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The Bible & History: Exodus (Part 2)

It had traditionally been held that Moses was the sole author of the first five books of the Bible because he figures so prominently in them (with the exception of Genesis), even though the texts themselves don’t claim Moses as their author. The observation that the books are the composite result of at least 4 sources written over many centuries and later combined or edited into one continuous narrative alone is enough to doubt that they could have been written by one man. This observation became known as the Documentary Hypothesis and was first established as a viable theory by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Doubts about Mosaic authorship, however, date back many centuries, as Richard Friedman illustrates in his book Who Wrote the Bible? on pages 18-21.

Mosaic Authorship?

In the 11th century, Isaac ibn Yashush noticed that Genesis 36Open Link in New Window named kings that lived long after Moses was dead. He was subsequently called “Isaac the Blunderer”.

Ibn Ezra, in the 12th century, noted passages that referred to Moses in third person, used terms that Moses could not have known, described places Moses had never been, and used language from a different time and place than Moses’ time.

In the 14th century, Bonfils wrote that these passages could not have been written by Moses, something that Ibn Ezra refused to ever explicitly acknowledge.

In the 15th century Tostatus stated that the account of Moses’ death could not have been written by Moses.

In the 16th century, Carlstadt commented that the account of Moses’ death was written in the same style and language as the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, and thus could not have been inserted by a later hand. It was concluded that a later editor had gone over much of what Moses wrote.

Thomas Hobbes, in the 17th century, concluded that Moses could not have written most of the Pentateuch, noting that the text often uses the phrase “to this day”, indicating that the writer is describing something that has been happening for a long period of time.

Other scholars like Isaac de la Peyrere and the philosopher Spinoza wrote detailed analyses showing that Moses could not have authored the first five books. Peyrere pointed to problems such as the usage of the phrase “across the Jordan” in the beginning of Deuteronomy, which seems to have been written by someone who was in Israel, or the west side of the Jordan. Moses, of course, was said to have never entered Israel. He was arrested and forced to recant and apologize to the Pope. Spinoza noted that “the humblest man on the Earth” was not likely to make such a claim of himself. He also noted that Deuteronomy 34Open Link in New Window says, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the lord knew face to face.” Cleary, this was written by someone long after Moses who would have known such a fact. He concluded that it is “…..clearer than the sun at noon that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after Moses.” An attempt was made on his life. Both of their works were banned and burned.

Nevertheless, the arguments have survived, and now we can confidently say that the traditional notion of Mosaic authorship is false.

Sources in Exodus

Exodus, like Genesis, is a composite document combining the J, E, and P sources that are postulated by the Documentary Hypothesis. The ‘J’ comes from the German spelling of Yahweh, Jahweh, and is named as such because of its author prefers to refer to God as Yahweh. ‘E’ stands for Elohim, which means God(s), and is named as such because its author prefers to refer to God as Elohim. ‘P’ stands for the Priestly source, whose language and focus differ greatly from the other two sources. The combining of these sources often results in doublets and triplets of some narrative sections which sometimes contradict each other. One such example is Exodus 14Open Link in New Window, the account of Israel’s deliverance at the great sea. The J source has Yahweh blow a strong east wind all night long which drives back the sea and leaves its bed exposed. When the morning breaks the water flows back in, the Egyptians panic and run headfirst into the sea as Yahweh sweeps them in.

“…at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea” (Ex. 14:27Open Link in New Window).

The P source says that when Moses raised his hand the sea parted into two, which allowed the Israelites to easily cross it. When Moses raises his hand a second time, the sea falls back on the Egyptian army, drowning them.

“The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen-the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea” (Ex. 14:28Open Link in New Window).

Another fragment, probably from the E source, simply says that Yahweh clogged the wheels of the chariots, which causes the Egyptian army to lose their courage and give up the chase.

“He made the wheels of their chariots come off [2] so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt’” (Ex. 14:25Open Link in New Window).

The three strands give three separate, contradictory accounts of the same event but were woven together into Exodus 14Open Link in New Window by a later editor.

All in all, J supplies the main narrative while E is preserved in excerpts throughout J. P, the Priestly source, adds genealogical, legal, and ritual material as usual as well as many additions to the combined JE narrative, as seen in the previous example. P also adds a second version of the revelation of the divine name of God, Yahweh. The first, and most familiar, version appears in Exodus 3:14Open Link in New Window, where God says that “I am who I am.” In the next line, God says to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, Yahweh, the God of your fathers-the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob-has sent me to you. This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” In later times, Jews became increasingly reluctant to write or say the divine name Yahweh, so they began replacing it with the Hebrew term Adonai, which means “Lord”, wherever it appeared in their texts. Thus, in many English versions of the Bible when you read the word “Lord” it actually originally read the divine name “Yahweh”.

The P version in Exodus 6:3Open Link in New Window says, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.” This is okay because the Priestly author did not refer to God as Yahweh in Genesis. But the J source does refer to God as Yahweh throughout Genesis, causing a contradiction with this P material. For example, in Genesis 12:8Open Link in New Window Abraham calls God “Yahweh”, impossible if that name had not been revealed to him. “There he built an altar to Yahweh and called on the name of Yahweh.”  Clearly, the author of the P material did not intend for his work to be combined with the older J material—but the two traditions were nonetheless combined by a later redactor.

With this firmly in mind, we can continue with our question as to whether or not the Exodus has any place in history.

Go to Part 3

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm


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