Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Birth of Ya'akov's Children

The passage telling of the births of Ya'akov's children (Gen. 29:31-30:24) is a perfect example of the Documentary Hypothesis. The story of the first four sons has the Tetragammaton while all the story of the other sons has the divine name Elokim. Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman, in his The Bible With Sources Revealed (pp. 79-80), attributes the first four sons to the J source (Gen. 29:31-30:1a) and the rest of the sons to the E source (Gen. 30:1b-24a).

Click here to read moreHe also points out (Who Wrote the Bible, pp. 62-65) that of the first four sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi are removed from leadership roles leaving Yehudah. Of the remaining sons, Yosef is the final son who is eventually given a double portion for his sons. In other words, the first passage from the J source conveniently favors the tribe of Yehudah and the second passage from the E source favors Yosef. Smooth and convincing. [In fact, R. Mordechai Breuer (Pirkei Bereishis vol. 2 pp. 519-533) accepts this distinction of passages and attributes the two different versions to the divine attributes of judgment and mercy.]

However, it actually is not so smooth. 30:3 uses the word amah for concubine and 30:4, 7 use "shifchah." We find double-length explanations of names in 29:32, 33, 30:6, 18 and double explanations in 30:20, 23-24. There is mention of pregnancy and then birth for all sons except in 30:10, 12. There is also a clear parallel between 29:31 and 30:22. Not only are the two passages linguistically linked, the passages have linguistic differences within.

This has led biblical critics to see these passages as interwoven in an extremely complicated way. E.A. Speiser writes, "The two documentary sources have been fused more intricately in this section than anywhere else in Genesis... the boundaries between J and E are indistinct" (Genesis, p. 232). Bruce Vawter writes, "The distinction is admittedly quite chancy when it comes to deciding which verses belong to whom: all that we really know is that a distinction has been made somehow" (On Genesis: A New Reading, p. 324).

This is a perfect example of what the Documentary Hypothesis has become. It once claimed to neatly show different sources in a way that better explains the text than a commentarial approach. However, careful analysis has shown that the splits are not nearly as smooth as once claimed and complex theories involving splicing and inter have to be devised, making the approach ever more complex. It is no longer the simple solution that Occam's Razor requires accepting but arguably a more complex answer than assuming a single Author and that every difference is either stylistic and/or has a narrative explanation (e.g. reflecting the mothers' moods and concerns).

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