The Torah


   The foundation of Hebrew and Jewish religion, thought, law, and society is the Torah. The Torah, consisting of five books, lays down the central events of Hebrew history: the beginning of time, the election of Abraham, the history of the patriarchs, and the monumental history of the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The Torah overwhelmingly concerns this last historical event, the event that gave the Hebrews a religion, a nation, and an identity: the "bene yisrael," the "children of Israel." The migration from Egypt involved two crucial events: the introduction to Yahweh on Mount Sinai and the receiving of Yahweh's religious and social instructions.

   Torah is typically translated "law," but it also means something like "instructions" or "directions." For these five books are Yahweh's rules or directions for life and worship. The bulk of the books consist of cultic rules, but the whole of Hebrew law is contained in these books. Above these laws tower the laws given by Yahweh directly to his people: the Decalogue or ten commandments. This is the only part of the Hebrew scriptures that purports to be the direct speech of Yahweh written down on the spot . The decalogue forms the center of all the rules and laws developed out of them.

   The salient feature of the Torah as the law of the Hebrews is its divine origins and its immutability. The Torah as law is seen as the instructions given to the chosen people by the one and only one God, Yahweh. The special relationship between the Hebrews and Yahweh is predicated on obedience ; the Torah itself stands in for Yahweh. In every sense of the word, if Yahweh is the ruler of the Hebrews, then the Torah is the leader of the Hebrews. This is a remarkably new concept in the ancient world, and a concept of profound brilliance. For this concept of the Torah is the foundation of the Western notion of "rule by law," in which the law is seen as superior to all temporal rulers, that is, that rulers are ruled by law. This notion, so common in Western culture, ultimately owes its origin to the Hebrew Torah.

   Despite this, the Torah was not the central document of Hebrew history for much of Hebrew history. During the period of the judges, the Hebrews seem to constantly forget their recent past, and the monarchy is a hodge-podge of cultic practices. It was only during Exile, that the Torah came to the forefront of the Hebrew world view again. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple caused a great crisis of faith among the Judaeans; some gave into despair while others imaginatively recreated their religion. In their view, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile were the results of Jewish disobedience and corruption; these religious leaders sought to purify the Hebrew religion and return it to its roots. In order to do this, they turned to the Mosaic books of the Torah. The Torah, they asserted, was the law of the Hebrews; social and cultic practice must be based on the Torah rather than later innovations. After the Exile, the Torah became the normative law of Judaea, which became a vassal state first of Persia and then the Greeks. Both the Persians and the Greeks recognized the Torah as the "law of the Judaeans," and the Hebrews actively began to build a society based on the strictures of the Torah.

   The Torah, however, is more than simply rules. It is the foundational history of the Hebrews and their origins. The single most important event of this history is the delivery of the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression; this event is meant to serve as the single reminder that Yahweh has elected the Hebrews as his special people and will protect them from their oppressors.

   The Torah is made up of five books, known in Hebrew by the first words of the books, and known in English by the titles given to the books by the Greek translators of the Septuagint. These books are:
"In the beginning" (Bereshit ; in Greek, Genesis , or "Origin, Beginning")
Bereshit narrates the creation of the world, the first humans, their disobedience and exile from Eden, the early history of humanity and its destruction in a flood, and the history of the patriarchs ("father-rulers") of the Hebrews (12-50), and in particular, the covenant between God and Abraham in which God selects Abraham and his descendants as his "chosen" people.
"Names" (Shemot; in Greek, Exodos , or "Going Out").
Shemot narrates the delivery of the Hebrews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and the introduction to Yahweh and the receiving of the decalogue at Mount Sinai.
"Then he called" (Wayyiqra; in Greek, Leuitikon , or "The Levitical [Book of Law])
Wayyiqra is a book of laws and instructions specifically relating to the cultic practices associated with Yahweh.
"In the wilderness" (Bemidbar; in Greek, Arithmoi , or "Numbers")
Bemidbar in part narrates the history of the wanderings through the wilderness after the Hebrews leave Sinai; the first part of the book involves more cultic regulations.
"Words" (Debarim; in Greek, Deuteronomion , or "The Second Law")
Debarim is a speech by Moses, and contains a recapitulation of the laws assigned to the Hebrews as well as a few additional ones; it's primary message is a.) cultic purity and b.) cultic unity—the Hebrews are enjoined to maintain the cultic practices without corruption and to do so as a single community.


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-17-97