Abraham in the Negev: A Source-Critical Investigation of Genesis 20:1–22:19

Written by T. Desmond Alexander Reviewed By Gordon Wenham

The study of the Pentateuch has for the last two centuries been dominated by historical-critical concerns: when was it written, by whom and what sources were used are the typical questions that scholars ask and undergraduates are expected to answer in essays and exams.

Very often the dominant documentary theory has been presented as the only scholarly option, even though in recent study it has come under sustained critique from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Because of the amount of material in Genesis it is very hard for the newcomer to the debate to be able to assess the validity of the arguments presented. However, by focusing on three chapters of Genesis Alexander is able to be both comprehensible and thorough: he treats Genesis 20–22 as a test case for the validity of the whole documentary theory.

Chapter 1 gives a review of the history of pentateuchal criticism, showing how the consensus view that the Pentateuch is made up of four major sources originated. Chapter 2 deals with Genesis 20 (the abduction of Sarah) and its two parallel stories in chapters 12 and 26. This enables Alexander to explore the two main arguments for source division, doublets, variant accounts of the same event and divine names. The J source is characterized by calling God, Yahweh (the LORD), whereas the E and P sources prefer to call God Elohim (God). Alexander shows that Genesis 12, 20 and 26 are not doublets but distinct traditions about three different episodes. This means they could all come from the same source.

Chapter 3 looks at another alleged pair of doublets, Genesis 16 and 21, the flight of Hagar from Sarah. Again close inspection shows that these are very different stories and the supposed differences in vocabulary and divine names do not indicate diverse authorship.

Chapter 4 deals with the Abimelech treaty (Gen. 21:22–34), and chapter 5 with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22). In the latter Alexander argues for the unity of the chapter instead of splitting it between two sources, and he ascribes it all to J.

In chapter 6 he surveys the distribution of divine names in Genesis, and argues on the basis of a retranslation of Exodus 6:3 that the use of Yahweh in Genesis does at least in some cases go back to the time of the patriarchs and is not merely a reflection of the editor’s standpoint. Usually it is held that Exodus 6:3 shows that the Israelites first learned the name Yahweh in the time of Moses.

In chapters 7–8 Alexander shows how the present narrative about Abraham is coherent and progressive, so that it is unnecessary to posit multiple authors. It can all be the work of one writer. This leads him to conclude with the hope that in the new millennium scholars will concentrate more on understanding the final form of Genesis than on speculating how it may have been written.

All in all this is a most useful volume both for scholars and students, pointing to a sensible escape from the maze of bewildering theorizing that has kept pentateuchal studies from progressing in the way it could, if more time had been spent on the final form of the text and its theological message. Most of the time I found myself concurring with his eminently sensible conclusions, but on the question of Exodus 6:3 and the knowledge of the name of Yahweh in patriarchal times, I still feel the argument favours the view that the name was not known before Moses. R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament is worth consulting on this point, and I should have liked Alexander to have interacted with it.

Gordon Wenham

Cheltenham and Gloucester College