Friday, October 18, 2013

Update from the Germans!

Update from the Germans…again.

For complicated historical reasons, the German-speaking realm has since the 1700s played the lead role in producing academic scholarship on the Bible. In certain ways, this continues to be the case. First in the 1980s and then with increasing vigor in the 90s and 00s, a wave of mostly German-speaking scholars in Europe broached a new theory concerning the origins of the Pentateuch. Put simply, on this theory, the Pentateuch papers over two competing origin stories: the tradition about Israel’s ancestors found in Genesis and the tradition about Israel’s exodus found in Exodus (and after). These large units, now arranged in a sequence, were previously separate.

What reasons do these scholars marshal for this hypothesis?
  1. There is a difference of overall profile between the two: the genesis story is theologically inclusive. The patriarchs relate ironically with other peoples, and God is an ecumenical God. By contrast, the exodus story is theologically exclusive, showing Yahweh in combat with other gods and powers.
  2. Once the possibility of distinction is entertained, the promises of land to the patriarchs in Genesis seem (mostly) not to assume another, second immigration way down the road after the exodus event; rather, the promises address the patriarchs and their immediate descendants (only 1 text, Gen 15, mentions that the patriarchs will leave Canaan before their progeny inherit it again!). The genesis story thus provides an indigenous explanation for Israel’s origins. By contrast, the exodus story shows Israel coming from elsewhere: from Egypt. It does not assume a prior promise of land to Israel (more on that in point 4). The land to which Yahweh will lead his people is not a long-remembered homeland but just a habitable land besides Egypt.
  3. The literary join between the stories at the end of Genesis and the opening of Exodus is somewhat awkward. Joseph is the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Then at the beginning of Exodus, another Pharaoh is a genocidal tyrant. A rather hurried note at Exod 1:6-8 intervenes to explain that this Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph.
  4. There are very few cross-references in Genesis looking ahead to the exodus and very few cross-references in Exodus looking back to the ancestral promises. These the Germans explain as late harmonizations bringing the books into more coherent relationship. Most cross-references occur in the most easily identifiable redactional layer/source, i.e., the priestly, composed in or after exile.
  5. Surprisingly few places in the rest of the canon assume a continuous storyline running from the ancestors through the exodus. Psalms that celebrate Israel’s history remember only the exodus, and may assume Israel originated in Egypt (77, 78, 106, 135, 136). 105 is a partial exception, and is also dated late. So also with the prophetic works. Hosea from the 8th century knows of both traditions, but according to many scholars, seems to set them in opposition to one another, as in 12:13-14. “The patriarchal tradition is depreciated while the Mosaic tradition is valued” (de Pury, qtd in Schmid, Genesis and the Moses Story, 74). Konrad Schmid, one of the main articulators of the growing European consensus, also argues that Ezekiel 33 sets the two traditions against one another as alternatives.
The idea that the Pentateuch brings together two such very different origin stories obviously has huge implications: in the words of Konrad Schmid, “[t]he redaction-historical separation of Genesis and Exodus before P has fundamental consequences for our understanding of the history of religion and theology of the Hebrew Bible” (“Literary Gap Between Genesis and Exodus” in Farewell to the Yahwist).

Besides just educating myself about this theory, I am hoping this semester to give its procedural basis greater clarity. That is, I would like to know in finer detail how these scholars do the work that gets them to this conclusion, specifically, the manner by which they isolate bundles of tradition beneath the surface phenomena of the biblical text. Whereas source criticism in its heyday focused on dividing the Pentateuch up into constituent documents, these critics are methodological descendants of Gunkel and Noth, who reach behind the text to its deep structure. For example, Gunkel would look at the two stories of Noah in Genesis 9. In the first, God covenants with Noah. Then Noah gets drunk and blesses and curses his sons. Each of these units constitutes a self-contained structural whole. At the logical level, they do not depend on one another for coherence; only the name Noah holds them together. Out of this formal analysis, Gunkel would propose a historical explanation, i.e., that these were initially separate. Contemporary Pentateuchal scholars work by a similar operation: discerning units of structural coherency, making historical independence out of logical, and then explaining the surface details that join stories together as late and superficial.

This operation is, in principle, structuralist. So I am digging back to the genealogical roots of the German form- and tradition-historical criticism in biblical studies – to see what contacts Gunkel and his successors had with other scholarship oriented towards form, e.g., in folklore studies. I am also dipping into the Russian and French forms of literary structuralism, to find out how these readers procedurally did what they did – how they moved from texts to story, from surface grammar to deep structure, and whether their discipline can be of any assistance in clarifying and assessing the contribution of German-speaking Pentateuchal scholars…

So there’s an update from the Germans...AND me.

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