Van Seters on the Authorship of Genesis 22 and Explanatory Phrases

I finished John Van Seters’ Abraham in History and Tradition.  I have two items: Genesis 22, and explanatory phrases.

1.  As I look at Anthony Campbell and Mark O’ Brien’s Sources of the Pentateuch, I see that Martin Noth attributed Genesis 22:1-19 (the akedah story) to E, while he viewed vv 15-18 as a later addition.  Vv 15-18 present an angel calling to Abraham a second time from heaven and reaffirming the promise of blessing and progeny for Abraham, along with the promise that the nations of the earth would bless themselves by Abraham’s offspring.  Noth’s idea may be that vv 15-18 are secondary because they are drawn from a variety of sources, such as Genesis 12:1-3 (J) and 13:14-17, and also because they appear to be an addition: if the author of the rest of Genesis 22:1-19 had indeed composed the promises of vv 15-18, why didn’t he just include them in God’s first message to Abraham from heaven?  Noth also may have felt that Genesis 22:1-19 made sense even when vv 15-18 were taken out, showing that vv 15-18 are secondary.  But Campbell and O’Brien regard vv 15-18 as “strategically located” within Genesis 22: “After the crisis of the apparent threat to Isaac’s life and as the Abraham cycle draws to a close, a reaffirmation of the promises is appropriate” (page 170).

John Van Seters, however, attributes all of Genesis 22:1-19 to J.  Van Seters begins his discussion by dismantling the scholarly attribution of the akedah story to E.  According to Van Seters, scholars attribute Genesis 22:1-14, 19 to E for three reasons: the story uses “Elohim” for God, there’s an angelic intermediary in the story, and Beersheba is presented as Abraham’s primary abode.  Regarding the name of God in the unit, Van Seters points out that “the name Yahweh appears in v. 11 and twice in v. 14” (229).  Van Seters is not sympathetic to scholarly attempts to get around this, such as the argument that “Yahweh belongs to a previous level of the tradition”, or that “Elohim has been changed to Yahweh by a post-Elohistic redactor”.  Van Seters says that these arguments “seem arbitrary and only weaken the divine name criterion” for source division (page 230). Van Seters’ treatment of the other two reasons is based on his previous arguments: Van Seters attributed Genesis 21:8-21, 34 to J, and Genesis 21:8-21 contains an angelic intermediary, and v 34 emphasizes Abraham’s stay in Beersheba, and so, for Van Seters, those features don’t disqualify a text from being J.  (I should note that Noth attributes Genesis 21:8-21, 34 to E.  Genesis 21:8-21 uses “Elohim”, but v 34 refers to the name YHWH.)

Van Seters then argues that the terminology of Genesis 22:1-14, 19 is characteristic of J.  “And it came to pass after these things” (Genesis 22:1) occurs also in Genesis 15:1 and 22:20, and Noth attributes both of those passages to J.  “Upon one of the mountains which I will designate to you” and “he went to the place which God designated to him” (Genesis 22:2-3) sounds like Genesis 26:1—“dwell in the land which I designate to you.”  Van Seters must attribute that verse to J, but Noth sees it as secondary to Genesis 26 (which Noth believes is from J).

Van Seters also believes that Genesis 22:15-18 is from J, for “The content of this addition is very similar to that of many so-called J passages emphasizing the blessing of the patriarch” (page 230).  On page 239, Van Seters explains what he believes is the function of those verses—to give Abraham’s obedience a larger significance, namely, the blessing of Abraham’s descendants.  As far as Van Seters is concerned, Abraham getting his son back is of “no real consequence”, but vv 15-18 describe the relevance of the akedah story to the nation of Israel: On account of Abraham’s act of obedience, Israel is guaranteed that she will receive God’s promises, even if she is in exile on account of her disobedience of God’s law.

In concluding this item, I should note a profound point that Van Seters makes on page 238.  In Genesis 22:14, Abraham names the location of the akedah YHWH-Yireh (the LORD sees) and affirms that the LORD will be seen on the mount.  While Van Seters acknowledges that “it clearly points to the divine election of a cult place”, “signifies the divine choice of Palestine as the promised land”, and “must certainly be the counterpart of the Deuteronomic ‘Place where Yahweh your God will choose”, he does not believe that the passage here is referring to Jerusalem, “for then he would have used specific rather than symbolic names” (page 238).  For Van Seters, what we see here is a “‘demythologizing’ of the concept of the sacred place”, which makes a radical break from the election of Zion.  Van Seters states: “The holy place is the place of the fear of God (vv. 2), the place where one goes to pray (v. 5), the place where the providence of God is seen” (page 238).  Van Seters makes a similar point in his discussion of Genesis 24 (J), where (according to him) we see a late theme: Abraham’s servant prays to God in a foreign land, without the mediation or oracles, holy men, or visions (page 247).  Van Seters may believe that J had these concepts because they spoke to Israel in exile—to assure her that she had access to God, even though the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed.  But Van Seters may not think that J is thereby downplaying the importance of the Promised Land, for, in another work, he refers to I Kings 8, which states that Israel in exile can pray towards the altar in Jerusalem.  Van Seters may hold that J thought the altar in Jerusalem was efficacious—even for Jews who were not in the land.

2.  On page 297, in his discussion of Genesis 14, Van Seters talks about “explanatory phrases that are intended to identify supposedly ancient places by their more modern equivalents.”  Van Seters states that many scholars conclude from this that Genesis 14 contains an ancient account that was touched up so that it could be intelligible to later readers.  But Van Seters thinks that there is a problem with this view.  One of the place-names in Genesis 14, for example, is Bela, “devoured”, which Van Seters believes is “nonsense as a name.”  According to Genesis 14:2, Bela was the older name of Zoar—which, in Genesis 19:22-23—becomes Zoar after Lot flees to it.  Van Seters says that the author of Genesis 14 may have known the tradition that the city became Zoar after Lot fled to it, and so he decided to invent an older name for the city.  In the same way that he invented kings whose names meant “son of evil” and “with iniquity”, the author of Genesis 14 came up with a name for Zoar—Bela, or “devoured.”  His goal, for Van Seters, was “to give an archaic sense to the whole account.”

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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