I’ve been reading through George W. Coats’ 1976 study, From Canaan to Egypt: Structural and Theological Context for the Joseph Story, and was struck by an interesting methodological point he makes regarding the precise delineation of pentateuchal sources. Now while certain forms of source criticism are compatible with confessional Old Testament studies, others are not. Development of the form critical method in the past few decades has enabled even conservative scholars/pastors to benefit from the textual analysis found in form critical commentaries (e.g., the Forms of the Old Testament Literature series) even while disagreeing with some of the conclusions drawn from that analysis. But I found the following paragraphs, one dealing with stylistic analysis and the other with apparent contradiction, to be insightful.
[D]iscussions of source critical problems tend to flounder in a methodological morass. The problem is especially critical now because Pentateuchal critics do not commonly spend time in self-conscious examination of methodology for source analysis, or even extensive examination of criteria for making particular source analyses. Wolfgang Richter, an exception to the rule, has helped to identify the extent of the problem. He noted that of the three principal kinds of criteria basic for source analysis – style, contradiction in the development of narration, doublets – two must be judged as weak evidence. Stylistic analysis presupposes a careful control of the peculiarities in an author’s work. In the Yahwist, for example, style can be relatively well defined. It is thus quite possible to identify where the Yahwist’s hand is present. But the opposite side of the coin is more problematic. A break in style may mean that a new source is present. But it may also mean that the same source now employs traditional language for a particular genre of material, language stamped by long oral usage an thus outside the realm of the Yahwist’s peculiar control.
From Canaan to Egypt, pg. 56. (Bold emphasis added)
An argument from contradiction faces similar difficulties. A critic of modern literature can expect narration of a plot without contradictions. But literature from the ancient world may well reflect a different standard for handling contradictions. This point is particularly important in dealing with narration formed through generations of oral transmission. In such cases contradictions can be maintained within the scope of a single narration without resolution of tension. Thus, contradictions do not necessarily mean that two different sources are present. They may signal nothing more than a wedding of two stages in the history of tradition. But even in narrative material that reveals the work of more studied composition, standards for consistency or concern for contradiction may not follow the same guidelines of current literary art. Source critics must be careful to determine whether what they think might be a contradiction is in fact contradictory to the flow of the narration. It is, of course, clear that contradictions may occur and may indicate source combination. One should not be blind to contradictions, or dismiss them out of hand. Yet, neither should one impute contradictions to the text if the flow of the narrative can be understood in other ways. One should not assume that a narrative must have contradictions derived from source redaction.
From Canaan to Egypt, pg. 57. (Bold emphasis added)
Now of course I would part ways with Coats’ openness to calling tensions in the biblical texts contradictions in the true sense of the word since the word “contradiction” is fairly freighted. What is more, the history of exegesis has shown numerous readings of purportedly contradictory passages which show how different texts can be read harmoniously side-by-side. It is somewhat self-serving and arrogant to claim that all of these readings were simply misguided and/or worth ignoring. Indeed, I don’t think Coats and others fully appreciate the import the final bolded sentence above.
Still, I like Coats’ care to note that interruptions to narrative flow need not indicate source division. A careful reading of biblical narrative, and a willingness to grant literary sensitivity to the biblical authors, should lead us toward better understandings of how said interruptions might actually be intentional tropes that contribute to a unified plot-line.
Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)