Solving the Problem of the Pentateuch

We still may not totally get the most distinctive and interesting aspect of the Bible because we still treat it as a bug not a feature, a problem to solve rather than what it objectively was: the ideal that motivated the creation of the Torah.

When asked what the most distinctive aspect of the Bible is, many point to how good the writing is. For example what David Damrosch (now chair of Harvard's Comparative Literature department and no slouch) asked in his classic The Narrative Covenant was “how did the biblical writers come to produce the greatest historical writing ever seen in the ancient Near East?” But the spellbinding stories about Saul and Samuel, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba aren't much more verifiably historical than the epic of Gilgamesh (which is to say, a bit), and their superior greatness may be mainly a matter of taste. Surely some people will always think Shakespeare, or the Qur’an, or classical Chinese poetry is better.

But the narratives and laws of the Torah share a formal feature that I have been unable, in 30 years of research as a scholar of comparative religion and the ancient Near East, to find anywhere else in world literature. It is this feature that early interpreters recognized and sets it apart even from other scriptures that demand interpretation to be applied. What the great critic Eric Auerbach found most distinctive about the Torah1 was that it speaks directly to its audience demanding to be obeyed, yet as a consistent feature of its literary form removes the context and coherence that would let you do that,2 forcing the audience to somehow intervene.

This goes beyond the standard pragmatic feature of any major text that survives beyond its immediate context and requires readerly interpretation and decision as part of the act of reading (the US Constitution, the Quran). This is the Torah's systematic interweaving of three or more versions of its story, and its juxtaposition of three or more different legal collections. The reader cannot just decide in cases where a part is missing or vague; they must decide against or transform a countervailing part.

I have never been able to find another world literature (certainly not an ancient Near Eastern one) whose creators systematically interwove different parallel versions of a story in order, as if each were telling the same one. This is the "problem" Pentateuchal criticism solves.

But if it's clearly a problem for us (as it was for the Bible's earliest interpreters like Philo or the creator of Jubilees) it was just as clearly a goal for the Torah's creators, a special one which they worked hard to achieve. What literary values guided them to that goal? I tried to theorize that goal here, suggesting that a distinctive value of comprehensiveness eclipsed the more common value of coherence which the Torah's creators inherited.

One of the key features of early Judaism arose out of them inheriting the comprehensive but incoherent Torah, and building a new value of harmonization in responsethe idea that no, despite appearances, the Torah is perfectly coherent but only in a divine, cryptic way.

Why does this make the Torah so interesting as literature? Here Jacqueline Vayntrub points to the potential of Anna Kornbluh's new work The Order of Forms which argues that it is, above all, written literature's formal features, even more than its contents, that make it powerful.

“Although we often cherish literature’s concretization—its texturizing of lived experience, its sensualization of language, its specification of social constructs—in this book I advocate for its unique abstractions….Attending to these literary abstractions opens up the power of literary form to reveal and revalue the abstractions at work in social life, including ideology and institutions, laws and calculations, and our foundationless [social bond] itself.”3

In other words we no longer need to treat the Pentateuch's interwoven form as merely a problem. To the extent that problem is solvable (i.e. arriving at an account most scholars find convincing), we have already solved it because almost all agree on the fact of interweaving.4 The thing that can tell us why the Bible is interesting and distinctive is not just to declare its form to be a problem and try to solve it, but to think about what values and meanings are implied in that form, as well as in its content.



In his monumental work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, 1953). Auerbach wrote that the assumption of most biblical narrative is that it is the real story of the world—its foundations and destiny—and as a result the narrative itself demands not just attention but obedience from the reader. Yet the text as we have it never gives us quite enough context to do that; it thwarts our ability to to obey, and so drives us toward ever widening efforts at interpretation:

“Let no one object that this goes too far, that not the stories, but the religious doctrine, raises the claim to absolute authority; because the stories are not, like Homer's, simply narrated "reality." Doctrine and promise are incarnate in them and inseparable from them; for that very reason they are fraught with "background" and mysterious, containing a second, concealed meaning. In the story of Isaac, it is not only God's intervention at the beginning and the end, but even the factual and psychological elements which come between, that are mysterious, merely touched upon, fraught with background; and therefore they require subtle investigation and interpretation, they demand them. Since so much in the story is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden God, his effort to interpret it constantly finds something new to feed upon…

If the text of the Biblical narrative, then, is so greatly in need of interpretation on the basis of its own content, its claim to absolute authority forces it still further in the same direction. Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. This becomes increasingly difficult the further our historical environment is removed from that of the Biblical books; and if these nevertheless maintain their claim to absolute authority, it is inevitable that they themselves be adapted through interpretative transformation.” (Mimesis, p. 15).

Note that for Auerbach this is connected with the unique literary style of specific biblical authors, but critical scholarship shows that what he took to be a stylistic feature of the Elohist is inseparable from how it was edited together with other materials)


Here is an example of how our current Torah seems to be the result of its creators deliberately removing context and coherence:

In the revelation given on Mt Sinai in Exodus according to non-Priestly narrative, Hebrew men are allowed to be sold into debt-slavery for 7 years, women permanently (Ex. 21:2-7). In Deuteronomy's version of that revelation, both men and women are limited to 7 years (Deut. 15:12-15). By contrast, when Leviticus retells that revelation it is reduced to 0 years (Lev. 25:39-46). This is likely due to the later stage of Priestly tradition, called the Holiness source, trying to rethink and one-up both the non-Priestly source of Exodus as well as Deuteronomy. Put them together and you've got a challenge.

If it's not deliberate contradiction or mindless incoherence, each of these three clear-cut divine commands must be assuming a context (the non-Priestly narrative, Deuteronomy's retelling of revelation, later Priestly rethinking) that the interweaving and juxtaposition erased.


Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (Chicago, 2019), 6.


For a careful and illuminating statement of this consensus see Konrad Schmid, “Has European Scholarship Abandoned the Documentary Hypothesis? Some Reminders on Its History and Remarks on Its Current Status.” In T. Dozeman et al, eds. The Pentateuch. International Perspectives on Current Research, FAT 78, Tübingen 2011, 17–30.