Rewritings and Composite Contradictions: the Way of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are derived from the Jewish Scriptures: Jesus in the wilderness reworks the nation Israel’s and the prophet Elijah’s sojourn there; Jesus feeding the multitudes and raising the dead are surely inspired by comparable miracles by Elijah and Elisha and many more. What I find particularly interesting about this process is that the Jewish Scriptures themselves invite, or even entice, readers to undertake that very kind of rewriting we find in the gospels.

Embedded in the narratives of the books from Genesis to 2 Kings are two types of repetition:

  • composite stories where two different accounts of the same event are placed side by side
  • reiterations of common events and motifs in new contexts inviting readers to reflect on and compare quite different narratives


Look at opening chapters of Genesis and the creation of Adam. There are actually two stories of Adam’s creation in the first two chapters and each one is different. In the first Adam and Eve are evidently created equal. In the second Eve is an afterthought who was contemplated only after God finally realized that he absentmindedly overlooked giving Adam the same sort of sexual partner he had provided for other animals. Here is Robert Alter’s interpretation of what is going on here:

Just such a technique of placing two parallel accounts in dynamically complementary sequence is splendidly evident at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible. There are, of course, two different creation stories. The first, generally attributed to P, begins with Genesis 1:1 and concludes with the report of the primeval sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3), probably followed, as most scholars now think, by a formal summary in the first half of Genesis 2:4: “This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” The second version of the creation story, taken from the J Document, would then begin with the subordinate clause in the second half of Genesis 2:4, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven … ,” going on to the creation of man, the vegetable world, the animal kingdom, and woman, in that order, . . . . 

The decision to place in sequence two ostensibly contradictory accounts of the same event is an approximate narrative equivalent to the technique of post-Cubist painting that gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face. The ordinary eye could never see these two at once, but it is the painter’s prerogative to represent them as a simultaneous perception within the visual frame of his painting, whether merely to explore the formal relations between the two views or to provide an encompassing representation of his subject. Analogously, the Hebrew writer takes advantage of the composite nature of his art to give us a tension of views that will govern most of the biblical stories—first, woman as man’s equal sharer in dominion, standing exactly in the same relation to God as he; then, woman as man’s subservient helpmate, whose weakness and blandishments will bring such woe into the world.

A similar encompassing of divergent perspectives is achieved through the combined versions in the broader vision of creation, man, and God. God is both transcendent and immanent (to invoke a much later theological opposition), both magisterial in His omnipotence and actively, empathically involved with His creation. The world is orderly, coherent, beautifully patterned, and at the same time it is a shifting tangle of resources and topography, both a mainstay and a baffling challenge to man. Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man.”

Similarly with the rise of David. Again, two incompatible stories about his rise to power are told side by side. Whoever combined the stories was not interested in making them look like a seamless whole but left the inconsistencies for all to see and no doubt talk about.

The effectiveness of composite narrative as a purposeful technique is even more vividly evident when the primary aim is the presentation of character. The most elaborate biblical instance is the introduction of David, which, as has been often noted, occurs in two consecutive and seemingly contradictory versions (1 Samuel 16 and 17). In the first account, the prophet Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as successor to Saul, whose violation of divine injunction has just disqualified him for the kingship that was conferred on him. . . . Following the anointment, David is called to Saul’s court to soothe the king’s mad fits by playing the lyre, and he assumes the official position of armor-bearer to Saul. In the second account, David is still back on the farm while his older brothers (here three in number rather than seven) are serving in Saul’s army against the Philistines. There is no mention here of any previous ceremony of anointing, no allusion to David’s musical abilities or to a position as royal armor-bearer (indeed, a good deal is made of his total unfamiliarity with armor). In this version David, having arrived on the battlefield with provisions for his brothers, makes his debut by slaying the Philistine champion, Goliath, and he is so unfamiliar a face to both Saul and Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, that, at the end of the chapter, they both confess they have no idea who he is or what family he comes from, and he has to identify himself to Saul. . . . 

Both stories, though drawn from disparate sources, are necessary, however, in order to produce a binocular vision of David. In this case, the inference of a deliberate decision to use two versions seems especially compelling, for the redactor of the David story, unlike the redactor of Genesis, is not working with traditions sanctified by several centuries of national experience. One may infer that he had greater freedom as to what he “had” to include than did his counterpart in Genesis, and therefore that if he chose to combine two versions of David’s debut, one theological in cast and the other folkloric, it was because both were necessary to his conception of David’s character and historical role. Much the same point has been made by Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis in an intelligent essay on the larger David story: “But surely whoever put the narrative into this final form was aware of the inconsistency too; such inconsistency in close proximity in a narrative is more than an author’s nodding; it is the equivalent of deep sleep.” . . . . .

[T]he joining of the two accounts leaves us swaying in the dynamic interplay between two theologies, two conceptions of kingship and history, two views of David the man. In one, the king is imagined as God’s instrument, elected through God’s own initiative, manifesting his authority by commanding the realm of spirits good and evil, a figure who brings healing and inspires love. In the other account, the king’s election is, one might say, ratified rather than initiated by God; instead of the spirit descending, we have a young man ascending through his own resourcefulness, cool courage, and quick reflexes, and also through his rhetorical skill. All this will lead not directly to the throne but, as things usually happen in the mixed medium of history, to a captaincy; further military successes, a devoted following; the provocation of jealousy in the king, which brings about his banishment; a career of daring action, subterfuge, hardship, and danger; a bloody civil war; and only then the throne. Without both these versions of David’s beginnings and his claim to legitimacy as monarch, the Hebrew writer would have conveyed less than what he conceived to be the full truth about his subject. . . . 

Embracing complexity and contradictions
The fundamentalist view of the Bible that “there are no contradictions in God’s word” would seem to turn the Bible into a collection contrary to the purpose of its authors. One can imagine the discussions, the debates, in which authors and many readers must have once engaged.

Other Vridar posts exploring this same question of contradictory narratives in the Bible:

Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve (this post focuses on comparisons and contrasts with the methods of the Greek historian Herodotus)

Comparing the Rome and Israel Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

Another but with a less direct approach:

From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

In regard to larger blocks of narrative material, the characteristic biblical method for incorporating multiple perspectives appears to have been not a fusion of views in a single utterance but a montage of viewpoints arranged in sequence. Such a formula, of course, cannot smooth away all the perplexities of scribal and editorial work with which the biblical text confronts us; but we are well advised to keep in mind as readers that these ancient writers (and their redactors), like later ones, wanted to fashion a literary form that might embrace the abiding complexity of their subjects. The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles—the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.

Excerpts from: Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981. pp. 141-153

Reiterations: “all reflecting a single transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative”

Then there is the other type of repetition: the reverberations of the same motifs, images, actions in different contexts and with augmented meanings. Here I will cite Thomas L. Thompson and his thoughts in The Mythic Past.

This sense of history as an illustration of creation, this view of humanity living out a fate determined by its nature, dominates the biblical view of history as a reiteration of what always has been. It can best be seen through the many stories that present the recurrent theme of new creation, new beginnings and new hope. All play out their contrast to stories of human wilfulness. In the creation of such reiterative story chains, one finds recurrent echoes of characters who perform the same or a similar function. Within a biblical perspective, all reflect a single transcendent reality. Three examples of such echoing clusters of stories should make this clear.

1) There are two great stories in the Bible in which old Israel is led through water to begin a new life. In Exodus 14-15, Moses leads the people through the sea on dry land. The waters stack up like Jello on each side. Those who had been helpless slaves in Egypt become a victorious people led to victory by their God. The same motif of crossing the waters from defeat to victory finds its place in Joshua. The divine presence leads the people dry-shod across the Jordan River, whose waters ‘stand in one heap’ (Josh. 3: 7-17). It is a new Israel, coming out of the wilderness that enters the land. A minor echo of this motif can also be seen when the patriarch Jacob crosses the Jabbok in Genesis 32: 22. In this crossing, he becomes Israel. The transcendent reality that each of these stories reiterates is the original division of the waters of chaos at the creation, when God caused the waters ‘to be gathered in one place, letting the dry land appear’ (Gen. 1: 9).

Top image: creation day 3 from creationthetruth; Joshua crossing Jordon from Početna ; Jacob crossing Jabbok from st-takla.org

Elijah’s and Elisha’s crossing of the Jordan can be added, and the emergence of the new world after the Flood. We don’t need special gifts of insight to think of the baptizing by John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism where the heavens themselves part, Jesus walking across the water, and perhaps even Jesus regularly crossing the Sea of Galilee, fisherman being called from the waters.

2) The great collection of poems that prophesies Babylon’s destruction at the hands of ‘Yahweh of the Armies’, in the Book of Jeremiah (chapters 50 and 51) rings with obvious echoes of Genesis 11 ‘s story of the tower of Babylon. That story, however, also reiterates the paired and nearly indistinguishable stories of the destructions of Samaria and Jerusalem we find in II Kings 17 and 25. All of the prophecies of destruction against Israel’s enemies (Jer. 46-49) are mere variations of a single theme. As commentary on human events, such poems and stories about God’s wrath against cities and nations reiterate the transcendent reality of Yahweh’s war against the godless. The fundamental mythology that structures this war and destruction metaphor is seen much more clearly in the obviously cosmic allusions in the stories of the great flood (Gen. 6-9) and of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). Noah and Lot both fill the exilic role of Israel’s surviving remnant. They find ‘favour in Yahweh’s eyes’ (Gen. 6: 8). Yet another mythic variation of this leitmotif recurs throughout the Book of Psalms, where the transcendent struggle between the way of righteousness and the way of evil is captured in the metaphor of the cosmic war that Yahweh and his Messiah wage against the nations, as in Psalms 2, 8, 89 and 110. All are expressive of the divine dominance over reality. Offering a template for comparable recreations of this theme in the Books of Daniel and Revelations, Yahweh says to his Messiah (as well as to the poet’s implicit audience, revealing for a moment this metaphor’s importance in file language of piety): ‘Pray, and I will give the nations into your possession, and you will own the ends of the earth. You will crush them with an iron mace, break them into pieces like the shards of a pot’ (Psalms 2: 8-9).

The synoptic gospels unite in tying Jesus’ time to the destruction of Jerusalem and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. Even the Gospel of John opens with an announcement of the destruction of the Temple and its replacement with a new one embodied in Jesus.

3) My third example of a cluster of metaphors reiterating transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative of the past is a central part of the structure of what has been thought Israel’s historical past. The theme of crossing the wilderness forms an initial setting for the expansive collections of law and wisdom we find throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Israel sets out across the desert after the crossing of the sea and is prepared as early as Exodus 23 to enter into the promised land. Moses accumulates his ever-growing torah as he climbs Mount Sinai at least eight different times. ‘Murmuring’ and ‘backsliding’ are used to delay the plot throughout their wilderness trek. Finally, at the end of Numbers, Yahweh in his anger declares that this generation will never enter the land of promise. The desert becomes a place of exile for ‘those who refuse to walk in Yahweh’s path’. The story line waits the full generation of forty years for its new Israel to enter the land with Joshua. The transformation from the motif of wilderness-crossing to one of being held captive in a desert of exile is a shift that allows the entire final portion of the Pentateuch to be the subject of an exile’s reflection with Moses on Mount Nebo in the Book of Deuteronomy. Israel progresses through the themes of punishment, understanding and acceptance, allowing the Pentateuch’s narrative to close in mirrored step with the similarly meditative closure of II Kings in the city of Babylon.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999. pp. 18-20

Acacia in Sinai Peninsula (Wikimedia Commons) and James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners (Wikipedia)

When we think about some of those extra-canonical writings like the Book of Jubilees, the Ascension of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and so forth we should not wonder at what liberties they took with what we read in the canonical works. The same goes for the gospels, of course. Read against the same background, in some ways they seem to be a logical outcome of the Jewish Scriptures.

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10 thoughts on “Rewritings and Composite Contradictions: the Way of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation”

  1. This makes a lot more sense than an ineptitude on the part of the editors … but that doesn’t make it so. Another “possibility” to add to the witches brew of scripture interpretations.

    1. Yeh, questions remain, but I do like the comparison with Herodotus. The same alternatives side by side are there but the difference is the Greeks personalized authorship — made a thing of introducing the author’s voice (even if the author’s voice was another fiction) — while the Hebrew authors kept the author’s voice right out of any obvious presence. I’d like to understand more about why they did that. Some suggest it was to add greater authority to their works, to make them sound more like divine pronouncements. But that idea would go against the introduction of the contradictions set side by side in the books, I would think.

    2. Interesting to compare the four gospels with their variations and contradictions from each other.

      I wonder if Russell Gmirkin would turn to a busy editorial room of conflicting views as an explanation, at least for the OT. But that still leaves open the question of the intellectual culture that led to our final product.

      1. Yes, for much of the Hebrew Bible (especially the Pentateuch, but also notably Joshua-Kings) I would favor composite authorship reconciled by an editor. I have not arrived at a convincing authorial model or historical context for the gospels.

        1. The works that were culled or produced for the “Bible” were being rewritten and edited and reassembled over a period of say 3,000 years. Today here is a different edition, translation, coming out every few years.

          That means at least hundreds of editors, “translators,” spread out over thousands of years.


  2. Thanks Neil again for your detailed and considered work here. We could probably learn a lot from modern day religious liberal rabbis about how they explain the synthesis and canon of the Hebrew bible, taking into account their Council of Jamnia in c. AD 90 not too long after the destruction of their second temple.
    I’d like to put in a plug for evid3nc3. His succinct, confrontational and humble approach positing the Enuma Elish from Babylon being imposed on the earlier scriptures is very compelling :
    I’ve had some heavy conversations about this with the Australian director of Creation Ministries International. He’s an old friend too from my Christian days, when I too held the literal fundamentalist view.

    1. For another perspective on the Josiah/Deuteronomy reforms: http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies3.htm

      Reinforcing the point in the youtube presentation is another quote from Deuteronomy, not mentioned in the video, and discussed by Thompson thus:

      The opening of the song calls the listener to remember the accounts of ancient wisdom and its tales of the earth’s beginnings:

      Think of the days of yore; attend to generations past. Ask your father; let him tell you. Let the old one recount to you how El Elyon divided the nations; how he separated humanity from each other and how he established the boundaries of peoples according to the number of his messengers. Yahweh’s lot became his people: Jacob was his inheritance (Deut. 32: 7-9).

      This story of the supreme God, El Elyon, distributing the nations of the world among his sons or ‘messengers’ is also a close variant of the more geographical ‘table of nations’ (Genesis 10) that follows the flood story. That list of descendants follows lines of succession according to Noah’s three sons. Each represents the three continents of the ancient world: Shem (Asia), Ham (Africa) and Japheth (Europe). All the children listed are represented by geographical names in these regions. Each patriarch is portrayed as the father of his own particular city, region or people. Moses’ song of Deuteronomy 32 represents the heavenly side of this myth and is cast in the form of a paraphrase of old legends about the father of the gods surrounded by his children. They are his messengers. They represent him for all the nations. He is present through his sons, each of whom is given a land of his own. Yahweh received Jacob for his inheritance; El Elyon has made Yahweh God for Israel.

      (Mythic Past p.24)

      1. I have some jumbled thoughts on El Elyon specifically wondering if that epithet has a connection to the Ali character the Shia are hyper-fixated on.

        “To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth, and He is al-’Ali (the High), al-Adhim (the Exalted)” (Surah ash-Shura:4)

        “Glorify the name of your Lord, al-A’la (the Most High)” (Surah al-A’la:1)

        Have long thought there to be a connection of Al-‘Ali (The High) Al-A’la (The Most High) with Hypsistarians the monotheistic worshippers of the Hypsistos, i.e. of the “Most High” God.

        Could it be? https://themaydan.com/2017/07/hanifs-theosebes-god-fearers-common-link-judaism-christianity-islam-historical-quranic-context/

        The Most High is a way of addressing a deity: Most High God (´El `Elyon) or in the title LORD Most High, the Hebrew words are Elohim Yahweh. Hypsistos (Greek: Ὕψιστος, the “Most High” God) or Theos Hypsistos.

        Contemporary Hellenistic use of hypsistos as a religious term appears to be derived from and compatible with the term as appears in the Septuagint, from a much earlier date. (Greek ὕψιστος (hypsistos) translates Hebrew עליון‎ (elyon), meaning “highest”. This term occurs more than fifty times as a substitution for the Tetragrammaton (the name of God) or in direct relation to God (most often in the Psalms, Daniel, and Sirach).

        Neither Muhammad or Ali were ever real people. The Sunni Shia split then is more about the camel jockeys arguing over which epithet to use for addressing their deity and groups favoring one or the other coalescing in two different regions (Syria and Iraq).

        The Ethiopians give a hint as to what was going on:

        “It is in this period, according to Popp, that Islam’s true roots can be discerned. ‘Abd al-Malik provoked opposition (mostly notably ibn al-Zubayr) by insisting on a pre-Nicaean conservatism that less trumped the divisions scuppering the Christian factions than turned its back on them. This stance posited Jesus as Abd Allah (the Servant of God); the one who was to be understood as the muhammadun (chosen or praised one); a position articulated on the Dome of the Rock (a place that should be understood as the first monument of Arabian theology against Hellenistic varieties), which in the third line on the inside of the octagon on its south-east side reads: “Muhammadun ‘Abdu Ilahi wa-rasuluhu” (The Servant of God and his apostle be praised)”

        “The “Muhammad” title slowly spread with al-Malik’s followers from the east to west of the Levant, operating like the da’wa battle call. In many ways, it formed an ad fontes movement against Mu’awiya’s unedifying scenes of imitatio imperii. Instead of aping the Hellenistic dualism of Nestorianism vs Monophysitism, it set up an older Syrian theology (more dependent on Jewish accounts such as Toldot Yeshu than Christian competitors) that taught Jesus was no God but another prophet and that the Godhead was indivisible.”

        “This didn’t make them feel different from Christians. The Ethiopians, for instance, saw tawahedo (or the unity of the godhead) as central to their Christian faith, just as the proto-Muslims valued tawhid. The Arabian focus on the prophets or messengers appeared an issue that amounted to more a difference in emphasis than type, just as the Ethiopian reliance on Mosaic law was eccentric but not un-Christian.”

        Jan van Reeth argues that the Book of Jubilees had great influence on the formation of Islam. In the Book of Jubilees there is the very same concept of revelation as in Islam: God’s words and commandments are eternally written on celestial tablets. An angel reveals their content to a prophet.

        The Book of Jubilees, sometimes called Lesser Genesis (Leptogenesis), is an ancient Jewish religious work of 50 chapters, considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), where it is known as the Book of Division (Ge’ez: መጽሐፈ ኩፋሌ Mets’hafe Kufale). Jubilees is considered one of the pseudepigrapha by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is also not considered canonical within Judaism outside of Beta Israel.

        It was well known to Early Christians, as evidenced by the writings of Epiphanius, Justin Martyr, Origen, Diodorus of Tarsus, Isidore of Alexandria, Isidore of Seville, Eutychius of Alexandria, John Malalas, George Syncellus, and George Kedrenos. The text was also utilized by the community that originally collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. No complete Greek or Latin version is known to have survived, but the Ge’ez version has been shown to be an accurate translation of the versions found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

        The Book of Jubilees claims to present “the history of the division of the days of the Law, of the events of the years, the year-weeks, and the jubilees of the world” as revealed to Moses (in addition to the Torah or “Instruction”) by angels while he was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. The chronology given in Jubilees is based on multiples of seven; the jubilees are periods of 49 years (seven “year-weeks”), into which all of time has been divided.

        Jan van Reeth argues that the Book of Jubilees had great influence on the formation of Islam.[19] In the Book of Jubilees there is the very same concept of revelation as in Islam: God’s words and commandments are eternally written on celestial tablets. An angel reveals their content to a prophet (2, 1; 32, 21 f.). Abraham’s role in the Book of Jubilees corresponds to Abraham’s role in the Quran in more than one way.[example needed] The interpretation of biblical figures as prophets is also rooted in the Book of Jubilees.[citation needed] Also numerology, the emphasis on angels, and the symbolism of anniversaries found their way into Islam, such as the fact that many important events in the prophet’s biography as presented by Ibn Ishaq happen on the same date.

        Etsuko Katsumata, comparing the Book of Jubilees and the Quran, notices significant differences, especially in Abraham’s role in the quranic narrative, concluding that “the Book of Jubilees contains no passages in which Abraham disparages idols, as in the other texts, using tactics to make it look as if an idol has destroyed other idols (like in the Quran). The Book of Jubilees contains none of this kind of attitude; Abraham simply and directly destroys idols by setting fire to them.”[20] The quranic Abraham-narrative, according to Katsumata, contains passages other than those in the Book of Jubilees in which Abraham is involved in disputes about idolatry.[21] Abraham in the Quran acts as a perserverant prophet with an active and confronting missionary character, especially to his father, who is throughout the narrative hostile towards his son.[22] Abraham tries to convince local people, leader and a king while not leaving his homeland. In the Book of Jubilees Abraham’s role differs significantly; he has a favourable relationship to his father and leaves his home country after secretly burning down a temple.[23]

        19Jan M.F. van Reeth (1992). Cf. also: Klaus Berger, Die Urchristen (2008) p. 340; Andrew Rippin, Roberto Tottoli (Hrsg.), Books and Written Culture of the Islamic World: Studies Presented to Claude Gilliot on the Occasion of his 75th Birthday, Brill (2015) p. 280 ff.

        20Katsumata (2012). 21. Katsumata (2012), pp. 51–52. 22. Katsumata (2012), p. 54, “The Quran has many passages in which Abraham expounds the errors in idolatry. In these passages, Abraham always addresses his words to local people, and he does not leave their land. This probably reflects Islam’s position that aims at converting idol worshippers to monotheistic religion and settling in their place of residence.” 23. Katsumata (2012), pp. 52–54.

        Katsumata, Etsuko (2012). “Abraham the Iconoclast: Different Interpretations in the Literature of the Second Temple Period, the Texts of Rabbinic Judaism, and the Quran”. Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (JISMOR). 8: 37–58.

        Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Jubilees


  3. Did the composite authors and/or their editor visit Sais in the western delta like Solon before them?

    Maybe it’s nothing but I find interesting the apparent equivalences between Neith = Athena = Anat. Anat of course being Yahweh’s consort in the Anat-Yahu form that comes down to us in the Elephantine papyri.

    Anyone who wants to look into this can spend some time skimming the relevant entries within Karel van der Toorn’s ‘Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible’.

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