Source Criticism of the Torah

How the revelation of the names of God provides a glimpse into the literary sources of the Torah.

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Thus we learn that long before Moses, even long before Abraham, people used the name YHVH. How, then, can Exodus 6 tell us that the patriarchs used the name El Shaddai only? There are texts in Gen­esis that use the name El Shaddai, but there are even more texts that use the name YHVH. Moses' mother, Jochebed, bears a name compounded with YHVH. So how can the name be considered new to Moses?

Second, God had already revealed the name YHVH to Moses at the Burning Bush. "Moses said to God, ‘When I come to the Israelites and say to them,  'the God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?' And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh’ (Exod. 3:13-14)."

“Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” means “I will be what I will be,” and “YHVH” means “He will be.” God explains that: “This shall be My name forever, / This My appellation for all eternity” (3:15). If the name YHVH had already been revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, why is it given as if for the first time in Exodus 6?

To review, although the distinctively Israel­ite name of God is YHVH, various sources dis­agree as to when this name was first used. Two sources tell us that YHVH was a name not re­vealed to the Israelites until God revealed it to Moses at the Burning Bush (3:13-15) and in Egypt (6:2-3). Both of these sources, however, disagree with the third source, which declares that the name YHVH was known from the beginning of history, from the time of the immediate descendants of Adam and Eve (Gen. 4:26). These facts suggest the existence of different theological perspectives concerning the time of the great turning point in Israelite reli­gion, when it becomes a faith very different from that of the surrounding peoples.

The names that are used for God have served as important clues in the separation and discovery of the sources that make up the Torah. The different names of God have led source-critical scholarship to find independent traditions, each of which uses the divine name in different way. These traditions are indepen­dent of and contradict each other.

How does scholarship explain all of these variations? Different theories have emerged to explain the divergences along theological, geo­graphic, and chronological lines. Thus there may be a northern and southern version of the same story, which would account for inconsis­tencies. The stories were written over the course of centuries and reflect an evolutionary process that incorporated interpretations and additions as the text developed.

Four Literary Strands

There is great agreement among scholars that the Torah, the Pentateuch, in its final form, is a work composed and edited from four literary complexes. The oldest of these is the Yahwistic source, designated by the letter J because it consistently uses the name YHVH (spelled "Jahweh" in German) and because of its special interest in places located in the southern kingdom of Judah. This tradition seems to have been written in the 10th century B.C.E.

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Benjamin Scolnic

Benjamin Edidin Scolnic is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Conn. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the editor-in-chief of Conservative Judaism magazine.?