A Lesson from Studies of Source Criticism: Contradicting Stories and Humble Diversity in Creation Stories (Gen 1-2)
In his article, Alan Hauser mainly pointed out weaknesses and limitations of source criticism by raising questions regarding how to determine literary sources, how to understand complexities of historical contexts of the sources, and how to interpret written texts in view of other textual approaches such as deconstruction. No doubt that the study of source criticism is incomplete and needs more serious theoretical explorations to make better sense. Reading Hauser's piece, however, I felt that there needs to be more balance in discussions about source criticism.
Despite the weaknesses that he pointed out, there are very important lessons or insights we can glean from the approach of source criticism. Let me illustrate why the idea of sources behind the written material is hermeneutically important to modern readers who want to study the text critically. Case in point will be from the creation stories. Many read the two creation stories in Genesis seamlessly, subordinating the second creation story (Gen 2:4b-25) to the first one (Gen 1:1-2:4a). In that reading, the second creation story follows up the first one — to be refined or complemented. I acknowledge that such a reading would be okay with me as long as it serves people in a community in a helpful way — because we, as readers the Bible, have power to re-interpret in our life context.
That being said, if we turn to another side of reading based on more literary, historical approach by examining each of these two creation stories on its own, with a focus on their literary style and perspective, it is safer to say these two stories are not from the same hand or the community (or tradition) because they are too different to be compatible with each other. For example, in Gen 1, "God" (Elohim) creates (barah in Hebrew) heavens and earth and humanity by mere words; but in Gen 2, like a potter getting his hands dirty, the "Lord God" (Yahweh Elohim) forms (yachar in Hebrew) "humanity" (adam) using the dust from the "ground" (adamah). There are a number of differences between these two creation stories that will lead us to think about the existence of two different story-honoring communities. In this regard, source criticism (part of historical critical methods) helps us understand different traditions behind the text.
Modern historical critical scholarship suggests that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but is a composite of various, multiple written (or oral) sources such as J (Yahwistic source), E (Elohistic), D (Deuteronomic), and P (Priestly) — the so-called Newer Documentary Hypothesis developed by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen. The idea of this source theory comes from the discovery of strikingly different literary features between these sources: differences in terms of different style, vocabulary, perspective, and inconsistencies, duplications/repetitions.
Now my question is: What are some implications that we can glean from the two different, often contradicting creation stories in Genesis? If I may state my conclusion first, nobody can see all; people of generation after generation continue to revise stories and re-live with revised traditions in their life context. So can we understand these biblical creation accounts from that kind of perspective — limited and varied experience of different communities due to their life context? In the following, I will give more explanation as to why I think this way. First of all, the existence of different stories reflects the existence of different communities that have different views of God, the world, and humanity, different issues or needs in their life contexts. In a way, a J-like story reflects the more personal side, an anthropomorphic God, deeply invested in human affair - like God coming down to see what humanity is doing in the Tower of Babel. Humanity is formed from the dust taken from the ground (adamah). Humanity is evil in intent. God regrets his making humanity. In contrast, a P-like God or story reflects a majestic, transcendent God, emphasizing order, authority, purity, and covenant; humanity is blessed to be multiplied, created like God (image and likeness of God).
Let us now focus on a theological question: Why were there two creation accounts?" When the present text of the Pentateuch took its final form by the hand of a Priestly class (P source), why did P as a redactor allow different stories (traditions) in the text, since different stories often pose contradictions, or opposing views? There were two different stories of creation that were available, along with the existence of different communities that appreciated different traditions. If this is the case, P could not altogether ignore available, living traditions. So the implication of P's inclusion of the opposing story is understandable.
In summary, P's inclusion of such a different story (in this case, a creation account) has to do with: (a) rearranging materials for P's cause: order, cosmos, covenant, etc., so that other stories serve P; (b) honoring available traditions because there were different voices in the community; and (c) appreciating the different aspects of God that complement P's view of God. But the bottom line is that, for whatever reason, there are, undeniably, multiple traditions that we can trace back to earlier times when they were first started. Hopefully, we can study a process of tradition changes over time. In this way, we can have a glimpse of how/what each community lived for. We may understand better how each community, though limited, lived faithfully in their time. In this process, we also see ideological elements, good and bad, at work in each community.
Yung-Suk Kim, Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University.
Citation: Yung-Suk Kim, " A Lesson from Studies of Source Criticism: Contradicting Stories and Humble Diversity in Creation Stories (Gen 1-2)," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=728