Did the Generations of Post-Moses Israelites Know about the Torah?


Scholars reject the traditional teaching and suggest that the ancient Israelites knew nothing about the Torah until the time of King Josiah (649–609 BCE).[1] Among much else, it is significant that none of the biblical books before this time mention Moses’s Torah; none of the Israelite leaders and prophets, who frequently criticize their nation for its faults, ever criticize them for violating Torah laws; some post-Moses practices are significantly different than those mentioned in Moses’s Torah such as the levirate marriage of Ruth; and there is no indication in the Bible that the Israelites observed important holy days mentioned in the Torah such as the Sabbath and the Festival of Matzot that commemorated the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Joshua and the Israelites totally ignored the clear mandate in Numbers 33:50–56 that the Israelites must expel all Canaanites from Canaan lest they be a thorn upon them and entice them to worship idols. The Israelites not only failed to obey this Torah divine command, there is no indication that they even considered it; it is as if they knew nothing about this Torah command. Instead, they allowed the Canaanites to remain in the country and took tribute from them, until the Canaanites grew strong, became a thorn upon them, and enticed many to worship idols.[2] The following are four examples.


The prophet Micah

The eighth century BCE prophet Micah is an example of a prophet who apparently knew nothing about the Torah. The book of Micah contains seven chapters in which the prophet constantly criticizes both the southern nation of Judah and the northern nation of Israel for improper behavior and promises that they will be destroyed as a consequence of their acts. But despite the catalogue of wrongs, Micah never mentions that they violated the Torah of Moses or failed to observe the holidays, such as the Sabbath and the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Succoth, mentioned in it.

Micah lived at the same time as Amos, Hosea, Jonah, and first Isaiah, around the time of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. He berates the people for basic immorality: “they covet fields, and seize them; and houses and take them away; they oppress a man and his household in this way, a man and his heritage” (2:2). “You cast out the women of my people from their pleasant houses; you take away my glory forever from their young children” (2:9). Micah castigates his people for lying, robbery, murder, bribery, priest and prophets charging for their teachings, merchants using deceitful weights, violence, disrespect of parents and in-laws. In 4:2, he mentions that non-Israelites will ascend the mountain of the Lord and God will teach them the divine ways and laws, but he does not mention the Torah of Moses. In 4:6, he states that the Israelites “will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever,” but does not say that they will observe the Torah of Moses.

In 6:4, Micah states that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, as if he did not know that the Torah states he sent only Moses.[3] In 6:6-8, he responds to the people who desire to offer God a thousand rams and ten thousand rivers of oil, and their first-born sons to atone for their transgressions. As in Hosea in 6:6, he tells his people that God does not want sacrifices but moral behavior, and does not mention the Torah. “It has been told to you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”


Cities of refuge

Despite Moses’s Torah stating that cities of refuge must be established, there is no evidence that such cities were ever created, either in any of the biblical books or other literature. True, they are mentioned in Joshua 20, but since there is no indication they were ever made and in view of other evidence, scholars feel that this chapter was composed centuries after the time of Joshua and it reflects an ideal situation that was never realized.[4]

Cities of refuge are mentioned in Exodus 21:12–14, Numbers 35:9–34, and Deuteronomy 4:41–43; 19:1–13. Numbers and Deuteronomy give details about the cities. In early times, Israelite and non-Israelite communities allowed people who killed other people sanctuary if they took hold of the temple altar. Exodus 21:14 later restricted this practice to only unintentional killings.[5] The Torah established the concept of refuge cities to save the lives of people who negligently but unintentionally killed others; there they would be safe from the revenge of the deceased’s relatives, called “blood avengers.”[6] As long as the manslayer resided in the city, he was safe, but if he left the city, the “blood avenger” could kill him.[7] There were three Levite families and each was assigned two of the six refuge cities.[8]

There are two significant problems relating to cities of refuge. (1) There are differences between these two Torah sources, such as Deuteronomy stating that Moses said that the Israelites should choose the cities of refuge while Numbers has Moses name them, and Numbers states that there should be three such cities in Canaan while Deuteronomy 19 states six.

(2) More significantly, both of these two Torah sources differ with the book of Joshua, as if Joshua did not know about the Torah details.[9]


The Urim and Tummim

The Urim and Tummim is another example suggesting that post-Moses Israelites knew nothing about the Torah until the age of King Josiah. Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, and Deuteronomy 33:8 speak about an Urim and Tummim that the high priest wore to communicate with God in order to secure divine guidance. While Moses was able to speak to God directly, God advises Moses to have Eleazar the priest use the Urim to communicate with God whenever Joshua and the Israelites “go out.” Yet, there is no indication that either Joshua or Eleazar or any other post-Moses person used the Urim in the book of Joshua or any other

biblical book.[10] It is possible that they did not take advantage of its power because it did not exist. The Urim is mentioned in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 as a hope for the future, but it was not used at the time and these books were composed after the first temple period,[11] when scholars agree the Torah existed. The sole time it is mentioned earlier is in I Samuel 28:6 where it states that God did not answer King Saul by any means, not by dreams, the Urim, or prophets. This may be a late interpolation.


Allowing or Commanding the Institution of a Monarchy

Another seeming proof is Deuteronomy 17:14–20. It states that when Israelites settle in Canaan and desire to appoint a king, they may do so,[12] but the king is restricted in certain ways. Yet I Samuel 8 and 12 describe Israelites requesting the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, and he scolds them and says he is opposed to a monarchy. Why didn’t the people respond by reminding him of Deuteronomy 17 or at least discuss whether the people are correct in petitioning for a king? Is it possible that neither they nor he knew anything about Deuteronomy 17?


Were the Israelites Enslaved in Egypt?

Arnold Ehrlich was convinced that the early post-Moses Israelites knew nothing about Moses’s Torah. He even questioned the history of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt.[13] He felt that he could support his view with: (1) None of the prophets, except Micah 6:5, mention the enslavement. (2) Micah 6:5 has a different version than the Five Books of Moses. It states that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to redeem the Israelites. The Five Books state that only Moses was sent, Aaron was only an assistant to Moses, and Miriam had no role in the redemption other than gathering the women to sing praises that the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. (3) Scholars say that the song in Deuteronomy 32 is a very old composition. In this version, in 32:40, God found the Israelites in the desert. Thus, Ehrlich feels that the original Israelites were desert nomads who conquered parts of Canaan, settled it, forgot their origin after some generations, and invented a legend that they were saved by God from slavery and brought to Canaan.



[1] See II Kings 22–23 and II Chronicles 34–35 for the history of the finding of part of the Torah.

[2] Joshua 22:5 reports Joshua warning the Trans-Jordanian tribes to “heed the commandments and the Torah that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cling to him, and to serve him with all your heart and entire being.” This could be seen as a refutation of the idea that the Israelites knew nothing about the Torah: it mentions Moses’s Torah and the words are similar to those in Deuteronomy 6. However, while the term Torah refers today to the Pentateuch or entire Bible or Jewish teachings, it simply means “teachings” when used in the Bible. Also the wording, while similar, is not exact and may not be a quote. As well, scholars claim that the book of Deuteronomy was discovered and used during the reign of King Josiah when the book of Joshua was composed, so this language could have been inserted at that time.

[3] The Targum invents a role for each. Moses to teach religion and law, Aaron to teach how to repent, and Miriam to give instruction to women.

[4] See Olam Hatanakh’s treatment of Joshua 20. Olam Hatanakh, Misrad Hachinuch Vehatarbut, Sifrei Chamad, Yehoshua, notes that some of the cities assigned as cities of refuge and as Levite towns were not conquered by Israel until the time of King David, suggesting a late composition of the book Joshua.

[5] This is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 12a, and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Rotzei’ach 5:12. See I Kings 1:50 and 2:28–30 for instances in which manslayers sought refuge at an altar. The Roman Catholic Church retains the concept of sanctuary at a church, but not a field altar. The concept that an altar is not so holy that it saves murderers fits in with Maimonides’s concept that nothing has a holy essence; holiness depends on human behavior (Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism [Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011]).

[6] Discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 10a, and Tosephta Makkot 3. The rabbis added many details to this concept (see Makkot 13a and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Rotzei’ach 8), including designating the forty-two cities assigned to the Levites (Joshua 21 and I Chronicles 6) as additional cities of refuge, making a total of forty-eight.

[7] Numbers 35:27.

[8] Although, as previously stated, Deuteronomy 19 seems to indicate that there are nine cities of refuge.

[9] There is a detailed discussion of the many differences in Olam Hatanakh. For instance, among others: (1) The Torah does not require the manslayer to defend himself before the elders of the city of refuge before he is allowed entry, but Joshua 20:4 does so. (2) 20:6 seems to have conflicting times when the manslayer can leave the city: “until he stands before the community” and “the death of the high priest.”

[10] The Urim and Tummim were placed in the folds of the choshen, a garment worn by the high priest. It contained the name of God and was used by the high priest to consult with God on matters requiring divine guidance (Numbers 27:21). Scripture does not reveal exactly what it looked like, or of what materials it was made of, or exactly how it was used. There is a tradition that the letters on it (in Jacob’s sons’ names) would light up and the high priest, by means of divine inspiration, would interpret their message. The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73a–b, states that they are called Urim and Tummim because they bring light (Hebrew: or) and are perfect (Hebrew: tam). Although the Urim is mentioned six times in the Torah (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, I Samuel 28:6, Ezra 2:63, and Nehemiah 7:65), we have no evidence that it was ever used. Arguably, this does not prove that the authors of post-Pentateuch books knew nothing about the Urim or that the Israelites never used it because this is “an argument from silence.”

[11] The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. Ezra and Nehemiah’s date is unknown, but probably around the fifth century BCE.

[12] Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 1:1) understood that the Torah obligated the Israelites to appoint a king when they entered Canaan.

[13] In his commentary Mikra kiPeshuto.on Numbers 13–15.