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THE HEBREW ACCOUNT

The account of the duration of the Deluge in Genesis appears full of contradictions without any understandable sequence of thought. Only two statements appear clear, that the Deluge lasted 40 days and that it lasted 150 days.

Most interpreters try to explain this contradiction by applying the so-called documentary theory about the composition of the Pentateuch. The documentary theory is accepted by almost all scholarly interpreters, although it has been partially modified or restated in sundry ways. Before giving my own interpretations, I will try to describe this theory as succinctly and as fairly as I can.

The kingpin of the documentary theory is the contention that the origin of the institution of an inspired official text, formulated in written form and given divine authority, began with the publication and canonization of Deuteronomy (D). This event was related to the religious reforms introduced by King Josiah in 621 B.C. Once Deuteronomy had become sacred scripture, the idea was conceived of giving the same form and authority to the records of the national history of the Hebrews. This national history had been preserved in two separate versions, running parallel to each other. One, completed in the southern kingdom of Judah around 850 B.C., is called Jehovistic (J) because it refers to the divinity as Yahweh, and the other, which was composed in the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 B.C., is called Elohistic because it refers to the divinity as Elohim. Shortly before or after 621 B.C., these versions were combined into one (J-E). What became the Pentateuch started as a scripture composed of J-E and D. After the Exile scholarly writers, known as Priestly (P) because of their preoccupation with religious law and ritual, wrote a sort of appendix-commentary to J-E, which reflected the religious institutions and practices of post-exilic society; the P writers' aim was to make the narrative of J-E systematic (as for instance by drafting genealogies), and more relevant (by relating historical events to laws and the origin of sacred institutions).

Stated roughly, the Priestly editors would have subjected the J and E versions to a scissors and paste procedure, taking snippets of text from one and the other and combining them together into a continuous narrative. Out of respect for the sacredness or authority of the original documents, the P authors would have altered them as little as possible. Most of their editing would have consisted of cutting off parts of the originals and cleverly combining what remained. In so doing in many cases they left standing different accounts of the same events. Having done this they added their own text for two purposes:

  • to explain away the contradictions that remained, to rationalize the accounts, and to expand them;
  • to introduce their own tenets about religion and ritual.
Finally, around 400 B.C., P was fitted into the text of J-E and D by an operation called Redaction (R). This would be the way in which our Pentateuch came into existence. However, minor alterations in the text of the Pentateuch continued to be introduced up to about 250 B.C.

In order to evaluate the documentary theory, one must realize that it may be broken down into two separate theories. The first theory is the composite origin of our text of the Pentateuch: the Pentateuch was put together with materials of different origin, datable in one time or another of the monarchical period, and was edited, complemented, or adapted to fit the ideas, institutions, and practices of the Jews of the postexilic period. The process of combining different materials into a received text may have begun during the last period of the monarchy. The second theory is that this process of redaction took place according to the steps specified by the documentary theory.

For historical reasons one tends to forget to make a distinction between these two elements of the documentary theory. The reason is that those who from the second half of the eighteenth century began to point out the existence of several layers in the Pentateuch met stubborn resistance from those who for reasons of religious piety wanted to insist on the unity of the text, starting with the orthodox view that the Pentateuch had been written by Moses himself. This battle was settled, as far as scholarly commentators were concerned, with the development of the documentary theory. In the period 1876-1884 Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) presented the documentary theory in such a form and with such arguments that it came to be accepted by the large majority of scholarly commentators. In the period that followed commentators came to be divided between committed fundamentalists and followers of the theory of Wellhausen. Practically all scholarly commentators followed Wellhausen; the modifications or qualifications that were offered by several of them to his theory do not touch its substance.

Only after World War II did it become academically respectable to question the basic principles of Wellhausen's theory. However, none of the self-proclaimed new schools of Pentateuchal criticism has been able to come forward with a definable alternative. The main contribution of these dissenters has been the stress put on the importance of oral traditions which, even though inserted into our text of the Pentateuch at a late date, may be of very early origin. I most emphatically agree with the importance attached to oral tradition, since in all ancient civilizations most of the cultural heritage was transmitted orally; written texts were just the tip of the iceberg, although of necessity the modern scholar has to start his investigations with that visible tip of the iceberg, the written texts. However, the recognition of the role played by oral traditions should be concerned only with the history of our text of the Pentateuch and with determining how and when specific passages were included in that text, independently of the question of the origin of the notions expressed in these passages.

Today, in spite of the stir created by those who have questioned the value of the documentary theory, this theory remains the main tool of scholarly interpreters. The current modifications of the original theory consist principally in multiplying the number of documents of the J and E level and in dating at least parts of P before the Exile. This clinging to the documentary theory, in spite of all objections, is due to the fact that those who originally formulated it formulated also a system of principles and techniques, a definite method that can be followed almost mechanically, independently of subjective attitudes or preferences.

Following the central methodological principle of the documentary theory, one can identify the vocabulary and the literary style of the writers of J, of the writers of E, and of the writers of P. Because of the historical breaks determined by the troubled last years of the Kingdom of Judah, the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.), and the Exile, the language, the style, and the intellectual outlook of P is completely different from that of J and E. During the nineteenth century there was developed a method for the study of texts of all ancient literatures; this method, known as philological analysis, aims at establishing the way in which an ancient author composed his work, how he utilized earlier authors, and how he gathered his information. According to the guiding principle of the documentary theory, the tested methods of philological analysis should be applied to the biblical text, irrespectively of its having been composed as a sacred text, with the same spirit with which one studied any ancient text.

In trying to wade through the polemics of the last thirty years between critics and defenders of the documentary theory, I have found that a great part of the inconclusiveness of these debates is due to a semantic confusion by both sides on the question of oral tradition. What has been forgotten is that all ancient literatures could be said to be oral literatures. Classical scholars know that Greek and Latin authors were written to be read aloud; there is evidence that the practice of reading a Latin text silently did not begin before the fifth century A.D.(116)

The ancients were able to transmit a text orally for a series of generations. The text of the Mishnah, which is the central part of the Talmud, was transmitted orally for several generations, and there were rabbis whose duty it was to remember the text. The Talmud itself, although we are inclined to think of it as a very bookish big book, could be described as a collection of oral traditions.

In dealing with ancient literatures one should not distinguish between oral tradition and written documents, but between texts that have been formalized and those that have not. The Hebrew term sepher, which we translate as "book," could be applied to a text transmitted orally. A set of rules or a set of mathematical formulas could be called sepher, even though not put in writing.(117)

A great emphasis has been put on the role of scribes in the ancient Near East, but when one considers the organization of scribal schools in Egypt and Mesopotamia, one realizes that a major function of these schools was to transmit information orally from one generation of scribes to the next.

Perhaps the problem of the origin of the Pentateuch could be better understood if one kept in mind the model provided by the composition of the Quran. Muhammad referred to Jews and Christians as "people of the book" and wanted his followers to be "people of the book" too, but he never intended that the Quran should be written. Muhammad is the author of Al-Qur'an, "The Reading," although he was illiterate. According to Muslim tradition the surahs (chapters of the Quran) had been put in writing individually and circulated separately before the Prophet's death, but the transmission of the Sacred Text was entrusted to those who had committed the whole of it to memory. It was only after most of these were killed in a battle soon after Muhammad's death, that it was decided to put the Quran into writing as a whole. However, it was only in the Caliphate of Othman (644-655 A.D.) that the authoritative text was drafted on the basis of all existing written copies of individual surahs and the recollections of those who had committed the Quran to memory. This is the orthodox version of the events. It is also the orthodox view that the final arrangement of the surahs is that of the Prophet himself, even though it is evident that the arrangement of the official text was made on the basis of concepts of subject matter, without regard for correct chronology, and that some surahs were composed of passages from different experiences of revelation, whereas in principle each surah should be the contents of one prophetic inspiration.

Muslims distinguish between the Quran itself and the sunnahs which are rules of law and explicatory commentaries based on what Muhammad is said to have spoken or done when he was not in a prophetic state. The subject matter of the sunnahs has some similarities with what is called Priestly material in the Pentateuch. The intent of the Priestly writers may have been to make more explicit what was implied in the received text.

Before entering into the analysis of the figures in the account of Genesis, it is useful to consider in general the intellectual attitude of the P writers. A concise and clear statement of it is provided by Robert H. Pfeiffer's Introduction to the Old Testament:

The authors of the Priestly Code were not only priests and lawyers, but scholars -- the most erudite writers of the Old Testament.

As in any legal documents, the style of P is exact in dates, measurements, and genealogical relationships; precise and complete in catalogues of things and persons, punctilious in its definitions and choice of words. In some places it reads like a municipal register of vital statistics or like a real estate deed.

Pfeiffer sums up the method and point of view of the P writers not only effectively but also with sympathetic understanding. But his benevolence is not shared by many other biblical scholars, who dislike or even loathe the technical and meticulous approach of the P writers. Julius Wellhausen in his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, which has been one of the most influential works in the history of Old Testament scholarship, refers to the style of the P writers in these terms:

P has a veritable passion for classifications and schematisms; when once he has subdivided a genus into several species, every time he talks of the genus, we must again be told every single species. . . . What is interesting is skipped over and what is indifferent is described exactly.

It must be observed that the last sentence of Wellhausen implies a subjective judgment: it all depends on what one considers interesting and what one considers indifferent.

The prejudices of Wellhausen echo a general tendency of modern studies of the ancient world in which the concerns of ancient texts with precision and technicality is either ignored or explained away through interpretation. This entire book of mine is intended as a refutation of this tendency. In the specific area of Old Testament studies, the prevailing fashion is to exalt the poetic qualities of the J and E documents and to deprecate how their beautiful accounts were either cut down or spoiled by the pedantic and philistine P writers. I agree that J and E were written in poetic style, but I disagree on the understanding of poetry. Poetry is not erratic wandering of the mind; good poetry is even more thoughtful than prosaic expression in that it compresses more ideas into fewer words. Poetry is synthetic, whereas prose is analytic. The fact that the J and E documents are of poetic nature does not mean that the interpreter can abandon himself to the inspiration of his own moods. It takes more time, patience, and learned information to understand all levels of meaning of Dante's Divine Comedy than to follow the arguments of Galileo's Dialogue of the Two World Systems, which is a masterpiece of Italian prose literature. The P writers performed the task of spelling out what was implied in the J and E documents; it was not their intention to spoil or obfuscate the message of their predecessors.

When it comes to the question of the duration of the Deluge, those who follow the documentary approach, no matter how modified, try to account for the disparate figures of 40 days and 150 days by ascribing the first figure to the J version and the second figure to the P editors.(118)

This explanation of the contradictions appears in most commentaries to the Old Testament. However, in this particular case the application of the documentary theory is of little help in explaining the discrepancies. Going to the substance of things, it is claimed that according to the Yahwistic writer the Deluge lasted 40 days, whereas according to another version it lasted 150 days. What interpreters have not explained is how those who edited the text allowed this obvious contradiction to remain. According to most interpreters the Priestly edition was followed by other editions; but none of the editors removed the contradictions. It is true that often the P editors left standing contradictions between the two earlier versions, but never contradictions so obvious and glaring as the one we are dealing with. It is also true that at times the P editors restated in somewhat different terms what they had preserved of either the J or the E versions. But the P editors were concerned with explaining away contradictions and with rounding out and making more explicit earlier accounts. When they introduced what a critical interpreter may recognize as novelties, they did so in order to further conformity to their own code of religious practices. It is assumed that the P editors digested and revised the texts with an aim that in modern terms one would call a propaganda purpose. In introducing novelties the P writers did their best to conceal that they were such; this is one of the reasons why they tried as much as possible to make use of the very words of the J and E versions. Therefore it is difficult to understand why the authors of P should have kept the figure of 40 days of the J version and then have confused matters by adding the figure of 150 days.

One may subscribe to the assumption that the Old Testament, if not written by fools, was at least written to be read by fools. This is a view which is held by many in our present world and of which the earliest articulate exponent was Spinoza. One generation earlier Galileo had argued that the Old Testament had been written for the benefit of simple souls. Modern professional interpreters of the Old Testament have not applied themselves to resolving the contradiction between the duration of 40 days and the duration of 150 days because, although they do not subscribe outwardly to the view just mentioned, they do not treat the account of the Deluge as one to be taken seriously, so that it does not make much difference whether the duration was 40 or 150 days. But it was not the intention of the P editors or of any other successive editor to present an account that would create outright disbelief or at the minimum doubt even among the most pious readers. It is generally believed that the writers of the J and E document were concerned more with national history than with religion and that their values were patriotic rather than religious; but it is universally agreed that the P writers and any other successive editors were deeply concerned with religious edification.

In general I am inclined to doubt the documentary theory at least as far as the Book of Genesis is concerned. Having analyzed the material from my own very particular point of view, I am inclined to agree with J.D.B. Macdonald and Umberto Cassuto who have argued that the Book of Genesis is the product of a single unified and organic effort at literary composition, which made use of "E, J, P and the rest" according to Macdonald, and of several traditions that had been transmitted orally, according to Cassuto.

If this view of the composition of Genesis is accepted, it becomes even more difficult to explain why the authors or the author(119) would have presented a text with glaring contradictions which could easily have been removed by changing a few figures.

In order to solve the problem of the duration of the Deluge we must retrace our steps back to the point when Galileo and Spinoza argued that the Old Testament was not intended to convey scientific truths, that is, to the moment in which science and religion were separated from each other.

If we assume that the statements that the Deluge lasted 40 days and that it lasted 150 days are mathematical expressions, then there is no contradiction between them if it is a matter of presenting the same information in terms of two different mathematical formulations.

116. St. Jerome

117. A good literal translation of sepher is the English word tale, if one keeps in mind the etymology of this word.

118. As to the verses of Genesis that concern us here, namely 7:11 to 8:14, they usually ascribe verses 7:12, 16B, 17B, 22, 23 and 8:2B-3A, 6-12, 13B to the original J, except for some occasional verses that may have been added by other editors later than the P ones. The rest is either ascribed to the Priestly layer or divided between this and the Elohistic layer.

119. Macdonald and Cassuto carry their argument to the point of maintaining that Genesis is the product of one individual literary genius.


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