J. S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch. Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Baden, Joel S., The Composition of the Pentateuch. Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012). Pp. x + 378. Hardcover. US$65.00. ISBN 978-0-300-15263-0.

Joel Baden's book on “Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis” is, in a sense, a “return to the sources.” The “sources” in this case are the contradictions, doublets, and discontinuities that Reformation scholars discovered in their close reading of the Pentateuchal narrative (pp. 16–19). These contain competing historical claims about events, characters, names, etc. Yet they are part of the Pentateuchal storyline that runs from creation in Genesis to Israel camped on the edge of the land in Deuteronomy. According to Baden, these scholars identified the primary criteria on which a theory of the composition of the Pentateuch should be based: “When the Pentateuch is read with a careful eye toward the narrative inconsistencies and continuities alike, the individual fragments coalesce into four strands or sources, each of which is internally consistent, and markedly distinct, in its historical claims” (p. 20). Subsequent advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis tended to focus on stylistic and terminological differences (e.g. the divine names), theme, and theology, but these are secondary considerations; the primary consideration is the narrative's plot (p. 29). Those who reject the Documentary Hypothesis on the basis of form-critical and redactional analyses are, according to Baden, putting the cart before the horse in a different way. The “smallest literary unit” identified by form criticism becomes the point of departure for compositional analysis rather than the present text (p. 55). But it is the historical claims of a narrative that are intrinsic to it, whereas the units identified by form criticism are an application of theories of genre and structure—an “abstract construction” (p. 51). According to Baden's assessment, much subsequent Pentateuchal analysis has lost sight of the fundamental features of the text. Once one accepts these features as fundamental, their most persuasive explanation, according to Baden, is the Documentary Hypothesis.

In the “Introduction,” the book commences with a consideration of various attempts to explain the contradictions and inconsistencies in Gen 37:18–36 and their limitations. This constitutes a “case study” and a justification for the analysis that follows. The bulk of the book follows a consistent pattern, in which each chapter is devoted to an aspect of the hypothesis, followed by an appropriate case study. In chapter one, Baden outlines his understanding of the hypothesis and illustrates it by further examination of Gen 37:18–36. Chapter two addresses the criterion of continuity in a source, focusing on J with Num 11 as a case study. Chapter three examines the criterion of coherence as applied to E, with Num 16 as a case study. The focus of chapter four is Deuteronomy; its function in relation to the narrative sources is described by Baden as one of “complementarity.” The criterion of completeness is then tested in chapter five in relation to the Priestly (P) source because of the debate about whether it is a source (complete) or a redactional layer; Exodus 14 is selected as a case study. In chapter six, Baden presents his theory of a single compiler of the four sources and his understanding of how this compiler operated. The relevant case study here is Gen 35. The book ends with a conclusion, followed by extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and indexes of authors and biblical texts.

This is an impressive and well-argued book, and one can only be grateful to Baden for writing what is sure to stimulate a lively response. It needs to be remembered, of course, that this is his particular understanding of the hypothesis. Namely, the texts that he assigns to the sources are not the same as those identified by other proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis. This is not a criticism, merely an observation about the limitations inherent to this type of scholarly endeavour, of which Baden himself is well aware (p. 67). The questions and criticisms that I would like to briefly outline may not therefore apply to other versions of the hypothesis.

Baden is insistent that the analysis of sources must be a literary study; whatever traditions may lie behind each source, the compiler worked exclusively with and on written documents. Consideration of oral traditions continuing alongside the written works and a certain cross fertilization between oral and written is ruled out at the level of sources. However, given the evidence for such interaction that has been assembled recently by scholars such as David Carr, Baden's stance strikes me as one-sided. This is reflected in his critique of the hypothesis advanced by Campbell and myself that the text preserves variant ways of telling a story in oral performance (p. 11).[1] Given the lively relationship between written text and oral tradition uncovered by Carr and others, such variants would not have been a problem for ancient readers and users, even though they may be for modern ones.

I also have some questions about Baden's application of the continuity criterion, especially in the case of two sections of his J text. One is the Sinai theophany and covenant. Baden identifies Exod 33:1–3 as the continuation of J after 24:1–2, 9–11, relating the meal before YHWH on Mount Sinai (pp. 77–78). In 33:1–3 Moses is informed that God will not go up with the “stiff-necked” people, otherwise God would consume them on the way. One could agree with Baden that there is continuity between Exod 33:1–3 and the people's complaining in Exod 15, 16, and 17, although it necessitates placing a lot of weight on a verse (Exod 17:7) whose meaning he admits is ambiguous (pp. 275–6, n. 124). However it is difficult to accept direct continuity between the very positive scene in 24:1–2, 9–11 and 33:1–3.

The second question concerns the continuation of Baden's J source beyond its version of the spy story in Num 13–14 (pp. 80–81). In 14:20–24 God swears that the entire exodus generation, with the exception of Caleb, will perish in the wilderness. The next episode in the source is the successful war against king Arad in 21:1–3, which is followed by the itinerary in 21:16–20 and Israel's arrival at Mount Pisgah in Moab. At this point Baden states, “There is nothing left but to enter the land” (p. 81); then Moses blesses Israel (Deut 33, which belongs to J according to Baden) before he dies (Deut 34:1–4*, 5*, 6, which form J's account of Moses's death). It must be noted, however, that this rousing end to Baden's J stands in contradiction with the divine oath in Num 14:20–24.

Baden accuses the “European Approach” of circular reasoning in its identification of the smallest literary units (p. 58). But he also seems to engage in circular argumentation in his understanding of the compiler as “a preservationist” (p. 224), rather than a redactor with a theological agenda. He argues that, “Every time we assign a bit of a text to a redactor, we run the risk of having taken part of the literary work of a genuine author, whose words and work are well established, and given it to a considerably more nebulous figure who owes his existence solely to the theory” (p. 215). But the authors of the sources are surely as much constructions of the hypothesis as any redactor or compiler.

A final query concerns Baden's assertion that any indication of theological intention in the compiler's work needs to be demonstrated, not assumed (p. 227). This is fair enough but, in my judgement, he overlooks the theological implications in the compiler's relocation of Num 11:11–12, 14–17, 24–30 (E) from its original setting at Mount Sinai to a point three days' journey away (10:33). In this new location it becomes part of a series of murmuring in the wilderness stories. In the present text these combine with the murmuring stories of Exod 15–17 to form a frame—a “before” and “after”—around the Sinai covenant.

Whether or not one agrees with Baden's bold and challenging conclusions, the evidence he assembles and his knowledge of the literature in the field ensures that his book will become a reference point for further debate about the composition of the Pentateuch.

Mark A. O'Brien, MCD University of Divinity

[1] David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O'Brien, Rethinking the Pentateuch. Prolegomena to the Theology of Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005). reference