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The Author Has No Message

From The Logical Fallacies of the Documentary Hypothesis, Chapter 4:

The fifth reason why the documentarians do not be­lieve the Pen­ta­teuch was written by a single author is that they make the un­war­ranted assumption that the author of the Pentateuch is not try­ing to con­vey a mes­sage. Most documentarians have never at­tempt­ed to dis­cern the over­all message and purpose of the Pentateuch, an observation confirmed by the non­con­servative scholar, David J.A. Clines: “Surprisingly, few scholars have studied the question of what the­sis the Pentateuch in its final form is attempting to sustain.”[1] Many doc­u­men­tarians do not believe that the final form of the Pen­ta­­teuch is attempt­­ing to sustain any kind of message or thesis at all. For example, in his com­mentary On Genesis, Bruce Vawter pro­claims,

The ideas proposed by Genesis are those of J and P, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, of E…. It is this fact that justifies the pro­ce­dure we fol­low in this commentary, taking Genesis piece by piece as it may be redivided into its sources. That is where the message of Gen­e­sis is.[2]

Other documentarians believe that if the Pentateuch is con­vey­ing a message, it was created by mistake. Friedman says that when R combined P with JED, he created the view that God is both cosmic and personal and created the message that the cosmic God is con­cerned about each and every person. That view and that message have been essential parts of both Judaism and Christianity ever since. But that view and that message were created unintentionally. The authors of the documents never intended to convey that mes­sage and neither did R. It was the unintended by-product of the re­dac­tion process.[3] Though Friedman and Vawter may disagree on whether the Pentateuch is conveying a message, they do share something in common: they both see anomalies within a work as evidence of mul­tiple au­thor­ship rather than as clues pointing to the author’s message and pur­pose.

Every writer writes because he has a message he wishes to con­vey. This is not to say that every story, like an Aesop’s fable, has a moral to it. The author’s mes­sage may be the story itself (which, pre­sum­ably, is the mes­sage of Carroll’s “Snark”[4]). Or his message may be a piece of information or an idea or even a joke. Related to the mes­sage is the author’s purpose in conveying the mes­sage. His pur­pose may be to entertain us, to inform us, or to convince us. His purpose will lead him to choose his message and to shape it. If his pur­pose is to humor us, he will choose a story or joke that he feels is funny. If he decides that adding a few lines or rearranging some lines will make his message more effective, he will make those changes. The final product may not be funny at all—at least, we may not think so. But that’s not the point. The point is, he chose the story and he made the changes because he thought it would fulfill his pur­pose. In short, anomalies may appear in a work because the author thought those anomalies would help him to con­vey his message.

Look, for example, at what Alexander Pope does in his famous Essay on Criti­cism. During his sermonizing on how in poetry “the sound must seem an Echo to the sense,” he says,

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,

The line too labors, and the words move slow.

Most of his poem flows along in a steady iambic rhythm. This last line, however, breaks that rhythm. Is this evi­dence of multiple au­thor­ship? Is this evidence that a less­er poet added his own material to Pope’s original poem? Not at all. Pope is merely practicing what he preaches. In the words of one set of scholars, “The slight pauses be­fore and after ‘too’ and the pause after ‘labors’ serve to slow the line down, and slowness is what Pope is talking about.”[5]

Or look again at what he does only a few lines earlier when he dep­recates predictable poetry:

Then, at the last and only couplet fraught

With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,

A needless Alexandrine ends the song

That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

The first three lines, as well as the lines in the rest of the poem, are writ­ten in iambic pentameter: they are each five feet long. But this last line is in iambic hexameter: it is six feet long. It even looks long­er than the other lines of the poem. Again, is this evidence of mul­ti­ple author­ship? Again, no. An Alexandrine is a poetic line written in iambic hexameter. Pope deliberately uses an Alexan­drine to satirize the needless Alex­andrines of other po­ets. His satiric wit stands out be­cause the line itself, with its extra foot, stands out.

Pope’s anomalies helped the author to fulfill his pur­pose and con­vey his mes­sage. The anomalies in the Pentateuch were in­tend­ed to do the same. This is not to say that every anom­aly identified by the doc­u­men­tar­ians is a real anomaly. Before we can hear the mes­­sage of the Pen­tateuch, we need to determine which anom­a­lies are real and which are mere illusions.

[1] David J.A. Clines, “Introduction to the Biblical Story: Genesis-Esther,” in James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary (San Fran­cisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988), 83.

[2] Bruce Vawter, On Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Com­pany, Inc., 1977), 23.

[3] Wrote, 216.

[4] This is precisely the view taken by Michael Holquist in his “What is a Boojum? Non­sense and Modernism,” Yale French Studies, XLIII (1969), 145-164, reprinted in Gray, 402-418.

[5] Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, and William Burto, An In­tro­duc­tion to Literature, 2nd edition (Boston: Little, Brown and Com­pany, Inc., 1963), 363.


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