There are different approaches that one can use to understand the complexities of the Pentateuch. I have been thinking about two approaches in particular, source criticism and literary criticism, after reading James S. Diamond’s book Stringing the Pearls: How to Read the Weekly Torah Portion. Dr. Diamond teaches in the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University and this book grew out of his two-year intensive Tanakh course sponsored by the Hebrew College of Boston. Although the aim of the book is to introduce the Jewish reader to the Torah portions (there are 54 portions or parashyiot which are read throughout the year covering the entire Torah), it covers a whole range of topics making it a great introductory short book on the Torah from a Jewish perspective.
My intention in this post is to look at Diamond’s handling of Genesis 37, a text that he uses to illustrate how the narrative can be read using literary criticism. Part of my interest in literary criticism is my admiration for Robert Alter’s work in this area.
The title of the book comes from a midrash on Song of Songs 1:10: “… your neck [is comely] with a string of pearls.”
Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina:
These are the portions of the Torah, which are strung together, and which draw upon each other, and which jump back and forth among each other, which resemble each other, and which share affinities with each other.
(Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs 1:54)
Diamond gives us a general overview of source and literary criticism and how each one approaches the text in the Torah. Although source criticism can be quite technical, he points out that it is easier nowadays for lay people to understand it due, in great measure, to the work of Richard Elliot Friedman. In short, he says that source criticism “seeks to identify the different hands and voices that are visible and audible in the text. Source criticism builds on linguistic analysis but looks at larger literary issues such as style and point of view” (71).
Literary criticism on the other hand is attuned to the esthetic dimension of the text. “It seeks to illuminate the internal coherence of an individual narrative, of a poem, of a book, of the Pentateuch as a whole, even of the TANAKH as a whole” (72). He cites Gabriel Josipovici who contrasts the literary approach with source criticism:
It is not that the documentary hypothesis is necessarily wrong in substance; Genesis is clearly made up of a number of traditions which have been combined at different stages. But is not the task of the critic to try and come to grips with the final form as we have it, and to give the final editor or redactor the benefit of the doubt, rather than to delve behind his work to what was there before?” (72)
People who have read Robert Alter will appreciate the thrust of this quote. It is not that literary criticism repudiates source criticism, but it insists that the work is not done once you’ve “delved” behind the text. Now, to illustrate these two approaches, Diamond gives us an example from the story of Joseph. Part of why I liked this example is that it made me look at the story a little more carefully.
Genesis 37 talks about how Joseph ended up in Egypt. Here is the MT text of Genesis 37:25-28 and 37:36:
The reader would never know there is a difference in spelling of Midianites (i. e. Medanites) in the translations. I checked my BHS, and the critical apparatus references Medanites as l frt of Midianites. The abbreviations l frt stand for lege fortasse and, if I got the correct Latin definition, this means “perhaps read.” The Masoretes did not provide a Qere for this word, though.
Although Medanites seems to be a clear reference to Midianites, the change in spelling is most curious.
The story begins with Joseph’s brothers wanting to kill him and Reuben prevailing upon them to throw him into a pit (v. 21-22). We can summarize the salient points in the rest of the passage this way:
- The brothers see “a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead” (v. 25)
- Judah advises that Joseph be sold to the Ishmaelites (v. 27)
- But then, in the very next verse, we read: “When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt” (v. 28).
- The verser 36 says that “the Medanites … sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward” (v. 36).
Diamond then poses several questions: Who attempts to save Joseph: Reuben or Judah? Who pulls Joseph out of the pit: the brothers or the Midianites? And who brought Joseph to Egypt: Ishmaelites, Midianites, or Medanites?
Here is where source criticism and literary criticism come in with their different approaches. Diamond summarizes how a source critic would go about it:
“Source criticism attempts to explain the passage as a doublet. There are two different versions of the events intertwined here, one from the E source and one from the J. The E account is about Reuben and the Midianites/Medanites. The J version is about Judah and the Ishmaelites” (73).
To see how literary criticism handles this passage, he first quotes Robert Alter’s treatment of this text in his The Five Books of Moses:
“This is the one signal moment when the two literary strands out of which the story is woven seem awkwardly spliced. . . . Elsewhere, Midianites and Ishmaelites appear to be terms from different periods designating the selfsame people … so the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites looks like a strained attempt to blend two versions that respectively used the two different terms. And the Midianite intervention contradicts the … stated intention of the brothers to pull Joseph out of the pit themselves and sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for profit” (73).
Then he proposes that we look at the story as it presents itself to us: as one holistic story. This is done by observing that what holds the narrative together is “Joseph’s consciousness of what is happening to him.”
“Here he is, arriving in Dotan where he finally finds his brothers. And then—he’s in the pit. It is dark and dank. He surely hears the brothers talking. Something about Ishmaelites. He hears noises of passersby. Then, suddenly, he is being pulled out of the pit. By whom? Does he know? Are these Ishmaelites? He hears they are Midianites. Or are they Medanites? Does it make a difference? The next thing he knows he is in Egypt” (73-74).
In other words, what happens is that the reader is experiencing exactly the confusion that Joseph is experiencing as told by the omniscient narrator. This narrative is confusing to us because it is confusing to Joseph!
It is interesting how, for example, Gordon Wenham handles this passage in his Genesis commentary. He agrees with the view that different critical approaches like multiple sources and redactional changes all rest on “unanalyzed assumptions” (he doesn’t explain exactly what this means). He thinks it is better to take Ishmaelites and Midianites as the same group of traders as this must be the understanding of the editor of Genesis. What I gather from this is that the editor did not make a distinction between the Ishmaelites and Midianites as he used his sources. This does not address the question of whether or not the sources themselves have different groups in mind.
John Walton, on the other hand, proposes the alternative that the Midianites are the “middlemen” for the Ishmaelite “businessmen.” This approach preserves both groups as one caravan but sees them having different functions. I think this is a strange way of narrating if this is what the story-teller had in mind. Of course, this may be due to my biased expectation of what a modern narrative should look like.
The literary approach that Diamond proposes may certainly resonate with the reader’s experience in reading this narrative. But are we to believe that this is what the author/editor had in mind? Doesn’t this tell us more about our modern reading of such texts? I really enjoyed reading Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, and I benefited most when he pointed out puns and theme connections that I easily missed. He often made me see there was more to the text than I initially thought. I think this is the strength of literary criticism. But sometimes literary criticism has to say that the way the story is told is awkward (see Alter’s quote above). Diamond’s literary approach to this narrative does more for me in terms of relating to the text as a modern reader than showing me its overall unity.