Between Babylon and Egypt: Mythology or Historical Traditions in the Book of Genesis. Part 2

Part 2. The Egyptian Origins and the Levitical Transmission of the Historical Traditions of the Book of Genesis.

Duane Garrett makes a startling pronouncement at the beginning of his book, Rethinking Genesis, “The time has long passed for scholars of every theological persuasion to recognize that the Graf-Wellhausen theory, as a starting point for continued research, is dead. The Documentary Hypothesis and the arguments that support it have been effectively demolished by scholars from many different theological perspectives and areas of expertise.” [Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis (Grace Focus Pub, 2000), p. 11]

Nevertheless, the Documentary Hypothesis [DH] remains a major operating framework in Pentateuchal studies among critical scholars, even though its methodology has been shown to be based on flawed linguistics (Umberto Cassuto). Its reconstruction of the literary sources has also been shown to rely on arbitrary literary criteria and circular arguments (Oswald T. Allis and Gleason Archer). Finally, Egyptologists like Kenneth Kitchen have exposed the weakness of its historical foundations as new archaeological evidence shows that the historical milieu of the Pentateuch is more likely to be that of the milieu of Palestine in early second millennium BC rather than that of the milieu of Babylonian exile in the 5 th century BC. The DH is like a splendid academic castle floating magically in air since its foundations have been demolished even though its proponents continue to abide in it simply because they cannot agree on what new structure should replace it.

Critical scholars continue to ignore the new evidence against the DH so long as criticism of the DH is conducted in a piece-meal fashion. It would be good for critics of the DH to learn some lessons drawn from the earlier debates on the theory of evolution given by Bernard Ramm, “A series of guerrilla fights with evolution showing its weaknesses and inconsistencies will not win the day. Convictions are surrendered only when a more unifying, a more integrating hypothesis is suggested and demonstrated.” [Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Paternoster, 1964), p. 191]

In this regard, Duane Garrett first outlines how the DH is inconsistent with evidence which shows that the patriarchal narratives are well suited to the Palestinian context in the second millennium BC. Second, he argues that the Levites were already an established class of clerics and scribes among the Israelites in Egypt. It was the Levitical clerics who received and faithfully transmitted the record of divine revelation from Moses in Egypt. Garrett concludes, “It [The Levitical transmission of historical tradition] also tells us how it is that Moses possessed these records. As a Levite himself, and a brother of Aaron, the records would have been immediately accessible to him. Urgenesis is therefore the Mosaic redaction of the Levitical records of the history of the patriarchs (p. 233).”

Garrett interprets the biblical texts seriously on their own terms and offers a more comprehensive, coherent and compelling reading of the Book of Genesis (Pentateuch) than the arbitrary reconstruction of the sources of the Pentateuch executed by critics who accept the DH. His study confirms that the DH is not only dead; it should be buried.


Excerpts from Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Christian Focus, 2000). Theme: The Egyptian

A New Proposal
An alternative to both the critical and the traditional models [of the development of the historical tradition so of Israel] exists, however, and it may be the key to the problem of the transmission and preservation of the Genesis source material during the Egyptian sojourn. This solution is as follows: The function of the Levites as scribes, teachers, and quasi-priests actually antedated the exodus and began in Egypt. During this time, for reasons unknown, members of the Levitical tribe began to take on the role of preserving the patriarchal traditions and teaching them to the community at large. Around the same time, rudimentary priestly duties began to be assigned to them as well. By the time of the exodus, these roles were firmly established as Levitical—not by law but by tradition. (p. 208)

I have generally referred to pre-exodus Levi as the ‘scribal’ or ‘clerical’ tribe rather than the ‘priestly’ tribe. In other words, I believe that Levi had the primary responsibility of preserving and transmitting the patriarchal religious traditions of Israel. In that sense, they were ‘clergy,’ but this is not to say that they were ‘priests’ in the exclusive sense of being the only ones who had the right to offer sacrifice, pronounce benedictions, or perform other sacred duties.

To the contrary, the question of who might perform these duties must have been in a state of flux during the sojourn as Israel slowly moved from being a familial community to a national community. But as Levi took on the scribal and clerical duties, the general understanding that Levites were the national priests must have developed. By analogy, in modern religions that officially have no clergy, a de facto clergy develops among those who study and interpret the religion’s sacred writings. (p. 215)

But in the period after the conquest, when the Israelites were scattered all over the land, exclusive use of the central sanctuary was no longer possible and other local altars were used. This situation is not forbidden in Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, unfettered proliferation of altars was discouraged and the use of Canaanite shrines was forbidden. The Levites ministered in various ways at this time throughout Israel.

This interpretation of the history of the Levites is intelligible only if the Levites were regarded as clerics by the people prior to the exodus. The Book of Exodus itself supports this conclusion. It was not de jure, from Sinai, but de facto. For this reason, the general role of Levites as priests continued somewhat independently of the legislated system of the central sanctuary.

This brings us back to the original question: How were the sources of Genesis transmitted during the Egyptian sojourn? The Levites, during the Egyptian sojourn and for reasons unknown, adopted the roles of scribe and teacher, and in those roles preserved the traditions of the patriarchs. This does not, of course, tell us everything about how the traditions were maintained. Nevertheless, it gives us a basis for thinking that there was a channel through which the traditions were handed down in a reliable, organized fashion.

It also tells us how it is that Moses possessed these records. As a Levite himself, and a brother of Aaron, the records would have been immediately accessible to him. Urgenesis is therefore the Mosaic redaction of the Levitical records of the history of the patriarchs. (p. 234)

Memories of a Wandering People
Formal analysis implies that the sources to Genesis included ancestor epics, negotiation tales, a migration epic, and other material such as the gospel of Abraham. I have suggested what may have been the setting and intention of these sources. In every case except Genesis 1, the most reasonable setting for the material is the sojourn in Egypt.

This conclusion contrasts with previous studies, which have attempted to place Genesis in a setting of the late monarchy or the exile. Nevertheless, analysis not only of the sources but of the whole of Genesis indicates that the Egyptian sojourn is the best setting for the book.

Alienation as the Theme of Genesis
A sense of alienation pervades the entire text of Genesis. It begins with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Humanity has been driven from its home, and the world itself is now an alien place. Sin and guilt have led to estrangement of every kind, and the cry of Cain is the cry of all: I am cast out from the presence of both God and the rest of humanity (4:14). Although of a common family, the human race is divided and scattered. Languages are divided, people are dispersed, and all bonds of unity are lost. (p. 235)

The full text of Genesis, an ancestor epic, stresses above all that Israel is the most alien of peoples in an alienated world. The sense of estrangement and homelessness is mitigated only by the promises of God. In that, there is hope of finally finding a home.

Because of its profound concern with alienation, only two possibilities exist for the setting of the composition of Genesis: Either it is the product of the period of the sojourn and the exodus, or it is the product of the Babylonian exile. This is because a work that addresses the problem of alienation is most likely to have a setting in a community that was itself alienated. In no other periods of Israel’s history were the problems of alienation and homelessness so severe. The question, therefore, is which of the two settings provides the most reasonable backdrop for the composition of Genesis. (p. 237)

An Exilic Setting for Genesis?
Neither the complete text of Genesis nor any individual source relates well to the Babylonian captivity. Apart from the fact that nothing in the text alludes or relates in any way to the captivity, the stories are ill suited to address that crisis.

The stories of Joseph are a good test case. I have already argued that this material is a migration epic and serves the purpose of telling how Israel came to find itself in Egypt. The most reasonable assumption is that the tradents of this material were themselves in Egypt and addressed an audience in Egypt to answer the question of how they came to be living there. Here, however, I want to draw attention to the matter of how poorly this material is suited to a setting in the exile.

First, Joseph is himself identified with Ephraim and Manasseh rather than Judah, and it is difficult to see how the central figure of a story meant to address the crisis of the captivity could be other than Judah. Also, although Joseph goes to Egypt as a slave, this is not the result of hostile actions by an alien power but by the brothers themselves (including Judah).
Furthermore, it is hard to see how the particular events of the Joseph narrative have anything to do with the situation of the Israelites in Babylon. What, for example, could one make of Joseph’s rise to power? Was this an exhortation to the Israelites in Babylon to work hard and rise to the top in Babylonian government circles? That hardly makes sense. In contrast, as the story of how Joseph came to be in a position to provide a place for the children of Jacob in Egypt, the Joseph material makes very good sense.

Finally, there is really no explanation for composing a story that recounts why Israel came to be in Egypt for a community which was nowhere near Egypt. One may of course postulate that the entire Pentateuch has been composed as a theological analogue for the deliverance of the Israelites from Babylon, but this, too, is problematic.

Another aspect of Genesis, which illustrates the difficulty of associating the composition of the book with the captivity, is its many promises of the land of Canaan as the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a work that has its setting in Egypt, these promises are the hope of an alien people; in the setting of the captivity, however, they are mockery.

For the exiles in Babylon, the covenants would have been only cruel reminders that they had been promised the land, had received the promises, and then had forfeited their inheritance. If this is the case, then Genesis and indeed the entire Pentateuch is not a book of comfort but a book of condemnation. But it is impossible to read Genesis as having that purpose. The text everywhere looks forward to the fulfillment of the promises, not backward to their fulfillment and forfeiture.

It is for this reason that the Pentateuch cannot be regarded as looking back to the exodus as an analogue for release from Babylon. In light of the warnings contained in Deuteronomy (28:15–68; 31:14–22), it could only be read as grim condemnation by the exiles. This reading contradicts the atmosphere of looking toward the future that is present throughout the books.
In summary, Genesis is the book of the memories of an alien community. In it, members of this community recall that they have been strangers and outsiders from the very beginning. At the same time, it is the book that gives them anticipation that someday they will have their own land and be strangers no more. Only the Egyptian sojourn can be the setting of material that has this purpose. (pp. 237-239)

The Use of the Sources in the Sojourn and After

Although the Israelites of this time had no Bible and the boundary between canonical and noncanonical story was not yet set, the various traditions of the fathers must have played a protocanonical role in informing the growing community of its identity, of the identity of its God, and of the inheritance awaiting them. In particular, the Genesis stories told them that they were the heirs of the covenant given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The redaction of the sources into Urgenesis during the time of the exodus is also reasonable. As an ancestor epic, Genesis speaks of danger and alienation, but it also recites stories of survival. For Israel in the wilderness, a nation without a land, this would have been a meaningful expression of encouragement.

Conclusion: The Date of the Composition of Genesis

It is clear that the traditional understanding of Genesis as the product of the exodus period is still the best solution to the problem of the origin of the book. Drawn from sources that explained to Israel in Egypt its historical origins and the causes of the sojourn, Genesis expresses hope for the future and lays the foundation for the new work of God, the exodus. (p. 239)

For Further Reading

John Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Baker, 1997).
Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Mentor, 2000). Garrett analyses Genesis 1-11 as an ancestor epic.
James Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford UP, 1999).
Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (IVP, 1975).

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Between Babylon and Egypt: Mythology or Historical Traditions in the Book of Genesis. Part 1