Sparks-reading the Torah critically

I am reading Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words in which he takes on the daunting task of convincing evangelical Protestants to give biblical criticism a chance.

The next chapter after the one about how historical critical methods opened up the study of Mesopotamian cultures and history, deals with how the same methods apply to the Bible. It is the longest chapter in the book. I will not deal with it all in one post.

The longest part is about the Pentateuch. He lines up all the evidence that these five books come from the 1st millennium BCE and that Moses, therefore, didn’t write them. He also argues for the presence in the books of multiple source strands.

I read this with the question of how convincing this would be to the intended audience. Actually I thought of a few people I have encountered who reject biblical criticism as wrongheaded, if not blasphemous. How would they react to the case Sparks presents?

His approach is partly just to ask people to read the Bible and think about what is there. For instance, when you read the early chapters of Genesis it is not hard to notice that there are two stories of creation, two versions of the same genealogy, and two stories of the flood.

He also asks people to compare the chronology implied with the actual events. For instance, he shows how, according the chronology of Genesis 21, Ishmael should have been at least 16 years old when sent into the wilds by Sarah. Yet the story portrays him as an infant.

So Sparks deals with a series of problems you run into when you read the Pentateuch. These include problems of chronology and the signs of literary sources.

They also include the problem of Deuteronomy which claims to be mostly speeches by Moses, but actually seems to reflect the time of King Josiah. Also there is the problem of several law codes each reflecting a different historical period. Furthermore. there is the problem of the development of religious institutions like sacrifice, temple, and priesthood reflecting evolution over hundreds of years. In addition to these, there is the problem that the Pentateuch recycles myths and motifs from Mesopotamian literature. Finally, there is the problem that the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus accounts contain distortions so that, even if you conclude that the events happened, you have to take account of “literary embellishment and creative theological elaboration.”

This is all good. Honest people will admit that there are, indeed, problems. Inerrantists say that problems are not errors. There are ways around some of them. For instance, conservative scholars sometimes say that, although Moses wrote enough of the Pentateuch that you can assign him authorship, there were many additions and edits that went into our version. These account for many of the problems. And traditional Jews say that the written and oral tradition up through the Misnah is truly Mosaic, even though most of it arose long after the death of Moses.

Some of what Sparks mentions will give any thoughtful reader of the Bible something to think about.

On the other hand, he sometimes presents his own fanciful theories. For instance, Sparks believes the Priestly part of the Torah is post-exilic. He believes that Ezekiel comes in between Deuteronomy and the Priestly Torah. I disagree with this because, among other things, I think Jeremiah was familiar with parts of the Priestly Torah.

I am perhaps in the minority on this, so Sparks’ opinion is not my problem. My problem arises when he claims that Ezekiel’s wheel-within-a-wheel vision is a step in the development of a view of the ark of the covenant, a view that falls between the pre-exilic tradition about the ark and the elaboration of the ark in P.

Clearly P has elaborated on the ark. And it is ingenious to put yourself in Ezekiel’s sandals and see his vision as a way of saying that there is a glorious heavenly ark that was unaffected by the Babylonian destruction of the temple. However, the connection is not straightforward. Sparks is reading some things into this.

It was interesting but not convincing to me. Someone who, unlike me, wanted to disagree with Sparks might take from this that many of the other things he says are also fanciful. That would be wrong.

I have noticed this tendency in Sparks before. He has a wonderful pdf article up here on the “Religion, Identity, and the Origins of Ancient Israel”. As I read that piece, I often thought that I wished I had written it. I was very much on board until I got to page 16 where Sparks is talking about the Song of Deborah and he buys into a theory of Donald Redford. Redford, who is a great Egyptologist but becomes weirdly speculative when dealing with the Bible, proposed that the Sisera that Deborah fought was actually Pharaoh Ramses II.


Sparks took that seriously. So I think he has a tendency to do this. It should not reflect on the overall reliability of his work.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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