The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

Now, Wellhausen dated the priestly source to, or after the exilic period, the period after the fall of the Southern Kingdom in 586 when the Babylonians have taken many of the Judeans into exile in Babylon. So the narrative parts of P, J and E are continuous parallel accounts of the history of the world, if you will, from creation until the death of Moses. Source critics believe that they have a uniform style, uniform vocabulary, uniform set of themes, and chronological framework.
So according to Wellhausen, and I sort of schematized it chronologically for you up here, the priestly school drew together all of this older material, added some of its own editorial material bridges, introductions, conclusions inserted the large priestly documents of Leviticus and Numbers, and so the Torah and they did this after sitting in exile in Babylon. So the Torah is really the result of five centuries of religious and literary activity. And this of course is a very, very different portrait from traditional claims about the authorship of the Pentateuch by one man, Moses, in approximately the fourteenth century BCE.
There are different terms that we use to describe the modern, critical study of the Bible in the late nineteenth century as I’ve just described it. One term is literary criticism, because it proceeds by closely analyzing the literary features of the text: the terminology, the style, the motifs. But because the goal of this literary critical school was to identify specific sources, isolate sources, we also refer to it as source criticism.
You’ll see those terms used interchangeably in your literature. Today literary criticism has a slightly different connotation from what it was in the nineteenth century, so people prefer the term source criticism. But you should know both are used. However, the purpose of identifying and isolating these sources was not just to say, “Look at that, there are these different sources.”
The purpose was to ascertain as far as possible their relative dates to one another, and to therefore enable the work of historical reconstruction to proceed: primarily a reconstruction of the history of the religion of Israel, and the historical situation of the authors of the different sources. Therefore literary criticism is not only called source criticism. It’s also called historical criticism, because its ultimate goal and purpose was not just to isolate the sources, but to arrange them according to relative dates as far as they might be ascertained, and then to chart changes in Israel’s religion. You have a very readable introduction to some of this in Norman Habel’s little work [Literary Criticism of the Old Testament].
Another excellent work which is not on your study hashtag that is also critical of Wellhausen and some of the biases in his work, is found in a little work called, Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman, which has a great cover because it says “Who Wrote the Bible? Richard Friedman”. So to sum up: the documentary hypothesis is an effort to explain the contradictions, the doublets, anachronisms and so on in the Bible by means of hypothetical source documents. So the theory posits hypothetical sources, traditions and documents to explain the current shape of the Torah the way we have it, to account for some of these phenomena that we find.
As a next step the sources are assigned relative dates, not absolute dates, and then they’re analyzed to reveal the different stages of Israel’s religious history. And so source criticism is also known as historical criticism because it’s a tool for getting at the history, not just at the text, but ultimately a history of Israelite religion. That is how it has been used. Now Wellhausen’s work is subtle and it’s quite brilliant, but it certainly reflects biases of nineteenth-century German scholarship, which believed strongly in the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.
In his writings, Wellhausen has some things to say about Judaism that are none too flattering. He describes Judaism at the end of the biblical period as a dead tree, twisted and perverted. He especially harbored a distaste for things cultic: priests, cult, ritual, in keeping with what was going on in Germany at the time, and the Protestant movement and so on. And these sorts of biases are very apparent in his work, and very apparent in his dating of the sources, and in his description of the evolutionary stages of Israel’s religion. So for example, source critics before Wellhausen all thought that P, the priestly material, was some of the oldest material in the Bible, that it was an early source.
But Wellhausen said no, it must be a late source, because priestly, cultic, ritual material-that’s clearly a degenerate stage of religion that shows a sort of guilt-ridden behaviorism. It’s not true of spiritual religion, so clearly that’s the latest stage of Israelite religion when it had died and was waiting to be reborn in new form with the arrival of someone in the first century. Clearly his dating of P owes a great deal to his biases and religious ideology. He saw the priestly material as having to come from the post-exilic age, post 586 or later, and this is one of Wellhausen’s most controversial points that’s still hotly debated today, and we’re going to return to this debate when we actually take a look at Leviticus and Numbers.
At that time we’ll be able to see what’s at stake in the whole question of the dating of the priestly material. The historical critical method, and the documentary hypothesis in particular, are not inherently biased, I want to make that point very strongly. They are simply analytical tools: look at the text and its features and draw some conclusions based on what you’re finding. They are simply analytical tools. They’re not inherently biased. They can be applied fairly to the text, and they’re extraordinarily useful. It’s just that some of the earlier practitioners of these methods did have ideological axes to grind, and we need to be aware of that.
The documentary hypothesis works fairly well when you have parallel accounts. It works a little bit less well when the accounts are interwoven because sometimes picking apart the sources can become dry and mechanical, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Some of the people who have carried this method to its extreme will go through and almost word for word this is J, this is E, the next word is it’s quite remarkable how certain they feel that they can break things down almost on a word to word basis as if an editor sat there with scissors and paste, cutting out word for word, and putting them together.
It sometimes can reach heights of absurdity, and it can really destroy the power of a magnificent story, sometimes, when you carve it up into pieces that on their own don’t really make all that much sense. It needs to be remembered that the documentary hypothesis is only a hypothesis. An important and a useful one, and I certainly have used it myself. But none of the sources posited by critical scholars has been found independently: we have no copy of J, we have no copy of E, we have no copy of P by itself or D by itself. So these reconstructions are based on guesses. Some of them are excellent, excellent guesses, very well supported by evidence, but some of them are not. Some of the criteria invoked for separating the sources are truly arbitrary, and extraordinarily subjective.
They are sometimes based on all sorts of unfounded assumption about the way texts were composed in antiquity, and the more that we learn about how texts in antiquity were composed, we realize for example, that it’s perhaps not unusual for a text to use two different terms for the same thing within one story, since we find texts in the sixteenth, seventeenth century BCE on one tablet using two different terms to connote the same thing. So the criteria that are invoked for separating sources often ignore the literary conventions of antiquity, and the more that we learn about that the better able we are to understand the way the biblical text was composed. Repetition isn’t always a sign of dual sources; it often servers a rhetorical function.
Variant terms aren’t always a sign of dual sources; they may have a literary or aesthetic function. So most biblical scholars today do accept some version of Wellhausen’s theory-yes, we feel the Bible is composed of different sources. We don’t always have tremendous confidence, though, in some of the finer details and conclusions of his work and the work of other scholars who followed after him. Some doubt the existence of E altogether it is so fragmentary and so isolated. Others defend the antiquity of P we’ll be coming back to that. Others argue that everything is post-exilic, everything’s after the fifth century. It was written in the fourth, third century in the Persian period.
None of it comes from an older period. Scandinavian scholars, they’re not enthusiastic about source criticism at all. The whole Copenhagen School of Bible scholarship prefers many of them to see the Bible as basically an oral narrative that just grew through accretion over time. So I did assign readings in the documentary hypothesis – it’s extraordinarily important – but you do need to understand that it is one hypothesis, a major and controlling hypothesis out there, but it’s not without criticism.
Moreover, while it’s a very important and worthwhile project to analyze the component sources and examine their specific concerns and contribution, and you’ll see that I’m a very great fan of P, we must remember that whatever sources were woven together, they were woven together with great skill and care by a final redactor, or redactors, who wanted them to be read as a unity, and surely that must mean something. It must mean they can be read as a unity and that that’s a challenge that’s been issued to us. So the Bible can be read both analytically and synthetically.
With some strange scenario that makes both things work.” Be aware that there are problems, contradictions, these derive from different sources, but also be sensitive to the artistry of the final composition. What does it mean that both of these elements have been retained here side by side? What is the phrase? The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So keep that awareness. And in the last 20 years or so, source criticism – actually 30 years or so – source criticism in the conventional sense of the analysis of documentary sources has been supplemented by other new and exciting methodologies in the study of the Bible, and we’ll see some of those. I’ve also included as optional reading for you sometimes, a couple of articles that analyze biblical stories.
They are written by someone who thinks that documentary hypothesis just doesn’t really help us out much at all, and she gives some wonderful, coherent readings of stories that argue this scene here or this contradiction here isn’t a sign of a different source; it serves this literary purpose, that literary purpose. And I put those in subversively for you to have a look at in your own time. They’re brilliantly written and they give you insight into the various ways in which we can read the text. But many of the alternative methodologies for studying the text do assume sources, in some broad sense even if not all the details of Wellhausen’s theory, so it’s clear that a great deal of biblical scholarship owes its accomplishments and its theories to the work that was done by the source critics of the nineteenth century. I want to flip back to text for a moment before I return to talk about a whole contradictory set of methodologies, or methodologies that pull in another direction.
But first I want to get us up to the patriarchs and matriarchs where we’re going to be starting off on Monday. We have just had a flood, and then we move into Genesis 10; and Genesis 10 contains a genealogical table of nations. In this table, peoples of various lands are portrayed as having descended from a common source, a common ancestor, Noah, through his three sons, Japheth, Ham and Shem. Shem: Shemites, Semites. Shemites are said to descend from Noah’s son, Shem. The biblical text at this point is understanding humanity as basically sharing a common root united by a common language.
The story that follows in Genesis 11 can be understood then as an etiological tale, a tale that comes to explain something, and this tale is coming to explain the diversification of language: when we look around we see that in fact people don’t seem to be that united and are in fact divided by their languages and so on. So how are we to account for the diversification of languages, the spread of different ethnic linguistic groups throughout the lands of the earth if we all come from one common creative moment, one common ancestor?
Genesis 11 explains that. The story is therefore going to act as a bridge between the first section of Genesis which has a universal scale, a universal scope, and what happens in Genesis beginning in Chapter 12, where we’re going to focus in on one ethnic, linguistic group and one land.
This story serves as the bridge, first of all explaining how it is that a united humanity speaking a common language even becomes diversified linguistically and ethnically, to then focus in on one group and one land. Babel, pronounced “bavel” in Hebrew, is Babylon. The tower in the story of the Tower of Babel is identified by scholars as a very famous tower, a ziggurat, a ziggurat to Marduk in Babylon. The Bible’s hostility to Babylon – after all it’s going to be the Babylonians who are going to destroy them in 586 – but the Bible’s hostility to Babylon and its imperialism is clear.
This story has a satirical tone. The word Babel, Bavel, means Gate of the God, but it’s the basis for a wonderful pun in Hebrew, which also actually happens to work in English. Babble [is] nonsensical speaking, confusion of language. And I think there’s obviously some onomatopoeic quality to “Babel” that makes it have that kind of a meaning both in English and a similar word in Hebrew [balbel].
So this word can also with a little bit of punning mean confusion, or confused language. So this mighty tower that was obviously the pride of Babylon in the ancient world is represented by the biblical storywriter as the occasion for the confusion of human language. The construction of Marduk’s ziggurat is represented as displeasing to God. Why?
There are very many possible interpretations and our commentaries are full of them. Some interpreters view the tower builders as seeking to elevate themselves to storm heaven by building a tower with its top in the sky. Others see the builders as defying God’s direct order. Remember, God said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” spread out and fill the earth. But these people are said to come together, they congregate in one place, and instead of spreading out they’re trying to rise high. There seems to be a real defiance of God’s design for humanity, and so God frustrates their plan for self-monumentalizing, and he scatters them over the face of the earth.
He makes it more difficult for them to do this again by confusing their tongues. Once again there’s a very steep learning curve for this God. He has to keep adjusting things depending on what it is that humans are doing. So now he’s got to confuse their languages. Some interpreters see this story as representing a rejection of civilization or certain aspects of civilization. Monumental architecture, empire building, these are always things that are looked upon with suspicion for most of the biblical sources and biblical writers. Those sorts of ambitions are viewed negatively.
They lead to human self-aggrandizement. They are indicative of an arrogant sort of self-reliance that the prophets will certainly rail against and in some sense a forgetting of God. So this is a time in which humans spread out, lose their unity, and this is also a time really when they turn to the worship of other gods. The first 11 chapters of Genesis then have given us a cosmic, universal setting for the history of Israel.
Those first chapters cover 2500 years if you go through and add up the chronologies. The rest of Genesis, Genesis 12 through 50, will cover just four generations: the generations of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. They will be Abraham and Sarah; their son Isaac, his wife Rebekah; their son Jacob, his two wives Rachel and Leah, I am leaving out other wives; but finally their children, 12 sons and one daughter. So God’s focus has shifted dramatically, the text’s focus has shifted dramatically. Why? When you get to the end of Genesis 11 you feel that God has been rather shut out.
Things aren’t going well. Although God created the earth as an intrinsically good paradise, he created humans in his image, he provided for them, humans to this point have put their moral freedom pretty much to poor use. Many scholars, Kaufman, Sarna and others, say that one of the differences then between these myths of Israel and the mythologies of their neighbors is that in Ancient Near Eastern mythologies you have the struggle of good and evil cosmic powers.
In the myths of the Bible this is replaced by a struggle between the will of God and rebellious humans. So these myths are telling also of a struggle, but it’s on a different plane. Adam and Eve, Cain, the generation of the flood, the builders of the tower of Babel – God has been continually spurned or thwarted by these characters.
So he’s withdrawing his focus, and is going to choose to reveal himself to one small group, as if to say, “Okay, I can’t reach everybody, let me see if I can just find one person, one party, and start from there and build out.” And so in Genesis 12 which begins the second stage of the Bible’s historical narrative, we read that God calls to Abram to leave the land of his fathers and travel to a land which God will show him, beginning a whole new stage of the biblical narrative, and we’ll sense that there’s a very different feeling when you get to Genesis 12.
When you read that material, it will feel different to you. And because of that we need to talk a little bit more about ways to read the biblical text, methods of criticism and so on. In preparation for looking at the biblical narrative material that deals specifically with the Israelites, we need to think of some, or learn about some, of the other critical methodologies that are used in biblical scholarship, and for a moment we’re going to the adopt the role of historian. I’m going to ask you to think like historians – whatever that might mean – now and as we move into next week and look at Genesis 12 through 50.
The source critical method that we talked about today focuses on the hypothetical period of the compilation of the text, the compilation of the four sources into the Torah. But later scholars began to ask, “Well, what about the pre-history of those sources? What were the sources’ sources?” Why should that be important? Remember that the source critics claimed and concluded that J, E, P and D were written from the tenth to the sixth centuries, and the implication, well actually not just the implication, the strong assertion of many of them was that despite the fact that they purport to tell of events prior to 1000, in fact they’re just not at all reliable for those periods.
They were written centuries after the fact, we really can’t know anything about Israel, Israel’s religion, Israel’s history, religious history before the tenth century. That was a very dissatisfying conclusion to many people, because the writers of J, E, P and D probably didn’t sit down at typewriters and just invent their documents out of whole cloth. It doesn’t seem that that’s the way these materials would have been composed. They didn’t invent, probably, all of these cultic rules and ritual practices all of a sudden.
It seems likely that they were drawing on older traditions themselves: older stories, older customs, older laws, ritual practices. Scholars in the next wave of biblical scholarship began to ask a different set of questions; they became interested in asking: what materials did the compiler or the compilers of J or E or P draw on in the composition of those sources?
Did they use more ancient materials, and if so can we figure out what they were? Do they contain reliable traditions for an earlier stage? And if so, then maybe we do have access after all to information regarding Israelite history prior to the year 1000. Suddenly you see an analytical approach to the Bible that’s going to pull in the exact opposite direction from the classical source theory.
One of the leading scholars to take up this question was Hermann Gunkel. Gunkel had a great knowledge of the oral literature of other cultures, other nations, and that led him to ask: Can we perhaps analyze these four literary source documents and figure out the pre-literary stages of their development? What went into their compilation and composition? He found support for this idea within the Bible itself because at times the Bible seems to name earlier sources quite explicitly. We don’t have records of those sources anymore, but they seem to be named in the Bible.
In Numbers 21:14 there’s a little poetic excerpt that gives the boundaries between Moab and the Amorites, and it’s quoted and it says it’s from the Book of the Wars of the Lord. It’s quoted as if this is a source that the person is drawing on and using in the composition of his text, and it’s quoted in a way that makes it sound as if the source should be familiar to the reader.
We also have mention of something called the Book of Yashar in Joshua, that’s also quoted, in Joshua 10:13. Or in 2 Samuel 1:18, we have David lamenting, a very beautiful lament over the death of Saul and his beloved Jonathan. It seems to actually be an epic song that recounts acts of Israel’s heroes. He’s reciting that now as he laments over the death of these two, and so it seems to be an earlier source that’s been put into the story of David and his lament.
So it seems reasonable in light of the practices of other people, other ancient cultures and literatures as well as some contemporary literatures, and it seems reasonable in light of the explicit citation of sources in the biblical text to suppose that in fact the four primary documents are themselves compilations from other source materials, or drawing on written or oral materials from an even earlier period.
Gunkel began to focus on small little units. He was interested in small units within the four primary documents, and he identified genres or forms, what he called forms. The German word is a Gattung, Gattungen, forms. He would identify these small units, and that gave rise to the name of this approach, which is form criticism. He believed that what he was doing was identifying older, pre-literary forms that had been taken up and incorporated by the literary sources, by J, E, P and D.
Examples of the kind of form, or Gattung, that he would identify are things like a hymn, a proverb – we often have biblical texts quoting proverbs that seem to be folk sayings – laws, rituals, folk stories of a particular type, poems, legends, songs, fragments of mythology. So for example he says of Genesis 6:1-4, a passage that you’ve read: When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”
It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim [these giants of some kind] appeared on earth – when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring [these giants, these Nephilim]. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. That’s just stuck in there, in Genesis 6:1-4. This is an older fragment of a mythology or a legend which is put into place here. It’s explaining the origin of heroes and great men of renown in the old days. He also says that there are etiological stories.
We’ve talked about those – legends that give the origin of a name, or a ritual, or an institution. There are different types of etiological stories. He says there are ethnological legends that will give you the story accounting for the origin of a particular people: so the Moabites for example, and the Ammonites – not a flattering story at all following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Obviously the Israelites didn’t care for those people very much and gave them a pretty nasty origin. We also have etymological legends, because they’re explaining the name of something. It’s given this particular name because of an etymomological connection with some event earlier.
So all of these things, he argues, are probably older existing traditions that have been taken up and adapted by the biblical writer, and they may preserve some historical reminiscence.
More importantly, more important then the actual events that they might be reporting, is the fact that behind each of these is some sort of function. Each one of these did some sort of cultural work, it had some function or setting in life.
That’s what we can discover when we isolate these forms: this setting in life. That helps us learn something about ancient Israelite society or culture way before the tenth century. That’s Gunkel’s claim. So form criticism wasn’t content with just identifying these various types of material, these various genres; it asked what was their function? What was their Sitz im Leben? What was their situation in life, their cultural context?

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