Jewish tradition tells us that we received the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) directly from Moses. But where and when in history did the Torah come from?
622 BCE, in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Hilkiah, the High Priest of the Kingdom of Judah, was cleaning out the Temple and found a scroll that no one had seen for hundreds of years. It was a fortuitous find, for it solved two major problems.
- Problem #1: Things were not going well for the kingdom. Judah kept getting invaded and sacked by foreign armies, who installed pagan worship in place of the Jewish focus on only one god. Judah was dependent on having strong kings to keep out the invaders.
- Problem #2: The Jews kept asking “why is this happening to us?” They came up with an answer: because they aren’t properly following the laws that God gave to Moses hundreds of years ago. They are being bad Jews and so God was punishing them. Except the details of those laws had been lost to history, so the Jews weren’t sure how to start following the laws again.
The scroll, or book, that Hilkiah found, solved Problem #2. It spelled out exactly what the Jews were supposed to be doing to keep God’s laws. It also said what would happen if they didn’t — which coincidentally aligned with what they had been experiencing the last couple hundred years. Hilkiah called this book “the Teaching”, or in Hebrew, “Torah.” Specifically, he found the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah.
The king of Judah, Josiah, had a mission to eliminate paganism and return the Temple to its original purpose. So Hilkiah’s find was exceptionally convenient: this long-lost ancient work backed up King Josiah’s efforts and made it seem like he was on the right side of God.
So maybe Hilkiah didn’t “find” the Book of Deuteronomy after all. Maybe he wrote it. As an ally of Josiah, maybe he wrote it as a way to justify the legitimacy of his policies.
What’s the point of all this? This is an era in which the stories of Jewish history started getting written down into what would become the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy was the first step to start stringing everything together in a cohesive narrative. All the stories in the Bible come from somewhere — and have a reason they are being told. Knowing those reasons tells us a lot about who we are as Jews, and where our traditions come from.
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© 2017 Jason Harris