“There has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”
A quote from Talmud or one of the medieval rabbis? Actually no, it is from Deuteronomy 34:10.
I have been for a few years now re-evaluating my beliefs about God, the Bible, and theology. Sacred cows have been tipped. Yet it is also interesting how many valued beliefs have not changed for me. Change for its own sake has no value.
One of the questions that has weighed on me, and which will get a lot more time in coming years as I prepare for doctoral work in the Hebrew Bible, is the question of Moses and his relationship to the Pentateuch or Torah. Opinions begin on one extreme that Moses wrote it all, even the updates that came after his death, the account of his own burial, and even embarrassing self-praise like, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). On the other side, some might say there is no evidence a man like Moses ever lived, but at most he is a legendary figure about whom we have little or no real information. In this view, the earliest parts of the Pentateuch, except for a few bits of poetry carried through time in the national consciousness, are from after the Babylonian exile (after 516 B.C.E.).
I’m not tackling the entire topic in this post. I simply want to reflect on some recent reading in Umberto Cassuto, from his recently reprinted The Documentary Hypothesis. Cassuto (1883-1951) has long been a favorite of mine, ever since John Walton made me read his Genesis commentary in my undergraduate studies. I’m glad he did.
Cassuto is in a category by himself, a man so well read and yet so accessible in his writing, he occupies a short list of writers such as C.S. Lewis on the Christian side and Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Jewish side. Some people know a little and write a lot. Others bring to any topic an immense amount of learning which the words cannot bear. Cassuto is that kind of writer, with an authority that looms largely and makes his words an honor to read.
A Brief Description of the Documentary Hypothesis
In re-evaluating my beliefs, I have certainly been willing to question treasured ideas, such as the idea that Moses was largely or totally the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).
Unless you are committed to cast away all intelligence and make tradition absolute, you have to admit Moses did not write every word of the Pentateuch. I won’t back that statement up at this time, but there are statements spread throughout the first five books of the Bible that were clearly added later and which indicate so.
But there is a theory, one you will almost always hear in a university class or in academic commentaries, that the Pentateuch was partially or completely a product of a number of anonymous sources, none of which have anything to do with Moses. You have perhaps heard of J, E, D, and P (and now we hear of H). They represent theoretical anonymous writers from different periods of history, whose writings were combined by an editor (there are a variety of theories about the stages and how these different storytellers and lawmakers got their work combined into what we now have):
J = the Yahwist (Y and J and interchangeable in German, or something like that).
E = the Elohist.
D = the Deuteronomist.
P = the Priestly redactor.
H = the Holiness redactor.
Cassuto’s List of Five Bases for the Documentary Hypothesis
Some people can’t imagine the Bible any other way than the way they have been taught to see it. If you learned the Bible in a community of faith, you have been inducted into the world of Moses and the prophets. The strange view of the university professors about sources may seem impossible to you. If you learned Bible in a university, you have been inducted into the world of rationalist thought, generally excluding miracles and prophecies and searching behind texts for theories that do not take them at face value.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there is value in only one side or the other. Scholarly skepticism has exposed a number of documents in history that deserved deconstructing (The Donation of Constantine, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on).
But if you read the Bible in a faith community and the traditional view of Mosaic authorship is all you have ever known, I wouldn’t want you to think that the academics have started trouble for no reason at all. The documentary hypothesis is a theory which tries to explain some of the unusual features of the Pentateuch, features which rabbis and church fathers have also dealt with in different ways. Cassuto lists five reasons for the idea that the Pentateuch is a pastiche of sources:
(1) The use of different names for the deity. Notice that Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 uses, for example Elohim (God), while the rest of Genesis 2 uses the personal name (yod-hey-vav-hey, the Lord, also referred to as Hashem or the tetragrammaton). Alternating use of divine names seems to happen in sections throughout the Pentateuch. Could this mean different sources were combined, one preferring Hashem and the other Elohim?
(2) Variations of language and style. This is particularly true of certain details of Hebrew grammar and spelling (as for example the spelling of the pronoun he). Could this variation in language indicate sources combined into a whole?
(3) Contradictions and divergencies of view. May animals found dead be eaten (Lev 17:15) or not (Deut 14:21)? Did Abraham know the name Hashem (as used in Genesis) or only El Shaddai (as in Exodus 6:3)? Examples abound. Do these (seeming) contradictions indicate different sources put together without careful editing to remove the inconsistencies?
(4) Duplications and repetitions. How many times did Abraham pretend Sarah was his sister to avoid trouble with a foreign ruler? The Pentateuch has many duplicate stories. Are these evidence of the same stories from different sources which the editor unwisely put forward as differing events?
(5) Signs of composite structure in the sections. Many scholars feel they can see seams, places where a later hand had modified the language of earlier sources. Are these seams in the story and laws of the Pentateuch evidence of sources?
Cassuto and the Orthodoxy of Source Criticism
In future installments, I will present some information from Cassuto and perhaps from others. I am reading and will soon write a review for the Kesher journal of Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words, in which an evangelical Christian explains why he believes the documentary hypothesis and how one can still believe the Bible in spite of it.
I am not up to speed on the present state of scholarship (working on it). But I do think that many scholars and writers are tired of the question of the Pentateuch’s authorship. Dogmatism about the source theory has been fading for some time. Yet jumping right back to traditional theories is not likely either. Many works on the Pentateuch skirt the issue or touch on it with some degree of ambiguity and only as necessary.
Cassuto reminds us the the Documentary Hypothesis (or source theory of the Pentateuch) was only a theory. It became for some an assured result of modern scholarship. Cassuto, way back in the 1940’s, made a strong case against the documentary hypothesis, on the basis of his study of Ancient Near Eastern texts.
Was Moses for real? And if so, how can we see his hand in the Pentateuch? Cassuto has some great ideas and is one of the early voices calling the assumptions of source theory into question.