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The story of Numbers 16 is often cited by JEDP theorists like
Friedman as a classical example of two tales that were conflated by
different authors to form the Pentateuch. The reader will be
surprised that I agree with them about it being a conflation of two
stories about two separate events. The catch, though, is that this
can be held without any reference to the JEDP hypothesis.
As we have noted many times before, one of the major problems
with the JEDP hypothesis is that it reads the Pentateuch as though
it were written by a modern writer who would presumably write in a
way that makes sense to us.
Suffice to say here that conflation of
separate stories into one story was in fact a common practice by
ancient authors: There is no need to do as the JEDP theory wants
and theorize that Numbers 16 was a composite mix of J, E and P, so
that once again, JEDP's hypothesis of multiple authors but a single
redactor becomes superfluous. One can just as easily begin with a
single author. One also need not assign the writing of these
materials to a date any later than traditionally supposed. (For more on this subject, see
the article by Gordon, "Compositeness, Conflation and the Pentateuch" in the
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 51, 1991, pp. 57-65.)
The usual attempt is to assign all Korah material to P, while
the rest concenring Dathan and Abiram is assigned to JE. Certain
tensions in the chapter are usually pointed to as evidence of
- It is said that the phrase "well-known men" is typical of the P writer.
(16:2; cf. Gen. 6:4) But its use is so infrequent (it looks to me like these are the only two places it appears)
that the assertion is statistically meaningless.
On the other hand, it is admitted that "rise up" (v.
2) is not typical of P; to solve this the omnipotent redactor is
generally invoked...an obvious attempt to "save the theory" in
the face of contrary data.
Indeed, the number of "exceptions"
assigned to a redactor I have noted to be rather large for this chapter. The
assignations are usually along this line: 1-2 to P, with P drawing
some material from J;, or else P rewriting material from JE; 3-11
to P (or two Ps working at different times); 12-15 to JE; 16-24 to
P (with 18 perhaps from P #2); 25-34 to JE with P insertions, or
else: 25 to JE; 26-27a to P; 27b-31 to J, 32-34 to a mix, and 35 to
P (or P #2).
- From the J side, it is argued that "fields and vineyards" is
typical of the J writer.
Once again, the actual occurence of the phrase
is so rare that we may rightfully ask how it can be used to
support ANY conclusion. One may also ask how
often "fields and vineyards" ought to be referred to in texts
having to do with religious subjects as would be assigned to P,
and whether the critics have a "P substitute" phrase used for referring
to fields and vineyards...but more on this next:
- Sections are assigned to P on the basis of preoccupation with
Of course this is nothing more than arbitrary,
just like finding a grocery list and assigning parts of it to M
(meat-eater), V (vegetarian) and S (starches), then positing a
complex history in which V's list was picked up and redacted by M,
which in turn was picked up and redacted by S. Divisions by
category and topic sound persuasive if you ignore the maxim that
life tends to be multi-faceted and complex.
The same paradigm
often makes much of Aaron's presence in texts assigned to P, but
since it is obvious that Aaron, being the head honcho of the
Levites, ought to be concerned with such matters, and would
have no relevance to any political challenge to Moses' leadership,
his appearance in "P" texts alone is just a matter of common sense,
and the "substitution" of the elders in "J" texts is common sense
as well. This is would be no more unusual than depicting Billy
Graham as a companion of the President at a religious meeting, but
not at a political rally.
Our conclusion is this: While the idea of conflation of two
stories is correct, the JEDP theorists are incorrect to impress
this into their service. It may well be that two different scribes
in the time of Moses compiled these two stories, and that Moses
himself (or under his authority) wove them together according to
the ancient paradigm.
But to rip these stories out of their
paradigm and offer psychological speculation apart from evidence (i.e., positing that P
represents some sort of post-exilic power struggle within the
priesthood) is to once again read the text through a modern lens.