Friday, June 08, 2007

Richard Elliot Freedman and Mormonism

I usually listen to Dr. James White's program The Dividing Line when I can. While I don't agree with Dr. White on all issues [paedobaptism, amillenialism, etc.], I really respect the work that he does in the countercult ministry. Dr. White inspired me to start dealing with the documentary hypothesis, and I have covered a whole lot of ground. The hardest part of the documentary hypothesis is trying to figure out how most scholars categorize each section of the Pentatuch. I have been spending time doing reading on that topic, but, as a grammarian, I also have been doing tons of reading on Hebrew grammar, and comparative semetics as that is my main area of interest.

Anyway, I was listening to yesterday's program, and I heard a call from a Mormon gentleman. The conversation was very polite, but I was somewhat disturbed at the sources the Mormon gentleman was using. Now, I will admit, I am not a scholar of Mormonism. What little I know comes from a few phone calls I have heard on Dr. White's program. However, as a Hebrew student, I was greatly distressed at some of the arguments he was making. I would like to address some of them here, and deal with them individually.

First of all, he quoted from Richard Elliot Freedman's work Commentary on the Torah. Freedman is a strong advocate of the documentary hypothesis, who has published books for Harper SanFrancisco, the same company that put out Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, and the outragious media propaganda book, The Jesus Family Tomb. Needless to say, this work is not an overly conservative work. In it, Freedman says the following:

1:2 The earth had been. Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean "The earth was shapeless and formless"-referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that "The earth had been shapeless and formless"-that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

It is very difficult to know why Freedman holds this position. What he is referring to is the fact that the construction of the beginning of 1:2 is noun+suffix tense verb. What he seems to be saying is that, you would use this construction in Biblical Hebrew, if you wanted to convey the idea of the past perfect as we have it in English. In essence, if you have this construction, the prefix tense will always have the perfective aspect.

The strange thing is that this view has numerious problems. First of all, to say that it is "known to be a way of conveying the past perfect" is an overstatement. I have looked in several grammars [Gesenius, Waltke, Jouon-Markoa, Chisholm, etc.] and not only did I not find such a rule, but worse than that, I found that it was translated as "the earth was" in virtually every citation.

Not only that, but I have done my own grammatical study of the construction. Here are some counter examplesory:

1 Samuel 3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare [rq'y" hy"Üh' hw"©hy>-rb;d>W] in those days, visions were infrequent.

It would simply be untrue to say that the word of the Lord had been rare. Given the fact that the author of 1 Samuel acknowledges the Exodus from Egypt [1 Samuel 12:6, 8], it would be odd for him to say that there had been infrequent revelations in those days, as there were visions all throughout the pentatuch and the books of Joshua through Ruth.

1 Kings 16:21 Then the people of Israel were divided into two parts: half of the people followed Tibni [ynIÜb.ti yrE’x]a; hy"h'û ~['øh' yci’x]] the son of Ginath, to make him king; the other half followed Omri.
You would have to translate the text "Then the people of Israel were divided into two parts: half of the people had followed Tibni...the other half had followed Omri." if you followed what Freedman said. The embarrassing thing about this text is that you would then be caught caught believing that they text says the people were divided before they were divided. Imagine if I said:
I went out to Pizza Hut, and purchased a Pizza. Then, I divided the pizza into two parts. I had given half of the pizza to my friend, and half of the pizza to my parents.
That is utter nonsense because it means that the division of the Pizza took place before the division of the pizza. There is no way I could give half of the pizza to my parents, and half of the pizza to my friend unless It had already been divided. Thus, I am saying that I divided the pizza before I divided it. Likewise, Freedman is trying to say that the above text is saying that the people were divided before they were actually divided.

Another thing that makes this position so controversial is the fact that he does not lay out a theory for other verbal forms. We need to understand that many times the correctness of this theory depends upon how you take the other verbs in the context. For instance, take Genesis 25:3:

Genesis 25:3 Jokshan fathered [dl;êy"] Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim [~yMi(aul.W ~yviÞWjl.W ~rIïWVa; Wy°h' !d"êd> ynEåb.W].

Notice, that, in order to take the phrase Wy°h' !d"êd> ynEåb.W as a past perfect, you must also take dl;êy" as a past perfect. If dl;êy" is a simple past, then the text becomes utter nonsense, because it would read "Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan had been Assurim..." That would make the text mean that Dedan had sons before he was ever born which would be a ludicrious meaning.
Of course, the perfect tense can also be translated as the past perfect, and I think Freedman would probably want to argue that dl;êy" is a past perfect. However, it begs the question as to how he knows that the dl;êy" should be taken as a past perfect. He cannot answer "because of the rule," or he begs the question. In essence, because of the fact that so many of these instances depend upon having a full understanding of the temporal aspects of the Hebrew verbal system, one would already have to have a full knowledge of the temporal aspects of the Hebrew verbal system before one could even make such a statement. The problem is that no such knowledge exists. The theories are legion, but they are just that...theories.
Also, I think it is worth noting that the Septuagint translates ht'îy>h' with the imperfect verb h=n, and the Latin Vulgate follows suit translating it with the imperfect "erat."
Also, I think Dr. White did an excellent job of dismantling the man's use of the term ~yhi_l{a/. He was certainly right, that it is something you learn in first year Hebrew. Also, something Dr. White didn't mention is that, while ~yhi_l{a/ does have a plural ending, the verb ar"äB' is singular. If it was more than one God that was being talked about, one would expect a plural [not a singular] verb.
Edit: I actually stopped listening a little early to the phone call [I got a little annoyed that a Mormon would use this kind of liberal scholarship, and stopped a little early]. Dr. White *did* mention what I did about the fact that ar"äB' is a singular verb. Just a correction.

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