JEDP’s Death Throes: Part I

OT and History

Cassuto and JEDP’s Death Throes:  Part I, The Divine Names

Having previously introduced and described the current moderate-to-liberal presuppositions, beliefs, theories, and views of the the Old Testament scripture (especially the Pentateuch).  I will now post a series of articles that critique their views and also seek to establish my (conservative) position.  Today, I will introduce the man that I believe is responsible for showing that the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP) is completely bankrupt.  I will also share how he proved this in a five post series (starting today).

In 1961, Umberto Cassuto’s 8-part lecture over the Documentary Hypothesis was published in English by Magness Press in Jerusalem.  Cassuto,  born in Florence, was a Rabbi, and eventually moved to and lectured at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  It is my opinion that Cassuto’s work definitively puts to death the Documentary Hypothesis.  Cassuto’s 8-part lecture is actually a shorter representation of his fuller argument found in La Questione della Genesi.

In an earlier post describing the Documentary Hypothesis, I referred to Cassuto’s five-pillar categorization of the hyptohesis.  They are:

(1) Different terms used for the Divine Name (Either Elohim/El/El shaddai, etc or Yahweh)
(2) variations of language and style (e.g. terms used for covenant making Haqim berit/Karat berit)
(3) Contradictions & Divergent viewpoints
(4) duplications and repetitions (think of Abraham lying to a king about Sarah being his wife (twice), and Isaac doing the same to rebekah)
(5) signs of composite structure (signs of merging two different types of documents)

Cassuto shows that none of these stand.  As I give Cassuto’s evidence, I will cite the page number of his book where the argument may be found in parentheses.

Pillar I:  Preference for One of the Different Terms for the Deity in the Pentateuch Shows Different Authors or Different Source Traditions which have been Merged

Preliminary Considerations

The JEDP theory rests on the belief that Yahweh and Elohim were two names that could simply replace each other in any particular narrative.  So, for example, It could have just as easily been, in Gen. 15:7, “I am Elohim who brought you out from Ur…”  But this text happens to be from a source that used the term Yahweh when referring to the deity.  So when we evaluate the theory, we need to look at every occurrence of the term Elohim, and its variants, and Yahweh.

However,  when reading through the Old Testament (if you want to have an eye for how the names are used), you will see phrases such as “Man of God” referring to the deity.  These are phrases, and are neither here nor there in regards to the theory itself.  There are three types of occurrences of the Divine Names that the theorists and we who oppose them are concerned with.

1.   The occurrence of Elohim (or its variants, El Shadday, et. al) where it might have been possible to substitute Yahweh

2.  The occurrences of Yahweh where it might have been possible to substitute Elohim (or its variants, El Shadday, et. al)

3.  The times they occur together. E.g YAHWEH Elohim (LORD God, in English)

Cassuto looks at all occurrences of the Divine names in three categories:  Law, Prophets, and Narratives.  He concludes that the uses of the names Elohim (and variants of El) and Yahweh conform to rules of Hebrew composition.  Elohim is a general name for deity, pagan and Israelite alike, and Yahweh is the personal name for Israel’s God.1  This is analogous to “city” and “Jerusalem.”  If I were to live in the suburbs of Jerusalem, I could refer to Jerusalem as either “city” (I’m going to the city) or as Jerusalem.  People around me in the suburbs would know that I mean ‘Jerusalem’ by city because it would be the only city near me.  However, if I were in Egypt, I would, of necessity, have to use Jerusalem because ‘city’ would naturally refer to the nearest and biggest city in Egypt.

Here is Cassuto’s conclusion: “We may assume that in each case the Torah chose one of the two Names according to the context and intention, precisely as follows” (31)

  1. It selected YHWH when the Israelite conception of God is reflected. (esp. ethic)
  2. It preferred Elohim when the passage implies abstract Deity prevalent in international circles
  3. Again, YHWH when characterized by simple faith and prophetic spirit
  4. Elohim when thinkers meditate on the lofty problems connected with the existence of the world and humanity (Wisdom lit. for example)
  5. Again, YHWH when the Divine is depicted in lucid, palpable terms
  6. Elohim in more superficial, hazy, obscure terms
  7. Again, YHWH when the writer wants to arouse sublimity of Divine Presence
  8. Elohim when it mentions God in an ordinary manner.
  9. Again, YHWH when in relation to Israel’s ancestors
  10. Elohim when spoken of in relation to someone not of His people (31)
  11. Again, YHWH when concerning Israel’s tradition
  12. Elohim when universal tradition (32)

LORD God is used, Cassuto notes, when Elohim needs to be specified as Yahweh.

Cassuto then shows how these points are true across all of Hebrew scripture, not just the Pentateuch.  When the author of the Pentateuch is speaking of the deity in general, then we find the term Elohim.  But when the deity is mentioned as the God of  Israel (or ancestors, Adam, Abraham, et. al), then Yahweh is preferred.


In Genesis 1, we have the sublime creation of the “heavens and the earth.”  But, starting in Gen. 2:4, we have covenantal relations and moral injunctions from God to Man, and therefore YHWH is used.  Interestingly enough, Gen. 2:4 is the first time LORD God is used, and it is exactly where we would expect it to be used.  Genesis 1 deals with the creation of the world, and, in use with the general term for deity, Elohim is used throughout.  But in Genesis 2, the covenantal relationship between God and man begins and Yahweh is the appropriate term.  Therefore, in order to let the reader know that there are not two gods (one Elohim and the other Yahweh), the author of Genesis puts both names together at the beginning of Genesis 2.  This lets the reader know that the Elohim who created the world is known personally as Yahweh.

Psalm 19 is another excellent example of this rule in action. (34)  Consider:

Psalm 19
1  The heavens declare the glory of God, (El)
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2  Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3  There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4  Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5  which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6  Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

7  The law of the LORD is perfect, (Yahweh)
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, (Yahweh)
making wise the simple;
8  the precepts of the LORD are right, (Yahweh)
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, (Yahweh)
enlightening the eyes;
9  the fear of the LORD is clean, (Yahweh)
enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true, (Yahweh)
and righteous altogether.
10  More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11  Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12  Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13  Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14  Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Yahweh)
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps 19.

Notice, now, how the different terms are used for God.  When speaking of the deity in general, as the sublime creator, El is used.  But as soon as the deity’s relationship with Israel is brought to the fore, Yahweh is used.  This Psalm, just like the Pentateuch, is not the result of an editor piecing together two documents that have different names for God.  Rather, this is the consistent work of one author using the names for the deity according to custom.

Gen 9:24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
26 He also said, “Blessed be the LORD (Yahweh), the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.
27  May God (Elohim) enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ge 9:24–27.

Shem is the ancestor of Abraham and the Israelites.  Therefore we would expect to see Yahweh.  Japheth and his descendents are not viewed as being in covenant, therefore the general term, Elohim, is used. (36)

When personal, covenantal, or religious actions are narrated by the author between men and God, Yahweh is used.  Cassuto notes that in Sifre Num § 143, The “Talmudic Sage” acknowledges that sacrifice (i.e. with Cain and Abel) are always made to YHWH.  Not to El/Sadday/Sebboth with one exception in Ex. 18:12 where a stranger offers without complete knowledge. (35)  The one exception even proves the rule.  The foreigner, not being among YHWH’s covenant people, is narrated as offering sacrifice to Elohim.  Jethro was a Midianite Priest.  This fact beautifully illustrates Cassuto’s argument.  When something is mentioned about the deity in general (i.e. a Midianite priest is sacrificing, or a philosophical treatise on the purpose of life–Ecclesiastes), Elohim is used.  Only when referring to Israel, Israel’s ancestors, and those who know God personally is Yahweh used.


Next week we will look at Pillar 2: Variations of Style and Language used in the Pentateuch.


1. Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961), 18.



Polygamy and the Bible

Polygamy and the Bible

“Traditional Marriage”

The recent controversies over sexuality has caused a sharp division between those who hold to traditional views on sexuality and those who are sexually liberated.  The sexual liberation has been becoming normalized for decades now.  Long before Modern Family and Glee introduced homosexual personas on their hit TV shows, premarital sex had been totally normalized.

Before that, once-married premarital sex had been normalized.  The divorce rate has been strikingly high, and those that were  divorced didn’t feel the need to marry once more before being sexually active again.  They had already tried the abstinence-until-marriage-thing and it didn’t work.  Studies even show, it has been said, that you need to make sure you are sexually compatible with your partner before making the relationship somewhat more permanent in marriage.

These are just observations, though, and most heated debate in sexuality right now is that of homosexuality (I will get to polygamy. Promise).  The language used is highly volatile (on both sides), and there is great tension.  The term “Traditional Marriage” is in complete shambles because the liberal left has understood it to be vacuous for quite some time.  “Traditional Marriage” has no historical referent.  Let’s elaborate on this.  At which point in history would one point to as the ideal traditional marriage?

I bet you have an answer, but in this diverse culture “Traditional Marriage” is understood differently based on when the tradition is located.  For many conservative Americans, the tradition is not set by Adam and Eve.  Rather, it is set somewhere in the 1950’s.  Both referents (Adam/Eve & 1950’s) define marriage as one male and one female–but the 1950’s comes with other cultural baggage that is not found in the Christian Bible.   Here is a serious problem of definition.  Serious, thoughtful, conservative evangelicals will root the tradition in Adam and Eve, but unless this is clearly spelled out every time the phrase is used then “Traditional Marriage” will not translate that way.  A liberal, liberal arts scholar will read “Traditional Marriage”  and characterize it as a wife wearing a bonnet hoping to have the kitchen cleaned and dinner on the table before the husband comes home–you know, so the husband doesn’t have to pull out the switch.  This is as opposed to what we should mean–Adam and Eve, male and female, working together under Yahweh to conquer the world.

Some Christians have caught on to the fact that the vague word “Traditional” does not translate correctly to the intended audience, and have sought to replace the term with “Biblical Marriage.”  Hear! Hear!   However, the response to this also shows a lack of clarity as to what Christians might mean by “Biblical Marriage.”  The quick-witted rebuttal is as follows:  “Biblical Marriage? Should I start pursuing multiple partners like Solomon?  I’m allowed to have a harem like David?  If my wife won’t do her job and reproduce,  can I use my maid as a surrogate?”

After all, these are biblical characters who committed these actions.  They are, only in the sense that they are in bible, partaking in biblical marriage.  This retort renders the conservative Christian pretty powerless.  The Christian believes the biblical marriage is a covenant union between male and female, but what is he to do with the Old Testament?

Old Testament and Polygamy

First, the sobering part.  The reason Christians don’t normally have an answer for these charges (the charge that biblical marriage is not defined as one man and one woman) is because biblical narratives are not read often.  Yes, yes.  No one reads the Bible as much as they should.  But I’m not talking about that.  I’m saying that Christians generally don’t read their bible often enough to be able to interpret narratives and narratival sequences.  Moreover, the Old Testament suffers more from this problem then the New Testament.  Unfortunately for most, Old Testament books must be read several times (due to both its length and content).  In order to see the trajectory of–let’s say, Genesis–correctly, the content of one section (say the Patriarch Abraham) must be remembered when we get to another section (Jacob’s life).  The content of both must be understood when the Israelites leave Egypt and must travel around Edom.  All of this seems obvious, but unless the text is read often the text won’t be understood.

Second, the majority of Americans (liberal and conservative) have a hard time understanding how narratives in literature work.  This isn’t because moderns are stupid.  As my friend Sean Richmond pointed out, we follow narratives very well on the television.  Literature, being an active work, is harder than passively watching TV.  Television is a powerful tool that can communicate a copious amount of story into our lives.  The side effects have been devastating when it comes to literature, however.  When we watch Breaking Bad,  we come into contact with a TV series that tells us through narrative that  (among other things) making and selling crystal meth has terrible consequences.  The writers of Breaking Bad did not need to put a disclaimer saying “Meth is bad!” on the packaging of the early seasons where Walt & Jesse make it out alive, Walt’s cancer goes into remission, and the hospital bills are paid.  The storyline as a whole tells us that dire consequences come as a result of Walt’s lifestyle.

 But we have trouble reading literature.  The most important, pertinent example of this is the fact that when an event is narrated in the bible (or elsewhere!), people start assuming the author signs off on what transpired.   But this is clearly not the case.  Romeo and Juliet’s deaths does not mean Shakespeare condones suicide.  Similarly, just because Jacob marries both Rachel and Leah, it does not follow the author (Moses, and in that final sense the Holy Spirit) signs off on it being a good thing.  What it means, first, is that the event recorded happened.  Whatever else it tells us (whether this is good or bad, for example) must be considered by the rest of the story.

The key is recognizing that the fact Jacob was a polygamist does not necessitate that God is Okay with it.  The bible’s view on polygamy is borne out by the story as a whole.  Inherent to this is the fact that Yahweh does not give a moral verdict concerning every single action recorded, and sometimes Yahweh permits things due to hardness of heart (like divorce) that He doesn’t think is ideal.  The bible can make arguments against things through narrative.  There doesn’t have to be a verse saying “Polygamy is bad, ya know?” Presumably, you can catch the drift if you pay attention.

First, Deut. 17 actually forbids Kings from  polygamous marriages.  To my knowledge, there is no such law for common folk, but that’s not too crucial.  Let’s take a look at the story of Genesis with a view to “Whether or not the bible represents Polygamy as good/beneficial to society or the family.”

First, God could have created mankind anyway He deemed fit.  This is an important point.  His charge to Adam and Eve was to have a lot of kids and subdue the earth.  It might have actually been helpful to Adam and Eve to have a third, fourth, or fifth person to help bring the dominion down on all of those animals, fish, fowl, etc.  However, God’s plan (at least at this point) was that one man and one woman would work together to start this project.

Second, the first polygamous marriage recorded takes place between Lamech and his two wives (Gen. 4).  It is not accidental that this is the descendant of Cain who also commits murder (the second murder recorded which aligns him with Cain) and then boasts about it.  Likewise, Esau–the rejected son–willingly seeks after multiple wives (Gen. 28:9), but Jacob was technically tricked into polygamy.  Jacob didn’t go looking to marry both Rachel and Leah, and he doesn’t marry another afterwards.  Only Esau goes forth searching for multiple wives.  Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah.  Jacob really wanted to marry Rachel to begin with, but now the only way to do so is to become a polygamist.

Third, every time a biblical character enters into a polygamous marriage the biblical author focuses on the dire effects and almost totally neglects to mention any good from it.  Even more, the relationships tend to threaten the overall purpose of Yahweh.  The son Hagar bore to Abraham, Ishmael, becomes a thorn in Israel’s side later on.  Consider this part of Psalm 83

1  O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
2  For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
3  They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.
4  They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”
5  For they conspire with one accord;
against you they make a covenant—
6  the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
Moab and the Hagrites,

The action of bringing Hagar into the relationship caused considerable family strife.  So much so that Sarah finally has Abraham banish Hagar into the middle of a desert (Gen 21:10).

The marital strife is painfully clear in the case of Jacob, Leah and Rachel.  In order to outdo Leah in bearing children, Rachel resorts to having her servant Bilhah bear a child with Jacob on her behalf.  What’s key here is that Rachel is so distressed about being outdone by the other wife she resorts to these types of practices.

Leah, because Jacob doesn’t love her as much as the other wife, vocalizes her despair through naming her children and saying things like:
Gen 29: 32 “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”
Gen 29:33 “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”
Gen 29:34 “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister.  Rachel retaliates saying to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”(Gen 30:1).

Consider also this passage in Genesis 30:

14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.

Examples multiply.  Now ask yourself these questions:  Does the bible represent this relationship as a healthy one?  Does the bible insinuate that this type of relationship is desirable?  Compare the information the biblical narratives relate and compare it with the modern TV series Sister Wives.  If these events transpired in front of you, would you walk away feeling that Polygamous marriage is the ideal?

Flash forward to David and Solomon.  David’s desire for multiple wives results in

  1. Having an affair with a married woman, Bathsheba, and then covering it up by killing her husband Uriah. (II Sam. 11-12:24)
  2. Absalom, David’s son through a political marriage/alliance, commits fratricide by killing Amnon, David’s other son (II Sam. 13:30).
  3. Amnon raped his half-sister. (II Sam. 13)
  4. Absalom performed a coup. (II Sam. 15)
  5. Solomon and Adonijah (different mothers) both attempt to take the throne. (I Kings 2:13ff)
  6. Solomon finally has Benaiah kill Adonijah. (I Kings 2:25)

Speaking of Solomon.  He also had many wives.  Solomon actually had more than that–he had many wives, horses, and gold.  He broke all three commands found in Deut. 17.  Incidentally, the multiple wives were also idolaters, but the accusation in 1 Kings 11 is that, “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.”  The moral disapproval in Solomon’s life certainly does emphasize idolatry (not the mere fact of polygamy).  That being said, the destructive results fall directly in line with all of the other evidence we have seen.

Let us take a break from all of this.  Where is polygamy, and the relationships therein, shown in a good light by the biblical authors?  If we take time while reading the story and consider how  these polygamous relationships are worked out then it is clear Old Testament authors do not hold polygamy as the ideal.

But What About…?

Sure, questions still remain.  For example, why  is polygamy never specifically prohibited, but homosexuality is?  We can only speculate, here.  Not everything is clearly revealed.  The Old Testament tends to be somewhat lax on some social institutions that are not beneficial for humanity (i.e., slavery or polygamy).  But the trajectory is always towards abolition.  One possible reason that polygamy was not specifically outlawed is that the creation mandate was still possible in a polygamous relationship; but not possible a priori in a homosexual one.  So while polygamy was not ideal and has a great tendency to cause harm, it doesn’t have the side effect of denying God’s created order and purpose.

Ultimately, it must be seen that polygamy was not typically considered a harmonious relationship, and probably explains the lack of these kinds of relationships in the Jewish community.  Ultimately, Jesus teaches that “Traditional Marriage” must be found in Genesis 1-2

Matt. 9:19 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The keywords are male, female, and two shall become one.  Divorce was a grave thing and was only permitted by Moses because of hard-heartedness.  Reading between the lines, we could see how polygamy might fit in, here.  It isn’t the ideal, and never was.  But due to hardness of heart, it was not prohibited (except in the case of the Monarchy).

One might wonder where, pragmatically, Jesus (and Paul 1 Cor. 7:2; Eph. 5:31; Leaders 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) would base his bent away from Polygamy?  Clearly, it is from the Old Testament.  Specifically, Genesis 1, but the rest of the Old Testament storyline had to have made an impact.  Polygamy was still a thing in ancient Rome, and for Jesus and Paul to deny its primacy shows that Judaism recognized polygamy’s inadequacies.

Last, the theme of Yahweh and His bride, Israel, may have had an impact.  Yahweh names national Israel as His bride, and proclaims that there isn’t another.  Only Israel.  Even Ezekiel’s narrative about the relationship of Yahweh and Israel in chapter 16 reflects a marriage based on Genesis chapter 1 in which Israel was unfaithful to her true husband.  Israel’s uniqueness was rooted in the fact that they alone entered into a covenant union with Yahweh.

Deut. 7:6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Ultimately, I have tried to make a case for the Old Testament’s stance on marriage to be ideally between one man and one woman despite the patriarchal and monarchical narratives that have saints participating in polygamy.  Hopefully the attempt proves successful.  And if in a conversation polygamy and bible comes up, Christians need not look like child who just walked into more trouble than he expected.  Many people argue that if we Christians are to follow the bible’s view on marriage then we would all be polygamists or marry for political alliances. I do not think that is the case, and I believe that there are very reasonable responses to it.

The Old Testament and History: Part I The Climate of Old Testament Scholarship

Over the course of the summer I was baptized by fire into the world of Old Testament history and all of the difficulties therein.  I was lucky enough to sit under one of the best scholars in Israelite history, Eugene Merrill.  More information on Dr. Merrill may be found here and here. Dr. Merrill’s book Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel  is especially recommended to anyone interested in this field.

While taking the course, I decided to focus most of my attention on the historicity of the Patriarchs–Abraham through Joseph–on which my research paper was written.  What I plan to do for this series in The Old Testament and History is 1.) Give a brief overview of what modern scholarship is doing in this field, and what these scholars believe. 2.) Argue for the historical trustworthiness of the Old Testament which is doubted (to say the least) by most scholars. 3.) Make popular some of the key players, cities, cultures and factors in this field which has the potential to shed much light on the Old Testament.


The Climate of Old Testament Scholarship

Although the field is not as wide as other fields such as the hard sciences, the scholars of the Old Testament and other Ancient Near Eastern cultures is not uniform.  That being said, it is safe to say that the majority of scholars in this field are at best doubtful of the reliability of the Old Testament, Genesis in particular, in recounting actual history.  Many even claim that Genesis has a literary nature of folklore that isn’t attempting to transmit history at all.  So, the claim goes, anyone who thinks that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis are talking about historical persons is guilty of 1.) misunderstanding the genre of Genesis 2.) misunderstanding the history of Genesis’ composition and 3.) imposing their theology.

These are serious charges and must be answered.  But at this point, I am only seeking to elaborate on the current climate of scholarship in this field.  Certainly there is a spectrum between those who accept Genesis as historical and inspired to those who believe the persons mentioned in the Old Testament until Solomon are literary characters created and edited by numerous redactors over the course of centuries.

 Names and Notes

Here I am going to give you a feel for what many of these scholars believe, but before this I would like to note one thing.  These men and women are scholars in every sense of the word.  This fact became very clear while reading Thomas L. Thompson’s doctoral dissertation The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.  Thompson was/is a very influential player in what become known as the Copenhagen School in Denmark and was a professor at the University of Copenhagen.  His dissertation shows skill across multiple disciplines: literary comparison and the development of ancient documents, languages: Amorite/West Semitic, Akkadian, Sumerian & other Cuneiform languages, Egyptian, German, French, et. al, the interpretation of archaeological data such as sedentary layers, pottery, knives, and tombs, and lastly a philosophy of history.  This is not to say Thompson has mastery over all of this (he may, but I don’t know him personally), but to note the amount of time and work “unbelieving” scholars put into their field and the diverse skills needed to excel.

Therefore, the scholars are to be respected and though their theology angers us who believe, much good has come from their findings.  Thompson’s dissertation comes off, often times, as a polemic against the American Scholar W.F. Albright.  For years many American schools accepted the claims and arguments of Albright, but Thompson (and Van Seters) sought to bring to light that many of the claims have been overstated or completely overturned over the years.  If anything can be learned from these men and women, it’s that we must not overstate the case, and that we ought to be slow in accepting archaeological interpretations that are not adequately supported.

Now, for a taste of what these scholars have to say.  In a future post, a rejoinder will be given.

Soggins, J. Alberto, A History of Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

One of the values of the studies by Thompson and Van Seters has been their discovery that the mention of ethnic groups, places, and individuals in the patriarchal narratives makes sense only at a time of the united monarchy (for Van Seters as late as the post-exilic period), and certainly never before! …So we must conclude that, leaving aside the possibility of re-readings and later reinterpretations, the nucleus of the patriarchal narratives can be traced back without any difficulty to the time of the united monarchy. (p. 90)

…Once we accept that the patriarchal traditions were re-read at the end of the exile and in the early post-exilic period: the itinerary of Abraham then became the itinerary of those who were returning home, from south-eastern Mesopotamia, passing through Harran, the usual route between the two regions. (p. 92)

Notice here how Soggins establishes the stories of Genesis to a time when there was a united monarchy.  Read, here, Moses didn’t write the narratives–and certainly not in the form we have today.  Once this move is accepted, Soggins and others would argue that the meaning of the patriarchal narratives must be found in the time they were reinterpreted after the  return from exile–over 1200 years after the cultural setting of the patriarchal narratives.  The Jews, then, seeking to give their exile and restoration meaning reinterpreted the patriarchal stories in light of their own experiences.  Finally, Abraham becomes a representation of their sojourn back to Palestine.  Abraham isn’t a historical character, he represents the experience of Israel’s relation to Yahweh post-exile.

Thompson, L. Thomas, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives  (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & co., 1974)

But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical…(p. 330)

…I hope to be able to show to the reader’s satisfaction that not only is the claim of historicity for the patriarchal stories a serious distortion of history, but that it is also a misunderstanding of the formation and intention of the biblical tradition (p. 297)

I argue in my critique of Thompson’s book that he argues from literary criticism towards archaeological skepticism.  That is, he argues that the patriarchal stories are not intended to be historical towards the proposition “there is no archaeological evidence for the patriarchs.”  To Thompson, the story of Abraham is like the story of David Copperfield.  Just because we find evidence from the 19th century that people know of a David Copperfield–and that there are manuscripts with the name ‘David’–doesn’t make David Copperfield’s actual existence any more probable.  In fact, the archaeological evidence found (i.e. Dickens’ novel) isn’t evidence for the historicity of David Copperfield either.  All that it means is that ‘David’ is a name acceptable in England in 1850.  This analogy is critical, I think, for understanding Thompson’s methodology.

I’ve only posted these few references to give a taste of modern scholarship in relation to the history of the Old Testament.  As the series progresses, these claims will be challenged.