This will be the first of two or three posts on understanding the Bible historically.
Eternal Torah and Historical Torah
Christians inherited their first Bible from the Jews. In Judaism the Torah is the original and most authoritative part of the Bible. The Torah contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that every Jew must learn and observe upon coming of age and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.
As an expression of God’s character and will, the Torah must be eternal. Some of the Rabbis even said God consulted the Torah when creating the universe. The eternal Torah is expressed in two forms: the written Torah and the oral Torah.
Because it expresses God’s will for humans, the Torah must be historical. The Torah is written in human language–but the word “language” is an abstraction. There is really no such thing as language in general; there are only the particular languages spoken by particular people at various times and places. Language is intimately tied to history and culture, to the understanding available at any point in history, to the natural and social realities of any point in history.
The rabbis recognized the historical nature of the Torah, and they recognized the difficulties of reconciling the historical with the eternal nature of God’s revelation. For example, as the expression of the eternal will of God, the Torah is universal; yet it was given to Israel, not to the Gentiles. Only Israel is required to observe all 613 commandments; the Master of the Universe will be pleased if the Gentiles keep about seven of them: the laws against murder, incest, adultery, and so forth.
The Torah contains God’s commandments, but as a book written at a point in history, it must have a human author. Since Moses is the intermediary through whom God gives the commandments, he is considered the author of the whole collection of five books, even though at the end of Deuteronomy there is a third-person account of the death of Moses. Some of the rabbis said that Moses wrote those words with tears in his eyes, following a vision God had given him. Others said it is better to be silent about the fact.
The oral Torah also is considered eternal. The oral Torah includes the interpretations of the laws as ultimately codified in the Talmud. Even though the Talmud reports the individual discussions and debates and names the rabbis who gave various rulings at particular points in history–these rulings are still considered part of the eternal Torah.
The rabbis recognized one other conflict between the eternal Torah and the historical Torah. Changing conditions call for flexibility in interpreting and applying the commandments. This is found even within the Torah. In Exodus Moses commands that a debt-slave must be released “freely, without any charge” at the end of six years. The similar law in Deuteronomy goes beyond this and commands the master to be generous and pay a newly-released slave for his services.
Since Moses taught that by keeping the commandments “you will live,” Judaism established the rule that commandments must be interpreted in a way that advances life, never in a way that threatens life.
The rabbis would not say that there are contradictions among the commandments; but they did recognize contradictions in life. Because the world is not right, the commandments must be interpreted in a way that repairs the world.