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Writing the Torah | Exodus 17:14

Write this as a Reminder in the Scroll

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.”
Exodus 17:14

The question as to when biblical literature first began to be written has captivated scholars for centuries and it has of course been a concern to religious readers for millennia. According to ancient Jewish and Christian tradition, the earliest part of the Hebrew Bible to be written was the Torah and this was dictated verbatim by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. This, however, is but mere pious tradition and the so-called ‘Books of Moses’ contain within them enough evidence for us to conclude definitively that these books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — could not have been written by Moses at a time before Israel was established in the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy records the death of Moses (34:1–8) and in numerous places it presupposes the centrality of Jerusalem for Yahwistic cultic worship (12:5, 11, 21; 16:2, 6, 11; 26:2), a situation which did not exist until after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in the second half of the eighth century BCE.

Strangely, one of the clues to the later date of composition for Exodus — at least in its final form — is the instruction from Yahweh to Moses to write in a scroll. If we are to accept the biblical chronology of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, and their conquest of Canaan then we are forced to date the Exodus — in whatever form it might have taken — to before the end of the thirteenth century. The reason for this is the Merneptah stele in which Pharaoh Merneptah mentions an ethnic population in the southern Levant called ‘Israel.’ This archaeologically confirms the existence of a people called Israel and it situates them in Canaan sometime around 1207 BCE. However, it makes no reference to an exodus from Egypt.

We find evidence for writing in Israel first in Samaria during the reign of Jeroboam II. Here we have a number of ostraca dealing with trade and other mundane matters of state. There is no evidence of literary composition. In the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions we find references to the god of Israel and Teman in Edom, but nothing amounting to what might be described as biblical literature. It is not until the seventh century BCE that we find similar inscriptions and examples of writing in Jerusalem and Judah — not even bullae. Certainly, this presents a picture — at least from the archaeological evidence — of Israel as a pre-literate society before the eighth century and Judah as such before the seventh century.

Some scholars have argued that scribes would have used papyrus and hides, materials which would not typically survive long enough to make it to the archaeological record. This argument does have some merit, given that we do have evidence of their use in the region from as early as the late Old Kingdom period in Egypt (c. 2300 BCE). Yet, Professor Israel Finkelstein from Tel Aviv University in Israel makes the salient point that it is unlikely a literate society with a scribal culture capable of producing material comparable to what we find in the Hebrew Bible would not also leave evidence of writing on seals, ostraca, and inscriptions. That we find nothing of this nature in Israel or Judah before the eighth century would strongly indicate that these were pre-literate societies before this time.

Now, this is not to say that writing did not exist in Israel and Judah before the eighth century. We know that it did. Rather, in describing Israel and Judah as pre-literate before this point what is meant is that they do not appear — from the archaeological evidence — to have had scribal cultures producing any significant quantity of written material. The Zayit Stone, an abecedary discovered at Tel Zayit some 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem, is the oldest example of Old or Paleo-Hebrew script and this dates only to the tenth century BCE — some three centuries after Merneptah encountered Israel in Canaan. A single ostracon inscription written in what may be recognised as Biblical Hebrew was excavated at Khirbet Qeiyafa dating to the tenth century BCE, but this is highly contested. In the main, the earliest Biblical Hebrew inscriptions do not appear until the eighth century. Nothing of the evidence we have of writing before the eighth century, however, gives much credence to the notion that a scribal culture capable of producing the kind of literature we find in the Bible existed in Israel before the Omride dynasty. As far as the archaeology is concerned, then, Israelites in the wilderness were most definitely not writing biblical literature on scrolls.

So how can we understand the command of Yahweh to Moses to record these events in Exodus 17:14? We have to assume the Moses of Exodus and the rest of the Torah — regardless of his actual historicity — to be a literary invention of a time no earlier than the eighth century. The Israel of the Torah is then an idealised retrojection of — in part — the Kingdom of Israel in the eighteenth century and — later — the Kingdom of Judah subsequent to the fall of Samaria. Following the collapse of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE the archaeology of Jerusalem supports the idea that northern refugees came to the city. It is likely that it was the fusion of the scribal traditions of Israel and Judah in the late Assyrian period that created the environment in which the Bible as we know it began to be written and redacted. In this reconstruction we can see in Moses’ scroll the scribes of Jerusalem in the late Assyrian and early Babylonian eras.

Court writing, we know, begins first in the wealthier northern kingdom, and this is where the first parts of the Torah were composed. We may think of this as a ‘proto-torah,’ but it is extremely difficult to reconstruct what shape this might have taken and what narratives and memories it may have included. By no means was this a single book or corpus, but a collection of northern traditions. After the destruction of Israel it was this body of writing that was brought to Jerusalem and so began the process of being woven together with the southern Judahite traditions. It is only really at about this time — post-722 — that we can think about the creation of the earliest form of the Torah we now have. These were the scrolls upon which the words of Yahweh were written.


Published by Jason Michael

Scottish journalist and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. Postgraduate in Sociology, Academic Fellowship (History of World War I) and lecturer in Biblical Studies.

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