Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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