Thought of the Week: On Numbers 21 and the Origins of Torah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 June 2015

Numbers chapter 21, which we will be reading from this coming Shabbat, is a bit of an oddity.  Four (or maybe five) distinct sections of Torah, apparently unconnected to one another: three verses on a battle with the king of Arad; some funny business with a copper serpent; the travel itinerary of the Israelites, described in quite unnecessary detail; accounts of battles with Sihon, king of the Amorites and with King Og of Bashan.

It is one of those chapters that just doesn’t feel like it hangs together. 

And this is hardly a surprise, because these four different sections are, almost definitely, four different texts, woven, edited together, by a skilful – or, in the case of this chapter, a not particularly skilful – redactor.  The lack of quality in the editing seems not to massively bother the redactor, as is particularly evident when he (almost definitely a ‘he’ in the ancient scribal world, I’m afraid) even references one of the source texts, the otherwise unknown Book of the Wars of the Eternal.

The idea that the Torah is made up from a collection of sources, brought together over time is now an accepted idea for most biblical scholars.  Exactly how this process happened is impossible to answer with certainty.  Some think that the Torah is made up of distinct, independently coherent, documents (the documentary hypothesis), some that a whole variety of fragments of texts were brought together (the fragmentary hypothesis), some that there was one main text which was supplemented by the addition of others (the, you’ve guessed it, supplementary hypothesis).  Almost all agree that separate traditions were brought together to make a whole, but how will always remain a mystery.
Exactly when it happened is also unclear, with the more extreme position that the final editing could have happened as late as the Hasmonean period.  Again, we will never really know.

The bigger question is why it matters.
On one level, it doesn’t.  We will, as Jews, always read the text as a unity.  Torah is read as one piece, with every section in relation, in constant dialogue, with every other.  Contradictions in Torah were a source of creativity for the rabbis, as they are for us.  The existence of different versions of the same narratives including the Creation and Flood stories, does not negate the truths found in either version. 

But on another level, the recognition of the redacted nature of Torah is liberating. 

The classical Jewish view of Torah began with theology not with the text.  A theological position of divine authorship determined how generations of Jews engaged with the text, limiting their ability to read in different ways (to use literary, feminist, sociological readings rather than to read it primarily as a normative text) and preventing any differentiation between that which is good and bad in Torah.
Starting with the text itself, with the complex nature of chapters like this week’s, allows us to break free in our reading of Torah.  It gives us the ability to deal with the many ethically difficult sections of the text, and to approach the whole with the intellectual honesty that modern religious life demands.