CDN media

  • Prologue to the whole: The Creation (Genesis 1) 
  • The history of humanity (Genesis 2–11) 
    • Making and naming 
    • Commanding and disobeying
  • Zooming in: Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12–36) 
    • Hospitable and inhospitable 
      • Abraham and the three visitors 
      • Lot in Sodom 
      • Abimelech
      • Dinah and the family of Hamor   
    • Barrenness and fertility
      • Sarai/Sarah
      • Rebekah
      • Rachel
    • Elder and younger 
      • Ishmael and Isaac 
      • Esau and Jacob 
      • The children of Leah and the sons of Rachel 
  • The children of Israel in Egypt (Genesis 37-Exodus 12) 
    • Beneficiaries: Genesis 37–50 
    • Slaves: Exodus 1–12 
  • The children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 13-Deuteronomy 34)
    • Wandering begun (Exodus 13–18) 
    • Ascent to Sinai (Exodus 19-Leviticus 27)
    • Response to Sinai (Numbers 1–8) 
      • Ordering
      • Cleansing
      • Dedicating 
      • Remembering 
    • Wandering resumed (Numbers 9-Deuteronomy 33)
    • Ascent to Nebo/Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34) 

This kind of thing can seem reductive, and if you rely on it overmuch it certainly will be, but note how it calls attention to the relentless patterning of the narrative. As Robert Alter has pointed out, the long-time obsession with sources among scholars of the Hebrew Bible — their slightly mad-eyed teasing out of the contributions of their posited authors J, E, D, and P — led them to the assumption that “the redactors were in the grip of a kind of manic tribal compulsion, driven again and again to include units of traditional material … for reasons they themselves could not have explained.” Yet if that were true, why does an outline of the Pentateuch look so orderly — indeed, almost excessively so? 

Gabriel Josipovici has argued in his wonderful and lamentably neglected The Book of God that “the inventors of the documentary hypothesis” — the leading biblical scholars of a century to a century-and-a-half ago — 

believed that by trying to distinguish the various strands they were getting closer to the truth, which, in good nineteenth-century fashion, they assumed to be connected with origins. But in practice the contrary seems to have taken place. For their methodology was necessarily self-fulfilling: deciding in advance what the Jahwist or the Deuteronomist should have written, they then called whatever did not fit this view an interpolation. But this leads, as all good readers know, to the death of reading; for a book will never draw me out of myself if I only accept as belonging to it what I have already decreed should be there. 

What my little outline shows is what anyone can see if they read the text — that however many authors and redactors worked on the Pentateuch, it’s anything but a chaotic assemblage of contradictory traditions; rather, it is almost obsessively built upon readily identifiable patterns, patterns that work like musical themes or Wagnerian leitmotifs

I’ll conclude with a more general point. You should not be able to get a doctorate in the humanities without having this declaration tattooed on the back of your hand: “A book will never draw me out of myself if I only accept as belonging to it what I have already decreed should be there.