The Hidden Book in the Bible. By Richard Elliott Friedman. HarperCollins. 402 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Gary A. Anderson
I have used Richard Friedman’s best–selling book on source–criticism, Who Wrote the Bible?, in my introductory course for several years. Unlike most introductions to the problem of the Bible’s sources, Friedman’s makes the work of several generations of biblical scholars come alive on the page. One can sense, for example, what the intellectual reasons for dividing the Pentateuch into four literary strands were (and are). Any layperson can read this book and appreciate the revolution that modern biblical scholarship spawned. One may quibble with Who Wrote the Bible? on the grounds that it avoids all questions of larger literary or theological relevance until the last chapter ("The World that the Bible Produced"). But still one must concede that Friedman has accounted for the fact that the Bible is more than the sum of its parts and that its canonical whole is worthy of admiration. Friedman is no theologian but he is wise enough to sense the important issues.
In his most recent book, The Hidden Book in the Bible, Friedman again translates modern biblical criticism for the layperson. In large measure, Friedman succeeds as he highlights the large themes and literary devices that govern the biblical story from Genesis through the beginning of 1 Kings. In an age that has witnessed the fracture of the biblical story into a myriad of conflicting voices reflecting no coherent whole, Friedman’s reconstruction of an expansive, coherent story revealing the chosen people’s identity is a welcome relief.
Friedman argues, and then tries to show, that a coherent story of Israel’s origins can be traced from the story of Eden through the rise of Solomon to the office of king. Scholars have long suggested that there are connections between the J narrative and the settlement narratives in Joshua and the Court History of David, but before Friedman no one had sat down and considered how such a narrative would look in any detail.
Unfortunately, the originality of Friedman’s argument does not comport well with the genre of a popular nonfiction work, even at the level of haute vulgarization. The bulk of the book (some 230 pages) consists of a translation of this unified narrative—the "hidden book"—while the author’s argument that the hidden book is more than imaginative cutting and pasting is made in a mere thirty pages at the beginning. Four appendices at the end attempt to buttress this argumentation with a more traditional scholarly apparatus, but a thesis this novel demands a different format. Friedman would have been wise to set this out in terms befitting the scholarly guild to which he belongs before offering his insights to a more popular audience. As Friedman notes, Joseph Blenkinsopp had pointed toward his thesis when he wrote: "Stylistic analysis may suggest the work of one author beneath the present redaction of the Yahwist strand (J) and the Succession History (2 Samuel 8–20 plus 1 Kings 1–2) but it cannot hope to establish more than a homogenous development in literary type and expression." Friedman has done more than suggest, but he has not yet established.
I must add a word about the cultural and religious significance of the book. Here I am most disappointed. Friedman speaks of his excavative discovery as being close to "the Bible’s heart," and suggests that a reading of it will "bring us back to where we could experience that process [of how the Bible was produced]." Shades of Johann Herder and nineteenth–century Romanticism: it as if critical scholarship has uncovered the ipsissimum verbum and all creation must tremble before its unmediated clarity. Far more perceptive are the words of Brevard Childs in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture: "The authority of the biblical text does not rest on a capacity to match original experiences, rather on the claim which the canonical text makes on every subsequent generation of hearers." Childs correctly chides those who believe we can naively reenter the world of the actual historical persons who created the text.
In light of Friedman’s claim to have recreated the authentic experience, it is more than a bit ironic to see what he makes of Israel’s charter narrative, the covenant at Sinai. When Israel arrives at Sinai, she undergoes a lengthy ritual procedure to ensure her purity for the coming theophany. God instructs Moses: "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow; and they shall wash their clothes and be ready for the third day, because on the third day yhwh will come down on Mt. Sinai before the eyes of all the people. And you shall limit the people all around saying, ‘Watch yourselves about going up in the mountain and touching its edge. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death’" (Exodus 19:10–12).
Having made these elaborate preparations—which are repeated three more times (Exodus 19:14, 21–22, 24)—God then tells Moses to go down to the people. The theophany is about to occur. The episode Friedman reconstructs ends thusly: "And Moses went down to the people, and he said to them . . ." That’s it. Whereas the Bible, as we presently have it, would locate the Ten Commandments (and/or the thunderstorm theophany of the deity) in this position, all Friedman can find in J is an ellipsis.
Something is not right here. Either J knew more but whatever he knew has been excised in favor of another source, or Friedman has been too generous in his reconstruction of J and the result is a stilted narrative. Either way, the hazards of the modern critical enterprise are clearly on display: the Bible does not sort itself out into the neat and tidy wholes that source critics claim to find. When we sort out the Pentateuchal sources into their literary units we get fragments, not complete stories.
Before we come to the actual revelation J hears at Sinai—the so–called cultic decalogue (Exodus 34:14–26)—we have a very peculiar narrative that the reader is in no way prepared to understand. If Friedman is correct, J has prefaced the Sinai revelation with Israel’s deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh at the sea of reeds. No account of Israel’s disobedience is recounted, only the miraculous deliverance of God’s beloved people from the fleshpots of Egypt (Exodus 13:21–22, and portions of 14).
In light of what we have before us, we would expect the redeemed nation to be the happy recipients of a saving God’s life–giving words. Yet the actual theophany begins with a darker hue. God’s merciful nature ("yhwh, yhwh is a merciful and gracious God") is contrasted to his demands for justice ("reckoning a father’s crime on children and on children’s children"). Moses immediately bows to the ground, evidently cowering in fear, and makes a fervent plea: "If I’ve found favor in your eyes, my Lord, may my Lord go among us, because it is a stiff–necked people, and forgive our crime and our sin, and make us your possession." But nowhere in this reconstructed narrative of J do we find any evidence of Israel as "a stiff–necked people" (34:9). Friedman has left that part of Exodus out.
No intelligent reader can parse these lines without presuming some important event having gone before. In the "E" narrative we have that moment: the sin of the Golden Calf. Why does Friedman think this detail is optional? He is happy to jettison it and leave nothing in its place. Yet if J does not know E’s Golden Calf, he ("she" for Friedman) must know something like it.
I don’t mean to deny that modern critical reconstructions of the Bible’s literary sources can be useful. Only fundamentalists would dispute the historical layering implied by source criticism. The problem is the confidence critical scholarship places in the integrity of what it reconstructs. A competent reading of the Bible requires a method that is appropriate to the text it purports to interpret. Even if we grant Friedman his thesis that "J" continues through the installation of Solomon as king, he has not provided us with an organic literary unity we can call the hidden book in the Bible.
Gary A. Anderson is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School.