Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)

Gerald A. Larue


Chapter 4 -Other Methods of Approach

OTHER patterns of approach to biblical literature have been developed and most of these supplement the historical-literary method. Each new methodology causes the scholar to reconsider familiar material in the light of new evidence or from a different angle of vision. The results of the multiple approach have been new insights into and a clearer understanding of biblical life and literature and a diminishing dogmatism about what any individual or group of scholars might consider to be "firmly established conclusions."



A somewhat different study arrangement of part of the Pentateuch has been proposed by Martin Noth.1 Deuteronomy is combined with Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings as part of an immense Deuteronomic history extending from Moses to the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians in the sixth century. The work, Noth believes, was composed by an individual who skillfully blended a variety of source materials into a single work. The point of view is Judaean, and the interpretive key to the whole is found in Deut. 4:44-30:20. The book of Deuteronomy is, according to this analysis, to be studied as part of an historical collection rather than simply as part of the Pentateuch. Noth's thesis will be acknowledged in this book.



A different approach, stressing the use of the Old Testament in worship, provides important clues for understanding the literature.2 Just as myth can be interpreted as the spoken or recited portion of a ritual, and drama or sacrifice or other physical performance as the enactment of the myth, the cult may be recognized as the structure of the organization making possible the ritual performance. Within organized religious structure, within the cult, the traditions of the past were transformed into ritual acts; therefore, to understand the significance of the tradition one must understand its relationship to the cult. Large portions of the Old Testament lend themselves to this mode of analysis.3

Three great annual festivals were observed in ancient Israel: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover)4 in the spring, the Feast of Weeks (or Harvest or Pentecost)5 in the early summer, and the Feast of Ingathering (Booths)6 in the fall (Exod. 23:14-17, 34:18-23). The Unleavened Bread celebration appears to have combined a nomadic pastoral festival when a lamb was sacrificed (celebrated on the first day of the festival) and an agricultural feast of unleavened bread occupying seven days, perhaps borrowed from the pre-Hebrew Canaanite inhabitants of Palestine. The Feast of Weeks, an agricultural harvest celebration, included the offering of "firstfruits" through which the total harvest, represented in the first reaping, was symbolically presented to the deity. During the festival of Booths, celebrated at harvest, the people lived in huts made of boughs, much as some families in the Near East do today at harvest time. Unleavened Bread was associated with the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt, Booths with the wilderness wanderings, and Weeks, ultimately, with the giving of the Torah, or with Noah's covenant.7 In addition to these major observances, numerous other cultic rites may have taken place at local shrines.8

Participation in the cult ceremonies had individual and national significance. For the individual, when the ritual was successfully completed, it marked the achievement of harmonious relationships with life-giving powers and with all life within the locale, the attainment of personal communion with the deity, and the participation in rites of community re-invigoration.9 For the nation the rite marked the renewal of life-power and of divine human relationships, and symbolized divine blessing for those belonging to the cult. What had happened in the past had meaning for the present; deliverance in the past, successfully re-enacted, was related to blessing, forgiveness, favor and deliverance in the present.

Such an approach to Old Testament literature tends to give scant attention to the analysis of sources. Emphasis is placed on blocks of literature and the usage of these literary units in cult rites. For example, it is argued that the annual festival of Weeks, celebrated at Gilgal, dramatized the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the crossing of the Sea.10 Chapters 1-5 of Joshua are based upon this ritual and clearly demonstrate that the miraculous passage through the waters was enacted by a procession through the Jordan River. This kind of approach renders the attempt to distinguish the sources of Josh. 1-5 relatively unimportant.11



A number of Scandinavian scholars have moved away from the patterns of literary analysis previously discussed and have laid stress upon the importance of oral tradition in the transmission of Old Testament materials.12 One scholar, Eduard Nielsen, has argued that written Old Testament records prior to the Exile (sixth century) were negligible. This thesis rests upon a number of presuppositions. It is assumed that prior to the Exile writing skills were confined to a group of specialists whose services were employed primarily in formulating business contracts, legal texts, and inscriptions on monuments. Cult legends, traditions and laws were transmitted orally. For example, Isa. 8:16 records the prophet's intent to "bind up" his words with his disciples, and it is assumed that the "binding" is in their memory. When Jeremiah's words were written down because he could not deliver them in person and the scroll was destroyed by the king, Jeremiah seemed to have no trouble in reiterating his message, apparently in the same words (Jer. 36). Because there was no real dependency upon the written record, memory was cultivated and could be relied upon.

Where traditions were recited before a group, certain controls were placed upon the reciter, tending to "freeze" the form of the narrative and guarantee accuracy: controls from the professional body of which he was a part, and controls from listeners familiar with the tradition. Stereotyped forms tend to aid in memorization, and oral tradition may thus become as fixed as written records.

Certain criteria help to distinguish oral forms. For example, where only a single written prose record exists, the following clues point to an oral tradition back of the written form: a monotonous and rhythmic style, the repetition of expressions, changes of style in a single sentence which would ordinarily be caught and remedied in a written work, and use of catch words and other mnemonic devices. When there are doublets with discrepancies, one must undertake the difficult task of determining the relationship of the accounts to each other and to the earlier oral or written traditions.13

It is further presupposed that any written traditions that may have existed probably were not carried to Babylon by the Exiles; thus the whole pre-Exilic tradition, fortunately committed to memory, was perpetuated through oral tradition. Only after the destruction of Jerusalem was it finally reduced to writing.14 Such a thesis does not deny that traditions from different sources were ultimately blended, but it does reduce to unimportance the results of source analysis.

Up to the present time there has been no widespread acceptance by scholars of this particular hypothesis of the oral traditionalists. No one will question that oral forms lie back of the written materials, but few will accept the sixth century B.C. date for the beginning of written records. We will give limited attention to literary forms but we will not attempt to investigate the complicated and demanding subject of the oral traditions that lie back of the written records, except insofar as this study relates to "form criticism." (See below.)



Form criticism, or "form history,"15 is a method of literary analysis seeking to go behind the written documents to the underlying oral traditions. Certain presuppositions, drawn from the study of folk literature, are basic to the method.16 It is assumed that folk memory tends to operate with small units, often no more than a line or two. These units grow out of folk events, and each unit has a characteristic pattern associated with the event, whether it be a wedding, a birth celebration, a funeral, a celebration of a victory over an enemy, or a liturgy accompanying an act of worship. Each unit, coming out of its own particular life setting,17 tends to have its structure or form fairly well fixed insofar as structural pattern, length and tendency18 are concerned. That is to say, the form associated with a wedding would differ from that utilized for funeral situations. Custom determined what details were "proper" or "right" for each. So long as the community interest in the event commemorated is kept alive, the oral unit will survive.

Within the Old Testament, certain features suggest the validity of such an approach: the priests gave instruction, the prophets uttered oracles, the wise men spoke their aphorisms, the judges pronounced verdicts, the choristers sang their psalms. For each situation there was a proper pattern of utterance. As we shall see, analysis of the cultic use of the Psalms depends heavily upon the recognition of poetic forms associated with specific situations. It is the purpose of form criticism to recognize stylistic features, to analyze them in terms of life settings and tendencies, and to trace the history of the form or the way in which its use developed within biblical literature.

The significance of this study for understanding oral tradition is obvious, for it aids in understanding how the literature could be preserved through the patriarchal period and even through the time of the Babylonian Exile. It is also significant for literary criticism, for not only does it draw attention to the important pre-literary stage of biblical materials, but it provides the basis for better understanding of the significance of Hebrew-Jewish literary patterns.



Archaeological and language studies, special areas of research, have made significant contributions to the understanding of the Bible.

Archaeological research, concerned with the scientific study of the ancient past, may conveniently be divided into three areas: field work, analysis (some of which will also be done in the field) and application (some of which will also be done in the field). Field work consists of the discovery, excavation and identification of sites. Ancient cities were generally located near adequate water and agricultural resources and on trade routes. For purposes of defense, and perhaps to avoid flood waters, the cities were often built on hilltops. During the hundreds of years that these sites were occupied, they suffered destruction by enemies, earthquake, and fire, only to be rebuilt and reoccupied. As layers or strata of cultural deposit accumulated, the height of the mound or tell19 rose higher and higher. Many tells have been mapped and some have been identified. Often local Arabic names echo ancient biblical designations.20 Sometimes careful descriptions of the location in ancient records, including the Bible, make identification possible. Excavation of ancient sites involves careful removal of cultural layers, accurate cataloging of soil characteristics, artifacts, buildings, walls, etc. Analysis, which begins on the site and is continued after excavation, comprises dating of pottery vessels and sherds or pieces, identification of buildings, and interpretation of all like data significant for understanding the history of the site. Application, which may also begin on the site, is the use of information resulting from the excavation for better understanding of some aspects of the Bible or Near Eastern history and ecology. From archaeological research has come knowledge of nations heretofore unknown (such as the Hittites),21 a staggering amount of linguistic knowledge of Semitic languages including Ugaritic or Canaanite and Akkadian, and also of non-Semitic languages such as Egyptian, Hittite and Sumerian, some of which have helped in providing better translations of the Bible and all of which have made available vast quantities of textual data. In addition, many historical details omitted from the Bible are recovered and, what is perhaps equally important, many historical details provided in the Bible are confirmed.22 In a broader context, the recovery of household items, tools, jewelry, toys, weapons and cultic items, and the uncovering of homes, temples, industrial plants and other facets of daily life have put flesh and bone on biblical personnages, revealing them as individuals with responsibilities, interests and concerns parallel to those of our own time. The fruits of archaeology will be utilized throughout this book.23

From specialists in language have come translated texts of myths, prayers, hymns, historical documents, wisdom writings and other literature of the great neighboring nations of Palestine. Cuneiform tablets relating beliefs about creation, the flood, gods and goddesses have provided important information for understanding the Bible. Such knowledge makes it possible to comprehend the flow of ideas and the impact of one culture upon another, without ignoring the distinctiveness of each. Biblical literature is best understood in the context of the literature of the ancient Near East, for not only are relationships of concepts recognized, but the distinctiveness of Hebrew-Jewish writings is made clear.

A further contribution of linguists is in the provision of better texts and translations of the Bible. Some portions of the Bible have suffered in transmission.24 On occasion a word appears only once in the Bible and its meaning is not clear.25 Through comparative linguistics and manuscripts studies, better and clearer Bible texts and translations are available. We will employ the results of such research.


  1. Martin Noth, The History of Israel, trans. by S. Godman, rev. by P. R. Ackroyd (London: A. and C. Black, 1960), p. 42.
  2. A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gad, 1958), II, 76 ff.; J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (Copenhagen: Povl Branner, 1940), pp. 725-745; G. E. Wright, "Cult and History," Interpretation, XVI (1962), 3-20; Martin J. Buss, "The Meaning of 'Cult' and the Interpretation of the Old Testament," The Journal of Bible and Religion, XXXII (1964), 317-325.
  3. For example, the Psalms.
  4. Also called "Yahweh's Passover" (Exod. 12: II, 27; Num. 28:16).
  5. For titles cf. Exod. 34:22; Num. 28:26; Deut. 16:10; 11 Chron. 8:13, "weeks"; Exod. 23:16, "harvest"; Num. 28:26, "firstfruits"; and among Greek-speaking Jews Pentecost," cf. Tobit 2: I; II Macc. 12:32.
  6. Also called "the feast" in I Kings 8:2, 65; Isa. 30:29; Ezek. 45:23, 25; "Feast of Yahweh" in Lev. 23:39; Judg. 21:19.
  7. Both associations are reported in late literature. Cf. the Talmud: Pesahim 68b and in the Pseudepigrapha: Jubilees 6:17.
  8. Sites associated with the patriarchs such as Beer-sheba, Hebron, Bethel and Shiloh.
  9. Cf. Gaster, op. cit. pp. 3-33; M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1959).
  10. The Hebrew designation, "yam suph" meaning "Sea of Reeds," has traditionally been translated "Red Sea." Cf. Num. 33:10 ff. However, cf. Exod. 14:10-15:21 where only the term "Sea" appears.
  11. For example, see below, the section on "Torah and Cult" in chap. 26.
  12. E. Nielsen, op. cit.; A. Bentzen, op. cit., I, pp. 102 ff.
  13. Cf. E. Nielson, op. cit., pp. 36 f. for details.
  14. Between 586 B.C. and the Maccabaean period, Ibid., p. 39.
  15. A translation of the German "Formgeschichte."
  16. First applied to the Bible by Gunkel.
  17. A translation of the German "Sitz im Leben."
  18. A translation of the German "Tendenz" meaning "aim" or "purpose." Tendency may include entertainment, excitation to action, etc.
  19. "Tell" is the Arabic word for mound, cf. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, p. 16.
  20. E.g., Tell Dotha which is ancient Dothan, Tell el-Jazar which is Gezer.
  21. The Hittites are mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 23:3 ff.; 26:34; II Sam. 11; Ezek. 16:3, 45), but up until archaeologists provided evidence of the great Hittite nation they were assumed to be a tribal group. Cf. O. R. Gurney, The Hittites (Baltimore: Penguin, 1952).
  22. For an excellent summary of archaeology and biblical history, see Walter G. Williams, Archaeology in Biblical Research (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965), pp. 115-127.
  23. For an analysis of the importance of archaeology for Old Testament chronology, see G. E. Wright, "Archaeology and Old Testament Studies," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXVII (1958), 33-38.
  24. Cf. passages in Job 23-24.
  25. E.g., the Hebrew term "pim," a measure of weight, occurs only in I Sam. 13:21. For a brief discussion of problems of translation, see Harry M. Orlinsky, "The Hebrew Text and the Ancient Versions" and Wm. F. Albright, "The Language of the Old Testament" in An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1952), pp. 24-40.

Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Gerald A. Larue.