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THE COMPOSITION OF THE NARRATIVE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

by
02 November 2006

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KRATZ’s analysis of the way in which the narrative books of the Old Testament reach their present form constitutes a radical challenge to long-accepted views. For Kratz, the only certainty is the demarcation of the Priestly Writing. Everything else is “an open question”.

 Abandoning the traditional literary sources, Kratz concentrates on identifying individual traditions that have been brought together to form a basic text, and their subsequent expansion. Numerous tables are provided to illustrate this process.

He begins with the chronistic history, where the issues are clearest, and which can serve as a methodological model for the more difficult Enneateuch (Genesis to Kings). Kratz recognises that the text is the result of a long literary process, in which the author is always engaged in exegesis of earlier material, editing, improving, and interpreting it. Inevitably, the result is coloured by the circumstances of his own time.

For Kratz, the fall of Israel in 720 BC and of Judah in 587 BC were the catalysts for the creation of the narrative material. While he identifies a whole series of individual narratives and narrative cycles from before these events, they show no reflection about who or what Israel, Judah or Yahweh are, or should be. Theologically, Israel and Judah were no different from Moab.

It was the adoption of the prophetic critique that it was Yahweh himself who was responsible for the disasters of 720 and 587 which led to that confession of faith in Yahweh as the one and only God of Israel, and Israel as the one and only people of Yahweh.

Kratz argues that the fall of Israel led after 720 to the creation of three literary works: first, the beginnings of the monarchy and the Davidic state (1 Samuel to 1 Kings 2); second, the Yahwistic primal history and patriarchal narrative (Genesis 2-35); third, the exodus narrative (Exodus 2 to Joshua 12).

These were further enhanced, after 587, by the touching up of the Yahwistic primal history and patriarchal narrative, the incorporation of Ur-Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12-26) into the exodus narrative, and the Deuteronomistic extension of the narrative of the monarchy to the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, on the basis of the centralisation of the cult as set out in Ur-Deuteronomy.

In the post-exilic period, with no hope of the restoration of the monarchy, Yahweh becomes the one and only God, who chose the Hebrews to obey him even in foreign lands. At this point, Kratz asserts that the Decalogue was inserted into the exodus narrative and later Deuteronomy. No longer was centralisation of the cult the criteria under which Israel was to be judged, but the first commandment. This led to the formation of the Enneateuch.

The final historical event to influence the narrative material of the Old Testament was the rebuilding of the temple. This resulted in the independent Priestly Writing being combined with the primal history, patriarchal narrative, and exodus narrative, and led to the separation of the Pentateuch as the Torah of Moses.

A short review cannot do justice to either the importance or the intricacies of Kratz’s thesis. Old Testament scholarship has long recognised what Kratz calls “the myth of Israel”, that is, that the history of Israel told in the scriptures must not be confused with the historical Israel.

Instead, what the narrative books of the Old Testament give us is the history of the scriptural life and theology of Israel and Judah — in Kratz’s argument — in the aftermath of the fall of the two kingdoms.

This monumental work deserves the widest readership. But, despite the author’s expressed hope, it is not a book for beginners.

Canon Dr Phillips is a former headmaster of King’s School, Canterbury.

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