From Faith to Faith -- Essays on Old Testament Literature by B. Davie Napier
B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1955. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Until their retirement some years ago, my mother and father were missionaries in China, where I was born and reared. Both are musical and both were, and still are, quite literally singing Christians. Gospel hymns were a part of my environment; and I still remember snatches of songs that I have heard, so far as I know, only from them.
One of these starts, as I recall, "I’m a little old-fashioned, I know" and elsewhere declares, "I believe that the Bible is true, though the critics have torn it apart."
Certainly I knew nothing then of the vast grounds for the hymn-writer’s protest, but later in the decade of the thirties I joined, incipiently at the level of a graduate student, the ranks of the same critics and with some real enthusiasm learned and cultivated the techniques of "tearing apart" the biblical literature.
With what astonishing swiftness the religious temper virtually of the whole Protestant world has changed. The positions are in a partial sense reversed. It is in fact the very position assailed in the song which is now "a little old-fashioned." For now there is no more prominent and significant sign of our religious times than the "rediscovery" of the Bible. In the main this recovery -- perhaps a better term -- involves no annulment, no abrogation of the principles and insights of the era of "tearing apart"; but it does imply, in sum, a radical change in interpretation.
Old Testament scholarship continued well into the twentieth century employing the techniques of the nineteenth century; and the nineteenth century was for the Old Testament an era of protracted and major surgery. To carry the analogy of surgery further, nineteenth-century scholars performed a series of exceedingly thorough exploratory operations, checked all arteries to the source, neatly classified according to their lights all living tissue and as neatly set aside all intrusive and extraneous items. At the turn of the century, they handed the Old Testament, now a thoroughly objectivized patient, into the next hundred years.
One could wish that the scholars’ change of role had taken place then. But younger professionals in the field of Old Testament studies were themselves trained in the presence of so much surgery that they were, to use an inelegant phrase, scalpel happy. They could not or would not put down the knife; and when the patient, the Old Testament, was understandably a little slow in convalescing and taking the theological field of battle, they placed him again on the table and continued in exploratory surgery. With truth the analogy can be carried to extreme terms in saying that some among the scholar-surgeons performed in such a way as to suggest that they regarded their task not as an operation but as an autopsy.
Norman Snaith, a British scholar, wrote not many years ago:
There are limits beyond which literary analysis cannot be pressed without doing more harm than good. Even the good order of JEDP may corrupt the scholarly world. We have been so very energetic in isolating each from the other, and even within each, in separating stratum from stratum, that we have tended to forget that there might be method in the madness which so thoroughly dovetailed them in together. Perhaps, after all, that madness was divine.1
A. Trends in Old Testament Interpretation
This quotation sharply points up one of the significant tendencies in Old Testament interpretation. The work of editors is seen as not merely editorial but in fact creative, presenting a unity often transcending the multiple and at points contradictory sources employed. S. H. Hooke, in his little volume on Genesis entitled In the Beginning, quotes from a letter written to him by an unnamed scholar. Hooke obviously quotes with approval:
I hold that Genesis is one book . . . written from many sources, not three, and these sources were in a form or language which had to be completely remodeled by the author of the book in order to make them intelligible. That being so, it is impossible to say whether there were in existence collections of stories for the author to use or not, though we may guess that it is very probable.2
While the majority of scholars in Europe and America would be unwilling to dismiss so casually the results of nineteenth-century literary analysis, certainly a growing number would agree that the sense of unity achieved in Genesis, or in the Hexateuch (Genesis -- Joshua) , or for that matter in the entire Old Testament, is impressive despite the diversity of sources from which it was created. Which is simply to say that there is a growing disposition to regard that madness, if not always as divine, at least as purposive.
Another closely related current trend in Old Testament interpretation is sharply to discount the older notions of disparity between priest and prophet. This older view is characterized in the following blast against the priests from a living American scholar of great repute:
They [the priests] were wholly unconscious of having sanctified the external, obliterated from religion both the ethical ideals of Amos and the tender emotions of Hosea, and reduced the universal Creator to the stature of an inflexible despot. . . . Regulation took the place of spontaneity, discipline stifled freedom, solemnity displaced joyousness.3
Such a statement as this is today sharply challenged. The prophetic and the legal, the prophet and the priest, are not seen as consistently and inimically opposed in the Old Testament. I have elaborated on this trend in Chapter V.
A third trend which ought to be briefly mentioned has to do with the point of emphasis in the comparative study of Old Testament religion with that of Israel’s neighbors. If in the past stress has been placed on similarities, the tendency is now marked to recognize beyond what is common the essential and significant difference. Let me cite two illustrations. The stories of Genesis 1-11 show a striking resemblance at points to stories of human origin circulating in other ancient Near Eastern civilizations. This discovery led to a common view of all of them, including the biblical myths, as primarily etiological, that is, as stories primarily explaining in terms of origin certain persistent and universal questions. But against and beyond the similarities, the Genesis myths reveal in spite of latent primitivisms a far more refined and consistently articulated theology. The study of comparative religion has led fruitfully beyond the discovery of mere similarity to a better understanding of the unique quality of biblical revelation.
Finally, we note the tendency to interpret the Old Testament in terms of its major, its persistently recurrent, themes. If in the few preceding generations we have been concerned or even obsessed with the meaningful task of discovering the process, literary and historical, by which it came to be, we are now gratefully in a position to see the Old Testament not simply as process, but as completed process, not as a series of sequential parts but as a unified whole.
To speak of Old Testament unity implies absolutely no deprecation or repudiation of the insights gained in an understanding of the process of the Bible’s becoming. To speak so does, I think, demand a high measure of participation in its story, and an effort to understand it first in its own terms -- to grasp the Old Testament’s own fundamental assertion that its story from beginning to end is the account of the historical action of God seeking the reconciliation of man and God, the human and the divine, the creature and the Creator.
In this perception, the Old Testament conveys the impression of coherent unity -- a unity achieved in the central themes and presuppositions of the community of Israel. There are at least six of them, which I can only list here, but which, in one way or another, I have tried to point up in the chapters that follow.
1. A consistent and startlingly immediate faith in creation.
2. A second, and all are closely interlinked and interdependent, the nature of human sinfulness, interpreted always in part against the presuppositions of the creation faith.
3. Divine judgment, historical judgment, consistent, on the one hand, in its punitive quality with the concept of God-as-Creator-Judge but, on the other hand, transcended in the main by the concept of God-as-Redeemer into judgment not merely punitive but ultimately itself redemptive in character and purpose.
4. The covenant faith, exemplified in Abraham, in Moses and the Exodus, in the nation Israel, in the Remnant, and in the Messiah or the Servant.
5. The theme of redemption, present from the beginning, and always the fundamental motive in the interpretation of history.
6. And finally, the theme of consummation, the faith in consummation -- consummation, the necessary ultimate extension of faith affirming the absolute sovereignty of God, declaring not so intentionally precisely how it shall be established but simply that it shall be.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
B. The Nature and Technique of Interpretation
The interpretation of the Old Testament (and indeed of any literature) is both a technique and an art embracing a much broader perspective than is sometimes recognized. The usual assumption in interpretation is that one takes a given passage or text and by detailed analysis, careful study and imaginative but disciplined meditation determines as accurately and in such detail as possible all of the meaning expressed and implied therein.
In this sense, interpretation is a task with clearly defined limits. The given passage, now explained and interpreted, is a completed unit and may be left behind by the student for a new and different unit. But this, obviously, is an inadequate function of interpretation. What of the whole from which the passage is taken? Is not the whole in very fact the synthesis of the parts, of the details? Is it not then a necessary function of interpretation to set the interpreted part back into the whole again in order that the whole may better be understood?
Take, in brief example, the Call of Isaiah.4 One immerses oneself in a study of the account -- and the passage (Isa. 6) will profitably bear long and deep immersion -- not simply to know and understand what the prophet experienced in his call and how he himself regarded his difficult and perplexing charge, but to know and understand also how his experience and his interpretation of his charge affected his total ministry.
And this begins to set Old Testament study into nearly limitless terms. Isaiah’s writing is studied by passages and chapters better to understand Isaiah; but Isaiah must be understood for what Isaiah can do to enlighten the whole movement of Hebrew prophecy. An understanding of Hebrew prophecy is essential for an understanding of the larger whole, the Old Testament. And the ultimate end is of course a better understanding of the Judeo-Christian faith.
All of this is to say of Old Testament study and interpretation that it is an effort better to see the whole through the elucidation, understanding and synthesis of the details. And this is one, but only one, of the two major approaches.
The second approach, sometimes overlooked or implicitly denied as a function of interpretation, is from the opposite direction -- from the general to the particular. If it is true that the whole is seen as a synthesis of the details, it is also true that the details can be fully understood only in the light of the total context. If the whole yields its meaning only from the details, it is equally true that the details can be fully comprehended only in the light of broad principles, sweeping and basic presuppositions derived from a general understanding of the whole.
The study of any significant literature, fully conceived, is always thus dialectical and so conceived it has no limits. The details will be utilized unceasingly in the explanation of the whole, and the broad principles of the whole will in turn be applied to the details. If this is the serious intention of the Bible reader, many of the common errors in biblical understanding will be avoided. Interpretation so conceived prohibits on its own definition the lifting of a text out of context. The text’s function is to enlighten the context; and the context must be understood if the text is to be explained.
I am quite aware that this view of Old Testament study and interpretation strongly presupposes a considerable measure of unity in Old Testament literature. It is not of such a kind or degree as to rob the various writers of their individuality, to say nothing of their fallibility. Rather, it is a unity derived from principles of community and canon; from the memory of the community of Israel; and from Israel’s understanding of its past and its present (and its future) as time and event given ultimate meaning only in terms of critical divine activity for critical divine purposes.
C. The Sources of Genesis
By the turn of the last century, a three-source hypothesis (J, E and P) in Genesis was thought to be in its major lines and by its major proponents at least as well-established as the Copernican theory. There were then and have been until the present differences of opinion as to identification by documents of certain passages, sentences, phrases, and even words; and the precise lines of the hypothesis are still with some scholars a point of energetic debate. But among scholars who would class themselves as supporters of the Graf-Wellhausen scheme,5 there is wide accord -- and they are unquestionably a majority.
Within their ranks, however, there have appeared some significant variations affecting source analysis in Genesis. Before the turn of the century the J source had been divided into two different strands. Eissfeldt, in 1922, proposed the symbol L (for "lay" source) for that strand of J dealing with popular legends and myths and reflecting a more primitive social and theological background. The bulk of Eissfeldt’s L source occurs in Genesis and coincides with much that is ascribed by the older scheme to J.
A somewhat similar variation is Pfeiffer’s proposal of a source in Genesis which he designates S, for Seir, the region comprising Edom to the south of Palestine. It is a source which Pfeiffer sees as considerably less extensive than Eissfeldt’s L source, comprising about a dozen stories in Genesis only. It is, however, a more radical departure from the conventional three-source hypothesis, for it is seen as totally at variance in form and thought with J and as betraying a vigorous hostility to Israel and its religion. It is the editorial work of an Edomite who, by skillful selection and arrangement, stamps the source with his own philosophy of history, namely, that "cultural progress is accompanied by increased wickedness and unhappiness."
While some scattered support has been given to both of these modifications of the three-source hypothesis in Genesis, a third recent and more serious modification has as yet gained few followers. Rudolph and Volz, two German scholars, launched in the 1930’s a frontal attack on the E document. It is, they maintained, a myth sincerely but erroneously created by the Graf-Wellhausen school of critics. As a "source" E is quite incoherent and must, in fact, be seen for the most part as mere supplements to J.
In the early decades of this century, Hermann Gunkel, while certainly no opponent of the established hypothesis, led a movement representing especially in Genesis a marked shift of emphasis. Gunkel analyzed the Genesis material primarily according to type, not document. Upon such criteria as literary form, the nature of the tradition, the social and theological concepts underlying and the apparent motivation of the story, Gunkel classified the myths and legends of Genesis. In introducing form analysis, Gunkel unquestionably has been influential in the more recent criticism of the standard multiple-source hypothesis among scholars in Germany, Great Britain, and especially Scandinavia.
Along more conservative lines, a distinguished German scholar, Martin Noth, has recently proposed and presented evidence for a more ancient source than J (he does not commit himself as to whether it was an oral or written source) underlying both J and E and utilized by both. He calls the source G for the German term Grundlage, "basic source.
By all odds the most radical departure from the Graf-Wellhausen school of criticism is among scholars in the Scandinavian countries loosely designated by the term "Uppsala School." In Professor I. Engnell three major lines of Scandinavian Old Testament scholarship converge, coming from Pedersen, Mowinckel and Nyberg. All four of these reject in one way or another the validity of the older multiple-source theories. Engnell sees no adequate criteria for distinguishing between so-called J and E. He places strong emphasis upon cult and oral tradition; and he predicates meaningful unity only in extended sections of the Old Testament: the Tetrateuch, Genesis -- Numbers, is a unity characterized by the pervading priestly point of view dominant in the entire section; and Deuteronomy -- II Kings is a second major unit reflecting chiefly the perspective of the Deuteronomic point of view.
It would be well to conclude this brief survey of some of the most significant recent theories in source analysis with the judgment of Aage Bentzen.6 It is of first importance, he states, that we understand the "import of tile ‘old school,’ so that continuity in science can be seen and the new points of view get their true background. Our criticism of them [the new points of view], and our attempts at a solution of our own we must then view in the light of the insecurity of the present situation, as attempts, not as final words. We are living in an age where new theories are about to be born."
1. Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946) , p. 14.
2. The Clarendon Bible, Vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947) , p. vii.
3.Robert H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament( New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941) , p. 260.
4See Chap. IV, pp. 172 ff.
5Graf and Weilbausen were distinguished and highly influential German scholars of the nineteenth century.
6Introduction to the Old Testament (Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gad, 2nd ed., 1952) , Vol. II, p. 24.