Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How did Moses come by the Torah (Law)?

Most everyone knows the Biblical tradition portraying Moses as the great “lawgiver” of the Israelite people.  In Exodus and Deuteronomy he is described as receiving the Torah directly from God.  He tells the Israelite people: “When I went up to the mountain to receive the tables of stone . . . And the Lord gave me two tables of stone written with the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:9-10; and for the second giving of the tablets to Moses see Deuteronomy 10:1-5; remember, Moses broke the first set).  Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago to learn that the apostle Paul did not agree that God had given the law directly to Moses.  According to Paul (Galatians 3:19) and other New Testament writers (Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2) the law was “ordered through angels!  This tradition was also shared by Josephus, a first century Jewish writer in a statement attributed to Herod (Antiquities of the Jews 15.5.3): “We have learned the noblest of our doctrines and the holiest of our laws from the messengers [angels] sent by God.”

       This tradition of an indirect passing of the Law to Moses is unknown in the Hebrew Bible, although angels are part of the coterie of God in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2, where God comes with his “holy ones” and “on his right hand were his angels with him.” In one of the Apostolic Fathers, Shepherd of Hermas (Similitude 8.3.3), the Archangel Michael was said to have “put the law into the hearts of those who believe.”  Angels were long thought to act as mediators between God and human beings (see, for example, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: TLevi 5:5-6; TDan 6:1-2; Philo, On Dreams, 1. 141-142; Jubilees, 1.27-2.1; 32:21-22).  Cerinthusan early Christian heretic according to Epiphanius (Panarion 28.1,2),claimed “that the Law and prophets have been given by angels though the law-giver is one of the angels who made the world,and these angels did an evil act by creating the world.  Barnabas (9:4)another of the Apostolic Fathers, reports that an evil angel misled the Israelite people into thinking that circumcision was an actual fleshly act.

       Obviously we have here an interesting contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament: did Moses actually receive the Law directly from God or was it “ordered through angels”? Both assertions cannot be correct at the same time!  The situation is much more complicated, however.  These claims about the Law are traditions validating the authority of the Torah.  A tradition is a handing down orally of a belief from generation to generation.  Traditions are living “things,”and as such they change, evolve, and mutate.  Because they exist in memory and surface in oral communicationno sequential history of the evolution of an ancient tradition survives.  Each generation inevitably modifies what they receive, because it is not written in stone (if you will permit me to put it that way). If there ever had been a point of origin and an originaform of the tradition, it would have long since vanished into the fog of the past.  With time, written stories do emerge explaining the origin of this or that particular belief. These various written forms of the tradition often represent diverse contradictory versions of the tradition.  These versions represent what individuals or groups believed about them at a given moment in time.  The oral tradition, however, goes on evolving into still later multiple forms, as interpreted by those who receive it and pass it on to other auditors.

       Neither of these two attempts to explain how the Torah came to Moses (i.e., directly from God or ordered through angelsis historically verifiable datum about the origin of theTorah; they are rather ancient traditional beliefs, and as such do not provide a historical description of origins. Rather each is a then current religious belief representing what people thought at the time.

       Many, if not most, statements about origins in the Bible work the same way—for example, early Christians validated the divinity of Jesus by narratives of a physical birth (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-55; 2:1-20), the infusion or mutation of the preexistent heavenly Christ into flesh (John 1:1-14)and a baptismal Theophany (Mark 1:9-11) – an interesting contradiction between New Testament writers.

       Which of these two contradictory traditions about the Torah, if either, makes more sense to you?  Or to put it another way: with whom do you agree: “Moses” (directly from God), Paul (ordered through angels), or Hedrick (traditions, not history)?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

12 comments:

  1. Seems like, with Hedrick as an option, there are three options to choose from. But if the third, Hedrick option, is not treated as an equal option, but as a negative assumption applied to both the Moses and Paul options ("history" is NOT part of any options)--then it seems that it is overbroad. Traditions often have a basis in historical facts. Though God or angels as Moses's and/or Paul's sources likely are not the facts involved. So...are there two options, or three?

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    1. Hi Peggy,
      Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify. I still think there are three options, but people will make up their own minds. The choice is between two competing faith responses for the origins of the law, and the third possibility is to recognize that neither of these faith responses is a historical answer. The historical answer is that it is the nature of religion to formulate competing traditions through time. And by definition neither Moses or Paul is a historical answer, but rather it is a faith response to the question whence came the Israelite law?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. Charlie,

    Thanks for all the citations on the angelic origins of the Law. Here I've been thinking all along that Paul just arbitrarily picked the angelic origin of the law to fit the theological points he was trying to make. Now I see that he was drawing from a tradition broadly accepted in his own time among the Jews and adopted by the Christian community.

    Is there any tradition suggesting that the giving of the ten commandments was limited to God/Moses, while the remainder of the Law originated with angels?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  3. Hello Gene,
    Paul could have still used the tradition about the angelic origin of the law because it suited his argument. He has done that on other occasions. I do not know of a tradition that attributed the Ten Commandments to God and the rest of the law to angels. Perhaps some of our other readers can help us out.
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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  4. Charles, I vote for the older tradition embodied in Dt. that Moses received the Law directly from God. I think ancient Israelite religion was modified big-time by the experience of exile in Babylon, particularly beliefs about angels and their roles are known to have been influenced by Persian religion.

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    1. Hmm....! The plot thickens, Here is another way that the Torah came to Moses: God dictates and Moses himself writes the ten commandments on the tables of stone (that is, not written by the finger of God): Exodus 34: 28-35 LXX. Paul actually seems to have know this tradition (splendor of Moses face: 2 Corinthians 3:7-13). So why does he go with the angels in Galatians 3:19?
      Charlie

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  5. I choose the third option, since written sources can be found for many of the narratives and rules of the Torah. I would note, however, that eponymy, toledoth and chronologies are building blocks of Genesis. The Hellenistic world was big on creating “traditions” of the past, even, “In the beginning” in order to present a “history” of a “great nation.” (The "angels" for over half the Decalogue appear to have been Egyptians - The Negative Confessions!)
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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  6. Per God giving the Decalogue, angels the rest of the law: In the Book of Jubilees (my copy is an old translation, by Charles) 1.1 God gives Moses the "two tablets of stone of the law and of the commandment." 1.27 goes like this: "And He said to the angel of the presence: 'Write for Moses from the beginning of creation till My sanctuary has been built among them for all eternity.'" That might be where such a tradition was formed. The number of copies of it in the DSS attests to its interest by some.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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  7. Paul apparently used the angel tradition in Galatians to support his theological position that "the faith of Christ" was superior to the Law in fulfilling the requirement of God.s righteousness. Christ came from God, the law came from angels. Abraham's faith, approved by God, preceded the angels' law given to Moses.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

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  8. I both agree and disagree with Hedrick. I agree that tradition is a key concept, but differ on how I think about it. I think we get on the wrong track when we emphasize the concept of contradiction. Second Temple Jews were capable of reinterpreting their traditions in ways that strike us as contradictions but which they probably regarded as clarifications. Thus the period gives us both a Greek translation that often resolves logical inconsistencies and modifies ideas that have become problematic, and the phenomenon of “rewritten Bible” such as Jubilees. Why did these Jews not see that they were “contradicting” earlier traditions, indeed in some cases the Torah itself?! Here’s my take on the kind of thinking and “traditioning” going on here. The tradition in Exodus forthrightly depicts Moses and some elders “seeing” the Lord. However, the same book is littered with warnings about getting too close to the Lord. The Lord even shrouds himself in a cloud, presumably to protect the people from seeing him directly and dying. This sort of “fear” and respect for the Lord appears to have grown in the 2nd Temple period. In the minds of these people who know what living tradition really means, it’s a small step to presume that the original Exodus story needs some clarification--not contradiction. For example, given clear warnings of the danger of seeing the Lord, they presume that when the text says Moses and elders saw the Lord, it really means that “they saw the place where the God of Israel stood” (24:10 LXX). Indeed, working within the Hebrew Exodus alone, one could question what this seeing consisted of since 33:20 says one cannot see his face and live. I suspect that this same “filling in the gaps” or clarifying mentality is at work with the giving of the Law. The original Hebrew version doesn’t say anything about the angels/messengers, but given the holy and exalted nature of the Lord, “we know” that mediators would be necessary to deliver the Law to Moses. It “goes without saying” for these Jews, and so it is not a contradiction to make this explicit as the tradition develops.

    I think I could do a better job with my foregoing explanation, but it’s the best I can do right now—I should be grading papers. However, I will add that I think a similar phenomenon is to be observed with the Gospels. Mark probably means to say that Jesus became the Son of God at this baptism. However, Matt and Luke both retain the idea that something really happened at the baptism while adding or “clarifying” that something had happened at his conception that already made him the Son of God. And even John retains the idea that something really happened to Jesus at this baptism (“the Holy Spirit descended on him and remained”) while adding that he already was in some mysterious way divine (unless, of course, John thinks the incarnation took place at the baptism). Be that as it may, my point is that I think that in every case these writers saw themselves as enhancing and clarifying the previous tradition about the baptism, not contradicting it. Now, of course, “we know” that they are presenting different and possibly “contradictory” Christologies, but I think it’s important to contemplate the possibility that they had no such intention and possibly would find our observations incomprehensible, and precisely because they understand tradition and contradiction differently than we.

    A final thought about Paul. In the other examples you give with the angels, there role is usually understood to enhance the status of the Law—the whole heavenly host is involved in this glorious event. There is a debate—one that I won’t try to solve here—that Paul is using the tradition to demote the Law a bit by having it “ordained,” “instituted,” or “established” by God’s underlings and then further mediated by Moses. Fascinating.

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  9. Charlie,

    It strikes me that the subject matter of Moses receiving the law can be the content of a powerful sermon wherein the development of traditions could be simply stated and understood by the average pew sitter. I think that the usual conservative/liberal conflict could be largely avoided because the elements of the story are so neatly laid out in the various stages of the canonical and non-canonical literature. One could fairly easily point out, for example, that Paul drew upon sources, beyond the bible and personal experience, for his presentation of truth.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  10. Charlie,

    I agree with you that tracing a tradition or a memory is tricky business. Both can be fabricated given sufficient reason. However, I tend to think that what we are dealing with in this case is simply midrashic interpretation based on (1) an increased interest in intercessory angels starting in the Hellenistic period (see especially the angels so common on Daniel 7-12); and (2) an effort by the LXX, NT, and rabbinic interpreters to distance Moses from having direct communication with the deity. One further source on these passages is Albert Vanhoye, “M├ędiateur des anges en Ga 3:19-20,” Biblica 59/3 (1978), 403-411.

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