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Biblical criticism

Biblical criticism is an allegedly scientific approach to the study the holy writings. However, it can never be considered truly scientific because the approach is founded on a fundamental axiom that has never been proven: ie. The impossibility of prophecy. It is claimed that because the text includes contradictions, there must have been five different sources for the Torah which were amalgamated by an editor. But why should we assume multiple authors without considering the possibility that there is meaning and intent behind the internal contradictions? If the Holy One is the God of everything and the world is full of contradictions and various shades, we should expect the Torah to reflect this reality and we should be open to seeing the complexity that is inherent in the divine message, instead of trying to deny it. This article outlines in brief the claims of the critics regarding textual discrepancies, external cultural influences and archaeology and provides a brief reply to each of them. It demonstrates that the evidence does not contradict the belief in the divine origin of the Torah but rather can be incorporated, at times even more reasonably, within the framework of this belief.


Biblical criticism is an allegedly scientific approach to the study the holy writings. Why ‘allegedly’ scientific? Because this approach is founded upon a fundamental axiom that has never been proven: the impossibility of prophecy. On the basis of this assumption, the bible critics arrived at the inevitable conclusion that the Torah is not of divine origin, and therefore it should be analyzed by asking: when it was composed? By whom? For what purpose? and so on. This approach is studied in many institutions worldwide and especially in Israel[1], and so we must explore it.

There is a common trend among laymen to equate biblical criticism with the scientific study of the Tanach, despite the fact that they are entirely different fields of endeavor. In contrast to biblical criticism, scientific study of the Tanach is commendable. It utilizes scientific tools to further our understanding of God’s word as it is received by us. For example, the Torah describes the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert with the words: “It looked like white gad seed, it tasted like a honey tzapihit.” (Exodus 17:31). What do the words gad and tzapihit mean? This can be ascertained by cross-referencing the Canaanite literature and other languages related to Hebrew, and this may help us understand the passage. This would be scientific inquiry into the Tanach, and it is not identical to biblical criticism.

The Origin of the Technique

The first person to promote the idea of systematic biblical criticism was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, in his book ‘A Theologico-Political Treatise’ (1670). Spinoza claimed that the Torah was not given to Moses by God but rather compiled from a number of different sources generations later. This claim was subsequently developed by the French Protestant, Jean Astruc (1684 – 1766), and attained its fully developed form in the writings of the Protestant Theologian, Julius Wellhausen (1844 – 1918). Contemporary study of biblical criticism is usually based on Wellhausen’s technique, though there are alternative techniques.

Wellhausen claimed that there are five different sources for the Torah, which were amalgamated by an editor (or ‘redactor’). He reached this conclusion after his analysis of the text identified five different styles. For example, because the author sometimes refers to God as ‘Elohim’, and at other times by the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name, Y-H-W-H) – the conclusion is: there is an ‘Elohist’ author, called E, and there is also a ‘Jehovist’[2] author, called J. According to Wellhausen, the biblical editor, who lived after monotheism was already widely accepted of among the people of Israel, combined them into one name Hashem-Elohim, called JE. Another source is the Priestly source, called P. The priests, it is said, had their own Torah that dealt primarily with ritual worship and so it is presumed that the texts dealing with the sacrifices were written by the priests. As well, logistical information such as lineage, censuses, lists of cities and travels, are attributed to the priestly source, as it is assumed that the priests served as formal bookkeepers. The fifth source, is the Deuteronomist, or D, including the book of Deuteronomy and Isaiah. In Deuteronomy, there are significant differences in the content and style when compared to the other four books. For example, the belief that God is one. Wellhausen’s basic assumption was that the Hebrews of Moses’ generation believed in many Gods, (even though this has no manifestation in the Torah), and therefore we must conclude that the author of the book of Deuteronomy must have lived in a much later generation. These five sources, represented by the letters J, E, JE, P, and D, were compiled by the ‘editor’ of the Torah, represented by the letter R – redactor.

However, it is not difficult to recognize the almost childish superficiality of this technique. Wellhausen encountered a text with internal contradictions, and instead of trying to find the meaning behind them, he exempted himself through intellectual laziness and claimed that there were different authors. The same can be done to Maimonides: in ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ the writing style and ideas seem totally different from those found in his ‘Mishneh Torah’, and even within the ‘Mishneh Torah’ there are contradictions between some chapters. One could easily say that there were actually different authors and claim that the author of ‘The Guide’ did not write the ‘Laws of Prayer’, and the author of the ‘Laws of Prayer’ did not write the ‘Laws of Kings’. But there is a fundamental problem with this explanation – we know as historical fact that it was, in fact, Maimonides who wrote both these books from beginning to end.[3]

An alternative claim is to say that there was one author who wrote with contradictions which resulted from a lack of intellectual rigor, or that the author later regretted that which he had previously written, and there is therefore no reason to attempt to reconcile the contradictions.

Recently, a study on the ‘Kuzari’ was published in which the author makes a provocative claim: in some places R. Judah Halevi shows a strong tendency toward philosophy, but in other places he demonstrates a vigorous nationalism and sees the land of Israel and the people of Israel as the center of existence. And so, the author concludes that there must be two periods in R. Judah Halevi’s thought: the early period and the later period. In the early period he tended toward philosophy, and in the latter period toward nationalism. Therefore, the paragraphs of the Kuzari can be split into four types: paragraphs of the early period, paragraphs of the latter period, paragraphs of the early period that reflect the beginnings of the latter thought, and paragraphs of the latter period that include remnants of the earlier thought. The main problem with this extensive research (close to 300 pages) is that R. Judah Halevi’s intellectual stature is judged using tools that are reductionist and insufficient for the endeavor. This is even more true regarding the books of prophecy, where the author is not only an individual of great stature, but the messenger of God’s words. Contradictions in this context should be approached with solemnity and we should be open to seeing the complexity that is inherent in the divine message, instead of trying to deny it.

The Personality toward Which the Tanach is directed

Another feature that is inherent to biblical criticism is the adoption of an attitude of estrangement toward the text. Why study the Tanach in the Departments of Bible Studies? The Jewish biblical critic would say that the Tanach is an ancient text from our ancestral bookshelf. If there was another book – we would certainly study it as well, as part of our national heritage. Within the above approach, all that is left is to analyze the author’s intent with objective tools of literary analysis. But the Tanach is not simply a text of ancient wisdom which found its way onto our bookshelf by chance. Rather, it is a book dealing with the Jewish people and God’s spoken message to this people. And so, a fundamental part of understanding the Tanach is familiarity with the human identity to which it is directed. The text repeatedly emphasizes: “And God spoke to Moses saying” – meaning someone is speaking to someone else so that he will pass it on a third party. This is to teach us that the subjectivity that is built into the identity of “the Children of Israel,” to whom the speech is directed, is itself an integral part of the message and its proper meaning.

Let us bring an example: If we could interview the audiences in Shakespeare’s time and discuss with them the various associations that his plays arouse in them, we would be able to better understand Shakespeare’s own intent than if we would try to understand it using a dictionary of Old English. Similarly, because the Jews are the collective to which the Torah is directed they have the ability to understand its intent. The Jewish biblical critic manifests a certain absurdity in doing his research: he has Jewish roots, but now that he has received an academic degree, he will be ‘distorting the truth’ if he does not relate to the text totally objectively, even if this approach to research itself has German roots.

This is a little similar to what happened to the Karaites. The early Karaites refused to accept the Talmud and interpreted the Tanach however they understood it. Only, after a few generations they began to consider that maybe the Talmud includes true traditions from the biblical period, and accepted parts of it.

Another example: One of the claims of the bible critics is that belief in life in the world to come did not exist amongst the people of Israel during the biblical period, but that this belief is of a foreign origin and was later embraced. The basis of this claim is that the concepts of “world to come” and “the eternality of the soul” do not appear explicitly in the Tanach. However, this is a weak basis: it could be explained that the fact that this concept is not explicit in the text does not demonstrate the lack of belief in the world to come but rather, on the contrary, it demonstrates that it was accepted as self-evident. When a Hebrew reads the passage, “In the beginning God created,” he understands that there is a world to come. If the God that was revealed at Sinai is the one who also created the world, it cannot be that the world will be abandoned and not develop. It cannot be that the God who did such good, will not eventually rectify the deficiencies in creation. From this we can conclude that belief in the world to come was present in all the generations, but in order to realize this one must ask the Hebrews.

So, a large part of the job that is incumbent on our generation is to reconstruct the original Hebrew identity, who read the Tanach at the time of its giving. This is not a trivial task, as the Jewish people are returning to life after a lengthy exile and major transformations in human mentality. The effort must be made to restore the major components of this identity, and in so doing we shall be able to perceive the true meaning of the books of the Tanach.[4]

The Biblical Era is Different from the Current Era

From the above points arises a key argument: the biblical era was very different from the era in which we live, and we must keep this in mind when we approach the study of the Tanach. Today, it is extremely difficult to imagine the existence of prophecy, because this phenomenon is effectively non-existent for us. We can only estimate that central issues such as God’s relationship with the world or the criteria for moral justification had different meanings then.

To illustrate this argument consider the following example: In the second chapter of the passage of Shema it can be seen that certain phenomena of nature are dependent on man’s behavior (Deuteronomy 11:16-17):

Be careful that your heart not be tempted to go astray and worship other gods, bowing down to them. God’s anger will then be directed against you, and He will lock up the skies so that there will not be any rain. The land will not give forth its crops, and you will rapidly vanish from the good land that God is giving you.

In modern eyes the idea of a connection between man’s behavior and rainfall seems mystical and unreal, but for people living in antiquity this was simple and obvious. Any interruption in the expected rainfall was a sign of lack of the order of the world – a fault in the harmony between the higher worlds and the lower worlds – and that it is up to man to rectify it. Something that what was taken for granted in those times is entirely foreign to modern man.

Another example: in our days, the world is divided between believers and non-believers, but in antiquity it was unimaginable for man to think that God did not exist. It was clear to everyone that there is a God. Instead the question was: does man serve God as the God of Israel or does he engage in pagan worship? Furthermore, precisely because the divine presence in the world was so clear, it was easier to make the mistake of serving foreign Gods. The prophet Malachi says explicitly that pagan worshipers really mean to serve Hashem, only that they are doing it incorrectly (Malachi 1:11):

For from the rising of the sun until its going down my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith the LORD of hosts.

This was a time where all forms of idol-wordship were prolific throughout humanity, but even so the prophet states: “and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name” – even one who sacrifices to Molech or to Zeus, is doing this in God’s name.[5] If so, when reading the Tanach we must be conscious of the fact that the basic concepts of life were fundamentally different from our day.[6]

The Claims of the Critics

Let us outline here the main claims of the bible critics:

Differences in Style: The style of the book of Genesis is not the same style as the book of Exodus, and even within the chapters of each book the style changes. Furthermore, the worldview changes between books and between chapters. Something that is praised in one place is denounced in another. For example, in parshat Mishpatim is says: “You shall give me your firstborn sons” (Exodus 22:28), and the text equates a human firstborn with an animal firstborn, but in parshat Ki Tisa it says: “All of your firstborn sons shall be redeemed” (Exodus 34:19). The bible critics’ claim is that while parshat Mishpatim was written by an author that supported human sacrifice, the author of parshat Ki Tisa opposed it.

Factual Discrepancies: In parshat Lech-Lecha the coming exile in Egypt is said to last 400 years, but the book of Exodus recounts that the period of this exile was actually shorter. In the book of Samuel I:10 it is told how Saul was crowned king by the people in a ceremony involving a lottery, but in chapter 9 it says that the prophet Samuel crowned Saul in a private meeting subsequent to the search for Saul’s donkeys.

Repeated Stories: The first chapter of Genesis tells of the creation of the world, and immediately following it in the second chapter creation is recounted again. This also occurs in the case of the flood story and on many other occasions. Beyond the question of the contradictions between the accounts, there is the question of why the same story is told twice. The critics claim that any case of repetition of a story demonstrates a situation of two different sources, and the redactor decided to include both.

Peculiar Stories: in the book of Kings it is told how, in the time of the king Josiah, a Torah scroll is found in the Holy Temple. When it is read before Josiah he is horrified and tears his clothes. This is held up as proof that the Torah was not known until the time of Josiah.

External Cultural Influence: The archaeological research in Mesopotamia revealed Hammurabi’s code of laws. Hammurabi was a lawmaker who lived around the time of Abraham and his codes contain phrases that are very similar to the phrasing found in the Torah, for example, “If one person’s ox injures the ox of another person,” (Exodus 21:35) “an eye for an eye,” (ibid 24) and the like. From this the suggestion is made that the authors of the Torah copied codes of laws from previous ancient books of law. In the same fashion the book of Psalms is compared to Canaanite poetry of the same period, and the book of Proverbs is likened to similar Egyptian literature.

Another field that the bible critics say illustrates external cultural influence is that of God’s names: The Canaanites had a principal god called “El,” and so the critics hypothesize that the name “El” in the Tanach has its origins in Canaanite influence. The Egyptians had a god whose name was similar to the name “Shadai,” and the Tetragrammaton is similar to that of a Midianite god. Bu the latter proposition has no explicit source; the scholars have not found a source for this name amongst the peoples of the region, and they have not found the name of the Midianite god, so this connection between the two is left only as a proposal.[7]

Archaeological Findings: This refers to archaeological evidence that contradicts (or at least does not corroborate) the stories in the Tanach. There are many examples of this: in the book of Joshua, the fall of the walls of Jericho is described, but the digs in the area of Jericho have revealed walls that fell 500 years before Joshua’s entering the land. Or, for example, in Genesis it talks about Abraham having camels, but Abraham lived in the 18 century BCE, and the researchers have estimated that the camel was only domesticated in the 14 century BCE. As well, Genesis speaks of the Philistine king, Abimelech, even though the Philistines arrived in the Land of Canaan some 400 years after the times of the forefathers. There is a multitude of other examples.

Timeline Inconsistencies: The critics claim that the Tanach brings descriptions in some places whose source is from a period later than the period discussed. In Genesis, in the passage recounting Abraham’s pursuit of the four kings, it says: “And he pursued until Dan” (Genesis 14:14) but, in the book of Judges, it states explicitly that the city of Dan was called so only after the tribe of Dan conquered it, and before then it was called Layish (or Leshem in Joshua). So, how could it be that Moses would write this in his Torah?

Varying Responses

Scholars of Torah have developed different approaches towards Bible criticism. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman wrote a comment on the Torah in Germany around one hundred years ago, in which he cites the different claims of the Bible critics and explains explicitly why they are incorrect. On the other hand, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer claimed that we cannot ignore the logical analysis that was done by the Bible critics and that we should approach the study of Torah with all of the tools available to us, including scientific logic. Although, he believed that because our fundamental assumption is that the Torah is of divine origin, we must give an alternative meaning to their analyses. For example, if the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the second chapter  differ in content and style we must accept the contradiction but, in contrast to the Bible critics, we will say that this reflects two different channels of Divine Providence, not two different authors.

Another approach is that of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who in contrast to the two previous approaches, did not mention the Bible critics’ claims and even negated the study of them. That being said, in his discussions on the weekly Torah portion he showed how an objective approach to the text reveals its inner unity and the mutual dependence of its parts.

For example, Welhaussen pointed out the fact that the book of Exodus deals primarily with the resting of the divine presence in the Tabernacle, whereas the Book of Leviticus deals primarily with sacrifices. From this he concludes that Leviticus was not written by the same author as Exodus, but rather by the Priestly source. But Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda raises a simple question: If a Tabernacle is to be constructed, what would it be for, if not the giving of sacrifices? This question demonstrates that an honest reading of the text shows the necessary interdependence of Exodus with Leviticus. All three approaches are correct, and for each claim of the Bible critics we shall consider which approach is most appropriate in dealing with it.

Responses to the criticism

Let us discuss the different claims that were outlined above:

Differences in Style, Factual Discrepancies and Repeated Stories: There are those who claim that a contradiction between sentences or chapters is proof that the Torah is not of divine origin. But the truth of the matter is that the opposite is correct: if the Torah were to lack all contradictions and its style were entirely uniform, this would be proof that it is not of divine origin because one would expect that a human author would be cautious not to contradict himself or to deviate from his style. Because the Holy One is the God of everything and because the world is full of contradictions and various shades – his Torah must necessarily reflect this reality. The Kabbalists emphasize that different chapters in the Torah have been unfolded from different spiritual roots.

For example, the spiritual root of Genesis is different than that of Leviticus – and this influences the style, the facts and even the worldview of each of the books.[8] Furthermore in the brayta that details the forms of study of the oral Torah, the following form is brought: “Two passages that contradict each other, until a third passage comes to reconcile between them.” Meaning, the sages recognized the fact that the Torah was written in a way such that some passages contradict each other, and in order to decide the Halacha, a third passage is needed.

Regarding repetitive stories it is even simpler: If this occurred only a handful of times one could claim that there are two versions that were combined by an editor. But repetitiveness is consistent throughout the entire Torah and it is clearly systemic and purposeful. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook explains that the Torah’s intention is to explain each idea from two sides – the objective side and the subjective side – and this is woven into the entire Tanach. First one must engage with the absolute and complete aspect of an idea, and after that, engage with the idea as it is particularized and manifested. Even the chapters describing events have these two sides: There is value in first encountering the event from the perspective of divine foreknowledge, and afterward to encounter it from the perspective of free will.

This technique offers an educational message: When man contemplates divine providence and man’s actions, he becomes used to seeing how the divine providence accompanies different human decisions as well as the randomness in daily life. This contemplation is vital when applied to public events. A prime example of this is the question of who established the state of Israel – was it the movement to return to Zion along with Herzl’s vision and a few riots on the part of Abdullah the King of Jordan? Or was it the covenant that God made with Abraham? The truth is that both are correct, and in order to tell the story of the establishment of the state we must tell both sides.

Rabbi Breuer took a slightly different approach to explaining the repetitions in the Torah, which was similar to that of the Kabbalists mentioned above. He believed that when the Torah relates a story twice, it is seeking to explain an additional level of divine providence that acted on reality. For example, there is almost no fact in the story of Noah that does not appear twice – the warning of the flood, the commandment to bring the animals to the ark, the construction of the ark, and entry into the ark. Rabbi Breuer explains that the Torah explained in some passages the providence rooted in judgment and in other passages the providence rooted in mercy. Ultimately, what occurred was a combination of both forms of providence.

Peculiar Stories: Here, each case must be dealt with individually to assess whether there is truly a basis for a claim of peculiarity. Let us consider the case mentioned earlier – the Torah scroll found in the Temple by Josiah. From the background of the story (the king, the fear of punishment, and prophets) it can be demonstrated that the belief in the God of Israel and the practices of worship were well-known. But the bible critics’ claim that the Israelites only worshiped in a generic fashion and did not observe the commandments, as the Torah was not known to them. Now, we must pose the question, if the Torah was not known, how was there a temple? If the Israelites knew to build a temple, we can assume that they were familiar with the other commandments as well. Even more so, if we consider the text very carefully, it can be concluded that the Torah was familiar to them: it does not say: “I found a scroll in God’s temple” but rather: “I found the Torah scroll in God’s temple” (Kings II, 22:8). It is speaking of a particular and familiar book – the same book that Moses wrote some 800 years prior.[9]

Now we must ask, if the book was known, how did it get lost? The answer is relatively simple: we are speaking of the time of Josiah, who ruled after decades during which the priests were persecuted by Menasheh. Apparently, during this persecution the Torah scroll was hidden in a special place whose location was later forgotten. When it was eventually found, the people felt great joy, and Josiah utilized this celebration to encourage the people to leave their idol worshiping. This is a simple explanation that any unbiased reader could easily arrive at.

External Cultural Influence: This issue is both deeper and more expansive than the previous issues. This question of the bible critics, which aims to undermine the fact of the divine origin of the Torah, is addressed by R. Kook along three dimensions, in his book Eder Hayakar (p.42-43).

The first, is that there certainly were righteous and good people in antiquity who had influence on their generation. The Tanach mentions Shem, Ever, Henoch, and Methuselah as righteous people who served God; and one would imagine that their influence found expression in ancient codes of law. And so, when we find codes that are similar to those of the Torah this presents no difficulty. On the contrary- this is a sign that the service of God had wide influence on culture.

The second dimension: Maimonides teaches in his Guide to the Perplexed that the way of the Torah is to accommodate man and his various tendencies. For example, Maimonides explains that the passages on sacrifices come to serve as a replacement for pagan practices of worship. The question arises, then, why did the Torah not simply expressly forbid pagan worship? The reason, according to Maimonides, is that it is not reasonable to demand that people totally reject their inclinations and previous habits and change their behavior entirely. Therefore, because people are in need of concrete expressions of closeness to God, the Torah commanded bringing sacrifices in the service of God.[10] We could continue this train of thought and add that the Torah was given on the backdrop of a particular culture that was a result of various human inclinations, and the Torah conserved them and enhanced them with moral instruction in order to uplift man.[11]

Another example can be brought from Nachmanides’ comments on the story of Judah and Tamar. Nachmanides explains that the practice of levirate marriage (yibum) was an ancient custom that was practiced during the times of the forefathers, as is reflected by the actions of Judah, who saw to yibum for his sons, Er and Onan. The Torah conserved this ancient practice but instituted two changes. The first, is that in the times of the forefathers the practice was open to all of the relatives of the deceased man. And therefore we see that Judah himself eventually married his widowed daughter in law, however the Torah limited this to the deceased’s brothers only. The second change is that in the ancient custom the marriage was obligatory, whereas the Torah provided the option of halitzah (wherein one party may refuse the marriage).

The third and deeper dimension is that Hashem’s Torah is itself the Torah of all humanity. In the Safra it is written:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – Rabbi Akiva says this is a great principle of the Torah; Ben Azai says: “This is the book of the chronicles of man” (Genesis 5:1) is an even greater principle.

That is to say, Ben Azai believes that the Torah reveals the inner soul of all humanity. Therefore, it is actually expected that sparks from the Torah will be found across humanity even before it was given – in the nations’ codes of law, in their customs, and practices of worship. The Mosaic Torah did not copy those codes and practices, but rather they found their way into the Mosaic Torah and to other nations from the same source – the divine nature of man.[12]

The bible critics believe that some of their claims constitute heresy regarding the divine origin of the Torah (and they indeed provoke strong opposition in religious and traditional circles). However, the actual substance of much of their claims could be accepted by believers. For example, let us consider their claim that Hebraic monotheism was created by the influence of the surrounding region’s cultures. This very claim already appears among the classic sages in a different tone.

In the translation attributed to Yonatan Ben Uziel (Exodus 2:21), it is related that the staff with which Moses’ performed the signs was originally planted in Jethro’s garden, and Jethro promised to marry his daughter to whoever could uproot it. Many tried and failed until Moses came and uprooted it. God’s name was engraved on the staff (an alternative tradition says that the signs were engraved on it). The meaning of this story is that knowledge of Hashem’s four letter name had been developed within Jethro’s traditions. Though Abraham was the first to speak out in his name, all of humanity participated in developing inclusive monotheism. When the bible critics claimed, with no well-based source, that the origin of Hashem’s four letter name is Midian, they unknowingly gave expression to the sages’ position.

This leads us to another idea: quite often, the bible critics themselves express an authentic divine intuition with their ideas. For example, the critics claim that Joshua conquered the land of Israel with the help of the descendants of Ephraim and Menashe who did not go down to Egypt. They base this claim on the fact that the conquering of the city, Shechem, is not mentioned in the book of Joshua, and therefore, one must assume that Shechem was inhabited by descendants of ancient Hebrews and that they assisted Joshua in his wars.

This claim can be proven to be factually incorrect, but if we consider another facet of the matter, we can see a correct intuition within the claim. The connection between Israel and its land during a time of exile is through Rachel (“Rachel weeps for her children… restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment… and your children will return to their border”)[13] and Joseph (according to the Kabbalah, the ingathering of the exiles depends on the trait of Yesod, which is manifest in Joseph). And so, the intuition of the critics, according to which even in the time of the Egyptian exile the connection with the land of Israel was kept by Joseph and his city Shechem, is correct.

Archaeological Findings: Here, the bible critics are simply being shallow. Consider, for example, the above mentioned claim regarding the camels of Abraham, who lived in the 18th century B.C.E., and the evidence of the domestication of camels found only as early as the 14th century B.C.E. Until a few years ago there was no way of reconciling this finding, but recently a new archaeological finding was discovered in Turkey in which an inscription from the 18th century discussing bringing food for camels. From this inscription it is clear that the camel was domesticated in the time of Abraham, and therefore, the book of Genesis has returned to be ‘reliable’.

This being said, we must ask a difficult question: we have in our possession an ancient text from which it can be inferred that the camel was domesticated already by the 18th century. This text is none other than the book of Genesis – a central part of the culture of much of humanity. Why should we begin with the assumption that Genesis is not reliable, and then base its reliability on the happenstance finding of a Turkish inscription – instead of citing it in the first place as evidence that the camel was already domesticated in the time of Abraham?

The same can be said regarding the walls of Jericho. If remnants of walls that fell suddenly are found and dated to be from a period 500 years before the conquests of Joshua, maybe this is actually evidence that the archaeologist does not know how to date the walls, and not proof that the Tanach is unreliable.

It is also claimed regarding the city, Ai, which it was destroyed during the time of Joshua – but maybe we should draw a simple conclusion: the city that was found in ruins is not the Ai. In fact, in other digs in the region another archaeological mound was found, not far from there, where there was a village at the time of Joshua.

Sometimes, the bible critics reach absurdity in their attempts to find a basis for their hypotheses, especially when archaeology actually supports the biblical account. One school of bible criticism claimed that the tribe of Gad never existed. But they encountered a problem: on the monument of Mishah, the king of Moab, that was found in Transjordan, it is told of the killing of thirty thousand people of the tribe of Gad. After this find of Mishah’s monument, in order to defend their claim, they explained that the name Gad that was inscribed did not refer to the tribe of Gad.

Similarly they try to claim that King David never existed. But in the archaeological digs an inscription from the period of the first temple was found with the words the ‘House of David.’ In this case, the scholars claimed that this is not the word David and that it should be read differently.

Just a few years ago, an entire city was found in Northern Syria called “Ebla”, dating from the period preceding the forefathers. The name of the king of this city was Ever, and other names were found recorded as well: Abraham, Ishmael, and Jacob. Another ‘perplexing’ discovery in the city of Ebla were the names: Sodom, Gomorrah, Adma and Tzvoyim, and detailed information on the trade relations between those places. The Bible critics had always assumed that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah never really happened and that they were imaginary cities. This discovery forced them to accept the fact that these were real cities.

Recently, a sacrificial altar was found on Mount Ebal. Much time passed before most scholars would admit that this was from the time of Joshua Ben-Nun because, until then, they assumed that Joshua Ben-Nun had never existed, and all the more so, not an altar to Hashem. The archaeologist[14] who found this altar was shocked by the discovery because it forced him to come to the conclusion that Joshua Ben-Nun had existed, and, in fact, built an altar. This scholar is very praiseworthy, as his intellectual honesty provided him with the courage to hold his position in the face of much criticism in the scholarly community. And this is further proof that it is much more reasonable to relate first of all to the living tradition, the Tanach, by assuming that it is the basis from which we can extract reliable historical information, and not the opposite.

Timeline Inconsistencies: In many instances, this turns out to be a matter of interpreting the text. Regarding the name ‘Dan,’ it says explicitly in the Talmud that this is the name of an ancient form of idolatry, and it can be easily proven that in the time of Abraham, the place called Dan was named for the idolatry that was worshipped there. In a later period, the city received a different name, ‘Leshem’ or ‘Layish,’ and when the tribe of Dan conquered the region they returned its original name, but it was not for the sake of the idolatry but rather in the name of their tribal father, Dan.[15]

It can be seen that this is a general pattern in the Tanach: Each time it says, “And so the place was called…,” the meaning is not that this was the original name of the place, but rather that a new reason was found to justify calling it this name. For example, Isaac digs a well and finds water. He calls it “Shiv’a,” and the text remarks: “And he called it Shiv’a, and so the name of the city is Be’er Sheva until today” (Genesis 26:33). We know that the city of Be’er Sheva was already being called by this name in the time of Abraham, and not because Isaac dug wells there and called it Shiv’a. Rather, the text is emphasizing that now the city has truly become worthy of its name. Likewise, we find with Esau (Genesis 27:36): “ ‘Isn’t he truly named Jacob (Ya’akov)! He went behind my back (akav) twice.” That is, Jacob’s character suits the name that was given to him at birth, because of what he did to Esau.

A highly significant question inherent in the issue of time inconsistencies is that of the process of the Torah’s being written down. The source of the Torah is God, and it was given to us through Moses, but the question remains: to what extent is the text that was given to us from Moses? Maimonides and Nachmanides wrote that the belief that we received every sentence in the Torah from Moses who received it from God, is a cardinal and fundamental one. On the other hand, there are some who saw in R. Abraham Ibn Ezra’s tract called ‘the secret of the twelve’ (in his commentary on Deuteronomy 1:3) an admission of the possibility that certain sentences were written after Moses’ time.[16]

The answer to this question, as well as the question’s very legitimacy, has been discussed by many. But it has nothing to do with the fact that the Torah is divine and of divine origin, but relates only to the way that God’s word was given to us – and so the bible critics have nothing to latch on to here. Even the Tana’im (Tractate Bava Batra 15:A) debated whether the final eight sentences of the Torah were written by Moses or by Joshua, and neither side believed that the other was heretical.

Generally speaking, this debate should be seen as a branch of the more principled debate between Maimonides and R. Judah Halevi regarding the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy. Maimonides holds that the commandment: “Do not add to the word that I am commanding you, and do not subtract from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2), is essential for Moses’ Torah, whereas R. Judah Halevi holds that it does not obligate the prophets and national leadership, but only the masses.

The above discussion is but a tiny portion of what could be said on this matter, and may the wise one become increasingly wiser.

*Note: The above is an unofficial translation of the original Hebrew article. Translated by Raphael BenLevi.

[1] It is an interesting phenomenon that biblical criticism was founded and developed by Jews as well. This can be related to the question asked by the Israelites (Exodus 17:7): “Is God with us or not?” – A question that expresses total doubt – that was raised immediately upon leaving Egypt. When someone experiences a particularly deep experience, one of the possible reactions is outright rejection. For example, Holocaust denial arose precisely because of the incredibly trauma that it left behind. Or, alternatively, the revelation at Mount Sinai was such a meaningful event that its influence was engraved on the collective soul of the Jews, so that we should not be surprised by the fact that there are deniers.

[2] Translator’s note: ‘Jehovah’ is a common mispronunciation of the four letter name. Because Jewish tradition forbids the literal pronunciation of the letters, it is used here for the purpose of explanation the technique. Traditionally, the word Hashem, literally ‘the name’ is used as a substitute to refer to the four letter name. Some translate it as ‘the Eternal’.

[3] See also Ma’amarei Hara’aya, p.115/6, R. Abraham Isaac Kook.

[4] This is the vision that Rabbi Avraham Kook aspired to in his vast writings.

[5] R. Solomon ibn Gabirol, in his song “Keter Malchut” emphasizes this point: “And your honor will not lack/ because of those who worship others/ for all intend to reach you.”

[6] Without going into to detail, the Kabbalist tradition conserves the essence of the biblical experience. R. Joseph Gikatilla’s “Sha’arei Orah” is a prime example of this, as R. Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi has pointed out.

[7] In Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew dictionary the entry for this name of God includes another dubious proposition: in the Arabic dialect of the Hijaz region, adjacent to that of Midian, they use the sound “wah wah” to mean a storm-wind. The sound “wah wah” is similar to the literal pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton and so it is suggested that this may be the source.

[8] An example from this can be found in the Maharal’s writings regarding the difference between Deuteronomy and the other books. See Tiferet Yisrael Chp. 43.

[9] See also Rabbi Joseph Albo’s Sefer Ha’ikarim, Article 3, Chp. 22.

[10] Maimonides, Guide (III:32): “It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God… The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service… But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them… It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.”

[11] Although, in another place (Ma’amarei Hara’ayah p.18-19), R. Kook criticizes Maimonides’ explanation for the commandments and claims that reasons whose only source lies in historic practices cannot satisfy us, and therefore, we must develop a new theory of reasons for the commandments that relate to the future. R. Kook, indeed, did not reject historic explanations, but only the approach that sees in them the exclusive meaning.

[12] (This comment is attributed to R. Yehuda Ashkenazi) The Midrash states: “Jacob was worthy of the Torah being given through him, but his generation was not worthy.” The words “his generation” refer to all humanity. Humanity of Jacob’s generation was not worthy of the Torah being given. From here we can conclude that in Moses’ generation the nations were worthy of it. Human culture had advanced enough so that the Torah could be given to Israel. This Midrash also clarifies why Jethro is presented as having arrived at the Israelite camp before the giving of the Torah (regardless of the actual order): The giving of the Torah cannot be spoken of without the representative of the highest of human civilization of the time.

[13] Jeremiah 31:14-16. See also Maharal’s Netzah Israel, end of Chp. 1.

[14] Prof. Adam Zertal. That being said, in his book on the subject he accepts as factual only those passages in the Tanach that have been corroborated by archaeological findings. Other passages, for whom evidence of historical factuality has not yet been found, continue to be interpreted by him according to the old critical method – until he (or another scholar) is to find a piece of pottery and it will be become clear that the related passage is also true.

[15] This is reflected in the text’s emphasis: “And they called Leshem, Dan, after Dan, their father who was born to Israel.” That is: there was a new interpretation given by the tribe of Dan in addition to its previous name, Leshem.

[16] See also: R. Isaac Abravanel in his commentary on parshat Hukat; R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran (without specifying the technique’s author) in his book Magen Avot, in the philosophical section; The commentary on the Torah attributed to R. Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (Hahasid), (whose printing was prohibited).

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About Rabbi Oury Cherki

Rabbi Oury Cherki
Rav Oury Cherki was born in Algeria in 1959 and grew up in France, and he made Aliyah in 1972. He studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, which was founded by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. He performed his military service in the artillery branch of the IDF. He studied with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Rav Shlomo Binyamin and Achlag. Rav Cherki heads the Israeli department of Machon Meir, and he is the Director of Brit Olam - the Noahide World Center.He teaches in many places throughout Israel. Rav Cherki is the spiritual leader of the "Beth Yehuda" community in Kiryat Moshe (Jerusalem). He has written many books on Jewish thought and philosophy.

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