The majority of first year students at Princeton Theological Seminary are required to take Orientation to the Old Testament during their first semester on campus. I'm currently in this class and finding that my undergraduate professors did an excellent job of introducing me to this material. So far, most of the information has been a review of what I learned in Biblical Literature and Biblical Interpretation with Schultz and Old Testament Theology with Tyson (not to mention the twelve credits of additional OT courses I took). If I'd thought of all this before I began attending this twice weekly 8 a.m. lecture, I might have tried to take advantage of advanced placement, but now I'm hooked. Drs. Lapsley and Sackenfeld are excellent lecturers and question answerers. I feel like I would be missing out if I chose not to hear their introduction to the OT.
Anyway, in our first few classes we've been discussing basic questions of canon, authorship and text formation. One of the most prominent theories of the formation of Genesis through 2 Kings is called the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). Here's a crash course for those of you who haven't studied theology to this extent: DH basically says there are three sources of material for the text of the first twelve books of the Protestant OT. One, called "Yahwist," or J for short (those crazy Germans!), and another called "Elohist," or E for short, were probably formed during the time of the divided monarchy. J is associated with the southern kingdon (Judah) and E is associated with the northern kingdom, or Israel. As Isreal was being led into exile, members of that community fled south to Judah. During this time, the J and E traditions were combined to form the "Old Epic." Finally, as Judah went into exile, Priestly writers (P) incorporated more material into the Old Epic, basically giving us the first twelve books we have today. Just think, the texts were formed over several hundred years and the authors didn't even know that they were writing/compililng Scripture.
All of this might give one pause. Does this mean that the Bible is just a bunch of stuff that people wrote down? How do we take God-quotes seriously if the formation of Scripture was such a messy process? Can this theory enrich our reading of the biblical text? Many of my fellow seminarians asked these and similar questions. I was impressed by Dr. Lapsley's response, especially to the last question.
She encouraged us to think of the biblical text (old and new testaments) as a symphony. There are many authors with unique voices and different understandings of the same God. We can see the best picture of God when we listen to all the strains together, letting the various parts of the text work together the way different instruments do in musical composition. It is important to hear the interaction that the J, E, and P have with one another.
An example of this layering of narratives can be seen in the very beginning of Genesis with two different creation accounts. DH says that P contributed the first account (1:1-2:4) while J contributed the second account (2:4b-3:24). Thinking this way, it is interesting to note the differences between the texts. What note does each strike and how do those notes go together? What do we learn from each author (or group of authors)? How does each story shape our image of God?
The DH has further implications for Christians today. If the Old Testament was written over the course of several hundred years and the people writing it down were not aware that they were compiling Scripture, perhaps that means that we, as the Church, are also "composing" Scripture today. The process involved in the development of the first twelve books of the OT speaks to the continuous intimate involvement of God in the life of humanity, it speaks of God meeting people in new situations and giving them a new word for a new time.
Of course, we need to incorporate the Old Story, but we also need to hear God's word to us today. We need to take what we know of God and interpret that for the context in which we live and move and have our being. It is our job to move forward with God, remembering the past, but not idolizing it. We should not try to repeat the same story, but rather we should be moving forward, continuing the story that began with creation.