In this inaugural post (for more info on this series click here), I will attempt to outline and to hint at an answer to a fundamental concern in reading not only Genesis but the Pentateuch as a whole; dealing with the composite text left to us.
To properly understand the difficulties in reading the text of Genesis left to us, a brief historical examination is in order. A primary reason behind the current struggle to interpret Genesis (and indeed much of scripture) stem from the watershed publication of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel in 1878. As Marvin Pate has documented, it was this work among others in the “Religionsgeschichte approach” that “dealt the deathblow” to biblical theology in the 19th century (15).
According to Pate, Wellhausen’s Prolegomena made its splash by taking the (1) composite author theory of the Pentateuch and (2) Darwinism and combining them in a “popularized and integrated” way. It is the composite author theory, or the “JEPD theory,” that is of lasting significance for studies of the Pentateuch, and our specific concern here (Ibid).
Basically, each letter of the JEPD theory stands for a specific “author” of the text, each of which had unique theological (and political) concerns that informed their memory/presentation of Israel’s history and it’s interaction with their God. To note one popular example, in the Pentateuch God is called, among many names, both Yahweh and Elohim. These different names are significant, because the actions and descriptions of God when named as Yahweh seem to present a fairly consistent picture of God, but one much different from the also relatively self-consistent Elohim. This suggests that two different authors wrote these two depictions of God, one where Yahweh (the “J Source”) is portrayed with very human characteristics and one where the otherness and transcendence of God is emphasized (the “E Source”). Each perspective was cut and pasted together over the centuries, leaving the composite text of the Pentateuch today.
The upshot of all this is that we are left with a diverse and composite text (even after the return of biblical theology as documented by Pate), “consisting of a patchwork quilt of traditions from various periods (Birch et al, 38).” Despite the relative lack of attention given to the “documentary hypothesis” today, as Birch writes, “general agreement continues that Genesis 1-11 is a composite work (Ibid).” The situation for the Pentateuch as a whole is no different.
At this juncture the problems of the Scripture’s authority and its ability to present a coherent understanding of God and humanity come into view. Birch and company are right caution against a mere grab bag approach that would encourage the creation of an idol, but then how is unity maintained (29)? A more complete answer to this question will come in a subsequent post that deals with the nature and tasks of systematic theology, but for now let me gesture at the concept of witness. Briefly, this approach can be understood through Jesus’ rebuke in Jn 5:
You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (39-40, NRSV).
By seeing the scripture as a witness, its unity is found in the One it points to, despite the diversity of ways it does so.
In sum, as we begin to examine Genesis, and much of the rest of scripture for that matter, we take from this initial inquiry into the composite nature of Genesis that one must have the courage to deal with the text as it, and often it turns out to be a great deal messier than probably all would prefer. This however, is not an invitation to despair, but instead to look towards the “common focus on the character, activity, and will of Israel’s one God (Ibid, 30).”
*With that, off to bed for a couple hours rest before the weekend camping trip. I will be checking the post on my mobile, so feel free to comment suggestions, pushbacks, questions, spelling/grammar checks, etc etc. The CCH continues Monday, see you then!
Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Peterson. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
Harris, Stephen L. and Robert L. Platzner. The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.
Hartsfield II, Wallace. Lecture Notes, “Hebrew Bible I.” Fall 2008.
Pate, Marvin C., J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, E. Randolph Richards, W. Dennis Tucker Jr., and Preben Vang. The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.