Study notes: Themes in the Torah

My study notes on Chapter 7 of ‘The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible’ by Stephen Harris and Robert Platzner.

The Torah opens with the creation of the world but quickly shifts to the creation of Israel. The stories of the Patriarchs are recounted yet the narrative of Israel’s past culminates at the revelation of the Torah to Moses at Sinai.

The essence of the Torah is contained in its laws, precepts and narratives revealed to Moses that differentiates Israel from the other near eastern nations.

Near the end of Deuteronomy, Israel is asked to choose between the loyalty to God or the worship of other deities, and Israel’s response is the “Deuteronomistic narrative” (Joshua – 2 Kings)

The written material is at the face of an oral tradition.

Deut. 32:7 Remember the days of old;
    consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
    your elders, and they will explain to you.

Scholars work to try and understand when the oral traditions were written down.

Major themes of the Pentateuch

Even though source criticism has shown that the Torah is an amalgamation of many (often diverging) older sources, as a whole there are detectable themes. Some degree of coherence is demonstrated, the redactors working to weave together a somewhat cohesive narrative.

Two themes unify the whole of the Pentateuch: YHWH’s unsolicited promises to the patriarchs, and His relationship with their descendants.

The promises to the patriarchs shapes the Pentateuch’s structure and the deuteronomistic history. Israel is expected to balance their hope in YHWH’s promises and their fear that they will not be able to fulfil all of YHWH’s commandments.

Israel’s failure to keep its promises is the reason why Israel falls to its neighbouring enemies.

Throughout the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History, God’s positive intentions for the obedient of humanity is contrasted by the human rebelliousness that belies the divine plan. These two themes paint a bitter-sweet history of Israel.

The promises to Abraham

God’s promises to Abraham can be surmised as below:

  1. Descendents. Abraham is promised a ‘multitude’ of nations- even though his wife is barren, he is given sons, and through these sons, nations are born, including Israel through Isaac, and the arabs through Ishmael. Interestingly, the theme of fertility is common in Genesis: Abraham and Jacob’s wives are barren, and YHWH’s own demands to sacrifice Isaac further put emphasis on these theme of childlessness.
  2. Divine presence. This is a strong theme within the Torah: God pledges to stay with His chosen servents. This feature predominates in the story of Jacob. Divine presence also has a more literal meaning: instructions for the construction of the tabernacle and the arc take up 11 chapters of the Exodus. God also visits Israel often through pillars of cloud or fire.
  3. Land: the descendants of Abraham are promised land, which is very much tied into the promise of many nations being born to Abraham. YHWH swears to give Canaan to the descendents of Abraham. The narrative sequence from Genesis – 2 Kings justifies Israel’s claim to the land on theological grounds, and subsequently an explanation on why it was taken from them.
  4. Universal blessings: this is interesting. God promises His blessings to all nations on the earth “through Abraham.” Islam?
  5. Covenant: God binds Himself to Israel, conferring many divine gifts. However, the continued fulfilment of YHWH’s vows to Israel is predicated on their obedience.

The nature of YHWH

YHWH, in contrast to the Canaanite pantheon, demands absolute commitment to Him alone, “because YHWH, whose name is Jealous, is a Jealous God.” He does not tolerate much disobedience or redirection of worship to other deities. His graciousness is often contrasted with His anger as Israel often disobeys their God.

Interesting, throughout the exodus narrative, even though God is present with Israel (quite literally – as clouds or as fire), Israel becomes more distant from God due to her ingratitude and constant complaining:

Deut 32:4-6

He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

They are corrupt and not his children;
    to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation.
Is this the way you repay the Lord,
    you foolish and unwise people?
Is he not your Father, your Creator,[a]
    who made you and formed you?

In the history of Israel thereafter, YHWH eventually abandons Israel to their enemies due to their disobedience.

Literary forms

In the Torah there are several dominating literary forms.

Narrative

Present in Genesis and much of Exodus and Numbers. These are simply passages that tell stories, including the key factors such as characters, location, setting, a plot and resolution. The ‘narrative voice’ is the one telling us the story: In the Torah, there are many different narrative voices, due to multiple sources being used. In all cases, the narrator is an anonymous figure that knows all about the story he tells, which he does so in 3rd person. In conversations between two people, he recalls it as if he were the third party.

It is near eastern custom to create speeches for mythical heroes and their gods. The Torah writers present much of Moses’s revelation as a conversation with YHWH. Note to self: of-course, a literary style similar to neighbouring myths does not mean derivation. It’s simply a writing style. 

Myth re-purposed:

A myth is a traditional narrative of the events in the remote past. Biblical sources sometimes transform myths of other nations or of older times to support a theological truth: In this way, these myths are still “true” (as in, they tell a theological or moral truth) but are not historical.

Genealogy:

These are rigid formulas of lineage, largely a priestly contribution. These are large blocks of genealogical information, recounting lineages, dates and names. On the other hand, the Yahwist writer weaves genealogy into the narrative rather than presenting large blocks of them.

Etiology:

A narrative that specifically explains the origins of natural, social or ritual phenomenon. For example, from Jacob’s wrestling with God originates the command for the Israelites to not eat a specific part of the animal hip, for God struck Jacob on the sciatic nerve at the hip. Interestingly, this command does not appear in law codes at the different places in the Torah.

Itinerary

Often associated with nomadic travels, this literary form recalls people’s immigrations from one geological place to another.

Cult legends

In many tales of the patriarchs, significant events in the lives of a character happen at a specific geological place. These are thought to have been written to give validation to certain Israelite places of worship.

My thoughts

I was somewhat reluctant on reading this chapter before finishing the bible itself, but decided to go through with it for the sake of the rest of the book which may have depended on it. I wonder exactly how to draw the line between genuine thematic study of the 5 books  and simply reading too much into it due to the fact that it’s not really intended to be completely cohesive: after all, this is a work which was redacted from many other sources with different authors and intentions.

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