Sister-Wives and the Documentary Hypothesis
One of the things that fascinates me about the Bible is the question of who authored the books that make it up. There are a lot of figures to whom various books were attributed, but for the most part, the real authors are unknown. For instance, the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or Pentateuch, are traditionally attributed to Moses, but modern scholars have a very different view of how the Pentateuch came about.
I was in my early twenties when I began studying textual criticism, a field of study that analyses the biblical text, noting vocabulary, grammar, and style, in order to determine its authorship and composition. The most prominent model describing the composition of the Pentateuch is the Documentary Hypothesis, commonly associated with the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, but contributed to by many others.
The hypothesis proposes that there were four main sources for the Pentateuch, which were combined by a series of editors (or redactors) in an attempt to create a unified work. The four sources are identified as the Yahwist (or J, the initial of the German ‘Jahwist’), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P), and the Deuteronomist (D).
When I first began looking into textual criticism, I was interested in finding out why there were so many contradictions in the Pentateuch. However, the 18th-century scholars who pioneered the Documentary Hypothesis were more interested in doublets, that is, duplicate narratives with slightly different versions of events.
There are many examples of doublets in the Pentateuch and even some triplets. The most obvious example of a triplet, to me at least, is the ‘Wife Confused for a Sister’ narratives (Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 20:1-18, and Genesis 26:1-11). The first two have Abraham instructing his wife Sarah to say that she’s his sister, and the third has Isaac giving the same instruction to his wife Rebekah.
To summarise the stories, a patriarch ventures southwards to a foreign country. Fearing that his wife is so beautiful that anyone who sees her will want to marry her, he tells her to say that she’s his sister. The king sees the woman and, thinking she’s unmarried, decides he wants her for himself. The patriarch ends up becoming wealthy because of his deception, but, in the end, the ruse is uncovered, and the king asks, ‘What is this you have done to (me/us)?’ and sends him away.
Each story has differences from the others, but they all follow the same pattern.
According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Genesis 12 narrative belongs to the J source, Genesis 20 belongs to the E source, and Genesis 26 belongs to J. This means that J has a story with Abraham and Sarah and another with Isaac and Rebekah, and E has a single story with Abraham and Sarah.
The J narratives (Genesis 12 and 26) begin with the words, ‘Now there was a famine in the land,’ whereas the E narrative (Genesis 20) merely has Abraham travelling south as part of his exploration of the land.
Both the first J narrative (Genesis 12) and the E narrative (Genesis 20) are about Abraham and Sarah. In these versions, Sarah ends up being kidnapped by the king, God intervenes on Abraham’s behalf, and Sarah is freed. In the second J narrative (Genesis 26), however, the king catches Isaac and Rebekah in an intimate moment and realises that he has been lied to.
In the E narrative (Genesis 20) and the second J narrative (Genesis 26), the patriarch travels to Philistia (called the Negev in the narratives) and has a dispute with King Abimelech of Gerar. They then go on to stake a claim to the land by digging wells. In the first J narrative (Genesis 12), Abraham journeys to Egypt and has a conflict with Pharaoh but returns without claiming any land.
Unique to the first J narrative (Genesis 12), Abraham remarks that by having Sarah pretend to be his sister, the Egyptians will ‘treat him well for [her] sake,’ and so, when Pharaoh abducted Sarah, he ‘treated him well for her sake’ by giving him livestock and servants, possibly in exchange for Sarah.
In E (Genesis 20), God appears to Abimelech in a dream and acknowledges that, while the king is innocent of any wrongdoing, he and his family will be killed if he doesn’t return her. When Abraham is confronted, he says, ‘Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.’ Abimelech subsequently gives Abraham livestock and servants plus a thousand shekels of silver to make up for his error.
In the second J narrative (Genesis 26), Abimelech is appalled at Isaac for his deception but declares, ‘Anyone who harms this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.’ He doesn’t give Isaac any compensation, but Isaac, nevertheless, becomes wealthy whilst living in the land. Isaac and Rebekah are actually cousins, but this isn’t revealed.