PUBLISHED IN LANTAYAN Vol. 7 (Academic Year 2008-2009)
Pastoral-Theological Journal of Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque City, Philippines
This is a short version of a conference given at the Symposium held in St John Bosco Parish in Makati City, July 21st, 2008. A fuller version of the conference can be found in J.L. Ska, “The Role of the Torah in the Covenanted Community of Israel”, in Idem, The Torah: “Israel’s Portable Homeland” ‑ CBAP Lectures 2008 (Quezon City: Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines, 2009) 1-24.
Introduction to the Topic
The topic I have to treat today is very important for the life of Israel and for the understanding of the Bible, “The role of the Torah in the covenanted community of Israel”. Let me start with a short quotation, “For the Jewish people, the Torah (which means instruction of the law) is a portable homeland.” This quotation is from a German poet of Jewish origin, Heinrich Heine. He wrote that sentence in a letter sent to a friend in the 19th century. Of course, that was before the existence of the State of Israel. Most of the Jews at that time were still wandering Jews.
What is the meaning of the sentence? Let us try to understand it as an introduction to the topic.
When the Roman army, led by the future emperor Titus, took over Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was destroyed and the Jews lost their homeland. The situation was even worse in 135 AD, after the second Jewish rebellion. Emperor Hadrian decided to pull down completely the city of Jerusalem and rebuild it according to a Roman plan. If you go to Jerusalem today, it is very difficult to find where the old city is. You have, more or less, remnants of the Roman city.
At that point, the Jews had few solutions to solve the problem of survival. The Jewish people chose the Torah. Rabbi Akiba said at Jamnia, “To observe the law is more important than to offer sacrifices.” It is even better than offering sacrifices. For the Jews, the observance of the law replaced the cult in the temple since there was no temple anymore. The Christians—and probably it was in 70 AD that Christians and Jews separated—chose the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ became the temple, and his sacrifice on the cross replaced all the sacrifices in the temple, according to the Letter to the Hebrews. So, there were different solutions to the same problem; and today, Jews and Christians live differently because at that time, they chose different ways.
The Torah became a portable homeland because the Torah defined the frontiers of Israel. Who is an Israelite? Who is a member of Israel? Somebody who observes the law. And if somebody does not observe the law, he is no longer a real member of Israel. The frontiers of Israel are no longer the frontiers of a territory but the frontiers of a certain kind of behavior.
The highest authority in Israel also became the Torah since there was no longer any high priest. Of course, there was no longer any king. Monarchy disappeared a long time before with the first exile in 586 BC, when the Babylonians took over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple for the first time. From then on, there was no longer any king in Israel. The highest authority was the Torah. They refer to the Torah to know God’s will.
In this short introduction, I said that Torah is the highest authority and the homeland of Israel. How can we see this in the Bible itself? I will try to show this in two steps: First, in a short reflection about the canon and the organization of the books in the Hebrew Bible. And second, by reading with you three texts about the Torah: the public and solemn reading of the Torah in Nehemiah 8, 2 Kings 22 and 23, and the very first reading in the history of Israel as it is presented in Exodus 24 by Moses himself.
Reflection on the Canon of the Hebrew Bible
We Christians always believe that the Old Testament is only a preparation for the New Testament. And so, when we read the Bible, we go uphill from the Old Testament to the New Testament—the summit of the hill is Jesus Christ. We begin with Genesis 1, Creation of the world. We have afterwards Genesis 2 and 3, The Fall. And from Chapter 3, we expect a savior. We expect salvation.
So, the rest of the Old Testament for us Christians is just a preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. God calls Abraham, we have the patriarchs, we have the exodus, we have the conquest of the land, the judges, the monarch—all that is a preparation of the people of Israel, because Jesus is born in Israel as a member of Israel. And with the prophets, we wait for the coming of the savior. They announce the coming of the messiah—you have a prefiguration of the messiah. And the books are arranged that way. You may think that all the Bibles are arranged the same way, but that is not true at all.
In our Christian Bible, we have first the Pentateuch and the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and so on. Then we have Wisdom literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs… and at the end, the Prophets. Why are the prophets at the end? Simply because they prepare you for the coming of the messiah. This is the order of the books you find in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Jerome.
If you take the Greek translation of the Bible, there is one difference. At the end, you still find the prophets but the last book is Daniel. The Minor Prophets come first and the Major Prophets afterwards. Why do the Major Prophets come afterwards? Because it is in the Major Prophets that we have the main prophecies about the coming of the messiah, namely, in Isaiah, and especially in Daniel 7—the vision of the son of man, and Daniel 12 in which you have the announcement of the resurrection. As you know, probably all editions of the Septuagint are Christian editions. The Jews refused to keep the Septuagint because it was used by the Christians. Manuscripts of the Septuagint are all Christian manuscripts, although the Jews translated the Bible into Greek more or less at the end of the third and the beginning of the second century BC in Alexandria.
But if we take a Jewish Bible, the books are arranged in a very different way. Of course, you find in the beginning the Pentateuch. After that, in the second part, you will find the so-called Prophetic Books. And the first of these is Joshua, not Isaiah. Joshua is the first prophet. We have the so-called former prophets, namely, the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Then, we have the later prophets and among them you find only three Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel—Daniel is not a prophet in the Jewish Bible—and the 12 Minor Prophets. The third part of the Bible is the so-called Writings in which you have the rest: Psalms, Job, Qohelet, Ruth, Esther, Daniel and the Book of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah—the leftovers.
The three parts of the Bible are arranged in a very particular way. The former prophets are supposed to be commentators of the Bible. And why? There is one key text to understanding the Hebrew Bible: Deuteronomy 34:10-12. These are the concluding verses of the Pentateuch. And it is said, never after that has a prophet arisen in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face, who accomplished wonders, mighty deeds against Egypt, and led Israel out of Egypt.
We have three affirmations in this text.
First, the greatest prophet is Moses. He is greater than all the other prophets, namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or even Joshua, who may be considered the successor of Moses. According to Sirach 46, Joshua was the successor of Moses as prophet but is not of the same level. So, it means that with Moses, the summit of revelation is reached. After that, it goes downhill. It does not go up again. We reach the top with Moses.
Second, God knew Moses face to face. You may think that we have here a statement about the spirituality, the personality, the holiness of Moses. That statement, however, has consequences for the quality of the revelation given to Moses. It means that whenever God spoke to Moses, he spoke face to face. According to Numbers 12, he spoke mouth to mouth. So, everything God revealed to Moses and everything Moses proclaimed to Israel is of controlled origin. It came directly from God to Moses. After that, it is no longer the case. According to Numbers 12 again, when God speaks to prophets, it is through visions and dreams based on mediation. For Moses, there is no mediation. Revelation is given face to face, mouth to mouth. You find the best quality of God’s revelation in the Pentateuch, which is the top of whatever you can find in the Hebrew Bible.
Third, Moses was God’s agent for the exodus. It means that the main event of Israel’s history is the exodus. Israel was born in the exodus and not when Joshua entered the land, not when David conquered the first kingdom and was established king of Israel. So, the history of Israel does not begin with David, with the monarchy. We would say that the history of a country begins when it becomes independent and has its own monarchy or its own government. Even today we would think that way. It is not the case in the Bible. The history of Israel begins with the exodus and with Moses, when Israel became a free nation—free from Egypt. Freedom is more important than territory. It also means that possession of the territory is not essential to Israel’s faith. Monarchy and even the temple are not essential to Israel’s existence. A portable shrine in the desert is enough.
So what is said in Deuteronomy 34:10-12 is very simple: Moses is the greatest prophet, God knew him face to face, and exodus is the start of Israel’s history. It means that with the Pentateuch, you have enough to define Israel as the people of God. The rest might be interesting; the rest might be useful. But the rest is not indispensable. You cannot live as an Israelite without Moses. But you can do without Joshua. You can do without David and Solomon. You cannot do without Moses.
And this is explained in different ways, but I will just take two texts.
Joshua 1 contains the instructions of God to Joshua. He has to conquer the land; every place he will tread on will belong to the Promised Land, and so on. And then in Joshua 1:7-9, you have very special instructions. God tells Joshua this: Be strong and courageous, take in your hand the book of the Law of Moses, read it day and night, meditate it and act accordingly. Because if you observe all that is written in the Law of Moses you will be successful.
First of all, is Joshua the successor of Moses? No. What replaces Moses is not Joshua but the book of the Torah. Joshua has to read and meditate the book of the Torah and live accordingly. So, he is not the one in command; the Torah is in command. And the success of Joshua depends on his observance of the law. So, if you read the book of Joshua and you come across his victories, you know why he is successful. It is because he observed the law. Here you have the key to understanding the rest of the history of Israel. That is, if afterwards, in Judges, Israel is oppressed, it is because Israel did not observe the law. And then, at the end of 2 Kings, Samaria and Jerusalem are destroyed—first Samaria and then Jerusalem. The king of the north disappears. The king of the south disappears. The two kingdoms disappear because they did not observe the law.
We have to read the whole history of Israel as a commentary on the Torah. The prophets are commentators of the Torah. They meditate the Torah as Joshua had to meditate it day and night. The prophets are those who ask Israel to listen to the Torah, to be faithful to the Torah. The only figure who actually acts that way is surely Jeremiah. But the other prophets are considered that way. The last words of the book of Malachi are, remember Moses (cf. 3:22) and I will send you Elijah (cf. 3:23), and so on. Of course, we Christians remember Elijah according to Luke 1. The Elijah who comes back is John the Baptist. The Jews just remember Moses.
In today’s Jewish edition, you will find Psalms in the third part of the Bible—the famous Writings, Ketuvim. We read in Psalm 1, Happy is the one who does not follow the counsel of the wicked but meditates the law of the Lord day and night and is successful (cf. v. 1). These are exactly the same words, which you find in the beginning of Joshua. So, what it is asked of Joshua at the beginning of the Prophetic Books—the second part of the Jewish Bible—is also said about the pious Jew in one of the central books of the third part of the Bible. What is asked of Joshua is said of every pious Jew. What defines a good member of the people of Israel? The meditation of the law. Every good Jewish man and woman is somebody who meditates the law of God day and night.
We have in the Hebrew Bible very clear indications that the Torah is a central element of Israel’s faith, existence, and identity. Nothing else can compete with the Torah—not the messiah, the temple of Solomon, the cult, the monarchy, or even the priesthood. The Torah defines everything else. You have laws about the cult, temple, shrine, and the different institutions. For instance, you have the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17. All the institutions of Israel are defined by the Torah, so there is nothing higher than the Torah in Israel.
In the New Testament, there are so many discussions about the Torah because it was so central. And the Jews in the time of Jesus and in the time of the first disciples and the first Church were much more attached to the Torah than waiting for the messiah. The Torah was enough.
When we read the Bible as Christians, the highest point is at the end. For the Jewish people, it is the opposite. The top is at the beginning. You reach the top with Moses and then you go downhill until the end of Israel’s history.
Three Key Texts on the Torah
I am not here as a historian. I read the Bible as it is and try to find an answer to all my questions in the Bible itself. When does the Torah become essential to the life of Israel and for Israel’s existence?
The first clear text about this is Nehemiah 8. After the return from the exile, the first reconstruction of Jerusalem, and the reconstruction of the temple, the scribe Ezra one day, convoked the whole people of Israel. They read the Torah from morning until evening. And they read it for one full week. After that week, they would celebrate for the first time the feast of Succoth—the celebration of booths, which takes place on the seventh month, more or less September. That celebration is described at length in Nehemiah 8. After that reading, the people weep but they said: No, rejoice—it is a celebration. Today is a feast of joy. We do not have to weep (cf. vv. 9-12).
I would like to underscore one point about that reading of the law. Ezra is a scribe. He came back from Babylon with the Torah. The Torah comes from Babylon. It is not said that he found the Torah in Jerusalem. It is said that he arrived from Babylon with a book, the book of the law. And this law is presented as completely unknown and new.
Two examples to illustrate this point:
First, the celebration of the feast of Succoth is presented as completely new. It is said, most probably with a little bit of exaggeration, that the feast had not been celebrated from the days of Joshua. So, it seems from the time they entered the land until after the exile, the feast of Succoth had never been celebrated. No one knew that celebration. They discovered it in the book of the Torah read by Ezra on that day. Israel had not known and not observed the Torah on this point up to that day.
Second, after the reading of the law, the Israelites wanted to send away all the foreign wives because the law asked Jews to marry only those who belong to the Jewish people. To keep the integrity of the Jewish people, they have to purify the people from all foreign elements (cf. Neh 9:2). And this is presented as something completely new, that had not been done before. So, either they did not know the law or they purposely ignored the law.
2 Kings 22-23
The book of the Torah is completely new to them, and that creates a problem. How can you present a book as essential for the existence of Israel if it had not been known before? And some people would even say: You brought that book from Babylon, so it was printed in Babylon. It was not printed in Jerusalem, so it is imported. And reading between the lines, you can see in several texts in Ezra and Nehemiah that the people who had remained in the land refused the Torah brought back by Ezra: We don’t need that Torah that comes from Babylon.
So, they have to justify that the Torah is a genuine book of Israel. They had to justify that it was not invented by the Jewish community in Babylon while they were in exile, that it had been written before, that it was older than the exile, that it already existed before. Perhaps, Israel did not observe it, but it existed. And that is the purpose, according to me, of my second text.
2 Kings 22-23 tell you about the discovery of the book of the Torah in the temple before its destruction and before the destruction of Jerusalem. The discovery of the book can be dated to 622 BC. According to me, the narrative is much later and was written after the exile because it foresees the exile.
What is the text about? King Josiah was eight years old when he became king. At one point, he looked at the temple and decided to repair it because some parts were falling away. And while the temple was being repaired, they discover a book. They bring the book to the only one could read, the scribe—again a scribe, as Ezra. His name is Shaphan. This is a famous family. We find several members of the Shaphan family in the book of Jeremiah, protecting Jeremiah. And you may remember that when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem they appointed as governor of the province of Judea a member of the Shaphan family, a grandson, Gedaliah.
So then, Shaphan reads the book, brings it immediately to King Josiah, and reads that book in front of the king (cf. 22:8-10), who tears his garments and says, Woe to us—we are cursed because we did not observe all that is written in that book (cf. vv. 11-13). The famous Shaphan read it once for himself. He read it for the second time in front of the king.
But the narrator does not tell you what is in the book. It just says that as soon as Shaphan read the book, he ran to the king, saying it is essential, the king must know it immediately. The poor king has to leave everything and has to listen to the reading of the book. He is appalled. And he says, we must know more. He sends all his officials with Shaphan and the book to a prophetess, Huldah (cf. v. 14). So, the book was read a third time on the same day. We are in biblical narratives. Some people say that the book was Deuteronomy. Is it possible to read the whole book three times in one day? In narratives it is possible.
After that the prophetess said: You know this book is surely a very important book for the fate of Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be destroyed. You will be destroyed because you are unfaithful (cf. vv. 16-17). Afterwards, King Josiah convokes the whole assembly—the people, the elders, the priests, and so on—and concludes a covenant with the people of Israel according to what is written in the book of the law (cf. Neh 23).
Elements of the Narrative
First, the law is older than the destruction of the temple. There was a book of the law in the temple before it was destroyed. So, it was not written afterwards. It existed before and was found in the temple before its destruction, before the destruction of Jerusalem.
Second, the book is more important than the temple, king, prophets, officials of the court, and even the city of Jerusalem. The temple will disappear but the book will remain. The king will disappear but the book will remain. Even prophets will disappear but the book will remain. The book is more important because in the book you already find foreseen the fate of the king, the fate of the country, the fate of the city.
Third, the book of the Torah is the key to the understanding of what Israel is. The book is not only more important but it also enables all the readers to understand the history of Israel, what is happening and what is going to happen to Israel. It is the key to the understanding of the history of Israel. Therefore, this book is very, very important and you cannot do without it.
Now, of course, some people would say, “But where does that book come from?” They found it in the temple. Some people would say, “But, you know, the priest may have put it there. Maybe the scribe put it there.” The job of a scribe was to write, so, it might have been written by Shaphan and then hidden in the temple.
The question is how old is that book and who is its first author? In antiquity, as you know, everything that is old has more value. The older the better. I will give you one case. Remember that in his letters, Paul wants to show that faith is more important than the law, the Torah. How does he do it? Simply this way: He shows that Abraham believed before Moses came and received the law. If faith precedes the law, faith is more important than the law.
Second short example: When St. Paul wants to show that faith is more important than circumcision. What is the evidence? Very simple. When does Abraham believe for the first time? Genesis 15:6. When was he circumcised? Genesis 17. So, he believed before he was circumcised. Thanks goodness, the chapters of Genesis were arranged the right way, we would say today. For Paul it was sufficient to show that Abraham was not yet circumcised when he believed. Therefore he can be the father of all the circumcised and all the uncircumcised. Circumcision comes afterwards and therefore it is secondary. Faith is more important.
So, in antiquity—and not only Israel, but also in Greece, and in Rome, and in any other societies, if you look well, what comes first is always more important. That book had to be very old. When was it written for the first time? The answer is in my third text in Exodus.
The setting is Mt. Sinai; the people of Israel arrived there after three months. They stopped. You have the theophany in Exodus 19, with thunder, lightning, God is speaking… and so on. In Exodus 20, there is the proclamation of the Decalogue. The Israelites after that asked Moses to go himself to the mountain and God chose to speak to Moses and not to the Israelites who are too frightened. The second part of the law is given to Moses.
In Exodus 24, he comes down. He reads, proclaims, and tells the Israelites all the words that God told him in the mountain. He tells them (cf. v. 3). Now, if you read the Hebrew text, you have there an unusual verb, safer (“to tell” or “to report”). Moses told the Israelites all the words of God. That verb has the same root as the word “scribe” (sofer) and the word “book” (sefer). This might be a key to the understanding of the text. Moses tells as a scribe would tell. And all the people of Israel say, all that God said, we will do—we will carry out. They agreed with Moses and God, saying: What God told you on the mountain, what you are telling us now, will be our line of behavior.
Then, Moses writes down all the words in a book (cf. v. 4). We have the book here for the first time. Who is the writer? The most authoritative person in Israel: Moses. The first book of the law was written by no one else but Moses.
After that, he builds an altar with twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel and asks young men to slaughter sacrifices. He separates the blood into two parts. He sprinkles one half of the blood on the altar and keeps the second part in basins. Then, he reads the book. And the people of Israel say again, all the words: O Lord, we will do, carry out, and we will listen. Strange—we will do, we will listen. After that, Moses takes the second part of the blood and sprinkles the blood on the people of Israel and says: With this, according to his word, God now concludes a covenant with you on the basis of his words (cf. vv. 4-8).
With the conclusion of the covenant on Mt Sinai, we have here two liturgies: the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the blood. And as in our Eucharist, we have at the beginning the liturgy of the word and then the liturgy of the bread and wine. In Exodus 24:3-8 you have the conclusion of the covenant, the sprinkling of the blood. The altar represents God, of course, and the same blood is sprinkled on the altar and on Israel. Since blood is sacred and it symbolizes life, they are bound for death and life. It is the same blood uniting the altar and the people.
Elements of the Narrative
First, oral tradition and written tradition. We have here all the operations that are connected to the book. We have, first, oral tradition: the words written in the book come orally from God. Moses tells the people all the words of God before he writes them on the book. Then he reads the book and twice people say: All those words will be accomplished. Why does Moses read the book a second time? So that the people may be sure that what is written in the book is what Moses told them and what God told Moses. There is identity between oral tradition and written tradition—between what God told Moses, what Moses told Israel, and what was written in the book. And Israel can be a witness to this because they listened and they heard.
Second, the book replaces Moses. Now, the second point, which is very important: When they hear Moses reading the book for the second time, the Israelites say, All the words of the Lord, we will do and we will listen. This means if we want to listen to God, we have to listen to the reading of the book. If we want to listen to Moses, we have to listen to the book. The word of God is the word transmitted to Moses, which is now in the book. If we want to know God’s will we have to read the book. If we want to know what Moses taught us, we have to go to the book. So the book replaces Moses and it even, to a certain extent, replaces God. God’s presence is in the book.
Third, the reader’s answer. We have seen in the text that the book is written, read, and the people answered. What is the content of that book? It is said, all the words (i.e. the commandments) of God. If you read Exodus, you have all the words of the commandments and you just read what Moses read to the people of Israel. So, you are in the same position as the Israelites in the narrative. And, of course, when you read the book you are invited as members of Israel to answer to the reading of the book exactly as Israelites within the narrative answer to it.
We have a similar strategy in the Gospels, when Jesus tells the parable of the sower (cf. Mk 4:1-9; Mt 13:1-9; Lk 8:4-8). Within the Gospel, you have a story about the proclamation of the word. The sower was out to sow seed. And there are four different phases. Some grain fell on ground that is too hard. Some fell among the rocks, some fell among thorns, and then some fell on the good soil. And there are different results. What is the seed? The seed is the Word of God. What is the Word of God? It is the Gospel you have in your hand. So, when you come to that parable, you have to check your answer. There are four different answers, four different reactions, four different effects. What is described within this story is what you are doing as readers of the Gospel. This is exactly the same as what you find in Exodus 24 with the Torah written by Moses.
To conclude, Moses is the writer of the Torah. He is the author, the scribe. And that is my last point: He is a scribe. So, somehow, we have here the signature of all the scribes who are the real heirs of Moses. The real heirs of Moses, according to this text, are those who are able to know God’s words, those who write God’s words, and those who read to the people God’s words. These are the scribes—the famous scribes we find in the Gospels, who defend the Torah of Moses and discuss with Jesus and his disciples. The heirs of Moses are not exactly the prophets. Prophets disappear. They are not exactly priests. Priests disappear with the temple. Those who survived are the scribes, the rabbis who read and interpret the law. They justified their profession and activity because it goes back to Moses who was the very first scribe, the one with the highest authority who was also approved by God himself.
So let me conclude with a few words this short journey into the Bible. Torah as a book is very essential to the identity of Israel up to today. And that would be, I think, the main difference between Christians and Jews. For Jewish people today what is central is the book of the Torah; whereas for Christians, what is essential is the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection. We have a personal approach to what is faith. They have a different approach to what is faith. These are two ways. Who is right and who is wrong? I think that is the wrong question to ask. The problem is not in the truth, but in our readiness to look for fuller truth together. Maraming salamat po.
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