Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 3)

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In my next post, I explained that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  I’d now like to discuss the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of this belief.

First, throughout the Pentateuch, the God of Israel is referred to by different names, two in particular: Yahweh, translated in most English Bibles as “the Lord” (in small caps), and Elohim, commonly translated “God.”  The original arguments behind the so-called Documentary Hypothesis held that these different names signaled the work of different authors.  One was the “Yahwist” (abbreviated J from the German version of that name), working in the southern kingdom of Judah where the covenant name Yahweh was in common use. The other was the “Elohist” (E), working in the northern kingdom of Israel where the worship of Yahweh was in decline.

We have at least one strong suggestion elsewhere in the Bible that these two different names were preferred in the two separate kingdoms.  Psalm 14, a “psalm of David” according to its superscription, and thus likely of Judean origin, primarily uses the divine name Yahweh.  Psalm 53 is a near-verbatim version of the same psalm that was apparently adapted for use in the northern kingdom because it consistently replaces the name Yahweh with Elohim (as shown in red):

Graphic C
Click to enlarge

We can tell that the Elohistic version of the psalm is a later rewrite because, as shown in blue above, the stanzas in Psalm 14 that have two lines in exception to its overall three-line pattern (perhaps originally a musical “bridge”) have been recast into a single stanza of three lines, no doubt to fit the new tune “mahalath.”  And this has been done by creating a new line out of the consonants of the second two-line stanza, using them to make new words with different meanings!  The consonants are shown in blue below, with the rewrite placed on the line above the original (the different divine names are in purple):

Graphic D

However, we shouldn’t push the idea too far that different divine names indicate different authors in different kingdoms, because as Psalm 14 itself shows, a single author can use both names for poetic variety; to speak of God either more generally (Elohim) or more specifically in covenant terms (Yahweh); and even for purposes of characterization:  note that it is the “fools” who say there is no Elohim, while Yahweh is the refuge of the poor.

For these reasons, proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have moved away from reliance on divine names, to the extent that they now sometimes call the J document the “Judean” source and the E document the “Ephraimistic” source (using a popular biblical name for the northern kingdom).  To support their view they rely far more on the phenomenon of “doublets” in the Pentateuch, that is, places where the same incident seems to be related twice, from slightly different perspectives.  This phenomenon is illustrated most vividly in cases of doubled accounts of where the name of a person or place came from.

For example, when Abraham entertains the three visitors, one of them tells him that his wife Sarah will bear a son.  She laughs incredulously, and Yahweh (in the person of this visitor) responds, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”  This story explains the derivation of the son’s name, Isaac, which means “laughter.”  But later on, after the child is born, a different explanation for his name is offered:  Sarah exclaims joyfully, Elohim has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Not only do we have two different accounts of how Isaac got his name, the key phrases in these accounts use different divine names, leading Friedman, whose work I discussed last time, to assign them to J and E, respectively.  They also represent different perspectives on Sarah–one less favorable, the other more favorable.

The Pentateuch also offers two different explanations of what happened at the place named Meribah, where, after a quarrel (hence the name), God brought water out of a rock for the Israelites in the wilderness.  In the account in Exodus, Moses strikes the rock at God’s command, and his leadership is vindicated.  But in the account in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock in anger and desperation, and Yahweh interprets this as an act of mistrust and tells Moses as punishment that he will not enter the promised land.  Friedman attributes the former account to E, and the latter to P, who, he says, belonged to a rival priestly order and was not hesitant to diminish Moses.  There are many similar “doublets” in the Pentateuch.

However, one could just as easily argue that cases like these are not actually doubled accounts of the same incidents, but instead accounts of separate incidents that followed one another in Israelite history.  For that matter, one could also warn of the danger of circular reasoning if certain parts of the Pentateuch are first assigned to separate sources, and then the particular emphases found in those parts are argued to be characteristic of those sources and proof that they originated there!

But in any event, these are the kinds of evidences that are typically advanced to support the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents.  Does a person have to choose definitively between this belief and the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?  Or is a way that the two positions can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue?  I’ll explore that question in my final post in this series.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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