The documentary hypothesis states that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is a compilation of several originally independent documents. Ancient editors or redactors collected these documents, which had been composed at various points in the history of the ancient community, and combined them in a single extended narrative. In this way the Pentateuch as we know it came into being. This hypothesis is one of the fundamental assumptions of modern biblical scholarship. In one form or another, it has been accepted by most scholars since the 18th century, when the traditional view that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible was widely questioned for the first time.
A recent book by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinna offers a thorough-going challenge to the documentary hypothesis. Kikawada is a Japanese biblical scholar who holds the position of visiting lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where Quinn is a professor of rhetoric. They believe that the documentary hypothesis has outlived its usefulness and, indeed, that a case can be made for viewing the Pentateuch as the work of a single author. Their book introduces this case by presenting a new analysis of the biblical primeval history, Genesis 1–11, a section chosen because of the central role it played in the development of the documentary hypothesis.
To attempt to demonstrate the unity of the primeval history is a formidable undertaking, not only because so many generations of scholars have labored to demonstrate its disunity, but also because it impresses the reader as anything but a unified composition. In Genesis 2:4 there is a marked change in style in the Creation story, and the story that follows seems to repeat some of the things that happened in the preceding story and to contradict others. In Genesis 1:27, for example, human beings are created, both male and female, after the creation of the animals in earlier verses. In Genesis 2:7, however, there is another creation of man, this time before the animals (cf. verse 19) and without woman, who is not created until verse 22. Such disjunctions led scholars who formulated the documentary hypothesis to conclude that two distinct accounts of Creation are preserved in Genesis 1–2, the second beginning at Genesis 2:4. The same pattern, moreover, persists throughout Genesis 1–11, which seems to break down into two groups of passages with contrasting styles and several thematic inconsistencies between them. The two groups also display differences in theology. In one the deity 035is referred to as ’elohim, “God,” and presented as a transcendent lawgiver; in the other he is called yahweh, “Yahweh” (usually rendered “the Lord”), and depicted as an anthropomorphic god actively consorting with human beings. According to proponents of the documentary hypothesis, therefore, the biblical primeval history is a composite narrative, embracing two originally distinct accounts of primordial times.
Kikawada and Quinn admit that Genesis 1–11 has a heterogeneous, rather than a homogeneous, appearance to the modern reader. As they put it (p. 36), “It seems to be a number of loosely collected tales, with genealogies intruding here and there. We can find certain overlapping themes and styles. But the primeval history as a whole appears to be more a collection of narratives than a single narrative.”
But is this impression a valid one? Kikawada and Quinn argue that it is not. They attribute it to the modern reader’s inability to perceive the subtleties of an ancient composition. Indeed, the central assumption of their book is that an ancient Near Eastern reader or listener would have seen unity where we see disunity. They test this assumption by comparing Genesis 1–11 to several other ancient compositions, and the comparison leads to two assertions. First, many of the peculiarities of Genesis 1–11, which modern scholarship has interpreted as evidence for multiple authorship, are in fact present in other ancient literature. Second, ancient primeval histories share a comprehensive pattern or structure, which is also recognizable in Genesis 1–11.
Their first assertion is not presented systematically, but examples are scattered here and there throughout the book. On pages 39–40, for instance, Kikawada and Quinn compare the fact that man seems to be created twice in Genesis 1–2 to the situation in a Sumerian myth in which there is a general creation of man followed by a contest in which the god Enki and the goddess Ninmah fashion some new human creatures with special characteristics. This comparison suggests to Kikawada and Quinn that there may have been a double-creation motif in the tradition with which a single author of Genesis 1–2 was working.
At this point, however, it is not clear how Kikawada and Quinn want us to understand the story. Are we to suppose that other men and women already exist when the man in Genesis 2:7 is created? The comparison with the Sumerian myth, in which Enki and Ninmah form new creatures after the world is already populated with human beings, seems to imply such an interpretation. It is difficult to believe, however, that any biblical writer thought of Adam as something other than the first man, the progenitor of all mankind (’adam), and the genealogy at the beginning of Genesis 5 seems to identify him as such unambiguously. But if the man created in Genesis 2:7 is the first man, then the contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2 remain regardless of the influence of a double-creation tradition. If, as Kikawada and Quinn suggest, a single Israelite author composed both of these chapters in conformity to an ancient pattern, why would he introduce these problems? No such contradictions exist in the myth of Enki and Ninmah.
Elsewhere (pp. 90–92) Kikawada and Quinn consider the variation between the two divine names. They give particular attention to this phenomenon in the Noah story, where the names alternate frequently. In comparison they adduce several examples of the “doubling of divine names within a single passage” from Akkadian and Ugaritic literature. The implication is that the alternation of divine names in the Noah story is a Hebrew example of a widespread literary phenomenon and not, as proponents of the documentary hypothesis suppose, a consequence of the combination of two different accounts. It is troubling, however, that the parallels offered are all poetic. Name alternation is a familiar characteristic of ancient Semitic poetries, and the alternation of divine names in Hebrew poetry not taken by scholars as evidence for multiple authorship. The Noah story, however, is prose, and the divine name alternation there corresponds generally to a number of other varied items (duration of the Flood—40 days and 40 nights in one account [Genesis 7:17], more than a year in the other [Genesis 7:24]; number of animals taken aboard—two of each animal in one account [Genesis 6:19], seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean in the other [Genesis 7:2], etc.).
On the basis of their discussion of the double creation of man, the alternation of divine names in the Noah story and other peculiarities of Genesis 1–11, therefore, Kikawada and Quinn cannot be said to have made a compelling case for their first assertion, that the heterogeneous appearance of the biblical primeval history can be explained by appeal to ancient Near Eastern literary conventions. Nevertheless, it is the second assertion, that Genesis 1–11 shares a common structure with other ancient primeval histories, that turns out to be the more important for their case. Much of the book is devoted to supporting this assertion.
The argument begins in chapter II, where 036Kikawada and Quinn call our attention to the Atrahasis epic, a Mesopotamian account of primordial events. Drawing upon the work of previous scholars, they suggest that the structure of this epic can be described according to a five-point outline: Creation, First Threat, Second Threat, Final Threat and Resolution. They then proceed quickly to identify the same five-part structure in the biblical primeval history. They outline the two stories as follows:
A. Creation (I. 1–351)
Summary of work of gods; creation of man
B. First Threat (I. 352–415)
Man’s numerical increase; plague; Enki’s help
C. Second Threat (II. i. 1–11––v. 21)
Man’s numerical increase
1. Drought; numerical increase
2. Intensified drought; Enki’s help
D. Final Threat (II. v. 22–III. vi. 4)
Numerical increase; Atrahasis’ flood; salvation in boat
E. Resolution (III. vi. 5–viii. 18)
Numerical increase; compromise between Enlil and Enki; “birth control”
A. Creation (1:1–2:3)
Summary of work of God; creation of man
B. First Threat (2:4–3:24)
Genealogy of heaven and earth; Adam and Eve
C. Second Threat (4:1–4:26)
Cain and Abel
1. Cain and Abel; genealogy
2. Lamech’s taunt (in genealogy)
D. Final Threat (5:1–9:29)
Genealogy; Noah’s Flood; salvation in ark
E. Resolution (10:1–11:32)
Genealogy; Tower of Babel and dispersion genealogy; Abram leaves Ur
Further examination reveals the presence of the same structure in a Greek primeval history, which includes the story of the Trojan War, and an Iranian primeval history, the Zoroastrian tale of Yima and the vessel of salvation.
In other words, Kikawada and Quinn are saying that in ancient times there was a conventional pattern according to which primordial events were described. This pattern was widespread, exerting its influence as far west as the Aegean Sea and as far east as the Iranian Plateau. It is reflected, therefore, in several ancient primeval histories, including the one in the Bible. Moreover (and here we come to the main point), the conventional five-part structure is displayed by Genesis 1–11 as a whole, not by one of its alleged documentary sources. Since such a sophisticated structure could hardly have arisen accidentally from a loose combination of independent documents, the biblical primeval history must be the work of a single author. In their next two chapters Kikawada and Quinn reinforce this conclusion with detailed internal analyses of Genesis 1–11 as a whole (chapter III) and of the Flood story in particular (chapter IV).
In chapter III they attempt to demonstrate the unity of the larger story in terms of their five-part scheme. In Part A, the story of Creation, mankind is blessed with the words “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This looks ahead to the resolution of the story in Part E, in which human beings are dispersed into various lands, thus “realizing this blessing/ command concretely” (p. 69). In between are the three central stories about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah. These exhibit symmetry and progressive repetition, according to a subtle structure discerned by Kikawada and Quinn. The whole is held together by a series of genealogies, which, far from being extraneous interruptions of the narrative, provide the links that hold the stories together, while at the same time serving as reminders of the effectiveness of the blessing.
In chapter IV the Noah story receives special attention because of its peculiar place in the documentary analysis of Genesis 1–11. Whereas other major episodes seem to be drawn almost entirely from one source or another, the Flood story is apparently an intricate interweaving of two documents. Or so proponents of the documentary hypothesis believe. Kikawada and Quinn disagree. They offer a detailed unitary reading of Genesis 6–9, in which they refute many of the standard arguments of source analysis. They note, for example, that in Genesis 6:19 Noah is told to bring two of every living thing on the ark, while 037in Genesis 7:2 he is told to bring “seven pairs of all clean animals…and a pair of animals that are not clean.” This is not, however, an internal contradiction arising from the combination of divergent accounts. In Genesis 7:2 Noah is told to bring more animals onboard. Why? Kikawada and Quinn explain (p. 88): “As soon as Noah’s voyage is over, he sacrifices in thanksgiving clean animals and birds. Without the extras, Noah’s sacrifice would have rendered these species extinct.” The purpose of the several repetitions the story—such as the fact that Noah, his family and the animals are twice said to have entered the ark (7:7–9 and 7:13–16)—is emphasis, a rhetorical device for clarity and reinforcement The overall unity of the Flood story is most clearly demonstrated, furthermore, by its internal structure, an intricate pattern carefully worked out by Kikawada and Quinn.
How, then, are we to evaluate this structural argument for the unity of Genesis 1–11? We can only agree, in the first place, that the biblical primeval history and the Mesopotamian Atrahasis story have many structural and thematic features in common. This, however, is not conceding much, since the relationship of the stories in Genesis 1–11 to Mesopotamian parallels has been generally recognized for more than a century. In fairness to Kikawada and Quinn, we must grant that they have succeeded in bringing this relationship into better focus. Their approach requires us to concentrate on the structural features the two traditions share, and their extension of the comparison to Greek and Iranian parallels helps us to distinguish the essential components of the shared pattern from the structural peculiarities of one tradition or the other. They have, in short, accomplished one of their objectives: To demonstrate the existence of a common pattern or structure that is shared by various ancient accounts of primordial events, including the biblical primeval history.
The pattern common to these ancient stories seems to be approximately as follows: After the creation of human beings, their population increases steadily to the point that it causes a problem. As a result, the gods send some kind of calamity in order to reduce the population tolerable limits.b The problem caused by the increase of the human population is expressed in various ways in the different traditions. In Iranian tradition it is apparently a simple lack of room, while in Mesopotamia it is noise, a constant din that keeps the old gods from being able to sleep. In Greece the problem is in part the sheer number by of people, which overburdens Mother Earth, and in part the impiety of the people, which is offensive to the gods. In Israel the problem is human wickedness, in consequence of which the biblical earth is corrupted. The divine solution to the problem also takes various forms. In Iran it is a bitter winter sent by Ahura Mazda, in Greece it is war sent by Zeus and in Mesopotamia and Israel it is a deluge sent by Enlil and Yahweh, respectively.
Note that the biblical story differs from the grant others in that population growth itself is not a part of the problem. On the contrary, human reproduction is presented in a wholly positive light, as expressed in the blessing of creation, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:28). In the early chapters of Genesis it is human behavior, not human increase, that provokes the divine imposition of checks and limits. This difference suggests to Kikawada and Quinn that the Hebrew author was making an ironic use of the tradition. This, in fact, is their understanding of the purpose for which he wrote. He was speaking in conscious opposition to the Atrahasis tradition. That tradition, which was the literary achievement of the urbanized culture of Mesopotamia, presented population increase as a serious threat to society. In contrast, the author of Genesis 1–11 offers “the nomadic or pastoral life as a means to unlimited human reproduction” (p. 52). In his work, population increase is a blessing, and agriculture, city-building and other forms of “the old sedentary sin” (p. 102) are doomed to failure. To inherit the blessing of creation, human society must be nomadic: “To have progeny as numerous as the sands we must be willing to move over those sands…” (p. 80). The story of Adam and Eve shows us the failure of agriculture. The story Cain, the first city-builder (Genesis 4:17), 038demonstrates the failure of urban civilization. Things go well for Noah until he plants a vineyard (Genesis 9:20), but at that point the curse enters his family. A final statement on city-building is made in the story of the Tower of Babel, and the solution to the problems that arise there—and, in fact, the continuing problems arising throughout the primeval history—is a scattering of human beings over the surface of the earth. Kikawada and Quinn explain that this dispersion represents a return to a nomadic way of life.
One wonders how many readers will be persuaded by this interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Certainly there seem to be easier and better ways to understand the various episodes. It is difficult to see how Adam’s agricultural lifestyle is responsible for his trouble. The story of the garden is not intended to show the failure of agriculture but to explain (among other things) why farming is so difficult (cf. Genesis 3:17–19). Perhaps Cain was the first city-builder (although most modern scholars have thought it was his son, Enoch), but he was also “a wanderer upon the earth” (4:14), a nomad, indeed the Bible’s quintessential nomad, whom the Israelites probably thought of as the ancestor of the Kenites (“the Cain-ites”!), the Bible’s quintessential nomadic tribe. To speak of the indictment of Cain as an indictment of urban civilization is extraordinarily bold, to say the least. Even the family history in Genesis 4:17ff depicts Cain as the ancestor of nomads. His descendant Jabal was “the father of those who live in tents and have cattle” (Genesis 4:20). To be sure, Kikawada and Quinn argue that “cattle” means “property” here, including slaves, so that Jabal becomes the father of “the flesh trade” (pp. 56–57). But even if this is correct (which seems unlikely), his descendants bought and sold their slaves while living “in tents.”
Nor can we agree that Noah’s vineyard is mentioned to show that the righteous man has finally fallen into “the old sedentary sin.” On the contrary, it shows that agriculture is possible again after the cleansing of the earth by the Flood. There is no suggestion in the biblical narrative of any wrongdoing on Noah’s part in planting a vineyard (or in becoming drunk, for that matter, as, we are told, in Genesis 9:21 he became). The curse on Canaan of Genesis 9:25 was provoked by Ham, whose crime, whatever exactly it was, had nothing to do with agriculture or urban civilization. Finally, there seems to be little basis for an association of the dispersion of human families at the end of the story of the Tower of Babel with the nomadic way of life. As the so-called Table of Nations in Genesis 10 shows, the people are scattered into different lands where they will speak different languages and lead different lifestyles, a few nomadic but many more urban and agricultural.
Returning to the structural argument offered by Kikawada and Quinn, we must ask whether their five-part scheme is a useful device for displaying and comparing the structures of the various primeval histories they discuss. The scheme does seem to fit the stories fairly well, at least as Kikawada and Quinn analyze them. Some readers may wonder, however, whether it is so flexible and generalized that it could be applied to almost any story. The first part of the scheme is called “Creation,” but creation takes place only in the Israelite and Mesopotamian examples, and only the creation of human beings in the latter case. “Introduction” or “Initialization” would be a better designation than “Creation.” In the case of the “Threats” it may be too precise to speak of three as a conventional number. In the Atraharsis story the flood is Enlil’s fourth attempt to reduce mankind, although Kikawada and Quinn, following the analysis of other scholars, describe the third attempt as an intensification of the second. There are only two threats in the Greek story, but Zeus does contemplate a third at one point. As it turns out, then, the “unifying five-part structure” discovered by Kikawada and Quinn is a scheme in which a situation is introduced (Creation), a series of approximately three complications is described (First, Second and Final Threats), and the outcome of the situation is reported (Resolution). It is difficult to think of a story to which such a scheme, with sufficient ingenuity, could not be applied. Kikawada and Quinn themselves apply it not only to the primeval histories, but (in chapter V) to numerous other narratives as well. They find it to be ubiquitous in the Bible, underlying not only Genesis 1–11, but also the so-called Court History of David in Samuel and Kings, the story of the 039exodus, Genesis as a whole, and the Pentateuch as a whole!
Let us suppose, however, that Kikawada and Quinn are correct about the five-part scheme. Let us suppose that the biblical primeval history does share such a structure with other ancient compositions. Would this constitute evidence for the unity of Genesis 1–11? Unfortunately, it would not. The scheme could have been introduced at the earliest or the latest stage of the growth of the narrative as described by the documentary hypothesis. All five elements are already present in the oldest of the sources according to the analysis of most contemporary critics. Alternatively, one could argue that the scheme was imposed on the story by its last editor or redactor. In any case, it would not be necessary to conclude that Genesis 1–11 was the work of a single author.
In short, Kikawada and Quinn have not succeeded, at least in the opinion of this reviewer, in casting doubt on the validity of the documentary hypothesis as it applies to Genesis 1–11. This is not to say, however, that their book is not valuable. It is. It is interesting, provocative and filled with acute and insightful observations. Biblical scholars will find many things in the book to interest them and at least a few things that are new—and that seems quite enough to expect from any book. And Before Abraham Was is not a book for scholars alone. It is written in clear, nontechnical and very informal English. The authors develop their position against the backdrop of a sympathetic presentation of the documentary hypothesis. As a result their case is accessible to almost any reader, and it is reasonable to expect that their views will be evaluated not only by biblical scholars, who will be predisposed to be skeptical, but many others as well.
Perhaps it is fitting to conclude this review with a few words on behalf of the documentary hypothesis. Many people today, including a few able scholars like Kikawada and Quinn, seem to believe that this old theory about the origin of the Pentateuchal narrative is no longer tenable. These people are mistaken. It is true that many of the traditional components of the hypothesis are under close examination at present, and it is reasonable to expect that the hypothesis will undergo substantial revisions in the future, as it has in the past. But the fundamental theory that the Pentateuch contains within it diverse sources joined together by editors seems as sound today as it did a century ago. In fact it seems more sound, because we can now cite both biblical and extra-biblical evidence that shows that it was precisely in this manner—by the combination and editing of documentary sources—that sacred literature was composed in biblical times. A careful reading of 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example, will show that the composer of those books drew heavily upon the narrative of Samuel and Kings, selecting long passages to be included in his own work within its distinctive editorial framework. In this case, where both the source document (Samuel-Kings) and the final product (Chronicles) are preserved, the validity of a documentary hypothesis is established beyond dispute.
Another type of documentary composition can be demonstrated by a comparison of the Greek and Hebrew texts of the story of David and Goliath.c The Hebrew Bible contains two different accounts of the story, which have been carefully woven together, much in the fashion the two flood stories were combined in Genesis 6–9. The Greek version is a translation of a much shorter Hebrew text that contained only one of these stories. In the case of the Flood story we have only the composite account, but in the case of the story of David and Goliath we have both the composite account (in the Hebrew text) and one of the two source accounts (underlying the Greek text).
Consider finally the Samaritan Pentateuch, the form of the Five Books of Moses handed down within the Samaritan community. Here we often find a part-of the text expanded by the addition of materials drawn from other passages. Where Exodus and Deuteronomy contain information on the same subject, for example, we often find the text of Exodus expanded by materials drawn from Deuteronomy. So by studying the Samaritan Pentateuch and other literature like it from Qumran and elsewhere, we can observe at first hand the editorial combination of documentary sources.
The documentary hypothesis states that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is a compilation of several originally independent documents. Ancient editors or redactors collected these documents, which had been composed at various points in the history of the ancient community, and combined them in a single extended narrative. In this way the Pentateuch as we know it came into being. This hypothesis is one of the fundamental assumptions of modern biblical scholarship. In one form or another, it has been accepted by most scholars since the 18th century, when the traditional view that Moses wrote the […]