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The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible's Writers

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 185
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  • Book Info
    The Original Torah
    Book Description:

    Is the Torah true? Do the five books of Moses provide an accurate historical account of the people of ancient Israels origins? In The Original Torah, S. David Sperling argues that, while there is no archeological evidence to support much of the activity chronicled in the Torah, a historical reality exists there if we know how to seek it. By noting the use of foreign words or mentions of technological innovations scholars can often pinpoint the date and place in which a text was written. Sperling examines the stories of the Torah against their historical and geographic backgrounds and arrives at a new conclusion: the tales of the Torah were originally composed as allegories whose purpose was distinctly and intentionally political. The book illustrates how the authors of the Pentateuch advanced their political and religious agenda by attributing deeds of historical figures like Jeroboam and David to ancient allegorical characters like Abraham and Jacob. If Abraham had made peace with Philistines, for example, then David could rely on a precedent to do likewise. The Original Torah provides a new interpretive key to the foundational document of both Judaism and Christianity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-2573-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Chronological Table
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1980 the Society of Biblical Literature, the oldest professional society of Bible scholars in the United States, marked its centennial with the publication of a volume of essays entitledHumanizing America’s Iconic Book. By characterizing the Bible as an “iconic book,” the editors called attention to the power exerted by the image of the Bible on American life, an image that has often overshadowed the very Bible it is supposed to represent. In his essay “America’s Iconic Book,” which provided the title for the entire volume, the prominent sociologist Martin Marty quoted a fascinating statement by the former U.S....

  7. CHAPTER 1 It Says in the Torah
    (pp. 11-26)

    The narrative contents of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, or the Torah in the Jewish tradition, are easily summarized, because the Torah provides a chronological account running from the creation until the eve of the settlement of ancient Israel in its promised land. This account is completed in the Book of Joshua.

    The first book, Genesis, relates how God—known variously in Hebrew as Yahweh and Elohim—creates the heaven and earth and all that they encompass, what we now callthe world. Dissatisfied with the behavior of his human and animal creatures, this same God...

  8. CHAPTER 2 History and Allegory
    (pp. 27-40)

    We saw in the previous chapter that the Torah is unhistorical, a finding that has led some scholars to conclude that the work has no historical value. One of the most articulate exponents of this conclusion is Edmund Leach:¹

    If we ignore the rather small number of named biblical characters whose existence is fully vouched for by independent evidence … I regardall[emphasis in original] the personalities of biblical narrative both in the Old Testament and in the New as wholly fictional…. The view that I adopt—that the biblical narrative is a myth, a sacred tale—implies that...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The Allegory of Servitude in Egypt and the Exodus
    (pp. 41-60)

    Virtually every American biblicist or seminary graduate of a certain age grew up reading John Bright’sHistory of Israel, the source of the first quotation. Bright’s book was deservedly popular in circles of religious moderates for its attempt to balance the critical study of Israelite history with respect and reverence for the biblical tradition. But then there was a radical shift in the scholarly consensus in the sixteen years between Bright’sHistory of Israeland Lemche’sAncient Israel, from which the second quotation is taken, which requires an explanation.¹

    Contemporary literary criticism of the Bible has been one factor in...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Yahweh’s Berît (Covenant): Which Came First—Sex or Politics?
    (pp. 61-74)

    It is widely believed that among the cultures of the ancient Near East, only Israel believed that its god acted directly in human affairs, in what we now callhistory. Yahweh is supposed to have been qualitatively different from the many gods of the Gentiles, who alternately cooperated and battled with one another, acting primarily in the realm of what we now callnature. The supposed practical consequence of this alleged qualitative difference between Yahweh and the other gods was that Israel did not depict Yahweh in myth and its gentile contemporaries did not portray their gods as active in...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Abraham
    (pp. 75-90)

    For more than a century, modern Bible scholars have argued about the historicity of the patriarchs. Through the first two decades of the twentieth century, most nonfundamentalists denied that the women and men around whom the tales of Genesis revolve were real historical characters. Indeed, there was a widespread current of opinion that the mothers and fathers of Israel had originated as divinities in prebiblical times, that only in the course of time had they been “humanized.”

    According to this analysis, the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah in Hebron originated as cult sites of Canaanite gods...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Jacob, Jeroboam, and Joseph
    (pp. 91-102)

    The tales we examined in the previous chapter were allegories of the southern hero David. As we might expect, the northerners also told stories about their champions, which they, too, formulated as allegories about legendary worthies of the past. On one level, the task of recovering the historical background of these biblical stories is simpler than for the southern legends because the northern kingdom had a briefer existence. Founded by Jeroboam I in 922 b.c.e., the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 720. What complicates matters is that the northern traditions that survived the fall of Samaria were brought to...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Aaron
    (pp. 103-120)

    According to the priestly source in the Torah, Aaron is the son of Amram and Jochebed and the brother of Miriam and Moses. According to this same source, Aaron is also the founding father, or eponym, of the “sons of Aaron,” the only legitimate priestly line. In classical rabbinic sources as well as modern scholarship, Aaron has often been described as a paradigm of the Israelite priesthood, so that regulations pertaining to “Aaron” apply to any priest. But “paradigm” does not adequately describe the varied images of Aaron presented in the Torah. As scholars have often observed, there is sometimes...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Moses
    (pp. 121-134)

    In its time, the argument offered by John Bright for the historicity of Moses would have been compelling to most scholars. The second edition of Bright’sHistorywas published in 1972 and had been some years in preparation. Although Johnson’s hesitation a decade earlier was not unique, 1972 was still too early to dismiss the historicity of the traditions of the Exodus and the traditions of the sojourn in Sinai with which they are often linked in the Torah. If there really was an Israelite Exodus from Egypt, someone must have led it. Inasmuch as tradition supplied that leader with...

  15. Afterword
    (pp. 135-136)

    The Greek critics who commented on Homer and his successors conceived of three levels, or kinds, of literary reality:historia(describing what actually happened),plasma(relating imaginary events as if they were real), andmythos(telling what never happened). The classical scholar D. C. Feeney observed that readers who interpret mythos as if it were historia or plasma mistake the genre before them.¹ If we transfer the Greek analytical categories from Homer to the Torah, we find that the Torah contains plasma and mythos but no historia. That is, even what could have occurred apparently did not.

    What archaeology has...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 137-164)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 165-178)
  18. Index
    (pp. 179-184)
  19. About the Author
    (pp. 185-185)