A personal and theological perspective on things good, bad, and indifferent

August 29th, 2007

My Trouble with the Documentary Hypothesis, Part 2

In Part 1, I said that at first glance, a lot of Richard Elliott Friedman’s source ascriptions in Genesis appear ad hoc. I am now noticing instances in which the text explicitly contradicts the Documentary Hypothesis, but where Friedman can safely ignore the discrepancies by recourse to The Magical Redactor. A redactor is an editor. The DH postulates that the Pentateuch is redacted (edited together) from different source documents, written by different people at different times (see Part 1 for more information). The reason I refer to the Redactor as The Magical Redactor is because this unknown and purely hypothetical person can always be invoked to clean up any loose ends. If the debits and credits don’t balance, The Magical Redactor can force a balance.

Where do we see The Magical Redactor? Let’s look first at Genesis 17:5, where God changes Abram’s name to Abraham:

And your name will not be called Abram anymore, but your name will be Abraham, because I’ve set you to be a father of a mass of nations. (Friedman’s translation)

Friedman ascribes this passage to the Priestly Source (P), but this presents a big problem for the DH. The account is not a doublet or triplet; that is, there is only the one account of the Abram/Abraham name change (which is in the P source), and yet all prior references to the man, in the J source as well, refer to him as Abram, and all subsequent references to him, in the J source as well, refer to him as Abraham. If Genesis is really a composite of independent sources, and if only one of them tells of Abram’s name change, why does the other one also recognize the name change, at exactly the same place, but without mentioning it?

Enter The Magical Redactor. Friedman’s explanation is this:

There is no mention of these changes of names in the other sources, but the Redactor has most probably made the change consistent for the rest of the narrative.

In other words, the author of J didn’t know about a name change and used only Abraham throughout, but P knew that Abraham had previously been known as Abram, recorded the name change, and distinguished between the time before the name change and the time after. Much later, the person who ultimately combined J and P (and the other sources) into the single document we have today, changed the J source so that it was consistent with P’s account of the name change. Where J originally read “Abraham” everywhere he was mentioned before 17:5, the Redactor changed the text to read “Abram,” hence what we read in Genesis 16:2 (J source), “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Here, YHWH has held me back from giving birth …’”

Let me give you another example of The Magical Redactor’s handiwork. Read Genesis 15:7:

And He said to him, “I am YHWH, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land, to possess it.” (Friedman)

According to Friedman, this is a J source text (note the name YHWH), but where it now says “Ur of the Chaldees,” it originally read “Haran.” The Redactor changed “Haran” to “Ur of the Chaldees” to make the unified text consistent, since P and J disagreed about where Abram came from. The P source had Abram coming out of Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 11:31), but the J source had the trip to Canaan originate from Haran (12:1-4). In order to relieve the tension, the Redactor made Haran into a stopover on the journey from Ur to Canaan and added sentences such as “And they came to Haran, and they stayed there” to P’s account in 11:31 and made it clear that when they “went out” in 12:4, it was “from Haran.” The Redactor decisively had to take sides in the disagreement when he came to 15:7, because it was there that J most explicitly contradicted P. He chose P over J and changed “I am YHWH who brought you out of Haran” to “I am YHWH who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees.”

My criticism here is nothing to do with the idea of redaction on biblical books but with the methodological soundness of recourse to a hypothetical Redactor in cases like these where the prima facie contradiction is between the DH and the textual evidence. Is it historically possible that a real-life Redactor made exactly these changes that Friedman suggests? Yes it is. The problem is how we could ever know. Because the Redactor is unknown except for his work of tying up the loose ends, there is no possible evidence that can be brought against the hypothesis at this point. It DH without The Magical Redactor clashes with the textual evidence, but The Magical Redactor is a catch-all explanation that can salvage the DH against any possible contradiction with the evidence. The DH is underdetermined at this point.

If time allows, I might come back to this issue by addressing the question of why it is even necessary for the DH to postulate a discrepancy between J and P over the place of Abram’s origin. But for now, I’ll have to leave off here.

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