Pentateuch: Oral and Written
To the Editor:
In his review of my book The Growth of the Pentateuch (July) Mr. James Brown negates the value of my thorough literary analysis by the argument that the Pentateuch was originally a collection of orally transmitted texts redacted in post-Exilic times. This Scandinavian theory of Professor Engnell is untenable for these reasons: (1) The land of Canaan conquered by Israel had cities with a literate upper stratum. At least the monarchy needed literati (officials, priests, princes, etc.) and textbooks. (2) The Biblical historians record that Moses wrote down laws on tablets and on sefer (written document). He also is recorded to have written a solemn curse of Amalek, an itinerary, and a song. Joshua is recorded to have written a covenant in a sefer, Samuel to have recorded the duties of kingship. (3) Two lost old books are quoted in early records: Sefer Hayashar, a collection of poems (Song of Ayalon, Josh. 10:13; Lament of David on Saul and Jonathan, II Sam. 1:18); and Sefer of the Wars of Yahweh (Num. 21:4). All these facts presuppose the existence of textbooks in ancient monarchic Israel. That does not exclude (as I myself say in my book) that laws of elders or priestly precepts and other texts were transmitted orally before they were written. But that was before the time I assume that the Yahwist master narrator (10th century B.C.E.) and his annotators of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries B.C.E. wrote their texts. Since the annotator frequently added only a brief passage or some phrases, that presupposes that he had a written text before him and annotated it by writing. I have never “seen the Pentateuch as a book in the modern sense,” but as a growing document, as a textbook for princes, priests, and prophets. . . .
New York City
Mr. Brown writes:
I am still not convinced that the substitution of a single document plus annotators for several documents plus editors is, from the Scandinavian position, any less of a “modern book-view” than the Wellhausen analysis. The point is whether, from what we know of the role of oral tradition in ancient Oriental cultures, we ought to look at the Pentateuch in this way at all. For in his letter Dr. Lewy does not really come to grips with the Scandinavian position. No one would deny the existence of written traditions in pre-Exilic Israel, besides oral ones. But it is argued that in this sort of culture, writing was the business of specialists, and then mostly used for certain practical purposes of commerce and diplomacy. Otherwise, living speech plays a much more dominating role than writing in the handing down of the kind of material we have in the Pentateuch—historical traditions, epics, cult legends, and, to some degree, laws. Here, oral tradition is primary and creative: written tradition is secondary and derivative. Readers of Commentary who are interested in pursuing these points further may be referred to a short book, Oral Tradition, by a Danish scholar, Eduard Nielsen, which I believe is obtainable in America from the Blessing Book Store in Chicago. Nielsen also makes the point that the reduction of oral tradition to writing is not the sign of a cultural peak, but of a failure of nerve such as that produced by the fall first of Israel, then of Judah.