Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, 16th February 1962.
A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part 1. From Adam to Noah, Genesis i-vi, 8. By U. Cassuto. 40s. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. By U. Cassuto. 20s. Both books trans. from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University. British and European Distributors: Oxford University Press.
The second of these volumes contains the late Professor Cassuto’s eight lectures to teachers, in which the documentary hypothesis is subjected to heavy criticism. Cassuto examines the five pillars on which the hypothesis rests—the use of different Divine names, variations of language and style; contradictions and divergencies of view, duplications and repetitions, and signs of composite structure—and he attempts to demolish each of them in turn. In the-first volume his methods are applied in a detailed commentary to the early chapters of Genesis. Professor Abrahams has done his work well. These two handsome books will go a long way towards acquainting the English reader with the fine insights of a distinguished Bible scholar of our day.
It has been suggested that Cassuto, by demonstrating the deficiencies of the documentary hypothesis, has shown that the “traditional” view is correct. It is true that the learned author disagrees profoundly with the documentary hypothesis. Approaching the problems without preconceived notions, he is at pains to propound the theory that the Pentateuch is a unity, but that it has a composite background.
The author of the Pentateuch (his identity is not discussed in these works, where all the references are to Torah or Scripture doing this or that, but in his larger Italian work he thinks that the author was “writer of genius”—“maestro di altissimo genio”—who probably lived in the later years of David’s reign) utilized the oral traditions of his people. Some of these were current in the sophisticated “wisdom” circles, others circulated in more popular and poetic forms. In the first chapter of Genesis the author draws on the “wisdom” tradition, in the second, with its strong moral emphasis, on the poetic tradition, hence the difference in style between the two chapters, although both came from one hand. The various traditions, and it is here that Cassuto differs from Wellhausen, were put into their present form by a single author much us Dante used his sources to produce an original work of genius. The aim of the author throughout was to infuse his material with the spirit of the loftiest and purest monotheism.
Some of the author’s arguments are more convincing than others. He is greatly attracted by the number seven and brilliantly discovers its repetition in hitherto unsuspected places in the creation narrative, e.g., each of the three nouns which occur in the verse “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” are repeated in the whole first section in a given number of times that is a multiple of seven. Water is mentioned seven times in the course of paragraphs two and three. The expression “It was good” occurs seven times. The first verse has seven words, and so forth. Seven in the ancient East was the number of perfection, and the Torah wishes to state that the work of the Creator is marked by absolute perfection and flawless systematic orderliness.
Of particular interest and importance are Cassuto’s descriptions of how the Torah, by a subtle and indirect method, undermines the foundations of ancient polytheism and alien mythologies. Thus the Babylonian traditions tell of mythical demi-gods each of whom lived for tens of thousands of years. Scripture, in its account of ante-diluvians, does not consider it right to invalidate completely all the existing traditions on the subject, but to purify and refine them and harmonise them with its spirit.
Similarly, in attacking ancient legends concerning the origin of the giants, Scripture does not engage in polemic or argument. These colossi, it states, are in no way related to the Deity, but only to God’s ministers. In the Babylonian traditions the seventh king in the list of ante-diluvian kings—who corresponds to the Biblical Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam—is an associate of the gods. But Scripture records that Enoch “walked with God,” as Noah did, i.e., he walked in God’s ethical ways and cleaved to the virtues of a wholly righteous man.
Here we have the wok of a completely observant and devout Jew, a Bible scholar of the first rank, who adopts the standards of meticulous and objective modern scholarship, and whose work increases modern man’s reverence for the Bible as the word of God.