Allow me to sketch von Rad’s proposal for how the Hexateuch (Genesis-Joshua) developed. Where Gunkel isolated units of pre-literary tradition on the basis of their smallest level of structural integrity, von Rad’s procedure aims to discern larger chunks of tradition that hang together as coherent bodies. He thus envisions 4 main traditions, all of originally distinct provenance: the primeval history, the patriarchal stories, the settlement tradition, and the Sinai tradition. Of course von Rad uses source-criticism; in fact he considers source-critical discussion all but stagnant, and in need of a new direction. Von Rad pursues this new direction, not by concentrating on the differences in textual detail between J and E (for example) but by focusing on the traditions “underneath” both of these sources. To borrow language from the study of narrative, instead of scrutinizing “narrative discourse” a la Wellhausen (the text as is), von Rad’s operation gets at “story” (the storyline that can be abstracted from the text as is) – with the major difference that von Rad treats this abstracted story as a historical artifact rather than just a heurism for talking about narrative.
Von Rad seeks to establish the original situation of each of the above mentioned tradition-bundles. He argues that the “settlement tradition” such as we find crystallized in archaic credal statements like Deuteronomy 26.5b-9 (“a wandering Aramaean was my father…”) served first as liturgical formulae at the harvest festival celebrated at Gilgal (aka the feast of weeks/day of the firstfruits). In these allegedly early rehearsals of Israel’s rescue from Egypt and settlement in Canaan, the character of the “fathers” remains undeveloped and, far more noticeably, the whole Sinai event is unmentioned. Furthermore, the narratives of Exodus and Numbers seem to break the Israelites’ sojourn at Kadesh in two to fit in the interpolated Sinai materials. On the basis of this and like data, von Rad claims that the Sinai tradition initially was a separate cult-legend tied up with the announcement of God’s will at the annual feast of booths in Shechem. As for the patriarchal narratives, von Rad accepts from Alt the judgment that these reflect the integration of local cultic sagas from Canaanite shrines into the nomadic “God of the fathers.”
The Yahwist on von Rad’s recounting is not the passive collector of Gunkel – nor the novelist of the minimalists in the last decade of Pentateuchal research. Rather, the Yahwist used the “settlement tradition” as the backbone for building the entire Pentateuch: to this plot of Israel’s exodus and settlement, he (presumably!) attached the primeval history, the patriarchal stories, and the Sinai materials. The Yahwist found at hand a collection of extant patriarchal stories, which, dating from a time when the possession of the land was a live issue, portrayed the fathers immediately receiving the divinely promised land. The Yahwist transformed this complex into a mediate and promissory stage in a longer tale in which the fathers of Israel temporarily possess the land, only for their descendants to recover it after the exodus from Egypt. The Yahwist’s greatest innovation, however, was the incorporation of the Sinai tradition into the settlement storyline. The Yahwist also collated the varied stories of the primeval history and attached them as the prolegomenon to the whole theological history. Conceptually, the Yahwist pioneered the abstraction of the ancestral sagas from their cultic usage – a desacralization and historicization von Rad sees as closely connected with the idea of providence visible in the story of David’s ascendancy, and to be dated accordingly (i.e., during the monarchy).
Martin Noth agrees with von Rad that the source-critical discussion is all but settled. In his preliminary exposition of the sources, Noth makes the case for the relative completeness of P: the Priestly source is not a redactional layer, but a continuous narrative that runs from Genesis 1 to the end of Numbers. The Pentateuch’s redactor(s) used P as their outline, and incorporated the JE materials as these fit into P’s narrative scaffolding. Consequently, the former two (older) sources are far more disjointed and discontinuous than P, culled as they are from more complete works. The redactor(s) also preferred J and used E, on Noth’s telling, only supplementally. Noth accepts von Rad’s idea of the “credos” as in Deuteronomy 26, and goes most of the way with von Rad on the relative lateness of the primeval history and Sinai traditions. Noth disagrees with von Rad on the nature of the Yahwist: Noth does not see him as a grand innovator and synthesizer, but rather portrays JE as a complex tradition which, in its two variant forms, stems from a common oral or literary source (G). Noth also emphasizes where von Rad does not the “all-Israelite” character of Israel’s earliest credal statements (such as “YHWH who brought Israel out of Egypt”). From these Noth deduces that the terminus a quo of the oral traditions underlying the Pentateuchal sources must be Israelite tribes’ entrance into Canaan, before which time they could not have had a sense of unity.
Procedurally, Noth follows von Rad in attempting to isolate bodies of pre-literary Pentateuchal tradition, if perhaps with a more articulate method. Noth works with two (implicit) questions: first, what knowledge does this “theme” show of others? and second, what others does this theme logically presuppose? For example, Noth writes that the theme of “guidance into arable land” does not connect smoothly with the theme of the exodus – how did the Israelites end up southeast of Canaan if they came out of Egypt? Probably then this theme was secondary to the more basic tradition about the exodus, and came from a different place/tribe. Or as another example, Noth argues that the theme of “guidance in the wilderness” presupposes both “guidance out of Egypt” and “guidance into the promised land.” However, while it depends on these for its basic intelligibility, the inverse is not true: nothing in the stories of the exodus or the settlement in the land require the wilderness journeying. Consequently, Noth dates the tradition of Israel in the wilderness somewhat late relative to more basic themes like “guidance out of Egypt.” Noth like von Rad assigns each of these tradition-complexes to an original location based on geographical indices in their final form (e.g., the theme of “guidance into arable land” derives from the central Palestinian tribes because of tribe- and place-names). The five foundational themes that Noth lists provide the framework for subsequent traditions such as the Egyptian plagues or Balaam or stories of occupation. Interestingly, Noth counts the Moses stories amongst these second, additional layers because of his absence from the early creeds (contrast that with more recent research which speaks of “the Moses story” to refer to one of the Pentateuch’s fundamental building blocks). Noth holds that Moses is most indispensable to the wilderness materials, and grew, tradition-historically, from them out across the rest of the themes.