Pentateuchal Studies Today


The oldest paradigm of Pentateuchal study presupposes the Mosaic authorship of nearly the entire corpus from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Moses is not only the chief actor in most of these books, he is the recipient of all the laws in Exodus to Numbers, and the preacher of Deuteronomy. Indeed Deuteronomy 31:24 states that Moses wrote ‘the words of this law in a book, to the very end’. So generations of readers from pre-Christian times to the nineteenth century concluded that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch.

However, with the rise of historical criticism in the nineteenth century, a new paradigm of the Pentateuch established itself. Far from the books being written by one author in a short period (c. 1400 BC), they were written by many hands over a long period. It was held that the earliest sources were written several centuries after Moses : J about 900 BC, E about 800 BC, Deuteronomy about 600 BC, the Priestly source about 500 BC, and the final edition later still. This is known as the documentary hypothesis and its chief advocate in Germany was J. Welihausen.

This hypothesis is expounded in every introduction to the OT, so we shall not spend time reviewing it here 1. Conservative Bible readers were perturbed by its implications for the historical truthfulness of the Pentateuch. If it was written so long after the events it describes, how can we be sure that they actually happened, let alone that they are reported accurately? But there was another very important change in the direction of pentateuchal study marked by the rise of the documentary hypothesis. Hitherto the main purpose of study had been to understand the text as it stood and to apply its teaching. Now the main purpose of study was to understand how the text came into existence and the historical circumstances of its composition. Critical commentaries were filled with discussions of which source is being cited, when a passage was written, how it relates to non-biblical texts, and so on. The origins of the biblical material, not its final form, became the focus of study. The assumption was that the scholar’s duty is to recover the earliest form of a narrative, law or other tradition: the canonical text, since it was produced quite late, is of little interest. In the first half of the twentieth century, subtle modifications to the documentary hypothesis by scholars like Alt, Noth and von Rad in Germany and the Aibright school in America suggested that, despite the late date of the Pentateuch, we can nevertheless recover a credible picture of the period of Moses and even of the patriarchal age.2 Hence opposition to the documentary hypothesis gradually waned, and by the mid-twentieth century it was almost universally accepted.

But in the 1970s this cosy consensus began to be disturbed. The dating of the sources was questioned, the historicity of the narratives was disputed, even the principles underlying source division were challenged. This debate has been in full swing now for twenty years and shows no signs of subsiding. Much of the argument is convoluted and depends on assumptions that are not universally shared. So. for the sake of clarity, we must simpli1r the debate drastically and just draw out its main strands and directions. I shall therefore describe four main models for understanding the growth of the Pentateuch: the radical- sceptical, the Jewish critical, the New Critical, and the theological models.

Radical scepticism

First to challenge the scholarly consensus were the radical sceptics, led initially by North American scholars like Van Seters and Thompson, then joined by Germans such as Rendtorff, Blum and Levin. and supported by the doyen British CT scholar, Whybray. These three groups have in common a rejection of the traditional criteria for distinguishing between sources, a dating of J to the sixth century BC or later, and a scepticism about the historicity of the material. But they disagree about how the Pentateuch was composed. Whereas Van Seters and Levin advocate a modified documentary hypothesis, Rendtorff and Blum favour a supplementary model, and Whybray a fragmentary model. For this reason, we shall describe each approach separately.

J. Van Seters. in Abraham in History and Tradition (19751, offered a fresh approach to the composition of the Pentateuch, which he has developed in numerous articles and in two further books. Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (1992) and The Lfe of Moses: The Yahu,ist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (1994). I shall look at these books in order of publication, spending most time on the first, for it is the one that has had most impact.

Abraham in History and Tradition divides into two parts. The first part attacks the position of Albright, Speiser and Gordon and others who had argued that parallels between Genesis and second-millennium Mesopotamia demonstrated the historicity of the Genesis accounts. On the contrary, Van Seters argues that the nomadic lifestyle of the patriarchs fits better into the late neo-Assyrian or even the neo-Babylonian period. i.e. the seventh and sixth centuries BC3 He argues that the alleged parallels between the social and legal customs associated with marriage, adoption, sale and covenant-making in Genesis and the ancient Near East fit in better with first millennium oriental practice than with the second millennium. Finally, he looks at the places that Genesis says the patriarchs visited and asserts that the archaeological evidence does not show that they were inhabited in the early second millennium in the days of the patriarchs.4

Van Seters’ arguments against the historicity of Genesis were supported by T. L. Thompson in his misleadingly titled The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974). Thompson’s work is a more judicious book than Van Seters’. He draws attention to some of the fallacies that have characterized the archaeological defence of Genesis, but he is not so dogmatic as Van Seters in propounding an alternative very late setting for the traditions in Genesis.

These two books prompted a scholarly reassessment of the arguments for the antiquity and authenticity of the Genesis accounts, for example A.R. Millard and D.J. Wiseman, Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives. This concludes that the arguments for authenticity are not so cogent as Speiser and others alleged, but the balance of probability still lies with the antiquity of the tradition. Furthermore, the names of the patriarchs, such as Jacob, Ishmael and Isaac, are definitely early second-millennium in form and it would be very surprising for them to have been successfully archaized in the late first millennium.5

In the second half of Abraham in History and Tradition Van Seters developed a fresh approach to the source criticism of Genesis. He sits light to many of the criteria employed by traditional source critics. Only duplication of episodes is a clear marker of different sources, e.g. 12:10-20 and chapter 20, or chapters 15 and 17. Repetition within a story may not indicate different sources but may be merely stylistic. Nor does variation in vocabulary or divine names suffice to separate sources, though material analysed into sources on other grounds may be identified through distinctive vocabulary.6

Throughout his literary discussion Van Seters tends to argue for the substantial unity of material usually ascribed to J and suggest that it comes later in biblical history than traditionally supposed. Discussing Genesis 15, for example, he notes its kinship with deuteronomic ideas and Deutero-Isaiah and suggests the boundaries of the land: 15:18-2 1 suit the exilic era better than any other period.7 He regards the P material essentially as a supplement to J and dates it to the postexilic period. He holds that chapter 14 is later still, arid that Genesis reached its present form about 300 BC.8

In his later works Van Seters tries to show that his critical conclusions hold for other parts of the Pentateuch. In Prologue to History he deals with the primeval history in Genesis 1-11, which he compares with both Near Eastern and Greek mythology. He thinks it has an affinity with Greek antiquarian writers active in the late first millennium as well as with Mesopotamian sources. He suggests that this is explained if the Yahwist lived in the Babylonian exile, where he could have encountered these ideas.

In The Life of Moses (1994) Van Seters completes his case for a complete reordering of the documentary hypothesis. As in his earlier works, he tends to view the JE material as a unity emanating from the Yahwist, and argues for its late date. Basically, the Yahwist was writing an introduction to the Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy to Kings), and borrowed freely and creatively from these earlier works in writing his own. Thus, Joshua’s encounter with the captain of the host of Israel becomes the model for the burning bush. Moses’ reluctance to be a prophet is modelled on the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah. and the idea of an exodus from a land of oppression derives from Second Isaiah.9

Van Seters’s approach is a tour de force. If he is right, it has even more serious consequences for the historicity of the Pentateuch than the traditional documentary hypothesis. Though some may see his approach as the red uctio ad absurdum of the documentary hypothesis, his view that the JE material is no earlier than the exile has found a good number of adherents, most notably Blum and Levin.10 Criticism of Van Seters has generally concentrated on his treatment of the patriarchal narratives11 but his treatment of Genesis 1-11 is also problematic. The closest non- biblical parallels to this material come from the period 2000-1500 BC in Mesopotamia and it is most unlikely that these traditions could have been transmitted to Israel after the second millennium.12

If Van Seters is the leading North American dissident in the field of pentateuchal criticism, in Germany this title must go to Rolf Rendtorff, whose The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch (1977) represents an outright challenge to the documentary hypothesis. According to Rendtorff, the methods of source criticism as exemplified in Wellhausen’s work and the methods of form criticism of Gunkel are fundamentally incompatible. Yet Gunkel and his successors, including Noth and von Rad, tried to combine the two methods. They used form criticism to explain the development of pentateuchal traditions in the oral stage of transmission. Then they affirmed that these oral traditions somehow coagulated into the literary sources J, E, P and so on.

Rendtorff holds that the patriarchal narratives were originally shorter and independent of each other. The Abraham stories do not form a tightly knit cycle: each episode seems rather independent and this suggests what they were like in the earliest stage of oral tradition. They were subsequently linked up by adding the divine promises of descendants, land and blessing. The different formulations of the promises (e.g. sometimes ‘land’, sometimes ‘descendants’) give a clue to the different stages in the process of amalgamation. These divine promises glued together the Abraham stories. Meanwhile, other stories about other themes were developing. e.g. the primeval history, the Joseph story, the exodus. Sinai. But at this stage there was no documentary source running from creation to conquest. The blocks of stories were not linked up into a lengthy narrative akin to our Pentateuch till a deuteronomist developed the land promise to connect the previously separate blocks together.

Rendtorff thus argues that it is quite misleading to talk about a Yahwist or Elohist, for there never was a stage in the growth of the Pentateuch when the J or E traditions existed as connected documents covering the earliest history of Israel. Nor is it valid to speak of a P source. His work contains many other sharp jibes at the methods of literary criticism13 and at the dating criteria that are often invoked.

It must be conceded that we really do not possess reliable criteria for dating of the pentateuchal literature. Each dating of the pentateuchal sources’ relies on purely hypothetical assumptions which in the long run have their continued existence because of the consensus of scholars.14

Rendtorffs book is more of a programme than a fully worked out alternative model of pentateuchal criticism. This has been provided by his former student E. Blum. In Die Komposition der Vhtergescftichte (1984) Blum traces the multiple stages of growth through which the patriarchal stories have passed. The earliest elements are found in the stories of struggle between Jacob and Esau and between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 25, 27 and 31: ‘Obviously this text cannot be dated before David’s subjugation of Edom.15 This was next expanded by the addition of other stories in Genesis 27-33. Next the story of Jacob and his sons that begins in chapter 25 and ends in chapter 50 was filled out. Since these stories are concerned both with the northern tribes (e.g. Joseph) and yet look to the leadership of Judah, this points to a period when Judah was asserting its supremacy over the North, e. the reign of Josiah.

Meanwhile, stories about Judah and its neighbours, Moab and Ammon, circulated in the southern kingdom. These relationships are reflected in the narrative about Abraham and Lot (Gn: 13, 18-19). These were tacked on to the Jacob narrative to form the first patriarchal history (Vatergeschichte 1)16. During the exile, a second form of the patriarchal history (Vatergeschichte 21 was produced. This involved fifing out the Abraham stories and connecting the material with the promise of descendants, the gift of the land, and blessing. In the post-exilic period, perhaps between 530 and 50017 the patriarchal history was linked to the rest of the Pentateuch through the editorial work of D, the Deuteronomist. In Genesis, his hand is evident in chapters 15, 18. 22: 16ff., chapter 24 and some other places.

Like the deuteronomistic layer. the priestly layer is the only other layer that is found throughout the Pentateuch. Blum’s second volume. Die Komposition des Pentateuch (1990), deals first with the deuteronomistic redaction of the Pentateuch and then with the priestly texts. J and E are never mentioned, though in some respects his D-layer is like Van Seters’s and others’ late and expanded J. But in his definition and dating of P. Blum comes close to traditional pentateuchal criticism.

A British contribution to this new-look pentateuchal criticism has been provided by R.N. Whybray in The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (1987). He begins by observing that the documentary hypothesis, the fragmentary hypothesis, and the supplementary hypothesis are not mutually exclusive. But he holds that the least plausible of them is the Documentary Hypothesis. For whereas the Fragment and Supplement Hypotheses envisage relatively simple, and, it would seem, logical processes and at the same time appear to account for the unevennesses of the completed Pentateuch, the Documentary Hypothesis is not only much more complicated but also very specific in its assumptions about the historical development of Israel’s understanding of its origins.18

Whybray has two fundamental objections to the documentary hypothesis. The first is that it is illogical and self-contradictory and fails to explain what it professes to explain. The Pentateuch is split up into sources, because the present text contains redundant repetition and contradiction. The original sources, it is held, were non- contradictory and not repetitious, and the documentary hypothesis labours to reconstruct them. But then, when the sources were linked together, a repetitious and contradictory account was produced. Why, asks Whybray, should we suppose that the methods of Hebrew writers changed so drastically? If early writers did not tolerate contradiction or repetition, why did later writers revel in it? But if later writers did not mind such features, why should we suppose that the earlier sources did not contain contradiction and repetition? But if they did, how can we separate out the sources? Thus the hypothesis can only be maintained on the assumption that, while consistency was the hallmark of the various documents, inconsistency was the hallmark of the redactors’.19

His second objection is that the phenomena of repetition and stylistic variation found in the Pentateuch. which the documentary hypothesis is alleged to explain, may be understood quite differently. For example, since other religious texts use a variety of names for God, why should the change of divine name in Genesis signal a change of source? There could be a theological reason why one name is preferred to another, or the writer may just want a change. Repetition is often done for stylistic reasons, or to emphasize something, e.g. for rhetorical effect and in poetic parallelism. Furthermore, Whybray holds that the attempts to describe the theology of J or of E rest on too narrow a base to be convincing. But if this applies to these relatively lengthy texts, how much less plausible are the attempts of Rendtorff and Blum to define editorial layers on the basis of alleged editorial passages.

Having argued that the documentary style of analysis is both too complicated and implausible. Whybray criticizes the traditio-historical approach even more trenchantly. He argues that the task of tradition critics is even more difficult than that of source critics. At least the latter are dealing with partially extant texts, but the former are dealing with hypothetical reconstructions for which we have no tangible evidence: ‘Much of Noth’s detailed reconstruction of the Pentateuchal traditions was obtained by piling one speculation upon another.20

Rendtorff and Blum profess to be tradition critics, but Whybray says that this is true only in the sense that they see the process of growth that characterized the oral phase as continuing in the literary phase, for their methods of analysis of the text are much closer to classic source criticism. But he finds their conclusions less than convincing: ‘Rendtorff has merely replaced the comparatively simple Documentary Hypothesis which postulated only a small number of written sources and redactors with a bewildering multiplicity of sources and redactors'.21 As for Blum, Whybray thinks his approach is, if anything, more complex and more dogmatic, yet less demonstrable, than Rendtorffs.

So what does Whybray himself believe? His agnosticism about most of the complex reconstructions of the documentary and tradition critics is manifest. He considers most of their hypotheses at best unverifiable and at worst illogical speculation. Let us admit that we just do not know much about the growth of the Pentateuch. Modern literary criticism (cf Alter and Clines) has shown that the Pentateuch is a well-constructed work, which shows that it is the work of an author, not the end- product of haphazard growth like the Midrash. So let us suppose it is the work of one writer from the late sixth century, as Van Seters argued. Greek historians claim to use written sources, but they evidently rewrite them in their own words. They do not mind repeating themselves or varying their style, so why should these features in Hebrew literature be ascribed to different sources or layers? Van Seters and Rendtorff have been going in the right direction in seeing the Pentateuch as an essentially single literary work, either by the late Yahwist or a Deuteronomist, but they have failed to reach their logical conclusion: There appears to be no reason why (allowing for the possibility of a few additions) the first edition of the Pentateuch as a comprehensive work should not also have been the final edition, a work composed by a single historian.’22 But its late date means that most of the story should be regarded as fiction, including the whole presentation of Moses. . . in its present form.’23

Wbybray’s work on the Pentateuch could be viewed as the logical conclusion of the direction in which most pentateuchal criticism has been moving in the last three decades. More and more studies have been insisting on the sixth century as the time in which the whole work took shape, and there has been an ever stronger trend to unitary readings and a reaction against minute dissection. On the other hand, he could be viewed as the embodiment of the English common- sense tradition as opposed to the continental love of complex theorizing. His book is a powerful and valid critique of the methods that have been taken for granted in pentateuchal criticism for nearly two centuries. However, though I think his model for the composition of the Pentateuch is essentially correct, Le. that of one major author using a variety of sources,24 he has not demonstrated this by giving detailed attention to the texts, nor has he shown that it was composed so late and should be regarded as fiction.

Jewish criticism

A quite different model of the growth of the Pentateuch is preferred by most critical Jewish scholars (Orthodox Jews still of course uphold the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch). Following in the footsteps of Y. Kaufmann,25 they tend to accept the basic source division of the documentary hypothesis, but maintain that P is not the latest source but that it antedates Deuteronomy and reflects the worship of Solomon’s temple. P may therefore come from much the same period as J. Some of the more important works from this school of thought have come from A. Hurvitz,26 M. Haran,27 J. Milgrom.28 and M. Weinfeld.29

A new study30 of the P material profoundly challenges many accepted views. According to the documentary hypothesis, there are several components in the priestly material. One of the earlier sections is the Holiness Code (H) (Lev. 17-26), which is often dated in the early exile, whereas the bulk of the priestly code (P) may be up to a century later. Furthermore, it is usually held that there are P insertions or editorial changes to H.

Knohl challenges all these points. Using methods used in the critical analysis of the Talmud, he argues that the Holiness School edited the P material not vice versa. By comparing the P version of the festivals in Numbers 28-29 with the H version in Leviticus 23, he shows that the latter is an H expansion of a P text. Using a mixture of linguistic, theological and content criteria, Knohl goes on to argue that wide stretches of P material have been edited by H. He argues that ‘there are many indications of HS editing of PT material but. . . no evidence at all for influence in the opposite direction.’31 Not only did HS edit PT and not vice versa but ‘HS is responsible for the great enterprise of editing the Torah, which included editing and rewriting the legal scrolls of the PT and blending them with the non-Priestly sources’.32

Knohl then tries to locate HS and PT historically. He thinks that Leviticus 17 suggests that HS was written in a period when the cult was being centralized, because it forbids the offering of sacrifice anywhere but at the tabernacle. This could connect it with Hezekiah’s reform in the eighth century. This was also a time of social polarization, which HS tries to counter with the jubilee provisions of Leviticus 25. The eighth-century prophets like Amos and Isaiah savagely attacked priestly rituals and demanded moral purity. So HS counters this prophetic onslaught by insisting that holiness does involve morality, but that the cult also has its proper place: ‘Thus we find a moral refinement of the purely cultic conception, stemming from Priestly circles themselves, under the influence of the prophetic critique.’33 The prophetic preaching about social and moral issues led to the priests emerging from their introverted world preoccupied with cultic holiness, and interacting instead with popular concerns. Thus Knohi dates the emergence of HS somewhere in the late eighth century.

P(T), however, was written before HS. It probably originated in the period when Solomon’s temple was being built in the mid-tenth century: ‘We may safely assume that the establishment of the “King’s Temple” of Jerusalem and the creation of a closed, elitist Priestly class dependent on the royal court are all part of the background leading to the development of PT.’34The loftiness and abstraction of PT by no means require a late date. Probably ‘PT and J came into existence about the same time. . . If we add the flourishing of poetry, psalmody and wisdom literature, we may generalise by saying that this was the peak period of all Israelite literature - in every genre.”35

Knohi’s analysis of the redaction of P texts by HS is convincing at many points. He has made a good case for holding that many P texts have been edited by HS. His methods and conclusions seem more sober and empirical than most attempts at source and redaction criticism. His exposition of the theological stance of HS is masterly. But his view of P and his dating arguments seem less well grounded. These depend too much on arguments from silence. Knohl too often argues thus: if PT does not mention something, it follows that it did not believe in it. P does not include moral commands; therefore, its concept of holiness is purely cultic. P does not mention prayer and singing in describing the sacrifices; therefore, worship was conducted in silence. However, we do not have the original PT, only the version edited by HS. We therefore cannot be sure what PT once contained, only what parts HS chose to retain.

Does, for example, the non-mention of prayer in worship mean sacrifice was conducted silently? We could argue that though we do not know what was said or sung during worship, we should assume that something was said, because this was standard practice throughout the ancient Near East and elsewhere in the OT. Knohl makes the opposite assumption: that the absence of reference to singing or prayer with the sacrifices means that nothing was said. But as archaeologists say: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ It would seem extraordinary that if PT were written to describe temple worship in Solomon’s time, a time when, K.nohl says, psalmists were also active, the text would envisage a sanctuary of silence.

Though Knohl maybe right to date P and H much earlier than usual, his arguments are not much better than Wellhausen’s or Van Seters’s. The concerns of HS would be relevant at many points in Israel’s history, not just in the eighth century.

Final form study and New Criticism

In much modern pentateuchal criticism there is a trend towards much simpler explanations of the growth of the Pentateuch: this is most noticeable in the work of Whybray and Knohl. There is a recognition that the more complex the reconstruction of the growth to the Pentateuch, the more difficult it is to demonstrate, and that if one is not careful, one will pile hypothesis upon hypothesis. This has led to ever increasing interest in the final form of the text. However, it is not merely the dawn of common sense that is to be thanked for this new insight but also a trend in literary theory known as New Criticism. This holds that the proper subject for literary study is the text itself, not the author or the circumstances of the text’s composition. An example of this new style of criticism is D.J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (1978). In it, he laments the vast attention given to the unprovable speculations of source criticism and the neglect of the present shape of the Pentateuch.

It is ironic, is it not, that the soundest historical-critical scholar, who will find talk of themes and structures ‘subjective’ in the extreme, will have no hesitation in expounding the significance of a (sometimes conjectural) document from a conjectural period for a hypothetical audience of which he has ... only the most meagre knowledge.36

Clines argues that the theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment . . . of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs’.37 The promises focus on descendants, the divine-human relationship, and land. Most of the rest of Clines’s book is taken up with showing how these are developed in different parts of the Pentateuch, and that recognition of the theme allows us to see the coherence of sections of the Pentateuch, such as the book of Numbers, often regarded as confused and illogical. In the penultimate chapter, he shows how this understanding of the Pentateuch’s theme fits in with the needs of the exilic community, which could have read the story of Israel’s wanderings outside the land as prefiguring its own life in exile. This shows, according to Clines, that attention to the major literary issues such as theme may clarfir historical issues, so that synchronic and diachronic studies need not be in opposition to each other.

Other studies emphasizing the final form of the text have tended to look at shorter sections. G.A. Rendsburg38 deals with the whole of Genesis, while J.P. Fokkelman and M. Fishbane39 look at parts of Genesis including the Jacob cycle (chs 25-35). Many other studies of parts of Genesis have appeared in journals and in such books as J. Licht, Storytelling in the Bible,40 R. Alter, The Art of Bthlical Narrative41 and M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.42 Studies on other parts of the Pentateuch have been fewer, but a final-form reading of Exodus 32-34 has been offered by R.W.L. Moberly,43 of Numbers by D.T. Olson,44 and of Deuteronomy by R. Polzin.45 This brief list gives only a hint of the range of exciting work devoted to interpreting the final form of the text.

Theological Criticism

Though most final-form studies pay lip-service to the continuing place of diachronic study, few really have attempted to create a new synthesis bringing together the two ends of the discipline. And even fewer studies take the theology of the text seriously. An exception is R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament. He begins by looking at two passages in Exodus 3 and 6, which tell of the revelation of the name of Yahweh to Moses. In the first, Moses standing before the burning bush asks God what his name is. He is told, ‘I am that I am’, i.e. Yahweh. In the second passage, God simply introduces himself:

‘I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them’ (Ex. 6:2-3). Standard documentary criticism sees these texts as justifying the analysis of pentateuchal narratives into the main sources, E in Exodus 3: 14- 15 and P in Exodus 6:2-3, because they could be held to be repetition. They also enable a contrast to be made with the J source which uses the name Yahweh frequently in the patriarchal stories, whereas E and P say it was an innovation from the time of Moses.

Moberly, however, shows that Exodus 6 is not simply repeating Exodus 3: the plot of the narrative demands that something like chapter 6 follow chapter 3. Thus, if it is right to distinguish sources here, which Moberly doubts, both the old E source and late P source agree that there is a distinction to be made between the religious experience of Moses and that of the patriarchs. Why, then, is God so often referred to as ‘the LORD’ in Genesis? Moberly argues that this does not represent a different historical perspective from the J source:

rather it is a way of insisting that the God who spoke to the patriarchs was the same God as spoke to Moses. The patriarchs may have known God as ‘El Shaddai’ or ‘El’ or ‘Elohim,’ but that does not mean he was a different deity from Moses’ Yahweh. The use of the name ‘Yahweh’ in Genesis is a reminder of the continuity between patriarchal and Mosaic religion and of the fact that patriarchal history is told from the perspective of Mosaic Yahwism. Thus all the putative sources in the Pentateuch see both continuity and differences between the Mosaic and patriarchal periods.

Moberly then goes on to explore some other points of similarity and difference between the patriarchal and Mosaic periods portrayed in the texts. While the patriarchs worship one God, there is not the exclusivism that characterizes Mosaic monotheism. The patriarchs generally live peaceably with the Canaanites without trying to exterminate them or to drive them out as the Mosaic law requires. God reveals himself directly to the patriarchs and they themselves build altars and offer sacrifices without the mediation of Moses or the priests. The patriarchs practise circumcision, but it is not clear that they observed the sabbath or food laws that figure so largely in later books of the Pentateuch. Finally, ‘the notion of holiness, which from Exodus onward is a basic characteristic of God and a major requirement for Israel. is entirely lacking in the patriarchal traditions’.46

Moberly argues that the relationship between the patriarchal stories and the rest of the Pentateuch is like that between the OT and the NT. The same God revealed himself in both testaments, but there was a radical new perspective on his nature revealed by the coming of Christ. Similarly, the revelation at Sinai represented a new theological dispensation in his dealings with Israel. That is not to invalidate the old revelation given to the patriarchs or to say that their experience of the life of faith is not most illuminating to later ages, but to insist that the revelation to Moses, like the corning of Christ, brought new insights into God’s character and purposes unknown before.

Moberly suggests that the whole project of naming the sources J, E and P is flawed, because so much rests on postulating religious distinctions between the sources, which really represent differences between the patriarchal era and the Mosaic dispensation. He would prefer a different approach: ‘It would be most helpful to adopt categories that are descriptive of the content of the text: patriarchal traditions (subdivided into Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph cycles . . .); similarly Mosaic traditions’ (again subdivided).47 Then one can proceed to find the linking vocabulary and theological themes that span these different sections of text and build up a new critical theory.

Finally, Moberly’s approach to the distinctiveness of the patriarchal era makes the scepticism of Van Seters and others about the historicity of these traditions unwarranted. The pentateuchal writers cannot be projecting back into the patriarchal past contemporary popular religious practice with which they disagree. The writers believed in Mosaic Yahwism, yet they have described different beliefs and practices which they wanted to abolish without condemnation. Indeed, they have gone further:

They have given traditions depicting non-Yahwistic ethos and practices the considerable luster of inseparable association with the ancestor of Israel’s faith,

Abraham, and the eponymous ancestor of the whole nation. Jacob/Israel. They have refrained from all adverse comment. And they have gone to considerable lengths to relate such material to Mosaic Yahwism in the way we have shown above. One would have thought that straightforward suppression would not only have been easier but also more in keeping with the generally exclusive and polemical nature of Yahwism in Exodus-Deuteronomy.48


Sometimes scholarship gets stuck in a rut. But that is certainly not the case with pentateuchal studies at the moment. The debate between different points of view is lively and sometimes heated. As yet, no new consensus has emerged about the composition of the Pentateuch. However, there is much creative interpretation being done by those concentrating on the final form of the text. And it is here that Christians have always located the authority of Scripture and its inspiration, and it remains our duty not simply to read the text but apply it to ourselves for instruction in righteousness (cf 2 Tim. 3:16). If we do this, we shall keep the critical debates in perspective.

This article was originally published in Themelios Vol.22 No.1 in 1996. 


1 For my brief summary and assessment see ‘The Pentateuch’, in D.A. Carson et al, The New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (Leicester: IVP, 1994), pp. 43-53, and G.J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), pp. xxv - xlv.

2 See The New Bible Commentary p. 49.

3 J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale UP, 1975), pp. 13-38

4 Ibid. pp. 104-22.

5 For further discussion see AR. Millard and D.J. Wiseman (eds), Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester: IVP, 1980), and for a brief assessment of the debate, G. J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word, 1994), pp. xx-xxviii.

6 Van Seters, op. cit., pp. 155-157.

7 Ibid. pp. 263-278.

8 Ibid, pp. 304-308.

9 J. Van Seters, The Life ofMoses (Kampen: Kok .1994), pp. 35-63.

10 C. Levin, Der Jahwist (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993).

11 See footnote 7 and also K. Berge, Die Zeit des Jahwisten (BZAW 186; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1990).

12 For further discussion see Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. xliv.

13 E.g. , on linguistic criteria for source division, see R. Rendtorff, The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, trans. by J. J. Scullion. (JSOTSS 89; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990) pp. 113, 118.

14 Ibid., pp. 201-202.

15 E. Blum, Die Komposition der Vãtergeschichte (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984), pp. 202-203.

16 Ibid. , p. 297.

17 Ibid., p. 392.

18 RN. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (JSOTSS 53; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), p. 18.

19 Ibid., p. 49.

20 Ibid., p. 194.

21 Ibid., p. 210.

22 Ibid. , pp. 232-233.

23 Ibid. , p. 240.

24 I argued the same independently of Whybray in my commentary on Genesis 1-15 which was also published in 1987. Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Wood, 1987).

25 Y. Kaufmann, The Religion oflsrael, trans. and abridged by M. Greenberg, (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1960).

26 A Hurvitz, A Linguistic Study of the Relationship between the Priestly Source and the Book ofEzekiel (Paris: Gabalda, 1982).

27 M. Haran, Temples and Priestly Service in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978).

28 See his numerous books and articles but especially his commentaries: The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) and Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

29 E.g. in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) and ‘Social and cultic institutions in the priestly source against their ancient Near Eastern background’, in Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies volume 5 (Jerusalem : World Union of Jewish Studies, 1983), pp. 95-129.

30 I. Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

31 Ibid. , p. 204 NB. Because Knohl believes that H and P have not always been correctly distinguished, his definitions of H and P do not always coincide with the traditional ones. For this reason he speaks of HS = Holiness School and Pm Priestly Torah.

32 Ibid., p. 6; cf. p. 101.

33 Ibid., p. 216.

34 Ibid., pp. 22 1-222.

35 Ibid., p. 222 n. 78.

36 D.J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (JSOTSS 10; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978), p. 14.

37 Ibid., p. 29.

38 GA. Rendsburg, The Redaction ofGenesis (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1986).

39 J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Amsterdam: van Gorcum, 1975); M. Fishbane, Text and Texture (New York: Schocken, 1979).

40 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1978).

41 (New York: Basic, 1981).

42 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985).

43 R.W.L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God (JSOTSS 22; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983).

44 D.T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book ofNumbers and the Pentateuch (Brown Judaic Studies 71; Chico: Scholars Press, 1985).

45 R. Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).

46 R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 99.

47 Ibid., p. 181.

48 Ibid., p. 195.

Related Content