The Genre Behind the Bible's Text

For generations, Talmudic and academic scholars have debated the question: What was the nature of the "Torah" bestowed upon the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai?

Although the Exodus defined the Jewish people as a nation, the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai is the event that most profoundly molded that nation's image. For generations, Talmudic and academic scholars as well as exegetists have been debating the question: What was the nature of the "Torah" bestowed upon the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? In other words, did it consist solely of the Ten Commandments? Maybe all the legalistic passages of the Torah as we know it? Did it also include the narrative sections? Apparently a reliable historical answer to this question will never be found. Nonetheless, the textual phenomenon that leads to this question is still troubling.

A book that contains both a narrative as well as a description of how that narrative is transmitted creates a dual effect of old and new: Since a book cannot explain how its own text is conveyed to or received by readers while it is being written, the assumption must be that the book was created in sections, with a later one describing how previous sections have been passed on and received. This reveals the "seams" between the various parts of book, and turns it into a multidimensional entity. It is not about breaking down the biblical text as in the well-known "documentary hypothesis" - a subjective form of literary criticism of the Bible. Rather, it is about the different genres that comprise the Bible's text.

Moses - 2.2012
Moses and the Tablets of the Law by Laurent de La Hyre, circa 1650

From the mythological standpoint, the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai is the most unique and most dramatic event in the Torah, essentially calibrating the laws of Creation: The first verse recounts the separation of heaven and earth, but the passage concerning the granting of the Torah at Sinai depicts the place where they meet. In this respect, the granting of the Torah defines the "horizon" of the first verse in the Book of Genesis - the horizon to which all eyes are glued from the very moment the world is created.

The granting of the Torah at Sinai is a dramatic event with far-reaching mythological ramifications, and is accompanied by a process, involving some impressive pyrotechnics, in which the nation prepares itself for the event. But what is the purpose of this unique and dramatic happening? If we filter out the mythological aura, special effects and historical significance, we are left with the burning core of this event. At this core, there are no loud voices, no bolts of lightning, no powerful mystical experience. There is only a list of laws, conveyed from heaven to earth, and detailing the law as can be seen in this week's portion.

It is customary nowadays to regard Jewish law and religious experience as two diametrically opposed parts of life: While the law restricts and thus "diminishes" the individual, the experience sets him in action. However, the granting of the Torah at Sinai presents a different picture, in which the law "bursts" forth from the nation's experience of witnessing the manifestation of God - and this unique experience is the vehicle the Torah uses to transmit the law.

The law also dramatically changes the nature of the biblical text itself. Up until now, the Torah presented a narrative that was not always uniform and had certain lacunae and pitfalls; nonetheless, generally speaking, it described linear events. Indeed, the narrative continues from the beginning of the Book of Genesis until the middle of the Book of Exodus, where - at the so-called seam separating last week's reading from this week's - it is interrupted by a text of a totally different genre. This new text does not describe or accompany the events, nor is it dependent on them in any way. The law is ahistorical and non-narrative.

If we were to place the events depicted in the Torah on a grid, where the time axis is horizontal and the axis between heaven and earth is vertical, Parashat Mishpatim would be depicted as the vertical, non-narrative text penetrating the horizontal axis of the Torah's plot.

Although both are addressed to the readers, the story and the law address them differently. The narrative, which unfolds far from its readers, invites them to join it and experience events as they unfold. If the text succeeds in its mission, the readers will identify with it; if not, it will remain foreign to them. It does not obligate them to perform any kind of action per se.

This week's reading opens with a verse that marks a change in the biblical text's direction: "Now these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them" (Exodus 21:1). The law, described here in detail, is not a narrative text organized chronologically that stretches away from readers; instead, it is more immediate, "set before them." Transformed into an arrow aimed at them, the text is written in the second person and demands obedience. Unlike the narrative, the law does not offer readers the "default" of feeling distance because it is not intended to arouse identification or emotion. The text pertaining to the law is "set" before the readers, demanding they respond; it makes them take action. Whereas obedience is the expected response to the law, disobedience constitutes rebellion.

Thus, faced with the demands of the law, readers cannot remain indifferent or distant. Not only must they adjust themselves to it, but the very nature of the questions they ask while reading - and whose answers are supplied by the text - also changes. For instance, Genesis makes the reader ask historical questions: "How did everything begin? Who are my ancestors? What phases did I undergo before reaching where I am today?" By contrast, the legalistic text prompts questions about ethics: "How should I act in this or that situation? How do I distinguish right from wrong?" In both cases, the questions concern the issue of identity: "Who am I? What must I do?" The merging of these texts creates the drama of crossing limits in Parashat Mishpatim.

The legal text's interjection into the horizontal, narrative text dismantles the narrative structure, turning the Torah into something that forces its readers to change their mode of reading.

The Torah is therefore not just another historical narrative, nor is it a dry legal document; it becomes a hybrid that is part narrative, part law. It is a complex text that challenges how readers usually handle texts, compelling them to make certain adjustments in order to create a new meeting place between man and God - a meeting place that constantly renews itself at every moment of the reading process.