Who Wrote the Bible’s first 5 Books? (ii)

There are still people who believe the Bible is “inerrant”. This would have astonished those editors for whom inconsistencies and even contradictions were such a non-issue they made little attempt to ‘iron them out’. They clearly didn’t imagine they were writing the ‘infallible word of God’, nor should we. For example, in Exodus 6 (P source), God says to Moses “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob .. but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them”. Genesis 4 (J source), however, says that long before Noah, never mind Abraham, “the name of Yahweh was first invoked”. 

Scholars see the Pentateuch as a compilation from 4 sources, called J, E, D and P. It’s generally thought the earliest was J, from around the 10th century BCE, which refers to God as Yahweh (Jahwe in German). J’s God is human-like. He’s a potter making the first man from clay; a paramedic breathing life into his nostrils; a garden designer, and a tailor making clothes for Adam and Eve. He shuts the door of the Ark once Noah has boarded and, after the Flood, is attracted by the delicious aroma from Noah’s barbecue. According to J, Moses, whose father-in-law is Reuel, receives the Law on Mount Sinai. J’s main focus is the three-fold promise to Abraham of land, descendants and blessing, provided Abraham ‘walks before him and is blameless’. 

The next source, E, refers to God as Elohim, and belongs to the northern kingdom around its 9th century split from Judah. E’s God is much more remote than J’s, and communicates indirectly through dreams, divine messengers and prophets. According to E, Moses, whose father-in-law is now called Jethro, receives the Law on Mount Horeb. When the northern kingdom was eliminated by Assyria, its stories were brought south and incorporated into J as an ‘auxiliary’ source. Only some were used, and so E is fragmentary rather than continuous.

The D source is thought to be the “Book of the Law”, supposedly “found (II Kings 22) in the late 7th century, and is now Deuteronomy – meaning Second (deutero) Law (nomos) – the Pentateuch’s 5th book. Israelite ‘popular’ religion had continued to include other Canaanite gods, so it’s no surprise that a ‘reminder’ of Yahweh and his Law should make an appearance. It was added to the first 4 books by the literary device of Moses ‘reminding’ Israel, prior to entry into Canaan, of the ‘first’ (J & E) giving of the Law, and so contains both similarities to, and differences from, that version. The main focus of D is centralisation. Yahweh was declared to be uniquely present in his Temple in Jerusalem, and only there could there be altars and sacrifices.

The last source was P from around the 5th century, after a remnant of Israelites returned from captivity in Babylon. Its writers, the final editors, were priests. P’s God is not like a human being writ large, nor does he communicate via angels or dreams. In Genesis 1, for example, he’s a remote, lofty ‘voice’. The main focus for the priests included the covenants between God, Noah, Abraham and Moses, and ritual observances such as the Sabbath, circumcision, and the food and ‘purity’ laws. To the priests we owe the description in Exodus of the ‘portable temple’ (the tabernacle), and the less than captivating ‘legal’ chapters of Leviticus. 

Rather than inerrant and infallible, then, the Pentateuch contains the fallible and flawed words of innumerable men (think patriarchy), writing in different places, to different audiences, with different agendas, over the course of more than 500 years. To me, this makes it all the more absorbing, intriguing and readable, except for the inevitably boring bits which guiltlessly can be skipped over. Rather than the ‘word of God’, it’s ‘words about God’, provoking ideas and raising ‘possibilities’ rather than stating ‘facts’. That it’s myth and legend, rather than history, is to me a bonus rather than a turn off. I can simply enjoy, just as they come, its multicoloured collection of imaginative and dramatic tales, and find in them whatever meaning suggests itself to the receptive mind.

2 responses to “Who Wrote the Bible’s first 5 Books? (ii)”

  1. This is you at your best with a factual account. Apart from the modish stress on “patriarchy” ( as i used to tell students who took this tack to demonstrate their feminist credentials it is more positively interesting two of the early books of the Bible are called after women). But apart from this slight blemish-in my eyes- it is a good sound interesting blog.


    1. My thanks, Alan, for your positive remarks, though my mischievous side would suggest that this means I must have missed a mark somewhere! I’m amused at being described as ‘modish’ – that’s an unusual adjective to come my way. I think it’s noteworthy that the two books about women were of course written by men, arguably in furtherance of their masculine agendas in so doing. I also think that both sections of the Bible would have been substantially, if not radically, different if all the books had in fact been written by women. I wonder if anyone has explored that particular avenue in any depth, which would be not only thought provoking one suspects …


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