The Pentateuch, Part 2: Lastly, In the Beginning

I’m probably the only person this week talking about the book of Genesis without discussing the recent debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and Genesis answer man Ken Ham.  I suppose I need to explain why I don’t feel the need to even cover the topic of the evolution debate in my series on the Pentateuch, or some readers may be disappointed.  Ultimately, I think questions about scriptural literalism can be an unnecessary distraction, because a solid literary interpretation is a much better common ground for believers to meet skeptics.  Literalism is easy to dismiss, but the literary meaning is undeniable; an unbeliever absolutely has to have a literary understanding of a text or else there’s no point in them even discussing it, and the literary interpretation is universally true even if a literal interpretation fails to convince them.  Of course, just having said that will get me denounced as a heretic from the more radical creationist circles who seem to hold the interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis on par with doctrines essential for salvation.

Genesis has certainly become a polarizing book.  Answers in Genesis is hardly the only organization to draw its name and focus from this unique Old Testament book, whereas fewer ministries focus on Exodus (most that use the word “exodus” in their name have little to do with the content of the book itself), and even fewer still, if any, from Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy.  While I think Genesis has been made an unnecessary barrier to faith in many areas, there’s no denying its uniqueness, even in the first five books of Moses.  After all, the entirety of its contents pre-date its traditional author, as well as the Law of which it is considered a part, so Christians of all persuasions are more naturally aware of the writing process involved.  The lazy Mormon view, of course, is that God simply dictated these stories to Moses on Mount Sinai, but most Christians can readily accept these as stories passed down through oral tradition before being committed to writing.

Previously, I detailed a thread of external sources that follow a specific chronological and geographic course through the Pentateuch.  Now, if the Torah was just supposed to be a pastiche of near eastern mythology, then why are the references to external sources so consistently chronological?  Gilgamesh similarities are limited to the early chapters of Genesis, rather than inserted periodically into Exodus or Leviticus, Egyptian parallels are confined to the exodus, and so on.  Actually, there is a source that has been evenly distributed into the Genesis narrative, the Mosaic Law itself.

From the dawn of creation the 4th Commandment is established before being given in Exodus.  While the Patriarchs seem ignorant of it, Noah’s flood obsessive compulsively observers the Sabbath, with every activity after the initial week taking place on a Friday, Sunday, or Wednesday.  Oddly, while the Patriarchs neglect Israel’s definitive mitzvah, they demonstrate an uncanny awareness of other minor commandments and practices found in the Mosaic Law.

When God covenants with Abrahm and promises him he will be a father of nations, Abram  performs a unique ritual–found nowhere else in the Bible except possibly for Jeremiah 34:18– involving a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon (Genesis 15:9-20).  This includes every animal permitted for sacrifice under the Law, and specifically those for the purification after childbirth (Lev. 12:6-8).

After the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, Shechem offers to pay a bride-price similar to the terms of Exodus 22:16-17.  Joseph is sold into slavery for twenty shekels of silver (Genesis 37:28), the set redemption value of a male age 5-20 in Leviticus 27:5.  Levirate marriage, the custom of a widow re-marrying her husband’s surviving brother, is seen described in Genesis 38 before being prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:5-6.  When Tamar is declared guilty of prostitution in Genesis 38:24, Judah hastily orders her to be burned to death; the only such punishment commanded in the Torah is found in Leviticus 21:9, for the sin of prostitution.

Some of these, such as the levirate marriage, could possibly be considered influence of a Genesis precedent on the later law, rather than the law influencing Genesis.  Nevertheless, Genesis seems to have an operative assumption of the entire Law, both moral and ritual, even when not explicitly stated.  Cain is supposed to have known murder is wrong ages before “thou shalt not kill” is set in stone, just as Abel knows to sacrifice the firstborn of his flock without any direction.

All this creates not only some challenges to traditional views on how the Pentateuch was written, but also on the moral theory it contains (which I hope to cover at a later time).  I would argue that Joseph Smith being forced to re-write the beginning of the Book of Mormon to replace the lost pages probably made it a better work of literature than it otherwise might have been.  I suspect the Urantia Book was similarly written in reverse order, giving it a more developed beginning.  My advice to any writer, really, would be to revise the beginning of their story after they’ve finished it, and I think Genesis is similarly an improved work of literature because of this.

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One response to “The Pentateuch, Part 2: Lastly, In the Beginning

  1. Pingback: Judges: Second Genesis | seerstone

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