Q&A: Oral Traditions Behind the Pentateuch

Oral Traditions Behind the Pentateuch

What oral traditions did Moses have available to him when he wrote Genesis?

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Answer

Any time we talk about oral traditions behind any part of the Pentateuch, including the primeval history or some other part, it's a bit nebulous because there is obviously no concrete evidence for it. That's what it means when you say it's oral; it means nothing was written down. But when you think about it for just a minute, we know a couple of things that help us realize that Moses probably did not just simply one day think up these stories, nor did God probably just tell him these stories one day without any kind of oral background.

One evidence of that is just the fact that primitive cultures even today depend a lot on storytelling, a lot on repetition from generation to generation of ancient stories of their peoples, and this is often paralleled back to biblical times when people would do similar sorts of things. And the most concrete evidence we have of that in the Pentateuch, as a whole, is the way that the stories that are found in Exodus and Numbers are repeated, often, in the book of Deuteronomy. And in the book of Deuteronomy, we're given the context where Moses is giving speeches or giving sermons that include elements that we find also in the book of Exodus and Numbers. But the interesting thing about them is while they're similar they're not exactly the same.

And so, there was a culture in the days of Moses, there was a culture in Israel in those days, of taking stories from the past or taking tails from the past, things that had happened and how they'd been passed down from generation to generation, and then using them in specific ways in the context where you lived. And of course, you know, Moses grew up in his mother's home in the early years of his life, and this, of course, would have given him stories to know about his ancestors, know about his identity as a Hebrew, know his identity as one who descended from Abraham. And, of course, as Moses would interact with the elders of Israel, even upon his return from his time with Jethro, he would have been learning even more stories that were distinctive to his ancestry. And so, there's good reason to think that Moses did, in fact, depend on oral traditions, or stories that were told from generation to generation, as he wrote different parts of the Pentateuch.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.