Can the contradictions and duplicating material in the early stories of Genesis be explained, in a manner that leaves religious faith intact?
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Genesis contains two creation accounts, for instance, which differ significantly. In the first creation account, the name for God is Elohim; in the second it's Yahweh. The first account says the cosmic beginning is watery; the second says the earthly beginning is dry.
In the first account, birds are created from water; in the second they are created from earth. Animals were created before man and man is to rule them, says the first account; the second says the beasts were created after man, to be his possible companion.
And, strikingly, in the first creation account, male and female were created concurrently, but in the second, man was created first.
The Noah story is also contradictory: Noah is asked to bring two of all flesh into the ark – birds, animals and creeping things (Genesis 6:20). Genesis 7:15 says the living things will come to the ark of their own accord. And come Genesis 7:3-2, Noah is then asked to bring seven pairs of pure animal and birds and a pair of each impure animal into the ark.
So far the contradictions. The story of Noah also contains noticeable repetitions, such as:
“And YHWH saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and every imagination of his heart was but evil always. And YHWH regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He was pained in His heart. And YHWH said: ‘I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH.” (Genesis 6:5-8)
And a few sentences later:
“And the earth had become corrupt before Elohim, and the earth had become filled with injustice. And Elohim saw the earth and behold it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And Elohim said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with injustice through them, and behold I am about to destroy them from the earth. Make yourself an ark . “ (Genesis 6:11-14)
The most common explanation in academic circles for these contradictions and extraneous material is the documentary hypothesis developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The documentary hypothesis
The documentary hypothesis proposes that the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) is a composite of four primary sources – the Yahwist source, which exclusively used the Tetragammon or YHWH name for God and which was composed in the southern Kingdom of Judah in about 950 B.C.E.; an Elohist source that called God "Elohim," which which was written in about 850 B.C.E. in the northern Kingdom of Israel; a Deuteronomist source written in about 600 B.C.E. in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform; and a Priestly source put together in about 500 B.C.E. by Aaronic priests in exile in Babylon.
Others suggest that the Priestly source was composed much earlier during the First Temple period. The God of the Priestly source reveals himself in stages – first as Elohim, then to Abraham as El Shaddai, and finally to Moses as YHWH, they postulate.
According to the theory, these primary sources were joined together by a “redactor,” probably during the Babylonian exile. It is assumed that the redactor had considerable reverence for his original sources and was prepared to ignore contradictions and duplications.
The religious solution
The documentary hypothesis is, of course, anathema to religious Jews, since a man-composed Pentateuch undermines the Bible’s authority as a source of Divine instruction.
Religious Jews had only two ways to deal with these contradictions and duplications – to ignore them or synthesize them.
For instance, the much-studied Jewish commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), writing in the 11th century, suggests that the second creation account is but an elaboration of the first. Noting that birds were created from either water or earth depending on the account, he explains that in reality birds were created from mud.
The Cassuto approach
There is a third approach, developed by the academic biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto in the early 1900s.
Cassuto felt that the Pentateuch was a unitary account, although he was not prepared to say that its author was divine. Because of this, his ideas were largely ignored by the religious world, while secular biblical scholarship found his ideas irrelevant. His ideas were not, therefore, widely disseminated. Nevertheless, his ideas are not incompatible with a Divine origin for the Torah.
To Cassuto, the two creation accounts are allegories rather than factual accounts. Differences exist because these are two different allegories.
Like the documentary hypothesis, Cassuto’s unitary hypothesis is linked to the names of God used in the Bible. The names YHWH and Elohim are not a reflection of different authors but represent different aspects of God, he suggests.
Elohim, from the first chapter of Genesis, is a transcendent God who creates a universe specifically for man and is concerned with the general providence of mankind. The Tetragammon, YHWH, on the other hand, describes the immanent aspect of a God concerned with individual providence.
YHWH first appears in the second creation account, always linked with Elohim, as YHWH Elohim. The only exception is when the serpent speaks; this seems to emphasize that both aspects of God relate to a single Deity.
The name YHWH also has tribal significance: it is this aspect of God that elects Noah, and subsequently Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as progenitors of the Jewish people. Appreciation of the YHWH aspect of God becomes remote late in Jacob’s life, and his son Joseph refers exclusively to the name Elohim, the universal God knowable by all humanity. But it is YHWH who reveals Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush.
The documentary hypothesis holds that the Priestly and Yahwist authors both wrote stories about Noah, and the contradictions and extra material in today's version results from the redactor intermingling the two sources to build a composite account.
The unitary hypothesis, on the other hand, says the Noah story contains two stories because this is how it was written. There is a story about how the universal aspect of God, Elohim, destroys the earth but saves one righteous person and his family in order to repopulate the world. The immanent aspect of God, YHWH, recognizes the righteousness of Noah and chooses his family to repopulate the earth. This aspect of God will eventually call on Abraham, who comes from the lineage of Noah’s son Shem, to bring “righteousness and justice” to the world.
Elohim requires only two of each animal species (male and female) to repopulate the earth. Throughout the Bible, anything connected to a sacrifice is related to the YHWH aspect of God, since a sacrifice enables a person to draw close to a personal God. Noah is therefore commanded by YHWH to bring seven of each pure species, plus a pair of each unclean animal, into the ark. Without these extra animals, sacrificial service would have rendered these species extinct.
According to biblical source criticism, the following sentence is an example (albeit an unusual one) of the redactor joining a Yahwist source to a Priestly source within a single sentence in order to maintain the flow of the passage:
“Thus those who came [into the ark], came male and female of all flesh, as Elohim had commanded him [Priestly], and YHWH shut him in [Yahwist].” (Genesis 7:16)
By contrast, Cassuto’s unitary hypothesis would maintain that this is a crucial sentence describing the confluence of the Elohim and YHWH aspects of God. The transcendent God Elohim has brought all flesh into the ark to be saved as the flood ravages the land. Now, Noah’s personal God, YHWH, lovingly closes the ark on his behalf.
The personal God revolution
The Elohim and Yahwist aspects of God continue to wind their way through the Genesis stories. This results in some apparent duplications.
The universal Elohim aspect of God renames Abram and Sarai, and informs him that another son will be born to him besides Ishmael (Genesis 17:4-23). The name Abraham means “the father of a multitude of nations” and Sarah “a princess (to these nations).”
However, it is the YHWH aspect of God who calls on Abram to leave his homeland and come to the Land of Israel (Genesis. 15:1-21). YHWH also informs Sarah that she will have a child.
But why would scripture mix two stories into a single account in this unusual way?
The notion of a single god who created the universe and is concerned about the fate of all humanity was a revolutionary idea in the ancient pagan world. So also was the notion of a personal god. The gods of the ancient world were never interested in individuals; if anything, they were often hostile to human interests.
Contemporary people can oscillate comfortably between the immanent and transcendent aspects of God because the Bible delineated these two aspects of the Jewish deity, blending them together into a single narrative, using the two names for God.
Richard Friedman, a leading writer on the ideas of biblical criticism, noted in the last chapter of his book “Who Wrote the Bible?” that the Bible contains “a dramatic and theologically profound ... balance between the personal and the transcendent quality of the Deity.”
To Friedman this was an accidental result of the work of the Bible’s redactor. By contrast, the unitary hypothesis would say that this is how the Bible was constructed from its inception, and it offers a very plausible alternative to the documentary hypothesis.