Carr and the Final Form

I finished David Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches.  Much of the book is Carr’s explanation of what the fractures are and how they came to be: his identification of sources and layers, with their different ideologies.  Chapter 12, “Reading the Fractures”, is about how to find meaning in the final form of the text.

In my first post on Carr’s book, as I was also thinking more about Brevard Childs’ commentary on Exodus, I asked how Carr believes that we can find meaning in the final form of the text?  Do we look at the intention of the final redactor, who put together sources and added supplements?  Or is the meaning of the final form something that the readers themselves decide as they put together the fractures of Genesis in their own way?

My impression is that Carr goes more with the latter.  Carr does believe that there are cases in which the priestly redactor tried to harmonize elements of the text, particularly in the flood story.  And, in his discussion of the non-P proto-Genesis, Carr presents a picture in which someone attempts to line different stories up behind the theme of God’s promise to Abraham.  But, in many cases, Carr does not indicate any meaning that the priestly redactor had in mind when he juxtaposed different sources.  Carr draws from Rainer Albertz’s model that sources were combined to appease different factions (the elders and the priests), and (like many scholars) Carr thinks that the Persian sponsorship of nations’ laws had something to do with post-exilic Israel developing the Pentateuch to serve as its national code.  On a few occasions, Carr states that the priestly redactor’s combination of sources left unresolved tensions, and Carr remarks on page 334 that the fractures of Genesis “can never be fully tamed by a given synchronic reading.”  And, on page 333, Carr affirms that the Torah is an open text (open to different interpretations, that is) on account of its multiple voices, but he denies that a single author consciously intended for that to be the case.  On page 116-117, Carr remarks that the priestly redactor preserved the P and non-P stories of the Flood “perhaps because both strands were judged theologically significant”, but (as far as I could tell) he does not elaborate on what the priestly redactor’s theology about the Flood actually was.  In short, Carr’s view appears to be that Genesis has fractures, and that the priestly redactor largely left them unresolved for us, which may imply that the redactor himself did not necessarily have an idea of how to theologically balance or synthesize them.  

While Carr does not talk much about the priestly redactor’s theological message in juxtaposing different viewpoints, he has a lot to say in Chapter 12 about reader-response: how readers have found or can find meaning from the fractures, based (in part) on their own backgrounds and contexts.  In some cases, readers can balance the differing voices quite well.  (This is my opinion.)  On pages 318-319, Carr discusses how readers can read together the sovereign God of P who created humans as godlike and commanded the establishment of the Tabernacle so that he could commune with Israel, with the God of the non-P narrative who is continually perturbed that humans are transgressing the divine-human boundary, with chaotic results.  Solutions that Carr mentions includes dualism—as the serpent of Genesis 3 is viewed as a “semidivine demonic power” who introduces evil into God’s orderly world; the view that God’s creation of godlike humans got out of hand; and the idea that God changes his mind.

In some cases, readers prioritize some voices and not others.  Carr discusses the debate between the Reformers and Roman Catholicism, which was based in part on both sides prioritizing certain voices in the biblical text, as they sought to navigate the role of grace, faith, and works in salvation.  On the issue of the nations being blessed or blessing themselves through Abraham, Carr states that Jews have tended to interpret that promise in a paradigmatic sense—that the nations wish on themselves the same blessing that Abraham has.  Christians, however, have interpreted the promise to mean that God will bless non-Israelites through Abraham’s seed.  Carr believes that there are different voices in the Book of Genesis, as some have a nationalistic focus on God’s blessing of Abraham, some present Abraham bringing blessing to nations, and P affirms that the nations are blessed anyway, apart from God’s promise to Abraham.  The multi-vocal nature of the text allows for openness in interpretation, and Carr appears to be open to readers making “certain choices about how to make sense out of the final product” (page 324).  Personally, however, I think that choosing to prioritize one voice at the expense of another does not do justice to the fractures in their juxtaposed state, something that balancing the different voices does do.

Are there boundaries in Carr’s reader-response approach?  I believe so.  On page 309, Carr critiques attempts to relate the patriarchal stories to family life.  One author “reads the whole of the ancestral section in terms of family conflict and violence”, which, for Carr,  fits the Jacob-Esau and Joseph stories but not the Abraham story so well (though I think that the Hagar-Sarah conflicts may fit this).  Another author reads the ancestral story in terms of “kinship continuity—the search for proper marriage and inheritance structures to transfer the promise”.  Carr states that this fits the Abraham stories, but not the Jacob and Joseph stories, to the same extent.  Carr appears to hold that the text itself can set boundaries for interpretations.

I would like to refer to something that Carr discusses on pages 310-311 in order to highlight where I struggle with Carr’s methodology of reading the fractures of Genesis.  Carr thinks that the story of Ham showing off his father’s nakedness in Genesis 9 was originally about the curse of Ham, but someone made the story into a curse of Canaan, in accordance with broader themes that are in the proto-Pentateuchal narrative.  But Carr notes that religious interpreters have tried to explain why Noah curses Canaan for something that Ham did.  Genesis Rabbah says that Noah cursed Canaan because Ham had already been blessed, that Canaan was the one who told Ham about Noah’s nakedness, and that Ham deprived Noah of a young son (himself, perhaps) through his deed, and so Ham “was deprived of his own young son” (Carr’s words).  And Luther refers to this story as an “example of the curse of the father falling on the son as well” (page 311).  But I wonder how these interpretations can be legitimate, if they go against the intention of the writers themselves: to apply a story that was about Ham to an anti-Canaanite agenda. 

I think that in many cases, however, we do not know why the redactor juxtaposed different viewpoints, and so it basically is our task to guess at what the fragments can mean when they are put together. 

I have one last question in this post.  A goal of both Childs and Carr is to demonstrate how the pre-history of the text contributes to understanding the final form.  Carr says that a diachronic approach to the text can reveal its fractures.  My question is this: Why would we need to do traditio-critical or source-critical work to see that the text has fractures, and to attempt to synthesize or balance them?  Religious interpreters who lacked these methods (e.g., the rabbis, Luther, Calvin) recognized fractures in the text and tried to do something with them.

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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