JEDP’s Death Throes: Part IV Duplications (Of Wives and Kings)

OT And History

Cassuto and JEDP’s Death Throes: Part IV Duplications, Contradictions and Repetitions

Last week we looked at the creation account in Genesis to see if whether there are really two separate creation accounts merged together or whether Genesis 1 & 2 form a literary unit.  Today, we are going to overview why repetitions might exist in the first place.  More specifically, we will look at Umberto Cassuto’s explanation for why the Torah records Abraham lying to a king about his wife being his sister and Isaac following suit about Rebekah.  I will reference material from Cassuto in parentheses.

Here is the first instance:

Genesis 12:10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

Again, a similar instance:

Genesis 20:1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

Interestingly, Isaac also does the same thing at Gerar.

Genesis 26:6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’ ”

Passages taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).

JEDP theorists, already assuming the conclusion, take these last two instances as possibly being an accidental duplication.  Or, the editor didn’t know whether the patriarchal figure was Abraham or Isaac and just left both stories.  Both are patriarchal figures who lie to a man named Abimelech in the city of Gerar.  Could this really have happened twice or is there a better explanation?

Generally, the explanation is sought within the framework of the Documentary Hypothesis.  Perhaps this tradition which was kept orally became corrupted.  Maybe Abraham was the one who was to have lied to Abimelech and sometime later it was accidentally changed to Isaac–or vice versa.  Maybe one geographical location always believed it was Isaac and then another location always retold the story as Abraham.  The final editor recording the stories in the Pentateuch probably couldn’t have known which was the original and simply left both stories in as a duplication.

Furthermore, the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have noted that Abraham’s actions with Pharaoh resemble, in structure, the account of the Children of Israel going to Egypt, plundering Pharaoh and leaving by the exodus.   Consider these similarities:

1. Famine in the land (78)
2. The term Sojourn (79)
3. Abram’s fear that he would die and Sarah (female) would live is echoed when Pharaoh orders the execution of all the male babies and the females are allow to live.
4. Abram/Israel (the people of) both left Egypt with very rich with silver, gold, and cattle.
5. Pharaoh tells Abram/Moses “take and be gone.”
6. Abram sets out towards Negeb. Moses sent spies ahead to Negeb. (80)
7. Abram builds an altar between Bethel and AI, the place where his descendants were destined to fight their first battle for the conquest.

Thomas Thompson, in his dissertation, argues that this is purely a common literary motif–a King plundered by an ancestral figure.2   This, for Thompson, I would assume explains the repetition and why both Isaac and Abraham would have been used in the myth.

But let’s say, for a minute, that this isn’t just a literary motif.  Let’s say that the events in these recorded narratives actually happened.  What would be the purpose of recording a patriarch lying to a king about his wife three separate times?  Let’s be real, the Documentary Hypothesis is a figment of the imagination.  There is absolutely no manuscript evidence of a single ‘source.’  It would take a nearly impossible find (a complete Torah dated to at least 800 B.C.) to disprove.  Each tenet has been devastated by a better explanation of the evidence that we have.  This makes it a poor theory indeed.  But I digress.  If Jesus is correct that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch, then what purpose would Moses have had in recording these three events.  After all, Moses couldn’t have recorded everything.  Moses was selective, and he selected this.  (Well, maybe the material Moses was working with was sparse)

Cassuto states that these parallels are certainly not coincidental. He states that these stories were selected to teach that “the acts of the fathers are a sign unto the children,” and that the “the conquest of the land had, as it were, already taken place symbolically in the time of the Patriarchs.” (81)

The repetition of Sarai in Egypt/Gerar and Rebekah in Gerar serve to solidify the promise contained.  “Everything done twice or three times is to be regarded as confirmed and established.” (82) See Josephs statement about Pharaoh’s dream occurring twice (with different metaphors), “And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” Gen. 41.32 (83)

We ought to understand that although Abraham and Isaac would have lived many, many years before Moses was born, Moses was writing for the generation he was with.  For this reason, Moses would have emphasized  the Kings of Egypt and Canaan being plundered as a confirmation of the the promises made to those who left Egypt (plundering Pharaoh).  The children of Israel are travelling the path of their forefathers, and Yahweh has guaranteed their inheritance.  Furthermore, this would only make sense if Moses were writing the account for that generation.  The story of how a Hebrew bests foreign kings by the promise and protection of Yahweh would be nearly irrelevant for a post-exilic group of Israelites.

In the end, I agree with Cassuto’s conclusion:  These are intentional recapitulations, and not things that happened on accident or by chance because of a later redactor.  (83)

One may say, “We do not need to assert the historicity of these events in order for us to claim that they are repetitions given in order to strengthen the Israelite’s hopes of a successful conquest.”  This seems counter-intuitive to me.  How exactly would a fictional story about a fictional ancestor strengthen anyone to risk their life in battle?  If Yahweh never actually gave his patriarchal, covenantal follower salvation from the hand of a foreign king and richly rewarded them, then how is that going to give a new generation certainty that they will receive the land and the promises despite the fierce battles they would have with the Canaanites.

Imagine you are part of an army preparing to storm a beach that, if taken, will be a turning point in the war.  The beach is heavily defended.  Would the knowledge of D-day strengthen you?  Would you take comfort in remembering that this had been done before and that it could be done again?  Would it have the same effect on you if that had never happened, but was part of a comic book you had read?  Would knowing that there is a real, historical precedent for victory help?  I think so, and with those who believe otherwise we may just have to disagree.  They can speak all they want about how they are fictional stories that still carry true meaning,  but I think it makes total nonsense out of the situation.


1. Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961)
2.  See chapters 9, 11, and 12 in Thompson, Thomas. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1974.)

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