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The Pentateuch

( Originally Published 1906 )



Naturally we begin with the Pentateuch, popularly known as the "five books of Moses"—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Jews called them, collectively, the Torah, or, as we should say, the Law ; but the term Pentateuch, meaning "five-fold book," has prevailed largely since the Septuagint translation (into Greek) was made, about the second century B. C. For two thousand years or more tradition has ascribed the authorship of these books to Moses, although they themselves make no such claim, excepting portions of Deuteronomy. Undoubtedly there is reason for presuming that tradition, which is simply customary opinion, has some basis in fact, or else it would not exist; but such reason is slight in the present instance. It may be natural to assume that the authorship of a literary work is singular, because ordinarily this is the case; yet today we have examples of collaboration, even in the production of stories. It is natural, perhaps, to suppose that water and air are simple parts of the material universe; but modern chemistry shows us that they are not really simples at all, but compounds. It might be thought a natural presupposition that a ray of sunshine is simply a stream of pure white light, and, but for science, one might never have dreamed that there are over half a dozen different colors in it that can be distinctly separated from one another; yet such is really the case, and we have only to pass a ray of sunshine through a prism to afford an ocular demonstration of the fact. Just so it is with the composition of the Pentateuch without evidence to the contrary, we might accept the traditional belief that it is the work of a single author; but upon a clear proof that it is a union of several different works, we are compelled to give up the customary notion, and accept the true verdict.

For a century and a half the Higher Critics have been toiling patiently over this problem, and they have reached, not, indeed, a unanimous, but a very general, agreement as to the following conclusions :

1. That the Book of Joshua, immediately after the Pentateuch, belongs with it as an organic part of the same great work; so that we should speak of the Hexateuch, or first six books of the Bible, as a whole.

2. That this Hexateuch is composed of four different main writings or documents, produced at different times by different authors, which were finally welded together, with editorial additions, in the early part of the priestly period of Israelitish history, that is to say, after the return from Babylon; and that these four main writings are themselves more or less composite.

3. That these four general documents have each such strongly marked characteristics of style, phraseology and "local color" as to be easily distinguishable to the trained critic, in their principal features; so that they can be, and have been, separated and printed in different types, or (as in the Polychrome Bible) in different hues, with confirming results not less striking than those yielded by the prismatic analysis of a ray of sunshine.

Now it is proper to ask how these conclusions have been wrought out ; and a simple, concise explanation is here given. First, it had been noticed, among other peculiarities, that there are frequent repetitions of the same things, but in different words, in the narratives of the Pentateuch ; and especially that there are, in Genesis, two distinct accounts of the creation, one of them being in the first chapter, and the other in the second ; and that these vary considerably. Second, it was observed that the first of these accounts uses the word Elohim (translated God) to represent the Divine Being, while the other uses the term which we commonly render by our English word "Jehovah." This discovery was made by jean Astruc, a French physician, in 1753, who was the first to conjecture and demonstrate the compilation of the book from at least two older narratives. Third, this theory was shortly afterward (1779) taken up in Germany by Eichhorn, who made a list of several other words peculiar to each Genesis-writer, the existence of which had been inferred from Astruc's disclosure; and the clues thus furnished were followed up, by Ilgen (1798) and many subsequent critics, with slowly increasing results elaborating, correcting, and confirming various theories, until the present consensus of opinion has been established.

Today, then, it may be said that the overwhelming judgment of critical scholarship is to the effect that the Hexateuch as we now have it originated in substantially the following manner:

First, there was produced, in the ninth century before Christ, an historical work which we call the Jehovistie Writing, or, more briefly the Jehovist (or Jahvist), or simply, because of its use of the word Jehovah (Yahweh) for God (because also the author belonged to the southern kingdom, Judah). Shortly afterward a second work was produced, called now the Elohist Writing, or the Elohist, or E, so designated because it em-ploys Elohim for God (and because also this writer was an Ephraimite). Both of these works may be said to have appeared between 850 and 750 B. C., and were subsequently united. Then a third book, consisting essentially of our Deuteronomy, and hence called the Deuteronomist, or D, was produced, somewhere between 660 and 622 B. C. and later this was joined to the two preceding works. Next a Priestly. Code was written, not far from 500 B. C., in the interest of the temple and the ritual ; and this, giving a kind of skeleton of Israelitish history, covers it with the flesh and blood of ceremonial legislation. Authorities differ somewhat sharply as to the date of this writing, but not as to its existence. Finally, about the middle of the fifth century, all these documents were united by one or more editors or redactors, who made some changes and additions, and were henceforth promulgated as the Torah of the Jewish people.

The discovery and elucidation of the foregoing facts constitute one of the great achievements of modern learning. In its way, the demonstration is as important and revolutionary as was the Copernican theory in astronomy, or the Darwinian doctrine of "Natural Selection." Its inevitable practical bearings cannot be fully indicated here, but it may be said that it must afford us a new conception of the history of the Israelitish people, and must modify to no small extent our acceptance and use of the first six books of the Bible. We can no longer regard these books as a homogeneous, continuous, orderly, comprehensive, accurate history of the origin and course of human events in this world; or as a textbook of science; or even as a compendium of morals and religion. We must regard them rather as an accretive compilation of various historical sketches, comprising ancient fragments of story and song, legend and myth, some of which have drifted down from the time of Moses or beyond ; and comprising also connected tales, ritualistic ordinances, codes of laws, and earnest religious instructions and appeals—all expressive of the ideas, faith, and customs of the Hebrews at different periods of their national life. By this literature, with an outline of Hebrew history clearly in mind, we may trace and illustrate, with fresh interest and deep sympathy, the progress of the nation and the development of the national religion; without such an historical sketch, and without an understanding of the composite character of these ancient books, our reading of them must continue to produce intellectual confusion, however they may imbue us with an earnestly devout spirit. With the sketch and the analysis before us, we may have the blessing of clear information, together with the same earnestly devout spirit; and the information will be true—we shall be no longer out of harmony with modern knowledge.



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