Literary and Historical Criticism
of the Pentateuch
By Professor William Stiebing, "Not out of the Desert"
Traditionally, the Pentateuch
the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy have been credited to Moses. This attribution would make
the Exodus narrative an eyewitness account by the person in the best position to know all of the facts. But careful study
of the Pentateuch has gradually made scholars aware of many inconsistencies, duplications, contradictions, and differences
in style and vocabulary. This evidence, in turn, has raised the question of whether all of this material could have been written
by the same person.
In Exodus 6:2-3, for example, God tells Moses that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had known Him as
El Shaddai (God Almighty), not Yahweh, His true name. Yet the patriarchs refer to God as Yahweh a number of times in Genesis,
and God Himself is depicted as revealing His name Yahweh to Abraham (Genesis 15:7) and to Jacob (Genesis 28:13).
discrepancies abound even in the account of the Exodus, the portion of Israels early history that Moses should have known
intimately. According to Exodus 3:1 and 18:1, Moses father-in-law was named Jethro, but in Numbers 10:29 (as well as in Judges
4:11) he is called Hobab. Numbers 21 describes a route that the Israelites followed from Mount Hor into Canaan that differs
from the one described in Numbers 33. Moses brother Aaron died and was buried at Mount Hor, according to Numbers 20:22-29,
33:38, and Deuteronomy 32:50. But Deuteronomy 10:6 claims that Aaron died and was buried at Moserah (also known as Moseroth),
a place that Numbers 33:30-37 places six stages before Mount Hor in the Israelites itinerary.
There are also differences
among the various accounts of the laws that God is supposed to have given Moses. According to Exodus 20:24, sacrifices are
to be offered on altars built in every place God chooses to have His name remembered. Yet Deuteronomy 12:1-14 states that
there shall be only one sanctuary of God and only there should sacrifices be performed. Exodus 21:2-7 specifies that male
Hebrew slaves are to be freed after six years of service, but that female Hebrew slaves are not entitled to such release.
On the other hand, Deuteronomy 15:12 states that both male and female Hebrew slaves are to be released after six years.
many passages in the Pentateuch clearly were written long after Moses. As early as the second century A.D. doubts arose over
the Pentateuchs reference to Moses death.4 The medieval rabbi Isaac ibn Yashush (died 1056) recognized that Moses could not
have described Edomite kings as reigning before any king reigned over the Israelites (Genesis 36:31), since in Moses time
there was no way of knowing that Israel would one day have a king. And Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) noticed that Genesis 12:6
(and the Canaanites were then in the land) must have been written when the Canaanites no longer represented a major portion
of Palestines population. Ibn Ezra also saw a problem with Deuteronomy 1:1, which refers to the territory east of the Jordan
as the other side of the Jordan. Obviously, this passage was written from the perspective of someone on the western side of
the Jordan (Canaan)yet Moses died east of the Jordan, having never reached Canaan.5
In the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries many other anachronisms and discrepancies were recognized; and, since the latter part of the nineteenth century,
virtually all biblical scholars have agreed that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. A consensus developed
in support of the theory that the Pentateuch was formed by weaving together four distinct documents, or sources, that were
written down in stages from the time of the monarchy through that of the Babylonian Exile. These sources were called J (for
The Yahwist or Jahwist), E (for The Elohist), D (for The Deuteronomist), and P (for The Priestly Author)(6).
story generally has been regarded as a composite account formed by blending together all of these sources. Two books of the
Pentateuch, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are essentially unitary works. Leviticus, a series of instructions about cultic matters,
seems to be primarily the work of the Priestly Author, who compiled his material during the Babylonian Exile (the sixth century
B.C.).7 And except for Chapters 1-4 and 30-34, which seem to have been added by later editors, Deuteronomy was the product
of the Deuteronomist, who composed it probably no more than
4. Talmud, Baba Bathra I5a.
5. Bermant and weitzman
6. For a description of the methods and results of source criticism of the Pentateuch, see Pfeiffer 1948: 134-141;
Rowley 1950b: 15-46; Speiser 1964: xx-xxxvii; Bermant and weitzman 1979: 44-58.
7. Milgrom 1976: 541. Martin Noth (1965:
10-IS) credited the narrative portions of the book to P, but argued that the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) and other blocks
of material were combined with the P narrative by a later editor.