Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Otto, Eckart, Die Tora: Studien zum Pentateuch—Gesammelte Aufsätze (BZAR, 9; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009). Pp. vii+715, Hardcover. € 98.00. ISBN 978-3-447-05901-5.

Over his career as a scholar of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, Eckart Otto has been nothing if not prolific. This book is further testament thereto, containing 25 articles (totaling nearly 700 pages) that Otto produced between the years of 1995 and 2009. And these 25 constitute only a small portion of Otto's publications during this period.

While all of the articles relate in some way to scholarship on the Pentateuch and over a third of them directly to the book of Deuteronomy, a glance at the table of contents fails to reveal any other particularly unifying thread or motif. Nor is it obvious what rationale lies behind the order of the articles as they occur in the volume. The sequence appears to be random. Nevertheless, as one reads through the chapters, several common themes emerge, most of which—though not all, I think—will be unsurprising to those already familiar with Otto's work. I will highlight three.

The first has to do with the Pentateuch's own theory of its composition, which Otto believes warrants attention from modern scholars. For example, in “Wie ‘synchron’ wurde in der Antike der Pentateuch gelesen?” Otto points out that, in the Pentateuch itself, the writing of the Decalogue is attributed to Yahweh (e.g. Exod 24:12), the writing of the laws given at Sinai to Moses (e.g., Exod 34:27), and the writing of the Song of Moses (in Deuteronomy 32) is attributed to Moses as well (e.g., Deut 31:22). As for the pentateuchal narratives, Otto claims that it would have been self-evident, even in ancient times, that these originated with numerous unnamed authors. Because of the special notice given in the biblical text to Moses and to what he is supposed to have written, it is the legal collections that, for Otto, must be seen as the core of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch is not a story that incorporates law but rather a set of laws that are framed by narrative (“durch Erzählung gerahmte Tora”; p. 457).

This leads, in due course, to the second theme. If the Pentateuch itself provides a theory regarding its compositional history, then it likely has an interest in how its readers understand and interpret it. Put differently, the final compilers and editors of the Pentateuch wanted to guide readers' interpretation. Thus, Otto claims that the Pentateuch supplies its own interpretive method—or, at least, clues as to how one should interpret its contents. One of the most important clues for Otto in this regard is the distinction made by the biblical authors between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit, a distinction Otto refers to in a number of articles. See, for example,

The term Erzählzeit means the time period when the biblical authors wrote, while erzählte Zeit refers to the time period about which the authors claim to have been writing. Otto believes that ancient readers would have been attuned to this distinction and would have interpreted the text based on this model. In “Die narrative Logik des Wechsels der Gottesnamen,” for instance, Otto asks the question, “warum in der Abrahamsüberlieferung von JHWH zu Elohim in Gen 20–22 und innerhalb von Gen 22 von Elohim in Gen 22, zu JHWH in Gen 22,11.14a gewechselt wird“ (p. 594). His answer is that a source-critical explanation is not sufficient. There must be a discernible rationale for the text as it now stands. For Otto, the name Elohim describes the way in which the deity was understood in the erzählte Zeit, while the name JHWH symbolizes all that the deity meant to the people in the author's day. The switch from one name to the other provides, according to Otto, a hermeneutical key that the reader can use to understand how the narratives in Genesis apply to and have meaning for the Erzählzeit.

The third theme flows directly from the second: despite apparent tensions and contradictions in both the narratives and legal collections of the Pentateuch, there has to be a way in which the final form of the Pentateuch makes sense when read synchronically. With respect to the legal collections, Otto makes this point most forcefully in “Ersetzen oder Ergänzen von Gesetzen in der Rechtshermeneutik des Pentateuch.” He takes exception to those scholars who claim, for example, that the Deuteronomic Code was meant to serve as a replacement for the Covenant Code—by overturning and even invalidating the latter—and that the Holiness Code was meant as a replacement for the Deuteronomic Code. For Otto it is inconceivable that law codes of such incompatible contents would be retained within the same text—the Pentateuch. He prefers to see each subsequent code as complementing and supplementing each previous code and even helping to provide a framework in which a previous code can be better understood. Does this mean that Otto has given up the kind of careful and sometimes elaborate diachronic analysis for which he is well known? Not at all. Even in its historical context, he believes that the Pentateuch “erfordert vom antiken Leser eine diachrone Lektüre der Gesetze des Pentateuch” (450). Only by understanding the text diachronically can one see how the text functions coherently from a synchronic point of view.

Those who disagree with Otto on this point—and who favor the Ersetzen-model of interpretation—have sometimes criticized him for having too simplistic and harmonizing of an understanding of the legal corpora in the Pentateuch. But it may be the case that those who criticize him in this way leave themselves open to a similar criticism when it comes to their understanding of the redaction or editing of the Pentateuch. At some point, given the irresolvable contradictions that they see in the Pentateuch, they are forced to argue that the compilation/redaction process was simplistic and unsophisticated: the Pentateuch is simply an anthology of narrative and legal texts, and, while the individual texts themselves might be creative and remarkable, the act of putting them together was not. Otto, on the other hand, argues for a very sophisticated redactional process that allows one to see a rationale and a logical coherence to the text as we have it, and thus to a synchronic reading of the Pentateuch.

The “Verzeichnis der Erstveröffentlichungen“ at the end of the book contains information on 23 of the 25 articles. As for the other two, “Die narrative Logik des Wechsels der Gottesnamen zur Differenzierung zwischen Erzählzeit und erzählter Zeit in der Genesis” was published in Die Erzväter in der biblischen Tradition: Festschrift for Matthias Köckert (de Gruyter 2009), and “Moses Abschiedslied in Deuteronomium 32: Ein Zeugnis der Kanonsbildung in der Hebräischen Bibel“ was published in this volume for the first time.

Bruce Wells, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia