Finding Refuge in the Pentateuch

A narrative of the Flood:

YHWH saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. So YHWH said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air – for I am grieved that I have made them. Seven days from now, I will send rain on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

YHWH then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive on the earth.”

And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as YHWH had commanded Noah. And rain fell on the earth 40 days and 40 nights.

For 40 days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that moved along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth.

The rain stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth.

After 40 days, Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water all over the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

Hmm. Seems like something is missing. Oh wait, here it is:

Now the earth was corrupt in Elohim’s sight and full of violence. Elohim saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So Elohim said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. … I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has a breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark – you and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.

“You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.”

On that very day, Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground, according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as Elohim had commanded Noah. Then Elohim shut him in.

And after the seven days, the floodwaters came on the earth. In the 600th year of Noah’s life, on the 17th day of the second month – on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. the waters rose greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of 20 feet. Every living thing that moved on the earth perished – birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.

Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed. At the end of the 150 days, the water had gone down. The waters continued to recede until the 10th month, and on the first day of the 10th month, the tops of the mountains became visible.

Then Elohim said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you – the birds, the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground – so they an multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.”

Then Elohim said to Noah and his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you … and this is the sign of the covenant … : I have set my rainbow in the clouds …” etc.

Hidden in the story of the Flood we all know so well appear to be two Flood stories, intertwined with each other throughout Genesis 6, 7 and 8. Similar in many respects, they are yet very different, including in their vocabulary; one consistently uses YHWH to refer to God, the other uses Elohim, the name used for him in Genesis 1. Not only that, but the cosmology of the Elohim-based story mirrors Genesis 1, too. The ancient ideas of floodgates and waters of the deep make an appearance, but only in one of these stories.

In fact, the timelines are different, God’s motivation for sending the flood is subtly different. Even the number of animals God tells Noah to bring into the ark and the method of establishing the covenant are different. They are both essentially complete.

This duality of the Flood narrative comes from Jean-Louis Ska’s Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch, one of the books required for my class. Ska shows over and over again how the first five books of the Bible not only could not in any way have been written by Moses, but they could not have been written by a single author.

Along with the merging of two distinct Flood narratives are three separate love triangles involving a patriarch, his wife whom he tries to pass off as his sister and a foreign king; two examples of Moses bringing water from a rock in the same place; and two tellings of Creation in successive chapters. Beyond that, there appear to be narrative mashups, similar to the Flood duality, in the story of Joseph’s being sold into slavery (look at Genesis 37 and answer this: Was Joseph sold to Midianites or Ishmaelites?) and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

And those are the biggies. There are numerous smaller examples of edits and revisions throughout the Pentatuech, as Ska shows conclusively, illuminating the telltale signs of this work (for example: repetition of a phrase after a seemingly unrelated interruption).

In fact, for more than 100 years, biblical scholars haven’t been arguing about who wrote the Pentateuch; rather they’ve been arguing over how many people had a hand in it and when the process started. If, like me, you grew up believing Genesis was older than any other biblical book except perhaps Job, then be prepared for a shock: Ska – and many others – argues the Pentateuch was not completed until close to, or even after, the latest books of the Old Testament, Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi.

“The Pentateuch in its final form,” he states definitively, “is a Postexilic work,” meaning it was completed after the Persian rulers allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. “The present composition and disposition of the various sections go back to the Persian period.”

But it is not wholly a postexilic work, he says.

The Pentateuch is like a city rebuilt after two earthquakes. The first occurred in 721 B.C.E. when the Assyrian army conquered Samaria and put an end to all of the country’s political and religious institutions, Which traditions of the Northern Kingdom survived this disaster? This is difficult to ascertain. … Nonetheless, we may speculate that some of these traditions were transferred to Jerusalem after the fall of Samaria.

Then another earthquake destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. after a premonitory tremor in 596 B.C.E. In 586, after a long siege, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army captured the city, burned it and devastated it. We will always have trouble imagining what the population of the city lived through at that time. All of their precious possessions disappeared simultaneously. …

After the exile, when Cyrus, who had conquered the Babylonians, allowed the exiles to return home to their land, the situation became very complex.  The relationship between those who were coming back from Mesopotamia and those who had stayed in [Palestine] was far from peaceful. After many trials and tribulations, the exiles gained the upper hand and began rebuilding …

Now, returning to our comparison, we can identify three types of edifices in the reconstruction [of the Israelite traditions]. Some structures have survived, partially or entirely, the two earthquakes; some are better preserved than others. … Elsewhere, there are entirely new buildings that have replaced those that disappeared. Finally, a whole series of composite structures have appeared in which we can recognize ancient elements that have been used in the remodeling, with new sections being added at different periods. … Having said this, we need to remember that all of the edifices, whether ancient or modern, have the same purpose: they have been built to accommodate and respond to the needs of the inhabitants. The city is not merely a museum preserving the past; it is attempting to create the conditions indispensable for the survival of people who have recently come through a painful experience.

Just like the city, the Pentateuch contains ancient material meant to establish a connection with the past and new material that responds to current questions. … Each section, whether ancient or modern, offers refuge, faith and hope. All of it must therefore be interpreted in the context of the Postexilic period.

Mind. Blown.

The first five books of the Bible to me have always been a mix of the intriguing and the disturbing, the thrilling and the mind-numblingly dull. Read as a static narration of the history between God and his people, they seem, well, dead, and the God they portray seems, frankly, imbalanced as he veers from grand promises to threats of annihilation.

But viewed as a living constitutional document, containing ancient legends and traditions revised over time to answer the pressing questions of successive eras, the Pentateuch becomes itself more understandable, and consequently the portrayal of God more accessible.

Instead of being filled with judgment, violence and legalism, the stories and laws of the Pentateuch, as Ska writes, offer refuge, faith and hope to a God-fearing people grappling with a hostile world they must inhabit.

Refuge. Faith. Hope. I don’t know about you, but I can always use some of that.

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