(Lectionary for February 25, 2018)
When I was in graduate school a hundred years ago or so, we were taught those famous letters, J,E,D,P, who were described to us as the four “authors” of the Pentateuch. Because these abbreviations were delivered in Germany, primarily by the pioneer Old Testament researcher, Julius Wellhausen in his formative book, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1878), those four letters were the first letters of the names given to the supposed authors who contributed to the conglomerate writings that became the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. “J” was Jahweh, since “J” in German is pronounced as “Y”. He was so designated because Wellhausen concluded that this author preferred the name YHWH for God. “E” stood for Elohim, since that author was said to prefer Elohim when speaking of God. “D” was for Deuteronomy, not just the book bearing that name but also for his special influence on later biblical books like Samuel and Kings, among others. And finally “P” was for Priestly, those authors especially concerned with cultic matters as found in Leviticus, portions of Numbers and Exodus, and other pieces of literature as well. And the order of the four letters was said to be historical: J was the oldest writer, while P was the newest.
This formulation ruled study of the Hebrew Bible for well over 100 years until it came under attack from multiple sides beginning with the canonical criticism of Brevard Childs in the 1970’s, the literary criticism of many scholars, perhaps best represented by Robert Alter in the 1980’s, and a host of sociological, anthropological, economic critics in the 1990’s until today. This essay will not enumerate in any detail the many ways that Wellhausen’s seminal work has been critiqued, but suffice it to say that few scholars of the Hebrew Bible any longer rely in their work only on the documentary hypothesis. As an interesting sidelight of Wellhausen’s career, he resigned his professorship at the University of Greifswald in 1882, stating in his letter of resignation that he could no longer in good conscience teach in the school of theology since his researches had made the work of a parish pastor more difficult. Would that all professors of theology listened so carefully to their consciences as they relate to their students!
I say all of this to tell you that nearly all who take the documentary hypothesis seriously assign Gen.17 to the author “P”. It surely does express interest in matters that priests would find valuable, most especially its concern for circumcision, a hallmark of later priestly concern. Indeed, it is in Gen.17 that Judaism grounded its belief in circumcision as the chief sign of the covenant between God and God’s chosen followers. Given all of that, one of the most negative results of an overreliance on the documentary hypothesis is to separate the stories of Genesis into silos of special interests, thus dividing the ongoing story that is being told to readers of the whole. If Gen.15 is “E, “ while Gen.16 is “J,” and Gen.17 is “P,” the danger is that I will not see how they fit together as a continuous story. I do not doubt that the Hebrew Bible, especially the Pentateuch, is a composite document, but cutting the story into distinct pieces might cause us to lose the forest for the trees. Priests may have had a large hand in the writing of Gen.17, but it nicely fits into the tale of the struggles of Abram and Sarai to fulfill the promise of YHWH/Elohim to be the foreparents of God’s chosen people.
That is made especially clear in the multiple use of a particular phrase in the chapter at vs.3 and vs.17. In the former, YHWH appears to Abram when he is 99 years old and still childless. YHWH says, “I am El Shaddai! Walk in my presence and be blameless (or “upright”).” The attempt to discern just what this divine name may mean has led to many answers. It is true that a Hebrew word for “breast” is “shod,” and thus it may have had an original connection to a female deity (this conjecture is much disputed, as you may imagine). The traditional rendering “God Almighty” is less translation than common agreement, but whatever it may mean, here it implies that the God who is speaking is to be taken with the greatest seriousness. God demands that Abram “walk,” that is conduct himself before God, as blameless, employing the word that twice describes the completely blameless Job in that famous story. And God continues, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and I will vastly increase your descendants” (Gen.17:2). Though the Hebrew is rather odd here, the phrase appears to say literally “I will increase your sign, very, very.” The use of “sign” must imply in this context something like “wonder.” Since Abram and Sarai have tried in vain for nearly 100 years to produce the sign of a child, the fact that God announces that God is about to produce a wonder with Abram, an astonishing wonder at that, suggests that the wonder will be a child in great old age. In response, “Abram fell on his face” (Gen.17:3). One might imagine that this action implies that Abram is performing an act of worship in response to God’s gracious gift of a sign to him. However, the word usually used for that action is another one entirely than the phrase used here. God seems to disregard the patriarch’s dive to the ground and goes on to enumerate something of the covenant to him.
God offers the covenant and Abraham laughs right in God’s face at the absurd thought. And Sarah will add her own laughter of disbelief in the next chapter (Gen. 18:12), though she has the good grace to laugh only to herself! And, of course, when the son is born to the prune-face couple, they do call him Isaac, in effect, laughter.
This is no story to argue about literal gestation at advanced age, no more than Jonah’s tale should engender learned discussions about how long might one actually live in a fish’s entrails. It is about the “sign” of God, the wonder of the Almighty One to be with us in times of our frailties and fears. It is common for us to laugh in God’s face when some absurd possibility presents itself to us. When we again appear amazingly helpless before our demonic love affair with guns, as once again children are gunned down by a deranged boy with an assault rifle, yet God has a better way, if only we have the courage to take it. When our nation appears so divided that we cannot see any way forward together, God has the absurd belief that we can become a real community. When our commander-in-chief is a narcissistic child rather than a real grown-up leader, God still absurdly declares that there is a way to live through this, too. We may laugh at God, but God has a way of turning our obscene cackling into great good humor, as our laughter of unbelief becomes the laughter of joy and hope.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)