Parshat Va’era, or, Biblical Criticism and the Redactor’s Amnesia

I’m back! Did you miss me!? 😉

Despite the purported break that comes with the new year, it’s been busy in these parts. I have a longer post coming out later today, but in the meantime, I’ve got a shorter comment on this week’s regularly scheduled Torah portion, Parshat Va’era.

Where are we in the story in this portion? Moses, we are told, has encountered Yahweh in the desert and made some initial forays into Egypt to try to free the Israelites. We are also told that these efforts have failed. And then we come to this passage, at the very beginning of the portion:

And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai–but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).

(“Hey, Humanistic Jew,” you’re thinking, “why uppercase ‘God'”? Because it’s used as a proper noun in this context.)

Now, there’s a problem here. The statement in verse 3–“but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them”–isn’t true!

As to Abraham:

And he [Yahweh] said to him [Abraham], “I am Yahweh, who brought you out from Ur-Kasdim” (Gen. 15:7)

As to Jacob:

And at that moment, Yahweh was standing over him, and said, “I am Yahweh, god of Abraham, your father, and god of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13)

On numerous occasions, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all refer to Yahweh by that name. So, too, do their spouses, angels, and even members of foreign tribes.

What’s the deal, then, with Exodus 6:3 saying something rather different?

Traditional Jewish approaches to addressing the biblical text see the problem here, and work to explain away the contradiction. For example, Ibn Ezra, who as a commentator is quite sensitive to textual and linguistic problems, observes this problem and suggests that what the verse may mean is that Yahweh did not make himself known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob solely by the name Yahweh–rather, first Yahweh made himself known as El Shaddai, and then as Yahweh. Ibn Ezra’s approach here is not unique; most of the commentators recognize the issue, and suggest reconciliatory readings related to Moses’s general level of trust, or Moses’s special role, or even that Yahweh is chastising Moses for giving up too easily when Yahweh’s power is on his side.

The problem, of course, is that Exodus 6:3 says what it says, and these interpreters are reading into the text. We do this all the time, and it’s a normal and, within a fixed context, reasonable way to read things. Think of the times you’ve heard someone contradict themselves and found an explanation for it. The stakes for traditional Jewish interpreters are higher than you or I explaining away a friend’s contradictory statements–after all, there’s a core principle for these interpreters that the text is itself the product of a divine author–but the process and product are intelligible within a given set of parameters.

What if, instead of taking the text from that perspective, we simply wonder about why there is a seeming contradiction in a unified document? That is the approach taken by modern biblical scholarship, and is the basis for an approach that finds multiple sources within the single document we call the Torah. A basic question of biblical scholarship is, “If this is the product of one author, as tradition claims, why would that one author put in so many apparent contradictions, non sequiturs, and repetitions?”

Biblical criticism says, in short, “it’s because there isn’t one author.”

Note that biblical criticism does not necessarily say that this is not one document. In fact, certain forms of biblical criticism–redaction, canonical, and literary, in particular–are interested in the construction of the editorial process, why the contributions of multiple authors came together in a particular way, and what the unified document means.

This consideration–that separate authors need not mean a final separate document–allows us to continue to use insights like those of Ibn Ezra and other traditional commentators. A literary reading of the contradictions–like the apparent forgetfulness of Yahweh as a character, forgetting how he revealed himself to Moses’s ancestors–give us insight into why a redactor of the text knowledgable of other names for Yahweh might have included this contradiction.

For example, Ramban, a 12th-century commentator, interprets Exodus 6:3 to suggest that Yahweh introduced himself by that name to Moses because the relationship with Moses–with respect to prophecy and what Moses would be doing–was simply different, that Yahweh dealt with Moses largely from the starting position of mercy. That provides interesting ways of thinking about the differences as characters among Moses, Abraham, and Jacob. The notion of chastisement–of portraying Moses as painfully human–may provide a reasonable approach to understanding why the text is put together as it is, as well.

The bottom line, I think, is that the results of biblical criticism don’t mandate throwing away the vast pool of traditional sources. But they do demand that we reconsider the nature of authority and our relationship with those artifacts of the past.