BAR Web Extra
Rabbi Reinman on the Documentary Hypothesis
The ideas of Biblical criticism have been so solidly injected into academia and popular culture that people accept them as axiomatic. The general public has been conditioned to believe that rejecting these ideas is like believing in a flat earth. But most people have never seen the butchery of the text up close.
It is not my purpose here to challenge the Documentary Hypothesis, something that can be done effectively, but not in a few brief pages. I just want to enlighten BAR readers by taking a close look at some famous problematic passages in the Bible and contrasting critical explanations with a traditional rabbinic approach.
The following passage is from the Joseph story, which appears in the last part of the Book of Genesis. Jacob shows favoritism to his young son Joseph, the child of Rachel, his beloved wife who died tragically on the return journey to Canaan. Joseph‘s brothers are jealous and they conspire to do away with him. They toss him in a pit with the intent of putting him to death.
(The bold type is used to identify the text the critics claim to be part of an alleged J document, while the regular type is used for the text they consider part of an alleged E document.)
At first glance, there is obviously much confusion in the text. Let us assume that the Medanites and the Midianites are one and the same, but who purchased Joseph and from whom? And who sold him to the Egyptians? The text starts out with a decision to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Midianites suddenly appear, but they still sell him to the Ishmaelites. And then the Midianites sell him to the Egyptians. But when did the Midianites take possession of him? As we read further, we see that the Egyptians had indeed bought him from the Ishmaelites. So who sold Joseph to the Egyptians? Was it the Midianites or the Ishmaelites?
The critics attempt to resolve these problems by dividing the text between J and E documents. They claim that a hypothetical Redactor (RJE) spliced in a few lines from E into a J document to give the impression that Midianites arrived on the scene and pulled Joseph from the pit. Then “they,” meaning the Midianites, sold him to the Ishmaelites, who then sold him to the Egyptians, as stated in 39:1. But that still leaves unresolved the contradiction with 37:36, which states that the Midianites sold him to the Egyptians.
It is, of course, difficult to understand why the hypothetical Redactor would introduce two E verses which create such havoc in the passage and leave an unresolved contradiction.
Now let us approach the same passage from the perspective of traditional rabbinic scholarship. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, author of the 18th-century Ohr Ha-Chaim commentary on the Pentateuch, comments that wealthy people do not necessarily have business acumen. The Ishmaelites were indeed rich in expensive spices, but they were not shrewd negotiators and dealmakers. The Midianites served as their brokers and bankers. The Ha-Maor edition of the Pentateuch cites an unpublished manuscript of Rashi, the eminent medieval commentator, that supports this view: “The Ishmaelites and Midianites in this passage are one and the same,” he writes. “There were some Midianites living in the land of the Ishmaelites.” It stands to reason, therefore, that when a major shipment of spices was being transported to Egypt, a few Midianites would accompany the caravan to strike the deal.
When the brothers called out to the Ishmaelites that they wanted to do business, the logical next step would be for the Midianite brokerswho are pointedly described as merchants while the Ishmaelites are notto come forward. After the deal was negotiated with the Midianites, the brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites, who were coming up with the purchase price. When the caravan reached Egypt, the Midianites “sold him to Egypt,” meaning that they were once again the ones who struck the deal. Later, however, we are told that the Egyptians bought Joseph “from the hands of the Ishmaelites,” meaning that the acquisition was from the possession of the Ishmaelites, as indeed it was.
In this light, all the confusion is resolved very neatly and logically. Only one question remains: why was it important for the Bible to tell us in the first place [37:38] that the Midianites executed the sale to the Egyptians and in the second place [39:1] that the purchase was from the possession of the Ishmaelites? Why invite confusion?
Patterns of Repetition
The following passage in the Book of Exodus resolves this problem. (The letter Y, corresponding to the German J, represents the Tetragrammaton, one of the names of God. The bold italic type is used to identify the alleged P document. The small caps are used to identify the editorial insertions of a hypothetical R redactor, distinct from the hypothetical RJE redactor who specializes in manipulating J and E texts. The regular italic type is used to identify yet another unnamed source document or perhaps a selection from the hypothetical Book of Records.)
The last few verses in the passage are obviously a repetition of the first few verses. The critical analysts, therefore, divide the text into different documents.
The rabbinic sources, Rashi in particular, explain the repetition quite reasonably as the necessity to backtrack a little when picking up an interrupted narrative in order to give the reader proper orientation. (The need to interrupt the narrative with a genealogy at this particular point calls for a separate discussion.) There are, however, differences between the original and the repeated verses. The original verses contain an a forteriori argument, one of ten in the Pentateuch, in which Moses protests that if the Israelites did not listen to him why would Pharaoh? In the repetition, Moses protests that he cannot expect Pharaoh to listen to him if his lips are obstructed. There is no mention of the a forteriori argument. In the repetition, God prefaces His command to Moses by saying, “I am God.” In the original verses, this statement does not appear. Why is this so?
Apparently, the author of the Bible placed a high value on each and every verse. Every verse in the Bible is meant to serve some legal, factual, literary or stylistic purpose. There are not supposed to be superfluous verses in the Bible. But when the Bible finds it necessary to backtrack and repeat verses simply to pick up the thread of an interrupted narrative, the verse would be intrinsically superfluous. Therefore, the Bible makes a point of introducing separate bits of information in the original and repeated verses so that each verse on its own would have some singular intrinsic value. Therefore, the first verses provide an a forteriori argument, while the repeated verses provide the prefatory statement, “I am God.” These two elements could certainly have been combined. Nonetheless, since repetition is necessary to pick up the interrupted thread of the narrative, one piece of information appears in the original and another piece in the repetition.
We see this pattern again in the Book of Genesis when Jacob is forced to flee after he takes Esau‘s blessing.
There is an apparent contradiction in the verses. First, we are told that Jacob left home and went to Paddan Aram, and later we are told that he went to Haran. The critical analysts resolve this problem, as they resolve just about all problems in the text, by assigning the first verses to one document and the later verses to another document.
If we take the rabbinic approach, however, the problem is easily resolved. Here again we have verses repeated in order to backtrack and pick up the thread of an interrupted narrative, which moved away from Jacob to follow Esau‘s new choice of a wife. Therefore, in order that no verse be intrinsically superfluous, the first verse tells us that he went to Paddan Aram, the name of the province in which Laban resided, and the repeated verse informs us that he went to the town of Haran.
Having established this pattern, we can understand why the original description of the sale of Joseph to Egypt tells us that the Midianites executed the transaction and the repeated verse tells us that the Egyptians purchased Joseph from the possession of the Ishmaelites. The repeated verse could not be allowed to be intrinsically superfluous.
Ancient Hebrew Idioms
Let me point out just one more piece of gratuitous text butchery that appears later in the Joseph story after Joseph has risen to the office of viceroy of Egypt. The brothers travel to Egypt from Canaan to procure grain during a terrible famine, Joseph entraps them, and finally, there is a confrontation at which Joseph reveals his identity to them.
When the brothers first come to Egypt, Joseph asks them if their father is still alive, and they confirm that he is. Why then does he ask the question again when he reveals his identity to his brothers? Out comes the scalpel again. Different documents! The repetition of the question is assigned to the E document. But this is simply poor scholarship, triggered by the fixation on surgery, as a careful reading of the following passage from the Book of Exodus demonstrates.
What does Moses mean when he tells his father-in-law that he wants to go down to Egypt to see if his brothers are “still living”? Does he really think the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Egyptian bondage might all have died? Of course not. The expression “are they still living” is clearly an ancient Hebrew idiom for “how are they doing.” Perhaps it conveys more than an inquiry into physical health but also an inquiry about the spirit and the state of mind.
This easily explains Joseph‘s repeated question. The first time he asked the question the brothers saw him as a stranger. Therefore, their answer was perfunctory. Yes, he is still alive, meaning, yes, he‘s doing fine. But the second time Joseph asks the question immediately after he reveals his identity. Therefore, as their brother and Jacob‘s son, he is entitled to a more substantive answer to his inquiry about his father‘s mental well-being.
Letter by Letter
As I mentioned earlier, I could not possibly expect to demolish the Documentary Hypothesis in the course of a short article, or even a long one. I just want to bring people up close to some of the ravages the critics have wrought on the ancient text and the faulty reasoning that drives them. The very idea is amazing. Never in the history of the world has a book been spliced together from multiple documents by the kind of elaborate surgery that the critics perform on the Bible text. Most amazing of all is that after all the analysis and the identification of different documents and subdocuments and subsubdocuments, after all the deletions and emendations and claims of scribal errors, numerous anomalies and difficulties remain.
When all is said and done, the critics are faced with one glaring question: How is it possible that these mythical redactors, who allegedly managed to pull off one of the most colossal hoaxes in the history of the world, were not careful enough to avoid the red flags that drew the attention of the critics? If the first creation story is followed by a second creation story that contradicts the first, why didn‘t the redactors fix it? If in one place Esau‘s wives are identified by one set of names and elsewhere by another set of names, why didn‘t the redactors fix it?
After all, these people were brilliant. They supposedly put together a masterpiece of deception that gave rise to the religions that dominate the world to this day. Why weren‘t they more careful with editing and proofreading? An Egyptian funeral papyrus from about 1400 B.C.E., quoted in Jaroslav Cerny‘s Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt, bears the following certification, “This document is completed from beginning to end, having been copied, revised, compared and verified sign by sign.” If a simple funeral document was prepared with such care, surely we could expect the same for a masterpiece of sacred literature on which a team of redactors must have toiled for years and even decades. Is it conceivable that they patched together the Bible without copying, revising and comparing it letter by letter?
How can the critics acknowledge that these hypothetical redactors were so talented and brilliant and at the same time admit that they were also unpardonably clumsy, negligent and just plain obtuse?
Archaeologists and Grave Robbers
I believe that the answer lies in a basic ethical question regarding the field of archaeology: What is the difference between an archaeologist and a grave robber? Both of them violate the graves of dead people for their own purposes. What sets the two apart? Why would an archaeologist, who considers himself a moral, ethical, law-abiding citizen, open a grave without the permission of the family? Why was it morally acceptable to open the tomb of King Tut a king, no less and remove his funerary treasures for display in the British Museum? Why is it morally acceptable to show his mummified face to hundreds of tourists daily when he would surely protest violently if only he could? Where is respect for the dead? Where is respect for their rights? Why should we be allowed to disturb them in their eternal rest?
Some might say that it is acceptable because such a long time has passed. Thousands of years. So when does the statute of limitations for grave robbery run out? Are the dead allowed one hundred years of undisturbed peace? One thousand years? At which point do the dead become fair game?
Others may argue that the violation of King Tut‘s tomb was not motivated by greed. Rather, it was done in the interests of science and history. It was to enrich our society‘s understanding of the ancient world. But that is also a spurious argument. How many lives were saved by opening King Tut‘s tomb? Did we come closer to a cure for cancer? Is academic curiosity about ancient times a valid excuse for violating the sanctity of the grave? What if archaeologists decided to open the tombs of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan for the purpose of discovering the funerary customs of prominent lawyers in early twentieth century America? Would that also be morally acceptable? Obviously not. So why doesn‘t King Tut deserve the same respect and consideration?
It is because archaeologists relate to King Tut not as a person but as an ancient artifact. The passage of time has dehumanized the ancients in the modern mind. Certainly, the people of the pre-Classical world at least some of them were brilliant and talented and creative, but they were not Us. They were an earlier version of Us, an earlier stage in the evolution of homo civilizatus. They were our ancestors, our antecedents, but they were not Us, and they do not deserve the respect we extend to full-fledged fellow human beings.
If they are not Us, then we can acknowledge their talent and brilliance in putting together a masterpiece such as the Bible, and we can still cluck our tongues at their bumbling clumsiness. You really couldn‘t expect much more from the unfinished prototypes of the model that would one day become Us. Still, you have to praise them for what they accomplished in spite of their primitive shortcomings.
The adherents of Classical Judaism, however, do not view our ancestors as being inferior to Us. Neither we nor any religious Christians or Muslims would ever consider excavating the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, no matter how much curiosity we have about what we would find there. We respect our ancient ancestors and we respect the text of the Bible, and we are confident that the rabbinic method can provide reasonable answers to most of the questions that can be raised about the text. And if we cannot find the answer, it is better to say “I don‘t know for the time being” than to butcher the text and, in the process, to butcher logic as well.
Yosef Reinman is a Talmudist and Old Testament scholar. He is co-author of One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them (Random House, 2002). Rabbi Reinman can be reached at email@example.com.
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