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As part of our continuing work on the JEDP theory, we will be taking a look at specific passages said to offer evidence in favor of it. One common example involves the supposed "doublet" (the same story told twice) of Abra(ha)m's covenant with God in Genesis 15 and 17.
At first glance this seems to be a clear victory for the JEDP camp. Throughout the G15 pericope, "Yahweh" is used. This passage is usually assigned to J and E redacted together. In G17, only "Elohim" is used. This passage is assigned to P. Both are (so it is said) accounts of God's covenant with Abra(ha)m.
A closer look at these stories, however, and a view that keeps in mind the highly probable oral background of these stories (which is to say, not necessarily that they began as oral compositions, though they might have; but rather, that they were intended mainly to be read aloud), refutes the notion of a JEDP separation.
- It is clear, to begin with, that G15 and G17 are part of
entirely different storytelling units. G15's story arguably begins
with Genesis 12; but at the very least, it is clear that the
extension goes back to at least the story of Abram's war in G14. If
it did not, then Yahweh's assurance that He is Abram's "shield" and
"reward" doesn't make a lot of sense. (The main assurance relates
to the preservation of Abraham's line [15:2,3,8]. We may well expect
Abraham to be concerned about his lack of an heir after the pitched
battle described in G14.)
On the other hand, what of G17? The hinge point for saying that this is a doublet is verse 2, where God announces that he will make a covenant with Abram -- in a way that seems to suggest, to modern reading critics, that this is the first time the issue is being brought up.
But if G17 is part of an oral pericope that began with G16, or even if the stories were simply meant to be (or had to be) read aloud, then the "reminder" of a covenant is quite understandable: It serves in essence as a "flashback" to the actual covenant scene-enactment in G15, as an "aural cue" reminding the listener of what preceded.
G17 cannot really be described as a repeat anyway, since G15 has to do with a covenant for land, whereas G17 is concerned with giving Abraham an heir.
- But what of the other factor that supposedly distinguishes
these stories -- the use of divine names? Here it is worthwhile to
first review the matter of divine names as a whole and explore some
of the weaknesses of the criterion, courtesy of the analysis by
Whybray [Why.MP, 64ff] -- which was what really got the whole JEDP
thesis going with Astruc so many years ago.
- The J and E division isn't universal throughout the
Pentateuch. Some critics may leave the impression in popular
presentations that the divine name division is clear throughout the
Pentateuch -- but in fact, it is only good through Genesis and a
few of the first chapters of Exodus. After that, "Yahweh" is almost
always used, although "Elohim" does make appearances.
JEDPists contend that E and P stopped using "Elohim" so much after a certain point where Yahweh reveals Himself to Moses by the name Yahweh (Ex. 6:3), and this explains why the names no longer alternate the same way. But this explanation is countermanded not only by uses of "Elohim" later than this passage, but also by these items following:
- The alteration of divine names also occurs in later works in the OT, and in works of pagan literature in reference to pagan gods. In books like Jonah and the works of the biblical historians, Yahweh and Elohim are used back and forth, yet these are works that no one would think of dividing up in the same way. Likewise, pagan texts vary divine names of pagan gods: Whybray offers the example of a poem that uses the names "Baal" and "Hadad" interchangeably. This leads to the last item:
- There are other suitable reasons for the alterations.
Whybray suggests two:
- Theological reasons. This explanation is often used, perhaps overused, suggesting that "Yahweh" is used to express God's covenant relation with Israel and for His acts as a personal God, whereas "Elohim" is used in senses of power and majesty, for example. This also fits with ancient practice of honoring deity, as Neyrey points out in Render to God : "...it was a mark of honor for a Greco-Roman deity to be 'many-named'" and it was no doubt the same in the agonistic setting of ancient Israel.
- Stylistic reasons. To put it simply, writers (and later copyists, as some evidence shows) may have altered divine names simply for variety, or unconsciously. Whybray points to the way passages like 2 Samuel 16 alternate referring to King David as "David," "the king," and "King David" -- apparently just for variety. For my part, I recall reading Chuck Colson's book Born Again and being aware of how Colson (or his ghostwriter?) switched between how he named a friend of his in the text by either first name alone ("Tom"), last name alone ("Phillips"), or by both names ("Tom Philips"). But such name-switching can also be done unconsciously - Whybray notes that many lecturers switch between the divine names while teaching, with no apparent motivation!
It is our contention here that theological reasons are sufficient to explain the name variation between G15 and G17. G15 depicts God as the "covenant God" of Israel. G17, however, follows upon Abram's attempt in Chapter 16 to give God's promise a little kick by having a child by Hagar.
And so, in G17, Yahweh appears again -- only this time, he identifies himself and says, "I am the Almighty God!" (17:1) -- and thereafter, God is called "Elohim" for the rest of the episode. Why? Because Yahweh is now proclaiming his power to do what Abram was trying to do on his own.
- The J and E division isn't universal throughout the Pentateuch. Some critics may leave the impression in popular presentations that the divine name division is clear throughout the Pentateuch -- but in fact, it is only good through Genesis and a few of the first chapters of Exodus. After that, "Yahweh" is almost always used, although "Elohim" does make appearances.
We therefore conclude that these two passages offer no support for the JEDP thesis. At the same time, we assert that there is no reason to deny that Moses was responsible for assembling these stories: Which is to say, as is the case with much of what is in Genesis, he certainly had sources at his disposal which he used, for he was obviously not writing from personal experience!
A final sidebar concerning a critical divisional hinge-point deserves notice from within the text of G15 itself. It concerns verses 15:5 and 9-12:
He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be..." He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
Critics allege an redactional foul-up as proof of multiple authors: Verse 5 indicates it is night time, and then suddenly the sun is setting in verse 12. Of course if a redactor was this "stupid" then there is no reason why an original author could not be also; but in fact this is a mountain made of a molehill.
One can easily see the events of verses 1-4 taking place during a sleepless night of Abram contemplating his childlessness; verse 5 might well take place early in the morning while stars are still visible, and verses 7-11 can be seen as a summary of events of the day time following.
An ingenious, but probably unnecessary, solution is proposed by Noegel in The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives - Sheffield Academic Press, 1998 - in which he analyzes the use of the phrase 'im tukat ["if you are able"] and finds that it is used in places where the deed implied is thought impossible, and actually serves as a taunting test of faith or ability; it is then followed upon by a surprising turn or twist. (cf. Gen. 13:16, 1 Sam. 17:8-9, Job 33:5, 2 Kings 18:23-4//Is. 36:8) The twist here, Noegel argues, is that Abram cannot count the stars precisely because it is day time. The solution is interesting, but I think it is hardly necessary.
- Why.MP - Whybray, R. N. The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study. Sheffield Academic Press, 1987.