Oral Tradition and Pentateuchal Narrative

It may be difficult to elucidate the relationship between oral tradition and Pentateuchal narrative, but this analytical difficulty does not entail the historical absence of such a relationship.

See Also: It's the Same Old Story, Part II

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
January 2013

I’m happy to respond to Niels Peter Lemche’s invitation to address the topic of oral tradition in ancient Israel. He refers to my dissertation, The Epic of the Patriarch, which draws out some implications of the model of Israelite epic traditions formulated by Frank Moore Cross. Cross’s work, in turn, refined the classic scholarship of Hermann Gunkel in this area at least two ways: Cross brought to bear a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible, and he drew on advances in our understanding of the nature of oral literature. The studies of Homeric epic and oral literature by Milman Parry and Albert Lord were central in this latter area. As a student of Lord and Cross, I was eager to explore the intersections of folklore, the Bible, and the ancient Near East. The idea that there were extensive oral narrative traditions in ancient Israel seemed unproblematic to me then, and the general idea still seems valid today. But many aspects of this topic seem more complicated to me now, and I would draw a more detailed and perhaps more quizzical conceptual map.

In terms of method, it is important to emphasize that the oral traditions of ancient Israel are a historical inference, based on textual evidence that is clearly literary, that is, written by literate authors. There are a number of features that distinguish Pentateuchal prose from oral narrative. Many of these features have been elucidated by Robert Kawashima in his book, Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode. There is no one-to-one equation between biblical prose and oral narrative. The features of the latter must be inferred – carefully and tentatively – from literary texts that possess their own distinctive poetics. In this task, analysis of the literary conventions of biblical prose is necessary, an area pioneered by Gunkel and significantly advanced by Robert Alter, Meir Sternberg, and others. An elucidation of the poetics of each of the Pentateuchal sources remains a desideratum.

However, in recent years many biblical scholars, particularly in Germany, have rejected the inference of oral traditions from the Pentateuchal narratives. In a related critical move, many have rejected the classical model of Pentateuchal sources. The legacy of Gunkel and Cross (and, I would add, Alter) is out of favor in these circles. It remains to be seen whether any plausible alternative will take its place. In my view, the rejection of the inference of oral tradition is unwarranted, and it has never been argued in a rigorous way.

I submit that there isn’t another plausible way to account for the variant traditions of, for instance, the transgression in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3 and Ezek 28), Jacob’s wrestling match with a deity (Gen 32 and Hos 12), and many of the doublets within the Pentateuch. International motifs such as the food of immortality (Gen 2-3, Adapa, Gilgamesh) and the ladder to heaven (Gen 28 and the Descent of Nergal), and international stories such as the flood (in J, P, and Atrahasis, etc.) are also difficult to explain without positing oral narrative traditions, both within Israel and across the ancient Near East. To posit a closed system of scribal schools that is isolated from native oral traditions seems historically implausible and is incapable of comprehending most of these narrative relationships.

It may be difficult to elucidate the relationship between oral tradition and Pentateuchal narrative, but this analytical difficulty does not entail the historical absence of such a relationship. Let’s consider a perspicuous example. In Gen 6:1-4, the Sons of God have sex with the daughters of men, who bear them mighty offspring. This is a story with close affinities to some Greek epic traditions, and it has an analogue in the epic of Gilgamesh, whose mother was divine and father was human. The protagonists, the Sons of God, are cognate with Ugaritic and other Northwest Semitic terms for a class of deities, the Sons/Children of El. The story is severely truncated in the telling, suggesting that the author was holding something back. The inference of oral tradition as a source for this story seems necessary in light of its relationship to other Near Eastern and Mediterranean narratives and the reticence of the biblical author. A story like this, in its mythic strangeness, implicates the oral traditions of ancient Israel, which we can glimpse obliquely through their refractions in the text.

Occasionally, usually in poetry, we can hear what Susan Niditch aptly calls a bardic voice, mimicking an oral traditional speech-act. In Judges 5 and Exodus 15, a singer recounts the mighty deeds of Yahweh and his people (these are victory hymns, not narratives as such). Judges 5:11 refers to such performances “between the watering holes.” This is as close as we get to a representation of a Homeric bard. In the prose frame of Exodus 15 the singer is identified with Moses and, in the reprise, with Miriam. The voices of Pentateuchal prose differ from that of these poetic singers, but there is arguably an affinity between them as performances – across different genres – of cultural memory and tradition.

I should add that there are details of Cross’s theory of Israelite oral epic traditions to which I don’t subscribe, such as their poetic form. Oral traditional narrative may be in prose or poetry, or – as in the case of some old Arabic oral genres – both. The prose of Pentateuchal narrative is occasionally interspersed with poetry, particularly at climactic moments, and this may reflect older oral forms. Despite the limits of our knowledge, it seems reasonable to conclude – with Gunkel, Cross, and others – that the existence of a rich oral tradition is an inferable, and occasionally explicit, condition of Pentateuchal narrative.

Addenda: For the complicated issue of the historical contexts of these texts and traditions, I refer the inquisitive reader to my recent foray, “Historical Context,” in The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation, eds. Craig Evans, Joel Lohr and David Petersen (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 51-81. Two corrections to Lemche’s remarks: the English translation of Axel Olrik’s “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative” that I consulted is in Alan Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 129-41; his reference to John Gulick, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010) should be corrected to Jack Goody.

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