Sargon, Moses, and Genre

Adam has a nice little comparison of the Sargonic and Mosaic birth narratives up over at his blog. This, at least partially, stems from a discussion he and I had after one of our Theology of the Pentateuch class sessions. You can read my thoughts on the class, specifically dealing with Mosaic Authorship of the Torah here, and general other issues here.

Adam provides a nice, concise summary of the relevant material, so I won’t reproduce it here. What I would like to address is the conclusions that he draws. First, I think he is right to dismiss the first option that he proposes (Moses and Sargon are similar because infants, from time to time, were placed in such baskets in the ANE). This option is a bit too trite, and to be completely honest, it lacks actual support in any way, shape or form.

His second conclusion, and sub-conclusions (which I will here re-title to A and B, hence 2.a and 2.b) are far more possible. However, I still don’t think that they satisfy completely. To begin, Adam is absolutely correct to identify the direction of influence as Sargon -> Moses. Even though the Sargonic narrative is from the 7th century BCE, I see no reason to assume that the Moses birth narrative would have been known well enough at that time in Mesopotamia to have warranted copying. Of course, this could get us into the question of Pentateuchal authorship and a host of other issues, which are peripheral but still related to the issue at hand. I’d like to keep a little more focus than that, so I will allow those topics to pass for the time being.

I think where Adam errors (sorry man!) is in having only two sub-points. By doing so he reduces the possibilities to an either/or dichotomy which, I believe, is possibly over-simplifying the issue. If 2.a were correct, it does not automatically prove the Bible untrustworthy. That is to say, if the Moses birth narrative was copied from the Sargonic narrative (leaving aside for the time being any discussion of a possible, and hypothetical, ur-story behind both accounts) it does not prove the Bible untrustworthy. All it proves is that God allowed/was pleased with/tolerated the use of a literary type in his inspired book. Even if the events surrounding Moses’ birth, as relayed by Exodus, are not what we in the 21st century would term accurate it does not diminish the trustworthiness of Scripture. I think, of course, that Adam is correct to point out that the use of such a literary type does not preclude the “accuracy” of the Moses birth narrative in and of itself.

Having said this, I would favor 2.b over 2.a, but with the understanding that I don’t believe either option bears either on Scripture’s inspiration, or on the accuracy, or lack thereof, of the Mosaic birth narrative. In fact, I think that it is obvious that the Hebrew Bible is here using a type of literary device to inform the readers that Moses is the soon-to-be hero of the story. I believe the story is inspired, not the event, so whether or not Moses was ever in a pitch sealed basket is, in my mind, superfluous to the truth of the narrative. Nevertheless, Adam is right to argue that Genre is central to an understanding of the Hebrew Bible. I look forward to his thoughts on his conclusions and their compatibility with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, though I am sorry to say that I think the Chicago Statement is a bit too fundamentalist for my tastes.


6 thoughts on “Sargon, Moses, and Genre

  1. How much does the DH play into your conclusions?

    I have no problem with Moses’ birth narrative being completely patterned after Sargon because I view Torah in general, and Deuteronomy in particular, as dating to the Josiahnic reform. I am mostly in agreement with von Rad, although I see some validity in the minimalist school as well. I agree that the author(s) was (were) using a literary structure to convey a point to the first audience and not to convey actual history.

    Does an early date for the Penta/Hexa-teuch cause more tensions than a late date would?

  2. I already commented on this over at Adam’s blog, but I’ll say it here too.

    The Sargon and Moses birth narratives are not the only attestation of the “found infant” type-scene. You have Romulus and Remus, Hercules, and others. While the specific element of the basket sealed with pitch argues highly for a genetic relationship, it is possible that that particular element was added later, and the stories are both rifting on the same common ANE trope.

  3. @Art, I haven’t fully decided where I fall when it comes to the composition of the Torah. I, personally, don’t see much validity in the minimalist school, although I’m unwilling to completely disregard anything. I’m not sure an early date or a late date play too much of a role in any tensions caused, primarily because I think those tensions have more to do with one’s view of inspiration, authority, and the Bible in general than anything else. I would say that the tendency would be for those who adopt a late date to be far more comfortable with such influences upon the Bible, but that is only a hunch.

    As for DH, I’m not sure it plays into my conclusions at all. So far I have been kept from interacting with it in any formal way, and this must soon change. But, beyond that, I have only a passing interest in it to begin with. That the Bible had sources is undeniable. I am less certain as to the accuracy of any reconstructions of those sources we might undertake based on the extant manuscripts that we have. I’m always open to correction, however, and would love to hear your opinion on all of this.

    @Jimgetz, I took Adams first option as implying that it was a common occurrence for children to be thrown into rivers in the ANE, in pitch covered baskets. I agree completely that both of them may be part of a larger type/genre that features infants being found by someone and then eventually becoming heroes/leaders. What I don’t think we have enough evidence to even begin to address is whether there is a particular story that serves as the point of reference for both Moses and Sargon. Does that make sense, or do you think I’m way off?

  4. I would say that the tendency would be for those who adopt a late date to be far more comfortable with such influences upon the Bible, but that is only a hunch.

    I think you are correct. The commentators and authors that I have read on the Moses birth narrative who have been most comfortable with the parallels between the Sargon narrative are those who have adopted a late date for the composition of the Torah. The ones who argue ad nauseam for the Sargon narrative to be derivative or for a way that they can both be referring to a third source, yet the Moses narrative be historical and inspired usually (perhaps not always, I haven’t read everyone!) seem to argue for an early date for Torah.

    As for the DH, I think there is both much validity and much hermeneutical pay off for the theory, not only for the Torah, but for the Deuteronomistic History as well. Source criticism, as a whole, as helped me understand the Hebrew Bible so much better. I would check out The Bible WIth Sources Revealed as well as Who Wrote the Bible by Richard E. Friedman. One of the things that started my reading on the DH is that my OT professors said that when I go on for further graduate work I need to be intune with the DH and its variants and progressions in modern scholarship. It is pretty much taken as read in the academy that Wellhausen was write. Now they are just arguing and debating certain aspects of his work as it relates to certain passages.

  5. Art, I’ve recently read a commentary or two from the conservative field. I agree with your assessment. Those who argue for Mosaic authorship pretty much disregard the parallels to Sargon.

    As for the DH, I’m increasingly interested in it. I’ll pick up Friedman’s book from the library and work my way through it. Thanks for the recommendation. I still have to be honest though, I’m dubious of the possibility of perfectly reconstructing large chunks of the sources that resulted in our current canon from said canon. Nevertheless, I shall press on. I have also been advised that any further graduate work will require my interaction with the DH–though that advice has been laced with sarcasm and not a little bit of dismissal.

  6. Just as a little point of clarification, Wellhausen was way before DtrH. Martin Noth came up with this construction. Today, folks generally like it but tend to fall into two camps: one that sees only one (exilic) redactional layer, and one that sees two (Josianic and exilic).

    In Pentateuchal source criticism, things are in a bit of flux. On the one hand, Israel Knoll’s work on H has let to a rethinking of just how many sources there are (lose consensus IMO: JEDPH). On the other hand, you’ve got redating of the sources. For example, no one I know currently working on J would argue for the old Von Rad tenth century date. Van Seters will even put it after P and make J post-exilic. Less extreme problems come from D.P. Wright’s tight parallels between CC and the Code of Hammurapi (which would move the CC later than has been traditionally held sway) and from the interrelation of D & P in regards to certain things like food laws (Brettler and Romer have a good article on this in JBL 1999). In short, while Wellhuasen still holds, there’s a lot of devils in the details.

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