What’s in a Name? A Comment on the Pentateuch, History, and Modern Scholarship

In Exodus 6:2-3, God says to Moses, “I am YHWH; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [Shaddai], but by My name, YHWH, I did not make Myself known to them.” This would straightforwardly lead us to expect that Moses might refer to God as YHWH (usually translated “the LORD”), but that Abraham would not. The frequent use of the name YHWH in the book of Genesis (e.g. in Genesis 12:1), describing times before Moses lived, might be ascribed to Moses’s own authorial voice. More challenging to explain, however, is when Genesis depicts God as revealing this name to Abram (e.g. Genesis 15:7), Abraham as invoking this name (e.g. Genesis 14:22) himself, and even using it in naming a place (Genesis 22:14). What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?

Famously, this discrepancy was the justification for the “Documentary Hypothesis” which denied the traditional view of Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch and instead argued that multiple different documents (the two earliest of which were distinguished by calling God different names, the Yahwist using the name YHWH [“the LORD”] and the Elohist using the word Elohim [“God”]). In Wellhausen‘s influential formulation, the Yahwist document dated only from Solomon’s court in the 10th C BCE and the Elohist from the following century, both of them authored many centuries after the events they claim to describe. This explanation dominated modern scholarship on the Pentateuch from the late 19th to the late 20th C, until the consensus collapsed under the criticisms of even more iconoclastic scholars who deny any historical reality in the first five books of the Bible, and see them all as products of period of the Babylonian exile of the Jews (in the 6th century BCE) or even later. There is now no consensus, it seems, among scholars of the Pentateuch about the origins of the text, although most are very skeptical of any claims that they represent historical reality.

In this post I will present a curious feature of a few proper names, which certainly do not “refute” any of the various scholarly positions taken, but might be suggestive of an alternate approach.

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Ignoring the Context can be Deadly

A long time ago, Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness, when he faced some of the gravest challenges to his leadership of his entire career. His first cousin, Korah, accused him of arrogance and refusing to recognize the holiness of God’s people (Num. 16:3). Two of Korah’s supporters, men of Reuben named Dathan and Abiram, refused to answer Moses’s summons, accusing him of failing to fulfill his promises to them: “Is it not enough that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? Do you also have to appoint yourself as ruler over us? Furthermore, you didn’t bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey or give us an inheritance of fields and vineyards” (Num. 16:13-14). They accused Moses of lying to them when the evidence of their own senses told them that Moses was a failed prophet: “Will you gouge out the eyes of these men?” (Num. 16:14). Though they did not use the term, you could easily imagine these critics of Moses accusing his followers of being “sheeple.” Yet soon thereafter Korah, Dathan, Abiram, their families, and all their followers were dead. Why? What’s so wrong about speaking theological truth (Korah)? What’s so wrong about believing in the sense of your own eyes (Dathan and Abiram)? Their fault was that they disregarded the context, used the truth to lie, and thereby encouraged rebellion against God.

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The Political Consequences of Indulging Sin: Absalom, and Trump

The failed insurrection in the takeover of the US Capitol by a violent mob marshaled and dispatched by President Trump was not only predictable; he had advertised it publicly and called for it. How did we get here? And where must we go from here? We can learn a lot about politics from the Old Testament, because we can learn a lot about humans from the Old Testament.

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O Come, O Come Emmanuel Redux

For a long time the medieval hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” has been one of my favorites, both in its original Latin and in English translation. So I was delighted to see the song on my church’s worship guide the first Sunday of Advent, and to see it featured on every worship guide of December. Except not quite, because apart from that first Sunday of Advent, all subsequent times we have sung what is in fact a very different version. After some digging, I discovered that the new version was published in 2014 by Sovereign Grace Music. Of course, whenever someone changes something dear to you, it takes a while to move beyond first impressions (often a negative, “What did they do to this thing that I love?”) to be able to evaluate the differences on their own terms. I thought it would help me, and perhaps interest readers of this blog, to offer some commentary on the textual and theological differences between the traditional hymn and the new version.

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Timeless (Biblical) Truths for This (Election) Season

This blog post is as much for me as for you. We have entered the crazy phase of the US election process, made all the crazier by the sudden injection of a vacant Supreme Court seat. So I thought I would benefit from reviewing some timeless truths from God’s written word to help myself cling to my Christian faith and hope, whatever God’s providence allows to happen in the months ahead. I publish it in case it helps you too.

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The Inexplicable Christian Commitment to “Western Civilization”

A century ago, college students across the US took courses in Western Civilization, which provided their sense of the trajectory of the world and the place of America in that trajectory.  This was usually the only non-American history that college students took, and more specialized classes in history tended to divide between US history and European history.  In the past half-century, there has been a shift to globalize the academic study of history, and therefore to teach introductions to history that span the entire world, without privileging any single region.  But there has been pushback; “Western Civilization” has had its recent champions, and (oddly) American Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic (though mostly white), have often been manning the barricades to keep Western Civilization” in its place.  I say this defense is inexplicable because, as a historian and as a Christian, I find the “Western Civilization” narrative to be constructed from inaccurate history and anti-Christian theology. (more…)

What’s Really Destroying the American Way of Life

These days, a lot of Americans are scared.  Our entire system of society and culture seems much less stable than it has since the Cold War ended.  Since the anarchic alternative would be far less comfortable for almost everyone, increasing numbers of people are willing to fight others if necessary in order to preserve our way of life.  The problem, as I see it, is that almost everyone is wrong about what the real threat is.

Many conservatives think the threat is immigrants, but in fact immigrants are generally very law-abiding and harvest much of the food that feeds our country, when they’re not serving as medical professionals or in other practically beneficial ways.  Many liberals think the threat is rural white Americans, but in fact they also tend to be law-abiding as a group, and they plant much of the food that feeds our country.  Other conservatives think the threat is socialism, but in reality there is no danger of any significant amount of socialism being adopted on a large scale, and on a small enough scale socialism in fact can work.  Other liberals think the threat is religion, when in fact religion in general and Christianity in particular have been forces for stability in society (sometimes positively, sometimes excessively, such as when Christians prioritize stability over justice).  Other conservatives blame the so-called “deep state” (stealing a page from Turkey’s conspiracy-theory propaganda), but in fact there is abundant evidence that most professionals in government continue to be professional and follow laws and policies (including physically protecting the president).  Other liberals think the threat is simply Trump himself, but while I’m no admirer of the president, Donald J. Trump lived seventy years of his life without destabilizing American society.  No, all of these are the wrong diagnosis.  The real threats to our peace and prosperity are found elsewhere, but are all too present. (more…)

The Burden of Inheriting Stolen Property

Imagine for a moment that you inherited something from a distant relative.  It wasn’t much, and you didn’t know him very well, but hey, it turned out to be a bit useful.  Perhaps it made the difference between being able to buy a car or not, or part of a down-payment on a house.  We might even be grateful to our predecessors for helping us out through a timely inheritance.

But what if you learned that what you inherited was in fact stolen?  And what if you learned that the theft meant that the rightful owners had not been able to buy a car, or had not been able to pull together a down-payment on a house? (more…)

When “an Honest Question” isn’t Innocent

I like questions.  A lot.  I tell that to all my students.  While I don’t assert that there are no stupid questions, I have been known to assert that the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t want an answer.  And I am basically fearless in my questioning: my job as a humanities scholar is to try to understand some of the messiest and most self-contradictory phenomena in the universe, humans.  I really enjoy asking hard questions trying to discern the truth.  And I’ve experienced enough of human ignorance to know that it is deep and wide, and yet people can hardly be held responsible for what they’ve never been told.  So I’ve learned not to assume what people already know, if I can help it.  People often have honest questions about the central assumptions of my worldview, the things which I’ve long grown accustomed to take for granted.  So I’m happy to answer honest questions, even about things that are very dear to my heart.  (I had a friend in graduate school who once greeted me with the question, “Why are Christians so disgusting?”  It took me a bit to learn what she was talking about…)

But not all questions are innocent.  Of course the questions that are really slanderous innuendo in disguise are sinful (e.g. “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”).  But, while not very common, even “honest questions” that the speaker does not know the answer to can be harmful, and potentially sinful.  Out of love for our neighbors, we should learn to identify and refrain from questions when asking them will not benefit anyone, but will harm people. (more…)

The Real Problem with “The Economy”: Adventures in Missing the Point

As US states and cities started to impose “stay-home” orders in mid-March, and various jurisdictions ordered certain varieties of businesses to close, an outcry arose that we were making much ado about nothing: only 65 people had died due to covid-19 across the country by March 15, and the number of cases stood at less than 4,000, far less than a flu season in any one of the fifty states alone.  Six weeks later, the underestimate of known cases puts the US total today at over 1.1 million cases (over 0.3% of the total US population), and more Americans died from covid-19 in April alone (~60,000 known) than died in Vietnam over the course of over a decade of warfare.  Yet due to the shuttering of businesses, unemployment has surged to the highest raw number of unemployed Americans ever, and as a percentage of the population the highest proportion since the Great Depression ended in WW2.  The “hottest ECONOMY on earth,” as President Trump called it, turned out to be too fragile to withstand the pandemic, and substantial segments of the American population face hunger and lack of medical care, as those were tied to paychecks which are no longer coming.  The United Nations’ World Food Program is warning that this year’s global famine could reach “biblical proportions,” and more could die of starvation worldwide than die from the disease itself.  This is the contest between lives and livelihoods, and is the reason given for several states to reopen businesses despite around 2000 Americans still dying of covid-19 every single day, and despite the continued lack of any known effective treatment for the disease which continues to infect almost 30,000 more Americans per day, at least.  This is situation that leads some, such as Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick to suggest repeatedly that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save “the economy” for their grandchildren.

This discussion, which dominates our news and opinion pages, is the wrong way to think about the current situation, and it is driving the needless endangerment of most of the population.  Thinking about our situation wrongly increases the number of people dying. (more…)