Late for a Very Important Date
Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis
John Van Seters
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992) xvi + 367 pp., $27.00
This book is the third in a series in which the author attempts to form a picture of the Hebrew Bible’s history that is, in his words, “in opposition to much of the prevailing view.” On the Jacket the book is described more dramatically as a proposal “to turn Pentateuchal studies on its head. …” By either wording, the issue is that John Van Seters dates certain biblical texts later than most other scholars do. Some who criticize the documentary hypothesis—the prevailing view of the authorship of the Torah, identifying four major source works: J, E, P, D, and several stages of editing—have mentioned Van Seters’s work as evidence of its demise, but Van Seters’s project is not an attack on the documentary hypothesis. It is the documentary hypothesis. He is just dating the source J (and E, to the extent that he recognizes its existence) to a much later time than most biblical scholars have dated it. When scholars attempt to place authors in the period that best suits the evidence, they are not challenging the hypothesis. They are doing the hypothesis: working it out, addressing the problems, seeking solutions. The significance of Van Seters’s work on the hypothesis is that in his picture so very much of the Five Books of Moses was composed so very late. In an earlier book (In Search of History, 1983), he pictures the Deuteronomistic history (the books of Deuteronomy through Kings) as having been composed by a historian living after the Babylonian defeat and exile of the Jews in 587 B.C. In an even earlier book (Abraham in History and Tradition, 1975) and in this new one, he attributes the texts that are usually known as J and E to someone he calls the Yahwist, who also lived after the Exile, even later than the Deuteronomistic historian. (Van Seters excludes a few texts that he calls pre-Yahwistic.) And he informs us that he accepts the view that the remainder of the Torah, known in the hypothesis as P, was written latest of all, after the Deuteronomist and Yahwist.
In Van Seters’s picture, ancient Israel produced practically no history, no prose at all (at least none that survived), during all the centuries that it existed as a nation in its land. Late Jewish writers fashioned the history of their people after they had been evicted from their land. Also, according to Van Seters, even though these writers were living in the pocket of the Babylonians, they wrote under the influence of the historiographic traditions of the Greeks. How these late historians knew (or claimed to know) what had happened in all those earlier centuries is not made clear. Van Seters allows for some available Mesopotamian sources, such as the Atrahasis flood account, for the Genesis stories, but he allows very few sources to the Deuteronomistic historian, who rather invented much of the history himself.
Van Seters’s model has received approval from some scholars, especially in Germany, and his work has also been severely criticized by others, most recently and thoroughly by the American biblical historian, Baruch Halpern.1 At the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, held in San Francisco in November 1992, Van Seters was offered an opportunity to defend his picture of the Deuteronomistic history. In the last question in the session, the biblical historian J. Maxwell Miller asked Van Seters: If the Deuteronomistic historian was writing history by invention, and not from real historical sources, how did he manage to describe the actions of Pharaoh Shishak 013(in 1 Kings 11:40, 14:25) so accurately? As Miller put it, how did he get Shishak in just the right “time and pew”? Van Seters responded that he assumed that there were monuments all over the country with information on them. Miller explained that this still would not enable a historian centuries later to locate Shishak so well in an invented history, so he asked again: If the biblical historian was just inventing, how could he possibly have gotten such details right? Van Seters’s response was: “I wish I knew.”
This troubles me because as I read Van Seters’s third, and newest, book in his ongoing project, I observed the same misunderstanding of method, and the same failure to come to terms with evidence that flatly contradicts his model. The combination of errors of fact and unsoundness of method is very serious. There are cases of dubious description of the biblical text. Van Seters identifies the reason for Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit as “youthful curiosity.” He says the J flood narrative is “yet another crime and punishment story.” With due respect, to limit the meaning of the humans’ act in Eden to youthful curiosity requires substantial defending, but Van Seters offers none; he simply pronounces this. And a divine decision to eliminate the human species (and other species with it) is not mere “punishment.” There is a profound conflict between God and humans that is developed in these texts, which Van Seters reduces by the simplistic and inaccurate label of “crime and punishment.”
There are also problems of fact in Van Seters’s treatment. He simply mistakes the facts in the matter of the names of the deity, for example. Though sometimes challenged in scholarship, this remains a strong factor in the issue of authorship.
Specifically, J consistently excludes the word “God” (Elohim) in narration. Individual persons in J use the word “God,” but the narrator of the story in J does not. Instead the narrator consistently calls the deity by the personal name Yahweh, with perhaps one exception out of all the occurrences in the Pentateuch.
E also maintains a distinction: The name Yahweh is not revealed until the time of Moses (Exodus 3). In E, prior to Moses the deity is referred to simply as God (Elohim) or by the name El, but not by the name Yahweh. There are two or three possible exceptions out of all the occurrences in E.
P maintains the same distinction as E (until Exodus 6:3), with one possible exception out of hundreds of occurrences.2
The consistency of this phenomenon through well over 1,000 occurrences makes it a very serious point. One must either accept it as reflecting different authors or one must make a strong attempt at explaining how this could possibly have happened. Van Seters, however, simply rejects the entire phenomenon on the grounds that “we have already seen a few instances where J has used Elohim alone instead of Yahweh” (p. 161). The cases in question are in quotation, not narrative, and Van Seters has misunderstood the evidence. Even though J is nearly 100 percent consistent in discriminating between narration and quotation, Van Seters says, “the use of Elohim for Yahweh is quite regular and indiscriminate in J” (p. 293).
This turns out to be a crucial point of Van Seters’s whole project. Many scholars, including me, have pointed out that when J and E are separated from one another J shows numerous signs of having been composed in the southern kingdom of Judah while E shows signs of composition in the northern kingdom of Israel. These two kingdoms existed side-by-side until 722 B.C., when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom; J and E are therefore traced to a period before 722. By breaking down the name-of-God distinction, Van Seters wreaks havoc with the distinction between J and E—and even P. Verses that scholars thought were safely attributed to a particular work are now shuttled elsewhere. The breakdown of the criteria—the characteristic signs that associate the respective sources to Judah and Israel—allows Van Seters freely to assign J to a much later age.
Similarly, Van Seters seems unaware of the fact that, when these source-works in Genesis are separated from one another, each frequently flows as a continuous story. This is one of the strongest arguments for the hypothesis. In my Who Wrote the Bible? I printed some of the stories in two different typesets to demonstrate this. For example, it is possible to read the J flood story and then the P flood story, and each makes sense as a complete story with no factual or grammatical breaks. When Van Seters makes his new divisions of the flood stories, he destroys the continuity of both of them. Seemingly unaware of the matter of continuity, he never justifies the fragmentation that he creates.
This is both an error of fact and of method. There are other serious problems of method in this work. Van Seters says that the themes of exile and dispersement early in Genesis (for example, in the Babel story) “point very clearly to the concerns of the exilic community.” He says this despite repeated warnings by biblical scholars against thinking that references to exile in the Bible have to be written by someone who has actually experienced exile. Exile of defeated nations was a reality in the ancient Near East, and an author did not have to be carried off in chains in order to write a story of humankind being dispersed from the tower of Babel.
More broadly, Van Seters gives great weight to tiny points of detail—points that could be explained in various ways other than his—while disregarding masses of cumulative evidence that point elsewhere. He will take the small point as grounds to divide stories or call a particular line J or P or pre-Yahwistic, and then he will write off the most blatant of contradictory details in insisting that a story is a unity. In treating the stories of Dinah and Shechem (Genesis 34) and Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), for example, he ignores a network of language, context, narrative continuity and theme that mark these stories as utterly bound to J, and he identifies them as separate texts on minimal grounds (p. 278f.).
In the story of Dinah, her brothers Simeon and Levi deal violently with Shechem and his town because of Shechem’s sexual relations with Dinah, 014and their father Jacob chastises Simeon and Levi for this. In the very next story in J, their brother Reuben sleeps with one of Jacob’s concubines and Jacob finds out (Genesis 35:22). The result of these two episodes is that Reuben, Simeon and Levi, the three oldest sons, are downgraded in Jacob’s deathbed blessing, and the preeminence goes to the fourth son: Judah (Genesis 49). This fits with everything else in J that suggests that this work was composed in the kingdom of Judah. The Judah and Tamar story, likewise, focusing on Judah’s history, is part and parcel of this work. But none of these factors weighs in Van Seters’s separating of these two stories and concluding that they were written by someone else.
Van Seters also separates the whole Joseph story and identifies it as an “independent composition,” which is simply impossible. It is intricately bound to the rest of the Jacob story. Not only does the evidence of language demand this, but the literary evidence does as well, in that numerous events in the Jacob stories have their explicit denouements in the Joseph stories. Notably Jacob deceives his father Isaac by using his brother Esau’s cloak and the skins and meat of a goat, and years later Jacob’s own sons deceive him using their brother Joseph’s cloak and the blood of a goat. A full chain of deceptions that begins with Jacob continues and resolves with Joseph.a
Moreover, Van Seters’s grounds frequently involve a kind of reasoning that leaves one in doubt. When Van Seters deals with the story of the relations between the “sons of the gods” and human women, which produce giants/Nephilimb (Genesis 6:1–4), he compares the story of the Greek Catalogue of Women of Hesiod. Because the Catalogue of Women has parallels to the biblical story but does not include the element of giants, Van Seters concludes that “it would be best to view the reference to the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 as secondary” (p. 155f.). This is weak reasoning. The presence of an element in the Bible’s story that is not present in the Hesiodic work does not make that element “secondary,” yet Van Seters arrives at this conclusion without further defense or comment.
The way Van Seters comes to date the story of the tower of Babel is another case of doubtful reasoning. Van Seters writes that the Bible’s story of the tower must be 015based on the ziggurat Etemenanki in Babylon. He says that the earliest reference to Etemenanki is in the Erra epic and that Erra is dated to about 765 B.C. by the respected scholar Wolfram von Soden. Van Seters says that there are numerous references to the Babylon temple Esagila but not to the ziggurat Etemenanki before this. He concludes: “This silence about Etemenanki can only mean that it probably did not predate the eighth century B.C.” (p. 182). He then adds that it is not likely that the ziggurat was an “exceptional structure” until much later. Therefore the tower of Babel story must have been written much later—close to the time of the Exile. This is troubling in many ways. Van Seters does not acknowledge that the date of the Erra epic is a contentious issue. He does not make clear that the first reference to the ziggurat Etemenanki by name is in the Erra epic but that the ziggurat of Babylon is in fact mentioned earlier than that. It is mentioned in the Enuma Elish, dating perhaps to the 12th century B.C. And it is certainly understood to be an “exceptional structure” there (Tablet VI, line 63). Van Seters’s argument is a weak argument from silence in any case.
Equally perplexing is Van Seters’s reading of a verse from Leviticus that plays an important part in an argument he makes about the biblical promises to the patriarchs. Leviticus 26:42 says:
“Then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the land” (Van Seters’s translation).
Van Seters says:
“The first peculiarity about this text is the remarkable reverse order [Jacob, then Isaac, then Abraham] that is not easily explained as original. The second problem is the mention of three covenants when Genesis speaks only of one, that with Abraham.”
In the present state of literary studies of the Bible it is hard to believe that Van Seters cannot imagine a writer referring to Jacob and then Isaac and then Abraham instead of in chronological order. And it is hard to believe that he can only imagine that this passage, by repeating the word “covenant,” must be talking about three separate covenants. When Martin Luther King kept repeating the phrase “I have a dream,” did Van Seters think that he was referring to many different dreams? Yet from this reasoning Van Seters constructs a complex history of how this passage was written and then rewritten.
Regarding the story of Jacob’s revelation and dream of the ladder at Beth-El (Genesis 28:10–22), Van Seters eschews the blatant conflict in the divine names that has led other scholars to see this story as a combination of J and E, and he attacks the division on the following grounds: In a passage attributed to J, Jacob is said to have “spent the night” (Van Seters’s translation) (Genesis 28:11a). Then in a passage attributed to E, Jacob is said to have lain down and dreamed (Genesis 28:11b, 12). Later, in another J passage, Jacob is said to have awakened (Genesis 28:16). Van Seters insists that this reference to awakening must depend on the reference to Jacob’s dreaming in the earlier passage, so they cannot be from two separate sources. Why? Because, Van Seters claims, the word for “spent the night” (lwn) “does not include the notion of rest or sleep.” Even if we accept Van Seters’s understanding of this root, what kind of argument is this? Can Van Seters really not imagine someone writing a story and saying “he spent the night in the forest” or “he stayed at their house that night” and later saying “he awoke the next morning”? Must the author refer explicitly to sleeping, or even to dreaming, for the reader to get it?
Another doubtful reasoning is involved in Van Seters’s treatment of the entire matter of the promises to the patriarchs. Van Seters makes a number of connections between these accounts of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, on the one hand, and accounts of David and Solomon, on the other. He concludes that the author of the patriarchal stories has taken the language and ideology of monarchy and transplanted them into patriarchal stories. One might take this as evidence that the patriarchal stories were written in the period of the monarchy, but Van Seters concludes the opposite: that the patriarchal stories must have been written after the monarchy ended “because there is no effort in the biblical tradition to make a linear connection between the patriarchs and David until very late” (p. 270). First of all, that is no argument. Second, it is just not true in any case. Jacob’s deathbed blessing, a very early biblical text, makes such a connection (Genesis 49:8–10). The end of the Judah and Tamar story (Genesis 38) also makes the connection. And even if Van Seters does not accept those, J itself makes the connection, drawing a series of striking parallels between the names and 016events of the patriarchal and Davidic families, Van Seters’s argument is classically circular. He is trying to argue for the lateness of J, and, at the same time, he takes the lateness of J to be proof of his argument. He says on that same page, “The lateness of the texts also confirms this interpretation,” But the lateness of the texts was what he was trying to prove with this interpretation.
There is therefore reason to doubt the soundness of method and reasoning in Van Seters’s work. In this scholarship the text rarely speaks for itself. Rarely is the point automatically manifest in the text that Van Seters puts before us for our consideration. Rather it is the scholar’s spin on the text that houses the point. This is all the more disconcerting because Van Seters frequently does not come to terms with whole areas of evidence and scholarship that are relevant to his analyses of the text. He traces a development of the conditional nature of the various promises (or covenants) of the Land as if he were unaware of the substantial scholarship on the conditionality of these covenants. If the Abrahamic covenant is an unconditional promise of land to Abraham’s descendants, and the Sinai covenant makes possession of the land conditional upon obedience to the commandments, how are these two covenants to be reconciled? There is a mountain of interesting work on this by a number of scholars whom Van Seters does not so much as mention.
Likewise, a major development in scholarship of the last two decades is the linguistic work by which we can observe the development of biblical Hebrew, like all languages, through time. In work by scholars such as Avi Hurvitz, Robert Polzin, Gary Rendsburg and Ziony Zevit it appears that we can observe the stages in the development of Hebrew to which the various biblical prose works belong, The results of this research are completely counter to Van Seters’s conclusions. The texts that Van Seters calls late come out in the earliest, “classical”, stage of biblical Hebrew: J and E come before the Deuteronomist. J, E, D and P all come before Ezekiel, But Van Seters does not take this on. Putting J in the Exilic period without addressing the linguistic evidence is like putting Shakespeare in the 20th century without addressing the point that he certainly sounds atypical.
The same goes for Van Seters’s arguments regarding the work known as P. He acknowledges that P was written later than J, and so he must come to terms with the evidence and arguments of a fairly large group of scholars who contend that even P was pre-Exilic. Van Seters refers to the Israeli scholar Menahem Haran’s articles on book scrolls and literacy but does not come to terms with Haran’s considerable work on the earliness of P. Haran dates P to around the same time that I do. Van Seters does not refer to my work either. Perhaps I should be faulted here, because I have made only a few citations and references to Van Seters’s work in the past. I admit that I regarded this work as being on the fringe of the field and therefore chose not to mount a full-scale treatment of it. In the present state of proliferation of publication, it may or may not be legitimate to omit treatment of works that one perceives to be on the fringe, and, if I was wrong or offended Van Seters, I hereby apologize to him. But by everyone’s standard, one cannot ignore whole corpora of mainstream scholarship that are counter to one’s own.
Elsewhere, Van Seters too readily dismisses other scholars’ arguments with remarks such as “hardly convincing,” “spurious,” “rather strained,” “confused,” “flawed from the start,” “argument becomes quite forced,” “confuses the issue badly” and “a little desperate.” He does himself a disservice with this kind of strong pronouncement in the place of direct response.
Van Seters’s response to Baruch Halpern’s work is a particularly serious case since it so challenges his own. Van Seters writes in a note, “The difference between ancient and modern historians is not understood by him [Halpern]. He simply ignores the whole subject of ancient historiography outside of the Old Testament” (p. 44). And Van Seters says in another note at the beginning of this book, “Halpern’s book offers a major critique to my own work in ancient historiography, so the present work may be viewed as an implicit response to it” (p. 7). The charge that Halpern ignores ancient historiography outside of the Bible is not true. Halpern has referred to the ancient Greek historians more than almost anyone in the field. More to the present point, though, Halpern’s work is too significant and too rigorously argued to be written off so casually. Halpern is one of the most sophisticated scholars of historiography in the history of our field, and to say that he does not understand the difference between ancient and modern historians is an unfortunate charge where a serious, responsible defense was called for—and not just just a promise of an “implicit” answer.
Van Seters’s proposal is insufficiently defended thus far and, in my judgment, ultimately indefensible; to have any chance of making the case for it he must come to terms with the mass of evidence that contradicts it, and he must address the mass of scholars who disagree with him. It is such a strange proposal that it requires the most careful argumentation. What evidence compels him to see everything so late, to think that the Jews produced so little of this writing until they were evicted from their land, to see the centuries in which they flourished in their land as being so barren of literary-historical production, to have such a negative view that “the unifying factor in the national history of Israel” was not their covenants or their beliefs or their monarchy but “the people’s sin and the divine judgment,” to see these late writers as inventing so much of their history? These matters require a substantial, meticulous defense. If the case can be made, Van Seters has not yet made it.
The Myth of the Goddess
Anne Baring and Jules Cashford
(New York: Viking, 1992) 794 pp., $40
The Myth of the Goddess, its authors tell us, began with the goal of gathering all the stories and images of goddesses found in western religions. While pursuing this goal, however, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford became convinced that there are “parallels in all the goddess myths of apparently unrelated cultures” (p. xi), and they set out to prove that beginning approximately 25, 000 years ago in the Paleolithic era and continuing, albeit in a highly repressed form, in both modern Judaism and Christianity, a single myth of a great mother goddess has manifested itself.
According to Baring and Cashford, this single myth has been transmitted primarily through humanity’s shared collective unconscious, which carries within it memories of ancient goddess religion. If this sounds like the psychoanalytic theory of Carl Jung, it should: Baring and Cashford both studied at the Association 062of Jungian Analysts in London, and they acknowledge throughout the book their heavy debt to Jung and his most faithful follower when it comes to the study of myth, Joseph Campbell.
BR readers will be most interested in chapters 11 and 12 of The Myth of the Goddess, in which Baring and Cashford discuss goddess traditions in the Hebrew Bible, and chapters 13, 14 and 15, in which they argue that the biblical figures of Eve, Mary and Lady Wisdom (a personification of attributes such as honesty, diligence, reverence and trustworthiness who appears in Proverbs 1–9) embody the suppressed, yet ever present, goddess in Judaism and Christianity. surprisingly, however, Baring and Cashford do not address the important archaeological discoveries of the 1970s that pair the Israelite god Yahweh with the Canaanite goddess Asherah.c Instead, in their brief discussion of Asherah, Baring and Cashford depend almost exclusively on Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess (Ktav, 1967), ignoring more recent scholarship.
Many of the book’s arguments concerning Lady Wisdom and her relationship with Yahweh also derive from the earlier work of Patai, but Baring and Cashford add to Patai’s observations their own understanding of Wisdom as a virgin and as representative of the lunar cycle. These observations, however, are highly speculative. The argument for Lady Wisom’s virginity is based on one verse in the apocrypha that describes Wisdom as “remaining in herself” while she “renews all things” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27). The argument for Wisdom’s lunar characteristics is based on her association with the seven eons of time in one Gnostic story and on Baring’s and Cashford’s belief that seven, which is one quarter of the moon’s 28-day cycle, is a lunar number. The authors also identify Mary as a lunar goddess because the three days she mourns for Jesus between his death and resurrection correspond to the three days in the lunar cycle when the moon is completely dark. Baring and Cashford associate Mary with the sea because in Latin mare means “sea.” Students of Christianity will counter, however, that nowhere does the tradition evoke any lunar imagery in conjunction with Jesus’ death and that Mary’s name is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam.
Baring and Cashford insist on these and other equally tenuous data because to do so is consistent with their Jungian impulse to find in every female deity in western tradition an archetypal myth of the goddess who was, from the time of her earliest Paleolithic incarnations, virgin, lunar and related to the sea. But herein lies the crucial methodological flaw in their book and in the works of all of Jung’s and Campbell’s followers: ignoring or glossing over the particular cultural and historical circumstances of individual religious traditions in an attempt to find overarching motifs and themes. Yet any student of the Bible knows that while biblical religion was hardly unique, what is often most instructive in understanding both Israelite faith and early Christianity are 063precisely those features that made these traditions distinctive in the ancient world.
In his foreword to The Myth of the Goddess, “This is a long book, but it is not a page too long” (p. ix). Readers, however, unless they are devoted followers of Jung and Campbell and their ahistorical approach to myth and religious symbol, will in all likelihood disagree.
Late for a Very Important Date
Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis