It’s possible to read one’s Bible and never notice the thousand details that point to the existence of sources sewn together or merely juxtaposed in the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) and beyond. The comparative study of these sources, hypothetical though the sources will forever remain, opens a window onto a world which not everyone has seen and some are afraid to acknowledge. It is a wonderland, and not everyone wants to be an Alice.
It is a land populated with authors who are acrobats, tight-rope walkers, and somersaulters. Some of them, at least in my mind’s eye, appear to be scantily dressed. From another point of view, they appear to be a collection of sculptors who turn past, present, and future on a wheel of higher truth. The clay and water come together in smooth gestures. There is a rumor of treasure in their earthen vessels.
If you read the Bible in translation, it’s easy not to notice salient detail. Translations tend to homogenize and simplify. If you care about the detail of biblical literature, you have no choice but to learn the biblical languages, and learn them well.
The question of the existence of sources combined, framed, and reworked is separate with respect to the question of who combined them and when. An excellent scholar like Richard Averbeck, who thinks the Pentateuch is essentially Mosaic, does not deny the existence of J, E, D, and P.1 But he thinks, as did Astruc, that Moses combined them.
My problem has always been that I do not disagree. As Franz Rosenzweig put it, what Wellhausen and the others call “R” (for “Redactor”) we confess to be Moses (actually, Rosenzweig said “Rabbi,” but it’s the same thing2).
That’s because Moses is, in Jewish tradition beginning within the pages of the Bible, a hermeneutical construct. He is a key that opens door after door in the quest for a narrative identity animated by hope and structured by norms.
Does that mean that Moses was not or is not a flesh-and-blood person? On the contrary: he was and is, in precisely three senses.
First of all, when the liturgy affirms that all Israel witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, the affirmation is not fantastic. In fact, the statement is tautological, since “all Israel” and “those who witness the parting of the Red Sea” are equivalent terms. Anyone who has experienced the liturgy will, I believe, understand. I’m a goy for God’s sake, but have experienced the liturgy often enough. On that basis, the statement that “all Israel” has witnessed the parting of the Red Sea appears self-evidently true.
The same is the case with respect to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to its being written by the finger of God, to its being given to Moses, and then came Aaron’s golden calf which popped out of nowhere and all the rest. It’s all self-evidently true, though it is not a photograph of reality. It is more like a Klee, a Picasso, or a Chagall, whose abstract colors and forms, abstract and specific at the same time, speak a precise language.
In short, from within the system of signs, it is self-evidently true that the Torah was given to Moses and not to Aaron, David, or Elijah, though the chariots of fire stood on the hills around him when he moved from point A to point B. The Torah is above them all and above the chariots of fire and is mediated by still another. Moses is his name. He is the archetype of rich categories of experience and conflict which are at the heart of flesh-and-blood existence. There is not a scrap of the fantastic about him, though he is, no less than Aaron and more than David and Elijah, a transpersonal person.
Secondly, and specifically, everyone who has sat in the seat of Moses (Matt 23:2) is Moses. This is recognized in the concept of the unity of written and oral Torah. This unity is not an invention. Unless my eyes and mind completely deceive me, it is a fact. The transpersonal and the personal interact on this level.
Thirdly, once upon a time there was someone named Moses. Historically speaking, we don’t know much for certain about him. We don’t even know where he was buried. But if the God of Moses exists, then so does Moses, and he’s probably speaking with Elijah this very moment. But of that reality we can say very little.
For one who thinks in terms of signs, the value of the historical study of the Bible is clear: it allows one to sense the unity of the particular and the universal, the mystical and the historical.
Shalom Paul put it nicely (481):
[T]hrough all the variegated and often contradictory legends runs the assumption that in spite of his unique career as the faithful “servant of God,” Moses always remained a mortal, fallible human being. In modern times the historicity of Moses – and the Exodus tradition as a whole – has been challenged; but many scholars agree that some of the tribes were in fact enslaved in Egypt and freed, that the Israelite religion was founded in law by a solemn covenant, and that a heroic figure like Moses played a central role in these events. . . . Both a historical personality and a spiritual symbol, Moses represents the passionate and self-sacrificing leader, liberator, intercessor, lawgiver, teacher (Moshe Rabbenu [Moses Our Master]), “faithful shepherd,” founder of Judaism, and prophet of monotheism. Tradition attributes to him the authorship of the entire Torah and regards him as the fountainhead of the oral law. Eschatological speculation also ascribed to him a role in the future, messianic redemption.
Mark W. Chavalas, “Moses,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 570-79; Dennis T. Olson, “Moses,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Volume 4 (ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld; Nashville: Abingdon, 2009) 142-152: Shalom Paul, “Moses,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder; New York: Oxford, 1997) 480-81
1 Richard E. Averbeck, “Factors in Reading the Patriarchal Narratives: Literary, Historical, and Theological Dimensions,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts (ed. David M. Howard Jr. and Michael A. Grisanti; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003) 115-137. See, for example, Table 5.2 on p. 129.
2 “We . . . translate the Torah as one book. For us . . . it is the work of a single mind. We do not know who the mind was; we cannot believe that it was Moses. We name that mind among ourselves . . . R. We, however, take R to stand not for Redactor but for rabbenu [our Rabbi]. For whoever he was, and whatever text lay before him, he is our teacher and his theology is our teaching.” - Franz Rosenzweig in idem and Martin Buber, “The Unity of the Bible: A Position Paper vis-à-vis Orthodoxy and Liberalism,” in Scripture and Translation [= Die Schrift und ihre Verdeutschung (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1939)] (ed. and trans. Lawrence Rosenwald and Everett Fox; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) 22-26. Rosenzweig in referring to Moses had in mind the Moses of a critic like Ernst Sellin or Martin Noth. On another level of analysis, Moses and R are one and the same person.