Revisiting Childs, as I Start Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis

I started David Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches.  So far, I am enjoying this book, especially since I read Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus not long ago.  Childs repeatedly emphasized the importance of the final form of the text, and he said that consideration of the text’s pre-history is useful only insofar as it illuminates the final form.  My problem was that I failed to see how much of Childs’ discussion of the text’s pre-history related to the meaning of the final form of the text.  David Carr appears to have a similar agenda to that of Childs, for Carr states on page viii that he has “decided to concentrate in this book on ways the study of a text’s past formation contributes to study of this present shape.”

How this will play out, I am not entirely certain.  Childs’ definition of the “final form” was the intention of the final redactor of the Book of Exodus—or of someone who brought different materials together.  I did not discuss this important detail of Childs’ work that much in my write-ups.  There are scholars who have questioned whether we should place a whole lot of stock in a grand “intention” of a redactor, for perhaps he was simply collecting materials, without having an ideological agenda!  But there are places in Childs’ commentary on Exodus in which he argues the opposite, contending that the redactor is being quite deliberate in his organization of material.  Childs says on at least one occasion that the redactor is trying to harmonize discordant voices as he adds his own contribution to the text.

A problem that I was trying to express about Childs is that the intention of the final redactor is quite different from the intentions of those who wrote the previous layers.  Why exactly should we privilege the voice of the last person to contribute to the text?  And how can knowing about the previous layers of the text contribute to our understanding of the final form of the text, when the previous layers came before the final form—and had different ideologies and agendas from those of the person or group responsible for the final form?  If we want to focus on the final form of the text, should not our concentration be on the final redactor and what he did with his material, not the agendas of those who wrote the material that he was using? 

At the same time, understanding the material underneath the final form may be important, for that material is as it is on account of its own history and context—before it even reached the final redactor.  There is a sense in which we may have to look at the pre-history of the text to understand the text itself.  The final redactor is not the only voice in the text, and, while he may have added a contribution, not every line of the material he is using is from him, or was even necessarily interpreted by him when he made his additions.  To know why the material he is using says things that it does, in the way that it does, we need to treat that material on its own terms.  A diachronic analysis of the text is necessary.

I do not know how Carr will interact with these sorts of issue.  So far, my impression is that he thinks that knowing about the different layers of the text is important because that helps us to understand why the text before us is as it is: with all of its fractures.  But he somehow wants us to find meaning from the final form of the text—with its fractures—as we recognize the text’s different voices, which allow for some openness in the text.  Carr makes beautiful comments about how the biblical text is a landscape rather than flat-land, and how he wants to see how the text is meaningful.  But I do not yet know what his concept of interpreting the “final form” of the text is.  Is it looking at the intention of the final redactor?  Is it looking at literary patterns within the text?  Is the reader free to put together the fractures of the Bible in a manner that makes sense for himself or herself, apart from any redactor’s intention?

Those are my questions about Carr’s goal in this book.  Carr also had interesting thoughts on whether or not we can discern the pre-history of the text.  His final answer is that we can, in certain cases, but what I especially appreciated was his judicious consideration of different points-of-view.  Why have people disputed the notion that we can discern a text’s pre-history—its different sources and redactional layers?  One reason is that some believe that texts themselves are discordant, even if they come from a single writer, so the discordance of a text does not enable us to identify different authors behind it.  Another reason is evident in the work of Stephen Kaufman (see my post on this here), who considered the Temple Scrolls’ interaction with sources.  The Temple Scroll paraphrases a number of biblical passages according to its own style, so, if we did not have access to those passages through our Bibles, how would we even be able to identify the biblical sources that the Temple Scroll uses?  We can’t rely on style!  That being the case, how can we be dogmatic as we claim to identify sources in the Bible that are not even available to us—such as J, P, etc.?

Carr essentially argues that we can identify different sources or layers in the text for at least two reasons.  First, the text gives indicators when there are additions—such as a resumptive repetition of what came before.  According to Carr, we know from what we possess of ancient texts’ different editions that resumptive repetitions were later additions, in a number of cases.  Second, Carr argues that contradictions, doublets, and tracing seams with their own vocabulary are reliable indications of different sources or redactional layers.

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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