Inconsistency in the Torah

Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism

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Joshua A. Berman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his new book, Inconsistencies in the Torah, Joshua Berman acknowledges a number of apparent inconsistencies instantiated throughout the Hebrew Bible. Citing such anomalies as the differing accounts of the exodus (Exodus 14’s prose narrative and Exodus 15’s poem, respectively), as well as the seeming redundancies in the flood narrative of Genesis 7-9, Berman offers a fresh and unapologetic approach to understanding the inclusion of differing versions of a text in a single document. Finding fault with the more common explanation of source criticism, which explains away these inconsistencies as evidence of multiple texts stapled together into a patchwork that makes up the Bible, Berman demands that scholarship limit itself to claims it can corroborate. Scholarship has not, for example, found any recorded “rule” requiring that all various accounts be preserved. Instead, Berman proposes approaching these texts through comparison with ancient Egyptian legal and narrative texts. In these texts, the reader encounters similarly disparate accounts of a single event, and discovers another culture in which better evidence can be provided for the notion of intentionally and uncontroversially differing accounts. In so doing, Berman demonstrates that there was an awareness and a comfort among the biblical redactor(s) to incorporate multiple, differing accounts of a single event within the Bible. Berman promotes not only a mode of scholarship with higher standards, but also one possessing fundamentally different standards.

The strongest part of Berman’s research lies in his opening chapters concerning biblical narrative inconsistencies. Looking at the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, a text often understood to be authored by a different hand than that of Exodus 14 because of its difference in genre and in content, Berman compares these findings with ancient Egyptian literature. In particular, he demonstrates the way in which Egyptian military leaders seem to have frequently commissioned the writing of multiple accounts of Egyptian victory stories without any expectation of consistency among them. The evidence Berman brings is certainly striking, and his close reading of these texts helps to expose the full extent to which such documents, while similar , differ from one another in crucial ways.

Berman also addresses inconsistencies throughout the flood narrative in Genesis 7-9, bravely defending the notion of a consistent, composite text (or well-redacted text, at the least) against the more popular notion that this is a case of two flood accounts combined. This is demonstrated by, among other things, delineating an internal structure within the flood account, including a chiastic structure that necessitates the “divergent” and contradictory verses. Berman does not claim that the way he has tried to reconcile inconsistencies in the examples he provides will prove successful for other instances of inconsistency (for example, the differing creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2). One might see this as academic humility, or as a lack of confidence in his own conviction.

Turning away from prose literature, Berman considers instances of apparent inconsistency in biblical law. For example, an example is developed concerning the legal matters of levirate marriage and the gleaning of sheaths as reflected in the Book of Ruth. These sets of laws diverge from the clear prescription of said laws in Deuteronomy. How might the reader make sense of these seemingly divergent understandings of levirate marriage and the gleaning of sheaths within Ruth? Citing the Western legal process before the eighteenth century, Berman notes that many laws were recorded, not to set a definitive precedent for future adjudication, but to provide insight and advice in future cases: that is, a previous ruling did not force future adjudicators to adopt the same ruling, but rather served as a recommendation for consideration and nothing more. Such laws are deemed common law, with cases in which a ruling did demand future adherence in similar cases being termed canon law. Applying this to contradictory laws in the Pentateuch, Berman argues that such a standard for judicial proceedings must have operated in ancient Israel, in which various laws and rulings could be recorded within the Bible without posing inconsistencies for the ancient reader, since such rulings were not prescriptive. In the case of Ruth, the laws from Deuteronomy needn’t be seen as mandating exact replication, but rather set a precedent for others to consider in their own process of reapplying said laws. While Berman’s hypothesis as to how these differing approaches to biblical law worked is certainly innovative, the legitimacy of his approach rests not only on the questionable notion of “common law” in biblical legal texts, which would certainly devalue the divine frame in which such laws are said to be given; his approach is also problematic because it undermines one of Berman’s own “rules” for interpreting biblical inconsistency: Berman argues that one must only analyze ancient texts using ancient methods, which can include cognates in other cultures. However, the application of modern concepts and standards onto theories of the Bible’s formation are inauthentic to the ancient nature of the text, and therefore must be avoided. By breaking his own rule in the context of common law, Berman leaves the reader puzzled as to the appropriate circumstances in which one might be able to apply modern concepts to biblical analysis, and when one may not do so.

Berman is strongest in his criticism of source criticism, and he pointedly argues that present-day source critics, while different in a number of ways from Wellhausen and other nineteenth century pioneers of the method, still all share a common, and flawed, assumption: “In theory the goal of the critical study of the Bible could have been to understand the text as the primary end, using all historical data available to elucidate it. However, in the nineteenth-century the priorities are inverted: the Bible is studied in primary fashion to produce a religious history of the people and the culture that created it” (214). Here Berman criticizes not the desire for historical information, but the notion that the Bible can provide such information. Instead, Berman explores the Bible as a literary document that is arguably more unified in its composition than source critics have often believed.

Berman’s book is a helpful foray into the area of “biblical criticism criticism.” While Berman is not entirely consistent in his methodology, he does lay out a convincing modus operandi for future Bible scholars: Consider the Bible within its literary context, and do not supplant this with modern assumptions about the text at hand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Slutsky is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua A. Berman is a senior lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.


Joshua Berman

My thanks to Rachel Slutsky for her thorough review of Inconsistency in the Torah.  As modern readers we are often unaware of just how different our assumptions about things are from those held by pre-modern writers and thinkers.  The very term “law” is one of them.  My avowedly anachronistic use of the term “common-law’ to describe how people thought about law in ancient Israel, and how different this was from how we think about law is a big part of the book. An accessible online summary of my argument is available here -


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