Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?

Q.  Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?  Some argue that the Israelites were influenced by surrounding cultures and so they told similar creation stories when forming their own national and religious identity.  One can take the similarities between Israelite creation stories and those of the nations around them to argue that they were simply a product of human culture. Alternatively, one can say that the differences between the Israelite stories and those of other nations show where they drew the line in defense of revealed transcendent truths (about God as sole creator and so forth). There are a myriad of other positions in between, of course.  What do you think?

To the extent that there may have been borrowing, I think this is actually another case of the phenomenon of appropriation that we find throughout the Bible.  The community of faith takes objects, practices, institutions, etc. that are being used in the worship of false gods and reclaims them for the praise and honor of the true God.

For example, Israel made regular use  of the bull in its sacrificial system, even though this animal was also a prominent symbol of Baal.  The tabernacle in Israel consisted of an outer court, main hall, and inner shrine, even though this threefold architectural division also typified Canaanite temples.   The Israelites offered some of the same kinds of sacrifices as their neighbors; they sometimes even called them by the same names.  For example, both Israelites and Canaanites had a fellowship offering or “peace offering” that they described by a shared Semitic root, sh-l-m.

This process of appropriation is also seen in the case of literary archetypes.  Many interpreters believe that Psalm 29, for example, which the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) calls a “hymn to the God of the storm,” has been appropriated from a song that was originally sung in worship of the storm-god Baal.  But it has been judiciously altered to make sure that the true God is honored as the master of such powerful natural phenomena.

And so, if a creation story was in circulation among ancient Israel’s neighbors that depicted the realms of sky and land being separated out from the watery chaos—for example, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, in which Tiamat, goddess of the oceanic waters, is slain and the land and the sky are fashioned from the two halves of her divided body—then I think the similarities between such a story and the Genesis creation account are best understood as another case of appropriation.

Even so, the differences are significant.  As you say, the Genesis version maintains crucial theological distinctives such as the unique status of Yahweh as the only true God and the position of humans as divine image-bearers and vice regents over creation—not slaves of the gods, as in the Enuma Elish.  In fact, what strikes us most about the Genesis account, when we compare it with similar ancient creation stories, is its thoroughgoing monotheism.  Creation and humanity are not by-products of a battle between the gods for supremacy.  Rather, everything in Genesis proceeds with stately grandeur as a single all-ruling God speaks and is obeyed.

However, I’m not sure that we actually have to posit borrowing or appropriation to account for the similarities.  It seems to me that all of these accounts can be understood as a response to the same observed phenomenon—the three-fold division of creation into land, sea, and sky (even as we today observe matter existing in three states: solid, liquid, and gas).  This common object of observation is interpreted within the framework of an ancient world view, but in the Israelite case, the interpretation is informed by a relational understanding of the true God.  That may be all we need to say.

Below is a sketch of the Genesis cosmology from the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. The designer of the sketch notes, “This is remarkably similar to the cosmology of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the biblical authors.”

Why does Hebrews say that Jesus needed to be “made perfect”?

Q.  The book of Hebrews says that “in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God . . . should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”  How much more “perfect” could Jesus (the pioneer) have been made, if he was already without sin?

Here’s what I have to say about this question in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews:

“Jesus . . . didn’t need to be made perfect in any moral sense.  But he did need to be perfected for his work as a high priest, and that required sharing the same experiences of suffering as the ‘brothers,’ ‘sisters,’ and ‘children’ he was going to represent.”

The wider context in Hebrews makes clear that what is in view is “perfection” in the sense of equipping Jesus for his work as high priest.  The passage goes on to say, “Since the children have flesh and blood . . . he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek word in this passage that’s often translated “to perfect,” τελειόω, can also mean “to make successful,” that is, “to equip for success.”  Walter Bauer’s lexicon says similarly that the verb can refer to bringing something “to its goal in the sense of the overcoming or supplanting of an imperfect state of things by one that is free from objection.”  In other words, by sharing our human experiences and sufferings, Jesus became a high priest that no one could object to, because he can effectively and successfully represent us before God.

The New Living Translation captures this sense well when it says, “It was only right that [God] should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring [many children] into their salvation.”  The Amplified Version speaks similarly of Jesus being “perfectly equipped for His office as High Priest.”

In my study guide, after explaining this meaning, I ask:

“What experiences have you had that have equipped (‘perfected’) you to sympathize better with others as you come alongside them in the trials and sorrows of their lives?” 

What would you say in answer to that?

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

Q. It would seem that strictly on the basis of the Genesis creation account, one could conclude that matter is eternal, because in the beginning there were the unformed (already existing) waters. That is, if one reads the first sentence as a sort of header, as you and others do.

I agree that if we take the first sentence (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) as a heading that summarizes the eventual action of the entire creation account, then we do find primeval waters already existing before God began to create anything else, and this would be eternally-existing matter.  But rather than allow such metaphysical considerations to influence the way we interpret the account, let’s look carefully at the text, draw our conclusions from there, and then think about the implications.

I see the first sentence as a summary introduction because while it announces that God created the shemayim and the ‘erets, the actual crafting of those two things is only described as the account progresses.  On the second day: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters’ . . . God called the vault shemayim.”  On the third day: “God said, ‘ . . . let the dry ground appear.’ . . . God called the dry ground ‘erets.”  So the creation of these two things is anticipated in the opening line, but they are actually created as the account progresses.

We often miss this because English versions typically translate these two Hebrew terms as “heavens” and “earth” in the first sentence, and “sky” and “land” later in the account.  (Accordingly, in Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, a book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, we suggest that the opening of the creation account be translated instead, “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  That’s what the account is really talking about.)

Further confirmation that the first sentence of the creation account is a summary introduction comes from the way the account ends with a matching summary conclusion:  “Thus the shemayim and the ‘erets were completed, and all their hosts,” that is, their population—the sun, moon, and stars; birds, animals, and people; etc.  The process of creation, according to the Genesis account, was to make habitable realms and then populate them.  The shemayim and the ‘erets—the sky and the land—are the two prominent realms mentioned in summary statements at the beginning and end of the account.

This means, however, that the narration of the actual creation itself begins at a point where “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  Does this mean that matter, at least in the form of these primeval waters, actually does exist eternally, and that God did not create the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing)?

We need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.”  Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos.  It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves.  “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness.

So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.  We can’t get from here to there through a literal reading of Genesis; we need to do a bit of cultural and cosmological translation first.  But once we do, we realize that the Bible is not saying that matter coexisted eternally with God.  Instead, by depicting creation de aqua (as Peter writes in his second letter: “Long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water”), Genesis is actually claiming that it was ex nihilo, as we would say today.

Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

Q. Why did God reject Saul as king for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon when they offered sacrifices?

Saul was rejected as king not specifically because he offered sacrifices, but because he disobeyed a direct command that God had given him through the prophet Samuel.

Samuel had told Saul, “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”  But Saul, worried that his whole army would desert him, offered the sacrifices himself, just before Samuel arrived.

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”  In other words, the penalty for this outright disobedience to a direct command from God was that Saul would not be the founder of a royal dynasty; while he would remain king, his descendants would not rule after him.

Secondarily, however, this disobedience did lead Saul to usurp a privilege of the priesthood.  As I discuss in this post, by offering these sacrifices, Saul was imitating the Canaanite priest-king model instead of respecting the separation between the kingship and the priesthood that was established in the law of Moses.

Saul subsequently disobeyed another direct command from God when he was told, again through the prophet Samuel, to completely destroy the Amalekites.*  Saul instead kept their king, Agag, alive as a trophy of war, and his soldiers kept the best of the cattle to “sacrifice to the Lord”—as part of a grand feast that they would enjoy themselves.  Samuel asked Saul once again, “Why did you not obey the Lord?”  The penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early and be succeeded by “one of his neighbors”—not one of his own descendants.

A sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger for a mural depicting Samuel confronting Saul after the battle with the Amalekites

It is true that during a deadly plague, David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings upon it.  But David actually did this in direct obedience to a command from God, and in any event these were the kind of offerings that any ordinary Israelite could offer.  The author of Psalm 116 says, for example:

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. . . .

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Presumably when the psalmist says “I will sacrifice a thank offering,” this involves the assistance of the priests and Levites at the temple.

I think we should understand in the same way the statement that is made about the dedication of the temple itself in Jerusalem:  “Then the king [Solomon] and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord.”  The text makes clear that priests and Levites were present, and we should understand that they were the ones who actually offered these sacrifices, but at the initiative and expense of the king and people.

I hope these observations help answer your question.

- – – – -

*Episodes in the Bible like this one, where God commands complete destruction, are very troubling.  Some interpreters, like Philip Jenkins, argue that they never really happened.  Others like Adam Hamilton suggest that the biblical writers or characters were wrong in thinking that God had actually commanded this.  As I say in my review of Jenkins’ book, “I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.”  In this post I describe my own efforts to come to terms with them.

What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 2)

Q.  What is the version of the Bible that we, Christians, should use?  Which is better: NIV, KJV, NKJV or The Message? 

In my first post in response to this question, I described one choice that Bible translators must make: whether to take a word-for-word or a meaning-for-meaning approach.  This choice determines much of the difference between the variety of major English translations available today that are all generally good, reputable, and worth using.

There are at least two other key choices that translators must make.

For one thing, they must decide what manuscripts to rely on to determine the original reading.  For the New Testament, for example, the KJV and NKJV use what is known as the “Majority Text” or “Received Text,” which represents how the Greek New Testament became standardized over the centuries in the course of its transmission.  The NIV, ESV, NRSV, and similar versions are instead translations of an “eclectic” text, that is, of readings that the translators consider most likely to represent the original that are drawn from a variety of different early manuscripts.

The other key choice is to what extent a translation will reflect the latest changes in the receptor language (in our case, English) or, alternatively, preserve forms that are no longer current but which have a venerable pedigree in prior translations and which may also correspond more closely to distinctions in the biblical languages.

By the time the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published in 1952, for example, pronouns such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” to indicate the second person singular had effectively dropped out of the English language. “You,” “your,” and “yours” were in use instead for both singular and plural.  But the RSV decided to retain the older forms in prayers, so that in Psalm 23, for example, it read, “Thou are with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  Not only did this preserve accustomed language for use in the public reading of Scripture, it also preserved the singular-plural distinction that is present in second-person Hebrew pronouns.

More recent translations, however, have now all moved to “you” exclusively.  The two currently published revisions of the RSV, the ESV and NRSV, both read, “You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The NKJV reads the same way.

A contemporary example of this same choice between preserving older forms and adopting newer ones has to do with the indefinite singular pronoun.  If you are referring to an unknown person who could be either male or female, do you say “he,” as was formerly the convention in English (and which is also the convention in New Testament Greek)?  Or do you say “he or she” or “they,” which represents more current English?

Different translations are currently making different choices on this issue.  For example, the ESV translates Paul’s warning against pride at the end of Galatians this way: “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  This reflects the way that the original Greek uses masculine pronouns, by convention, to describe an indefinite person who could be either male or female.  But the NIV, making the choice to render the phrase more in keeping with the contemporary English idiom, says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”  This uses a plural pronoun to render a singular pronoun in Greek and follows a convention that is still somewhat disputed in our day.  But in the end, it may prove to be no more controversial than saying “you” instead of “thee.”  Only time will tell!

In conclusion, I would encourage you to be aware of these different choices that translators need to make, and to compare different translations if you want to get a good idea of what the original says and means.  In fact, the four translations you mention–the NIV, KJV, NKJV and The Message–represent different choices in all three of the areas I’ve discussed.  So if you read and compare them all (or a group of translations that represents a similar variety), without feeling that you have to choose between them, you will be doing very well.

What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 1)

English translations of the Bible abound–which is the best one to use?

Q.  What is the version of the Bible that we, Christians, should use?  Which is better: NIV, KJV, NKJV or The Message? 

I will answer your question as objectively as I can, but first, by way of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I was one of the translators for a recently published contemporary version, The Voice Bible.  (I translated the books of Deuteronomy and Hosea, and also wrote the Deuteronomy commentary.) I also have a close working relationship with Biblica, which holds the copyright to the New International Version (NIV). I was a member of the team that helped Biblica produce The Books of the Bible, an edition of the NIV without chapters and verses, and I continue to work closely with them on a variety of other projects.  I also do some consulting with the NIV translation committee, most recently working with them on the visual formatting of that translation.  I can personally recommend the NIV very highly for its accuracy and readability.

This much said, let me respond to your question.  When it comes to translations such as the ones you mention, which tend to be produced by committees of reputable biblical scholars and issued by major Christian publishers, I don’t believe there are any “bad” translations.  Rather, translation teams simply make different choices, and that is what distinguishes one version of the Bible from another.  But these choices do make a given translation better suited for some purposes than for others.  The Voice Bible, for example, is designed to be read aloud in worship gatherings, with various speakers taking different parts. The Books of the Bible allows people to “read big” through the grand story of Scripture, as tens of thousands of people have already been doing through Biblica’s Community Bible Experience program.

Probably the most significant choice is whether to try to render the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible into English (or any other “receptor” language) word-for-word, to the fullest extent possible, with the goal of giving the reader the best idea of what the original text looks like.  Alternatively, a translation may try to capture the meaning as it can best be understood and render it into the most readable English possible, even if this means not matching each original word with an English equivalent.  The farther a version goes in presenting the meaning “in other words,” the closer it gets to being a paraphrase (like The Message or The Voice Bible) rather than an actual translation.

Let me give you an example.  When Paul is writing to Timothy about the qualifications of an overseer (or elder), he says, among other things, that such a person is to be literally “a man of one woman.”  Bibles that take more of a word-for-word approach tend to translate this “the husband of one wife,” since the Greek word for “man” can also mean “husband,” and the Greek word for “woman” can also mean “wife.”  This is the reading of the KJV, NKJV, and translations that take a similar approach such as the ESV and the NASB.

The idea is apparently that an elder must be married, but have only one wife–that is, not be polygamous; he must have only one wife at a time.  However,  other translations take these words to mean that an elder can only ever have one wife over his lifetime, meaning that men who have been widowed or divorced and who then remarry are not eligible.  Accordingly the NRSV and NAB translate the phrase “married only once.”  But this is no longer a word-for-word translation; it is capturing, in different words, what is understood to be the meaning.  This illustrates the difference in approaches.

Other translations take this same meaning-for-meaning approach, but they understand the meaning differently. In Greek as in English, the expression “a one-woman man” can refer to a man who is exclusively loyal to his wife.  In other words, if we take all of the words together, rather than one at a time, the meaning of the phrase “a man of one woman” may refer to the character and conduct of the elder, rather than to his civil status.  Following this approach, and understanding the meaning this way, the NIV and NLT translate the phrase as “faithful to his wife.”  The Message says that he must be “committed to his wife,” and several other translations have similar readings.

This example illustrates how the rendering of the original into English can differ based on what approach the translators choose to take.  And so my advice to anyone who doesn’t know the original biblical languages would be to compare the reading of a given passage in a word-for-word English translation (such as the KJV or NKJV, which you mentioned) with that in a meaning-for-meaning translation (such as the NIV or The Message), to get a good idea of the range of possibilities.

You can compare how a given passage is translated by several dozen leading versions by using the “see [verse reference] in all English translations” feature on BibleGateway.  But I hope that in addition to doing this kind of close comparison, you will also read extensively through the Bible to get the sweep of its overall story and see where all of the parts fit within it.  I think that’s the best way to understand what the Bible is saying to you.

There are two other key choices that translators must make as well. I’ll discuss those in my next post.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 4)

Title page of Genesis from the King James Bible, clearly expressing the traditional authorship assumption. Compare this with your Bible–does it just say “Genesis”?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In the next post, I explained that many scholars believe the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places later in Israel’s history.  Last time I discussed the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of that view.  Now in this final post in the series I’d like to offer some reflections on how the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue with the traditional view that Moses wrote these books instead.

Let me frame the dialogue this way:  What might a proponent of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis have to say positively about the traditional view?  And what might someone who believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch have to say positively about the other view?

I think someone who held to the Documentary Hypothesis would start by observing that the believing community has had a tendency down through the centuries to attribute anonymous works to known leading figures.  The book of Hebrews, for example, was for a long time attributed to the apostle Paul.  (In the King James Bible it’s actually entitled “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–just as Genesis is called “The First Book of Moses,” as shown above.)  But most scholars today, including those who hold dearly to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, acknowledge that this letter was almost certainly not written by Paul.  Most scholars also acknowledge that the anonymous biblical book that has come to be known as the Gospel According to Matthew was similarly not written by the figure it has traditionally been attributed to.  And so forth, in several cases.

However, when we recognize these authorship claims for what they really are–authority claims–we can see how they have abiding validity.  The believing community has attributed these works not just to well-known figures, but to leaders who were first-hand participants in the epochal redemptive-historical events they record.  In other words, through these authorship claims, the community is saying, “We recognize and accept these works as trustworthy accounts of God’s key saving interventions in human history and in the life of our ongoing community.”  And in that assessment of the works, someone who held to a Documentary theory of the Pentateuch’s composition could be in full agreement with someone who believed that Moses was its author.

We can take this even further than that.  The Documentary theorist could also acknowledge that these works have such authority precisely because their contents, the building blocks of material that later writers assembled, go back ultimately to a collection that Moses himself created of the earliest Israelite traditions and to records that he kept of God’s communications during his lifetime.  These building blocks would have been transmitted both orally and in written form down through the centuries until they were worked into written documents by later figures.

Of course it cannot be proved that this happened.  But the strong and enduring tradition associating these works with Moses provides a very strong suggestion that he is the ultimate source of the material.  In the same way, we have confidence that the gospels present the authentic deeds and teaching of Jesus, even though the material in them was transmitted orally (and perhaps also in writing) for a generation before the four evangelists collected and arranged it to create their different works.  I think a proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis could affirm all of these things.

For their part, people who believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch should have no trouble acknowledging that the materials in it had to be adapted so that later generations could understand and appreciate them.  We see this kind of “updating” throughout the Bible, for example, when the current name of a place is added by way of explanation after it is called by its former name, or when an archaic term is explained so that the audience will understand its use, as in this classic case from the life of Saul:  “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  (Right after this explanation is offered, Saul and his servant ask a passer-by, “Is the seer here?”–and the audience, used to hearing such figures called “prophets,” understands.)

A person who held to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch might not be prepared to allow that it has been “updated” to the extent that Documentary theorists describe, with separate Judean and Israelite “epics” being composed by the 8th century B.C. to express the national identity and aspirations of those two kingdoms, a “Deuteronomonic history” being added in the time of Josiah, and a rival “Priestly” account composed before the Babylonian exile, with everything woven together upon the return from exile.  But if a person who held the traditional view could agree that the discussion was really about a difference in degree (how much “updating,” to what extent), rather than in kind (one view treating any hand other than Moses’s as negligible, and other other view considering the contributions of other hands to be significant), there might well be room for fruitful and constructive dialogue between these positions.

That, at least, is how I see it.  Thank you again for your question, and I hope I have done some justice to it even in the brief space allowed by the blog format.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 3)


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Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In my next post, I explained that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  I’d now like to discuss the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of this belief.

First, throughout the Pentateuch, the God of Israel is referred to by different names, two in particular: Yahweh, translated in most English Bibles as “the Lord” (in small caps), and Elohim, commonly translated “God.”  The original arguments behind the so-called Documentary Hypothesis held that these different names signaled the work of different authors.  One was the “Yahwist” (abbreviated J from the German version of that name), working in the southern kingdom of Judah where the covenant name Yahweh was in common use. The other was the “Elohist” (E), working in the northern kingdom of Israel where the worship of Yahweh was in decline.

We have at least one strong suggestion elsewhere in the Bible that these two different names were preferred in the two separate kingdoms.  Psalm 14, a “psalm of David” according to its superscription, and thus likely of Judean origin, primarily uses the divine name Yahweh.  Psalm 53 is a near-verbatim version of the same psalm that was apparently adapted for use in the northern kingdom because it consistently replaces the name Yahweh with Elohim (as shown in red):

Graphic C

Click to enlarge

We can tell that the Elohistic version of the psalm is a later rewrite because, as shown in blue above, the stanzas in Psalm 14 that have two lines in exception to its overall three-line pattern (perhaps originally a musical “bridge”) have been recast into a single stanza of three lines, no doubt to fit the new tune “mahalath.”  And this has been done by creating a new line out of the consonants of the second two-line stanza, using them to make new words with different meanings!  The consonants are shown in blue below, with the rewrite placed on the line above the original (the different divine names are in purple):

Graphic D

However, we shouldn’t push the idea too far that different divine names indicate different authors in different kingdoms, because as Psalm 14 itself shows, a single author can use both names for poetic variety; to speak of God either more generally (Elohim) or more specifically in covenant terms (Yahweh); and even for purposes of characterization:  note that it is the “fools” who say there is no Elohim, while Yahweh is the refuge of the poor.

For these reasons, proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have moved away from reliance on divine names, to the extent that they now sometimes call the J document the “Judean” source and the E document the “Ephraimistic” source (using a popular biblical name for the northern kingdom).  To support their view they rely far more on the phenomenon of “doublets” in the Pentateuch, that is, places where the same incident seems to be related twice, from slightly different perspectives.  This phenomenon is illustrated most vividly in cases of doubled accounts of where the name of a person or place came from.

For example, when Abraham entertains the three visitors, one of them tells him that his wife Sarah will bear a son.  She laughs incredulously, and Yahweh (in the person of this visitor) responds, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”  This story explains the derivation of the son’s name, Isaac, which means “laughter.”  But later on, after the child is born, a different explanation for his name is offered:  Sarah exclaims joyfully, Elohim has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Not only do we have two different accounts of how Isaac got his name, the key phrases in these accounts use different divine names, leading Friedman, whose work I discussed last time, to assign them to J and E, respectively.  They also represent different perspectives on Sarah–one less favorable, the other more favorable.

The Pentateuch also offers two different explanations of what happened at the place named Meribah, where, after a quarrel (hence the name), God brought water out of a rock for the Israelites in the wilderness.  In the account in Exodus, Moses strikes the rock at God’s command, and his leadership is vindicated.  But in the account in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock in anger and desperation, and Yahweh interprets this as an act of mistrust and tells Moses as punishment that he will not enter the promised land.  Friedman attributes the former account to E, and the latter to P, who, he says, belonged to a rival priestly order and was not hesitant to diminish Moses.  There are many similar “doublets” in the Pentateuch.

However, one could just as easily argue that cases like these are not actually doubled accounts of the same incidents, but instead accounts of separate incidents that followed one another in Israelite history.  For that matter, one could also warn of the danger of circular reasoning if certain parts of the Pentateuch are first assigned to separate sources, and then the particular emphases found in those parts are argued to be characteristic of those sources and proof that they originated there!

But in any event, these are the kinds of evidences that are typically advanced to support the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents.  Does a person have to choose definitively between this belief and the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?  Or is a way that the two positions can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue?  I’ll explore that question in my final post in this series.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)


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Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required.  Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.

It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it.  And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.

The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively.  When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.

During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.”  This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.

Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history.  But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.

Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together?  I’ll look at that question next time.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)


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Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.


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