~ Why care about the Torah/Tawrah/Pentateuch? ~
What do five books have to do with 3.78 billion people in the world? Such is the scale of the relevance of the holy scripture, the Torah (תורה), as it is known in Judaism, also known as the Tawrah in Islam, and the Pentateuch in Christianity. The five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Known across all three religions as the Law of Moses, these five books present the revelations of God to Moses, the historical figure to whom the Torah is attributed to. Mount Sinai marks this divine impartation during the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
These five books span origin stories from Creation, the Genesis flood narrative, the Passover, the Exodus of the Israel and the formation of their community, to laws and even records of genealogy.
Genesis could be seen as the cosmic narrative of world order, humanity. The focus centers upon Abraham and his sons (Jacob and Israel), and the formation and expansion of their 12 tribes.
Exodus talks about how Moses help to guide the Israelites back to their promised land (Israel) as provided by God and the journey they took to travel from Egypt towards Israel. It is also the book where the Revelation at Sinai took place.
Leviticus is dependant on Exodus as the codification of guidelines for the people of God to be set apart in a fallen world corrupted by the presence of sin. Hence, God’s standards are set into tangible laws for lawbreakers (as all are fallen), and talks about the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean, as well as purification rituals to be reconciled to God.
As the Israelites’ time in the desert draws to a close, the book of Numbers emphasise on the geographic, the desert wandering location when Moses and the Israelites travel from Egypt to the Promise Land.
Deuteronomy focuses on the way how Israel should live in order to maintain its authority (socially and politically) and reminders of God’s covenant with Israel.
Weaved together in both Oral and the canonized Written form, the Torah (meaning “instruction”) has set the social, cultural and religious foundations for the formation of the Jewish community.
Similarly, as Christianity (both Protestant and Orthodox/Catholic traditions) sees itself as fulfilling the Messianic prophecies of Judaism, the Pentateuch (“five vessels”) set the theological foundations of the Bible, compiled about 725 years after the Jewish canon, the Tanakh, where the Torah is found in.
The Quran, compiled about 600 years after the Bible, includes the Tawrah (“the Law”) as a true message of God. Perceiving the Tanakh and Bible to be earlier versions of the message of God corrupted by man, Islam nonetheless upholds the prophethood of Moses just as Judaism and Christianity do.
Because of the theological significance of these five books, a well-read cosmopolitan thinker could thrive on how the depth and nuances of these five books go beyond a single narrative to shape Judaism, Christianity and Islam - dynamic global communities across times and civilizations.
~ Judaism and the Torah ~
Meaning “instruction”, the Torah is known as law of command that is passed from God to Moses in the form of the five holy books. These form the first section of the Tanakh, Judaism’s holy book, for the Jews. The aim of these books, in Judaism, is to guide people to carry out the right actions.
The Abrahamic narrative of the covenant between God and man, as we have covered in Experiments in Monotheism, could be summarized, once again, through this verse:
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7).”
For Jews, the Torah thus taught people about laws needed to uphold the covenant. The Torah’s stories, recited on the Sabbath morning service, revolve around Creation, the Fall of Man, the Covenant, Israel’s Exodus and eventual prophesied return to the Promise Land. The Torah hence also reveals the right ways to govern as guided by God to Moses for the establishment of an ideal society with the right worship.
The Torah is considered so holy that people are to avoid any contact with the parchment of the Torah scrolls, made from animal skins, so as to prevent damage via fingers (acidic sweat). Thus, a pointer, Yad, is used to mark the specific portion of the text when being read. In Hebrew, Yad refers to the hand, and so this corresponds to the shape of the hand on the pointer, with the index finger pointing upwards. Do you also notice how the Yad is supposed to ‘point’ the reader to the ‘truth’?
On a more holy note, the scrolls of Torah are kept in the ‘Ark of Covenant’ (holy cabinet) and it is sometimes called the ‘Chumash’ in Hebrew. For the Jews, there is a presence of the ‘Oral Torah’, known as ‘The Talmud’, for the explaining and the teaching of the interpretation of the written version of the Torah and their applications to Laws. This oral form of Torah was later written into words called the Mishnah.
~ Christianity and the Pentateuch ~
The significant role played by the Torah in Christianity is similar to that played by the Judaism as one can trace the origins of Christianity from Judaism. In fact, these two religions have many overlaps. For instances, the Torah is a form of instructions/laws for the people and Yahweh is the God of these two religion. The key difference is that the God of Judaism is Yahweh and does not recognize the Christian concept of the Triune God which includes Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, in addition to God the Father.
Islam and the ‘Tawrah’
So, what is the significance of the Torah in terms of Islam? While God in the context of Islam is ‘Allah’ (in Judaism it is ‘Yahweh’), Muslims refer to the true Torah with the Arabic word Tawrah ( توراة). Islamic belief towards the Torah is similar to the Jewish belief on that it too refers to the five holy books given by God to Moses, however it is considered to be a holy scripture of the past as it is believed to have been corrupted (via misrepresentations) as mentioned previously. Muslims believe the Quran to be the final, perfect word of Allah.
Adding onto the point of scripture, although the Torah is written in Hebrew and Quranic text, plus supplementary religious scriptures, are written in Arabic the two languages share some similarities when it comes to their letters, words and pronunciations; but while the Torah talks only about instructions to its believing people, the Quran involves teachings through stories. Another difference to note would be that the Jewish belief is such that prophethood ends with Moses and the Torah; however, Islamic belief is such that Moses was a prophet and the revelation of the Tawrah was sent to him, but prophethood and revelation ends with the holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Quran.
Despite the major difference stated above, there are some similarities between some Jewish and Islamic beliefs when it comes to prophethood. For one thing Abraham, Ismail (Ishmael in Hebrew) and Isaac are all believed to be part of prophethood in Islam as well, but it is believed Abrahamic religion was a predecessor of Islam, that they were still carrying the message of Allah.
As with this example, similarities will be seen throughout some narratives, the difference is mainly seen when explaining the narratives in the context of Islam (i.e. it is believed to be the spread of Islamic teaching instead of Jewish teaching). But of course, in other examples you will witness a complete difference in narratives, and at times you may see the same names but a different narrative or the same narratives but different names.
~ How then shall we live? ~
The Torah, while an ancient text, still speaks across times, cultures and civilizations today to have a universal message for mankind, whether religious or secular.
Even as five books, the oneness of the Torah not only present the Law of Moses, but the foundations of three influential religions in the world til today. From origin stories of mankind to guidelines for lifestyles, it could be attributed to the Torah how the kosher tradition and the 2014 film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, came about.
Whether you may be an adherent of the three religions, like Google’s estimated 53% of the world population, or not, the Torah opens up one’s eyes to cultures and community narratives, and may only inspire more possibilities to answer, “why do we study history?”