The Source Critic and the Religious Interpreter
Is Biblical Criticism Disrespectful and Irrelevant?
Many religious readers of scripture, of late joined by post-modernist interpreters, have leveled two charges against biblical criticism. We are told that biblical criticism, especially when it attempts to reconstruct earlier documents from which biblical texts were composed, treats scripture disrespectfully. A respectful reader accepts what is, while the source critic seeks what may have been; the former uses exegetical tools to construct an interpretation, whereas the latter wields a scalpel that leaves the text in shreds.
Furthermore, we are told, biblical critics produce conclusions that, while perhaps valid, are irrelevant to members of religious communities. After all, those communities’ scriptures consist of the final form of the Bible, not the predecessor texts that may have come before them.
In this essay, I intend to rebut both of these charges. I contend that a source-critical approach to ancient texts can be a deeply respectful interpretive tool to help us understand the documents passed down to us as scripture, for they allow us to hear more precisely and hence more sympathetically the voices of our earliest co-religionists, voices that were unrecognized before the advent of modern methods of study. This remains the case even as we acknowledge that any compositional model produces a theory, not an empirically proven fact. We shall see that some findings produced by the sympathetic reader of a tentatively reconstructed text remain valid in general terms even when alternative compositional models are suggested.
Further, attending to those recovered voices enriches theological discourse, because later voices in a religious tradition often evince particular viewpoints even after the earliest manifestations of that viewpoint were lost. Rather than defamiliarizing the Bible, the source critic, especially when working with the historian of interpretation, may discover something surprisingly familiar in the critically analyzed text.
What had seemed like new concepts in post-biblical tradition, concepts that apparently came out of nowhere, turn out to have a basis in scripture, since they resurrect ideas present in the biblical text but obscured by the process of redaction. In what follows I give an example of this phenomenon based on longer works I have published elsewhere.
The Descriptions of the Revelation at Sinai
I begin with ancient descriptions of the revelation at Sinai. The portions of the Book of Exodus describing the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 19-20, 24) are among the most compositionally complex in the Pentateuch. The plethora of internal contradictions and doublets within these chapters are well known.
To choose but two examples: it is unclear whether God arrives on the mountain several days before the revelation commences (so 19.3) or immediately beforehand (so 19.11). Similarly, Moses’ various ascents and descents seem not to cohere with each other. Even though God directs Moses to ascend to the mountain one last time before the revelation begins (19.24), God initiates the revelation while Moses is down rather than up (19.25, 20.1). The text in its final form records a variety of memories of this absolutely crucial event, and scholars have provided several models to explain the development of the text into this form.
Is it possible, when dividing this text into its constituent parts, to remain respectful and even sympathetic? Or must one regard the text simply as a jumble of contradictions? The answer to this question depends in large part on whether one sees compositional analysis as an end or a means. To be sure, many biblical critics seem to regard their job as merely identifying original sources, later additions, and redactional harmonizations; having uncovered the sources, they can close shop. Such scholars are doing a bad job, or at least an incomplete one, and the field of compositionally-oriented criticism should not be judged on the basis of their work (however common this sort of work has become).
Some source critics, on the other hand, move on to compare the theologies of the sources. Baruch Schwartz, for example, points out that once one has used classical source critical tools to isolate the J, E, and P versions of the events at Sinai, fascinating differences emerge. For the J and the P versions, revelation was essentially visual, not auditory and certainly not verbal. In P’s account of the events at Mount Sinai,
No words are spoken, no Decalogue or other such sample of divine law is proclaimed. Further, nature does not participate: no thunder, lightning, horns, fire, or smoke are present. Rather the divine firecloud . . . descends from the heavens to the mountain.
Similarly, J’s account eschews auditory phenomena in favor of visual ones. Only in the E narrative are auditory phenomena present. This is no small difference. At issue are a series of crucial questions. Did revelation at Sinai involve specific content that can be articulated in human language, or was it solely an experience of divine presence? If the former, did the whole nation hear God speaking human language, or was the lawgiving mediated by Moses — that is, did the law come directly from God, or did it come through a human authority? If the latter, what sort of experience was it: an overwhelming one that induced fear and trembling, or a beatific vision?
These are questions of considerable theological import, and source critical analysis helps them come into focus. To be sure, one can quibble with specific attributions of verses, and even with the model Schwartz uses. But other compositional analyses will attend to the same tensions within Exodus 19-20, and they can turn our attention to the same set of questions. (See, for example, the very different model used by Tom Dozeman, who suggests not the combination of originally discrete units but a process in which a series of supplements were added to a base text.) Until we isolate like verses with like verses (whether we regard them as originally discrete narratives or as supplements to an older core), the possibility that some memories of revelation were exclusively non-verbal is simply lost.
Now, an investigation that allows us to recover ancient understandings of revelation which we otherwise might miss strikes me as a deeply respectful one. To respect is first of all to acknowledge, to recognize something’s existence, and compositional criticism (whether in its source critical or supplementary critical manifestation) helps us to acknowledge what had been hard to notice at all. To this view one might respond as follows: while the sort of compositional analysis I describe above may treat the putative underlying sources respectfully, it nonetheless treats the work of the biblical redactors quite disrespectfully. The redactors may have intended to bury some viewpoints by combining sources in such a way that they are no longer evident. I do not regard this objection as workable for two reasons.
First, it may be true that in some cases redactors intended to erase or attenuate a voice by combining it with other ones. Even then, however, I would still ask why the redactors’ viewpoint is so much more important than that of the sources the redactors utilized. To say that post-biblical tradition canonized and transmitted a text that is the product of the redactors does not quite suffice to respond to my question. After all, the canonized version passed on to us is also the product of the earlier authors whose work it includes.
One might assert that the redactors are most authoritative simply because they came last, but this is an arbitrary assertion. (Why isn’t the source that came first most authoritative – or, if one is, say, a deeply committed Trinitarian, the source that came third?) Surely the anonymous redactors can make no special claim to authority, at least no claim stronger than that of the anonymous authors whose work they used.
Further, it is not quite correct to say that the redactors came last. Scribes, interpreters, and other tradents followed them. If the act of caring for and passing on scripture endows one with authority, then Akiva and Rashi and Moshe Greenberg have as much a claim to authority as the redactors for Jews, and Jerome and the Victorines and James Barr have as much of a claim as the redactors for Christians.
Second, in many cases, I am not at all sure that the redactors intended to bury the older voices or to create a unified text. This is very clearly the case in Exodus 19-20, for this text — even in its redacted form — repeatedly presents material ambiguously. As a result, many of the questions that a comparison of the sources bring into focus are at least suggested by the text as it stands. Let me give three examples of such questions.
Three Textual Ambiguities
(1) We saw above that the difference between verbal (E) and non-verbal (J, P) descriptions of revelation raise the question of whether the people heard the giving of the Ten Commandments or not. This same question is suggested by the phrasing and the placement of some crucial verses in the final form of the text. An extraordinary ambiguity occurs in Exodus 20.1: “God spoke all these words, saying.” In every other occurrence of this sort of phrasing in the Hebrew Bible (viz., “God/Yhwh spoke, saying”), the person or people addressed by the divinity are specified (thus, “Yhwh spoke to Moses, saying”). Only here is there any doubt about the recipient of divine speech. It is striking that precisely at the most central, most foundational case of divine revelation in the Hebrew Bible this ambiguity crops up. This fact commands our attention. (It also bothered ancient translators: the Alexandrinus codex of the Septuagint adds the words, “to Moses,” while the Old Latin adds “to the people.”)
(2) The same ambiguity also results from the two different ways one can punctuate the crucial verses. One might understand Exod 19.15-20.2 as follows:
Moses came down to the people and spoke to them. Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am Yhwh your God who took you out of Egypt, out of the house of the house of bondage…”
But it would be just as defensible to render these verses as follows:
Moses came down to the people and said to them, “God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am Yhwh your God who took you out of Egypt, out of the house of the house of bondage…’ ”
In the former translation, the people hear the law’s revelation directly; in the latter, only through human mediation. Both are legitimate translations.
(3) In Exod 20.18-21 the people tell Moses they are afraid of the revelation, and they ask him to mediate so that they need not hear God’s awesome voice; Moses agrees to do so. The verbs in the passage leave the timing of this discussion completely unclear. Had these verbs been waw-consecutive verbs, it would have been clear that the discussion took place after the whole people heard God utter the Ten Commandments. In that case, only laws revealed subsequently would be mediated by Moses. (Indeed, the parallel passage in Deut 5.22-24 is phrased to make this interpretation inevitable.) But the phrasing in Exodus allows two other interpretations: that the discussion took place during God’s utterance of the Ten Commandments, or perhaps before it. Where unambiguous verbal forms could have been used, or where an alternative placement of the paragraph in question could have eliminated the lack of clarity, the text insists on creating an enigma.
It cannot be a coincidence that these three textual difficulties all point to the same interpretive quandary. The final form of this text wants the audience to be perplexed; it forces the careful reader to wonder whether the law that is at the very center of Israel’s religion came to the Israelites at Sinai directly and exclusively from the deity or through human hands. The relative places of God, Moses and Israel at the most important moment of Israel’s history are a matter of dispute in the final form of Exodus — aggressively, insistently so.
The essential nature of this moment is even more clearly a matter of dispute when one compares the older sources the redactors utilized. In this particular case, then, attention to the sources may in fact help bring the redactors’ work into greater focus. Source critical analysis may be respectful not only to earlier voices but to the redactors as well.
The Differing Views of the Revelation in the Sages
At least for traditional Jews, it turns out that source critical analysis helps us to focus on issues of demonstrably religious import, for the views of revelation inscribed in the pre-redacted sources show up again later in the history of Jewish exegesis. The P and J texts were not the last ones in Jewish thought to posit an essentially non-verbal revelation at Sinai or a primarily mediated lawgiving there.
Already in classical rabbinic literature we find attempts to minimize the extent of unmediated revelation at Sinai. In the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a; Horayot 8a) and in Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1.2 a number of rabbis assert that the people heard only the first two statements in Exodus 20 directly from God and then next eight through Moses’ mediation; the same view was defended in the Middle Ages by Rabbi Yosef Qara (as quoted in the commentary of Yosef Bekhor Shor on Exodus 20.1). Maimonides took this line of reasoning somewhat further in The Guide of the Perplexed (2:33 [75a]), arguing that at Sinai the people heard a great voice from God but not the verbalization of speech involving specific words.
One Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1815), went further yet. According to his disciple, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (d. 1827), Menachem Mendel averred that the Israelites at Sinai heard not the first two commandments, nor the first, but only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment. That letter, the aleph of the word ʾānōkî (“I”), has no sound; thus Menahem Mendel insists that at the most intense moment of divine revelation in the world’s history the Israelites heard a sound of utter silence.
Naftali Tzvi expands on this view, explaining that the moment at Sinai was essentially visual: by hearing this silent ʾaleph, the people in fact saw the very face of God. This sounds like a novel (not to mention paradoxical) point of view, but it closely resembles the view of the P and J sources underlying our final text of Exodus. Source criticism, working with history of exegesis, shows that the new in fact reintroduces what had been lost.
On the other hand, one possible reading of the E text and of the text in its current form insists that the whole nation heard all the Ten Commandments. This viewpoint, too, endures in later Judaism. It is expressed in Midrash Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael to Exod 20.18, for example, during the talmudic era, and by medieval authorities such as Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and Rabbi Obadiah Seforno (in their commentaries to Exod 20.18, 20.18, and 20.1 respectively). In other words, in Judaism of both the talmudic era and the Middle Ages we can note a debate concerning the essential nature of revelation at Sinai.
That debate continues, with momentous consequences, in modern Judaism. Liberal branches stress that law originally came to the nation Israel through human mediation and interpretation, and hence that the law — perhaps even those laws explicitly articulated in the text of the Torah itself — may continue to be subject to human mediation and perhaps even revision.
For Orthodoxy, the fact that all Israel heard the voice of God proclaiming specific laws provides a warrant for the purely divine origin, and hence unchanging nature, of at least the core of Toraitic halacha. In light of a source critical analysis of Exodus 19-20, it turns out that this debate is not only an activity of rabbinic, medieval, and modern Judaisms; it was already present in ancient Israel itself.
My point here is not to suggest that one or the other side of the debate gains definitive support from source criticism. It is rather that the debate itself emerges as a sacred activity, inasmuch as it is a prototypically scriptural one. To argue over the status of the law’s revelation is not to attack the very root of Jewish religiosity, but rather to return to that root, to imitate it, to become a partner with it. Whatever charges might be leveled at source criticism of Exodus 19-20, irrelevance to the religious concerns of a committed Jew is not among them. The authority of the divine law in biblical Israel and in rabbinic Judaism depends on the prototypical event of lawgiving that occured at Sinai.
An Ancient and Ongoing Conversation
In the foregoing, I have attempted to address two questions: Can a biblical critic who finds multiple layers and authors in a text be brought onto the pulpit or into the believers’ classroom (as opposed to the academicians’ classroom)? And how might the religious authorities who created scripture regard the work of such a scholar? My guess regarding the second question should by now be quite clear.
If there is any validity to the compositional models suggested by the past two centuries of biblical scholarship, then the prophets and scribes responsible for scripture are more distinctly heard and sympathetically understood on the basis of modern criticism. Even the redactors, who knowingly put together documents full of tension without doing much to dampen our perceptions of those tensions might be pleased to know that contemporary scholars revel in the dialect the redactors devised, rather than bringing that dialectic to closure.
But what of the religious community seeking guidance, insight, comfort, challenge, or a path towards the deity? Can they benefit from the sort of findings I describe here? In addressing this question, I necessarily speak from my particular place, which is that of a person attempting to be a modern religious Jew. People who are differently religious must decide on their own whether what I say might apply in their own communities. I have frequently discussed the examples mentioned above (and other ones that start from compositional models and move to the history of exegesis) in synagogues, both from the pulpit during worship and in the classroom. I can only report that they ask me back again and again.
For modern Jews (at least the tiny minority who show up for adult-education seminars or for worship in settings where a biblical critic is invited to teach Torah), discovering the give-and-take and the unresolved tensions that modern scholarship reveals in scripture seems to be constructive more than destructive. This mode of analysis draws people into scripture by inviting them to join the debate and by allowing the biblical text to come alive. Even more importantly, encountering the limits of debates within scripture serves as a reminder that the type of vigorous discussion for which scripture provides a warrant is not a free-for-all. All the sources in Exodus agree that the result of the event at Sinai was a law that binds the people Israel, whether it came directly from God or through human mediation. Both Isaiahs remain confident, in the face of increasingly enormous amounts of evidence they witnessed in their own lifetimes, that God would ultimately bring salvation, even though they disagreed regarding the role a particular family would play in that event.
At least for one covenantal community in the modern world, historically-based analysis of sacred texts, carefully done with an eye towards the later tradition, can provide an outlet for religious commitment and can even bolster that commitment. This mode of study can deepen one’s sense of belonging to an ancient and ongoing conversation. Hence it can strengthen one’s sense of responsibility to that conversation and to the God who launched it.
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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”
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