One of the ‘proofs’ that has gained much currency in the Orthodox world for the historicity of the Torah and its reliability as a document produced by a single author at the time the events it describes were unfolding goes something like this:
The Torah describes that 600,000 men (and their families, so maybe 2-3 million people) took part in the Exodus and received the Torah at Sinai. If the Torah was in fact written later, how could such a claim be made? Wouldn’t people reject the claim because they had never heard this from their ancestors? The Torah would nver have been accepted! It must be that the only way such a claim could exist in the Torah was if it were true. Judaism is unique in that no other religion claims this type of mass revelation.
There are a few underlying assumptions to this argument. First, there is the assumption of literacy and familiarity with the text of the Torah on the part of laypeople. It’s as though the above argument assumes some kind of vetting process, something like a referendum, on the text of the Torah. The second assumption is that people, even if they did know the text, would take these numbers literally. Aside from our own biases, there’s no reason to believe that this would be the case. The third assumption is that all mythic origins stories need to have some basis in truth to become acceptable. This too is a weak claim – did Romans reject descent from Romulus as their origin story because men are not raised by wolves? Myth is myth. Some of it has roots in actual events, some of it does not.
Fundamentally, however, it’s the fourth assumption that really tears down the whole argument. And that’s the assumption that if the Torah was not given all at once, from God at Sinai to Moses and Children of Israel, then it must be a fraudulent text foisted upon a people at some discrete moment in history. Of course, no credible historian or Biblical scholar suggests that this is the case.
The Israelites were themselves composed of many different groups, despite the Torah’s insistence that they were all descendants of one family. This is an indisputable point. How else could you explain, for example, the different accents of the tribe of Benjamin, who could not pronounce the word Shibboleth? Each of these different groups had different traditions.
We can see echoes of ancient traditions from particular groups in the text of the Torah. Consult Joshua 24. Joshua is speaking to the people of Israel and recounting their history. In his detailed retelling of history from the time of Abraham’s father through to the present day, he makes an astonishing omission. He leaves out the revelation at Sinai! Stunning! Moreover, at the end of the chapter (verse 26), Joshua sets up a witness-stone (Even Matzevah) under the oak that was in the Sanctuary of God in Shechem. Deuteronomy 16, of course, forbids precisely those practices. And besides, what Sanctuary of God was in Shechem? The Tabernacle? Perhaps… except the Tabernacle itself is mentioned only once in the entire book of Joshua.
The Israelites had different origins. Ancient traditions from groups based around Shechem, Beit-El, and Hebron within the land of Canann, and Egypt, Aram, Haran, and Ur from outside of the land Canaan all survive to some extent in the Torah. Not all of the Israelites were at Mount Sinai, but they did all embrace the tradition of revelation at Sinai. That evolving, coalescing sense of peoplehood is finally captured in the Torah and its story of mass revelation. Just as Americans today speak of their ancestors landing at Plymouth Rock, even though this is not strictly genealogically true, Israelites from different backgrounds all embraced this story.
The story of the writing and development of the Torah is not a hoax. It is the true story of how a disparate group of peoples became one by embracing a God, one history, and one homeland.