Stories from the North and the South

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Stories were as much a part of the ancient world as the television is for us today. People told and heard stories on a daily basis. It was part of their lifeblood. Stories defined a people’s identity, explained the origins of current political and religious institutions, and preserved traditional beliefs, worldviews, and customs.

Most stories enjoyed a long oral tradition before they were finally written down. In many cases alternative versions of these stories existed. A people living at one place in time might tell the story that they inherited from their forefathers differently in order to suit the needs of their community, or to better represent its changing views and beliefs. One can easily imagine changing narrative details in an old story in order to modernize its message. If you’ve ever seen a modern production of a Shakespeare play, or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you know what I mean.

These differences or variations on the same story were often the result of an oral tradition’s flexibility. Stories and traditions were told and retold from generation to generation and often with slight variations or modifications, and these variations were often shaped by the concerns of the reciter or the community for which they were intended.

The ancient Israelites were no exception. They told stories, retold stories, modified their stories, recited them at festivals, and eventually wrote them down, collected them, and codified them as scripture. The Bible as it has come down to us preserves numerous stories, and many of them are duplicates—that is, a traditional story that was told in one manner at one place and time and told in a variant manner at another place and time. In the end, these different versions were written down by scribes and thenceforth became unalterable. Later editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when, as we shall see, they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! In fact, doublets—two versions of the same story—have always been good indicators for identifying different textual traditions or sources in the Bible. The contradictory stories that we will look at in this chapter are just that—variations on the same story that were told differently to different communities in different geographical areas. It is only due to scribes living centuries later that these variant versions were preserved side-by-side in the biblical text as it now stands.

Many stories in the ancient world have their origins in other stories and were borrowed and modified from other or earlier peoples. For instance, many of the stories now preserved in the Bible are modified versions of stories that existed in the cultures and traditions of Israel’s older contemporaries. Stories about the creation of the universe, a cataclysmic universal flood, digging wells as land markers, the naming of important cultic sites, gods giving laws to their people, and even stories about gods decreeing the possession of land to their people were all part of the cultural and literary matrix of the ancient Near East. Biblical scribes freely adopted and modified these stories as a means to express their own identity, origins, and customs.

When a story set in the archaic past betrays its date of composition by referring to peoples, places, borders, and events that belong to a much later time period, centuries later, we call these anachronisms, and they help us identify the date of composition for these stories. For example, say I wrote a story that was set in France in the 1920s and then all of a sudden I introduced characters who were using iphones. You might chuckle, but this is an anachronism. It tells us that the author who wrote this story lived at a period in time when people used iphones, and he retrojected that reality back into the past. Or another common anachronism that we will run across has to do with geography. Lacking proper knowledge of the past, an ancient story teller who told stories about the archaic past would often retroject into that past the geopolitical borders and countries of his own time period, thinking that that was the way it had always been. So for example, if I wrote a story set in the American frontier of the 1800s and talked about characters passing over the border of Mississippi or Nebraska, etc., when no such borders nor states existed, these would be anachronisms.

There are numerous anachronisms of this sort throughout the Bible, and they have enabled scholars to date many of the Bible’s earlier compositions. Common anachronisms often mentioned in the stories in the book of Genesis are references to Philistines, camels, and border disputes and towns that existed in the author’s own time period, and not the time period implied by the narrative setting. The mention of Abraham’s border dispute with the Philistine king Abimelek (Gen 21:22-33), for example, is an anachronism. We now know through a variety of archaeological and literary remains that the Philistines did not enter the land of Canaan until the 12th century BC and could not have historically been present in any narrative set in the 18th century BC. Rather the author has retrojected his own geopolitical reality into the archaic past. In fact, this particular story of a border treaty with the Philisitines most likely represents the historical circumstances of the 10th and 9th centuries BC when Israel often found itself fighting for border control with its coastal neighbor. In this particular case, the treaty Abraham establishes with king Abimelek which explicitly marks Beersheba as belonging to Abraham and his seed serves to legitimate Israelite possession of Beersheba during the early monarchal period. So the story served a political function in the time period that it was created. In the ancient world, the most popular way of legitimating the possession and borders of your land was by means of a story set in the archaic past were a founding father figure had laid claims to the land, and often by digging wells and establishing cultic sanctuaries to its god.

And then I introduce the Yahwist and Elohist as storytellers…

5 thoughts on “Stories from the North and the South

  1. Steven,
    You may want to consider Wipf and Stock Publishers (www.wipfandstock.com). That company published Thom Stark’s *The Human Faces of God,* a book that I highly recommend. I have corresponded with Stark, and he is on the same page that we are regarding the biblical text. See http://thomstark.net for more information, including Stark’s email address. Incidentally, Stark lives in Houston, so maybe you two could even meet. His knowledge of the Bible is impressive.

  2. thanks for all the info on this website. For folks like me who debate on Facebook a lot the ammunition here is great lol. My question is other than the underlining stories of coming together and uniting and remembering a Creator/God what other purpose does the Torah serve?? Do you have access to an old Hebrew text before 100bc. When is your book coming out and how can I advance a copy? Also if the Torah is off doesn’t that make the new testament null and void?

    1. You’re welcome! I’m glad to see that you’re using this site to debate on Facebook; yet we need to get this site to circulate much much more on Facebook and other social medias—perhaps you can help me out a bit in promoting it.

      I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled Understanding Bible Contradictions: Why They’re There and What They Tell Us about the Bible and the Men Who Wrote It. Indeed, much of the material here is the raw data as it were for this book, but I follow a different format and presentation of the material in the book—no enumerated contradictions and I start by looking at the contradictory stories and “histories” recorded between our earliest sources first (E and J), then two chapters examining how the later sources (D and P respectively) rewrote, altered, and contradicted these earlier stories, then there is a chapter looking at the contradictions between the two later sources (D and P), and lastly a chapter that explores how and why J, E, D, and P were redacted together and became the Torah, and more importantly how the Torah’s “unity,” with respect to its narrative, message, etc., came about from disunity (i.e., once separate sources with their own beliefs, agendas, and ideologies). The first 3 chapters are done, yet I’m still looking for a publisher—believe it or not!! This is a gem.

      As far as other purposes of the Torah besides preserving traditions which helped define the Israelites in their time of need (e.g., the Babylonian captivity/exile and the post-exilic Persian period), there are: promulgating the beliefs of the elite priestly guilds that wrote many of these texts; responding to the concerns and needs of ever-changing historical circumstances and crises, such as loss of land, loss of Temple, and exile for example; political propaganda that aided in justifying the Israelite possession of land, or the taking of land and extermination of other peoples (a form of literature found in the texts of Israel’s neighbors as well); propaganda that legitimated a particular tribe as ruler, or priestly guild as authoritative leaders; education, again defined by the times and the scribal guilds responsible for shaping it; and lastly of the top of my head, to justify the beliefs, values, and worldviews of the elite scribes and priests who wrote these texts by presenting their beliefs, values, and worldviews as dictated and commanded by the people’s god, in this case Yahweh.

  3. Can you touch on what the present hypothesis is in regards to merging of these stories without the audience seeing contradictory revision from what they’ve been taught in years past? Was there merging of Southern and Northern tribes that contributed to compiling single text or was that irrelevant to the writing of the manuscript? Is there any facts that support the idea that these texts were merged over a period of time, or is it possible that the texts were compiled be several scribes during the same period and the final copy was poorly executed and thus we have all these contradictions?

    1. Hey Dan, thanks for joining in. These are all good questions, and still debated among scholars. It’s one thing to notice that the Hebrew text as we now have is a compilation of different sources—all scholars are in agreement here. But it’s another issue entirely when we try to hypothesize about from where the sources came, when were they written, by whom, and how did they come together. Even the idea that we had whole literary texts that were later redacted together has been questioned by many academics; it could be that there were base texts onto which oral traditions of another geography were grafted for example.

      You can find some of the answers you’re looking for in the last couple of sections in the rather lengthy How was the Bible discovered to be a collection of contradictory texts. Many of your questions will be the focus of the last chapter in a book I’m working on—in other words, how did J, E, D, and P come together, and why! I have not written that yet, but in very large brush strokes, it is surmised that the northern E tradition traveled southward after the Assyrians destroyed Israel in 722 BC. There it would have been edited together with the pro-southern literature of J. It’s hard to say what the redactors thought they were doing—creating a single narrative, or collecting variant stories in a scroll that was viewed as a repository of Israel’s tradition, etc. With D, most scholars agree that it was the product of Josiah’s religious reforms of the 7th c. BC which largely used and rewrote, as we will see, large portions of E. D extends into the books of Samuel, where it is combined with more archaic material, and into Kings. I might speculate that the JE text was amended to P first, or P into JE, sometime in the Babylonian exile, 6th c. BC, and then JEP served as a prologue for the D text which properly starts at Deuteronomy. Literature from the post-exilic time (Ezra, Nehemiah, Malaki, Chronicles, etc.) seems to suggest that the Levites of D and the Aaronids of P had to strike some sort of compromise when these two traditions were brought together in the 5th c. BC to form the Torah of Moses, which is the first time that we also get claimants of a divinely authorized text! We will see that the contradictions between D and P will be a bit more than minor narrative details that we’re looking at now. For starters each text presents Yahweh selecting, on the one hand, the Levites as his mediators, and on the other hand the Aronid priesthood as his mediators. Additionally, their views on religion, the covenant, the role of sacrifice, social structure, and Yahweh’s laws all contradict each other. Of course, I should not neglect: there is much in common as well.

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