Carr on the Priestly Source

I’m continuing my way through David Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches.  In this post, I will write about some points that Carr makes about P, the priestly source.

P is a debated source.  Was P a document that was separate and independent from other sources (e.g., J and E), and a later redactor combined them?  Or did P aim to supplement these sources, rather than composing a full-scale document of his own?  In favor of the “independent document” view is the presence of doublets in the biblical narrative, for P most likely would not regurgitate stuff that other sources have if his intention were merely to supplement the works.  In favor of the “P as supplement” view would be the many instances in which P cannot stand on its own as a document, for it appears to presume details in other sources, plus P by itself is incomplete.

David Carr’s approach, which he defends, is that P was aware of the non-priestly source (which I’ll call “non-P”) when P wrote his document, for P was disagreeing with non-P and wanted to replace non-P.  Carr states that P did not imagine that his source would be combined with non-P by a redactor.  But a priestly redactor had a hand in combining P with non-P, and that may account for the times when there appears to be priestly language supplementing non-P.

Where did P disagree with non-P, according to Carr?  Non-P presents humans as continually moving towards godlikeness, with negative consequences, whereas P contends that God created humans as godlike at the outset.  In Genesis 35, non-P describes Bethel as God’s house, whereas P holds that it’s merely a place where God appeared to Jacob, after which God left.  The idea here is probably that P believed that God’s people first offered sacrifices after the construction of the Tabernacle, which was also why P says that Noah took only a pair of each animal onto the Ark, whereas non-P narrates that he took seven of each clean animal, male and female.  Non-P thought that Noah could offer sacrifices before the construction of the Tabernacle and thus needed extra animals, whereas P did not, for P emphasized the importance of the Tabernacle.  Non-P is rather ambivalent towards the nations, viewing them as “a negative backdrop to the story of Israel’s special blessing”, but P has a more cosmic perspective: P thinks that Israel is “throbbing with the rhythms established in the broader cosmos”, and that God takes notice of all of humanity (page 132).  Carr explains on pages 131-132:

“Whereas the non-P traditions either ignore or disparage the world outside Israel, the P tradition more closely links cosmos and ethos, humanity and Israel, earth and ‘the land.’  Thus, for example, Israel’s blessing is but a specific and intense instance of God’s blessing on humanity in general.  Israel’s possession of the land echoes God’s broader creation intent for humans to pursue the earth and subdue it.  Furthermore, P diverges from its non-P precursors by describing God as covenanting not just with Israel’s progenitor, Abraham, but with Noah, the progenitor of postflood humanity as well (Gen. 9:8-17).”

Essentially, P regards Israel as the microcosm of all of humanity, only Israel receives an intensification of God’s blessings. 

P had a high regard for the cult, which was characteristic of other ancient Near Eastern nations as well.  As Carr states on pages 130-131, “When the temple is properly maintained, the creative power of God is manifest in the land around it: the land and people are fertile, the king lives long, and disasters—famine, defeat in war, overturning of established political structures, and so forth—are averted.”

How, then, would P account for the time before the construction of the Tabernacle?  Without God’s sanctuary to preserve order, what kept the world from descending into utter chaos?  Other ancient Near Eastern nations did not have this problem, for they presented the “cult and other aspects of human culture [as] established at creation or in a time span extending from Creation to Flood” (page 132).  But how did P approach this issue?  From what I read in Carr, I got two answers.  First, P regarded the cult as similar to creation, for both entailed order, blessing, and fertility.  Second, P presents the establishment of “the cult and other potentialities” as occurring over a stretch of covenantal history up to the time of Moses.  It’s like God was setting the stage for the cult from the first human beings up to Moses.

I can’t say that I am entirely satisfied with these answers, for I wonder what P believed that the Tabernacle brought that did not exist before.  Was the aim of the Tabernacle to preserve the order that God established at creation?

I turn now to the date of P.  Carr acknowledges that P has some elements that are quite old; after all, there is the “Keteph Hinnon bracelet, a preexilic copy of the Aaronide blessing found in Num. 6:24-26” (page 134).  But, on page 136, Carr offers reasons that P itself is exilic or post-exilic: P presumes cultic centralization (something that pre-exilic Deuteronomists rigorously defended), “P is not clearly reflected by non-Pentateuchal texts until the late works of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah”, P’s dating system of numbering months “appears to enter the biblical tradition in the Babylonian period”, and P depends on non-P traditions, including Genesis 15, which Carr considers to be “a semi-Deuteronomistic addition to the Abraham tradition”.

But Carr also thinks that P was a tradition that grew over time, and he identifies two stages, if you will.  The first stage fit Israel in the Diaspora, or exile.  It highlighted such exilic customs as circumcision, Passover, and the Sabbath, as well as endogamous marriage, a means to preserve ethnic boundaries.  It tried to move Israel towards “nonstate social and leadership structures” (page 138), as it emphasized genealogy rather than the state and developed a “nonland-centered utopia featuring a movable tabernacle [and] a kinglike priest” (page 138).  Carr associates Exodus 25:1-29:45 with this stage.  The second stage, however, concerns “the constitution of Israel as a cultic community surrounding the tabernacle” (page 137), which, for Carr, reflects the Second Temple period.  Carr associates Exodus 30:1-31:18 with this stage.

I am partially convinced by this scenario, and partially not.  I think that P does contain customs that were relevant in exile, such as circumcision and the Sabbath.  But, when I read Exodus 25:1-29:45, that appears to me to establish society around a cult, just like Exodus 30:1-31:18 does.  Both talk about the Tabernacle, and, if P indeed did assume cultic centralization, then he did not believe that the Tabernacle was with Israel in exile; rather, the Tabernacle had been destroyed, with the Temple that housed it.  At the same time, perhaps the concept of the moveable Tabernacle was teaching the same sort of lesson that Ezekiel 11:16 was: that God was a sanctuary to Israel, even in exile.  Moreover, Carr may characterize these two sections of Exodus as he does because Exodus 25:1-29:45 describes the establishment of the Tabernacle and the priesthood, whereas Exodus 30:1-31:18 concerns the rituals that were to take place in the Tabernacle on a regular basis.  But couldn’t the former have been setting the stage for the latter, since rituals would naturally take place in the Tabernacle?

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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