Composition of the Pentateuch

The composition of the Pentateuch begins with the search for a unified literary document. This document has been labelled J, for the Yahwist.

Scholars have employed a variety of methods to isolate J. J was first recognized through the presence of doublets:

  • two different stories of creation
  • two stories of the covenant between God and Abraham
  • two stories of the naming of Abraham's son Isaac
  • two stories of Abraham claiming Sarah is his sister
  • two stories of Jacob making a journey to Mesopotamia
  • two stories of a revelation to Jacob at Beth-El
  • two stories of God changing Jacob's name to Israel
  • two stories of Moses getting water from a rock at a place called Meribah

From these doublets, it was assumed that there was two different sources in the Pentateuch.

Moving from doublets, attention was given to vocabulary. Scholars noticed that these doublets demonstrated a uniform type of vocabulary. One characteristic was the name of God. One strand always used Yahweh for the name of God, whereas the other used Elohim or other names.

Other distinctive vocabulary was noticed: In all the doublets where Yahweh occurs, the mountain of God is called Sinai, the third patriarch is Jacob, the inhabitants of Palestine are the Canaanites, and Moses' father in law is Hobab or Reuel.

It was also noticed that this strand was fond of etiologies.

Finally, certain themes were isolated, such as the promise of land and blessing.

All these features were then used to isolate the J strand in its entirety. Although this method seems to work on a broad, general scope---that is, that there is more than one strand in the Pentateuch---it is problematic in the specific cases.

The arguments are essentially circular. Isolate certain features of J; use these features to identify more of J; then use the passages of J to argue for the independence of J. The argument is based on the prior assumption that J is of a certain type. Vocabulary is not as consistent as assumed. The divine names are not infrequently mixed: Elohim and Yahweh in the same context. Scholars have traditionally, then, broken the text into minute fragments. But this often does injustice to the literary quality of the text. Many passages exhibit no "distinctive" vocabulary.

On a broad scope, the assumptions and methods of source criticism conflict with the assumptions and methods of form criticism.

Source criticism assumes that doublets are the result of multiple sources. The same is true for all incongruities. Form criticism assumes that the text developed according to accepted canons of literature. That is, stories are told according to fixed-types: birth stories, creation stories, miracle stories, hospitality stories, etc. The conflict is that these stories often break so-called "source" boundaries.

Instead of claiming that the Pentateuch is composed of several sources, form criticism tends to argue that it was composed of diverse traditions that developed over time. Traditions (stories) centering around Abraham, for example, were collected together and eventually placed in a single literary work. Form criticism is still dependent upon a great redactor, such as the Priestly writer, who brought all these traditions together, but it does not depend on the presence of earlier sources.

J would thus represent an artificial unity composed of diverse traditions. Originally, form criticism was thought to supplement source criticism. Form criticism explained how the different sources looked alike (had some of the same stories). More recently, scholars have begun to recognize the basic incompatibility of these two methods.

What are we left with? (Form criticism is not without its own problems-most importantly, it assumes that texts started out as small oral units.)

There appears to be a single hand giving final shape to the Pentateuch (or at least to the Tetrateuch). This is the Priestly writer. This work is characterized by two rubrics:

  1. Toledoth: These are the generations of . . .
  2. A series of travel notices in Exod-Lev-Num.

Undoubtedly, the Priestly writer used existing material in his work. There are passages in the Pentateuch which refer to earlier works that are no longer extant, such as the book of the wars of Yahweh and the book of Jashar. But did any of this earlier material have a prior unity? Was the story line of the Pentateuch supplied by P or did P simply build upon an earlier work?

This to me must be in the realm of hypothesis. Such an earlier work we may call J for lack of a better name, but we should be clear that this is not the J of earlier scholarship.

We need to be more careful in our idenfication of J. If it is a unified strand, how may we isolate it? What criteria may we use? How do we know the extent of J? Have some parts been omitted?

The second question we must consider is: What kind of literature is J?

Traditionally, J is interpreted as a history. I have little difficulty calling it "history" depending on what one means by "history." Clearly J is not history in the sense of an objective report of events that happened at a particular place during a particular time. Nevertheless, all scholarly histories of Israel take J as a starting point. The story of J is thought to be rooted in some of the historical events that the story describes, whether it be patriarchal ancestors or the exodus from Egypt. However, the story of J does not appear to have a historical basis. As history, J is telling a story in order to say something about J's contemporary situation. J does not have antiquarian intentions.

J is similar to what scholars call myth. Here are some definitions:

  • Myth narrates a sacred history. It relates how something came into existence; thus it becomes a paradigm for all significant human acts.
  • Myth is an expression of the sacred in words: it reports realities and events from the origin of the world that remain valid for the basis and purpose of all there is.
  • Myth is an expression of our conviction that the origin and purpose of the world in which we live are to be sought not within it but beyond it-that is, beyond the realm of known and tangible reality.