Celebrating Jewish Literature: The priestly version of the Bible

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Since the 18th century, scholars have debated the origin of the Bible, generally dividing it into four source documents written or compiled by the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly writers and the Deuteronomist. Numerous books in contemporary times have sought to determine which chapters and verses belong to each source. In “The Consuming Fire: The Complete Priestly Source, from Creation to the Promised Land” (University of California Press), Liane M. Feldman has isolated and translated what she believes are the sections belonging to the priestly authors. Feldman, an assistant professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, has also written a fascinating introduction explaining the reasoning for specific translations and the differences between the priestly book and the finished Bible. For anyone interested in biblical studies, this section alone makes it worth reading her book. Whether or not readers agree with her decisions, her choices and explanations are interesting and thought provoking. 

Feldman notes that “the primary reason I wanted to create this edition and translation of the biblical priestly narrative was because I felt strongly that this story needed to be presented as a work of literature.” She knows that some people might not consider it literature in light of contemporary storytelling, but she believes that the conventions of storytelling in the past were different from modern times – particularly when it comes to the genealogical sections, which she suggests readers/listeners of that time would have considered an important part of the literature. Feldman also does not see the work as a priestly text book as some have suggested: instead it is a story. However, the main character is not one human being or God, but rather the Dwelling Place, which is how she translates the Mishkan, usually called the Tabernacle in English. The reason for calling it the Dwelling Place is because, in the priestly book, God needs to have a place to live on Earth in order to keep a closer eye on his creation. 
The author divides the priestly book into seven sections: “Creation and the Flood,” “The Era of the Patriarchs,” “The Descent to Egypt,” “At Mount Sinai,” “Building Yahweh’s Dwelling,” “The Eight-Day Inauguration of Yahweh’s Dwelling Place” (the longest section and the most important section) and “Leaving Mount Sinai.” Feldman also includes “Possible Materials from the Priestly Narrative in the Book of Joshua,” but notes it’s far more difficult to isolate the priestly material in that book. What’s fascinating are the stories that are missing: Seth is the only child of Adam and Eve, which means there is no tale of rivalry between Cain and Abel. God never asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac and Ishmael are never at odds. The same is true of Jacob and Esau; Esau never sells his birthright, nor does Jacob steal his blessing. The lack of rivalry continues with Jacob’s children. Joseph’s brothers never sell him to Egypt: he travels there on his own. Something similar is found in the stories of the women: Hagar and Ishmael are never expelled from Abraham’s camp. Jacob willingly marries both Leah and Rachel, and the women are never at odds. Even more interesting is that there is no story of the golden calf because Moses does not spend 40 days on Mt. Sinai. 

The reason these stories never appeared is due to the priestly book’s specific point of view. Feldman notes there are “five major differences between the priestly narrative and the compiled Pentateuch that shape the worldview of this narrative as a whole: (1) the idea that creation is fundamentally good, (2) the utilitarian approach to the patriarchal stories, (3) the centrality and visuality of the Sinai episode, (4) the focus of the wilderness complaints against the leaders, not Yahweh, and (5) the lack of conquest for the purpose of settlement outside the land of Canaan.” The author explains these ideas in great detail, but, in general, notes that the introductory books are there to lead to the most important moment: the preparation of the Dwelling Place so God can actually live there. She sees the work as having a far more “positive, optimistic outlook” than the final version of the Pentateuch. 

Readers may question whether Feldman’s priestly version succeeds as a cohesive work. The answer is yes: if someone unfamiliar with the Bible read her book, they would not know anything is missing. The story stands on its own. There are a few sections where Feldman notes that parts may be missing, but these are minor enough that most readers won’t notice. As for readers who are familiar with the Pentateuch, they may note what is not there, but, if they don’t focus on that, but on what is, they will find that the work makes complete sense. “The Consuming Fire” succeeds in offering its readers an exciting and intriguing way to think about the Bible.