Episode 18: The 613 Commandments

The Old Testament, Part 4 of 10. Eden, the Flood, the Commandments– all fine. But what’s with all the stuff about tents, sacrifices, and – uh – testicles?

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The Legalistic and Instructional Portions of the Pentateuch

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 18: The 613 Commandments. You’ve heard thou shalt not kill. You’ve heard thou shalt have no other gods before me. You’ve heard thou shalt not steal. But have you heard that you can’t come to church if your testicles are crushed? Or that it is a sin to eat vultures? Were you aware of the fact that anyone who works on Saturday – even if he’s just picking up sticks – must be murdered immediately? Do you know the correct means of selling your daughter into slavery? Do you know whether or not it’s okay to eat an eagle? What about a seagull? This is important stuff – important enough to have been printed and bound in a billion books. And we’re going to explore it all today.

Last time, we covered the entire narrative portion of the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch. And after hearing the great story of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and Joseph, we discussed the Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian religious traditions that may have influenced the writing of the Pentateuch. After taking these traditions, and the Biblical names of God into careful consideration, we considered how the notoriously fickle God of the Old Testament may have been a fusion of sleepy old El, a patriarchal deity indigenous to Canaan, and bellicose young Yahweh, a thunder god possibly from the Transjordan desert, a fusion worked out by generations of oral legends and scribes who set down, rearranged, and fine tuned the Bible’s first five books. In short, we heard the overall story of the earliest patriarchs of Israel that stretches through the Bible’s first five books, and learned a bit about the sources of the Old Testament. But we actually ignored about 50% of the Pentateuch. Today’s episode is about that other 50%.1 And after we finish reading the Pentateuch’s instructional materials, we’ll move on to consider an issue that concerns most readers of the Bible, and that is biblical authorship. Considering the varying names for God in the Pentateuch, a wide scattering of doubled episodes, and tonal and ideological differences between passages that often sit right next to each other in the same chapter, we’ll become acquainted with what’s called the Documentary Hypothesis – a theory that four different sources collaborated to produce the Pentateuch, a theory so old and respected that it became endorsed by the Catholic Church all the way back in 1943. Before we get to Biblical authorship and the Documentary Hypothesis, though, we need to complete our journey through the verses of the Pentateuch.

What Are the Legalistic Materials (or 613 Commandments)?

Levites reading the law to the people 613 commandments

A Levite reads the laws of the Torah to listeners. While the stories of Moses and Mount Sinai and the Exodus are unsupported by archaeology, biblical scholarship and related archaeology suggest that the law codices of the Pentateuch began to come together during the reign of King Josiah (641-609 BCE). Illustration from The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation (1873).

When you read the Bible for the first time, the Book of Genesis is an exciting, dramatic narrative, from “In the beginning” all the way until you get to Joseph’s brothers settling in Egypt. Then, as you dash into Exodus and hear the story of Moses, of the Pharaoh being unconvinced by God’s miracles, and of the escape through the Red Sea, you think, “Wow, this is fantastic – why didn’t I read this before?” Next comes the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 19 and 20, and you’re even more thrilled – here are the Ten Commandments – already! So much famous stuff, all compressed into just Genesis and the beginning of Exodus! Then comes a different set of stuff. There aren’t just Ten Commandments. There are hundreds, and hundreds of them. Chapters 20-31 of Exodus are a long string of case laws followed by a very granular description of how God’s tabernacle, or holy tent, is to be constructed. But fortunately, Chapter 32 of Exodus picks up with another famous narrative episode – the story of the golden calf. Moses comes down the mountain, sees the false idol, and becomes furious. And Chapters 32-4 of Exodus tell the gripping story of how Moses’ fury turns to pity, and how he saves the Israelites from God’s wrath. Then – and then – uh – well, a number of chapters are devoted to repeating God’s instructions to Moses, and, finally, Exodus ends with the tabernacle set up, and God getting ready to lead the Israelites. Surely, you think, as you turn the final page of Exodus, all the laws have been communicated. God has his sacred tent, the Commandments are situated safely in the Ark of the Covenant – and the story can continue!

Then you get to Leviticus. And the 27 chapters of Leviticus tell you the truth about the rest of the Pentateuch. That truth is, by the time you get to Leviticus, you’ve already read almost all of the story, or narrative portions of the Pentateuch. By chapter count, about 50% of the Pentateuch is made up of what we can call “prescriptive materials,” or “legalistic materials,” or “instructions,” or “law” – all of them mean the same thing. Do this if you want to please God, but don’t do that. Don’t do this on the Sabbath, but doing that other thing is fine. It’s okay to do this at home, but not in the tabernacle. And so on. All of Leviticus, much of Numbers, and most of Deuteronomy are nothing more than long lists of rules. These rules range from common sense to savagely violent, from wise and perceptive to bizarre, from relevant to our own times to being obvious products of the bygone era in which they were codified.

While I think that Leviticus and the spillover of prescriptive materials in the first ten chapters of Numbers are one of the main forces that dissuade people from finishing the Bible, the legalistic materials in the Bible are still worth learning about for historical purposes. So let’s define exactly what we’re going to talk about in the first part of this episode. We’re going to be looking at the two portions of Exodus I mentioned a minute ago – mostly Chapters 19-31. We’re going to consider all of Leviticus and almost all of Deuteronomy, and much of Numbers – Chapters 1-10, and then Chapters 20-31, those legalistic portions of the Pentateuch that lay out the Torat Moshe, or Law of Moses. Because the Torah’s regulations are set out somewhat miscellaneously, I’m not going to cover them in the chronological order that they appear in the Bible, but instead in thematic grouping. The largest selections of legalistic materials in the Pentateuch have to do with, initially, animal sacrifice, then, ritual cleanliness, and finally, civic conduct.

The Ten Commandments – those famous directives that sit on front lawn placards and public buildings here in the United States, are issued midway through the Book of Exodus, being the first prescriptive materials in the Bible. But what many people don’t know is the Ten Commandments are the first of a great many more. There are actually, according to traditional Talmudic interpretation, 613 commandments, or mitzvot, including both positive commandments, which tell you to do something, and negative commandments, which tell you what not to do. The twelfth-century Jewish scholar Maimonides was the first to enumerate these 613 commandments, and we’ll look at all sorts of them in this episode – from the relatively straightforward to the bafflingly archaic. But let’s start simple. Let’s start with the first ten. That way, we’ll only have 603 more to go. [music]

Exodus 20: The First Commandments that Follow the Noahide Covenant

FirtsOfferingAaron 613 commandments

“The First Offering of Aaron” (1864) by Simeon Solomon. Public animal sacrifice, rather than private prayer or the reading of scripture, were the heart and essence of the Israelites’ religion during much of the Iron Age, just as public animal sacrifice formed the center of Mesopotamian and Mediterranean religion and ritual more generally. The 613 Commandments of the Pentateuch reflect this.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses brings some inscribed tablets down to the Israelites from Mount Sinai. The traditional image of this is a heavily bearded man clutching a flattish piece of stone in the crook of each arm, perhaps with a resolute expression on his face, and some storm clouds and lightning in the background. But if you wanted a more faithful, biblical image, Moses would have to have several wheelbarrows full of tablets. Half of the Pentateuch weighs in at about 62,000 words. At 250 words per tablet, that would mean Moses would be carrying about two hundred and forty tablets down Mount Sinai, or perhaps a couple dozen wheelbarrows full of commandments. It’s a good thing he was going downhill. Anyway, Moses gets started with the first ten. Here they are, from most of the way through the Book of Exodus.

First, God makes it clear that he wants to be worshipped exclusively. He warns his listeners that “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me” (Ex 20.5).2 The other commandments are somewhat less unjustifiably vicious. He tells the Israelites (2) not to worship false idols, (3) not to take the name of Yahweh in vain, (4) to keep the Sabbath, (5) to honor their parents, (6) not to murder, (7) not to commit adultery, (8) not to steal, (9) not to bear false witness, (10) not to covet their neighbors’ possessions. Excepting God’s initial threat to hurt the possibly innocent children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of anyone who leaves off worshipping him, the rest of the commandments mostly seem like a pretty standard blueprint for a devout, orderly monotheistic society. Some of these first Ten Commandments – the prohibitions against murder, and theft, and false testimonies, and the directive to treat elders with respect and care – these commandments seem like the groundwork of any stable civilization, whatever its religion or lack thereof.

But the Ten Commandments are the tiny tip of a very large pile of them, wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load that that stretches through multiple books of the Old Testament, that second guesses itself, revises itself, and seems to have evolved to fit the changing needs of the historical Israelites. Because the Pentateuch was produced over a long period of time, and created to satisfy different historical communities, many of the later commandments seem quite out of step with earlier ones. And overall, the core of the Bible’s commandments is not in the Book of Exodus, with the famous sermon from Mount Sinai and the reasonably concise set of ten, but in the obscurer, more technical chapters of Leviticus.

Leviticus is nominally associated with the Levites. The Levites were one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel – specifically, the only tribe not allowed to own land. The Levites were priests – the custodians of sacred rituals and artifacts. Like many of today’s priests and pastors, the Levites were dependent on recurrent donations to their places of worship. The most common donation seems to have been food. And I think that’s almost all you need to know before we dig into Leviticus for a little while. One more thing, though – Leviticus often refers to Aaron’s sons. Remember that Aaron is Moses’ brother, and both men are Levites, or of the priestly class. So “Aaron’s sons” means both literally the two male children of Aaron, but also, more generally, the priestly class.

Here’s an excerpt from the first two chapters of Leviticus. I’m going to read extensively, to give you an idea of the scope and repetitiousness of this material.
When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the LORD. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. . .[now this part is about sheep and goats] If your gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, your offering shall be a male without blemish. It shall be slaughtered on the north side of the altar before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. It shall be cut up into parts, with its head and its suet, and the priests shall arrange them on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but the entrails and the legs shall be washed with water. . .[And then this part is about birds] If your offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, you shall choose your offering from turtledoves or pigeons. The priests shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and throw it at the east side of the altar, in the place for ashes. He shall tear it open by its wings without severing it. (Lev 1-2)

I don’t know if you have any immediate reaction to these passages from the first two chapters of Leviticus one way or another. I thought about reading three or four entire chapters from the opening seven of Leviticus – all of which are about animal sacrifice, and there are many more in Deuteronomy – just to give you an idea of how absolutely central animal sacrifice was to a certain place and time in the religion of the ancient Israelites.

The Pentateuch includes instructions for how to sacrifice if people have sinned – a sinning priest must offer an unblemished bull, a ruler must offer a male goat, a commoner must offer a female goat, and if you can’t afford even a sheep, you are allowed to atone for your sins with turtledoves or pigeons. There are rules for the division of sacrificed livestock amidst the Levites – again, the priests. And the Bible’s instructions on what exactly to do with the meat get quite specific, as in the third chapter of Leviticus.
If you present a sheep as your offering, you shall bring it before the LORD and lay your hand on the head of the offering. It shall be slaughtered before the tent of meeting, and Aaron’s sons shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. You shall present its fat from the sacrifice of well-being, as an offering by fire to the LORD: the whole broad tail, which shall be removed close to the backbone, the fat that covers the entrails, and all the fat that is around the entrails; the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the appendage of the liver, which you shall remove with the kidneys. . .Then the priest shall turn these into smoke on the altar as a food offering by fire for a pleasing odor. All fat is the LORD’s. (Lev 3)

Pages and pages go on in this fashion. In places, there are strange animal sacrifice laws – midway through Deuteronomy Moses introduces a law that if a corpse is discovered in the countryside, investigators must pinpoint the nearest neighboring town, find a heifer there, and break its neck in order to purify the countryside of guilt. But outlying regulations like these aside, the animal sacrifice laws in the Pentateuch most often establish how an animal is to be killed, dismembered, and processed into food and sacrificial offerings.

Illustration aus Amelius Erörterung der dunckelsten und schwersten Schrifft-Stellen 613 commandments

A priest sorts out an animal’s organs during a sacrifice. Much of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and a great many of the 613 Commandments are a manual on how to do just this.

Let’s talk a bit about animal sacrifice. At first glance, the animal sacrifice rituals in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Pentateuch seem to be one of the more outlandish and backward parts of the Old Testament, especially to the modern Christian audience more schooled in the New Testament than the Old. All of the Christians out there listening to this likely know that in a couple of spots in the Gospels, in the midst of Jesus’ disputations with the punctilious Pharisees, Jesus dismisses the Pentateuch’s large rules lists, to such an extent that one of his converts in the Book of Mark remarks, “You are right, Teacher. . .‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all. . .burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). These words are a response to Jesus emphasizing that you most of all need to love God and honor your neighbor (Matt 22:37-9, Mark 12:29-31), and that all the other nitty gritty stuff is of no great concern. In the first century CE, in the Jerusalem Temple where the Nazarene Jew Jesus Christ was making these proclamations, this was radical and impious doctrine to utter, and Christ’s dismissive attitude toward the details of the Torah, we know, is in large part what gets him in trouble with the Sanhedrin Council of Jerusalem in the Gospels. The epistles of the New Testament thoroughly dismiss the Old Testament’s 613 commandments. Maybe the most explicit statement about animal sacrifice comes in the Book of Hebrews, attributed to Saint Paul – a statement that Christ made sacrifice obsolete. The passage in question reads: “Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7.27). So, because of Christ’s indifference toward the Pentateuch’s rules lists, and because of a similar attitude widespread in the epistles of the New Testament, throughout the broader Christian world, much of the Torah is not considered of great importance.

This dismissal, together with thousands of years of cultural change, have altered the way that modern congregations worship. Today, we don’t bring goats to church. We don’t spray sheep’s blood on the podium at the front of the congregation and then offer fat, livers, and kidneys to priests and pastors, as dozens of verses in the Bible tell us to. The floors and walls of our chancels are not soaked with years of blood, and we don’t have piles of guts and brains and skin heaped up before the front pew. Animal sacrifice has, with tiny exceptions, left the realm of Judaism and Christianity. It still survives in some of Islam’s rituals – the most widespread of which takes place during the Hajj, after the casting of stones, when millions of animals are ceremonially slaughtered worldwide. But to the median Jew and Christian, the notion of hosing down an offering table with animal blood is a relic of the remote past, officially superseded by the teachings of Christ in the Gospels for Christians, and for many Jews, simply unsanitary and able to be substituted with other devotional activities.

The temptation for many of us, then, is to simply ignore these portions of the Bible, or, if we’re of a mind to say nasty things about the Bible, to focus on its sometimes antiquated rules lists and disregard some of the more profound things that the book has to offer. Our job today, though, is to bracket what Christ says in the Gospels about the 613 commandments, and to take them seriously as a cultural and historical document. Because while they might not inspire us to sacrifice animals, or as we’ll later see, to stay ritually clean or impose punishments for various sorts of crimes, the Pentateuch’s many commandments nonetheless offer us the ancient world’s longest surviving codex of theological laws, providing us a window into not only the society of the ancient Israelites, but more broadly a snapshot of everyday life in the religious communities in ancient Eurasia and beyond. [music]

The 613 Commandmetns and the Ritual of Sacrifice in Antiquity

I think that the biggest difference us and the ancient Israelites is that for them, and their counterparts in the Ancient Mediterranean world, the practice of religion was a public and collective, rather than a private and personal phenomenon. We today are the products of hundreds of years of state sponsored literacy, and mechanically produced texts, and many of us are the products of Protestantism, whose core notion is that one ought to read the scriptures for oneself and cultivate a personal relationship with God. But take literacy mostly out of that equation. Take mechanically reproduced texts out of that equation. Where does the average citizen get her information about religion? She has no Bible. There are no Bibles yet. She may indeed contemplate her relationship with a deity and pray. But contemplating such matters has to be undertaken without a personal prayer book. So where does she go to feel a strong sense of collective religiosity, and to meet with those who do know the ins and outs of theology? She goes to the place where the altars are. As scholar Thomas R. Martin puts it, “The sacrifice of a large animal provided an occasion for the community to reassemble to reaffirm its ties to the divine world and, by sharing the roasted meat of the sacrificed beast, for the worshippers to benefit personally from a good relationship with the gods.”3 And central to any community’s sacrificial rituals were its priests.

If you listened to those passages from Leviticus closely, you noticed that the priests described in the Bible have a dual function. They are holy men. And they are also, literally, butchers. It is their job to concern themselves with blood spillage, with unused animal parts, whether from cows, bulls, goats, sheep, pigeons or turtledoves. It is the job of the Levite priests to cut and process meat, to organize food and waste in the aftermath of slaughter. To an extent, their self interest is mixed up in what Leviticus emphasizes is God’s gustatory preferences. God, and the Levite priests, want unblemished animals. They want certain nutrient rich organs. The wealthier a person is, the bigger of an animal they want from him. The Pentateuch is absolutely obsessed with ritual animal sacrifice. Chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers is an absurdly long recounting of the catalogs of sacrificial animals brought by each of the twelve tribes of Israel to the dedication of the holy tabernacle – absurd because each tribe brings exactly the same thing, and the catalog of sacrifices is repeated twelve times – and then a thirteenth, simply for purposes of review. You can almost imagine the priestly author of this part of the Pentateuch smacking his lips as he recounts the list of animals, again and again. The practice of ritual animal sacrifice was not unique to Canaan and the Israelites. What we read in Leviticus, and to a lesser extent Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, is a window into the religions of the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Remember the Odyssey? In the third book of the Odyssey, as Odysseus’ son Telemachus visits his dad’s old friend, Nestor, Nestor pulls out all the stops with his hospitality. One of the many things Nestor does to make his guests feel welcome is to slaughter a heifer for them. Listen to the level of care and detail in this passage from Homer:
Thrasymedes stood by
With a sharp axe to strike down the heifer,
And Perseus held the blood-bowl. Nestor began
The washing of hands and sprinkling of barley,
Praying hard to Athena as he cut the first hairs
From the victim’s head and threw them on the fire.
These rites done, high-hearted Thrasymedes
Came up and struck. When the axe severed
The sinews of the neck, and the heifer collapsed,
The women raised the ritual cry, Nestor’s daughters,
The wives of his sons, and his august wife,
Eurydice, eldest of Clymenus’ daughters.
Then the men raised the heifer’s head from the ground
And held it for Peisistratus to cut the throat.
When the black blood had flowed out, and the life
Left the bones, they butchered the heifer,
Jointing the thigh pieces in ritual order
And covering them with a double layer of fat
And with bits cut raw from the rest of the carcass.
These the old man burned on split logs
And poured bright wine over them. At his side
Were young men holding five-tined forks.
When the thigh pieces were burned and the innards tasted,
They carved up the rest, skewered the pieces,
And roasted them holding the spits in their hands. (3.486-510)4

This is a lot of page space, in the midst of the tense rising action of Homer’s epic, just to describe a meal. The Odyssey shows the same preoccupation with the details of animal slaughter and the preparation of meat that you see in the Pentateuch – in both there is the ritual spilling of blood, the carving of meat and the doling out of fat. To almost any religious person today, the notion that a deity – whether Athena, or Marduk, or Yahweh, would have any interest whatsoever in meat, and the pleasing odors of a barbecue seems difficult to entertain. Gods of the modern monotheisms are distant, immaterial, and omnipresent. The hundreds of references to sacrificing animals to Yahweh in the Pentateuch are a holdover from Bronze and Iron Age deities who were heavily personified and sought gifts of food and finery.

So, initially, a reader of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is struck by a quandary. If the Bible is to be accepted as such a singular source of wisdom and human knowledge, what are we to do about passages that seem, so obviously, to be the vestiges of a long-gone phase of human civilization? Isn’t the bloodbath in Leviticus and the other books of the Pentateuch a bit unsightly? Doesn’t it show that at least a couple portions of the Old Testament are outdated? Well, to an extent, yes, of course. We certainly don’t need to break a cow’s neck in order to purify the countryside of a dead body. This is one biblical mandate that I’m not sure anyone has ever followed – it sounds like an echo of a custom that might have even been old in Biblical times. But we shouldn’t get too high and mighty about the animal sacrifice portions of Leviticus being timeworn and irrelevant. Because something that the entire ancient world seems to have done can’t be laughed off and dismissed quite so easily.

Statistically, most of us do eat meat. And what the early chapters of Leviticus show are, in some ways, a heightened awareness of animal life, and a greater understanding of food processing than the modern omnivore might possess. Animal sacrifice was widespread in the Ancient Near East partly because nomadic and seminomadic cultures in arid lands occupied the paradoxical position of raising and caring for herd animals, and at the same moment, knowing that such animals will, ultimately, be used for food. The archaeological remnants of the Israelite villages we talked about a few episodes ago – those communities whose center is Shilo – are often built in a circular fashion, ringed around a courtyard where livestock lived, each small herd being the geographical heart of each village. Eons before today’s practices of factory farming, our Israelite predecessors were much more likely to know about the exact animal they were eating – its parents and offspring, its history, and even its personality and quirks. If the Pentateuch, and other texts of the period, show a fascination with killing livestock, then maybe this fascination comes from a pastoral consciousness of the value and variety of animal life.

I think we can look cockeyed at all the peculiar references to animal fat, and guts and blood that fill so much of the Pentateuch. But the butchery in these books of the Bible shows an older, and more ecologically conscientious era of human life. I almost called this episode “Local. Organic. Leviticus,” just to emphasize that public animal sacrifice is actually one of the more progressive ideas in the Old Testament. Those Israelites knew where their food was coming from, and they appreciated it so much that food preparation was holy to them. That’s likely a bit healthier and more ecologically sustainable than Styrofoam packed meat and methane fuming factory farms. And so even the strangest and most unlikely back corner of the Bible, as it turns out, might still have some lessons for us. [music]

More of the 613 Commandments: The Pentateuch’s Cleanliness Regulations

So that was first major topic of the legalistic portions of the Pentateuch – animal sacrifice. The next subject that’s of special interest to the Pentateuch is ritual cleanliness. Some central chapters in Leviticus first spell out what you can eat and cannot eat. Prohibited animals include camels, rock badgers, rabbits, pigs, aquatic animals without scales, eagles, vultures, ospreys, buzzards, ravens, ostriches, nighthawks, seagulls, owls, cormorants, storks, herons, hoopoes, bats, and all winged insects that don’t hop. If you want to eat locusts, bald locusts, and grasshoppers, however, God emphasizes that this is just fine. Leviticus, Chapter 11, verse 22: “Of them you may eat: the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind” (Lev 11:22).

With these rules of what to eat and what not to eat laid out, the next set of rules have to do with food, bodily function, and cleanliness. For several chapters, the Pentateuch uses the word “unclean” in almost every verse, specifying what kinds of things make you unclean, and for how long. Touching a weasel, or a gecko, one of various other sorts of animals makes you unclean until the evening. A woman who has a male child or female child will be unclean for different periods of time. Priests are to inspect the ill for symptoms of leprosy. Part of the process of curing the ill is animal sacrifice, and sprinkling blood on certain parts of the body – the right thumb and the right big toe, which is a necessary step in the journey from sickness back to cleanliness.

The Pentateuch shows particular concern for ejaculation, and its inherent uncleanliness. Any discharge of this kind, Chapter 15 of Leviticus specifies, makes a man unclean for a week, and at the end of this week he must take two turtledoves or two pigeons and allow them to be sacrificed. Menstruation, in turn, makes a woman unclean for seven days after her period ends. In either case – ejaculation or menstruation, anyone who approaches an unclean man or woman is himself unclean until the evening. The aim of all these detailed regulations, Leviticus says, is to “keep the people of Israel separate for their uncleanliness, so that they do not die in their uncleanliness by defiling [God’s] tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31).

Holman The Tabernacle

After Exodus lays out astonishingly detailed instructions on how to create the Old Testament God’s holy tent, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are very careful to specify who is allowed in this tent, and when, particularly emphasizing that they must be clean, healthy, and not disabled or marred in any significant way. Cleanliness is thus a prerequisite for being next to godliness in the 613 Commandments.

The ritual cleanliness of the Tabernacle is at the heart of Leviticus’ preoccupation with purity. Any traces of dirtiness, whether from contact with unclean animals, contagious disease, ejaculation, or menstruation barred one from entrance into the tabernacle. And certain members of the population were by nature physically handicapped and were prohibited from entering God’s special tent. God makes certain that any Levite priest “who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. . .shall not come near to offer the food of his God” (Lev 21:20-1). Deuteronomy repeats this prohibition, opening its twenty-third chapter with “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the assembly of the LORD” (Deut 23:1). And even animals needed to have intact genitals, as specified in a different chapter of Leviticus: “Any animal that has its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut, you shall not offer to the LORD” (Lev 22:24).

While the Old Testament verses on genitals and not allowing people with diseases and different body types into the holy tabernacle aren’t exactly the most famous moments in the Bible, they are actually perfectly consonant with other cleanliness regulations found in Bronze and Iron Age religious texts. Middle Assyrian Palace decrees forbade menstruating women from contact with the Assyrian king. Assyrian priests were compelled to undertake ritual purification ceremonies after having sex with their wives.5 And a religious text far older than the Bible demonstrates that preoccupation with ritual cleanliness was pervasive in the Ancient Mediterranean. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead’s highly important 64th chapter is thought to be among the oldest in the entire book. It promises that if its holy words are spoken at the correct time, then the speaker can be granted admittance into a blessed afterlife, but only if this speaker “is ceremonially clean and pure, [and has] not eaten the flesh of animals or fish, and [has] not had intercourse with women.”6

To the ancient Israelites, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians, ritual purification was an important religious practice. The Old Testament’s large index of rules for what to do with the sick, what to eat and not to eat, how to get clean after doing something naughty, and how to atone for acts of impurity is unique in ancient texts for its length and breadth of subject matter. At some moments, the cleanliness prescriptions in the Pentateuch show the curious imprints and prejudices of the Iron Age – you’re allowed to eat crickets, but not rabbits? If a shoe touches a chameleon, the shoe will be unclean until evening? You can cure leprosy by sprinkling sacrificial blood on your right thumb and big toe?

But it’s easy enough to understand the Bible’s cleanliness prescriptions in context. The Pentateuch is at once a creation story, a national history, and a state constitution. Its world is one in which animal husbandry, religion, politics are all the same thing. We can understand its cleanliness restrictions, and provisions for dealing with the sick as a concerted effort to organize civic life and minimize the spread of disease, using the knowledge that was available to the ancient Israelites at the time. In some cases the priestly regulations show obvious prejudices against women. In other cases they show that the priestly caste at the Tabernacle and other holy sites were an elite lot who were leery about dealing with the unwashed masses, and wanted everyone to scrub behind their ears before entering a place of worship. As a whole, though, the cleanliness prescriptions in the Pentateuch are a fairly standard set of regulations for self conduct in the Iron Age Fertile Crescent. [music]

The Pentateuch’s Civic Conduct Regulations

So, we’ve talked about animal sacrifice in the Pentateuch. And we’ve talked about ritual cleanliness. There’s one more big topic central to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And it’s what we can call “civic conduct.” Beyond how to sacrifice animals, and how to properly clean oneself, the prescriptive portions of the Pentateuch have a sizable, somewhat miscellaneous list of regulations, some distantly related to the Ten Commandments, and others that seem to come out of nowhere.

Some civic conduct regulations seem standard to most civil societies. Exodus Chapter 30 lays out regulations for taxes. Specifically, they’re flat taxes. Rich and poor are to pay the same – half a shekel of silver, or a small quantity of silver. Leviticus Chapter 27 sets out rules for how property assessments are to take place. Holy days and state holidays are established – Passover, Booths, Yom Kippur, and the Festival of Weeks. Deuteronomy’s legal codes establish rules for tithing, for the remission of debts, freeing slaves every six years, for the establishment of a justice system, and regulations to limit the power of kings. Long sections of prescriptive materials in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy seem farsighted, logical, and ethically modern. We can read them and see the priestly caste of ancient Israel and Judah working out a sustainable state apparatus to care for the citizenry, to oversee a law code and its enforcement, to set rules for economics, warfare, and charity. But these sections are constantly interrupted by other ones which reflect the violence and ruthlessness of the ancient world.

If the law codes of the Pentateuch were suddenly imposed on today’s society, we would all be in a lot of trouble. Exodus (35:2) and Numbers (15:32-6) are both quite clear about subjecting those who break the Sabbath to the death penalty. An anecdote in the fifteenth chapter of Numbers tells of “a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (Num 15:32). After capturing this menace to society and deliberating about what’s to be done with him, Moses and others hear God’s divine instructions: “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp” (15:35). And thereafter “The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD had commanded Moses” (15:36).

Stoning to death is also the punishment of choice for rebellious sons. “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother. . .then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town. . .Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death” (Deut 21:18,19,21). Elsewhere, cursing one’s parents, or striking one’s parents, is punishable by death (Ex 21:1,17, Lev 20:9). And in fact capital punishment is the preferred solution for a wide variety of crimes. Blaspheming the name of God mandates execution for a young man who takes Yahweh’s name in vain in a fight (Lev 24:10-23). Ignoring a court order is punishable by death (Deut 17:12). Offering meat to other priests besides Yahweh’s is punishable by death (Ex 22:20). Making predictions or prophecies from dreams is punishable by death (Deut 13:1-5). Female sorcerers are to be killed (Ex 22:18).

Scheits Death of Nadab and Abihu 613 commandments

Capital punishment pervades the laws of the Pentateuch. Leviticus 10 tells the story of Aaron’s sons lighting incense at the wrong time and being burned to death, and stoning to death and burning alive are common methods of punishment mandated throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Illustration by Matthias Scheits (c 1630- c. 1700).

The Pentateuch has a special penchant for killing and sex crimes. Adultery involving a married woman is punishable by death (Lev 20:10). If a betrothed woman loses her virginity to a man who isn’t her fiancé, both are stoned to death (Deut 22:23-4). If a woman is discovered not to be a virgin on her wedding night, she is stoned to death (Deut 25:20-1). A priest’s daughter who becomes a prostitute is to be burned to death (Lev 21:9). Bestiality, undertaken by men or women, ends with both the human and animal killed (Lev 20:15-16). Sex with a daughter-in-law, or mother-in-law, or stepmother, are punishable by death (Lev 20:11,12,14). Male homosexuality, says Leviticus 20:13, is punishable by death – “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death” (Lev 20:13).

The capital punishment regulations in the Pentateuch are lengthy and diverse. And there’s one capital punishment offense that we haven’t discussed yet. This, somewhat paradoxically, is murder itself. Murder – though not of slaves, is punishable by death (Ex 21:12,20-21). Prohibitions against murder exist in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers (Gen 9:6, Ex 21:12,20-21, Lev 24:17, Num 35:16). There is no sense in the Pentateuch that execution itself constitutes killing a human being, as in these two verses in Exodus: “Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death” (Lev. 24.16-17). Those two verses back-to-back – blasphemers should be killed, and killing is not allowed – these two did not evidently seem to contradict one another. We can gather that a person who breaks the Pentateuch’s draconian code of rules is evidently no longer a person at all, and so his or her public execution is no violation of the rules.

Let’s look at one more crime and punishment in the Pentateuch – a section from just after the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus. This section specifies how to purchase slaves, how to correctly sell one’s daughter into slavery, how injuring one’s own slaves does not warrant any punishment, and various other slavery related regulations. Then the book changes subjects to talk about injuring non-slaves, and related punishments. Here’s a famous excerpt from Exodus, Chapter 21.
When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex 21:22-5)

This particular law isn’t endemic to the Bible, but something far older. The code of the old Babylonian leader Hammurabi, inscribed on a stone monument in the 1700s BCE, lets eye for eye and tooth for tooth laws follow regulations for slavery. “If [a man] blinds an eye of another of equal status,” the stele says, “then his eye is to be blinded. If [a man] breaks a bone of another, then his bone is to be broken. . .If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.”7 These are certainly clear laws. They have a bold, symmetrical rhetoric about them which must have led to their dissemination in the ancient world, and to their adoption by the authors of the Bible.

Hammurabi’s code isn’t just found in this famous moment in Deuteronomy, but all over the Old Testament. The Code of Hammurabi seems to have influenced Biblical rules on persecuting sorcery, on perjury, bribery, theft, kidnapping, illegally freeing or harboring slaves, animal husbandry, adultery, rape, polygamy, incest, and inheritance. Dozens of correspondences exist between the legal codes of the Pentateuch and the Code of Hammurabi, many of them bearing close linguistic resemblances to one another. But Hammurabi was only one of many sources that influenced the legalistic sections of the Pentateuch.

The Pentateuch’s law codes synthesize many legal frameworks from the Ancient Near East. The first of these is the code of Shulgi, king of the Sumerian city of Ur during the twenty-first century BCE. Shulgi’s code reveals numerous parallels to the law codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, particularly in rules concerning the death sentence and the punishment and return of errant slaves. Similarly, the Sumerian Code is a set of regulations from about two hundred years later, in the 1800s, a collection of exercises from a student who copied legal regulations in Sumer or Babylon. And the Sumerian Code contains laws on inheritance and rape replicated in various locations in the Bible. Finally, compared to the infamous Middle Assyrian Palace Code, set down in the late 1,000s BCE, the Bible’s laws are fairly mild. While the Bible only occasionally mentions mutilation or dismemberment for punishment, to the Assyrians, such penalties were imposed for dozens of crimes.

In a lot of cases, the laws codes of the ancient world seem blunt, crude, and brutal to modern sensibilities. They are almost invariably derogatory to women, regarding them as property, and punishing female adultery far more harshly than male adultery. So, when you read these sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, it shouldn’t be with any sense that the Israelites suddenly appeared out of nowhere and authored a bunch of unsettling and cruel regulations on human behavior. What we seen in the Pentateuch is generally mundane stuff for the ancient world, often copied directly from other sources, and part of the broader cultural fabric of the ancient Fertile Crescent.

The Later History of the 613 Commandments

Let’s talk for just a moment about the later history of the 613 commandments in Christianity. From the Pauline Epistles to the writings of the second century theologian Marcion, down to Luther and afterward, Christian history has had a dismissive attitude toward Mosaic Law, and at times, a very pejorative one. Saint Paul, though he was a former Pharisee and zealous enforcer of the Torah, writes in Philippians that Gentile Christians should “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” speaking of circumcision, and then he adds, “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God” (Phil 3.3). Setting aside the odd metaphor, the statement is pretty clear. Pagan converts are the new glory of God, and the past can be set aside. Similarly, at one point, adopting a dismissive attitude toward the entire Old Testament, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “These things happened to [the Jews] to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10.11). The whole Old Testament, Paul says, in other words, and everything in it, was simply a messy overture to the fresh, nascent world of early Christianity. While Paul is likely doctoring his epistles to new Gentile converts here, rather than the Jewish Christians of the Apostolic period, the disregard of the Old Testament as a whole is nonetheless jarring. As we’ve seen so far, some of the 613 commandments, even in Paul’s time, must have seemed remnants of a far-off past. But Paul was a Jew as well as a Christian minister, and at other well-known junctures he proudly describes his Jewish heritage, as well. However much some of the earliest Christians, Paul included, felt that they needed to dramatically simplify the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch, the 613 commandments are nonetheless a very important part of Jewish history, and make up a sizable chunk of the Bible, and for these reasons, I think they continue to deserve our attentiveness, and our respect.

In later Jewish history, the 613 commandments continued to have enormous vitality. In fact, it is from the Talmud, Tractate Makkot, Order Nezikin, that we first hear the number 613 – the Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 [commandments] were declared to Moses – 365 prohibitions corresponding to the 365 days of the solar year, and 248 positive commandments corresponding to the 248 parts of a man’s body” (b. Makkot 23b).8 You can take or leave the numerology, but the important thing here is the history. Rabbi Simlai lived during the 200s CE, during what’s called the Amoraic period of Rabbinical Jewish history. This was a period when the Talmud, a massive and open-ended commentary and analysis on the Torah was well under way – work on the central portions of the Talmud would continue up until about 600s, and never really stop. But long before the 600s CE, and the 200s CE, ancient Jewish sages were at work on something called the Oral Torah – a living commentary on the Tanakh passed down from generation to generation and largely intended to supplement, to qualify, and interpret the Laws of Moses. As expansive as the Torat Moshe was, Jewish civilization evolved a great deal over the final centuries BCE and first few centuries CE. The Second Temple was destroyed. Jewish communities found themselves in diaspora. And so the Oral Torah, and after it the Talmud, were engineered to simultaneously honor the ancient rules of the Pentateuch, but also to rethink them for the necessities of new generations, living among strangers in strange lands. Judaism’s Midrashim, or exegetical work, its Oral Torah, and a little later, the Talmud all helped later generations of Jewish believers translate the sometimes blunt or brutal regulations of the Torah into more flexible and nuanced Halakha, or rabbinical laws, laws still central to practicing Jews today.

The point I want to make here, before we change subjects, is this. The Laws of Moses in the Pentateuch, if you are unfamiliar with Jewish and Christian tradition, can seem quite antiquated. However, in Christian and especially Jewish theological history, the Torat Moshe has been an incredibly fertile text, over which thousands of years of exegeses and debates, and related commentaries have blossomed, both in Midrashim and the Talmud and long afterward. The very difficulty, and obscurity of the Pentateuch’s rules lists have made them springboards for centuries of analyses, layers upon layers of commentary, quirky stories and even inside theological jokes. Modern students in rabbinical schools, while they are not sacrificing animals like their religious forebears, are trained to scrutinize and debate by reading ancient analyses of Mosaic Law, and thus, even the foreboding bulk of books like Leviticus still remains an integral and splendid part of modern Jewish culture. We will certainly cover the Talmud in episodes to come, because I think it’s one of the most extraordinary products of the intellectual history of Late Antiquity, but for now, I suspect we have quite enough on our plate with the Pentateuch itself. [music]

The Multiple Ideologies of the Old Testament

I want to change topics a bit now – maybe an unusually drastic change of topics for a Literature and History episode. I feel like we’ve considered the Pentateuch’s rules lists with a reasonable amount of detail, and tried to appreciate them as a historical document. Christians, once again, know that in Matthew and Mark, Jesus pares down the Pentateuch’s rules list to a few core essentials, that Paul does the same in his epistles, and modern Catholics and Protestants really aren’t losing much sleep over the verses we’ve seen today so far. So let’s consider our work with the prescriptive materials in the Pentateuch done, and switch topics. In order to switch topics, I want us to look at two passages in the Old Testament.

One of these passages is in Deuteronomy. You will likely not have heard it. The other is in Psalms, and you will have heard it. Let’s start with Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verse 11. “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deut 25:11). Just for the sake of clarity, let’s hear that one more time. Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verse 11. “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deut 25:11). This regulation, according to traditional interpretation, is part of Moses’ retirement speech – along with dozens of other laws, and I imagine him standing there on the banks of the Jordan, on one of those balmy Mediterranean evenings, the setting sun illuminating his silver hair, and saying, “Okay folks, so here’s what to do when a couple of you get into a fight and one of your wives grabs one of the guy’s penises to try and stop the fight.” And then all of the Israelites – all 600,000 of them, by the way, looking at one another and saying, “Oh, great. Yeah, yeah. This is great. Boy, that’s been a problem, hasn’t it? We should be able to fight each other without any wifely penis snatching.” Without belaboring the point, we should pause for just a second and marvel about the fact that this strange verse is printed in a billion volumes, in church pews, hotel room dressers, and residential bookcases.
Next passage. Psalm 23. The Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in the right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4)

I’ll stop there. The contrast between that first verse in Deuteronomy and that second one in Psalms couldn’t be sharper. The first is a ruthless directive about a peacemaking wife who gets her hand chopped off for touching her someone’s penis in a peacemaking attempt. The second is one of the most beautiful pieces of lyric poetry ever written. The Bible, as we heard a few episodes ago, was composed over a period of perhaps a thousand years. The ideology, the language, and many other factors of the Bible vary from book to book, and sometimes from chapter to chapter and verse to verse. And this takes us to the second subject of this show.

When you read Deuteronomy back-to-back with something like Psalms, it’s clear that you’re dealing with very different writers, different religious traditions, and perhaps, as we saw in the previous episode, slightly different Gods. If you’ve ever wondered why so many parts of the Bible are so radically different than other parts, you’re not alone. In the remainder of this episode, we’ll talk about who wrote the Pentateuch. According to one tradition, still honored by a number of denominations, it was Moses. Now, the Pentateuch never claims to be by Moses. It actually tells of the death of Moses, and it mentions numerous kings who lived only long after the death of Moses. But this hasn’t stopped hundreds of years of readers from accepting an old tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Since the tenth century, though, readers have been exploring the different Biblical Hebrew dating and prose styles, and asking questions.

How is it that even in just the Pentateuch alone, largely narrative sections are broken up by sudden lists of rules? Why are there multiple accounts of creation, of the flood, of the deathbed scene of the patriarch Israel, and dozens of other duplicated scenes? Why repetitious folkloric elements, like barren wives who conceive, or pairs of brothers, one clever and civilized, and the other shaggy and wild? Why does Moses, in his retirement speech in Deuteronomy, repeat and revise large sections of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers? Why are there so many different names for God? As it stands in the early twenty-first century, the answer to these questions is that the Pentateuch was written over a long period of time, by many people. These people are subdivided by biblical scholars into four groups, perhaps just four individuals, who, however little we know about them, were the people who wrote the most well-known portion the Old Testament. Let’s consider those four sources. [music]

1,000 Years of Doubt about Mosaic Authorship

A minute ago, I said that during the tenth century, the idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch started being questioned. The first known questioner was the Spanish scholar Isaac ibn Yashush, working in Muslim Spain. Yashush noted that chapter 36 of Genesis mentioned kings who lived only long after Moses had died. The riddle was obvious. How might the main character of Exodus know about these latter-day kings?

Exodus w commentary by Abraham ibn Ezra 1488 613 commandments

Abraham ibn Ezra’s commentary on Exodus. The argument against Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is now almost 1,000 years old, dating back to Isaac ibn Yashush and Abraham ibn Ezra in Medieval Spain.

This initial inquiry was the first in a flood of similar ones. The 12th century scholar rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, though his intention was probably never to undermine an orthodox interpretation of the Pentateuch, wrote such piercing analyses of the Bible’s first five books that he encouraged generations of later biblical scholars to pose inquiries about the Pentateuch. Ibn Ezra, in a comment about the Book of Genesis, wrote ominously that “some mystery lies here, and let him who understands sit keep silent.”9 Later Biblical scholars, finding ibn Ezra’s work, did not keep silent.

The early fifteenth century scholar Alonso Tostado, a bishop in Avila, Spain, continued to reconsider the chronology in the Old Testament. One answer to the riddle of how Moses could write about his own death had traditionally been that his successor Joshua chipped in and added a few lines about the leader’s passing on the banks of the Jordan. But this workaround theory, too, came under skepticism. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s contemporary Andreas Karlstadt, a powerful force in sixteenth-century European theology, studied the Hebrew text carefully and concluded that the passages about Moses’ death were written in exactly the same verbal and syntactical style as the passages that came before them. If a ghost writer had jumped in to include them, he or she was quite adept at mimicking the overall voice of Deuteronomy.

Throughout the 1500s, scholars of ancient Hebrew began to theorize that later Biblical editors who lived long after Moses had added phrases here and there, and modernized place names from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. The Catholic Church condemned such theories as heresy. But by the 1600s, the threat of persecution was not enough to stem the flow of investigative research – especially in some of the more tolerant corners of Early Modern Europe. During this century, the Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza synthesized some of the analyses that had come before him. With a strong knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, a well-rounded education, an unusual background, and a place of residence in the comparatively tolerant Netherlands, Spinoza had the tools to create a sustained close analysis of the Pentateuch in its original language. His conclusion laid the groundwork for modern Biblical scholarship, which holds that the Pentateuch is not a unified text punctuated by an occasional interjection, but that instead the Pentateuch is a compilation of many different sources, sources which had different prose styles and different ideologies.

Doublets, and the “J” and “E” Sources

Theories of the authorship of the Pentateuch proliferated throughout the 1700s, in the wake of Spinoza’s work, and were spurred by the enthusiastic analytical spirit of the Enlightenment. By the mid-nineteenth century, in academic circles, the theory of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch was becoming widespread, with specific styles in the Pentateuch identified and carefully documented. Independent investigations were yielding similar results. As time passed, more and more details of the Pentateuch were discovered that supported the hypothesis that the first five books of the Bible were written by a number of people, over a long period of time. One of the most revealing of all of these details was something that Biblical scholars call “doublets.” A “doublet” in the Bible is an instance when the same event is recorded two times, often with variations.

Now, we didn’t get to cover all these in the previous episode, but let me name some of these “doublet” instances in the Pentateuch. There are two accounts of the world’s creation. There are two accounts of humanity’s creation – the first with man and woman appearing all at once, and the second with Adam appearing and then Eve being made from one of his bones. There are two accounts of the sacred agreement between Abraham and God, two tales of how Isaac was named by Abraham, two different stories about Abraham telling a foreign monarch that his wife is his sister. There are two different tales of Jacob journeying to Mesopotamia, two takes of God changing Jacob’s name to Israel, and two stories of how Moses got water from a rock. There are many more. What is most telling about them is that in most cases, one of the two stories uses one name for God, and the other of the two stories uses a different name for God. In the Pentateuch, these names are Elohim and Yahweh, the names of the two different Gods we discussed in the previous episode. The passages of the Pentateuch, particularly in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, that refer to God alternately as Elohim and Yahweh, are believed to be the first two separate sources of the Bible. They are known as the “E” source, for Elohim, and the “J” source, for the word “Jahwe” – German for Yahweh. We call them “sources,” rather than authors, because each source might be the product of a number of ancient scribes who shared a theology and worldview. Let’s start with the J source, the source associated with Yahweh.

The God of the “J” source, again, Yahweh, is a very personified God. He makes clothes for mankind (Gen 3:21) and walks in Eden (Gen 3.8). The J source envisions God as a physical being, capable of close contact and companionship with the heroes of the Pentateuch. The “J” source tells the story of an anthropomorphic deity whose intimate, often physical contact with mankind is part of the experience of the first generations of the Kingdom of Israel. When the J source tells the creation story – this is Genesis 2.7, the creation of man is a physical act of shaping and animation. “[T]he LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2.7). This God – again, Yahweh, the god of the J source – this God has hands, and breath. He isn’t a formless, faraway being, or an impersonal mystic force, but instead a powerful humanoid deity who does things with a physical body.

That’s the J source, the source that calls God Yahweh. Now, the E source, the one named after the god Elohim. The God of the E source is a distant, usually unseen God. Elohim communicates through dreams, visions, and intermediaries. His act of creation isn’t shaping with hands or blowing into nostrils or using ribs to create women – it is instantaneous. Genesis 1:27 reads, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). In the E version of the creation story, humans are made in all in an instant. There are no hands, no dust, no mess of ribs or who was created first to help whom – it’s just poof, and men and women exist.

So those are the first two sources of the Pentateuch, explained mainly with just one doublet episode – once again the J source, which writes of anthropomorphic Yahweh, and the E source, which writes of otherworldly Elohim. These two sources are thought to be the oldest major sources of the Pentateuch. Let’s take this a bit deeper, now. A large quantity of internal evidence exists to associate the E source with Israel, the northern kingdom, and the J source with Judah. This evidence ranges through the entire Pentateuch. Rather than rattling off a long, potentially bewildering series of examples, I’m going to first remind you of what the northern and southern kingdoms were, and then drill down on a single famous story in the Book of Genesis, a story which is a simple example of a tug of war between southern Judah and northern Israel. This is a fairly complex argument to follow – especially in a podcast – so I’m going to go slowly and run the risk of being a bit repetitious.

To repeat what’s already been covered in previous episodes. In the land of Canaan, in the Iron Age, there arose two kingdoms that the Bible associates with the worship of the Israelites God. These two kingdoms were Israel, in the north, and Judah, in the south. It’s confusing, because the people called the “Israelites,” or descendants of the man called Israel, lived in both Israel and Judah. But the long and short of it is, according to Biblical history, there were Israelites running all around Canaan, and their population centers were in the north and south – in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Right, that part’s fairly easy. North, Israel; South, Judah.

The next part is what we just covered. Two of the Pentateuch’s main sources pervasively use two different names for God. One name is Yahweh, a name most often associated with an anthropomorphic God, far more powerful than anything but nonetheless a fundamentally physical being. The source of the Pentateuch that uses Yahweh as God’s name is called the “J” source, after the German “Jahwe.” Another main source in the Pentateuch widely calls God “Elohim.” This is the “E” source, and its God is vaporous, distant, and mystical.

So we’ve got Judah and Israel, and J and E. A common line of Biblical scholarship, as I said earlier, associates the southern kingdom, Judah, with the J source, and the northern kingdom, Israel, with the E source. Let’s look at a single example, a simple one I’ve cherry picked from many other ones. This example will be the brief account of the Shechemites from the 34th chapter of Genesis. I’m borrowing a widely respected analysis from the Biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, here, by the way.

So we’ll hear the story first. It is a story about one of the patriarch Jacob’s daughters, a girl named Dinah. Remember – Jacob is also known as Israel, and he’s the father twelve sons – the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This story, however, isn’t about one of his sons – it’s about his daughter, Dinah. Dinah is raped by the prince of the city of Shechem, a man whose name is also Shechem. What you’re about to hear is the story of this rape, and its aftermath. This will take a couple of minutes – I’ll read almost all of Chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis. [music]

The “J” and “E” Sources Spar for Primacy in Genesis 34

Here’s Genesis, Chapter 34, NRSV translation.
Now Dinah. . .went out to visit the women of the region. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force. And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl to be my wife.”

Now Jacob heard that Shechem had defiled his daughter Dinah; but his sons were with his cattle in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came. And Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him, just as the sons of Jacob came in from the field. When they heard of it, the men were indignant and very angry, because [Shechem] had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done.

But Hamor [, Shechem’s father,] spoke with them, saying, “The heart of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage. Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You shall live with us; and the land shall be open to you; live and trade in it, and get property in it.” [And young prince] Shechem [added] to [Dinah’s] father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor with you, and whatever you say to me I will give. Put the marriage present and gift as high as you like, and I will give whatever you ask me; only give me the girl to be my wife.”

The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah. They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we consent to you: that you will become as we are and every male among you be circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves, and we will live among you and become one people. But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and be gone.”

Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most honored of all his family. So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, “These people are friendly with us; let them live in the land and trade in it, for the land is large enough for them; let us take their daughters in marriage, and let us give them our daughters. Only on this condition will they agree to live among us, to become one people: that every male among us be circumcised as they are circumcised. Will not their livestock, their property, and all their animals be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will live among us.” And all who went out of the city gate heeded Hamor and his son Shechem; and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.

On the third day, when they were still in pain, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. And the other sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey. Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” But [his sons] said, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”


So, to summarize this story. A horrible wrong is done to Dinah. Family members thereafter work to minimize further pain and suffering. According to Biblical law printed in Deuteronomy, (Deut 25:28-9), if an unmarried woman is raped, the rapist is to pay her father fifty shekels of silver, and then marry her, and he’s never allowed to divorce her. In the case of the story we just heard, Shechem’s father seems to be attempting to do something like this, and is willing to consent to a mass conversion so that his erring son can marry his victim. Shechem, his father, and the inhabitants of their city all convert. Dinah seems to marry Shechem, since she’s taken out of his house later.

The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 172. Simeon and Levi slay Hamor and Shechem. Genesis cap 34 vv 25-26. Caspar Luyken

“Simeon and Levi Slay Hamor and Shechem,” by Casper Luyken. The retributive mass murder takes place in violation of biblical law (Deut 25:28-9), and is part of what makes the Shechem story so puzzling to Biblical scholars.

And then, after three days pass, Dinah’s brothers Levi and Simeon kill the men of the city, plunder all of its goods, and steal its women and children. The verse in Genesis reads “all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey.” Whether this means that these unlucky innocents were enslaved or raped, we’re not sure, but big papa Israel is not happy about it. He warns his violent sons that their retaliatory killings might bring damage onto him and his people. And then the chapter ends.

It is an ugly mess of a story from beginning to end. No one wins, leastwise Dinah, who never has any rights, any say in the course of her life, and for whose sake so much blood is spilled. The Shechemites are massacred. Levi and Simeon are forever lessened in their father’s eyes. Israel feels anxious that he has betrayed the trust of a neighboring kingdom. Uncounted Shechemites are needlessly killed, enslaved, or raped – needless, according to Biblical morality, since Prince Shechem and his father followed the rules according to the Book of Deuteronomy. There is no moral clear message or sense of divine architecture at work – only senseless, vigilante violence and the intimation of more to come.10

We could just leave it at that. Maybe the story is just too unspeakably profound for human minds to understand. But Biblical scholars haven’t found this to be the case. Behind the story of Shechem and the rape of Dinah is a hidden history, a history visible to Biblical scholars and those who know the power politics of ancient Canaan. Let’s start with the ancient city of Shechem. Shechem was a northern city in the kingdom of Israel. It was an important city to the Biblical Israelites, because Shechem was the capital of their first king – king Jeroboam. Shechem was where the northern kingdom supposedly got started. If you were a northerner, you’d recognize Shechem as the center of your kingdom’s monarchical and historical roots.

To the southerners, though, Shechem marked something else. According to the Bible, the northern and southern kingdoms were once unified. Within the glorious capital of Jerusalem, the great kings David and Solomon oversaw a prosperous, militarily robust era of Canaan’s history. But the kingdom split. Shechem, according to the Bible, was the site where the northern breakaway king Jeroboam established his new capital. If you were a southerner, you saw the city of Shechem as the center of the northern secession, a delinquent place which had screwed up the once glorious, unified monarchy of Israel. If you were a citizen of Judah in the south, then Shechem in the north was a rival city – one that you might have wanted to take down a few notches.

This is exactly what happens in Genesis, Chapter 34. This chapter is from the “J” source, or the source associated with Yahweh, also the source associated with southern Judah. One of the possible interpretations of the dark, puzzling chapter that we just read, then, is that it is an attempt – a clumsy, ham-handed attempt at that – to deprecate the city of Shechem in the north. The Shechemites are depicted as lusty, religiously feeble, and militarily weak. They commit a crime, they try to atone, and then they are massacred. The resulting story, which seems to us to be a morally nihilistic jumble, may in fact have been a southern fantasy about northern Shechem facing a well-deserved reckoning. In short, in Chapter 34 of Genesis, the “J” source, often aligned with the kingdom of Judah, takes a fierce dig at the former capital of its rival, telling an origin story that makes Shechem seem conciliating and pathetic.

So what about the “E” source? If this source were often aligned with the interests of the north, wouldn’t it also have something to say about the origins of the northern city of Shechem – maybe something a bit more positive? In fact, the “E” source did. Just before the tale of Dinah’s rape and the eventual revenge murders committed by her brothers, Genesis 33:19 tells a comparatively simpler, kinder, and more modest tale about how Shechem came under the sway of Israel.

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), the great Hebrew language scholar who first proposed the Documentary Hypothesis in Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (1882).

In this shorter story, after Jacob has been traveling through Canaan, building a house here, and spending a bit of money there, he gets to Shechem. The “E” source – the one associated with Israel – reads, “Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan. . .and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel [or the God of Israel]” (Gen 33:18-20).

That’s all the “E” source has to say about the beginnings of Shechem. There’s no rape, no conversions, no mass murder, no enslavement, and no poor women left to quietly suffer the prerogatives of brothers and fathers. The “E” source, associated with Israel, whose old capital was, at one time, Shechem, is content to tell a short, unspectacular story about how Jacob set up there.

So let me recapitulate, and I hope this isn’t annoyingly obvious. The Book of Genesis has two accounts of Shechem, a once sacred northern city. One account is from the J, or “Yahweh” source, associated with the south. This southern source shows Shechem suffering and humiliated. The second account of Shechem is from the E, or “Elohim” source, associated with the north. This northern source shows Shechem peacefully integrating with the founder of Israel and his children. These two sources have different things to say about the same city, possibly due to political motivations. Once, these two sources may have been separate, but ancient editors combined them and, over probably a long period of time, worked out some of the logical and narrative hiccups between them, so that Chapters 33-34 of Genesis follow a mostly linear narrative. We’ll see a lot more of this in the next episode, when the often anachronistic narratives of Joshua and Judges relate how the Israelites, not long after the Exodus, clobbered various Canaanite civilizations that didn’t exist in the Late Bronze Age, but were foes of the Israelites at later points when the Old Testament was being written. The historical narrative written down in the Old Testament is often composed with the intention of settling a score or deprecating a political rival, even if a bit of pure fiction is necessary to do so.

The analysis of Genesis 34 I just undertook is mainly borrowed from Richard Elliot Friedman’s classic work Who Wrote the Bible, first published in 1987. Since then, new generations of scholars have taken his issue with some of Friedman’s theories and reconsidered the alignment of the “J” source with the south and the “E” source with the north, but much of the hypothesis still holds water, and of course it extends far beyond what we’ve just considered in the Book of Genesis.

Just by looking at the doublet of the Shechem episode, we can see two different ideologies going toe to toe, one of which has negative associations with the northern city, and the one which has neutral associations with it. The point of looking closely at the Shechem episode is to understand that the dual accounts of so many events in the Pentateuch may be the results of very specific ideological schisms that existed in Iron Age Canaan. It is initially very counterintuitive for many of us – especially those of us brought up with the notion that the whole Bible is a unified fountain of timeless wisdom – to ponder it as a textual boxing ring where long forgotten petty politicking and regional rivalries were carried out. And yet for decades this is the kind of analysis that’s been par for the course with the Pentateuch. It is an analysis that is rooted in a school of thought called the Documentary Hypothesis. [music]

“D” and “P” – the Other Sources of the Documentary Hypothesis

Richard Elliot Friedman was one of the figures who helped introduce the Documentary Hypothesis to the general public. But it’s an old theory, first synthesized by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, who lived from 1844-1918. If you know just one single fact about Biblical scholarship, the Documentary Hypothesis isn’t a bad choice, and with what we’ve covered so far in this program, we’re already most of the way there.

The great German theorist Julius Wellhausen, one of the most influential Biblical scholars who ever lived, was the first person to promote the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis argues that by and large the Pentateuch was produced over three distinct periods. During the first period, the “J” source and the “E” source were at work, creating sacred, but slightly different collections of writings about the world’s creation and the earliest generations of Israelites. We’ve already spent some time with the “J” and “E” sources, the Jahwist and the Elohist, from the south and north. During the second period of Biblical authorship, a figure called the “Deuteronomist” was at work, whom we call the “D” source. The Deuteronomist wrote Deuteronomy. Moses’ retirement speech and the code of laws in Deuteronomy are the Deuteronomist’s work. The Deuteronomist also wrote Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, a group that Biblical scholars call the Deuteronomistic history. The Deuteronomist’s main interests, wherever it was that he wrote, were the centralization of power in the Jerusalem Temple, the stamping out of alternative places of worship, and the unification of Judah as a power center. He is generally believed to have been product of the court of King Josiah, who ruled from 640-609, and undertook a concerted effort to stamp out polytheism and animal sacrifices in the provinces. Because the Deuteronomist may have worked for Josiah, the Deuteronomist’s writings extol King Josiah and his political ambitions.

Documentary Hypothesis Sources Distribution Friedman

A breakdown of the sources that went into the first four books of the Pentateuch. J (the Jahwist or Yahwist) calls God “Yahweh.” E (the Elohist) calls God “Elohim.” P, the priestly source, is concerned with matters regarding cleanliness, animal sacrifice, and subjects that benefit the Levites or priestly caste. R, the redactor, had certain consistent imperatives in his editing work. D, the Deuteronomist, is not pictured, but wrote Deuteronomy, and likely most of the history books from Joshua – 2 Kings.

The final, and latest source in the Pentateuch is the “P,” or “priestly” source. The “P” source authored Leviticus, and many other passages throughout the Pentateuch. The “P” source was concerned with law codes, the organization of civil society, and the interests of the Levite priests, hence the name of the “P” source. Traces of the “P” source are everywhere in the Pentateuch, from the opening passages of Genesis onward. Many of the quotes we heard today about animals and meat processing, cleanliness regulations and civic conduct were written by this fourth source in the Documentary Hypothesis – again the “P,” or “Priestly” source.

These four sources, J, E, D, and P, interweave throughout the Pentateuch. We saw just one instance of them coming together in Chapters 33-34 of Genesis, in which E and then J have slightly different takes on the origins of Shechem. But generally, every time there is a duplicated story, at least two of the sources are at work. Many times when the Hebrew names for God undergo a decisive change, we are switching between sources. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy mark concerted bursts by the “P” source and “D” source, respectively. In summation, as a whole, today Biblical scholars see the Pentateuch as a patchwork of scribal traditions worked on by further generations of editors who had their own distinct interests to advance. This is the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory that has been challenged, modified, and withstood the test of time by a century of scholars of ancient Hebrew who have seriously engaged with it.

The notion that some people, or categories of people whom we call J, E, D, and P wrote the Old Testament has slowly been accepted by religious institutions. Up until the 1940s the Catholic Church opposed all evidence contrary to the notion that Moses, and Moses alone, authored the Pentateuch. But in 1943, Pope Pius XII finally encouraged Catholic priests and the laity to accept the Documentary Hypothesis. Protestant authorities that have done the same share a general agreement about this hypothesis. If the Pentateuch were indeed written and edited by many people, the theory goes, the whole process might still have had a divine design behind it, after all, a process not as dramatic as Moses carting wheelbarrow loads of stone tablets down a mountain, but one, due to its complexity and long chronology, quite unique and miraculous nonetheless. [music]

Moving on to the Historical Books

So in the previous show you’ve heard the general story told in the Pentateuch – the generations that stretched between Adam at the beginning, and then Joseph and his brothers at the end, and all the ups and downs in between. And you heard about the Bronze and Iron Age texts that very probably influenced the Old Testament’s stories. In this show, we’ve looked at a good sampling of the 613 commandments stretched through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And we also talked about the most famous and influential scholarly theory on the Bible’s first five books – that they were authored by four sources commonly shorthanded as J, E, D, and P. We’ve come far in our journey through the Old Testament, and it’s time to move onto the next of those four main parts I described a few episodes ago, journeying from the Pentateuch, and into the Historical Books. After all this talk of eating insects and pigeon blood, we left our good friends the ancient Israelites standing at the end of the last episode on the banks of the Jordan River, just about to cross into Canaan, their leader Moses stepping down, and a new leader, Joshua, rising up to take his place. In the next episode, we’re going to cover the Historical Books. The tribulations of the Israelites did not end upon their arrival in Canaan. The Historical Books tell of their conflicts with native peoples in the Promised Land, the great unified monarchy of David and Solomon, the division into two kingdoms, and the slow, nightmarish decline under successive waves of foreign powers. In the next program, we’ll hear the story of the books that stretch between Joshua and Esther, and hear an overview of just how much of the Old Testament is supported by Biblical archaeology. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I will close with a song. If you skip the songs, now’s the time to switch to the next episode or tune into something else. Otherwise, lend me five more minutes of your commute or jog time and I’ll try my best to make you laugh. Still listening? I got to thinking about all those commandments. All six hundred and thirteen of them. With so many of them, it’s a wonder that we ever came up with the idea that there were just ten commandments. I got to thinking about that, and I wrote a song about the 613 commandments. It’s a bluegrass song, because, you know, a lot of those ancient Israelites were country folk, and a lot of these rules came from old folk traditions. Everything described in the song – even things we haven’t covered in this show today – every single commandment described is actually in the Pentateuch. And this song has a 3d animated cartoon up on YouTube that I put together, just because so few people know the full extent of all the stuff that’s in the Pentateuch. If you have any friends who aren’t into podcasts but who might get an introduction to, and maybe a chuckle about the stranger regulations in the Old Testament, pass it along to them. Here’s my song “The 613 Commandments” – thanks again for listening, and I’ll see you next time.

References
1.^ GENESIS: Ch 1-50: Story; EXODUS: Ch 1-18: Story; Ch 19-31: Prescriptive; Ch. 32-33: Story; Ch 34-39: Prescriptive; Ch. 40: Story; LEVITICUS: Ch 1-27: Prescriptive; NUMBERS: Ch 1-10: Prescriptive; Ch 11-25: Story; Ch 20-31: Prescriptive; Ch 32-36: Story; DEUTERONOMY: Ch 1-4: Story; Ch 5-31: Prescriptive; Ch 32-34: Story; FINAL: 187 Chapters, 96 Story and 91 Prescriptive.

2.^ Printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 110. Further quotations from the Bible in this episode will come from this same edition and be noted with chapter and verse in this episode transcription.

3.^ Martin, Thomas. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Yale Nota Bene, 2000. Kindle Edition, Locations 1879-88.

4.^ Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo and with an Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 41-2.

5.^ Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition, p. 230.

6.^ Romer, John. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012. Kindle Edition, p. 210.

7.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, location 921.

8.^ Printed in Solomon, Norman. The Talmud: A Selection. Penguin Classics, 2009, p. 524.

9.^ Spinoza, Baruch. Theological-Political Treatise. Second Edition, Trans. Samuel Shirley. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, p. 106.

10.^ There’s a counterargument to this interpretation. After all, Shechem and his father do tell ask their countrymen, “Will not their livestock, their property, and all their animals be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will live among us.” Perhaps the Shechemites are only integrating with Israel and his family in order to profiteer from their superior resources. My personal qualm with this interpretation is the explanation that Levi and Simeon provide says nothing about mistrusting the motivations of the Shechemites – they only ask their father, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Their mass killing in Shechem thus seems impermissible according to Deuteronomic laws regarding rape and marriage.