Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Shaping the Pentateuch

Posted by foryourfaith on May 18, 2012


The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was not written, as long supposed, by Moses or any other individual. Rather it probably interweaves four sources, identified by the letter J, E, P and D, as explained earlier. The time and place in which these sources were written is uncertain, but there is a general agreement on some points.

J the oldest source, probably dates back to the ninth century BC, after Israel had split into the southern Kingdom of Judah, which continued to be ruled by the descendants of David, and the northern kingdom of Israel, which had its own, non-Davidic kings. J stresses the monarchy by focusing on God’s promise to bring the Israelite tribes together under one king, thus implying criticism of the secession of the north. Theologically, J is the simplest source, viewing God as a compassionate being who communicates face to face. Its literary style is lively and colorful. J stresses stories and traditions of the southern tribes, including those of Abraham, who lived in the southern city of Hebron.

E, which probably dates to the eighth century, focuses on the leadership of Moses and the prophets rather than kings. Its style is more sophisticated than J’s and God is less personal, communicating through angels or in dreams. E stresses traditions and characters from the northern kingdom. Sometime after the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrian conquerors, copies of E may have been taken south to Jerusalem. E was combined with J sometime in the mid-seventh century.

D, or at least a large part of it, probably made up the book of law that was found in the temple in 621 BC, and read to King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8). The remainder of D may have been written later. D emphasizes the need for central worship, as advocated by Josiah, and several references seem to be to the reign of Josiah. Scholars say that D was added to the combined J and E in the mix-sixth century.

P may have been added to the earlier sources during the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century, by priests who were attempting to demonstrate and preserve the origins of temple rituals. In the P texts the priest is the ultimate authority; prophets play no part. According to p, only Aaron’s descendants are priests, while in the other sources all Levites, whether descended from Aaron or not, are priests, there are more than 200 references to the tabernacle (a tent worship center, and the forerunner of the temple in Jerusalem), while the tabernacle is mentioned only three times in E and never in J and D. P is more rigid in tone than J or E. There are no angels, talking animals or dreams in P, and no references to god mixing with humans – or wrestling with them. Instead, there is an interest in ages, dates and measurements not found in the other sources.

Some scholars believe that P was not added to the other sources until the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. At that time it might have been composed by a priest who was attempting to re-establish rituals and customs while the temple was being rebuilt. That priest may even have been Ezra, offering some modest basis for the fanciful story, told in 2 Esdras, of his dictating the entire Old Testament to scribes.

The editors of the Pentateuch, whoever they were, did a masterful job of pulling the texts together. In some cases, stories from the various sources are simply placed one after the other, as in the two versions of the creation in Genesis 1 and 2. In other places, however, sources are so closely knit together it is hard to separate them.

For example, in the story of Joseph, E and J versions are entwined. Genesis 37:21-24 reports that Reuben keeps his brothers from murdering their younger brother Joseph by convincing them to throw him into a pit, planning to rescue him later. Reuben’s plans will be thwarted when the other brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a group of Midianites. But Genesis 37:25-27 says that it is Judah who saves Joseph’s life, suggesting that he be sold to a band of Ishmaelites. Then these two traditions come together in a verse that seems to name both the Midianites and the Ishmaelites as the traders who bough Joseph: “When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ismaelites for 20 pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28). This passage also demonstrates the northern and southern biases of J and E. For in the E version Reuben, whose descendants settled in the north, saves Joseph, while in the J version Judah, whose descendants settled in the south, does so.

In places, the editors of the Pentateuch pieced together strains of the various sources by simply linking them with phrases or even single words – such as adding “again” to justify repetitions. In other places they repeated a sentence from one source after inserting something from a different source, thus bringing the reader back to the earlier point. In other cases, they separated accounts by adding genealogies or other supplemental material,. In all they did, however, the editors took care never to significantly change or delete material from their sources. In fact, the editors held their material in such high regard that they incorporated seeming contradictions and awkwardnesses into the text rather than change essential materials for a smoother read.


North Against South

There are many reasons for believing that the J source of the Pentateuch was written in the south after Israel had been split into northern and southern kingdoms. However, the story of how the Israelites acquired the city of Shechem, which was later to become the capital of the northern kingdom, makes it dramatically clear. According to J, the land was acquired through treachery. This account (now Genesis 34) tells how Shechem, the prince for whom the city was named, raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, but then repented and offered to marry her and make peace. Dinah’s outraged brothers slyly pretended to agree to this plan, but only if Shechem and all his men would be circumcised. But while the men were still sore from their circumcisions, Jacobs sons killed them and plundered their city. According to the northern E source, however, Jacob simply bought land at Shechem, which was to become the northern capital (Genesis 33:18-19), and omits the ugly story told in J.


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