Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Avraham-Sarah Doublet

Readers of Genesis are confronted by a number of multiple passages, mainly doublets, that may strike them as being indicative of multiple sources with different accounts of the same stories that were redacted together. Two prominent examples are the Creation stories in Gen. 1 & 2 and the Flood stories in Gen. 6-9. (For a traditional view of the former, see R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith. On the latter, see my series of posts: I, II, III.)

Click here to read moreThis is also the case with the stories about Avraham going to a strange place and having Sarah say that she is his sister, only to have her taken away by the local ruler. In Gen. 12 it is in Egypt and in Gen. 20 it is in Gerar. (In Gen. 26, a similar story is told about Yitzchak.) Early biblical critics used these as prime examples of clear cases where there are multiple sources. After all, Gen. 12 consistently refers to God with the Tetragrammaton while Gen. 20 uses the name Elokim (except for Gen. 20:18, which requires slicing that verse out of this passage). This should clinch the attribution of the passages to the J and E sources, respectively.

However, many scholars have come to realize that this is not a simple claim to uphold. In 1975, John Van Seters published a groundbreaking book called Abraham in History and Tradition. Van Seters argued against the at-the-time standard approach of dividing the Avraham narratives into mutually exclusive sources.

In particular, he argued that the story in Gen. 20 assumes familiarity with the story in Gen. 12. For example, Gen. 20:13 has Avraham telling Sarah to say that she is his sister. Why? Of what possible benefit can that be to either of them? Of course, we readers who are familiar with Gen. 12:11-13 know the answer.

And what was Avraham doing in Gerar that he had to answer about his wife's status? Gen. 20:13 indicates the God made Avraham wander, which is meaningless unless you are familiar with Gen. 12:1. (Van Seters also argues that Gen. 26 assumes knowledge of Gen. 20.)

There are other reasons to question the attribution of Gen. 20 to E. The two preceding chapters use the Tetragrammaton and therefore must, according to this approach, be part of J. However, there are clear thematic connections between Gen. 18-19 and Gen. 20 (cf. Victor Hamilton, New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Genesis, vol. 2 p. 58):

  1. Vulnerable female given over by family to strangers in order to protect a male - Lot turns over his daughters to the Sodomites in order to protect his guests (Gen. 19:18), and Abraham his wife to Avimelekh to protect himself (Gen. 20:2)
  2. God judges the wicked - Sodomites, Avimelekh and his compatriots
  3. God is accused of considering destroying innocent people (Gen. 20:4, 18:23)
  4. The role of the resident alien (Gen. 19:9, 20:1)
  5. Avraham's intercessions on behalf of others - Sodomites (Gen. 18:23-33), Avimelekh (Gen. 20:17).
Note also that Gerar is similar to Sodom in its lack of the fear of God (Gen. 20:11). And then there are linguistic connections to prior passages. The word "goy" -- Gen. 20:4, 12:2, 18:18 (and elsewhere). "Tzadik" -- Gen. 20:4, 18:23-28. "Va-yashkem... ba-boker" -- Gen. 20:8, 19:27. "Rak" -- Gen. 20:11, 19:8. "Makom" -- Gen. 20:11, 18:24, 26, 33, 19:12, 14, 27. And so on...

Van Seters rejected the Documentary Hypothesis of mutually exclusive sources and instead proposed a series of progressive sources, each dependent on the prior. Later scholars have questioned this for a number of reasons, but most simply why Gen. 20's retelling of Gen. 12 is so different if it was written based on the first story.

Make no mistake: I am not claiming that the current state of biblical scholarship assumes a single biblical author. Later scholars have come up with even more complicated schemes to account for this undermining of the classical understanding of doublets. My point, however, is that the division of the Bible into multiple sources is not the smooth solution to glaring differences that it might appear to be. The traditional explanation -- that they are different stories and that 25 years after Avraham went to Egypt, he had a similar experience in Gerar -- is adequate and is as simple, if not more, than any attempt to divide the text into different sources. These doublets are certainly not convincing proof of different sources.

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