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.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)

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–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required.  Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.

It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it.  And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.

The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively.  When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.

During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.”  This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.

Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history.  But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.

Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together?  I’ll look at that question next time.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

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?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

What does it mean to “fear” God?

Q.  There’s been something that’s been eating away at me about our relationship with God.  Jesus said the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, your soul and your strength.  Okay, that might be possible if it weren’t for the  “flip side.”  In Matthew 10, Jesus said not to “fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Fear Him, rather, who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell.”  I don’t think I’m alone in having felt far more fear during my life than love.  I don’t think anyone can truly love and trust someone they’re scared “to death” of.  People have told me that “fear of God” means “reverential awe,” but the idea of body and soul being destroyed in hell seems more like “terror and shaking” to me.

You’re right, there’s no question that Jesus told us both to love God and to fear God in the sense of being afraid of what might happen to us if we really displeased God.  But I think the essential issue is, “What is God’s fundamental disposition towards us?”  Is it to welcome and heal and bless, or is it to accuse and judge and punish?  I believe that God is both loving and just, gracious and righteous, so the real question is whether we can count on God wanting most of all to see us healed and transformed and restored, or whether God is basically out to get us, just waiting for us to mess up so he can nail us.

God’s own self-description in the Bible leads us to believe that he is fundamentally gracious and loving.  Moses begged God, “Show me your glory,” and in response God “proclaimed his name” to Moses in a special divine appearance. He said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  Here we see the two sides of God, the side that attracts us to love him and the side that makes us afraid he will punish us and even makes us wonder how God can go after the children and grandchildren of offenders.  (But that’s for another post.) However, the loving side is clearly primary and predominant.  So we can be eager to love and please God knowing that he’s working with us to make that happen, and not looking for every chance to punish us.

I remember that when I went to the dentist once when I was a kid I reached up for some reason to try to move his hand when he was working on my teeth.  He quickly and powerfully slapped my hand away.  But then he explained patiently and kindly that I could hurt my mouth and teeth badly if I ever moved his hand while he was at work.  (Not that I’d really have had the strength to do that!)  He told me I could just raise my hand and he would stop what he was doing and listen to my concern.  So, should I have been afraid to go back to the dentist after this, fearing that he might slap me again?  Or should I have been reassured that all he wanted to do was protect me and care for me?  So long as I didn’t reach for his hand again, I could be perfectly secure and safe trusting him to care for me.

I think it’s the same way with God.  He has great power that he will use to keep us from harming ourselves and others.  But what he really wants is to help and protect us.  If we know that he wants the best for us, and that we’re working with him to help bring that about, we don’t need to have the “terror and shaking” kind of fear.  But we should still have a healthy respect for what God can and will do to protect us and others from the destructive things we might do.  And that, in itself, shows that God is essentially loving.

Does the Bible condone slavery? (Part 1)

Q. It took the United States almost 90 years after it was founded, supposedly on Christian principles, to end slavery.  Finally people understood it was wrong to own another person.  Even after that, African Americans have been kept down and discriminated against. 
In Leviticus 25 it gives instructions on how to purchase foreigners, even their children, and treat them like property.  But they were told that the people of Israel must not be treated that way.
In Exodus 21 it talks about how to buy a Hebrew slave—that they must set him free in the seventh year, and if he got married while he was in slavery, he can’t take his wife with him when he’s freed.  If he wants to keep his wife he has to say he’s happy with his master and have an awl pushed through his ear lobe, and agree to slavery for life.
Also in Exodus 21 it tells you it’s all right to beat your slave to the point of death, as long as he doesn’t die right away.
Jesus didn’t seem to condemn slavery either, and the apostle Paul even says that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, as sincerely as they would serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
Why would God permit the Israelites, and later the Christians, to treat people like this?

Statements like these that the Bible makes about slavery are very troubling to thoughtful and compassionate followers of Jesus.  It’s important to emphasize that we get a very different picture of the Bible’s view towards slavery when we consider the big picture rather than individual verses.  So let me speak about the big picture first in this post, and then in my next post discuss the statements you have cited.

The central redemptive metaphor of the Old Testament, echoed throughout that part of the Bible, is God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  To me this sends a clear message that God did not create slavery and does not approve of it; God wants people to be free.  Slavery is instead like divorce, which, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees, is something that’s regulated in the law of Moses to protect people when it happens, not something that God commands.

While Jesus didn’t speak directly against slavery, he did use the image of being set free from slavery as a metaphor for the salvation that he brought.  He could only do this if slavery wasn’t something that God instituted and upheld.  For his part, the apostle Paul said that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, and he told slaves to gain their freedom if they could.  He lived out this big vision in a practical situation when he appealed personally to Philemon to set Onesimus free.

It was Christians inspired by this big-picture teaching of the Bible who fought successfully to end government-sanctioned slavery in Britain, the United States, and other parts of the world.  Contemporary Christians are equally motivated by their biblical convictions to fight modern-day slavery through organizations such as the International Justice Mission.

man&brother“Am I not a man and a brother?” Influential cameo created by Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the British pottery company and committed abolitionist.

By contrast, people who wanted to maintain slavery appealed to individual verses.  In response, people who wanted to end slavery argued that slavery in ancient times—the situation the Bible actually speaks to—was very different from slavery in the American experience.  They challenged slaveholders who appealed to the Bible at least to practice a much more moderate, “biblical” form of slavery (the slaveholders declined to do even this):
• Ancient slavery was not racially based and did not presume that some races were inferior to others and so could justifiably be enslaved.
• In biblical times masters owned their slaves’ labor but not their bodies or persons; that’s why masters were required to set their slaves free if they caused them permanent bodily injury.  They were also required to set free concubines (female slaves they had married) if they did not honor them as full wives.
• Freedom could be purchased for slaves by their relatives; slaves could even buy their own freedom.  In Roman times some slaves were adopted into their masters’ families and even became heirs; many interpreters believe this cultural practice lies behind the metaphor of “adoption to sonship” that Paul uses in Romans to describe salvation.  In a more ancient example, Abraham’s household servant Eliezer would have been his heir if he hadn’t had a son.
So when we see the Bible regulate slavery rather than abolish it outright, we need to recognize that it’s regulating a very different institution than the one known from the American experience, which violated at every turn the biblical laws designed to protect slaves.

(In my next post I will address the individual passages you cited.)

Is it all right for Christians to get tattoos?

Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up.  Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them.  But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos.  Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?

I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos.  The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”  The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”)  So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.

However, we need to be careful here.  There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts.  We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.

In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.”  So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.

However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it.  This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today.  We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.

On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans.  Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself.  . . .  Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself.  But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers.  And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.