D.J.A. Clines: The Theme of the Pentateuch

clithemeSpent an engrossing hour last night in a classic book on the Pentateuch (Torah) by a renowned scholar, D.J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (JSOT Press, 1978).

As I gear up for more academic work in Hebrew Bible, I am working on getting a broad reading of the field. I have been ordering books and updating my collection. I try to order books I find recommended or spoken highly of by other scholars and that is how I ran across The Theme of the Pentateuch.

For those not initiated in academic studies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), know that there is an unwritten rule that you must at least pay lip service to source theory (the documentary hypothesis, JEDP, the idea that Torah was not written in the time of Moses, but much later by a series of committees or authors). As Clines puts it, academic studies tend to be atomistic and geneticist.

By atomistic he means that scholars tend to publish research on obscure details and avoid the big picture for fear of being though arrogant for daring to theorize about overall meaning. He wittily laments such research essays as, “Seating Arrangements at Divine Banquets in the Near East.”

By geneticist he means academic work on the Pentateuch tends to have an obsession with theorizing about origins. Ironically people avoid theories about the overall meaning while engaging in hypotheses built on guesses about things we know little or nothing about.

Clines gives one of the wittiest descriptions of the precarious nature of historical-criticism I have ever heard:

It is ironic, is it not, that the soundest historical-critical scholars, who will find talk of themes and structures ‘subjective’ in the extreme, will have no hesitation in expounding the significance of a (sometimes conjectural) document from a conjectural period for a hypothetical audience of which they have, even if they have defined the period correctly, only the most meagre knowledge, without any control over the all-important questions of how representative of and how acceptable to the community the given document was.

Wow, that is music to my ears. If source theory could simply be regarded as a hypothetical exercise in trial and error, fine. But it is not. Much academic literature takes the posture that all other theories are absurdly naive, as if their hypothesis based on conjecture about theoretical time frames and agendas is objective stuff.

One more thing I like about Clines is that his interest in Hebrew Bible studies is similar to mine. He wants to examine the larger issues of the final text. He does not dismiss studies on source theory or atomistic research into details, but laments the overemphasis on them.

Regarding source theory of the Pentateuch, Clines gives it a tenuous acceptance for now with strong reservations, because he doesn’t have a better theory. He feels, nonetheless, that there will be a revolution coming and that another theory will emerge and eclipse the old Graf-Wellhausen JEDP branch of theories.

If you want to build a library for Hebrew Bible studies, this would be a good addition after you have read a few basic overviews of the field. A good list of works for a non-expert who wants to come up to speed would start with a survey book such as Walton and Hill’s A Survey of the Old Testament and an overview book, such as The Face of Old Testament Studies by Baker and Arnold. Clines’ volume would be a good next step.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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