Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Patriarchal Narratives

I've just finished writing a book review on Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives for my Old Testament Foundations class, and I'm posting it here as well. It's pretty dense - I had a word limit of 1500 +/- 10%, and managed to get down to 1648 words - and because of that, I didn't get to write much about the significance of the implications of this book. So I'll preface this posting of my review with what I would have included if there had been room.


The historical reliability of the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is the subject of the book, underpins several Christian doctrines:

With respect to the faithfulness of God, there are implications for Christians, who rely upon God's promises of Jesus' return in glory to judge and renew creation. If God really did make and keep the promises to the patriarchs recorded in Genesis 12-50, then Christians have a sound basis for their faith that he will keep the promises recorded in the New Testament.

With respect to the relationship between God and his people, there are implications for Christians, who are God's chosen people today. The sovereign nature of the God who elects his people in mercy is discussed in Romans 9:7-16 with particular reference to the patriarchal narratives as the doctrine's foundation. If God really did choose the patriarchs in order to bless the whole world through them (Genesis 12:3 and 28:14) and to have a relationship with them (Genesis 17:7), then Christians have a sensible reason for trusting in his election of the saints (1 Peter 2:9-10) and in God's provision of the perfect priest through whose sacrifice we are sanctified (Hebrews).

With respect to the relationship between God's people and their home, the implications for Christians apply to both the land of Israel - is it still the land of promise, or does that mean something different since the time of Jesus? - and the eternal land of promise: heaven and the new creation. If God really did grant a land for his people (Genesis 15:18-20), then Christians have a strong foundation for their hope in the reality of a new creation (Revelation 21-22).


Now you know why the content of this book is important, you might like to read what I thought of it.

Millard, A.R., and D.J. Wiseman, ed. 1980, Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press).

Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives contains seven essays by seven scholars, examining the archaeo-historical background and literary content of the patriarchal narratives contained in Genesis 12–50. They assess relevant scholarship in various disciplines, and present new analyses of data from their fields, seeking to support the historicity of the biblical accounts of Abraham’s family and their origins in the Ancient Near East (ANE) during the second millennium BC. These essays provide a broad, comprehensive and convincing analysis of studies of Genesis, although it is fairly inaccessible for the novice biblical historian.

The book begins with John Goldingay’s essay, which sets the tone for the entire book. Goldingay exegetes the central theme of the patriarchal narratives as God’s blessing, promised and provided, despite problems and people (pp.12-23). He argues for the examination of the patriarchal narratives in the context of the story arc from Genesis to Kings (pp.25), showing that the theme is derived from God’s blessing of the whole world in the earlier chapters of Genesis (pp.26-27), and extended by Israel’s reliance upon the promises (pp.28-35). Later generations based their faith on the authenticity of the promises and their partial fulfilment as recorded in the patriarchal narratives: ‘Israel … refers to it … in such a way as to make it rather clear that she understands the story to be fundamentally factual’ (p.39-40). Goldingay considers the approaches of T. L. Thompson, G. E. Wright and von Rad (p.35-39) and, finding them lacking, concludes we must take the ‘risk’ of faith, given the inherent credibility of the narratives (p. 40).

The second essay by A. R. Millard, argues that the patriarchal narratives should be studied as ANE texts (p.45), not compared to culturally and chronologically remote texts (such as the Icelandic sagas), and highlights the importance of comparing multiple texts from a range of sources and dates before conclusions are drawn (p.47). He asserts the patriarchal narratives should be considered reliable until proven otherwise, without allowing the religious element to automatically label the text mythical, as would be the case for comparable ANE texts (p.53). Millard promotes a critical but not hypercritical analysis of the text, searching not only for archaeological anachronisms but also for evidence of reliability (p.56), a task his fellow writers strive to undertake.

In the third essay, J. J. Bimson considers possible time frames for the patriarchal narratives. From Genesis 12—38, he distinguishes between sites associated with Abraham’s life and later sites (p.68-69). He then assesses the evidence for dates of occupation from each of the major biblical archaeological sites individually (p.69-79). Bimson argues for a Middle Bronze Age I date for Abraham and Isaac and a Middle Bronze Age II date for Jacob and sons (p.80), which agrees with the majority of the archaeological evidence (with some discussion of possible solutions to conundrums posed by Hebron and Ai [p.80]). He then compares this to intra-biblical dates (p.81-83), achieving a consensus dating Abraham’s life primarily to the 21st century BC (p.84).

The fourth essay, by M. J. Selman, continues the examination of archaeological data, considering parallels that may be drawn between ANE social customs (observed or extrapolated from relevant cuneiform texts) and the practices of the patriarchs. Selman assesses where scholars have overreached in their attempts to draw parallels (p93-102), and where the best balance of support lies from the presently available cuneiform evidence. Granting of birthright privileges to eldest sons, the role of brothers in arranging marriages, and the use of slave girls as surrogates for barren wives (p.126-128) are used as indirect supporting evidence for the historical background of the patriarchal narratives (p.125) and the basis of their content in events of the 2nd and possibly 1st millennium BC (p.128), rather than either solely as a 1st millennium construct of the monarchy to justify its existence, or as an imaginary myth with no basis in actual events.

D. J. Wiseman’s essay rejects the classification of Abraham as primarily a nomad, using the biblical text to show that while he re-located several times, he predominantly settled near populated centres (p.139-142). The meaning of Abraham’s description as a ‘Hebrew’ is discussed and its use in characterising him as a wanderer is discounted (p.143-144). In contrast, it is asserted that Abraham was a ‘prince’ according to the customs of the time, a title of distinction with responsibilities for government (p.144-149). The implications of the nomenclature ‘father’ are considered with respect to the timing of the Abrahamic narratives’ composure and their correspondences to Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts (p.149-153). Evidence for possible origins of the name-type ‘Abraham’ are assessed, emphasising the uniqueness of the name, while acknowledging the renaming process (Gen. 17:5) has Mesopotamian parallels (p.153-154).

‘The religion of the patriarchs’ by G. J. Wenham analyses the uses of various names for God, particularly Yahweh, and El and its derivatives, together with religious practices, across the narratives of each patriarch, as well as between passages attributed by critics to different sources and times (p.159-164). He examines and evaluates the work of A. Alt, F. M. Cross, and C. Westermann in this area (p.164-175). Interpretations of the key passage, Exodus 6:3, are discussed, revealing problems with the application of source criticism (p.179-180). Wenham proposes that the pattern of use of the name ‘Yahweh’ within the Genesis text best fits with ‘the Yahwistic editor’ (p.183) conflating the identities of Yahweh and the God of the patriarchs with careful additions of the Tetragrammaton into earlier text (p.183). The God revealed in Genesis is described in unique ways that would not be appropriate if the text had been composed after Sinai or in the monarchical period (p.184-185).

In the final essay, David W. Baker* considers the connections between parts of the Genesis text, showing that it should not be interpreted merely as a conglomeration of discrete passages, although textual units may clearly be distinguished. He examines lexical endings and beginnings that are indicators of time gaps, and subject and location changes (p.190-195). He also delineates repeated word and phrase forms (such as tôledôt [p.196]) and rhetorical forms (for example inclusio and chiasmus [p.197-199]), which serve to unify certain passages. Baker observes that the use of pronouns as anaphora in the text is sometimes incompatible with the source critics’ document hypothesis (p.200). He states that his analysis cannot be used to determine a definite date for textual composition, although it compares favourably with ANE texts at the structural level (p.201).

The individual arguments are well reasoned, balanced, and flow clearly both within each essay and throughout the order of the book, despite being written by scholars with very different spheres of expertise and interest. Furthermore, coverage of the topic of the historical origins of Genesis 12—50 from a broad variety of perspectives gives weight to the argument as a whole, that there are good archaeological and literary grounds for an acceptance of the patriarchal narratives as based in actual historical events, originally recorded near the time of those events. There is a good balance between comprehensive analysis of previous scholarship and presentation of new attempts to reconcile various data with the Genesis text, as proposed in the preface (p.7).

The authors uphold the significance of the Bible, without seeking to distort or twist data or the text to fit what obviously does not fit. They are unafraid to explain where flawed or hasty methodology has led to failed attempts to prove patriarchal historicity. They also expose several difficulties for the documentary hypothesis.

The analysis of Hebrew and cuneiform is generally clear for the reader who knows no Hebrew. Transliteration of the Hebrew, necessitated by the publication’s formatting style, is particularly helpful.

This book has been written for an academic audience, but its utility in strengthening faith in the face of biblical criticism warrants a wider audience. In order for the essays to be read and easily understood by novices to the arena of biblical archaeology, such as pastors, a map needs to be included to show the sites and approximate dating of relevant archaeological digs, particularly the locations of significant cuneiform finds referred to in the text (such as Nuzi, Mari, Ugarit, Larsa and Akkad).

At present, each essay may be read individually. They do form a combined picture, which is, unfortunately, never clarified although it is hinted at in the preface (p.7). The inclusion of a final essay (perhaps by the editors), drawing together the conclusions of each author, would be valuable if the book is to be read by a wider audience.

It is clear from reading these essays that new archaeological finds or publications of cuneiform texts can change the evidence for or against particular theories very quickly. Hence the age of the work, which is now thirty years old, suggests some of it may be already outdated (However, it is beyond the scope of this review to determine where and how.)

For many people, the only challenge to the veracity and reliability of the Old Testament they are aware of is the Creation/Evolution debate, with its implications for understanding God as Creator. However, the historical reliability of the patriarchal narratives underpins significant theological doctrine: the faithfulness of God in making and keeping his promises; and the relationship between God, his people and their home. In arguing for the veracity of the Genesis record of the patriarchs, this book provides supporting matter for apologetics and biblical theology for Christians, who set their hope in promises of God originating with the promises made to the patriarchs.

This book lays bare the scope of threats to the fundamental historicity of the later chapters of Genesis: from form critics who consider the patriarchal narratives to be the product of oral tradition with little basis in historical events, and from source critics who seek to place the final writing of the Genesis accounts during the monarchy and postulate the existence of multiple source documents from which these accounts were drawn. It also exposes the dangers of over-zealous attempts to reconcile the biblical text with hypothetical constructs of life in particular locations and times within the ANE, without clear and balanced evidence. Fortunately, in its wide-ranging and complex examination of the evidence from seven disciplines, supporting the historicity of the Genesis 12—50, Essays of the Patriarchal Narratives succeeds where those it criticises have failed.


* David is my Old Testament Foundations lecturer.

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