Pentateuch: A Collection Stories or Sources?

In his book, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Joseph Blenkinsopp points the way of a turning point of the Pentateuch. Where his predecessors concentrate on either the historical or the literary character of the text, he attends to both. He first reviews two centuries of critical study of the Pentateuch, discussing some provisional conclusions and then presents a new reading of the Pentateuch in terms of the New Criticism:

(1) there is no longer a consensus on the existence of identifiable, continuous narrative sources covering the entire range of the Penpateucvh from the pre-exilic period. . . (2) Criticism of the standard paradigm has taken aim at the J source, and it is difficult to see how the hypothesis could survive its displacement to a much later date, a fortiori, its complete elimination. . . (4) Much less attention has been paid in recent years to the other document postulated by the hypothesis. We have seen that E has long been problematic, and there is no longer much enthusiasm for retaining it. Deuteronomy stands apart, of course, but several of the authors surveyed have pursued clues to D editing in the first four books. . .  The old issue of the origin of Deuteronomy and the related quesiton of its dating are still debated, ans seem likely to be forever debatable. P has stood up best to scrutiny, because of its more distinctive vocabulary, style, and ideology. An origin in the Babylonian diaspora is till favored by most, though the followers of Yehezkel Kaufmann date it earlier and some others date it later. Debate continues as to whether P stands for a distinct narrative source or a stage in the redaction of an existing narrative corpus; and there are also different ways of explaining the relation of the P narrative to the extensive corpus of cultic and ritual legislation. (5) This brings us to the final point. The reader will have noticed that the discussion so far has focused almost exclusively on narrative. Over the last two centuries relatively little attention has been paid to the legal material, in spite of its preponderant bulk and importance. Pending a more thorough account of the development of the legal tradition in a later chaper, it will suffice at this point to say that the bracketing of laws with the early narrative sources, especially the so-called covenant law book (Exodus 20-23) with E and the so-called ritual decalogue (Ex 34:11-26) with J, has never been successfully demonstrated. The entire issue of the relation between law ans narrative still remains to be clarified (Blenkinsopp 1992, 25-28).

As a new reading of the Pentatuech, Blenkinsopp reads the Pentatuech as a whole looking at chronological and thematic elements extending from creation to exile. Blenkinsopp suggests that the Pentatuech is “an ambitious national history” as a form of historiographical essays from antiquity and focuses on “the building of the Second Temple and the reestablishment of the cult after the return from exile” (Blenkinsopp 1992, 51).

The Pentateuch begins with creation and ends with the death of Moses. Based upon this plot, Blenkinsopp unfolds the sequence of events of the Pentateuch as follows. He did an excellent job to tell the sequence of events as a storyteller:

God (Elohim) created the world and everything in it in six days and rested on the seventh. The earth, however, was uncultivated, and there was no raonwater and no one to put it to use. God (now YHWH elohim) therefore formed a man and set him in the garden of Eden, giving him access to everything in it with the exception of a certain tree. Since the animals, also formed out of the earth, did not provide suitable companionship for the man, YHWH Elohim made out of the man’s body a woman whom he joyfully acknowledged as a suitable companion. But a snake skillful in speech persuaded her, and through her the man, to eat fruit from the tree from which they were forbidden to eat, resulting in their expulsion from Eden. Children were born, one son killed the other, and th initial eveil flowered throughout the wider society, leading to the desctruction of all like in a great deluge with the exception of Noah, his immediate family, and the species taken with him into the ark. A new order was establised, but another aberration within Noah’s family tainted the new humanity, and the confusion of tongues at Babel the nations were dispersed over the earth.

In the tenth generation after the deluge, Abram (later Abraham) was called by God to emigrate from Mesopotamia to Canaan with the promise that from him would spring a great nation. After various difficulties Abraham and his wife Sarah bore children in old age; first Ishmael, through Sarah’s proxy Hagar, then Isaac. After surviving an attempted ritual sacrifice, the latter obtained a Mesopotamian wife, rebekah, who in her turn bore him two sons, Esau and Jacob, later renamed Israel. Conflict between these two sons, begining, remarkably, in the womb, led to the securing of the birthright and blessing by Jacob, the younger. At the cost of a twenty year exile in Mesopotamia as a hired hand of his uncle Laban, Jacob won two wives, Leah and Rachel, who with the help of proxy-wives gave him twelve sons and a daughter. Upon his return to Canaan there occurred a reconcilation of sorts with Esau and a last meeting with Isaac before the latter’s death.

In the course of time Joseph, second youngest of the sons and Jacob’s favorite, aroused the jealousy of his brothers, who conspired to kill him. The plot miscarried; Joseph survived, and after traders had carried him as a slave to Egypt he rose to the hisghest position in the service of the Pharaoh. The rest of Jacob’s family were meanwhile compelled by famine to emigrate to Egypt, where eventually a reconciliation took place and they were permitted to settle. The original seventy settlers grew into a numerous and powerful people until a new Pharaoh ascended the throne and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, launched a genocidal campaign against them.

One of these Israelites in Egypt, son of Levite parents, survived under remarkable circumstances- the massacre of Hebrew infants ordered by the tyrant- and was brought up in the palace as an Egyptian. Chancing one day to see an Egyptian beating a Hebrew worker, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried the body in the sand. Word of the homicide nevertheless spread, and he was forced to flee for his life to Midian, where he married Zipporah, daughter of the priest of Midain, and fathered the first of two sons named Gershom. While guarding his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness, he had an extraordinary experience in which a deity revealed himself as YHWH, God of the Hebrews, and sent him on a mission to lead his oppressed people out of bondage. With the help of his brother Aaron, Moses eventually succeeded in this mission, but only after the Egyptians experienced a series of disasters culminating in the death of the firstborn children. After celebrating a spring festival, the Israelites headed out onto the wilderness and the pursing Egyptians were providentially destroyed as they attempted to follow them across a body of water.

The Israelite horde, reported to be 600,000 strong, not counting women and children, continued to plot an erratic course which led them, after several crises and setbacks, to a mountain in the Sinai. There Moses recieved a revelation from YHWH: first, tehn commandments which were promulgated at once, then a collection of laws communicated to Moses alone. There followed a covenant ceremony and revelation to Moses of the paln for a mobile sanctuary, together with detailed specifications for how worship was to be conducted in it. During Moses’ absence on the mountain, howver, and act of apostasy led to the breaking and rewriting of the law tablets and the issuing of further statutes. The cult was then set uo as prescribed, the priesthood was inaugurated, and after the lapse of about a year, the Israelites were able to proceed on their way.

After further difficulties, including an abortive attempt to invade Canaan, they arrived in Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan. The hostility of the Moabite king was deflected by an inspired seer hired to curse them, and those who succumbed to the allure of orgaistic rites practiced in the region were summarily dispatched. More statues were issued, and preparations were made for occupying the land on the west bank of the Jordan. On the last day of his life Moses reminded the people of the providential events that had transpired and the obligations thereby incurred. HIs valedictory address included a new collection of laws and norms for living in the land about to be occupied. Joshua was installed as Moses’ sucessor, whereupon Moses died at the age of 120 and was buried in an unmarked grave.


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