Nicholson’s Summary of Rendtorff’s Supplementary Hypothesis

I’m continuing my way through Ernest Nicholson’s The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century.  In this post, I will talk about Rolf Rendtorff’s Supplementary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch.

According to Rendtorff, independent “complexes of material within the patriarchal material in Genesis 12-50” were combined by passages about God’s promises, which were supplemented over time.  The independent passages are the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50), various Jacob stories, the “Isaac material in Genesis 26”, Abraham traditions (which include the Abraham-Lot complex and a “Negeb group” that presents Abraham in the South), and “a number of narratives which are loosely related to their context”—such as Genesis 12:10-20; 14; 16; 17; and 23.  Genesis 15 is independent because it does not relate to its immediate context (according to Rendtorff), but it is late because it presupposes “the topics of the Abraham tradition as a whole” (page 106), and thus was inserted after several traditions had already come together.

According to Nicholson, Rendtorff follows Claus Westermann in that he “identifies the [patriarchal] promises in question as the promise of land, of numerous descendants, and of blessing, to which he himself adds the promise of guidance” (page 107).  For Rendtorff, the original promise was for the patriarch alone, since God in Genesis 13:17 and 15:7 promises to give the land to “thee.”  The promise was then expanded to include the patriarch’s seed, which is the form of the promise that we see in Genesis 13:15 and 28:13.  Here, Rendtorff argues, the “seed” part was added by a later hand, for “and to your seed” comes after the verb (“to you I will give it, and to your seed forever”; my Scriptural quotations in this post will be based on the KJV).  According to Rendtorff, someone actually tries to correct that awkwardness in Genesis 35:12, by adding a verbal phrase after the “seed”—“to you I will give it, and to your seed after you will I give the land.”  In the next stage, there is more comfort with the promise being for both the patriarch and his seed, for the “seed” occurs before or after the verb—it is no longer inserted, but is an integral part of the promise (Genesis 17:8; 26:3; 28:4).  Finally, at the latest stage, the promise is said to be only for the patriarch’s “seed” (Genesis 12:7; 15:18; 24:7; 26:4; 48:4).

According to Rendtorff, there is development in other aspects of the promise.  In an earlier formulation, God promises Abraham that all the families of the earth will be blessed, using the niphal (Genesis 12:3; 28:14).  Rendtorff says that the “later formulation (22:18; 26:4) employs the hithpa’el and refers to ‘all the nations of the world” (quoted from Nicholson’s summary on page 107), and that Genesis 18:18—which uses the niphal and “all the nations of the world” is an “intermediate stage” between these two versions.  In terms of the promise of seed, the promise develops from that of an increase in seed, to that of increase of seed plus a metaphor about “how numerous the descendants will be”, to that of the descendants becoming a “people,” “peoples,” “nations,” or an “assembly.”  For Rendtorff, God’s promise to be with the patriarch only occurs in reference to Isaac and Jacob, but it’s based on Genesis 12:1, in which God says that he will show Abraham the land, which implies that God is with Abraham.

For Rendtorff, promises were even expanded.  In Genesis 28:13-15, we see the promise of land, which, for Rendtorff, only concerned the patriarch.  The “and to your seed” was added after the verb, then the promise of numerous seed was added, as well as the promise of “blessing for others” (Nicholson’s words).

So the patriarchal stories have been supplemented at various stages, according to Rendtorff.  And these supplements regarding the promises serve to combine stories together.  The promise of guidance (in some form) occurs at the end of the Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 22:2), the Isaac (in Genesis 26, in which Isaac is the only patriarchal character), and the Jacob (Genesis 28:15; 31:3) complexes—serving as a framework for each of them.  The promise that others will be blessed through the patriarch also occurs in the Abraham, the Isaac, and the Jacob complexes.

But here is where things get tricky: for Rendtorff, “the Abraham and Jacob complexes were the first to be united”, and, in “a second phase came the inclusion of the Isaac complex…”  At the beginning of the Abraham (Genesis 12:3) and the Jacob (Genesis 28:14) complexes, the promise of blessing for others uses the niphal “and refers to ‘all the families of the earth'” (page 110).  This is the first stage, as the promise of blessing is inserted to combine the Abraham and the Jacob complexes.  We can tell that this is an early stage of combination because, in those verses, the promise is only for the patriarch (and, because the “seed” occurs after the verb in Genesis 27:14, Rendtorff regards the seed there as a later insertion), which Rendtorff views as the earliest form of the promise.  Genesis 22:18 (Abraham) and 26:4 (Isaac), however, reflect a later stage, for they use later formulas: “bless” is in the hitpael and it applies to “all the nations of the world,” and the promise is solely for the patriarch’s seed.  Through this formula, the Abraham and the Isaac complexes were combined.  For Rendtorff, by identifying the layers of the promise formulas, we can in some cases determine the stages at which complexes of tradition were combined with each other.

Rendtorff does not think that this model applies outside of the Book of Genesis, for he views the rest of the Pentateuch as a separate entity.  According to Rendtorff, the rest of the Pentateuch displays no knowledge of the land promises to the patriarchs, except for a “late Priestly stratum” in Exodus 6:2ff.  Nicholson’s description of Rendtorff’s argument says that “When the land is first mentioned (Exod. 3:8), it is referred to as if the promise of the land to the patriarchs is completely unknown” (page 111): it just says that God will deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians and bring them to a good land, where the Canaanites reside—as if Moses does not know what that land was.  This is a significant reason that Rendtorff rejects the Documentary Hypothesis: if there were a J source whose writings are throughout the Pentateuch, why do we see the patriarchal land promises looming large in Genesis, but hardly at all in the rest of the Pentateuch?  Rendtorff believes, however, that P later inserted Exodus 2:23-25 and 6:2-9—references to the patriarchs—to combine the patriarchal traditions with the Exodus tradition, and that someone inserted things to connect the Pentateuch together at “decisive points” (Genesis 50:24; Exodus 13:3-10, 11; 32:12; 33:1-3a; Numbers 11:11-15; 14:22-24; 32:11).  Especially significant, for Rendtorff, are Genesis 50:24 and Exodus 33_1-3a, which “join the patriarchal stories with the traditions which narrate the journey of the Israelites from Egypt back to the promised land” and (in Rendtorff’s words) “clamp together all Pentateuchal traditions under one all-embracing theme: YHWH has given the land to the Israelites” (Nicholson 113).  Rendtorff holds that (in Nicholson’s words) “the editorial stratum which these texts constitute is Deuteronomic, more specifically ‘proto-Deuteronomic’ or ‘early Deuteronomic'” (page 113).

Unlike many advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, Rendtorff does not view P as a full-fledged source, but as one who made mild editorial additions.  Rendtorff attributes Genesis 31:18 (part of it), 33:18a, and 35:6a—which refer to arriving at particular destinations—to P.  He thinks that P amplified the promises of guidance in Genesis 27:46-28:5; 35:9-13; and 48:3f (and Rendtorff may believe that Genesis 27:46-28:5 is priestly because it opposes intermarriage, though I am not certain).  Rendtorff does not agree with many proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis that Genesis 23 (Abraham’s purchase of a grave for Sarah) is priestly, for he sees it as too secular.  Rendtorff does attribute Genesis 17 (circumcision) to P, however, but he thinks it was inserted because, except for Genesis 21:4, circumcision does not appear in the patriarchal narrative.  (I don’t know what Rendtorff does with Genesis 34, the Dinah narrative, in which circumcision is a significant element of the story.)

I want to mention some of Nicholson’s arguments against Rendtorff.  First of all, unlike Rendtorff, Nicholson doesn’t think that “and to your seed” after the verb indicates an interpolation, but rather is “normal Hebrew syntax”, for it occurs in Numbers 18:8, 11 and Deuteronomy 1:36.  Second, Nicholson notes that Rendtorff allows P to be flexible in how he expresses the promise—as P sometimes applies the promise to the seed alone (Genesis 48:4), and sometimes to the patriarch and his seed (Genesis 17:8; 28:4).  If P could be flexible, Nicholson wonders, why couldn’t an “earlier editor or author”?  Why do we have to see every variation as a stage?  Moreover, Nicholson quotes John Emerton, who states, “To promise the land to a patriarch implies promising it to his descendants too, and the author could allow himself variety in the wording of the promise without intending an essential difference of meaning” (pages 115-116).

In his treatment of Rendtorff’s argument concerning the separation between the patriarchal narratives and the rest of the Pentateuch, on the basis (in part) on Exodus 3:8, Nicholson contends that Exodus 3 has links to the patriarchal age: in vv 6-7, it links the patriarchs together as family, and it treats Israel as God’s people.  At the same time, Nicholson can somewhat see Rendtorff’s point.  For Nicholson, the promises to the patriarchs and the Exodus are two independent traditions.  In later texts, the Exodus is subordinated to the promises to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:8; Psalm 105:43), but often in the Pentateuch, the Exodus “stands on its own as the primary saving act of Yahweh” (page 129); in the prophets, some passages “associate Israel’s election with the exodus” (Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 20:5), whereas others “refer to Israel as having been ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ in Abraham” (Isaiah 41:8; 51:2).  The parts of the Pentateuch in which the promises to the patriarchs assume priority, for Nicholson, are a “secondary development”, and they occur in stories in which the LORD “threatens to abandon the people because of their apostasy and rebellion, but steps back from this on account of the oath to the patriarchs” (page 129—I’m not sure what Nicholson’s point is here).  Exodus 3 itself does not mention the promises to the patriarchs, and that tells Nicholson that it was secondary in the Pentateuch.  Exodus 3, in Nicholson’s opinion, displays a clash between the tradition that the election came through the patriarchs and the view that is came through the Exodus, and this is why Exodus 3 mentions the patriarchs, but not the promises to them.

One more point: What would an advocate of the Supplementary Hypothesis do with the Joseph story, which appears to connect the patriarchs with the Exodus narrative, in that it tells how the Israelites ended up in Egypt?  I don’t know how Rendtorff explains it, but Nicholson describes the view of Blum, another advocate of the Supplementary Hypothesis.  Blum points out that the Joseph story is considered by scholars to be an independent novella, so it may know about the Exodus, without sharing “a common literary context” with the Pentateuchal traditions about it (page 125).  And so the hearers of the story needed a knowledge of the “outline of the saving history up to the settlement in the land” (Blum’s words) to understand the Joseph story, but they didn’t need a “literary context”.  To this, Nicholson astutely responds: “[Blum’s] theory requires us to accept that there was a commonplace knowledge of the saving history from the patriarchs onwards which the author of the Joseph story, as well as other redactors of Genesis, could presuppose on the part of his hearers/readers, but that it did not occur to anyone to combine the story of the patriarchs with the bondage-exodus-wilderness narrative until the early post-exilic period” (page 127).

I’ll stop here.  Writing this post helped me, even if no one else finds it useful!

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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