A Case for the Documentary Hypothesis, Part I: The Division of Exodus 34

A Case for the Documentary Hypothesis, Part I: The Division of Exodus 34 April 27, 2007

HP’s very recent post provides a good springboard for a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis. Rather than introducing the hypothesis via a historical summary, which may be discussed in comments or a subsequent post, let me present a case study.

In this multi-part post I propose to lay a source division of Exodus 34, the so-called “New Covenant”. This chapter both exemplifies the issues and is relevant to an LDS audience, and thus is particularly fitting for this forum. I will outline the case for separation of sources based on internal and external evidence and then will ask what sorts of issues this raises for Latter-day Saint interpretation of scripture and of revelation. N.B.: This is not my original idea. It was worked out in part by a friend of mine, whose permission I have to reproduce it, even if only in outline, here.

Before we jump into the material, a Documentary Hypothesis refresher:

Scholars since the 1800s have divided the Pentateuch (5 “books of Moses”) into four documents coming from distinct times, places, and hands:

  • J = Jahwistic author, whose characters know and use the name Yahweh from earliest times
  • E = Elohistic author, whose characters do not use the name Yahweh before it is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3
  • P = the author or authors represented throughout the Pentateuch and readily identifiable by a distinctive focus on priestly matters and a unique style and a unique version of the events
  • D = the author responsible, by and large, for the book of Deuteronomy, which is unique in style and topic

This is, in my view, the order that they were written in (with a couple of P and D overlaps and rewrites).
Now to Exodus 34:

This chapter recounts the last episode in the long story of the revelation on the mountain in the wilderness. In the previous chapters, Exodus 32 and 33, Moses received the tablets from God, and was prepared to bring them to the Israelites, when he suddenly saw them worshipping the golden calf, and he smashed the tablets to the ground. The offending people were punished, and God told Moses that he wouldn’t be traveling through the wilderness with the people as planned after all – he’d just send a messenger. Moses pleaded with God, issued an ultimatum, and God eventually relented, agreeing also to pass physically before Moses on the mountain top. And that’s the situation at the very end of Exodus 33, which leads us up to the first verse of Exodus 34. With that in mind, here’s how the verses of Ex 34 are divided based on the evidence from Exodus (what I’m calling “internal evidence”). Forgive the brevity.

  • v. 1 is E, because it continues the narrative from Exod 32:19 and evokes directly Exod 24:12, which are both virtually unanimously recognized as E.
  • vv. 2-3 don’t fit well with v. 1: most obviously in their reference to Sinai, which is never an E term for the mountain. More importantly, they are directly in line not with ch 32, as above, but with the end of 33 which is J. This narrative told Moses he would receive a personal appearance from God, and Exod 34:2-3 tells how this is to be carried out.
  • The fulfillment of these two commands, one from E and one from J, is combined in v. 4. J and E had similar statements here (evidence to be given in part 2) about Moses ascending the mountain, and the compiler simply took the one from J and omitted the one from E.
  • Verse 5, where the Lord descends in a cloud, begins as E, where the Lord never descends in anything besides a cloud. J has fire. The verse ends, however, in J: it fulfills verse 2 (which we identified as J) and Exod 33:19 (also J).
  • Verse 6 is the fulfillment of the J event, where God presents himself to Moses. The J narrative, which is the giving of a covenant to Moses (that if the Israelites observe the stipulations of these verses, God will be with them when they go into Israel), is not part of E, in which the covenant has already been made on entirely different terms.
  • The conclusion of this J narrative is v. 27: “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I make a covenant with you and with Israel.”
  • v. 28 is tricky because it appears to be the fulfillment of v. 27, which we called J. But it’s not: first, it says the “Ten Words”, which is impossible for the material given in vv. 10-26, and must be a reference to the Decalogue of Exod 20 (which is E). Also, it says to write it on tablets. J has never known of any tablets. So the “he” must be God (who wrote the “Ten Words” on the “Two Tablets” already, but since they got smashed, he has to write them again, which is the purpose of Moses’ return trip to the mountain).
  • v. 29-end of the chapter are from P, who introduces new terms (all P terms, like ‘edut = KJV ‘testimony’) that so far have not been used in this narrative. More importantly, the narrative here continues perfectly P’s Sinai pericope, in terminology and in sequence of events, which left off in Exod 31:18.

Thus we have separated the verses based on the relationship of those verses to the surrounding (and distinct) narratives and terminology, and we have identified them based on the known characteristics of J and E. Note: the case looks much more circular than it is, because I don’t have the room nor the time to go into all the details. But I hope this is enough for a taste.

The big piece of evidence to be reckoned with here is that this division results in narratives totally consistent with the other (easier) source divisions and presents two self-contained narratives (at least in the cases of J and E). I’ll line them up in part 2.

This is where I’ll end part 1. I’ll present a “clincher” in part 2, and bring it home to LDS issues in part 3. I don’t anticipate a lot of comments on this part because it’s not your usual post and requires some effort to work through. But what I wanted to do is to present the way this source criticism can be done, expose some of the assumptions that source critics work under and also the convergence of evidence that makes the Documentary Hypothesis hard to argue against.


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