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Did Moses Really Write the Pentateuch? (part 2 of 3)

"The Documentary Hypothesis, or the view that the Pentateuch is a combination of (at least) four different documents, enjoyed the status of scholarly orthodoxy for about a century."

Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Third Edition. John J. Collins, 2018: 56

In the first post, we looked at the problem of Mosaic authorship - namely, that there are various aspects of the Pentateuch that lead scholars to believe that it is not the product of a single author, but rather an amalgamation of different texts. These include stylistic variation, doublets, contradictions, and other literary difficulties. In this post, we will go into more detailed analysis of specific issues. We will begin with doublets: duplicating stories that are found in the text. Doublets, by nature, will contain contradictions, which we will specify in a later section. We have already mentioned the duplicated creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 and the two flood stories that appear in chapters 6-9. Let’s take a few minutes and look in a bit more detail at the flood narrative and see how it divides into two stories, one by the J source and one by the P source (see Collins 57ff):

Without doing a complete analysis of this text, we should note a couple of things. First, in the P story, Noah is commanded to take two of every animal into the ark, while in J, Noah is commanded to take seven pairs of clean animals and two of unclean animals. In P, the flood lasted 150 days, while in J, the flood lasted 40 days.

Baden summarizes nicely the quintessential nature of this passage with respect to contradictions and doublets:

“The standard example of this is the beginning of the flood story, in Genesis 6:17-7:5. In 6:17-22, God tells Noah that he is going to bring a flood and instructs him to bring into the ark two of each kind of animal; we are then told that “Noah did so; just as God had commanded him, so he did” (v. 22). In 7:1-5, Yahweh tells Noah that he is going to bring a flood and instructs him to bring into the ark two of each unclean animal and seven pairs of every clean animal; we are then told that “Noah did just as Yahweh commanded him” (v. 5). The story thus presents the same events happening twice – God’s announcement of the flood, instructions about the animals, and the fulfillment of those instructions by Noah – which marks it as a doublet. The story also tells us that on the one hand, Noah is to bring two of every animal (and he does so), and on the other, that he is to bring two of every unclean and seven of every clean animal (and he does so) – a glaring contradiction.”

The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis. Joel Baden, 2012.

Of course, Baden and Collins are not the only ones to notice these doublets and contradictions; please see below for a bibliography that you can use to survey scholarly opinion on these issues.

Returning to our analysis, other clear doublets can be seen in the Pentateuch. In Genesis 21:31, we see that Beersheba, a city in the south of Israel, is named by Abraham when he swears an oath with Abimelech. However, in Genesis 26:33, the text reports that the city is named after the events surrounding the interaction between Isaac and Abimelech. In Genesis 28:19, the city of Luz was renamed Bethel by Jacob on his way to live with Laban, but in Genesis 35:15, it is changed to Bethel when he is returning from Laban. Furthermore, we know that the city was already referred to as Bethel in the text in Genesis 12:8. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel as he wrestled with the divine being in Genesis 32:29, but again by God in Genesis 35:10. Finally, in Exodus 17, before arriving at the mountain, the people run out of water, and Moses struck the rock, causing it to produce water. The name of the place is then changed to Massah and Meribah. However, in Numbers 20, after leaving the mountain, a similar event takes place at Meribah.

Having viewed several examples of doublets in the Pentateuch, let’s look at other contradictions that appear in the text.* As noted above, Moses’ father-in-law is named Reuel in Exodus 2:18, but Jethro in Exodus 3:1. The mountain in the wilderness was called Sinai (Exod 19:11) and Horeb (Exod 3:1; Deut 1:6). Aaron died either at Mt. Hor (Num 20:23-29) or Moserah (Deut 10:6). Was the world originally water (Genesis 1), or was it dry (Genesis 2)? Were male and female created at the same time (Genesis 1:27), or was woman created later, from the rib of the man (Gen 2:22)? Was the creation of man done at the end of the creative process (Genesis 1), or at the end (Gen 2)? Other examples include the occasion for the assigning of duties to the Levites: in Numbers 3-4, it occurred after the descent from the mountain, but in Deuteronomy 10:8, it took place in the wilderness of Jotbath. We could ask, why was Moses not allowed to enter the promised land? Was it because of his actions at Meribah, as stated in Numbers 20:2-13, or because of the sins of the people (Deut 1:37-38)?

Just a couple more!

Was the Tent of Meeting located in the center of the camp (Numbers 2-3), or outside of the camp (Exod 33:7)? Did the Lord remain constantly in the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34-38), or only periodically (Exod 33:8-11)? Finally, was Moses unique (Deut 34:10-12)… or not (Deut 18:15)? Again, the position taken here is not that there are no possible answers to any of these doublets or contradictions. The sheer number of these literary problems is what leads us to seek a model that better accounts for the data.

It should be noted that Joel Baden restricts the definition of “doublet” passages in this way:

“Two passages must not only tell a similar story, but do so in a way that renders them mutually exclusive: they must be events that could not possibly happen more than once.”

Baden 2012: 17

While Baden would not count the “wife-as-a-sister” story as a doublet, it is certainly a repeated motif seen with Abram in Genesis 12 and 20, as well as Isaac in chapter 26. Collins similarly notes the dual covenants in Genesis 15 and 17, the repeated dealings of Abraham with Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21, though Baden would likely not consider these doublets, strictly speaking.

Okay, so, how do we make sense of all of this? Again, if one concludes that there was a single divinely-inspired author – Moses – who composed the Pentateuch, and that the text is inerrant, then the difficulty is attempting to reconcile the discrepancies described above. However, if one allows for multiple authors, editors, and redactors to the text, then the process by which these distinct traditions were brought together is the focus of investigation.

Probably the most well-known theory of how the Pentateuch came together was made popular by Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century: the Documentary Hypothesis. You may have heard it called the JEDP theory. The basic premise is this: the problems described above (contradictions, doublets, discrepencies, etc.) lead to the identification of separate stories, or traditions, in a variety of places within the Pentateuch (for example, the flood story, as shown above). When these individual stories were isolated, in many instances, the individual sources had individual features that remained generally consistent throughout. For example, two sources used different names for the deity with some consistency. One source used the name Yahweh, another Elohim. Thus, the “Yahweh” source was called “J” (J for Jehovist), and the “Elohim” source was called “E.” In the end, there were four sources that were thought to have been combined to produce the final form of the Pentateuch: J, E, D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly).

In short, there is a connection between the individual strands that run through the Pentateuch and the use of the divine name in the book of Genesis. Thus, the Yahweh source was called ‘J’ for Jehova, and the Elohim source was called 'E' for - that's right - Elohim. These sources are not identified based on the use of the divine name - a common misunderstanding of the Documentary Hypothesis. Baden notes:

“The names Yahwist and Elohist are not particularly helpful; indeed because they imply that the use of the name ‘Yahweh’ or the title ‘Elohim’ is the primary means by which the sources are identifiable, they are largely misleading. These names originate from an early period of Pentateuchal scholarship in which the alternation of the divine designations was seen as the single overriding key to the disentanglement of the sources in Genesis, to the neglect of all other narrative inconsistencies”.

Baden 2012: 22

In the end, there are four sources distinguished by a number of individual features that are thought to have been combined to produce the final form of the Pentateuch - J, E, D and P. 'D' for Deuteronomist, and 'P' for Priestly.

In the final blog post in this series, we will take a look at some of the general characteristics of each of these sources, and discuss criticisms that have been leveled at the Documentary Hypothesis by other scholars.

* For a convenient collection of these contradictions (and other literary difficulties), see Baden’s monograph in the bibliography.

Don't take our word for it - read for yourself!

  • Baden, J. 2012. The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis.

  • Blum, E. 1990. Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch, BZAW 189.

  • Carr, D. 2011. The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

  • Collins, J. 2018. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd Edition.

  • Dozeman, T. & K. Schmid (eds.), Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation.

  • Dozeman, T. et al. (eds.), 2011. Pentateuch, Hexateuch, or Enneateuch? Identifying Literary Works in Genesis through Kings.

  • Gertz, J. et al. (eds.), 2016. The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America.

  • Kratz, R. 2016. “The Analysis of the Pentateuch: An Attempt to Overcome Barriers of Thinking” ZAW 128.

  • ________, 2005. The Composition of the Narrative Books of the Old Testament.

  • Römer, T. 2007. The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction.

  • Schmid, K. 2010. Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel’s Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Schmid, K. & R. Person, Jr. (eds.), 2012. Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch, Hexateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.Ska, J.-L. 2006. Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch.

  • Tigay, J. 2012. “The Documentary Hypothesis, Empirical Models and Holistic Interpretation,” pp. 116-143 in J. Ikeda (ed.), Modernity and Interpretations of Ancient Texts: The Collapse and Remaking of Traditions.

  • ________, 2002. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic

  • van Seters, J. 1992. Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers.

  • ________, 2015. The Pentateuch: A Social-Science Commentary, 2nd Edition.

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