In his Introduction to the Old Testament in a section called “The Problem of a Third Early Source Stratum” Fohrer asserted that there are conflicting theologies within the JE material. He said that the old stories (when you take the P material out) show two “divergent tendencies” In one group of passages mankind, after Adam, heads straight downhill to sin and judgment. But there is another group of passages that see a kind of rhythm. People advance and finally become civilized and arrogant. Then God acts to stymie them. Fohrer saw these two patterns as mutually exclusive.
I will come back to these tendencies. But first I note that Fohrer made some other points. One of them is that several events in the early stories happen three times. The most obvious one of these is that a patriarch’s wife is endangered three times in very similar circumstances. Most of the other examples assume situations where JE has combined two stories and then there is a third. For instance, Exodus 3:10 ff. has a combined story of God sending Moses to Pharaoh. But there is another sending in Exodus 4:19. He gives several more instances of this kind of thing. So, he reasoned, that if the same event occurs three times, there were likely three source strata.
But in the manna story in Exodus 16 he saw E as absent but J combined with another source– then E’s story turns up in Numbers 11:4-9. He thought he could detect all three sources woven together in the Jacob stories and the Sinai narrative.
The Sinai narrative illustrates the different world views of these sources. According to J, the people leave Sinai joyfully in anticipation of settling the land. According to E, they leave Sinai in the shadow of the golden calf incident and anticipating judgment. But according to Fohrer’s third source, they leave Sinai because they are unwilling to stay in the wilderness, where God dwells. This source has the ideology that settled civilization will inevitably corrupt. So the settlement of the land is itself apostasy. They should have stayed near the mountain.
Fohrer calls this third source N, for the Nomadic source. I don’t blame you if this alphabet soup of sources confuses you . One old German scholar, Otto Eisfeldt called a similar hypothetical source L and Julius Morgenstern called it K. I notice that some writers use R for Redactor to designate editorial additions. It is too bad that R for Rechabite is not available, because from Fohrer’s description the people in Jeremiah 35:6-10 seem like perfect candidates for those that might have preserved this type of tradition.
After Fohrer isolated the material that he thought came from N, he had a narrative about how God created people to be free wanderers and herders. But several times they try to connect with settled civilization. This always gets them into trouble. Lot’s trouble at Sodom and Gomorrah was meant to show what happens when you move to the city. The same was true of Laban cheating Jacob. The solution for both Lot and Jacob was to leave the city and become nomadic once again.
In Egypt Israel was alright as herders in the Land of Goshen, but then they experienced the worst of settled, agricultural civilization. Not only did they have to build cities for Pharaoh, they even had to work in the fields (Exodus 1:14). Once again the solution was to leave and go into the wilderness where free men belong.
Fohrer thought this source had very archaic material, but that it was material that J and E, both tied to agricultural civilization, suppressed. Fohrer thought that N was based on the oral saga G. But he thought it became a written source when the N community reacted to J and tried to set the record straight. So he dated the source a little later than J. He thought its setting was a herding culture in south Judah bordering the Negev.
This is an intriguing theory. I don’t doubt that there was a world-view like this (see Jeremiah 35). But was there ever such a written document? Maybe this material came directly from oral saga as told around campfires by Bedouin-like herders. Over parsing of the Pentateuch is probably one reason for Rolf Rendtorf’s return to a fragment theory of the sources. If you break it down too much, all you have left are fragments.
I no longer date J to the early monarchy. I used to speculate that J came about during the time of Solomon. I thought the author might have also been the author of the court history or David. I even speculated that it originated in the circles around Bathsheba, the queen mother and power behind the throne. That still may be true of the court history.
But I now think of J in the court of Hezekiah. This is later than Fohrer thought, but not as late as some now think. A major piece of evidence would be the snake in the Garden of Eden which I now think was a pro-Hezekiah polemic against the cult of the bronze serpent (2 Kings 18:4).
We know from Jeremiah that the Rechabites were still around up to the Babylonian exile. We know they had the respect of Jeremiah, who was not happy with what some scribes had written (Jeremiah 8:8). So perhaps there was a reaction against J’s very positive view of the monarchy and civilization and that reaction was supported by Jeremiah and his circle. I am just thinking out loud.