Anyone concerned with Paul’s use of Gen 12:3 (Gal 3:8) and his employment of Abraham as the litmus test for a Gentile mission free from the boundary markers of Jewish/Judean identity for Gentiles should spend some time with Joel Baden’s new work: The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) in order to understand the promise to which Paul refers in its literary context. This concise (it is c. 200 pages) and clear publication is a literary investigation into the promise texts of the Pentateuch from a source-critical perspective. The type of questions with which he wrestles are: (1) what is the promise; (2) what does the promise mean theologically; (3) why was it crafted; and (4) how does it affect the way we read the Pentateuch. Baden concludes that the promise texts naturally fall into the classical sources J, E, and P, each with their own emphases and perspectives. It was this diversity that the compiler of the Pentateuch attempted to maintain as he structured his sources. The promise to the Patriarchs is the glue that holds the Pentateuch together: “The story of the promise is not one among many in the Pentateuch. It is the sole story of the Pentateuch” (p. 158).
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to provide a thorough review of Baden’s book. However, I will point out a few laudable observations. Baden notes that the promise to the Patriarchs is constant throughout the entirety of the Pentateuch appearing in numerous chapters in Genesis (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 26, 28, 32, 35, 46, 48, 50) and at critical moments in the story of Israel, i.e., the call of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the descent to Egypt, the death of Joseph, the call of Moses, the golden calf incident, the condemnation of the exodus generation, and the death of Moses. This promise, therefore, is the “guiding force” for the narratives of the Pentateuch and is always either explicitly or implicitly in the text, and should be interpreted as YHWH’s promise to make Israel a nation, which includes land and progeny.
As Baden delves into the promise texts within J, E, and P, he discusses their versions of the promise texts complete with distinct perspectives, themes, and emphases. For example, P’s promise texts each use ברית; contain the phrase be fruitful and multiply; the patriarchs are called גוי; they contain a connection between family and promise; they note that the fathers’ progeny will be a multitude of nations and kings; and the giving of the promise results in the change of the patriarch’s name (p. 104). J’s are directed to the patriarch alone, are always contextual (p. 119), emphasis is on the land, and there is a concern about the nations that surround Israel (Gen 26:3, 12, 24, 28, 29; 33:1; 34:30; 46:31-34) (p. 114). Finally, E’s promise contains the phrase “fear not” as the introduction to the promise (Gen 15:1; 21:17; 46:3), and is refers to Egypt (Gen 15:13-16; 46:3-4), for the promise texts in E anticipate and predict Israel’s time there (Genesis 15; 46), which functions to give identity to God’s people (Exod 20:23-23:33; 19:5; 22:20; 23:9; 23:15) (pp. 124-25).
Like the author of Hebrews, time would fail me to tell you more about this fantastic work. In sum, it is careful, thorough, concise, well articulated, and Baden’s method is economic, taking into account the most data with the fewest outliers. Most laudable is his close attention to the text of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of the promise that I wish Baden would have addressed. First, what is the socio-historical context for the formation and accentuation of the promise texts? Was their political influence in their formation? What is the relationship, if any, of the promise texts to the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah in the south? Second, how do these promise texts related to other literature within the HB? For example, how does J’s promise text relate to Second Isaiah? How does P’s promise text relate to Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah? Although Baden’s methodology precludes him from addressing these questions, his work is a must read for any one working on the promise texts of the Pentateuch, the narrative of Genesis, and I would say Paul.