Monday, February 1, 2010

Changing gears

In the winter of 1988 I was desperately trying to escape from college. I needed a few extra transfer credits to make that happen, and to get the transfer credits I needed to talk my way into a religion minor. The transfer credits hinged on whether or not I could get the approval of John Helgeland, the head of the religion department. He knew I had been to a Bible college, but he wasn't impressed by that. He didn't have much time for piety of any kind, and he assumed the college I'd attended was all about devotions and not much for academics.

I sat in his office and he proceeded to give me a one-question oral exam that he figured would determine the extent of my academic biblical knowledge. "What are J, E, P, and D?" he asked.

Genesis 2:4 is a watershed in the creation story. According to some analysts, Genesis 1:1-2:4a is one version of the creation story, probably formulated by priests in ancient Israel. God is remote in this story, reigning over the heavens and the earth from a distance. The "second" creation story, according to this way of thinking, is the one that starts in Genesis 2:4b, is from a source that is older and tends to make God seem more accessible, more human-like, so God can come walking through the garden in the cool of the day. According to this view, these two stories came from different sources and were woven together later by a "redactor" or editor.

Scholars call this way of thinking the "documentary hypothesis." It sees various strands of source material -- conveniently labeled J, E, P, and D -- woven together throughout the first five books of the Bible. So if you sit in on some seminary classes or university religion classes that deal with these books, you will hear comments about the Priestly source (P), or the Elohist (E) or the Jahwist (J) or the Deutoronomic (D). The Jahwist and Elohist are named for the word they usually use for God; the priestly source is very orderly and includes many of the laws and genealogies. The D source includes most of the book of Deuteronomy along with a few other snippets.

For all I know, the documentary hypothesis people have it right and that is an accurate way to think about how the first books of the Bible were compiled. But the net effect of focusing on all this is that we start to position ourselves above the text and analyze why this writer or that writer might have thought such-and-such. We don't look at this so much as God's word anymore, but rather as the Jahwist writer's word, or the point of view of the Priestly source, and so on. We get infatuated with our own analysis of the text rather than letting the text stand over us and tell us how things are.

I passed John Helgeland's test, and got the transfer credits and my religion minor. I did indeed escape from college in the spring of '88. Whew. Almost a decade later I sat in another class, this time at seminary, in Terry Fretheim's class on the first five books of the Bible. A student asked a question about some uncomfortable part of the story, asking if that wasn't just the Jahwist's anthropomorphic view of God, and we didn't need to take it all that seriously. I was so impressed with Dr. Fretheim's response. "Well, wherever that story comes from, it's in the Bible, and we have to deal with it." He was willing to stand under the text -- to submit to it, to recognize it as scripture, to deal with it.

Whatever the sources behind the Bible's text, at this point the creation story changes gears. We will continue to read it as a narrative that tells us what is true here and now, not so much a story about historical events. This is one way to stand under the story, and hopefully to begin to understand it. It's the story of you, and me, and who we are created to be and where we find ourselves today.


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  2. I don't know too much about J, E, D, and P; nor did I go to seminar so I readily admit my minimal academic standing on the concepts discussed.

    It does, however, raise a red-flag in my mind when one appears to say that certain sections of the bible are inaccurate. For if that is what one believes, why cannot someone else believe that another section is inaccurate. Soon little, if any, of the bible is deemed accurate (By accurate I mean true and inspired by God as truth).

    Certainly, a number of biblical authors described their writings as songs, parables, or dreams. And as such they can/should be intrepreted in the appropriate manner. But when an inspired author writes about current events (history to us), or science, or sociology, or prophesy, we are better off assuming that it is accurate truth, are we not?

    Simply put, it is easier for me to have faith that God controlled what was written including the overall truthfulness of the Word.

    I have REALLY learned much from your blogs. They have helped me in many areas. Please keep writing. Thanks!

  3. Just got my copy of the book, "Organic Church". Only read the intro, preface, and chapter 1. So far so good....