In a seminal book from thirty years ago, R. N. Whybray observed that critical scholarship of the Pentateuch has long overlooked how “the cultural differences between ancient Israel and modern western Europe invalidate many of the judgments made by the documentary critics about what could or could not have been attributed to a single author” (The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study, JSOTSup 53 [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987], 51). Secondary aspects of Whybray’s work occasioned major debates on basic methodological questions of the relationship among the sources, redactions, authors, and editors of the Hebrew Bible. Yet until the present work by Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, little sustained attention has been given to Whybray’s more foundational claim that source critics operate with anachronistic expectations about the sort of literary coherence that a reader should expect from an ancient text like the Pentateuch. Berman offers a wide-ranging, provocative, though occasionally uneven exploration of how Pentateuchal source critics tend to promise more than their methods can reliably deliver.
Berman’s book is structured in three parts. Part I analyzes inconsistency in narrative by situating the Pentateuch’s doublets (e.g., the somewhat divergent accounts of Israel’s wilderness wanderings in Exodus and Deuteronomy) within the literary conventions of the ancient Near East. This section explicates how diplomatic documents and history writing in the ancient Near East employ repetition and variation for intentional purposes of exhortation, rather than being signs of careless editing or haphazard textual growth. Part II treats the topic of inconsistency in law, this time setting the legal corpora of the Pentateuch alongside other ancient Near Eastern legal codes and their methods of resolving discrepancies between laws. Finally, Part III offers a proposal for reconstituting Pentateuchal criticism on the more modest foundation of recognizing the limits of what can be known. This posture contrasts starkly with some quarters of historical criticism which, since the time of Julius Wellhausen and his scholarly descendants in Germany, have formulated large-scale theories of textual evolution without attending to the Pentateuch’s analogues from the ancient Near East.
Part I displays Berman at his best when comparing apparent contradictions in the Pentateuch with ancient Near Eastern texts that exhibit similar traits (chapters 1–2). Just as Exodus 14–15 narrates two versions of Israel’s deliverance at the Sea, for example, the Kadesh Inscriptions of Rameses II offer multiple conflicting accounts of the Egyptian king’s victory over the Hittites during the thirteenth century BC. Yet the original Egyptian audience of these inscriptions would have recognized that the “Kadesh Poem” (one version of the battle) emphasizes the role of divine help in victory, in contrast to the “Kadesh Bulletin” (another version of the battle) which highlights the king’s courage to the exclusion of divine involvement (pp. 21, 58–59). Both versions were commissioned by Rameses II and even juxtaposed in public as complementary compositions despite the obvious contradictions between them (p. 20, 33). Berman thus demonstrates that scholars who apply their modern intuitions about literary coherence or historical consistency to an ancient Near Eastern corpus like the Pentateuch are likely to find editorial seams where none exist.
In Part II, Berman’s discussion of inconsistency in law shows the consequences of failing to understand the nature of ancient Near Eastern legal genres. In contrast to the modern concept of “strict construction,” which views legal statutes as comprehensive written codes, the laws of the Pentateuch and their cultural counterparts stand closer to the premodern concept of common law which is “consciously and inherently incomplete, fluid and vague” (p. 110) since ancient law collections serve as “records of precedent, but not of legislation” (p. 114, italics original). Given this distinction, Berman examines why ancient Near Eastern legal corpora (including those of the Pentateuch) intentionally retain laws that deal with similar cases but appear at odds with themselves, such as the differences between laws of manumission in Exod 21:2–6, Lev 25:39–36, and Deut 15:12–18. Where modern scholars see contradictions because of their reliance on a statutory model of law as a self-enclosed system, ancient texts such as the Laws of Hammurabi, the Laws of Eshnunna, and the Pentateuch reflect the open-ended, customary nature of common law.
While much of Berman’s invocation of common-law categories offers cogent explanations for legal inconsistencies, chapters 9 and 10 of Part II also begin to level the charge of anachronism in surprising ways that may themselves be anachronistic. In chapter 9, for example, he categorizes Jewish scholars such as Bernard Levinson and Michael Fishbane as examples of a “supersessionist” approach which sees Deuteronomy’s laws as a replacement for the Covenant Code of Exodus 21–23 (pp. 175–76). Apart from the unfortunate labeling of fellow Jews as “supersessionist” (a term that traditionally refers to Christianity as a replacement for Judaism, and can therefore have anti-Semitic undertones), how would other Jewish scholars react to Berman adducing the Mishnah, a literary heritage that they share, as an empirical model that stands with his own “complementarian” view but against their putatively “supersessionist” view (pp. 196–98)? On Fishbane’s part, for instance, his express aim in Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) was to demonstrate that the exegetical methods of post-biblical Judaism were already present in the Hebrew Bible itself. It thus becomes likely that Jewish scholars would see themselves mirrored in Berman’s summary of the “complementarian” position that “God’s earliest words are interpreted and reapplied in response to the changing circumstances of Israel’s history” (p. 188). For Berman to align himself with Eckart Otto (pp. 186, 196), a preeminent German scholar of the OT, rather than other Jewish scholars, seems to make for strange bedfellows.
Part III’s call for “Renewing Pentateuchal Criticism” contains a similar mixture of brilliance and potential overgeneralization. Particularly in chapter 11, Berman’s stated goal to offer “a critical history of historical criticism” documents how the epistemic humility of Baruch Spinoza and Richard Simon in the seventeenth century eventually became the (over)confidence of nineteenth-century German historicists (pp. 204–7). The latter claimed to be able to reconstruct the Bible’s literary evolution in detail, despite having virtually no information on ancient Near Eastern literary conventions. From this focus on German cultural trends in the nineteenth century, however, Berman jumps more or less directly from German historicism’s weaknesses to the present malaise in Pentateuchal scholarship and its tendency to multiply source divisions (pp. 210–16, 220–24). As with my earlier questions on how Jews would regard Berman’s interaction with their shared tradition, I again wonder whether German source critics in the modern era would accept his argument that they are the direct methodological heirs of nineteenth-century German historicism. Has correlation too hastily become causation in the service of a totalizing account of how historical criticism developed? Or to borrow a distinction from anthropology, is Berman offering an etic assessment (i.e., from the observer’s perspective) on Germany’s intellectual climate that only emic analysis (i.e., from the observed’s perspective) can supply? Notably, the book’s footnotes on German historicism contain a preponderance of English-language sources—no proof of caricature, to be sure, but enough to make this reviewer question if German scholars would find Berman’s portrayal of them accurate.
These weaknesses hardly detract from a scintillating work that manages to challenge nearly every received canon in Pentateuchal source criticism. Berman demonstrates that the criteria by which source critics identify strands reflect modern, anachronistic views on the coherence of narratives and laws. As with any ambitious and groundbreaking work, however, it is likely that Berman’s argument would benefit from tighter argumentation and support from ancillary disciplines. In this regard, OT scholarship of all persuasions, whether critical and confessional, will desire a fuller integration of Berman’s work with that of others who also hold that the discipline suffers from various anachronisms. References to two such scholars are notably absent from Berman’s book: William Schniedewind, on the place of texts and books in ancient Israel (How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005]); and John Van Seters, on the role of editors in ancient Israel (The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006]).