Major Book Reviews -- Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis by John Van Seters

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Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis, by John Van Seters. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 1992. 367 pp. $27.99. ISBN 0-664-21967-5.

Subtitled "The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis," this well-written book requires clarification of both terms: "Yahwist" and "historian." For Van Seters, there is no "E" document; the label "Yahwist" covers "the entire pre-Priestly corpus of the Pentateuch as a whole." The qualifier "historian" in the subtitle refers to a historiography that is generically distinct from the literary output of modern "historians," where appeal to myth and legend as primary sources for historical memory are out of order. The Yahwist work, however, is not allegorical. Though it is didactic and theological, it should be understood as intended to be "historical" within ancient categories of thought.

This study is greatly influenced by a classicist's view of what counted as historical truth in antiquity, that is, "a vulgate authenticated by consensus over the ages" (Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988], p. 6). The modifier "vulgate" rather than "canonical" is preferred because the latter implies recognition of a work's authority and antiquity by a much later group. In ancient historiography, documentation was unnecessary; consensus sanctioned both the truth of the work and the reputation of the "classical" writer. This book thus resumes a debate with Baruch Halpern, who has argued a more favorable comparison in intentionality between modern and some biblical historiographers (The First Historians [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988]).

The trend toward relatively late dating of the "Yahwist" (however delimited) continues apace in this study, with the claim that literacy in the early monarchy era, to which scholars have generally dated "J," was too undeveloped to support such a setting for the origins of this national tradition. Rather, the Yahwist, it is argued, worked in the full knowledge of a national tradition as represented by the deuteronoministic history. The Yahwist represents a closely related genre, nearly contemporary with, but later than, the national history (DtrH). The Yahwist "was written" as a "prologue" to DtrH. It is disconcerting to find the same word, "Yahwist," used for both the writer and the work. In any case it was the post-DtrH Yahwist that (or who) incorporated, for the first time, the traditions of the patriarchs in the story line, and there is no longer any compelling reason to consider the patriarchal promises in any form as early.

A major emphasis in this study is the argument that in the primeval history of Genesis 2--11 the Yahwist has incorporated both Eastern and Western antiquarian traditions. Two examples of the latter, for which the author makes a very plausible case are the escapade of the "sons of God" (Gen. 6) and the Table of Nations (Gen. 10). For the latter, comparison is made, appropriately I think, with Hesiod's Catalogue of Women. In rare agreement with Westermann, this study concludes that the stories in the primeval history are simply strung together, without adding up to anything like a crescendo of wickedness, a la von Rad and others. …