, just that it no longer accepts the worldview that spawned the Rational Venue, because its physics shows it to be untrue.
Yet when we discuss the Torah we blindly accept the limits of the conceptual box in which the Rational Venue places us, as well as those of the boxes within it.
This is not without observable effect. For example, in John Barton’s excellent work "Reading the Old Testament"4, he sees this, but is at a loss to explain it:
“The more impressive the [redaction] critic makes the redactor’s work appear, the more he succeeds in showing that the redactor has, by subtle and delicate artistry, produced a simple and coherent text out of the diverse materials before him; the more he reduces the evidence on which the existence of those sources was established. . . the redaction critic himself causes his protégé to disappear. . . the sources and the redactor vanish together in a puff of smoke, leaving a single, freely composed narrative with, no doubt, a single author. . . when the magic box that contained the redactor is opened, not only is the redactor gone, but Moses himself has stepped into his shoes.”
Barton goes on to say that he doesn’t fear the final twist above will actually occur, but “that there is substance in the vanishing act itself should be plain.”
Barton’s magic box is marvelously apt. It is exactly the conceptual box; when we restrict a view of reality through a limited method of conception, we of necessity cause ourselves to experience events that are inexplicable, magical: What sorcery would a walkie-talkie be to a first century Roman!
The critics inhabit conceptual boxes, within boxes, within boxes. It is not surprising to see them awakened by Moses suddenly appearing where moments earlier a redactor had stood, nor that they should find this puzzling. Equally, it is not surprising that all the well-argued forms of critical method cannot simultaneously be true. Their very proliferation is evidence of the failure of the conceptual framework.
How did we get here? We got here from the 17th century, from the Enlightenment and its worldview, and the philosophies it spawned. The scientific enthusiasm of the age, the Grand Machine of Newtonian Mechanics, the zeitgeist, was that everything was explainable: all effects the unavoidable product of causes, and thus a complete denial of revelation and the miraculous.
Richard Simon (1638-1712) is generally named as the founder of Old Testament criticism, but it is really his Age that did it.
Spinoza (1632-1677) saw the machine at work, without room for free will; the religious ideas of the Tractatus are rationalist. God for Spinoza was simply nature, with its causes and effects.
Jansen (1585-1638) called the machine “irresistible grace”: the world governed by pure determinism.
Later Hegel (1770-1831) said “the real is the rational and the rational is the real.”
This theme has not left us. When some accuses the text-critics of unbelief for even considering historically disparate sources in the Torah, the critics often react with wounded denial. Yet they are being either disingenuous or ignorant of their own tradition.
It is not coincidence that the movement that rejected revelation was the first to explain the Torah as the product of disparate and solely human sources. The dominant theology of the Enlightenment was at most a Deism, which asserted that if there ever was a Creator, he made the universe a well-oiled clock, wound it up, and left. We are but gears in that clock. All that can or will happen was determined absolutely at the clock’s creation. The Enlightenment is well-summed up by Hegel’s assertion that “the real is the rational and the rational is the real.”
This assertion excludes revelation; with revelation excluded, the Torah is necessarily of purely human origin; therefore we work to discover the evidences of human handiwork. The presumption precludes discovering anything else. But more importantly, it focuses our attention on the wrong issue. Even those who assert the importance of Moses as the author have accepted the Venue. They too are focused on the wrong issue. Both still argue the color of the wheel.
Leviticus 19:2 says, “You shall be holy, because I your Lord am holy.” This is the “cornerstone of the Torah,” “the whole Bible in miniature.” On this sentence alone hangs the whole argument. If it is a true statement, made by God to His people through His Word, then the Rational Venue must needs fail as a means of understanding. It is like a first-century Roman trying to understand a walkie-talkie. He may disassemble it endlessly, note the colors and patterns of the printed circuit cards, the different materials all stuck together inelegantly, the meaningless little black integrated circuits, the antenna, the case itself. No matter how thoroughgoing he is, his conceptual framework is far, far too tiny to even begin to comprehend it. He would doubtless be offended at this suggestion, but it is no less true for his objections.
Yet the damn thing can talk to him, and that is the point.
It doesn’t matter a bit whether it had one designer or three, whether the parts came from one source or twenty, whether it was assembled by a machine, a crew, or one lone hobbyist. And it doesn’t matter if any of these details can be guessed at. The fact that it talks to him, that there is evidence of a much advanced mind in its inscrutable construction, and that personal communication can take place through it, fundamentally transcends the issues of construction. Any insistence that we discuss WHO the assembler was forces this transcendent reality into the background. It misses what matters.
If Leviticus 19:2 is true, then the Rational Venue and all of its myriad methods of criticism fail. They are logical deductions from their own premises, but they go to the wrong point. They are arguments about the color of the wheel. They are guesses by first-century Romans, at least some of whom have deliberately stopped up their ears, and deny the sorcery of a talking box, because they “know” it is impossible.
If Leviticus 19:2 is not true, but mere fancy, a construction of superstitious nomads, then this is all of relatively small moment. It is interesting as most of history is interesting, but it is not a matter fundamental to existence.
What we call Genesis 1 ends with “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.” Genesis 2 begins with “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished.”
The last two Hebrew words of Genesis 1 are “yom hashish.” The first two of Genesis 2 are “vayekhulu hashamayim.” The first letters of these words form the acrostic “YHVH”. This is rather like finding “SONY” in the instruction manual for a walkie-talkie. If we really believed that SONY had made it, this would not be very surprising. Yet if we find it in the Bible, we suppose it’s either accident, or the clever ploy of some early redactor. We argue that God didn’t sign the book because we believe God didn’t write it.
Is this really the quite incredible suggestion that the critical method is somehow wrong, heretical? That God would want us to deny the skills of mind and inquiry with which he himself has endowed us?
The question is a trap. It begs to be answered “No!” because it appeals both to our well-indoctrinated belief in the need for freedom of thought, and because it invokes God as Creator of the inquiry it seeks to protect.
What the question hides is the Rational Venue, the rejection of God and revelation as a fundamental premise. We should not be fooled. Much of the critical method is clearly the agent of this Rational Venue. It is not midrash. It is not seeking God’s purpose for us. It is not studying His Word to gain deeper understanding of Him.
Where it is midrash, seeking His purpose, studying His Word to understand His will in our lives today, then much is permitted. It all hangs on belief and purpose. Unfortunately, we are still unwitting prisoners of the “Enlightenment,” and its tiny view of what is real.
Did Moses write the Torah? Nowhere in the Torah does it say he did. It seems more than unlikely that he could have written posthumously about his own death in Deuteronomy 34, so he in any event didn’t write all of it.
None of the other Bible references to Moses are compelling proof of the idea. More likely, Moses, a great leader and lawgiver, was the human source for much of the material, and “Moses”, as synecdoche, but not epononymic, is a useful symbol under which to class the books of the Law. That is to say, the wheel is, Oh, what the heck, red.
Thus are we subverted.
Did Moses write the Torah? No, God did. He signed it and He still talks through it. He says in it how to listen.
Was there a person named Moses who was the human author, inspired by God, to transcribe his word in tale and exhortation? Or is it merely a collection from disparate human sources, old tribal myths, borrowed stories and several gods, all pieced together by a series of ideological editors?
What color should the wheel be? It’s the wrong question.
Originally written October 1987 as part of a course with Dr Duane Christensen of blessed memory.
¹I subsequently recalled that it was “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” by Douglas Adams. A wonderful book!
²These are abbreviations for Jawehist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomist, categories of the “Documentary Hypothesis” invented by textual critics for groups of authors and redactors (editors) that they assume were the actual writers and assemblers of the Torah, as opposed to Moses – who is historically assumed to be the author.
³These are all classical categories used in textual analysis (criticism) of the Bible.
4John Barton, Reading the Old Testament, Revised and Expanded: Method in Biblical Study, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.