Introduction to the Composition of the Pentateuch (The Biblical Seminar 58)

Written by Alexander Rofé Reviewed By J. Gary Millar

Despite appearing as successive contributions to the Biblical Seminar series, these books could hardly be more different. Rofé’s introduction is a highly unsatisfactory and rather tired volume, whereas Watt’s contribution is fresh and challenging.

From his opening demand that the reader is open to the critical method and ‘sets aside excuses and homiletics’ (italics mine), Rofé goes about his task in a somewhat doctrinaire manner. He consistently ignores recent literary studies on the Pentateuch, especially when dealing with narrative, preferring instead to restate critical orthodoxies of a generation ago. Throughout he casually dismisses every perspective on the text other than his own (for instance see pp. 18–22, 112), and steadfastly refuses to engage with any attempt to read texts holistically, whether conservative or not.

Much of the book takes the form of a historical overview of Pentateuchal studies, but even here Rofé’s approach is rather quirky. Too much space is given to the work of his teacher Cassuto, and occasionally his assessment of earlier work is out of step with the current consensus (see for instance his comments on von Rad’s treatment of Deut. 26 on p. 96). Overall, I found the volume to be extremely unsatisfactory. It is too patchy to be of use as background reading for those doing courses on the Pentateuch (and many other books do the job much better). It is too quirky to be of use as a basic text on Pentateuchal criticism. In addition, it is littered with unhelpful asides and unwarranted side-swipes, which make it an infuriating read for anyone with a more conservative view of the Bible. I would not recommend this book to anyone!

Watt’s discussion of law and rhetoric, however, is an entirely different matter. He begins by arguing that biblical laws were originally composed with public reading in mind, and then suggests that this shaped not only the framing of the laws in the Pentateuch but also the narrative sections. He then defends this view in a carefully nuanced discussion of the nature of the ‘rhetoric’ of the Pentateuch, which despite being sui generisdisplays the same basic pattern of story, list and sanction as other ancient literature. This ‘rhetoric of persuasion’ shapes both the large-scale structures of this part of the Bible and the wording of individual legal sentences.

This concept is investigated under the rubrics of ‘Instruction’, ‘Commandment’ and ‘Law’. It would be impossible to do justice to Watts’ careful and persuasive discussion in a short review. Suffice to say that this is a ‘must read’ for anyone doing advanced study in this area, or particularly interested in the nature of biblical law. At times, there is a hint of circularity in Watt’s discussion, but this scarcely detracts from the value of his careful and suggestive analysis. This really is an excellent book, which I can recommend wholeheartedly.

J. Gary Millar