The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers

By Balentine, Samuel E. | Interpretation, July 1996 | Go to article overview

The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers


Balentine, Samuel E., Interpretation


THIS STUDY IS A SEQUEL to the earlier work of Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992). In the previous work Van Seters argued that the Yahwist (J) was an ancient historian of the exilic period who combined Eastern (primarily Mesopotamian) and Western (Greek) historiographic traditions to present in Genesis a prologue or preface to the history of Israel. The present volume develops this argument by focusing on the second half of the Yahwist's history, the "pseudo-biography" (p. 2) of Moses in Exodus to Numbers. Modeled on the genre of Near Eastern historiography, J's life of Moses presents the great events in this leader's career in terms of the concerns and destiny of the people of Israel.

Van Seters marshals the evidence for the Yahwist as historian by engaging in a literary history of the textual traditions about Moses. He is not concerned with the historicity of the incidents that are reported in Moses' life, but rather with the tradition history of the texts that record these incidents. Towards this end he minimizes the value of source- and form-critical approaches, which offer at best only internal analysis of a given text, and concentrates instead on the midrashic principle of "`comparing scripture with scripture,' but in a historical-critical manner" (p. 247).

His thesis is that the Yahwist is a single exilic author, contemporary with Second Isaiah, whose context is pre-P (priestly) and post-D/Dtr (deuteronomic/ deuteronomist). He attributes no role to the E (Elohistic) source, and regards P as only supplementary to J (not as a once independent document). His chief concern, therefore, is to demonstrate J's dependence on D/Dtr.

For example, Deuteronomy uses the term "signs and wonders" to refer to God's actions in the deliverance from Egypt (e.g., 4:32; 6:22; 7:9) and speaks in a general way of the "diseases of Egypt" that the Israelites experienced during the sojourn (7:15; 28:60). In Exodus 7-12 the Yahwist develops these oblique references into a "plague" narrative which not only embellishes but reinterprets D's version. Similarly, a comparison of the J and D versions of the conquest of the land confirms that J is dependent on D, not vice versa as has been traditionally argued. In the stories about the spies (Num. 13-14; Deut. 1:19-46), the defeat of Sihon and Og (Num. 2-21; Deut. 2-3), and the settlement of the eastern tribes (Num. 32; Deut. 3:12-20), J has compiled, conflated, and supplemented the source material in D in order to present an enhanced portrait of Moses as a leader whose religious and political skills are especially paradigmatic for a community in exile.

It is the thesis of an exilic J, Van Seters contends, that offers the best resolution to some of the most contested source- and form-critical issues in Pentateuchal studies. For example, once one dismisses assumptions about the antiquity of the JE strata of the Sinai pericope (Exod. 19-24), the way is clear, following L. …

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