DH 8: Editing the Bible

DH 8: Editing the Bible April 9, 2014

The most obvious example of later editing of a biblical text is found in the story of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34.  Deuteronomy explicitly claims to have been written by Moses (31:24–26), but chapter 34 describes Moses’ death and burial as if it had occurred long ago.  “So Moses the servant of YHWH [Jehovah, “the LORD”] died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the YHWH, and he [YHWH] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. … And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face” (Deut. 34:5-6, 10).  Now Moses obviously could not have written about his own death and burial.  Furthermore, if chapter 34 was written within a few years of the death of Moses, it would be unremarkable that there had “not arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.”  Verse ten only makes sense if at least this portion of the text was written generations after the death of Moses, at a time where there had already been other prophets to whom Moses could be compared.  The early rabbis recognized this anomaly, claiming that “Joshua wrote his book, and eight verses of the Torah,” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b), referring to these verses in Deuteronomy 34.

The Hebrew Bible also includes numerous comments reflecting a later editor who added explanations to help his contemporary readers understand unfamiliar names, places, or words.  This is most clear when the text mentions an unfamiliar word, place-name, tribe, or object, noting that it is still the same “until today” (‘ād hā-yôm; KVJ “unto this day”).  The obvious implications of this phrase is that the events described in the text happened sometime in the past, but the evidence or results of those events are still noticeable “until today”—that is, at the time of the writing or editing of the text.  The temporal distance between the events and the description of those events seems to be significant, since the editor/copyist seems to think these items would be unfamiliar to the audience of the book.  There are dozens of examples of the use of such phrases throughout many books of the Bible.  (For example: Gen. 24:14, 26:33, 35:20, 47:26; Deut. 2:22, 3:14, 10:8; Josh. 4:9, 5:9, 7:26, 15:63; Judg. 6:24, 10:4; 1 Sam. 6:18, 27:6; 2 Sam. 4:3, 6:8, 18:18; 1 Kgs. 8:8; 2 Kgs. 2:22, 10:27, 14:7; 1 Chr. 4:43, 13:11; 2 Chr. 20:26.)  We also find cases where the author says place names or meanings of words have changed through time.  The author feels he needs to explain a former name because his contemporary audience won’t understand the original word or name used at the time the events happened.  (Gen. 28:19; Josh. 14:15, 15:15; Judg. 1:11, 1:23; 1 Sam. 9:9.)  This is rather like saying that Julius Caesar conquered France, when in reality he conquered Gaul, the land that we today know as France.  These types of examples clearly indicate that the biblical author or editor recognizes that there is a significant cultural distance between the events being described and the time of the writing of the text.  Documentarians should note that such editorial comments would not be necessary unless the authors/tradents/editors/copyists/redactors were drawing on ancient documents or, minimally, ancient oral traditions that the editors themselves realize are already archaic to their contemporary audience.

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