Biblical Criticism Is Not Science
When I was a boy of sixteen, out of curiosity I opened the book “The History of Biblical Criticism,” and for the first time in my life I encountered biblical criticism directly, without any buffer or safeguard. The authors presented the story of the biblical flood in two columns, to illustrate the fact that the Torah’s flood narrative is a doublet that can be easily separated into two stories (= from two sources, from two authors, and from two periods), each describing the flood plainly and in its entirety. Any young person like myself could easily see that the initial command to Noah appears twice, and that there are differences between the two commands (in particular, “two of all flesh” versus “seven pairs” of clean animals). There are also two conclusions to the flood narrative containing promises for the future, one being Noah’s sacrifice, which uses the name YHWH, and the second being the covenant of the rainbow, using the name Elohim.
It felt as if I was floating between heaven and earth, the heavens withdrawing above me, and the earth slipping out from under my feet. I read through the narrative again and again, and then a single verse caught my eye, in which both names YHWH and Elohim appear:
בראשית ז:טז וְהַבָּאִים זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה מִכׇּל בָּשָׂר בָּאוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים וַיִּסְגֹּר יְ־הֹוָה בַּעֲדוֹ.
Gen 7:16 Thus, they that entered (the ark) comprised male and female of all flesh, as Elohim had commanded him, and YHWH closed him in.
What did the critical scholars do with this remarkable verse? Of course, they split it up too! The words “and YHWH closed him in” are left hanging in midair, disconnected from what precedes it and what follows it, cut off from the narrative flow. They marked it with an asterisk to indicate that the continuity of the source is interrupted here, where the “redactor” (R) forcibly spliced together the two stories from the two “sources.” Right away, I said to myself: This is cheating! If a verse doesn’t work for them, they invent a story about splicing and redaction.
I genuinely felt that God was “closing me in” and saving me, holding me between heaven and earth in an extraordinary act of direct providence, so that I could understand the depths of the Torah.
Over the years, I realized that the name Elohim—the generic name for God—is the name used to depict the creation of the natural world (Genesis 1, the Creation story!). Elohim is also the name used to describe the flood in a natural sense, whereby “two of all flesh” come of their own accord to be saved, and the covenant of the rainbow is the natural conclusion.
However, in the Torah, sacrifices are never offered in the generic name of Elohim—only YHWH. Also, the closing of the ark could not have been done naturally, because closing the ark constitutes a death sentence against all those who are left outside it. Noah did not have the power to close the ark on himself and his family, and unless it was closed, Noah’s Ark would have been destroyed along with everything else. Thus, it is YHWH who “closed him in.”
In choral recitation (telling the story together as a group), prevalent in ancient cultures, the voice calling out in the name YHWH stands out here, at the end of a powerful verse distinguished by the name Elohim. It expresses YHWH’s unique intervention and direct providence, and this makes a strong impression during oral recitation. In a dry, lifeless “source” division, however, such a reading has no meaning.
One day, I came to Rabbi Mordechai Breuer z”l with a distinction I found in biblical Hebrew between two terms meaning “I,” ani and anochi. After probing the issue together with my father, z”l, a man fluent in grammar and Bible, and after checking the most scholarly biblical dictionaries, we found that Semitic languages have almost no parallel usage of ani and anochi, with distinctions in meaning between the two, and that this phenomenon is unique to the language of the Bible.
Rabbi Breuer did not accept my distinction between ani and anochi as two stylistic aspects of the word “I” in the Bible. It was only later that I realized that my hypothesis clashed head-on with critical scholarship, especially in the books of Genesis and Exodus, where these two terms are thought to correspond to two different “sources” (EJ). Surprised, I asked Rabbi Breuer, “Are you beholden to Gunkel?” Rabbi Breuer replied that he does not typically argue with experts. I responded that I am an Israeli who has come out of exile as a free man, and I am not beholden to anyone, not to any scientist or any expert. I said to myself: The experts who are the relevant here are first and foremost linguists (like my father), more so than textual scholars.
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Dr. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is one of the founders of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He received his rabbinic training at Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav and his Ph.D. from Hebrew University. In 1986, he established Michlelet Yaakov Herzog for training Jewish Studies teachers, especially in Bible instruction. Between 2000-2006 he served as the Rosh Ha-Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim.
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