Understanding Contradictions and Incongruities in the Bible – Or Not…

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by Neil Godfrey

A couple of months ago I posted Why Bible Authors Wrote Anonymously and with Contradictions. I was setting down in writing my thoughts as informed by my latest reading at the time. But doubts remained. In that post I said that ancient Near Eastern authors corrected details in an existing narrative by adding contradictory statements or narratives next to them. That didn’t answer the question, though: If they wanted to make a correction, why not replace the perceived error entirely?

Another perspective on that question is presented by Isaac Rabinowitz in his posthumous 1993 book A Witness Forever: Ancient Israel’s Perception of Literature and the Resultant Hebrew Bible.

Rabinowitz argues that the ancient Israelites, like other peoples in the region, attributed to words a power beyond their merely symbolic representations of their referents. To some extent I found myself sympathetic to the argument given that we see evidence of some cultures today seeming to have the same view. I am thinking of warnings on tv and radio for the benefit of first nations audiences that the ensuing program will contain images and names of the deceased. Words are considered to be more than mere sounds to be decoded for meaning. However, in the end, I found myself wishing that Rabinowitz had produced more explicit evidence to buttress the main thrust of his argument that for the Israelites words of themselves (apparently independent of social context) consist of magic power. Too much — especially given my lack of wider reading in this area — was left to a single interpretation of the data, and perhaps just a tad overly deductive. Still, the book does raise questions.

But what do we make of the following examples of repetition and redundancy in the biblical text?

It is plainly evident that several books in the Bible consist of diverse source material that has been stitched together by an artful editor or editors. (Note for instance the major prophets whose works are a patchwork of autobiography, biography, direct speech, indirect speeches, first and third person prose, poems — all in one work.) Whether one follows the traditional Documentary Hypothesis or the Hellenistic provenance of biblical texts, one will almost inevitably find discussions about how an author/redactor was evidently working with diverse materials and bringing them together into a unity. Here is how Rabinowitz viewed the process followed by those editors:

As suggested above, the ancient editors and redactors who brought the books of the Hebrew Bible into the text­ forms in which they are now before us — books, we must not forget, which to them and to countless others after them were holyfound the text-material which they thus reordered and reworked available in a multiplicity of variant formats and arrangements. Unquestionably, too, our editors and redac­tors often confronted more than one manuscript of the self­ same body of text-material, handwritten copies of the same work which—as inevitably occurs in the course of manu­script-transmission—must have exhibited variation in word-choice, word-order, statement-attribution, inclusion or abridg­ment of details, and other matters of style. A modern critical editor, confronting such variation in the written witnesses at his disposal to the text he is trying to establish, will select that one of the variant possibilities which he judges to be correct and present it in his main text; the rejected variants will be exhibited in an “apparatus criticus” at the foot of the page carrying the main text. Our ancient editors and redactors, unwilling or not daring, in the case of a book which they believed to be holy, to determine the “true” reading and to set the other possibilities aside, frequently took care to preserve the variants by incorporating them into the main text itself. Where, that is to say, they found two or more slightly variant readings in their manuscript-sources, they often would fuse them into a composite reading; hence the conflation of many passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. (p 85, italics original, bolding mine)

Rabinowitz follows the above with what may seem trivial examples, but the fact that they are “trivial” tells us something of significance. Two examples:

At Gen. 23:1, for example, the King James Version reads,

And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah.

The words “these were” are here italicized, as is standard practice in the KJV, in order to alert the reader to the fact that the words so printed do not translate words of the original Hebrew text, but have been inserted by the translators to abate the awkwardness, in English, of a more literal render­ing of the Hebrew verse. Later editions and some revisions of the KJV omit the italics of “these were” and thus obscure the fact that the two words represent nothing in the Hebrew text. The New English Bible (1970), finally, simply omits “these were the years of the life of Sarah” — even with “these were” in italics, the statement is only too obviously redun­dant — and joins the first half of verse 2 to the first half of verse 1:

1Sarah lived for a hundred and twenty-seven years, 2and died in Kiriath-arba, which is Hebron, in Canaan.

The explanation of the awkward redundancy of Gen. 23:1 is quite simple. Before the editor(s) who produced the verse as we now find it were two manuscripts, one of which read,

1And the life of Sarah was a hundred and twenty-seven years, 2and then Sarah died ….

while the other read,

1And the years of Sarah’s life were a hundred and twenty­ seven years, 2and then Sarah died ….

(The word “life” in Hebrew is plural in form, hence the verb in both manuscript-texts was alike also plural.) In order to preserve the slightly variant reading “the years of Sarah’s life” alongside the simpler “the life of Sarah,” the editor(s) placed the former at the end of the sentence comprised by verse 1—at the foot of the verse instead of at the foot of the page, as a modem editor of a critically edited text would do—and thus produced our now conflate text of this verse. Both readings, it should perhaps be added, are in quite idiomatic Biblical Hebrew; compare, for “the years of Sarah’s life,” the similar instances at Exod. 6:16,18, and 20.

Another example of conflation-induced redundancy is found at Exod. 6:26-27, where the King James Version reads,

26These are that Aaron and Moses, to whom the Lord said, Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt ac­cording to their armies.

27These are they which spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt: these are that Moses and Aaron.

The final words of verse 27 are precisely the same as the opening words of verse 26, save that the names “Aaron” and “Moses” have switched positions: it is “Aaron and Moses” in verse 26, but “Moses and Aaron” at the end of verse 27. Here again the editor(s) have conflated two variant manu­script-readings; in one the order of the names in the opening words was “Aaron and Moses,” in the other the passage opened with “Moses and Aaron.” What now seems to us a strange redundancy in the text was born of the desire of the editor(s) to preserve and to transmit both readings. (pp 85f)

Now if the editors were keen enough to capture and preserve what seem to us to be such irrelevant variants, I suppose it must follow that if they found two variant biographies of King Josiah, no matter how contradictory, they must preserve both, even side by side. (I said “must follow” but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.) Many of us are more familiar with the strikingly divergent accounts of the creation of humankind, male and female, side by side in Genesis 1 and 2.

I am reminded of another recent discussion where I referred back to the anthropologist of religion, Harvey Whitehouse, and his observation that in “book religions” certain rituals and doctrines are necessary to overcome the “tedium effect” (post 1 and post 2). Tedium itself is induced by repetition and years of familiarity and I suppose that when we are exposed to contradictory narratives over time in an environment that delivers them authoritatively we find it easy to let our minds, overcome with tedium, slip into a default mode of  acceptance and unquestioning. Zealots who resist tedium, on the other hand, will find ways to rationalize the contradictory narratives if it serves their interest.

But none of that explains the initial impetus to place contradictory accounts side by side, or at best edit them in a way that removes enough of the contradictions to “make them fit”. The Josiah narrative, for example, shows numerous signs of editorial adjustments but the task is far from perfect. Recall the way subsequent verses implying Josiah was a wicked king were left untouched — not to mention leaving his violent death stand despite the promise Huldah gave him that he would die in peace.

A number of scholars have suggested that there was a collaborative effort among Samaritans and Judeans and their various subgroups (e.g. Boíd, Gmirkin, Hjelm, Macchi, Nodet, Schorch) to produce a common Scripture. I can understand how a spirit of acceptance and unity despite differences could produce a work that combined diverse viewpoints (e.g. the creation stories) but I cannot see what that spirit has to with preserving the kinds of details in the above examples: repeating “years of Sarah’s life” and “Sarah’s years”; or preserving “Moses and Aaron” on the one hand and “Aaron and Moses” on the other.

Do those kinds of preservations indicate that editors considered all variants submitted to be somehow “holy” or “inspired”, the work of especially holy persons? Or do they point to obsessive-compulsive traits being a requisite qualification of an editor? Now I am being reminded of other anthropologists who compare ritual lives of the religious with OCD so better call an end to this post.

Rabinowitz, Isaac. A Witness Forever : Ancient Israel’s Perception of Literature and the Resultant Hebrew Bible. Bethesda, MD: CDL, 1993.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Understanding Contradictions and Incongruities in the Bible – Or Not…”

  1. One possible explanation to why interpolations and harmonisations do come across as clumsy is because they are the only interpolations/harmonisations we can easily identify.

    1. But what was the impulse that led to the preservation of what look like pointless redundancies — such as “so many years old” and “these were the years” next to each other?

        1. No. They are consistent and evidently deliberate repetitions (in different syntax) and by multiple hands. It’s a feature, not a bug, of the Book.

  2. Sir Terry Pratchett used this Jewish reverence for (holy) words for his dwarves in his Discworld books, notably ‘Thud!’ (funny enough I always read them as a stand in for Muslim immigrants in West-Europe, maybe the inspiration came from both?). Because they’re such a mining-heavy folk it is very important to not erase the symbols on the walls that warn people of potential or certain dangers, and this influenced their beliefs. The most fundamentalist of dwarves even despise cleaning a classroom blackboard, however the main character thinks to himself that he’s seen a dwarf colleague of his toss away plenty of notes, and dwarves also invented the printing press in that world, meaning they break up words and rearrange letters all the time. (This is not an argument against anything, obviously the people writing the Hebrew scripture were elites, not service or blue-collar workers.)

    Anyway, I’m also reminded of little bits I’ve heard about oral tradition and how they use rhyme, repetition and common themes/bits in the epics and poems and such to better remember them, but I remain very unread about the subject. (On my overly ambitious to-read list is Australian scholar Lynne Kelly, who wrote a little on the subject. On first glance I don’t think she’ll ever convince me the Stonehenge was a mnemonic device, but she seems to know a lot about non-literate and ancient memory techniques.)
    I assume this repetition in the Hebrew scriptures has nothing to do with rhyming schemes, because I’ve never seen or heard anything about the text rhyming, but I know the related fields have had discussions about orality and oral sources. Has anything ever been said or written about how well the text commits to memory, and what techniques were used to make it easier? The repetition looks to dense or repetitive for it to be used like that, but I honestly know next to nothing about it.

    1. The kinds of repetition used as in oral recitations such as the Homeric epics are quite different from the kinds of prosaic and awkward, seemingly pointless repetitions and redundancies Rabinowitz is addressing as per the examples in the post. The sort of repetition your comment is addressing relates to oral story telling and recitations and even songs modern and past.

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