Studies in the Patriarchal Narratives

Written by William McKane Reviewed By Martin J. Selman

This work shows considerable sympathy with the growing trend in which it is argued that the Patriarchal Age cannot be established on the basis of historical and archaeological data. McKane, in fact, starts from the premise that Genesis 12–50 is not a form of history waiting to be confirmed by extra-biblical evidence, and regards the methods and conclusions of authors such as Bright, Speiser, and Rowley as quite inadequate. The main contention of the book is that any evidence from external sources relating to the patriarchs is essentially of secondary value to internal literary study of the biblical text.

The major part of the book is therefore devoted to literary questions. These are discussed by means of a detailed consideration of various twentieth-century studies on the patriarchs, though surprisingly little attention is given to works appearing since 1970. The first main chapter, on the history of the literary genre of the patriarchal narratives, is largely taken up with an appreciation of Gunkel, whose work, according to McKane, is ‘studded with brilliance’, and whose voice still needs to be heard. A rather more negative assessment is made of Eissfeldt’s attempt to interpret Genesis 12–50 as tribal history, and this is followed by the longest chapter where the traditio-historical approaches of Noth, Hoftijzer, Jepsen, Seebass, and Kilian are examined in turn. Finally an attempt is made to evaluate the religion and theology of the patriarchal narratives, though it is continually emphasized that one’s understanding of the religious content is conditioned by a prior decision about the literary genre.

Although McKane does not provide any new interpretation of his own, the book does contain penetrating insights on the work of other writers. Particularly helpful are the comparisons of different approaches, and the emphasis on the relationship between the study of literature and religion. McKane’s preference in the end seems to be for a combination of the results of Gunkel and Noth, though no attempt is made to combine them into any unified interpretation. The former is praised for his aesthetic sensitivity, while the attractiveness of Noth’s traditio-historical method is his organic concept of tradition, which is not fundamentally affected either by the documentary sources (e.g. Hoftijzer, Kilian) or by the imposition of an artificial theological framework (e.g. Jepsen, von Rad).

McKane is undoubtedly correct to draw attention to the importance of the literary problems posed by the patriarchal narratives, though his own treatment raises its own difficulties. His concern for genre has become an overemphasis, producing an unfortunate divorce between history and literature, but historiographical questions cannot be so easily pushed aside. Indeed, it is precisely the internal historical features of Genesis 12–50 which conservatives and others need to investigate in much greater depth before any unified understanding of the patriarchs can be achieved. Another problem is that the theology of the patriarchs arising out of McKane’s method is somewhat anaemic when compared with the present form of the text, and will hardly stoke the fires of the preacher’s heart. Nevertheless, this is an important book for those who wish to examine Genesis 12–50 in depth, though the debate about the patriarchs is certainly far from finished.


Martin J. Selman

Spurgeon’s College, London