When I was Orthodox, contradictions in the Torah used to perturb me. If God really dictated the Torah to Moses, couldn’t the text be a bit clearer? If the Creator could get all the formulas and stages in cellular biology right, couldn’t God show the same mastery and clarity with the written language?
One case of open contradiction occurs in our Parsha. In the famed Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the text says (Exodus 34: 5-6): “…benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet God does not completely clear sin, God visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.”
We see from here that Divine anger or punishment may continue from one generation to the next. In Deuteronomy (24:6) however, it seems that the opposite is so, “Parents shall not be put to death because of children, nor shall children be put to death because of parents; each person shall be put to death for his/her own transgression.”
Now the rabbis have spent a lot of time working this out (and all of the other contradictions), but I believe my question remains: why couldn’t Divine opinion have been expressed clearly without contradictions?
When I was working on my master’s degree in Jewish education, I was introduced to a theory about the origin of the Torah called “The Documentary Hypothesis.” It claims that the Torah is a compilation of different legends and texts from various segments of Hebrews living in Israel in the years 3000-2500 BCE.
There are contributions from the Ten Northern tribes called “E”, from Judah in the south called “J”, the Priestly caste from Shiloh called “P” and the later kings of Judah called “D.”
Biblical scholars resolve the above in-congruent verses by saying that the punitive Exodus text is from “E”, while the redeeming Deuteronomy text is from “D.” “D” is a later author, and perhaps by then the understanding of Divine Justice had evolved.
Contradictions such as these that portray God as strict or forgiving used to trouble me the most. As a rabbi, I always want to point out the love and compassion from our Parent in Heaven. While there is plenty of support for this in the Torah, there’s also proof for a rather strict God as well. Twice God wants to annihilate the Jewish people but Moses requests mercy for them. Was Moses more merciful than God? In another story, one vexed Jew curses God and he’s sentenced to be stoned. Shouldn’t God be more magnanimous than that?
Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman in his seminal work, “Who Wrote the Torah?” resolves this particular question. He claims that the strict understandings of God derive mostly from the Priestly class. They believed that God could only be mollified by sacrifices. The J and E texts, on the other hand, believe in the compassion and mercy of God without the need for sacrifices.
Before, the texts used to confuse me; I now see them as two different perspectives on Godliness. The Priests (Kohanim) believed in a stricter God, one more demanding of proper human behavior. The other texts perceived God as a compassionate Being, one more in accord with the real frailty of the human being.
Friedman concludes, “The final version of the united Torah now brings the two sides together in a new balance, conveying a picture of God who is torn between His justice and His mercy-which has been a central element of the conception of God in Judaism ever since.”
While the contradictions still exist, we embrace both perspectives. Judaism believes in a compassionate, loving God, but also One Who demands moral and ethical behavior from us. Without both portrayals of God in the Torah, we’d miss these imperative messages.
 Friedman, Richard Elliot. The Bible with Sources revealed, page 177. Harper One