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?


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