Thursday, December 07, 2006

A necessary digression

Right here I need to step back for a moment and take a look at the nature and origin of the text that we're reading. Tanta finds justification for the chapter division, but the point I wanted to make is that the divisions into chapters and verses were made by medieval Christians, and have no basis in the earlier texts. So in fact a monk in what is today Italy made that demarcation a couple of thousand years after the Torah was first written down, perhaps for the same reasons Tanta finds it meaningful.

The reason it is nevertheless odd, of course, is that just after the verses I quoted yesterday, we get a whole new creation myth, which is inconsistent with the first one. Apologists will no doubt say that Genesis just goes on to fill in some details that were left out of the first sequence, but that doesn't work. As we shall see shortly, the two stories cannot be reconciled. This won't be the last time we run into similar problems. The Torah contains many examples of multiple tellings of similar stories with different details, including some very central material, such as alternate versions of the Ten Commandments.

I'm not a biblical scholar and I don't intend to invest the time to become one, but I vaguely remember the basics from a course I took, believe it or not, in high school, and I've refreshed and extended my knowledge in connection with this project. As is often the case, a perfectly good place to start is Wikipedia, with this article on the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. (The main Wikipedia article on the Bible, as you might expect, is something of a mess, but this seems very clean.) It's called a hypothesis because some people think the Torah was dictated by God directly to Moses (including the parts that happen after he's dead), or perhaps appeared miraculously on golden plates like the Book of Mormon, or something.

But in fact it was compiled by a scribe called the redactor from four main sources, perhaps around 539 BC after Babylon fell to Cyrus II, whereupon an exiled Jewish community there returned to Israel and there was a need to knit together various traditions in order to unify the community. In other words, the Torah is an anthology of mythology's greatest hits.

I'm not going to worry about the details as I proceed, although readers are welcome to wrestle with them. But we will have to acknowledge the repetitions, conflicts and disparities we encounter.

(By the way, in looking into this, I encountered the Book of J, by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, which maintains that the Torah source called J, author of the first creation myth, was a woman. This is no doubt what Missy was thinking of. As I said, this is no doubt a recording made at some point of older oral traditions, but there's certainly no reason why it couldn't be women's lore. I haven't read the book.)