February 22, 2020

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 1: How do we make sense of the Torah’s many contradictions?

Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

The following exchange will focus on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press).


Dear Dr. Berman,

Your new book challenges a basic assumption that Bible scholars have accepted since the beginning of the field as an academic discipline. Rather than treat inconsistencies in the Torah’s narrative and laws as a sign that we are dealing with compiled texts written by multiple authors and editors, you try to show that they are in line with ancient writing practices of their times and place.

My introductory question: what was the motivation behind this project, and how does it change our attitude to the book of books?




Dear Shmuel,

For all of its centrality in our tradition, the Torah is a very puzzling book: it retells stories in ways that contradict earlier tellings, and it issues the same laws often several times over, here, too, sometimes with conflicting details. How can we make sense of this?

For more than two centuries, modern scholars have held to a single explanation: the inconsistencies reflect the conflicting views of multiple authors. But when you scratch beneath the surface, you see that that approach has problems of its own. Consider the laws in the Torah that seem to contradict each other. Scholars generally claim that this is because the Torah contains several mutually exclusive law codes, written at different times by different communities, and that these communities were actually in competition with one another about the correct way to observe God’s law.

But then how did all of these conflicting laws arrive in a single text? The standard explanation is that the editor did so out of duress. With the pressures of the destruction and exile, there was a need for Israel’s disparate sub-communities and traditions to unite together around a compromise document, and that document is the Torah.

But this thesis is unsatisfying for several reasons. First, and foremost, it is difficult to see how the Torah in its present form could satisfactorily be termed a “compromise document.” A document reflecting compromise between competing agendas is one where each side gives ground on its original positions and a middle ground is found. Alternatively, one side will get its way on a given issue and the other side its way on another. Where draftsmen truly find no common ground, they may employ creative ambiguity, or skirt the issue altogether. The sine qua non of a compromise document, however, is that it will iron out conflict and contradiction so that the community can proceed following one, authoritative voice. If there really are conflicting traditions here, the Torah is not a document of compromise, but of anarchy.

Moreover, were these so-called legal schools truly inimical to each other, we would expect the warfare over the law to spread to many other books of the Bible. Indeed, scholarship routinely maintains that the various schools which composed these supposedly competing legal texts were largely responsible for the editing of many of the books of the Hebrew Bible. The other books of Scripture touch upon literally dozens of areas of law. Yet, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find a prophet, priest, king, or narrator who argues in explicit fashion for the legitimacy of one version of a law over another. Nowhere in the Tanakh do we find a book or a prophet that can be classified as purely following the laws of Deuteronomy, or the laws found in Exodus. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible resonate with passages from all so-called sources of law. Often, biblical writers will weave together purportedly “competing” law sources. Put succinctly, while scholars have classically seen the different law collections as mutually exclusive, all sections of the Hebrew Bible, from the Torah and on into the other books, seems to put them together. In the Torah we find these laws all united under one cover as the Torah, and in the other books we see references to these law codes woven and cited with no sense that affinity to one comes at the expense of the standing of the other.

This puzzle is what drove me to write my new book. All of this leads me to conclude that we’re missing some big piece of the puzzle; that scholars—and we as well—are stuck in the fishbowl of our own cultural assumptions about how law works, about how legal texts should be written and read.  But, it turns out, the ancients thought about law very differently, and they composed their legal texts very differently than we compose ours today. And so, my book is an attempt to jump out of the fishbowl of our own assumptions and recapture how the ancients thought and wrote in a way that makes better sense of the material than is found in modern scholarship today. And I try to do the same thing with regard to conflicting versions of the same story that we find in the Torah.  I seek—and find—examples of this kind of writing in the ancient Near East, and determine why an author would write in this fashion.