1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > Historical Books of the Old Testament

(Part 4)


Historical Books of the Old Testament

These form two parallel series of sacred history. The books from Genesis to Kings give a continuous story (with some episodical additions) from the creation to the fall of the kingdom of Judah.

The Chronicles

The book of Chronicles covers the same ground on a narrower plan, contracting the early history into genealogical lists, and occupying itself almost entirely with the kingdom of Judah, and especially with matters connected with the temple and its worship. The narrative of the chronicler is continued in the books or rather book of Ezra and Nehemiah, which incorporates original memoirs of these two reformers, but otherwise is so exactly in the style of the Chronicles that critics are practically agreed in ascribing the whole to a single author, probably a Levite, who, as we have already seen, cannot have written before the close of the Persian empire. The questions that are raised as to the work of the chronicler belong less to the general history of Biblical literature than to special introduction. We pass on, therefore, to the larger and more important series. The Pentateuch and the so-called earlier prophets form together a single continuous narrative.

Genesis to Kings: A Single History

It is plain, however, that the whole work is not the uniform production of one pen, but that in some way a variety of records of different ages and styles have been combined to form a single narrative. Accordingly, Jewish tradition bears that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Joshua the book named after him, Samuel the book of Judges, and so forth. As all Hebrew history is anonymous,—a sure proof that people had not yet learned to lay weight on questions of authorship,—it is not probable that this tradition rests on any surer ground than conjecture; and, of course, a scribe who saw in the sacred books the whole outcome of Israel’s history would naturally leap to the conclusion that the father of the Law was the author of the Pentateuch, and that the other leaders of Israel’s history could not but be the writers of a great part of the Scriptures. A more careful view of the books themselves shows that the actual state of the case is not so simple. In the first place, the limits of the individual books are certainly not the limits of authorship. The Pentateuch as a law-book is complete without Joshua, but as a history it is so planned that the latter book is its necessary complement. (Cf., for example, Exod. xvi. 35, Josh. v. 12; Gen. 1, 24, 25; Exod. xvii. 19; Josh. xxiv. 32.) In truth, an author who wrote after the occupation of Canaan could never have designed a history which should relate all God’s promises to Israel and say nothing of their fulfillment. But in its present shape the Pentateuch is certainly subsequent to the occupation, for it uses geographical names which arose after that time (Hebron, Dan), refers to the conquest as already accomplished (Deut. ii. 12. cf. Num. xv. 32; Gen. xii. 6), and even presupposes the existence of a kingship in Israel (Gen, xxxvi. 31), and with this is agrees, that though there are marked differences of style and language within the book of Joshua, each style finds its counterpart in some section of the Pentateuch. In the subsequent books we find quite similar phenomena. The last chapters of Judges cannot be separated from the books of Samuel, and the earlier chapters of Kings are obviously one with the foregoing narrative; while all three books contain passages strikingly akin to parts of the Pentateuch and Joshua (cf., for example, the book of Deuteronomy with Josh. xxiii., 1 Sam. xii., 1 Kings viii.) Such phenomena not only prove the futility of any attempt to base a theory of authorship on the present division into books, but suggest that the history as we have it is not one narrative carried on from age to age by successive additions, but a fusion of several narratives which partly covered the same ground and were combined into unity by an editor.

Duplicate Histories

This view is supported by the fact, that even as it now stands the history sometimes gives more than one account of the same event, and that the Pentateuch often gives several laws on the same subject. Of the latter we have already had one example, but for our present argument the main point is not diversity of enactment, which may often be only apparent, but the existence within the Pentateuch of distinct groups of laws partly taking up the same topics. Thus the legislation of Exod. xx.—xxiii. is partly repeated in ch. xxxiv., and on the Passover and feast of unleavened bread we have at least six laws, which if not really discordant, are at least so divergent in form and conception that they cannot be all from the same pen. (Exod. xii. 1-28, xiii. 3-10, xiii. 15, xxxiv. 18; Lev. xxiii. 5-14, Deut.xvi.) Of historical duplicates the most celebrated are the twofold history of the creation and the flood, to which we must recur presently. The same kind of thing is found in the later books; for example, in the account of the way in which Saul became king, where it is scarcely possible to avoid the conclusion that 1Sam. xi. 1-11 should attach directly to ch. x 16 (cf. x. 7).

Composition of the Pentateuch

But the extent to which the historical books are made up of parallel narratives which, though they cover the same period, do not necessarily record the same events, was first clearly seen after Astruc (1753 A.D.) observed that the respective uses of Jehovah (LORD) and Elohim (God) as the name of the deity afford a criterion by which two documents can be dissected out of the book of Genesis. That the way in which the two names are used can only be due to difference of authorship is now generally admitted, for the alternation corresponds with such important duplicates as the two accounts of creation, and is regularly accompanied through a great part of the book by unmistakable peculiarities of language and thoughts, so that it is still possible to reconstruct at least the Elohim document with a completeness which makes its original independence and homogeneity matter of direct observation. The character of this narrative is annalistic, and where other material fails blanks are supplied by genealogical lists. Great weight is laid on orderly development, and the name Jehovah is avoided in the history of the patriarchs in order to give proper contrast to the Mosaic period (cf. Gen. xvii. 1; Exod. vi. 3); and, accordingly, we find that the unmistakable secondary marks of this author run through the whole Pentateuch and Joshua, though the exclusive use of Elohim ceases at Exod. vi. Of course the disappearance of this criterion makes it less easy to carry on an exact reconstruction of the later parts of the document; but on many points there can be no uncertainty, and it is clearly made out that the author has strong priestly tendencies, and devotes a very large proportion of his space to liturgical matters. The separation of this document may justly be called the point of departure of positive criticism of the sources of the Old Testament; and present controversy turns mainly on its relation to other parts of the Pentateuch. Of these the most important are—1. The Jehovistic narrative, which also begins with the creation, and treats the early history more in the spirit of prophetic theology and idealism, containing, for example, the narrative of the fall, and the parts of the history of Abraham which are most important for Old Testament theology. That this narrative is not a mere supplement to the other, but an independent whole, appears most plainly in the story of the flood, where two distinct accounts have certainly been interwoven by a third hand. 2. Many of the finest stories in Genesis, especially great part of the history of Joseph, agree with the Elohim-document in the name of God, but are widely divergent in other respects. Since the researchers of Hupfeld, a third author, belonging to northern Israel, and specially interested in the ancestors of the northern tribes, is generally postulated for these sections. His literary individuality is in truth sharply marked, though the limits of his contributions to the Pentateuch are obscure.

Priestly, Prophetic and Popular Narratives

It will be remembered that we have already seen that three currents of influence run through the Old Testament development,—the traditional lore of the priests, the teaching of the prophets, and the religious life of the more enlightened of the people. Now, in the three main sections of the early history just enumerated we find the counterpart of each of these. The priestly narrative of the Elohist, the prophetic delineation of the Jehovist, the more picturesque and popular story of the third author, embody three tendencies, which are not merely personal but national, and which constantly reappear in other parts of Hebrew literature. Up to the book of Joshua all three run side by side. But the priestly interest found little scope in the subsequent history; and from the time of the Judges we can generally distinguish only sections marked by prophetic pragmatism and others which, though distinctly religious and even theocratic, are, so to speak, written from a layman’s stand-point. The latter-comprise a large part of Judges, and by far the greatest part of Samuel, as well as the beginning of Kings. To the modern mind this part of the narrative, which is rich in colour and detail, is by far the most interesting, and it is with sincere regret that we pass at 1 Kings xi. To a division of the history for which the chief sources—sited as the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and the Judah respectively—treat almost exclusively of the outer political life of the nation. In striking contrast to the uniformity of this narrative are the interspersed histories of Elijah and other northern prophets. These histories are very remarkable in style and even in language; and containing some of the noblest passages of the Old Testament, form one of many proofs of the unusual literary genius of the kingdom of Ephraim. But how are these various narratives related to each other? This question is not easy to answer. In general the third or lay element of the history seems to stand nearest to t he events recorded, and even perhaps, to form the direct basis of the prophetical matter; while, occasionally, old lists of names and places, poetico-historical pieces, and the like, form a still deeper stratum in the story. (Poetical pieces in the Book of the Wars of Jehovah, Num. xxi. 14; Book of Jashar [the upright], Josh. x. 13; 2 Sam. i. Lists like 2 Sam. xxiii.) Whether the same hands or only the same tendencies as appear in the non-Levitical parts of genesis run on as far as the book of Kings, is a question which, though answered in the affirmative by Schrader and others, cannot be viewed as decided. Even the date of these elements of the Pentateuch is obscure; but in the 8th century Hosea refers quite clearly to passages of both. Thus far there is tolerable agreement among critics; but the Levitical or Elohistoric is the subject of violent controversy, which, however, turns mainly on the analysis of the legal parts of the Pentateuch.

The Laws of the Pentateuch

These contain other elements besides those already enumerated, of which we need only mention the brief code which follows the Decalogue in Exod. xx.—xxiii., and the great repetition of the law in a prophetic spirit which occupies the major part of Deuteronomy. Both these codes may be called popular in tone. They are precepts not for the priests, but for the whole people; and the former is the fundamental sketch of the whole theocratic constitution, which the latter develops and to some extent alters.


Now the book of Deuteronomy presents a quite distinct type of style which, as has been already mentioned, recurs from time to time in passages of the later books, and that in such a connection as to suggest to many critics since Graf the idea, that the Deuteronomic hand is the hand of the last editor of the whole history from Genesis to Kings, or, at least, of the non-Levitical parts thereof. This conclusion is not stringent, for a good deal may be said in favour of the view that the Deuteronomic style, which is very capable of imitation, was adopted by writers of different periods. But even so it is difficult to suppose that the legislative part of Deuteronomy is as old as Moses. If the law of the kingdom in Deut. xvii. was known in the time of the Judges, it is impossible to comprehend Judg. viii. 23, and above all 1 Sam. viii. 7. that the law of high places given in this part of the Pentateuch was not acknowledged till the time of Josiah, and was not dreamed of by Samuel and Elijah, we have already seen. The Deuteronomic law is familiar of Jeremiah, the younger contemporary of Josiah, but is referred to by no prophet of earlier date. And the whole theological stand-point of the book agrees exactly with the period of prophetic literature, and gives the highest and most spiritual view of the law, to which our Lord himself directly attaches his teaching, and which cannot be placed at the beginning of the theocratic development without making the whole history unintelligible. Beyond doubt the book is, as already hinted, a prophetic legislative programme; and if the author put his work in the mouth of Moses instead of giving it, with Ezekiel, a directly prophetic form, he did so not in pious fraud, but simply because his object was not to give a new law, but to expound and develop Mosaic principles in relation to new needs. And as ancient writers are not accustomed to distinguished historical data from historical deductions, he naturally presents his views in dramatic form in the mouth of Moses. If then the Deuteronomic legislation is not earlier than the prophetic period of the 8th and 7th centuries, and accordingly, is subsequent to the elements of the Pentateuchal history which we have seen to be known to Hosea, it is plain that the chronology of the composition of the Pentateuch may be said to centre in the question whether Levitico-Elohistic document, which embraces most of the laws in Leviticus with large parts of Exodus and Numbers, is earlier or later than Deuteronomy. The answer to this question turns almost wholly on archaeological inquiries, for there is, perhaps, no quite conclusive reference to the Elohistic record in the prophets before the Exile, or in Deuteronomy itself. And here arises the great dispute which divides critics, and makes our whole construction of the origin of the historical books uncertain. The Levitical laws give a graduated hierarchy of priests and Levites; Deuteronomy regards all Levites as at least possible priests. Round this difference, and points allied to it, the whole discussion turns. We know, mainly from Ezek. xliv., that before the Exile the strict hierarchical law was not in force, apparently never had been in force. But can we suppose that the very idea of such a hierarchy is the latest point of liturgical development? If so, the Levitical element is the latest thing in the Pentateuch, or, in truth, in the historical series to which the Pentateuch belongs; or, on the opposite view, the hierarchic theory existed as a legal programme long before the Exile, though it was fully carried out only after Ezra. As all the more elaborate symbolic observances of the ritual law are bound up with the hierarchial ordinances, the solution of this problem has issues of the greatest importance for the theology as well as for the literary history of the Old Testament.

Fusion of Several Elements into One Narrative

And now a single word on the way in which these various elements, mirroring so many sides of the national life, and dating from so various ages, came to be fused into a single history, and yet retained so much of their own identity. The Semitic genius does not at all lie in the direction of organic structure. In architecture, in poetry, in history, the Hebrew adds part to part instead of developing a single notion. The temple was an aggregation of small cells, the longest Psalm is an acrostic, and so the longest Biblical history is a stratification and not an organism. This process was facilitated by the habit of anonymous writing, and the accompanying lack of all notion of anything like copyright. If a man copied a book it was his to add and modify as he pleased, and he was not in the least bound to distinguish the old from the new. If he had two books before him to which he attached equal worth, he took large extracts from both, and harmonized them by such additions or modifications as he felt to be necessary. But in default of a keen sense for organic unity very little harmony was sought in points of internal structure, though great skill was often shown, as in the book of Genesis, in throwing the whole material into a balanced scheme of external arrangement. On such principles minor narratives were fused together one after the other, and at length in exile a final redactor completed the great work, on the first part of which Ezra based his reformation, while the latter part was thrown into the second canon. The curious combination of the functions of copyist and author which is here presupposed did not wholly disappear till a pretty late date; and where, as in the books of Samuel, we have two recensions of the text, one in the Hebrew and one in the Septuagint translation, the discrepancies are of such a kind that criticism of the text and analysis of its sources are separated by a scarcely perceptible line.

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