Sources and Repetition (Genesis 17/Lent2B)

In dealing with source criticism there are two broad questions for the Biblical exegete, as opposed to the actual source critic.  The first is whether there are identifiable sources at all, or at least in any substantial sense, and the second is how important these sources are for exegesis.  Though I’m not going to go into detail here, for me it is very clear that there are, in fact, extended sources in the Pentateuch, and I’ll go along with the identification of the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deteronomist sources.  I’m a little more hesitant on identifying a Holiness source in what used to be regarded as Priestly material, but there is some pretty good evidence for it.

One of the places we identify such sources is in stories that repeat.  For example, why do we have Abraham’s call in Genesis 12, a presentation of the covenant in Genesis 15, and another covenant story in Genesis 17.  Much of the data in the latter two especially overlap.  Without sources, we may look either to advancing revelation of the covenant, or to repetition for purposes of teaching.  The covenant might indeed be forgotten.  Such explanations are quite workable for much material, and if the repetition of the covenant was the only source of evidence, it would not be adequate to present sources.

But in fact we do have some differences in these stories.  I’m indebted to Gerhard von Rad in his Genesis commentary, pages 197-203 for much of the following.  The major difference is the focus of the Priestly source on theology.  The Yahwist tends to focus on Abraham’s human situation.  For the priests the major concern was God, what he was going to do for Abraham and what his ultimate purpose was.  Note that in Genesis 15 we have several verses of Abraham talking.  He enters into conversation with God, and part of God’s assurance of the covenant results from Abraham’s fear.  In Genesis 17, God speaks, Abraham falls on his face (v.3), and God continues speaking and pretty much takes up the rest of the chapter.  Abraham finally gets involved again when he pleads for Ishmael in verse 18.

I think there is a good likelihood that we have two sources relating essentially the same experience.  You may differ–demonstrating my conclusion would go well beyond the space I intend to use here.  But the second question is just how much does knowing about the sources, if you accept them, help you in understanding the passage?

I find a little bit of help in knowing who’s telling the story each time.  The Yahwist is a great teller of folk tales, and he and his sort likely entertained people around the campfires of early Israel.  They are telling a human story, and it is more story than history.  They ignore chronology and deep theological questions for the most part.  The priests like to keep things straight.  They’re more interested in God than in people, and they’re more interested in historical details, such as chronology.

But in the end, while it’s important to realize that there are two stories, and that their perspective is different, you can get the same emphasis whether you see them as two incidents reported by the same narrator or as the result of different sources.  We can tell the story of God’s interaction with us and with our community from the perspective of people, or from our best try for a divine perspective, yet it still is the story of God with us.  We may have one incident told twice, giving us a more complete picture, or we may have two incidents in which God gave Abraham a bigger picture.

The result is similar, and its available to the student who takes the time to look back and forth, to gather in all the elements of the context, and ask just why such a thing may be there.


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