The Pentateuch: A Story of Beginnings

Written by Paula Gooder Reviewed By T. Desmond Alexander

This is the sixth volume to appear in The Continuum Biblical Studies Series, an ecumenical series designed primarily for those ‘embarking on theological and ministerial education’. Gooder aims to introduce the reader briefly to both the history of Pentateuchal studies and the contents of the Pentateuch. Any attempt to write such an introduction is fraught with difficulties, especially given the current multiplicity of views and approaches. To do so in about 110 pages is a major challenge. Indeed, one might seriously question the wisdom of trying to cover so complex a topic is such a limited space.

To her credit Gooder manages to incorporate into this book a wide range of material, although the presentation is often very limited and somewhat uneven. Thus, for example, the contents of most of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are covered in merely 21 pages. This stands in marked contrast to the Book of Genesis which receives 42 pages of discussion. So great an imbalance is hard to justify.

In many ways, the whole book resembles a small supermarket, where the reader is presented with an array of different products and brands. Restrictions on shelving mean, however, that not all products and brands are represented; the omission of such Pentateuchal heavy-weights as Blum and Milgrom is particularly surprising, especially given some of those who have been included. Others might have packed the shelves somewhat differently.

The brevity with which so many topics are treated naturally prevents the author from engaging critically with different viewpoints. Yet, one senses that this is not particularly important to Gooder. The critical evaluation of different readings of the text comes across as somewhat irrelevant. Thus, among many examples that could be quoted, the reader is informed of S.J. Teubal’s view that Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, were ‘all Mesopotamian priestesses’ (60). Remarkably, no counter-arguments are mentioned to this highly speculative and unwarranted approach.

The subjective nature of Gooder’s approach is striking. In her conclusion, she writes. ‘The task of those who wish to understand Genesis to Deuteronomy better is to pick their way through the many different possible approaches to the text and find those which are most helpful’ (108). The use of the expression ‘most helpful’ is significant. The idea that there may be objective standards by which views and opinions should be judged and accepted as true or false does not figure prominently in the book. Indeed, Gooder comments elsewhere that ‘although an argument may contain many flaws, the ability to demonstrate this does not necessarily indicate that the argument is wrong’ (52). While this perhaps reflect the spirit of the present age, it is a spirit which if taken to its logical conclusion must mean the end of rational discussion as we know it.

Although Gooder avoids saying so herself, the book exemplifies a post-modern approach to the Pentateuch where readers are invited to take from it as they please. Yet, we need to ask seriously, are all interpretations of the text equally valid? A good introduction to the Pentateuch should guide the reader as to how best to read and interpret the text. Judged by this standard, Gooder’s approach is insufficiently critical.

T. Desmond Alexander

Union Theological College, Belfast