Van Seters, John, The Yahwist: A Historian of Israelite Origins (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013). Pp. xvii + 380. Hardcover. US$49.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-286-0.

With the publication of The Yahwist, John Van Seters has provided a valuable resource for students of the Hebrew Bible, particularly those interested in research on the composition of the Pentateuch. Readers interested in Van Seters's unique approach to the dating and delineation of the J source no longer have to wade through the entirety of his three previous monographs to gain a perspective on the literary unity, theological perspective, and overall story arc of the Yahwist's work, as part 1 of this book provides a concise summary of the account of J.[1] Additionally, part 2 contains twelve essays by Van Seters defending his view of the Yahwist. While only half of these essays are new, the overall diversity of topics covered as well as the convenience of having so much work on the Yahwist gathered in one place more than justifies the reprinting of some of these articles.

A brief preface succinctly lays out Van Seters's overall stance in relation to other dominant paradigms in this field of study. In contrast to the various forms of the classical documentary hypothesis (in which J precedes D and P), as well as the newer “fragment” theories particularly prevalent in European scholarship (in which a P document is supplemented by numerous later redactors), Van Seters views the J source as being a coherent literary whole that provides a “prologue” and “framework” for the previously existing Deuteronomistic History. By way of contrast, the Priestly material which was added later is in this scheme often recognizable due to its invasive nature (pp. ix–x). An equally short prologue (pp. xiii–xv) compares J to Josephus, a historian who made creative use of his sources, and notes Van Seters's general preference for the school of thought of von Rad (who viewed the Yahwist as a serious historian) over that of Gunkel and his later European disciples (who view non-Priestly material as a morass of fragmentary traditions rather than a unified composition).

Part 1 is entitled, “An Outline of the Yahwist's Antiquities of Israel.” Chapter 1, “Introduction,” opens with a history of research on the Yahwist, surveying the differing dates and literary sensibilities ascribed to this source from Wellhausen onward. Van Seters quotes the probing query of von Rad, “How could such heterogenous materials as those embraced by the Yahwist have cast themselves in this form of their own accord?”[2] commenting, “It is my thesis that this is still the underlying question for pentateuchal studies today” (p. 5, emphasis in original). His partial answer to von Rad's question is given several pages later: “My thesis is that the Yahwist was an antiquarian historian of the type well known in antiquity, and as such he made use of many sources, both traditional and borrowed from his wider Near Eastern environment” (p. 13). In particular, Van Seters sees significant continuity between J and Greek antiquarian historiography, especially the thematic parallels of connecting legends to history, the use of genealogical chronology, and the theme of migrations to a homeland (pp. 15–16). Chapters 2 through 8 trace the storyline of J from creation to the Jordan River. Throughout this section, Van Seters proceeds by summarizing the plotline of the J source, commenting on how it functions as commentary on D, and how P often conflicts with it. He also notes the function it would have performed in an exilic setting against the background of Babylonian culture. Chapter 9 offers a summary of the foreign texts that may underlie different portions of J, the overall structure of the Yahwist's composition, and J's theology, particularly in comparison with D and P. It concludes with a section denouncing recent European theories that reduce J to a morass of unrelated fragments rather than a unified work of history.

Part 2, “Studies in Defense of the Yahwist,” is a collection of essays defending Van Seters's view of J. While the format of a review does not permit significant interaction with each article, it can be noted that some of these essays deal with matters of method and commentary on broader academic trends, while others deal with specific exegetical questions concerning certain passages.

Throughout all parts of The Yahwist, Van Seters displays a strong knowledge of relevant ANE background, the history of OT scholarship, and the text itself. Even scholars uninterested in source criticism should appreciate his probing comparisons of parallel accounts in J and D; one need not follow his reasoning that a given portion of Genesis, Exodus, or Numbers is an intentional rewrite of something found in the Deuteronomistic History to benefit from this kind of intertextual analysis. His ability to historically situate a given account of J and articulate its foreign influences and contemporary political/theological purpose is at times breathtaking, such as his treatment of Gen 2, where he adduces a number of parallels from Babylonian literature and connects J's garden of Eden with the details found in Ezek 28. Van Seters's expertise is not restricted to the usual conversation partners of biblical studies, either. He can be found articulating a robust understanding of Romantic-era notions of “the author” and “the redactor,” and the anachronistic application of the latter to biblical studies by Van Seters's source-critical foes (pp. 165–174).

A couple of weaknesses in this volume should be noted. First, Van Seters does not always clearly execute what he sets out to do. For example, while chapter 2 begins with the note, “It is not my intention to retell J's story of creation and the Garden of Eden, which is so familiar” (p. 18), a reading of the subsequent chapters reveals that a significant amount of space is consumed by the summarizing of the storyline itself, the purpose of which is confusing in the instances when it is not set in the context of a comparison with D or P. Second, while Van Seters does an exemplary job of critiquing what he sees as the speculative excesses of European scholars that manufacture post-Priestly redactors where none are necessary, numerous examples could be provided of places where he does not apply this same standard of consistency to his own source-critical work. An instance of this would be his discussion of the beginning of the Covenant Code (Exod 20:11), where Van Seters claims there is a clear anomaly in the claim of Yahweh speaking to the people (which is considered irreconcilable with his speaking to his intermediary, Moses) from heaven (which Van Seters antagonizes with his speaking from the cloud). Not only is this an unnecessarily wooden reading of the text, it does not clearly follow that these features indicate direct dependence on the account of Deut 4:11, 36 (p. 87). A more significant example is found in his treatment of the account of the violation of Dinah in Gen 34. After dismissing the traditional source division of the passage based on “a Shechem version of a single, personal action and a Hamor version of corporate negotiation and reprisal” as “arbitrary,” Van Seters outlines his own proposal, based on a J story of a “single request for marriage” and a P addition of “a proposal of complete connubium between the two groups.” (p. 236) However, he does not provide supporting argumentation for why the features used as criteria in his source delineation are better founded than those used by the scholars he critiques. Admittedly, here (and elsewhere throughout the volume) he does appeal to vocabulary statistics to substantiate source divisions, but the usefulness of this criterion can be challenged.[3]

In conclusion, The Yahwist serves as an exemplary introduction to the considerable body of source-critical and historiographical work produced by Van Seters. Regardless of whether a given reader finds himself or herself sharing the broader reconstructive paradigm of Van Seters, much is brought to the surface that is well worthy of attention and consideration.

David J. Fuller, McMaster Divinity College

[1] John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992); idem, The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus–Numbers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994); idem, A Law Book for the Diaspora: Revision in the Study of the Covenant Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). reference

[2] Gerhard von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (trans. E. W. Trueman Dicken; Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 52. reference

[3] R. N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (JSOTSup, 53; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 55–72. In Van Seters's defense, it should be noted that in a number of places in The Yahwist, Van Seters simply mentions in the footnotes where a given issue has been addressed in one of his previous monographs and refers the reader there for supporting argumentation. reference