Formation of Torah as we know it, the first book will be last and the last book will be first


After the Thursday evening Old Testament Prophets class on September 29, outside of our Cathedral, Father Francisco Nahoi and some parishioners discussed the irony that Deuteronomy means the second giving of Torah. The irony is that it was probably the first writing down of Torah.

II Kings 22:8 reads, “Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe: ‘I have found the book of Torah in the house of the Personal Name.”

Scholars believe this book to be Deuteronomy. As for Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we travel forward in time to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Babylonian Exile. Nehemiah gives voice to the politics of the time as he reports a letter sent to him in Nehemiah 6:6-7 and 6:17-19.

Old walled city in Jerusalem

Ezra 4:8 reports another letter sent, which states, “To King Artaxerxes, your servants, the men of West-of-Euphrates, as follows: Let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have arrived at Jerusalem and are now rebuilding this rebellious and evil city…”

Ezra 5 reports letters between the Persian governors about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. As the temple neared completion, in Nehemiah 8, we read how Torah was read to the people.

Scholars believe this second book to be Torah as we have it today. This brings the question, “Why is the book being read at this point.” Father and I discussed the possibility that the issue being debated is if Israel is a people, or “The Jews who came up from you to us, who have arrived at Jerusalem and are now rebuilding this rebellious and evil city.”

More correspondence follows between the Persian kings and the local governors. Ezra 6 reports a letter from king Darius of Persia agreeing to the rebuilding of the temple.

There is a debate about who these Jews are. The governors and the King Darius would ask for proof that the Jews are a people. There is the two-audience theory of writing. The first is the author’s audience. It is the Jewish people, the returning exiles. The second audience is Darius and his Persian governors. In grade school, teachers asked us to write to our friends. If modern students did as directed, all essays would look like text messages and the students would learn nothing. The real audience is the teacher. Students write to the teacher who wants students to write to grade school students, their audience.

Not one nation, but two, plus the priests

There are three sets of people looking on as Ezra reads Torah to the people in Nehemiah 8. The crowd watches to see if this document has value. Ezra and Nehemiah watch the crowd to see if they accept the document. The third set of people is the Persians, looking to see how the people respond. Will they recognize this document as their heritage, or as a new document set upon them by leaders who would set themselves up as kings?

The problem is that there is not one people present, but three. There are the people of Judah, the southern kingdom. There are the people of Israel who escaped south when the Assyrians came, and there are the priests coming from both places. To this day, scholars point to sections in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus. Some are clearly from the northern tradition. These sections refer to God as El. Others are from Judah and refer to God using his Personal Name. Others come from the priestly class and refer to God as El Shaddai.

If these men of the Great Assembly write to only one group, they offend the other two who walk away, and the Persians are watching. For the Torah to succeed, all groups must find their tradition in the text. If they do, we will read as we do in Nehemiah 8:12, “All the people began to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been explained to them.”

The Persians are happy, Ezra and Nehemiah are happy, and the people are happy. Deuteronomy is the first book of Torah written down, but the other four books come from competing traditions handed down for many centuries before Deuteronomy. That is why Torah has a talking snake and talking donkey. That is why our Bible has Shir HaShirim, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, and more. That is why sections of Torah look like they have Brothers Grimm, Paul Bunyan, George Washington, his cherry tree, and his famous quarter. The Persians are not interested in a History. They learned that in college. They want a time capsule, a statement of Jewish heritage, and that is what we have.

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