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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Theology of the Pentateuchal Sources.

1. General considerations.

Twentieth-century scholars have been occupied by another development in Pentateuchal study, going beyond the analysis into sources: that is, the theology—or rather theologies, for they differ considerably—of the sources. In fact the realization of the differences is one of the main benefits of source-analysis. One may draw an analogy with what has happened in NT study of the Gospels—there too a source-critical phase and a form-critical phase have been followed by a phase that focuses on the theologies of the different evangelists. The theological study of the sources of the Pentateuch seems to date from von Rad's ‘Hexateuch’ essay ( 1938 ), in which he identified the author of the J source as a creative theological writer. The modifications which von Rad thought J had made to the tradition (combination of Sinai and settlement; addition of primeval history) were clearly an advance in theology and not just innovations on the literary level. It is now widely recognized that the interpretation of a particular Pentateuchal passage must take account of its setting within the context of the source-document to which it belongs and ask, ‘How is the inclusion of this passage related to the author's overall purpose and plan?’ Von Rad again is a good illustration of this at many places in his Genesis commentary, though he concentrates mainly on the J source. Further studies of this kind can be found in Brueggemann and Wolff (1975 ). Before looking briefly at each source in turn I want to make some general, and rather polemical, points about our method and aim.


First, the method must be addressed: how are we to determine the theology of a document which is essentially in narrative form? There are various possibilities:


The best-known studies of this topic have tended to concentrate either on specific passages that make clearly theological statements or on expressions which recur in a number of passages. For example, Gen 12:1–3 has been regarded as almost the motto of the J writer (so by von Rad, Wolff, and others), with special emphasis being laid on Abraham as the means of blessing for all the peoples of the earth. Other passages have also been thought to shed particular light on the theology of this writer: thus, in Gen 1–11; 6:5; 8:21 , and later on 18:22b–33 . Again, Wolff's brilliant study of the theology of E is largely concerned with the recurring expressions ‘the fear of God’ ( 20:11 , etc.) and God ‘testing’ or ‘proving’ someone (Gen 22:1; Ex 20:20 ). In the case of Deuteronomy the key terms ‘covenant’ and ‘law’ have often been picked out, or the demand for the centralization of the cult (Deut 12:1–14 ). Finally, in his essay on the theology of P, Brueggemann sees the declaration of blessing in Gen 1:28 as ‘the central message in the faith of the priestly circle’, which is recapitulated in later passages such as Gen 9:7; 17:20; 28:1–4; 35:11; Ex 1:7 . There is no doubt that this is a natural and useful approach to take, but if it is used alone as it sometimes is, it is in danger of producing an account of the theology of the sources that is both one-sided and oversimplified. For that reason it is very important to look also at two other aspects of the texts.


One of these is the range of contents of a particular source, that is, particularly, where it begins and ends. Again the study of the Gospels is an illuminating comparison, for they all begin and end at different points, at least if it is kept in mind that Luke's Gospel is only the first part of a 2-volume work. The different beginnings were already noticed by Irenaeus in the second century CE. The Pentateuchal sources also all begin at different points, but unfortunately the question of their endings is not so simple, and it is much argued whether J, E, and P did or did not go on to describe the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, while Deuteronomy can be said to ‘end’ at two very different places. Still, the different beginnings are clear enough, and they have important implications for the theology of the sources.


Also important is what I would call the form of presentation and the arrangement of the contents of the source, and in fact von Rad makes these factors fundamental for his exploration of the theology of the Yahwist. What I have in mind is first the general shape of the source—is it essentially a narrative or a collection of speeches? And what kind of narrative or speeches?—and then the more detailed structure of the contents.


Secondly, the aim must be decided: what is it that we are trying to do? I would see this as being to state the religious assertions that are made by the document as a whole, or at least in so far as it has been preserved. I say this over against the approach which seeks out only what is distinctive or what is new in a particular source. This has sometimes been the way of putting the question—it is in these terms that von Rad puts it in relation to the Yahwist—but (1) we then presuppose that we can make a clear distinction between the contribution of an author himself and what he inherited from his predecessors. This may sometimes be possible but frankly we are often not in a position to do that with any certainty when dealing with the Pentateuchal sources, and that is an important part of the reason why scholars have found it difficult sometimes to agree in this area. (2) In any case the theology of an author is shaped and expressed as much by what he reproduces from earlier tradition as by the fresh insights (if any) which he brings to it himself.


One further point: the authors produced their work in particular historical situations and addressed themselves to those situations. It must therefore be part of our aim to discover what those situations were, i.e. to date the work, and to relate what it says to the events of its time. But since most of the evidence for dating comes from the theological themes that are prominent in the sources, this part of our task can only be approached after we have reached an understanding of its theology by the methods described above.


Two important features are common to all four sources of the Pentateuch: (1) they all alike seek to define the character of the relationship between YHWH and Israel; (2) they do this by reference to certain ancient events, among which the sequence patriarchs–Exodus–Sinai–occupation of the land is present in all of them. Nevertheless in their handling of these common features they differ considerably.

6. The Theology of J.

J, in overall shape, is clearly a narrative. But what kind of a narrative? Some of the important events described would clearly justify von Rad's term, used of the Hexateuch as a whole, ‘creed’, but others, such as the stories of Abraham's or Jacob's exploits, do not fit this description very well. One might say then that there is a credal framework filled out with what might be called illustrative material. An alternative approach is to begin at the other end with the genre-description ‘epic’, and then qualify this by a term such as ‘religious’ or ‘theological’. Somewhere at the convergence of these two approaches an accurate description is to be found. The narrative shape of J has led to the view that his theology, like that of other OT writers, is a theology of history, i.e. a witness to and interpretation of the acts of God in history. The question does of course arise as to how far the ‘history’ in J's account is real history, especially in Gen 1–11 , and the recently coined term ‘narrative theology’ is more widely applicable. Either way, the difference between J's theology and a timeless, philosophical theology needs to be noted.


J begins with creation: but it is worth amplifying this to ‘the creation of human beings’, because in Gen 2:4–5 the references to the creation of the natural world are in a subordinate clause, and not part of the actual story, which begins only in v. 7 : ‘Then the Lord God formed man …’. J's story is thus human history from its beginning to—wherever J ended! That we do not know for sure, but the occupation of the land of Canaan by Israel seems the most likely ending, whether, as some still think, that ending is preserved in the book of Joshua or not.


The contents of J can be subdivided into two parts: Gen 2–11 , ‘The Early History of Mankind in General’; and Gen 12 onwards, ‘The Early History of Israel and their Ancestors’. An account of J's theology must address both parts of the document and, which is very important, the fact that they have been brought together. In Gen 2–11 we have a number of stories about the earliest ages of human history, which now have an interesting parallel in the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis, which covers a similar span of early history. They do not pretend to present a complete history of these times, but only certain episodes with a particular importance for later generations. These episodes are presented either as the cause of a present state of affairs (human mortality, the need to work for a living, the existence of many languages, for example) or as paradigms of situations that may occur at any time (the rivalry of brothers, the attempt to break through the limits imposed on man by God), or as both. Westermann points out how the family is often in view. Of course in all cases the context is theological, and the sequence of sin–punishment–mercy appears several times, both as the cause of the present state of the world and as typical of God's government of the world at all times.


J's presentation of the early history of Israel is shot through with the idea of election, that Israel is YHWH's own people, which he brought into being, protected, and settled in her land, to fulfil the promises which he had made to her distant ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That history too illustrates the themes of sin–punishment–grace (especially in the wilderness), but more especially that of YHWH as a powerful deliverer and provider of his people's needs: corresponding to this, faith in God is the primary virtue (Gen 15:6, cf. Ex 4:30–1; 14:13, 31 ). There are some passages, chiefly poetic, in this section which seem to relate to events of J's own time and are the basis for attempts to date him to the tenth century BCE: according to them Israel is destined to be a great nation, who will rule her neighbours and have a king from the tribe of Judah (Gen 24:60; 27:27–9; 49:8–12; Num 24:15–19 ). Interestingly none of these passages is exactly in the form of a divine promise and perhaps this means that J did not regard political power as of the very essence of Israel's relationship to YHWH.


What is the significance of the combination of the two parts together? There has of late been a tendency to focus on the gloomy side of Gen 1–11 , which ends, as von Rad points out, with the story of the scattering of the nations. Unlike earlier acts of judgement, this one is not mitigated by any word of grace and mercy. The word of mercy to the nations comes, according to this view, in a quite new form, in 12:1–3 , where YHWH promises his blessing of Abraham's descendants, i.e. of Israel, and that ‘in you [or: your seed] all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ ( 12:3 —cf. 26:4; 28:14 ), i.e. that Abraham/Israel is destined to mediate YHWH's blessing to other nations. J's theology is thus universalistic: it looks beyond Israel to God's work in the wider world. There is however a snag with this interpretation (see the note on this verse), and that is that the crucial words in Gen 12:3 could be translated in a different way: ‘by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves’, that is, Abraham would be the standard to which all others would want to rise, without it being implied that this was in fact YHWH's intention for them (cf. Ps 72:17 ; and for the idea Zech 8:13 ). Then J is only speaking directly about YHWH's purpose for Israel. However that may be, we must certainly not make the mistake of thinking that Gen 1–11 serves in its present context only to indicate what the world needs to be saved from. In other respects, as we saw, it specifies the unchanging conditions under which human life has to be lived, as much in Israel as anywhere else, and shows YHWH's dominion as creator over the whole world. This is also a kind of universal theology and ethics, but it differs from the salvation-history kind that has been found in 12:3 etc. and is not dependent upon it. Other signs of a universal interest are the Table of Nations (ch. 10 ) and the use of Mesopotamian materials in the Flood story, as well as the Tower of Babel story in ch. 11 , which seems implicitly to challenge the pretensions of the great world-empires of the ancient Near East, and especially those of Babylon. The approach is reminiscent of the wisdom literature in a number of ways. In this respect Gen 2–11 is not the antithesis to the kerygma of 12:1–3 , law to gospel as it were, but displays God's wider work in creation and providence as the basis for his work in his own people's history.

11. The Theology of E.

The E source survives to a much smaller extent than J. In shape or general character E seems to have been very similar to J, and what was said earlier about this in relation to J applies broadly to E. On the other hand the range covered seems to be less, for there is no evidence that E had any account of creation or the early history of the human race as a whole: it began its account with the patriarchs, specifically with Abraham. Most of Gen 20–2 is attributed to E, and it has commonly been thought that part of Gen 15 , which describes the making of a covenant between God and Abraham, is also from E and indeed its beginning. It is certainly an appropriate place to begin the story of Israel's origins.


From Abraham on the contents of E apparently corresponded closely to those of J, with even greater uncertainty about whether it originally included an account of the occupation of Canaan or not. This means that the theological affirmations of E about the actions and character of YHWH are to a large extent the same as J's, and to save repetition it is possible to note just some important differences:


The most obvious difference is the lack of the universal perspective (in whatever sense) provided in J by the primeval history (Gen 1–11 ) and perhaps by Gen 12:3 . For E God's purposes are in the main limited to his people Israel. Individual foreigners are, however, shown to have recognized the authority of Israel's God (cf. Abimelech in Gen 20 and Jethro in Ex 18 ). This is reminiscent of the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 and Naaman in 2 Kings 5 , in prophetic stories from the northern kingdom, which is often seen as the environment in which E was composed.


It is apparently the view of E that the special name for God, YHWH, was not known to the patriarchs, but was first revealed to Moses (Ex 3:14–15 : the same view is also held by P (Ex 6:2–3 )). This has two effects: it links the beginning of Israel's religion particularly strongly with the Exodus and the mountain of God in the wilderness, and it makes a distinction between patriarchal religion and Israelite religion which, while not absolute, remains important. The character of God as conveyed in his name is given a rare, though elusive, exposition by E in 3:14 : ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I will be what I will be’ (see the commentary).


On the subject of political power, E also includes passages which speak of Israel's great destiny (cf. Gen 46:1–4; Num 23:18–24 ), but it is noticeable that they do not give any special place to Judah, but rather celebrate the supremacy of the northern tribes Ephraim and Manasseh (cf. Deut 33:13–17 ; also Gen 48:15–16 ). This is one reason for thinking that E originated in the northern kingdom (cf. Jenks 1977 ).


Each of these three features in which E differs from J is probably due to E's having retained the attitudes and presentation of the story which were current in earlier times, while J represents a new approach in each. Two other differences are more likely to be due to E's own contribution.


H. W. Wolff (1975) has noted the concern of E for ‘the fear of God’, as an all-embracing religious attitude (in addition to Gen 20:11 cf. 22:12; 42:18 : Ex 1:17, 21; 18:21; 20:20 ).


E's narratives reflect a greater preoccupation than the corresponding passages in J with ethical standards of behaviour as the condition of God's blessing of his people. This is particularly clear if one compares the parallel stories in Gen 12:10–20J and 20:1–18E, where the latter passage includes Abimelech's protestation of his innocence and the implication that Abraham's behaviour is reprehensible. It would be even clearer if it were certain that the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant were included in E, as used to be thought, but this has been questioned in recent years, perhaps rightly.

14. The Theology of Deuteronomy (D).

Deuteronomy/D stands in great contrast to J and E in both its shape and its range, not to speak of its structure, whether one considers its original nucleus ( 4:44–29:1 ) or its amplified form. As regards its shape it consists not of narrative, but of a series of speeches, which can most adequately be described as preaching: they speak directly to the people in the second person and urge them to do certain things for reasons that are also stated. Events of the early history are generally referred to in passing and are not the main subject of what is being said. This leads on to the range of the contents: in the nucleus there is no attempt at a connected description of early history as found in J and E, but rather the portrayal of a single event in great detail, namely Moses' parting speeches to the Israelites as they are encamped on the banks of the river Jordan. The structure is consequently also quite different and has been a topic of major interest to scholars, who have related it to the liturgy of a festival for the renewal of the covenant (von Rad) or to the pattern of ancient Near-Eastern treaties (Weinfeld), or indeed to both. The amplified form (i.e. chs. 1–34 as a whole), on the other hand, is most probably the first section of a long historical work with a quite different range from J and E, extending through the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, commonly referred to as the Deuteronomistic History. So in neither form is D at all similar externally to J and E.


There is more common ground with the other sources, not surprisingly, when we come to look at its actual teaching, though here too there are new features. In the speeches of Deuteronomy the themes of the promise to the patriarchs, YHWH's deliverance and protection of his people, and his gift to them of the land of Canaan as a land full of every good thing, repeatedly appear. Thus far there is a real continuity with the older sources. The creation story, however, is ignored (though cf. 4:32 ), and the book is dominated by the theme of the covenant based on God's laws and obedience to them. This central concern is reflected in the title of the original core of Deuteronomy ( 4:45 ): ‘These are the decrees and the statutes and ordinances, that Moses spoke to the Israelites…’ (cf. Moses' opening words: ‘Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances that I am addressing to you today’ ( 5:1 )). The picture of Moses himself is changed: instead of being the inspired leader of his people in all kinds of circumstances, he has become above all what we might call a ‘prophetic legislator’. The laws too in chs 12–26 go far beyond the most that can be ascribed to J and E and allude to many aspects of life, both private and national—in the latter sphere it is notable that they make provision for the offices of priest, judge, prophet, and king, and imply that public worship is to be concentrated at a single sanctuary, which is referred to as ‘the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name’ (e.g. 12:11 ). National prosperity, indeed survival in the land which YHWH has given, now depends upon observance of these commands (cf. ch. 28 ). It is not the connection of sin and punishment which is new in Deuteronomy but the explicit definition, in the form of a code of laws, of what counts as sin in the sight of YHWH and the dire threats (‘curses’) held out in the case of disobedience.


The amplified form of D incorporates one additional theme of great significance to the community in exile, which is evidence of its origin in the sixth century BCE: this is the call to return to YHWH (cf. 4:27–31; 30:1–6). If sinful Israel, now under the judgment of YHWH, will once more be obedient to YHWH's law, then he will bring them back to Canaan and will even transform them inwardly so that they do not fail again (30:6), a thought that is closely related to Jeremiah's teaching of a new covenant and Ezekiel's of a new heart.

17. The Theology of P.

As regards its shape, P stands somewhere between J and E on the one hand and D on the other. It does have a narrative structure, with its story extending from creation (this time explicitly including the natural world) to at least the eve of the Israelites' entry into Canaan. But in Genesis one can scarcely speak of a real story, as hardly any episodes are described in detail and the P material is mostly genealogies and chronological notes. And throughout this source long speeches (as in D) are very much in evidence, but this time in the form of divine revelations (or rather promises and commands) communicated to such figures as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Not infrequently it is clear that a narrative episode is only there to reinforce what has been said in one of the divine speeches. So despite some superficial resemblance to J and E we are clearly in a quite different world. It is difficult to specify the genre of P as a whole. An anthropologist once suggested that because of his interest in myth, kinship, and ritual P could rank as the world's first social anthropologist! But anthropologists are only observers, while for P (which was probably produced by priests for priests) these things clearly have existential importance. Perhaps a report of a Liturgical Commission is a closer modern analogy!


While the theology of P is without doubt very largely a theology of ritual (especially priesthood and sacrifice), it does have a broader base. God/YHWH is the creator of the whole world (Gen 1 ), which he declared to be good and on which he bestowed his blessing. Humanity as such, male and female, is made ‘in his image’, a difficult phrase which should probably be translated ‘as his image’, implying that they are God's representatives on earth, to whom dominion over the earth is therefore naturally given ( 1:26 ). Gen 9:1–17 , which incorporates the covenant with Noah and all living creatures (v. 10 ), amplifies this definition of the place of mankind in the world. Alongside these universal statements P also reaffirms the tradition of the election of Israel in her ancestor Abraham (Gen 17 ) and tells in his own way the story of the Exodus, the meeting with God at Mount Sinai, and the wilderness wanderings.


But already in Genesis P's interest in ritual can be seen: God himself, by his own example, inaugurates the sabbath ( 2:2–3 ); the instructions to Noah include the ban on eating meat with the blood, a basic element of Jewish food laws ( 9:4 ); and Abraham receives and obeys the command to be circumcised ( 17:9–14, 22–7 ). It is interesting that the three rituals given such great antiquity by P are all private, domestic rituals, which did not need a temple and could therefore be practised in the diaspora, in exile. There is some sign that P thought of four great epochs of revelation, beginning at creation (where God is called Elohim), Noah (again Elohim), Abraham (El Shaddai), and Moses (YHWH), and it used to be customary to speak of P as the Book of the Four Covenants, leading to the use (for example in Wellhausen's early work) of the symbol Q (for quattuor, Latin for ‘four’). But in only two of the cases (Noah and Abraham) does P actually speak of the making of a ‘covenant’ (běrît), and other common features, such as the presence of a ‘sign’, are also hard to trace all through the series.


Be that as it may, the weight of P's emphasis certainly falls on the making, according to a detailed, divinely revealed plan, of the tabernacle, or desert shrine, at Mount Sinai (Ex 25–31; 35–40 ). This, or rather the altar outside it, was of course a place of sacrifice, and P has a lot to say, both practical and theological, about the ritual of sacrifice and the priests who were needed to carry it out. But this was not all. The name ‘tabernacle’ (miškān) means ‘dwelling-place’ (sc. for the divine glory) and it was also known as the ‘tent of meeting’ (i.e. for meeting with God). That is, what made the tabernacle a holy place, and an appropriate place to offer sacrifice, was that YHWH was in a special sense there, in the midst of his people. And that was its purpose. According to Ex 25:8 YHWH said to Moses: ‘And have them [the Israelites] make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.’ And after the work was finished ( 40:34 ), ‘Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.’ P's account of the relationship of YHWH to Israel, therefore, while it does not bypass other categories, is above all a theology of the divine presence in the midst of the people, which necessitates the construction of a sanctuary. For P God's presence is inconceivable without a sanctuary and its associated personnel and rituals. The people need also to know about what is holy and profane, what is clean and unclean, and it is a major part of the priests' task to instruct them in such matters: they are ‘to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean’ (Lev 10:10 ). This emphasis on the necessity of a sanctuary makes the most natural time for the composition of P the period between the destruction of the First Temple in 587/6 BCE and the completion of the Second Temple in 516, and not later, as Wellhausen and Kuenen thought.

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