Completing Whybray

I finished R.N. Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch.  In this post, I want to discuss two issues: Moses and oral tradition, and Whybray’s dating of the Pentateuch to the sixth century B.C.E.

1.  On page 219, a criticism of tradition criticism (looking for ancient oral traditions in the biblical text) that Whybray offers is this: “The fact that scholars like Noth and Fohrer have reached quite different conclusions on important aspects of of the tradition-history owing to their different historical, religio-historical and other presuppositions serves to underline the high degree of subjectivism and conjecture involved in what is ostensibly a ‘scientific’ method.”

An area where North and Fohrer differed was on the historicity of certain Moses stories.  One of Olrik’s laws on how to identify ancient oral traditions was that they did not have too many characters, but rather limited themselves to “two to a scene.”  Because certain stories about Moses in the Pentateuch had too many characters, Noth said that Moses and others (i.e., Aaron) originally were not in them; rather, in the early traditions, the seventy elders were Israel’s leaders at the Exodus and at Sinai.  As evidence, Noth refers to passages in which the elders exercise a degree of prominence or authority, as when they “negotiate with Pharaoh in Moses’ absence” (Exodus 5:6-19).  And so, for Noth, the earliest stories—the most ancient oral traditions—about the Exodus and Sinai lack the character of Moses.

Noth is skeptical about the early nature or historicity of the Moses stories that neatly fit into a larger narrative, probably because early oral traditions (according to Orlik) are short and self-contained.  Noth, like many scholars, dismissed the “birth and abandonment of the child Moses” as “secondary,” but he also “held the flight to Midian and the encounter with God at the mountain to be merely ‘an anticipatory elaboration of Exod. 18.1-12’, and the stories of the Plagues and the Passover to be later developments of the tradition”(page 197).  For Noth, these stories are not the earliest traditions, but they were inserted later in order to foster connectivity and continuity, as different pieces were being brought together into a larger narrative.  Moreover, while scholars who believe in the historicity of Moses have appealed to the Egyptian nature of the name “Moses” (think Thut-Mosis), Noth “argued that it could be accounted for in other ways than by supposing him ever to have been in Egypt.”

But Noth accepts the historicity of something about Moses: that Moses had a foreign wife.  According to Noth, there are three independent traditions about this—Exodus 18, Numbers 12:1, and Judges 1:16; 4:11.  They are different versions, and, for Noth, they are variations of an original tradition: that Moses had a foreign wife.  Whybray does not find Noth’s approach to the historicity of Moses traditions to be all that scientific!

Fohrer disagrees with Noth, for Fohrer believes that Moses was an integral part of the Moses stories.  In Fohrer’s words, “religion is seen to be grounded not in an anonymous collective and its traditions, but in the experiences of a single person: it is the work of a founder” (page 205 of Whybray’s book).  Fohrer also believes that “Exodus and Sinai traditions form a single tradition-complex.”  Whybray says that the “traditio-historical method” of Noth and Fohrer are the same, but this confuses me.  My impression is that Noth views the original traditions as short, self-contained units that contain few characters—in the spirit of Olrik.  If Fohrer thinks that the Exodus and Sinai traditions are all one tradition unit, then he’s not echoing Olrik, for this unit is long and has many scenes and characters.  I could be wrong on this point, though, for Noth doesn’t actually mention anything about self-contained units (at least not in what Whybray shared).  But Olrik does, and the concept seems to elucidate Noth’s approach of dismissing traditions that appear to coincide with the larger narrative.

2.  Whybray believes that the Pentateuch was written in the sixth century B.C.E., which was when Judah was exiled.  One reason that he presents three times in his book (pages 48-49, 103-104, and 238) is that pre-exilic biblical literature does not know about the stories of J and E, and so J and E were most likely not pre-exilic.  Rendtorff thought that “the failure of the pre-exilic literature and especially of the pre-exilic prophets, for whom God’s activity was so important, to make use of this material” is astounding—unless we date the material late.  Whybray concurs with Rendtorff that Abraham became prominent during the exile—to encourage the exiles that God had promised the land to their ancestor, and so they would one day get it back.  (And, indeed, when I look up “Abraham” on Blue Letter Bible, his name in prophetic literature does appear primarily to comfort Israel.)  While Whybray acknowledges that Hosea 12 (which is pre-exilic) refers to stories about Jacob, he says that they’re unlike what we have in the Pentateuch, and so Hosea 12 probably wasn’t drawing from J or E.  When the patriarchs or Moses appear in Joshua-II Kings, Whybray contends, that’s due to the Deuteronomistic editor, whom I presume Whybray dates to the exile.  And so Whybray does not believe that the Pentateuchal stories were written down in Israel’s pre-exilic period, but that they were written later—in the sixth century B.C.E.

What frustrates me about certain forms of biblical scholarship is that they appear to be circular, at times.  “Israel’s pre-exilic literature doesn’t mention this person.”  “Well, what about this passage, which does mention him?”  “Oh, that’s a later exilic insertion.”  How can one test that?  And Hosea 12 does remind me of stuff in Genesis—Jacob wrestles with God, fled to Syria, served for a wife, kept sheep.  I guess the only detail that differs is Hosea 12:4’s statement that Jacob wept to the angel with whom he wrestled, which is not in Genesis 32.  But, if preachers can add details when they tell the stories of the Bible—for dramatic effect—why can’t Hosea do this for Genesis 32?

Second, Whybray expresses difficulty with the notion that Israel could have produced a history in the pre-exilic period—especially since the genre was not known then among other ancient Near Eastern nations (page 48).  But Whybray acknowledges on page 48 that there could have been narrative prose before the Deuteronomist.  And, as Whybray mentions on page 54, Von Rad compared the Joseph story to the Egyptian novella.  I see that Jan Assman in the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Egyptian Literature” says that the Egyptian royal novella existed from the First Intermediate Period until the Late period—which encompasses the second-first millennia B.C.E.  If Egypt could write a story with characters prior to Judah’s exile, why couldn’t pre-exilic Israel take that a step further and compose a grand story about the nation of Israel?  And, when Whybray is arguing against the traditio-critical view that writing was done late in ancient Israel, and that in her early days she just told stories orally, he states:

“Whether the Pentateuchal narratives would have been regarded as worthy of committal to writing at an early stage we have no means of judging: they are unique among extant ancient Near Eastern literature, and if they are indeed of very early origin it would be surprising if they had not acquired considerable status as important religious works at an early stage, since otherwise it would be difficult to account for the very high status which was accorded to them later” (page 142).

Here, Whybray appears to argue that Israel could have written Pentateuchal stuff at an early stage.

I enjoyed Whybray’s pounding of the Documentary Hypothesis as well as other sacred cows of biblical scholarship.  Unfortunately, my impression was that he did some of the very things that he accused other scholars of doing: being inconsistent, and upholding criteria that are based on debatable premises (e.g., he says that the stuff about Moses in the Deuteronomistic History is exilic, assuming that the Deuteronomistic editor was from that time period, when there are scholars who believe there was also a pre-exilic Deuteronomist).  But I definitely recommend this book.  Richard Elliott Friedman should have dealt more with its contents, instead of just acting as if the Documentary Hypothesis (or his version of it) is so obvious!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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