The Pentateuch: A Social Science Commentary

By Wagenaar, Jan A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Pentateuch: A Social Science Commentary


Wagenaar, Jan A., Journal of Biblical Literature


The Pentateuch: A Social Science Commentary, by John Van Seters. Trajectories 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999. Pp. 233. 216.95; $28.00 (paper)/45.00; $79.00 (cloth).

The first volume in this new Trajectories series is-unlike the subtitle may lead one to believe-nothing like an ordinary commentary. The series does not aim to be a verse-by-verse commentary nor a thematic- or synthetic-oriented handbook. Trajectories aims to explore the texts of the OT as sociohistorical artifacts and focuses on the interests of the groups who produced the texts and the cultural forces that may have influenced their production.

The underlying assumption of the present volume is that the interpretation of the Pentateuch has to begin with its compositional history. The reconstruction of the compositional history of the various literary strata of the Pentateuch and their sociohistorical context is preceded by a short introduction dealing with the canonization of the Pentateuch, an outline of the Pentateuch as a whole, and a brief discussion of the problems it presents. The third chapter offers a survey of the historical-critical research on the Pentateuch in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century. The discussion is limited to those aspects of the research that are necessary to understand the current situation in pentateuchal studies. Van Seters deals with the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis to Wellhausen (De Wette, Reuss, Graf, Kuenen), the problems of the sources (the unity, nature, and extent of J; the existence of E; the nature and unity of P and its relation to D; the problem of redactors), the rise of form criticism (Gunkel) and tradition history (Alt, Noth, von Rad), and a critique of these approaches. A separate paragraph is devoted to the American scene and the Albright-Cross school. The survey of the traditional trends within the historical-critical research on the Pentateuch is followed by a discussion of the new currents in pentateuchal criticism. This fourth chapter deals with the contributions by Van Seters, Schmid, and Rendtorff that changed the direction of pentateuchal studies in the mid-seventies. Subsequent paragraphs evaluate the problems presented by tradition-historical and form-critical approaches with a special emphasis on the questions of literacy and orality. The contention that the prose narrative of the Pentateuch does not necessarily reflect a long period of oral transmission, but may rather have been influenced by the oral style of storytelling and popular folklore throughout its compositional history, is basic to Van Seters's view of the composition of the Pentateuch. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the problem with P (date, unity, source or supplement, conclusion) and the final redactor of the Pentateuch. The presentation of the materials that deal with the traditional trends and new currents in the historical-critical research of the Pentateuch in two separate chapters, each followed by a critique of the various approaches involved, has unfortunately resulted in a fair amount of repetition which might otherwise have been avoided.

The following chapters deal with compositional history and the social setting of Deuteronomy (ch. 5), the work of the Yahwist (ch. 6), and the contributions of the Priestly writer (ch. 7). The order of the individual chapters reflects Van Seters's views on the genesis of the Pentateuch discussed in detail in his previous books: Abraham in History and Tradition (1975), In Search of History (1983), Prologue to History (1992), and The Life of Moses (1994). At the beginning of the compositional history of the Pentateuch stands the core of Deuteronomy. This was used in the early exilic period as introduction to a larger historical work that comprised Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (Dtr History). In the late exilic period the Yahwist expanded this work by a history of the origin of the people from creation to the death of Moses (Genesis-Numbers). …

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