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Asbury Bible Commentary – The Literature of the Pentateuch
The Literature of the Pentateuch

The Literature of the Pentateuch

The traditional partitioning of the Hebrew Bible into the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings suggests that the first books of Scripture (the Pentateuch) constitute a unity, though it is not immediately obvious what sort of unity this might be. After all, the story of Israel's formation and journeying is brought to some resolution only with Joshua's conquest of the land (Jos 1-24). Furthermore, the Pentateuch comprehends such diverse materials as creation accounts, genealogies, family stories, travel narratives, and a host of regulations both cultic and civil, which at first glance rule out literary unity. Yet thematic and stylistic signals sufficiently set the Pentateuch off as an intentionally purposeful whole.Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 128-31. It is useful, then, to characterize the Pentateuch as Torah, as a unique amalgam of story and commandment that circumscribes the nature of God's people by setting forth their founding history and their codes of conduct.George W. Coats, Genesis, Forms of the Old Testament Literature Series, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 24.

The broad categories of story and law that encompass most material within the Torah can be further subdivided, though not always with great confidence.For the following treatment of narrative genres, we are dependent largely upon Coats, Genesis, 5-10. The lengthiest genre of story, the saga, narrates past events in a long, episodic format. Many diverse materials may be hosted by the saga as it plays out its various themes. In the absence of more specific structural differentiation, subgenres must be defined in light of content: Primeval sagas concern themselves with the origin of the world (e.g., Ge 1-11). Family sagas attend to the experiences of a family and its patriarch, especially in the events of conception, birth, journey, danger, marriage, and death (e.g., Abraham, Ge 12-25). In heroic sagas, the family is of less importance, as the virtues and significance of the individual command great attention (e.g., Moses, Ex 1-Dt 34).

The genres of Tale, Novella, and Legend, despite the common association of these labels with fiction, must be defined primarily according to their structure. The Tale comprises a single scene in which a small cast of characters moves in simple fashion from some tension to its resolution (e.g., Sarah in trouble, Ge 12:9-13:1). The Novella is far more complex than the tale, though shorter than the saga. Its complexity is discerned in its capacity for larger casts, multiple subplots within the main movement from problem to resolution, and artful characterization (e.g., the story of Joseph, Ge 37-47). The Legend has less interest in plot than do saga, tale, and novella, for it underscores more the virtue of a hero than the resolution of a problem (e.g., Abraham's offering of Isaac, Ge 22).

Also meriting attention is the Myth, a genre well attested in the ancient Near East. Such texts typically recount fantastic battles between the gods, the supernatural deeds of mighty heroes, accounts of creation, and accounts of a cosmic flood. More significantly, these myths employ a distinctive view of time and space. Past, present, and future, though not homogeneously merged, are fundamentally identical to each other, since nothing genuinely new can arise within them. Similarly, separate spaces may be considered to be essentially identical. It is important to note, however, that the OT does not contain materials that neatly match these characteristics. The biblical narration of creation and flood, while displaying several remarkable similarities with such pagan mythic texts as Enuma Elish, reject mythical perceptions of time and space, place the events of Creation and Flood within the continuum of Israel's history, and expound the unique transcendence of God over all creation.Brevard S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1960), 72-93.

The genres described above arose no doubt in a variety of settings (family, court, cult, or other societal institutions) and for a variety of purposes (entertainment, instruction, legitimation) that are quite beyond our ability to recover with confidence. But whatever their pre-literary history, the genres expressing these biblical materials now serve the controlling purposes of the Pentateuch and its component books. An adequate interpretation of any individual narrative must therefore account for its role within the unifying themes and larger sweep of the Pentateuchal narrative.

Mention of unity and purpose leads us naturally to consider the artistry of biblical narrative. Contrary to the expectations of many modern readers, even the simplist biblical narratives give evidence of the skillful manipulation of vocabulary and syntax. The narrator may speak volumes by saying nothing, or may pack powerful emotions into the briefest lines. A lifetime of bitter disappointment is viewed through the lens of Rachel's cry: “Give me sons; if not, I shall die!” (Ge 30:1).Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 178-89. Readers will spot gaps in stories, at seemingly crucial points, which in the hands of the narrator create suspense, curiosity, and surprise.Longman, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, 97. Dramatic irony, occasioned when the reader knows more than a character knows, illumines dialogue brilliantly by revealing hidden meanings otherwise inaccessible. Plays on words, the careful repetition of key terms, and judicious control of the rate of new information demonstrate yet in other ways the artistry of biblical narrative and the promise of reward for the close reader.

The character of the Pentateuch comes to still fuller light when narrative material shares center stage with legal materials.“Large collections of law: Covenant Code” Ex 20:22-23:33; Deut. Code: Dt 12-26; Holiness Code: Lev 17-26; Priestly Code: Ex 25:31, 3:29-Lev 16; Decalogue: Ex 20:2-7; Dt 5:6-21. But the subdivision of these materials into distinct literary genres, and exploration into the origins and history of such genres have not yielded convincing results. Provisionally, we may say that several distinct linguistic patterns may be isolated. Casuistic Law sets forth conditions, often with lengthy elaboration or in series, under which a penalty should be enforced (e.g., “When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or standing grain or the field is consumed, he that kindled the fire shall make full restitution,” Ex 22:6). Apodictic Law issues a simple command, whether positive or negative (e.g., “You shall have no other gods before me,” Ex 20:3). A Capital Crime and its penalty may be coupled in a brief formula employing the Hebrew participle and infinitive absolute (e.g., “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death,” Ex 21:12). Finally, the Curse formula sets forth a threat of punishment and the behavior that would prompt it (e.g., “Cursed be he who misleads a blind man on the road,” Dt 27:18). It is worth noting how frequently no justification is provided for these directives, and how little suggestion there is of a pre-Sinai legal history. Apparently, the presentation of Israelite law in the Pentateuch stresses the comprehensive newness of Israel's situation through the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, and her pledge of unswerving obedience to God.Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 55.

Mention of the Mosaic covenant brings into view the last legal genre to be considered. Throughout the ancient Near East, Covenants (i.e., legal/religious treaties) were used to create, formalize, and sustain relationships between various parties (e.g., the Hittite king Hattusilis III and Ramses II of Egypt). Although certain differences may be noted between particular conventual forms, an impressive uniformity in them over nearly two millennia points to a covenant tradition common throughout the ancient Near East. Typical components of the covenant are a) the preamble [in which the king is introduced], b) the historical prologue [wherein the past relationship is narrated], c) the stipulations [which describe obligations incumbent upon both parties], d) the deposit and public reading [wherein provisions are made for storage and periodic public reading of the covenant], e) the witnesses [in which the gods of both states are listed, under the assumption that they will punish violators of the covenant], and f) blessings and curses [wherein the benefits or catastrophes are listed that will attend those who hold or break the covenant].George Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), 153-56.

Though various covenants are mentioned or described in the OT (Ge 21:27; 31:44-46; Jos 9:6-16; 24:1-27), most prominent is the Mosaic covenant that bound Israel to Yahweh as a chosen people (Ex 24:1-11). Its similarity to the Hittite Suzerainty treaties, which follow the treaty elements listed above, is especially palpable in Deuteronomy. Though the book presents itself more as an exhortation than a covenant, much of it can be correlated with the standard components of the Suzerainty treaty.Typical outlines: Craigie: Preamble (Dt 1:1-5); Historical Prologue (1:6-4:49); General Stipulations (5-11); Specific Stipulations (12-26); Blessings and Cursings (27-28); Witnesses (30:19, 31:19; 32:1-43); McCarthy: Introduction (Dt 4:41-11:32); Stipulations (Dt 12:1-26:15); Blessing and Curse (26:16-28:68). Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 20-24; Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, Analecta Biblica 21a (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), 157-87. Like a powerful king, God has sovereignly laid down all of the stipulations by which Israel, the subject people, must abide. Her continued obedience assures her of continued protection and blessing under her king, while disobedience places her in jeopardy.