Van Seters on the Flood Doublet and the Pre-Sinaitic Law

For my write-up today on John Van Seters’ Life of Moses, I want to talk about two topics: Van Seters’ view of the Flood doublet in Genesis, and the law of God.

1.  Van Seters believes that P supplemented J, that is, P added stuff to the J story.  So Van Seters does not hold that P was a full-fledged source that a later redactor put alongside J.  Like many critics of the Documentary Hypothesis, Van Seters argues that the P “source” looks rather incomplete without J, and so he can’t picture P as a source that stands by itself.

An argument against Van Seters’ position by advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis (such as the author I recently read, Ernest Nicholson) is that there are two Flood stories in the Book of Genesis, that of P, and that of J.  In the Genesis Flood narrative, the argument runs, it does not look like P is adding details to J’s story.  Rather, P has an alternative Flood story.  If P were adding to J’s story, why would P repeat stuff that J has, or contradict J (by saying, for example, that Noah took two of each animal onto the ark rather than seven pairs of clean animals, and one pair of each unclean animal)?

On page 102, Van Seters responds to this argument:

“Another argument that has been raised against the supplementary view of P is that P often contradicts or revises the older tradition so radically that the two perspectives could not have been combined by P himself.  Emerton, in comparing the detail about the number of clean and unclean animals taken into the ark in both accounts in Genesis 6-7, asks this question: ‘How would anyone working over the text both wish to correct it and yet feel bound by tradition to leave it unchanged?  It is scarcely likely that he tried to do both at the same time.’  But why is this less of a problem for a redactor who, we are led to believe, was often selective in what he included or excluded?  Why, in this case, did he feel that he had to preserve both?  One cannot assume that a redactor had greater veneration for his traditions than P.  So the argument proves nothing.”

But why did P add what appears to be an alternative Flood account, one that repeats and also contradicts the Flood account of J?  Was it to offer a fuller perspective of the Flood?  Or was P seeking to correct J, while still preserving it, since it was an honored tradition?

2.  In the Sabbatarian tradition in which I grew up, I often heard that the Ten Commandments (including the Sabbath) were in effect before Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai.  Why was this argument so important for Sabbatarians?  Because there were plenty of Sunday-keepers who maintained that the Sabbath was a part of the covenant that God made with Israel on Mount Sinai, and so, when that old covenant became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13) through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Sabbath went away with it.  But Sabbatarians’ response was that the Sabbath did not originate as part of the Old Covenant, for it existed before the Old Covenant came into being.  Consequently, the Sabbath had an existence apart from the Old Covenant, and so the abolition of the Old Covenant did not abolish the command to observe the Sabbath.  As Ron Dart asked, “How can abolishing the Old Covenant nullify what the Old Covenant did not bring into existence?”  (Those may not have been his exact words, but that was his point.)

There were at least three passages that Sabbatarians cited to support their position that the Sabbath pre-dated Israel’s sojourn at Sinai.  First, of course, there’s Genesis 2:2-3, in which God blesses, sanctifies, and rests on the seventh day after his work of creation.  Second, there’s Genesis 26:5, which affirms that Abraham kept God’s commandments, statutes, and laws.  And, third, there’s Exodus 16, in which God tests Israel through manna to see if she will observe his Sabbath law—and this takes place before Israel arrived at Sinai!

Let’s look at John Van Seters’ interaction with this issue.  After saying that J turned “Dtr’s general exhortation into the narration of specific events” (page 180)—which means that J expanded upon Deuteronomy 8’s general discussion about Israel’s experience in the wilderness by coming up with specific stories about that experience—Van Seters observes that there is a difference between J and Deuteronomy.  J introduces “‘commandments’ and ‘statutes’ right at the beginning of the desert journey”, whereas Deuteronomy presents Moses delivering them at the end of Israel’s journey, at Moab.  (I wonder what Van Seters does with Deuteronomy 5, in which God gives the commandments from Mount Horeb.  Well, he has a large section in this book on Sinai, so I shall see!)  Van Seters then states the following about J’s view on God’s law, on page 180:

“In the patriarchal narratives J refers to Abraham as being obedient to Yahweh’s ‘commandments, statutes, and laws’ (Gen. 26:5), which cannot refer to a specific code.  It would appear that for the Yahwist the laws of God are akin to the notion of ‘natural law,’ of which any particular code is a partial manifestation.”

That must not mean for Van Seters, however, that J thought that Abraham kept the Sabbath, for, on pages 187-188, Van Seters argues that J’s portion of Exodus 16 is an etiology for the Sabbath: it is saying how J believed that the Sabbath came into being, and, for J, it originated when God gave Israel manna.  For P, on the other hand, the Sabbath existed since creation, and so P added comments to Exodus 16 to that effect, treating the Sabbath as an already existing institution.  So what did Van Seters mean when he said that, in the mind of J, Abraham obeyed natural law?  Perhaps that J holds that God always had a moral law, even before Sinai, and that Abraham obeyed that.  This law did not include the Sabbath, which came later, but there was still a law that Abraham obeyed, and particular codes in their own way are expressions of this law.

I want to mention two other viewpoints on the pre-Sinai existence of the law in the Hebrew Bible.  First of all, while Van Seters argues that P thought the Sabbath existed at creation, Gerhard Von Rad maintained that this did not mean that the Sabbath command existed at creation!  Rather, God kept the Sabbath, but the biblical text does not say that anyone else did so—until God gave the Sabbath to Israel.

Second, on page 203 of Etched in Stone, David Aaron refers to chronological problems regarding Exodus 16:

“How should the Israelites have known to observe Shabbat at this point in the narrative?  Shabbat observance will be presented for the first time as part of the Decalogue covenant (Exod 20).  Nothing in the narrative prior to that point would suggest that the people knew to collect double manna in preparation for Shabbat.  And yet, God is represented as saying, ‘How long will you refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings?’ (16:28).  The same anachronistic phenomenon was met in the previous complaint scene (Exod 15:24).  But here it is especially egregious; we take note of [Exodus 16:]34: ‘As the LORD had commanded Moses, Aaron placed it before the Pact [(ha-edah)] to be kept.’  This cannot possibly be justified within this context.  The ‘pact’ refers to the Decalogue itself, or at least the ark carrying it.  Moreover, this narrative is already aware of the forty-year wandering, something that should not be relevant until that punishment is decreed in Numbers 14…It will remain a mystery as to why the author was not at all bothered by the ways this apostasy scene violates the internal chronology of the narrative.”

Why do the Israelites observe the Sabbath prior to the Decalogue?  One explanation is that Exodus 16 has anachronisms.

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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1 Response to Van Seters on the Flood Doublet and the Pre-Sinaitic Law

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