Helpful Hints for Reading Torah

The first five books of the Old Testament are called “Torah” or the “Pentateuch”. Pentateuch is a Greek word that refers to a text divided into five scrolls. Torah is a Hebrew work that is often translated as “law”. But to think of Torah as merely law is to ignore the full breadth of Torah. Teaching and even revelation are also part of Torah and good translations of the word.

In addition to Torah the Old Testament, in Jewish tradition, also contains the Prophets, (Nebi’im) and Writings (Kethubim). The Hebrew scriptures are called the TaNaK, an acronym of Torah, Nebi’im and Kethubim.

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from the third century BC. There are some differences in content and chronology between the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, but the texts are substantially the same. Because early Christians spoke Greek, the Septuagint was most likely the Scripture they read. The Old Testament of Christian Bibles, is the Hebrew Bible and not the Septuagint.

Before there was a written text, the stories we read in Torah were told orally. With time the stories were written down.Tradition held that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. However, today there is much scholarly work available on how and where these stories were written and collected.Moses is not considered to be the sole author of Torah.  Suffice it to say, that the written text we have today is the result of centuries, even millennia  of telling and re telling, writing and re writing as generations of the faithful considered their story and traditions. The Hebrew Bible does not come from just one or two sources. It is the work of a community, different people in different historical times and locations telling their experience of God.

The development of the Scriptures was gradual. 2 Kings refers to a “book of the law” found in the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BC which was the basis for the reforms of King Josiah. (2 Kings 22-23) Scholars believe this “book of the law” is now found in Deuteronomy chapters 5-26  (or perhaps 12-26) and chapter 28.  The “book of the law of Moses” was brought by Ezra from Babylonia in (probably)458 BC (see Ezra 7:6-10,14 and Neh chs 8-10). How much of the present Pentateuch that book contained is uncertain. What we would recognize as Torah, was probably first compiled at the time of the Exile in the sixth century BC. It took until 100 AD for there to be a standard acceptable text of the Hebrew Bible.

As we read Torah, we will find much more narrative than rules and laws. Torah begins with creation and traces Israel’s history to just before Israel enters the Promised Land. We will read Israel’s stories of primeval times. We will read about Abraham and his descendants, the Exodus, and the time of wandering in the wilderness.

The narrative arc of Torah can be divided into three sections:

The Primeval History, Genesis 2-11. This act begins with creation, to the Flood and humanities new beginning after the Flood. This narrative includes all humans.

The Ancestral History Genesis 12-50. This is the story of a particular people-a family history. It tells the stories of Israel’s “founders”, Abraham through Joseph.

The People’s History, Exodus 1-to the opening of Joshua. This takes the story from the oppression in Egypt to the entrance into Canaan.  (Anderson, 142)

While much of Torah reads like history, Torah is not primarily about history. And Torah is not history defined by our modern conventions and concerns. Torah, like the rest of Scripture, is about God and the ways God is at work in the world. Torah is a confession of faith, the story of the faith of Israel in the good creator God.

We will be reading Torah in canonical order, the way the books appear in the Bible. But as we read we need to remember that these stories, while from ancient oral origins, were written down much later in time. In a sense we are reading “backwards” as these stories have been shaped by Israel’s later history. For example, Bernhard Anderson writing about the early chapters of Genesis says,

The Priestly writers set forth their understanding of the meaning of this era in the Priestly creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:3)… Few passages in the Bible excel the majesty of style and sublimity of thought in this Priestly account. Its stately rhythms and sonorous refrains reflect years of usage in the Temple, where it was solemnly recited and gradually assumed its present form of liturgical prose. In other words, though the story now appears in the Priestly Torah, given final shape in the period of the Exile or even later, it reflects a long history of liturgical usage and bears the marks of intense theological reflection over many generations.(Anderson, 407)

Read More About It.

The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.

Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, “Understanding the Old Testament” Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.

Keck, Leander E., ed. “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.

Mays, James L. ed. “HarperCollins Bible Commentary” (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.

Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds. “The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books” (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.

Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.


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