In my previous post, I dealt with the E and J material in the Bible’s 1st 5 books. So how did the process of turning these into a national narrative begin? When the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed, some of its E material was salvaged and used to complement the J material in the still existing southern kingdom of Judah. There are differences between the two. In the E material, God comes across as somewhat remote. Rather than in personal encounters, he reveals himself through visions, dreams, ‘angelic’ visitors, and the words of prophets. In the J material, however, Yahweh walks around in the garden of Eden, talks person-to-person with Adam and Eve, and even makes clothes for them. None of this has to do with history, but began as orally transmitted myth, legend and folklore, including stories about heroes such as Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. These tales were put together as a story of the creation of the world onwards to the Israelites’ entry into the promised land. This was about editing as much as authoring although, to connect up the pieces, additional joining-up material was needed.
But what about the book of Deuteronomy, a name that means 2nd giving of the Law? Why would Moses want to go through everything all over again? One clue is that, in Deuteronomy, the mountain of the Law is not Mt. Sinai, as in Exodus, but Mt. Horeb. This, then, is material from a 3rd, different tradition, which has been inserted into the J and E story as if it were a kind of ‘aide-mémoire’. Another clue is found in 2 Kings 22-23. During the reign of the southern king Josiah, a “scroll of the Law” was “found” in the Temple in Jerusalem, and used by the king to kick-start a religious revival. It’s thought highly likely that this ‘scroll of the Law’ was an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, and it’s called the D tradition.
There was one final revision of the J, E, D material, firmed up after the return from the Babylonian exile. It’s thought that a group of priests reckoned they had to ensure that their religious ‘authority’ was seen to be clearly grounded and authorised in the pages of the national story. This is the P material, for which genealogies were vital, and not just for summing up, or joining up, different parts of the overall story. In addition to that, to safeguard their professional status, they has to ensure that only the ‘right’ people, who could prove their line of pedigree, should function as priests. Their P material also focused on the details of worship and sacred rituals, such as vestments, sacrifices, sabbath and circumcision. And they didn’t forget the tithes which had to be paid by the people for the priests’ upkeep. One of their longest contributions to the Torah/Pentateuch was the book of Leviticus, which down through the years has been useful for helping insomniacs to fall asleep. To be fair to them, however, the priests also gave us the inimitable 1st chapter of Genesis, so we’ll let them off, shall we?
To sum up, the 1st 5 books of the bible were not written by Moses but, over the course of centuries, they were stitched together into what eventually became the amalgam of E, J, D and P material we now have. We mustn’t forget, however, that some of this material was much earlier, although altered and elaborated during its passage down through the centuries. This makes these 5 books, for me at any rate, endlessly fascinating. They are, at least in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, a captivating, dramatic and colourful story, crying out to be revisited, freshly understood, and continually made relevant to each succeeding age.