Monthly Archives: January 2014

Imagining the author/editor

“Imagine the scribe” has long been one of the tenets of the art and science called textual criticism.  When looking at variations and other difficulties in the biblical text, it helps to think about the work of copying ancient manuscripts in order to figure out why they look the way they do and what the text might have looked like in earlier manuscripts.  To what extent is this principle transferable to our thinking about the author/editor who was composing a biblical book, using a combination of existing sources and his own writing?  A process of imagination like this might allow us to think about the final form of the text and the earlier sources at the same time.  Practitioners of source-criticism have not often engaged in such a practice and when they have it has often been coupled with the placement of the editor/writer in a fairly precise historical context, with a specific historical agenda.  Such features may have sharpened the focus of the interpreter, but they had a large chance of being wrong and, because the choice of historical and ideological context was often based upon information in the text to begin with, the arguments were often circular.

The flood story has been a text of great interest to source-critics, because the present text in Genesis 6-8 is incoherent, and it is a fairly easy process to untangle the J and P flood accounts and reconstruct two separate, coherent flood accounts.  The divine instructions to Noah from the P source in 6:9-22 are famous.  Noah is to take two of each animal onto an ark with three levels that is 300x50x30 cubits.  The instructions from the J source in 7:1-5 are less well known, and they are often ignored because the conflicting animal counts, two of each unclean animal and seven pairs of each clean animal, create difficulties for those who want to view the Bible as a seamless whole from its very beginning. 

One unresolved difficulty with the source division in the flood narrative is the lack of instructions about the ark itself in the J source.  The only two choices concerning this problem are that there were no instructions in J or the author/editor omitted them.  The latter is the choice of those who assume the two different flood accounts were close parallels in their components, and that the author/editor would have been troubled by the dissonance of two different sets of ark instructions.  This choice has two major difficulties.  First, in many places in the Torah the author/editor did not share our desire for consistency and coherence.  The separation of the flood narrative into sources is primarily based upon the many examples of inconsistency that we can easily observe.  Second, if we start imagining a process in which the author/editor could omit significant amounts of material from the earlier sources, then a reliable process of source division becomes nearly impossible.  If the pieces of the J source that we have might be only a fraction of the source, then how can we reconstruct it in any reliable way?  Further, if the author/editor could leave out a piece of J to avoid narrative incoherence then why would he not have left out or changed a lot more?  For example, the conflicting number of days the flood lasted, 40 days in J and just over a year in P would have been easy to harmonize.  The sources must have exerted some kind of control over the process.


The Life of the Bible

Today, I pause from my usual focus on converging methods of interpreting the Bible to consider a related issue, the transmission of the biblical tradition.  I am inspired to do this by Matti Friedman’s acceptance speech ( upon receiving the Sami Rohr Prize for his book The Aleppo Codex:  A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.

First, let me provide a little background on the Aleppo Codex.  It was a copy, produced in book form (codex), of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanak) during the tenth century C. E., so the manuscript is about 1100 years old.  The Aleppo Codex had a complex life for centuries, which Friedman traced in his book, until it landed in the synagogue in Aleppo, a city in Syria that has been in the news for the past year for the most tragic reasons.  When the Jewish community was forced to abandon Aleppo in the late 1940’s the story of the codex became even more complex.  It is now in Jerusalem but about one-third of the pages have gone missing.

The transmission of the biblical tradition is an act akin to breathing.  The process includes inhaling and exhaling.  The production of the Aleppo Codex and the volume called the Leningrad Codex, within a few decades of each other by members of the ben Asher family, was a great act of inhaling.  So was the translation of the Bible into Latin by St. Jerome in the fourth century, the production of complete Christian Bible manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus in the fifth century, the production of the Second Rabbinic Bible by Jacob Ben Hayyim in the sixteenth century, and the translation of the King James Version in the seventeenth century.  The person who worked on all these projects were determined to get the words of the Bible, in its various forms, just right.  Like a great inward breath, the written text became compressed and fully contained, under the control of the breather.  The question that acts like these must answer is “What next?”  What do we do with a sacred text once we get all of the words exactly how we want them?  If we return to the breathing metaphor for the life of the Bible then the next act is exhaling, and it makes us uneasy.  Those who believe that the truth is something to be carefully guarded have a tendency to try to defend the Bible, but when we breathe it out into the world it is no longer under our control.

Modern biblical scholars are discovering that the processes of writing, copying, translating, and interpreting the text were intertwined from the very beginning.  The Bible as a physical object has never existed in a state of perfection.  There was no great inhale at the beginning, followed by a long exhale, but a long, living process of steady breathing of tradition, and the breathing gave life to communities.

Friedman was right when he said:

Writing about the codex taught me something those scholars knew, and that I think Sami Rohr knew – that the secret of our survival was never a king or an army. It was always words, and it still is.

Such a realization could lead us to become more protective, but it should assure us of the Bible’s own ability to survive and that acts of possession, which resemble only inhaling, lead to distortion and death.  My own experience is that a sacred text works best not when we ask it questions and demand answers we can guard carefully, but when we let the text ask us the questions and risk answers beyond our control.



Converging on Babel

The book of Genesis gives credit for building Babel twice.  First, Babel is among the cities Nimrod builds in 10:10.  In the more famous “Tower of Babel” story, a faceless crowd made up of everybody on earth builds the city named Babel before YHWH forces them to abandon it.  Is this a difficulty a combination of approaches, the application of source-criticism to divide the text into its earlier sources and the application of contemporary literary criticism to its final form, might resolve?

The first step might be to divide Genesis 10-11 between the two hypothetical sources, P and J.

P (Priestly)                                           J (Yahwist)

            10:1-7                                      10:8-19

            10:20, 22-23, 31-32                  10:21, 24-30, 11:1-9


If this division is correct, what did J alone look like in its intact form?  It is difficult to imagine that the story of Nimrod in 10:8-12, which includes the establishment of Babel, was entirely separate from the building and abandonment of Babel in 11:1-9.  The abandonment of Babel would have involved the collapse of its king, Nimrod.  The division above also means P would have had a story of human beings quickly differentiating after the flood under the headings of Noah’s three sons, while J had a story of the whole human community (11:1-2) still together under the leadership of Nimrod.

The next step is to ask why the redactor/author of Genesis made certain choices when arranging the material from the sources.  One problem the writer of Genesis needed to solve in order for the larger narrative to work was to explain how Nahor and Abram, descendants of Shem, lived in Ur of the Chaldeans (11:31).  When the redactor/author separated the Nimrod account, and placed it within the genealogical line of Ham, it created hereditary distance between Abram and the descendants of Ham, including Canaan and Nimrod.  Retaining the dispersal story near the end of the Primeval Complex in Genesis 1-11 allowed the writer of Genesis to do at least three things.  First, the dispersal created a plausible reason for a Shemite to be in Ur.  Second, YHWH’s final statement on the evils of city-building, a central theme for all of Genesis 1-11, was a definitive defeat which set the narrative stage for Israel’s ancestors to emerge as nomadic sheep-herders.  Third, if P originally contained two genealogies for Shem, 10:22-23,31 and 11:10-26, that did not fit easily together then the Tower of Babel story created some space between them, providing an explanation for the confusion.

The explanation above, which may or may not be convincing, moves in two different directions, using a procedure that used to be considered counter-productive.  Now that artificial walls between methods are breaking down, can we divide existing material into earlier sources and ask questions about them, then put them back together and ask about the literary effects of the final form?  Perhaps another reversal in direction is possible, if we return to the sources and ask whether it makes sense for P to have contained the two different genealogies of Shem and what that might have looked like.

A Pause for a Taking Stock

I am about one month into my blogging experiment, and I need to remind myself of its purpose.  I gave the blog a name that would help me remember.  Nearly everyone involved agrees that over the past three or four decades my academic field of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies has experienced fragmentation and disarray.  Results of the past that seemed settled and assured came under close scrutiny and failed.  A set of methods that seemed cohesive was replaced by a vast collection of disconnected approaches to our discipline.  I started writing these little essays because I think I have noticed some important ways that our work is coming back together, and now, about a month or so into the project I need to state or restate a few convictions I have about this.

1)  The supposed “historical-critical consensus” that reigned throughout the early and mid-20th century was not as cohesive as it may have seemed or as it is now frequently portrayed.  Whether Hermann Gunkel vs. Sigmund Mowinckel , Gerhard von Rad vs. Walther Eichrodt, or John Bright vs. Martin Noth there were always strong disagreements.  Yet, even in the midst of rigorous debate, these guys (yes!) all looked and sounded pretty much alike.  If I can draw an imperfect, but helpful, analogy to the content of our filed, this scholarship was about as “united” as the supposed “United Kingdom” of Israel under kings Saul, David, and Solomon.  The appearance of unity is the result of a shallow reading.

2) The fragmentation of biblical studies and rise of new methods over the last four decades cannot be properly understood as a repudiation of the past.  In every academic field, scholars of the present get a better view by standing on the shoulders of those from the past, even when we disagree with them.  Even the most ardent proponents of literary methods that examine the “final form” of the biblical text and denigrate all attempts to trace its composition history operate with a basic understanding of the development of religious traditions in ancient Israel that was clarified in the historical-critical era, even though the historical reconstructions of that period of scholarship outgrew the evidence that supported them and collapsed.

3)  The convergences of the present will not look like those of the past, because our field of study is far broader and deeper now than then.  I recall with a chuckle a comment by a biblical scholar who chose to leave the professorate in the 1960’s for other pursuits in part because he had “read everything of importance in his area of study.”  Let me give everyone under fifty a moment to laugh and then cry a little before I give you permission to stop feeling badly about how much you have not read.  It is not possible any more, and not because it is too easy to publish a book now, as some would claim.  Biblical scholarship is no longer an activity conducted by a small club of guys who all look and sound alike, even when they are disagreeing.  The new convergences will happen, and are happening, at many different points, when two different approaches bump into each other, learn from and energize each other, then move on better than they were before the collision.  A convergence like this happens even if not everyone in the field is watching at the same time.

If I am mostly right about all of this then our forty years in the wilderness (I don’t have the strength to resist that metaphor) have been productive and purposeful.  Even some old approaches are reemerging in better form than they used to be.

The Transformation of Jeremiah

The person named Isaiah in the book called Isaiah is elusive.  His name appears only eight times; he speaks briefly in first-person language in Isaiah 6-8; and a handful of narrative events include him as a character.  The text that many interpreters identify as Isaiah’s “call narrative,” his initial experience as a prophet, appears mysteriously in the sixth chapter of the book.  There is no sense in which the book called Isaiah can be considered a record of the prophetic career of the person named Isaiah.  The presence of the person named Jeremiah in the book called Jeremiah is entirely different.  His name appears well over one hundred times; he speaks in first person language frequently; and there are dozens of narrative events that include him as a character.  The text often identified as his “call narrative” appears in the first chapter, and the event upon which almost all of his prophetic activity focuses, the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, is reported in the final chapter.  The book of Jeremiah is not a biography of the person named Jeremiah, but it can be reasonably described as a record of his prophetic career, as long as we acknowledge that such a record could have been written in other ways, which it was.  The version of the book of Jeremiah represented by the oldest Greek manuscripts is significantly different in content and order from the Hebrew version used to produce all English Bibles.

While all four of the scrolls in the Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Bible contain similar types of literature in their collections, there are also components unique to each.  The most striking example in Jeremiah is a set of poems dispersed throughout Jeremiah 11-20 called the “Confessions of Jeremiah.”  These poems present to us the inner life of the prophet, in conversation with God, sometimes accompanied by divine responses.  Whether these poems can be traced back to the person named Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem in the late seventh and early sixth centuries is an interesting question, but one that nobody can answer definitively.  What is certain is that they contribute to the portrayal of the character named Jeremiah in the book.

According to the Confessions, in passages like 11:4 and 15:10, Jeremiah and the whole land of Judah suffer for the sins of the wicked.  Eventually, everyone in Judah suffers from the impact of the Babylonian invasion, and it would seem from much of what Jeremiah has said that it is all well-deserved punishment.  The conversations between Jeremiah and YHWH in the Confessions, however, serve to destabilize the simple equations of retribution, which claim that suffering is the result of guilt.  Sometimes the innocent suffer while the guilty prosper.  Once the literary character named Jeremiah has embodied this theological difficulty, he is in a position to begin to renegotiate its claims, which he does in startling texts like 31:27-34 and 32:36-41.  These texts are part of the section in chapters 30-33 called the Book of Consolation, and almost certainly come from the Persian period, but the book of Jeremiah has transformed the prophet into a literary character who is the ideal speaker of such new claims, because they are grounded in the experience of trauma that he has shared with a previous generation.

Returning to Hagar and Ishmael and the Documentary Hypothesis

I begin my tenth blog entry with a confession.  I went back and read some of my earlier entries and realized that I sometimes make promises and do not keep them.   Specifically, I promise to address a subject in my next post but then write about something completely different.  In my earlier explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis I used the texts about Hagar and Ishmael as an example and promised to come back to these and explain how a combination of “historical” and “literary” methods might shed light on some of the difficulties within them.

To summarize the problem, Genesis 16:1-15 is a story about the birth of Ishmael that appears to come from the J source and takes place when Abram is eighty-six years old, while Genesis 21:2-21 is a story about the birth of Isaac and “sending away” of Hagar and Ismael that seems to come from the P source and takes place when Abraham is one hundred years old.  The narrative incoherence is created by the description of Ishmael as a small child in the second story, rather than a teen-aged boy.  The two main sources of the Pentateuch appear to have had two different traditions about the departure of Hagar.  In J she ran away while pregnant, because of Sarai’s harsh treatment, but returned according to a divine instruction.  In P Abraham sends her away soon after the birth of Ishmael because of Sarah’s concern over Isaac’s inheritance, and she does not return.   In both stories Hagar receives a divine visitation by a water source.   Assigning these two stories to different sources answers questions about why they are different and have conflicting details.

One of the problems the Documentary Hypothesis has always had is explaining why the person who combined them, whom we may call the “Redactor” or the author of the book of Genesis, used elements from multiple sources that created these kinds of conflicts.  The first story comes close to being essential in its position, because it explains the name and presence of Ishmael, who appears prominently in Genesis 17.  The second story, however, does not seem necessary to the larger plot in the same way.  It does clarify Isaac’s position as primary heir of Abraham, but it also creates additional incoherence when, in 25:9, Ishmael is still around to join with Isaac in the burial of their father.  Even if the redactor thought it was a necessary piece, why not change a detail or two in order to remove the age problem?  One of the major difficulties the any proposal about the use of sources has always had is explaining the extent to which the redactor was constrained by them.  Was the second story of Hagar and Ismael too well known in its existing form for the person(s) composing the book of Genesis to make such changes?

A literary perspective may add more to our understanding of sources and composition.  The proximity of the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (21:2-21) to the better known story of the binding of Isaac (22:1-19) can hardly be accidental.  The two stories share too many common features and an overall pattern too much alike.  In both stories a parent departs on a journey with a child, the child’s life is endangered to a point near death, and the child’s life is saved when a divine visitation causes the parent to look up and see the thing that can save them (a well in 21:19 and a ram in 22:13).  Does the writer want these two stories almost side-by-side for their shared literary power, which overwhelms the difficulties in chronological details?

Doing source-criticism now in a post-modern age offers new perspectives.  We have become more accustomed to story-telling that does not follow strict rules of chronology.  Could this view be closer to the literary goals of the writer (redactor) of Genesis?