Textual Analysis of Exodus

The point to be made here is fairly straightforward: textual—much less anthropological, literary, historical, political, and all the other studies—takes no prisoners; it’s the hardcore of scholarship.  If you want to know the real scholars, engage in textual studies, where scholars can offer percentages, based upon history and all known texts, of scribal error: in other words, how often will a text’s copier make a mistake?  How often transcribe a line twice, how often change a circumlocution or colloquial phrase into something that doesn’t do it justice, how often duplicate a series of letters, how often divide words so as to confuse their meaning (just to get it to come out on the parchment or whatever so as to look nice or to get the line to end as it should?), how often remove a redundancy that bothers the scribe, how often to expand the material to include the speaker, the location or other information as to where they are, who is doing what?  How often does the scribe confuse similar looking words that repeat in an extended manuscript that he has been working on for hours, how often make the mistake of transposing letters (as I have done dozens of times as I type?), how often add another text he knows about and respects, how often….  And this represents but the beginning.

To demonstrate my point, I quote here from the excellent Translation notes from the Introduction to the Anchor Bible: Exodus 1-18 by William H. C. Propp in order to render the idea of textual considerations more specifically:

Readers rarely ask how ancient (or modern) works have reached their hands, and whether they have arrived intact.  For the bible, we do not possess the original manuscript of a single book.  Rather, we have copies of copies of copies, to the nth degree.  Some may have been dictated orally to facilitate mass production, some ay have been written from memory; most were probably reproduced by visual inspection, as required by Jewish law.  Despite the safeguards of professional scribedom, the transmission process was fraught with peril at every step.  We cannot simply flourish a Hebrew Bible and call it “the text.”  In fact, even printed editions differ in trivial ways.

The aim of textual criticism is to restore, insofar as is possible, the original words of the first edition, the lost “parent” of all extant textual witnesses.  Or so we pretend.  In fact, even for modern works, defining “original” can be difficult.  Do we give priority to the author’s manuscript, the author’s corrected proofs, the first printed edition or a later version revised by the author’s own hand?  Comparable complications probably apply to ancient works.

Skipping over numerous problems, I will now summarize the evolution of the pentateuchal text.  Sometime after the Jews’ return from Babylonian Exile in 539, the first Torah was assembled by a scribe whom we call the Redactor.  Like a modern synagogue scroll, it contained no vowels or cantillation, only consonants and probably blank spaces to separate words and major sections.  The letters were in the paleo-Hebrew alphabet not the “square” Aramaic script used today.  Unlike a modern Torah, the original was probably written on five separate rolls.  Ever after, the text was considered sacrosanct; it has undergone minimal development.  The era of composition was over.

The Torah became the constitutions of the nation of Judah, and ultimately of world Jewry.  It was transcribed into contemporary Aramaic letters c. 300 and copied and recopied by hundreds of scribes of varying and competence, who introduced countless changes into the text, mostly minor and inadvertent.  These were in turn perpetuated in “daughter” MSS—although meticulous proofreading was later mandated to control the spread of error.  Whether some copyists were known to be more careful than others, so that their work possessed greater authority; we do not know.  It is reasonable assumption that prior to 70 C.E. master copies were kept in the Jerusalem Temple .

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Egypt, Hellenized Jews had translated the Torah into Greek, producing the Septuagint (LXX) in the third century B.C.E.  Again, we don not possess the original LXX, but copies of copies handed down in the Christian churches.  Our oldest complete biblical MSS are Greek translations from the fourth century C.E., although LXX fragments from the second and first centuries B.CE. have been recovered.  The various witnesses to LXX may be compared to reconstruct, more or less, the original Greek.  If we then retranslate this work into Hebrew, we obtain a text often different from that preserved among the Jews.  Some differences are the result of translators’ license, others of translators’ error, but many are faithful renditions of a lost Hebrew text, the LXX volarge (German: “what lay before”).

Though their numbers have considerably dwindled, in Roman days, the Samaritans were an important and populous subgroup of Jews.  The Samaritan Pentateuch (Sam) differs from LXX and the standard Jewish Torah (MT), frequently agreeing with one against the other—unless the question is one of specifically Samaritan doctrine.  Scholars date the prototype of Sam to c. 100 B.C.E., based primarily on its paleo-Hebrew script and affinities with some Dead Sea Scrolls.  Like LXX, Sam is not one MS, but a family of closely affiliated MSS.

During the past fifty years, the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea have yielded hundreds of scrolls and scroll fragments dating from the mid-third century B.C.E. to 68 E.E.  Among these are over a dozen MSS of Exodus, all fragmentary, all different from one another and all in partial agreement and disagreement with LXX, Sam, and MT.  Phylacteries and mezuzoth from Qumran and Masada also contain portions of Exodus 12-13 and 20.

LXX, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sam and MT jointly attest to a spectrum of readings in Greco-Roman times.  These textual witnesses cannot be derived one from another.  They rather share a common source, the object of our text-critical task.  It may not be the pentateuchal autograph, only an intermediate exemplar, but textual criticism can take us no further.

To this point, the picture is much as we would expect.  MSS increasingly diverge the more they are removed from their ancient prototype.  But the picture appears to change abruptly in the early second century C.E.  Scrolls from Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever are almost identical to the later MT, and all subsequent evidence attests to the relative homogeneity of the biblical text throughout the (non-Samaritan) Jewish world.  Can it be that all variant MSS were suppressed in a coup, from one end of the Diaspora to the other?  If not, what really happened?

Rabbinic Judaism arose after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  This crisis unleashed certain tendencies, stifling others.  A group of sages known to posterity as the Tanna’im became, in the late first and early second Christian centuries, the arbiters for succeeding generations of what was Jewish and what was not.  Dissident groups such as the Samaritans and later the Qara’ites were excluded from the fold.  I suggest, then, that we imagine a wave phenomenon, coincident with the rise of Tanna’itic hegemony, resulting in the near-total standardization of all Hebrew MSS.  This version naturally required a few centuries to expel its rival from the far-flung reaches of the Diaspora.  But it so far outstripped its competitors in prestige, the Tanna’itic Bible became the natural basis for all scholarly work on the Hebrew text, whether by the Rabbis, the Qara’ites or the Church Fathers.  Deviant MSS were no doubt preserved by some communities until they wore out.  But they were not copied or cited by the experts of the day; hence, their readings have not been passed down.  The appearance, from our perspective, of the Jews instantaneously adopting a uniform biblical text is probably the combined result of natural selection and the incompleteness of the record.

After the Dead Sea Scrolls, we possess no Hebrew biblical MSS until the early Middle Ages.  For the interim, we have only the indirect testimony of ancient translations and citations.  A Targum (Tg.) is a Jewish translation of the Bible into Aramaic, the vernacular of the pre-Islamic Near East.  Dating Targumic literature is extremely difficult.  Our three complete Targumim of the Torah are the fairly literal Tg. Onqelos (c. 100 C.E.?), the far freer Tg. Neofiti (c. 300 C.E.?) and the much-embellished Tg. Pseudo-Jonathan (completed c. 700 C.E. but with older antecedents).  There are also Targumic fragments from the Cairo Genizah and the so-called Fragmentary Targum, akin to Neofiti I and Pseudo-Jonathan.  These translations vary from MT in minor but interesting ways, confirming that the standardization of the Bible was an uneven process, and less thorough than surviving Hebrew MSS might suggest.  The same is evident from deviant scriptural citations in the Talmuds.

Throughout Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the Hebrew biblical text was undergoing near-total standardization, down to the merest details.  Perhaps as early as c. 700 C.E., groups of Rabbinic and Qara’ite Jews confirmed the basic consonantal text, refined safeguards for accurate copying and developed symbols enshrining received pronunciation, cantillation, syntactical analysis, even scribal quirks.  The era of the Massoretes (“tradition experts”) reached its peak c. 900 C.E.  Massoretic texts became standard for all Jewish communities retaining knowledge of Hebrew, except for the Samaritans.  One should remember, however, that, despite its standardization, MT is an abstraction, a type of text attested in about six thousand medieval exemplars that disagree in numerous but relatively minor ways.  Properly speaking, a Massoretic text is any biblical text accompanied by vocalization, trope and marginal annotation in the style of the Massoretes.

Few ancient variant readings survive in MT tradition; most differences among MSS are new mistakes or developments, and in any case are rarely more serious than “Egypt” vs. “land of Egypt.”  But we should remain open-minded and alert.  Individual readings, though generally transmitted “genetically” from parent to daughter MS, may also leap “infectiously” from MS to MS, as when a scribe compare existing texts or consults his memory.  Thus, even if Rabbinic authority prevented deviant MSS from being reproduced in toto, individual variants apparently found shelter here and there in otherwise Massoretic texts.  We in fact find sporadic agreement between MT MSS and LXX, Sam, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.  In any case, since there is no such thing as the MT, it is arbitrary to select on prestigious text—the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex, the Second Rabbinic Bible, etc.—as sole witness.  (Propp 42-45)

As for the difficulties of translation and the possibilities of error, if one should respond that God would not allow such a thing, I can offer no rebuttal.  If I did, I would hold up as evidence the fact that we have NO original text: we have the LXX (Septuagint) from the tradition of the seventy Alexandrian scholars who translated the Hebrew into Greek (the world language after Alexander), the Targums, the supposedly translated texts into Aramaic, the Samarian text, supposedly also based on earlier manuscripts, the Massoretic text, based on medieval Hebrew translation, and on it goes, again and again—in other words, we have translations, based on translations, based on translations, based on more translations.  

To repeat, no UR text (German for “First”) exists; so what do we follow?  You’ll notice that we haven’t even begun to discuss the Geneva, Bishop’s, King James, Revised Standard, New Jerusalem, International, Phillips, and other translations familiar to readers of the Bible today.  And each follows a discipline of scholarship and practices with regard to how to translate words, what notes to add (if they do), what scholarly position to take with regard to difficult or unfinished bits of text (here we get that terrible distinction between “liberal” and “conservative”—more often referred to as “traditional”), or what our “overview” may be.  Most of these decisions never appear to readers, unless they read the translator’s introduction, which most often has brevity in order to diminish and yield the scholastic to the divine, which, paradoxically, is suffused unobtrusively throughout the text.  This is much like the old joke, though I have indeed heard it in earnest, that “whatever the Apostle Paul spoke in the King James Version is good enough for me.”  

In sum, Biblical scholarship renders a more complicated picture of a text in more need of study than most of us wants to admit, much less pursue.  Having had a course limited to textual scholarship when studying for a degree in Shakespeare, I became so overwhelmed with the responsibilities and justifications of standing behind a famous bit of text that was but an exercise, I froze like the proverbial animal before headlights.  But I understand somewhat better the severe punishments that awaited the Reform editors of the Bible should they make errors—not forgetting the death sentences for those who had no church or state sanctioned authority to translate.  In lieu of understanding textual studies in general, and how they apply to biblical scholarship in particular, we assure ourselves that God would not permit us to live in error or to read a poorly rendered translation, and so we “choose” not to engage its scholarship.

But the counter to this is that we have minds, and good ones: why is it that other generations have spoken several languages (Queen Elizabeth I was conversant in seven, including Hebrew and Greek, and she never claimed to be a Biblical scholar), have studied all past scholarship, have learned the Moses leading children of Israel through the city gates, 14th c. Spaincultural differences (and here, if one claims it doesn’t matter, I’ll simply ask why most all of us no longer tolerate multiple wives, slavery, and mass extinction in the name of God), and have engaged the textual studies necessary to know the basics of translation and when to trust a source?  Why?  The answer is probably because it’s too much trouble; but equally true is that many of us have not the education or the necessary facilities of intellect to do so.  

However, such answers may be equated to one believing that, because everything works out for the best, if he’s laid off, has no money, and can’t support your family, he should sit by the phone in the assurance it will ring.  In fact, if the parallel illustration holds true with what precedes it, it would be unchristian for him to make an effort or to try to support his family, because it places more responsibility on us than it permits for faith in God.  Why is study so different?

The Moses narratives are not so easy to understand as we may think.  The following information tries to balance scholarship, tradition, and biblical importance into one.  But should it fail for the reader, he or she must determine why, based on what one can learn and determine individually, as opposed to what the reader has been told, read, or memorized from the past.  If the above propositions, or the statements and questions to follow, make one uneasy, settle it now, for reasons of scholarship, faith, or curiosity—but do it and learn.  

Libraries remain repositories of learning, with texts full of information.  Especially now, within an era hallmarked by the instant gratification of suspect knowledge available through the Internet, one’s abilities and desire to learn will always be challenged.  In failing either to accept or to attempt an effort that meets those challenges, we surrender the enormity of human potential, whether one attributes the repository as that granted by God or by humanistic curiosity: blasphemy exists in a multitude of forms.

So, where does that leave us with regard to the writing of the Torah in general, but the book of Exodus in particular?  Tradition lightly dispels the the difficulties of much of the above, invoking Moses' prophetic powers.  The logic is unassailable, if only we allow for the supernatural.  In theory, a true prophet could have predicted the Canaanites' demise, the coronation of Saul, his won death and Persian-period spelling.  But the critical historian is rather drawn to conclude that the Mosaic authorship of the Torah is just another legend, or at best an exaggeration.  In fact, the Pentateuch never explains how it cam to be written.  The earliest allusion to a Mosaic Pentateuch come from the postexilic period, when most scholars date the Torah's editing and promulgation (Ezra 3:2; 6:18; 7:6; Nehemiah 1:7, 8; 8:1, 14; 9:14; 10:30; 13:1, etc.).

If Moses did not write the Torah, who did?   Most likely several people, for, as is well known, the Pentateuch is rife with internal contradictions and duplications (doublets).  Each,  taken alone, proves nothing; traditional Jewish and Christian scholars have effectively dealt with most of them piecemeal.  Cumulatively, they constitute a major challenge to the tradition of a single author.  It rather appears that an editor (or multiple editors) produced the Torah by combining several written sources of diverse origin, relatively un-retouched, into a composite whole.  This is the Documentary Hypothesis [and here, let me remind American readers of the unfortunate definitions we have ascribed to words such as "hypothesis," "theory," and "myth"].

The number of sources appears to have been small.  First, no story is told more than three times.  Second, it is hard to imagine an either countenancing so many duplications and inconsistencies were he at liberty to weave together isolated fragments from dozens of documents.  Third and most important, if we arrange the doublets in four columns and then read across, continuity and consistency replace contradiction and redundancy.  These columns approximate the original sources.

While the exact process by which the Torah coalesced is impossible to reconstruct, here is a commonly accepted model, which may be pretty close to the truth.  After the demise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, refugees brought south to Judah a document telling the national history from a Northern perspective.  We call this text "E" and its author the "Elohist," because God is called (hā) 'ělōhîm' (the) Deity prior to Moses' day and sporadically thereafter.  In Judah, a scribe we call "Redactor" combined E with a parallel, southern version, "J," which calls God "Yahweh" throughout (except in some dialogue).  We call J's author the "Yahwist."  The composite of J and E is known as "JE." 

Precisely a century later (621 BCE), a work called "D," essentially the Book of Deuteronomy, was promulgated to supplement JE.  It purports to be Moses' final testament deposited in the Tabernacle (Deut 31: 24-26) and rediscovered after centuries of neglect (2 Kings 22).  In fact, D appears to be a rewritten law code of Northern origin, with stylistic and ideological affinities to E.  The author/editor of D. the Deuteronomistic Historian, also continued Israel's history down to his own era, producing the first edition of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings (a second edition was made in the Exile).  Some think JE was also reworked so that the Deuteronomistic work properly began with Creation.  If so, however, the editor added relatively little in Genesis-Numbers.

If D was intended to complement and complete JE, another work, the Priestly source (P), attempted to supplant JE with its own partisan account of cosmic and national origins.  The date of P is disputed, with most scholars favoring a late pre-exilic, exilic or early postexilic date (i.e., c. 700-400).  Subsequently, a second priestly writer, the final Redactor (R), thwarted P's purpose by combing it with JE, inserting additional genealogical and geographical material.  The Redactor also detached D from Joshua-2 Kings, producing the Pentateuch.

For Exodus, our main concern is with P, E, and J, although there is some D-like language, too.  It is likely, moreover, that the Song of the Sea originally circulated independently and should thus be considered another source.  P is the document most easily recognized, thanks to its characteristic vocabulary, style and agenda.  P's main concern is mediating the gulf between God's holiness and the profane world through priestly sacrifice.  P stresses distinctions of clean and unclean, the centrality of Tabernacle service and the exclusive right of the house of Aaron to officiate.  Its rather austere Deity sends no angelic messengers.  P also evinces a scholarly interest in chronology and genealogy.  In JE, in contrast, sacrifice is offered by a variety of men in a variety of places.  Thee is more interest in narrative and character portrayal, less in ritual, chronology and genealogy.  god communicates through angels, dreams or direct revelation.

The most striking difference among J, E and P involves the divine name.  E and P hold that the name "Yahweh" was first revealed to Moses (3:14-15 [E]); 6:2-3[P]).  Previously, God was called "God" (el)," God Shadday (l šadday)" or "(the) Deity ([hā]) 'ělōhîm')."  In J, however, the earliest generations of humanity already use the name "Yahweh" (Gen. 4:26, etc.); Moses is merely granted a more detailed revelation of God's attributes (Exodus 34:6-7).  Consequently, virtually any text prior to the Burning Bush containing the name "Yahweh" is from J.  When it comes to the Mountain of Lawgiving, however, J and P line up against E and D: J and P call it "Sinai," while in E and D it is "Horeb."  A final difference between J and E is that the former calls Moses' father -in-law "Reuel," while the latter uses "Jethro" (Jethro/Reuel does not appear in P or D).

Because separating J from E is difficult outside of Genesis, prudence would dictate partitioning Exodus simply between P and JE.  However Propp undertakes the dubious task of disentangling J from E, because the results are surprising.  If J is the dominant voice in Genesis, in Exodus we probably have more E than J.  This flies in the face of all previous scholarship, which unanimously ascribes the bulk of non-Priestly Exodus to J.  This is simply an unexamined dogma, however, put baldly in D. N. Freedman's methodological postulate that, "in dubious cases, one must opt for J rather than for E."  In fact, we find far more E than J in Exodus.  Recurring idioms, characters and themes all point to the Elohist.  

As one may suppose, explanations abound as to what happens here and why (which becomes compounded by such translations as the King James Version, because it is never quite clear who does what to whom or how).  The passage remains important for so many reasons that it becomes difficult to attempt an explanation without getting caught in a web of mystery, explanation, or too excessive a response.  More simply, we may say, because the Israelites would acknowledge that life Rylands Hebrew MS 6, from Haggadah, service book for Seder, Spanish 14th cent.resides in the blood, that blood bonding, sacrifice, covenant, and the like between the Israelites and their God established a never-ending, thematic element of their relationship, one that would soon be played out in the “passing over” of the Angel of Death, by means of a sign of blood upon the door posts, in the final plague against Pharaoh, whose heart had been “strengthened” by God so that he would not heed the dire warnings of Moses, allowing the Hebrew slaves to leave the land (v. 21).

                 And a quick P.S. and P.P.S

Reed Sea or Red Sea? "God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea" (13:18, NRSV). Most English Bible versions locate Israel's miraculous escape at the Red Sea, but the underlying Hebrew phrase yam suf might better be rendered Reed Sea. Suf is derived from the Egyptian word for the papyrus reed, which only grows in fresh water. This would place the crossing at one of the lagoons or inland lakes in the northeast of Egypt near the shore of the Mediterranean Sea (see Batto 1984, who presents the evidence but opts for a mythological interpretation of yam suf)

Moses, by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

The phrase "skin of Moses' face shown" was misunderstood in the Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible where it rendered "shown" as horns, influencing, for example, Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, which places horns on his forehead.   This demonstrates the problems of translation and the errancy that such mistranslations cause; it cannot be stressed too much that the Bible, as we have it, is a translation, of a translation, of a translation, of a ... (you get the idea).


[Propp offers an extensive argument, verse by verse, chapter by chapter : I advise the textual scholar or interested party in textual studies to pick up at this point, p. 51 ff. in the excellent Anchor Bible: Exodus 1-18.]