Having reread parts of The Poetic Priestly Source by Jason M. H. Gaines that I had trouble understanding, I come away with the importance of his belief that poetry is a matter of degrees and that his term poetic is not the same as poetry. That is why I have used the term, lyrical. Think of this from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
We consider this prose. But, in the sense Gaines uses the word, I think it is poetic. I would call it lyrical. It is certainly not modern journalistic or academic prose. The word-order, diction, rhythm and cadence give it some of the features Gaines looks for in the first edition of the Priestly Source (P).
Since I can’t read large blocks of Hebrew, this kind of comparison is about the best I can do. Even in English, though, it is apparent that some of the P material sings—the creation story in Genesis 1, for instance. On the other hand, one of the main complaints of people trying to read the Bible is that they get bogged down in the genealogies, lists, and ritual details. So there is clearly a part of P that does not sing.
So his basic contention is that there was a version of P that told the story of God’s people from creation to the threshold of the promised land using rhythm, parallelism, and word-play.
He has a section in his final chapter on the possible implications for studies of the Pentateuch of his theory.
One of them concerns the passages where scholars sometimes claim that the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17ff. intruded into other parts of P. Scholars have noticed some disconnects in P. Gaines says that a subject for further research is whether these disconnects are better explained by his categories of Poetic P and Prose P or the often-proposed categories of the P and Holiness Source (H). His results show poetic features in passages assigned to H. He is not sure what this means. He is open to the possibility the H was composed in a poetic style.
Another issue has to do with where P ends. European scholars have tended to see it ending in the book of Exodus. But Gaines has found poetic features in Leviticus and Numbers. However, the style seems to change slightly in Numbers. So he wonders if the poetic P in Numbers comes from different priests. Gaines never claims that Poetic P is the work of a single priest..
The view that you can find the sources of the Pentateuch continuing into Joshua has gone out of style. But Gaines thinks it might be time to reevaluate it. He sees Joshua 21:43-45 as the crux of this issue. He finds that someone wrote these verses very much in the style of Poetic P. However, they are the only such verses he has found in Joshua.
Finally, he thinks that seeing the poetic element in P could change the way we interpret some passages. He gives the example of Genesis 7:21-22:
All flesh died that moved on the earth, including birds, livestock, animals, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. All on the dry land, in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died (WEB).
Gaines says the translations obscure the fact that man is the swarming (his translation) thing that swarms upon the earth. Poetically, “every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” is an equivalent parallel to “every man”. The text, he says, “equates humanity with flies”.