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Sneaky Bible-Teacher Trick

January 13, 2010

While prepping for the upcoming semester I finalized a little exercise I’ve been doing to have students inductively discern sources for themselves. Since a fair number of my readers teach the Bible, I thought it might be useful to some and additionally might provoke dialog on how to teach this concept.

The problem I have had with teaching sources in the Bible (and the Bible as a whole), is my students’ assumed expertise on the matter. Over half my students have gone through some form of confessional religious training, usually CCD or J School. Consequently, students resist reading the Bible through a different paradigm (or reading it at all). This exercise gets students to look at the text differently and alerts them to the fact that I’m bringing something new to the interpretive table.

First, I pass out the following handout (Flood Stories). The handout contains J and P (Yahwist and Priestly) sources of the flood story disentangled onto separate pages. Students are to take one sheet (i.e. one source) and pass the stack along.  Usually, students fail to realize that the piece of paper that they have is different from their neighbors. This is helpful in randomizing the activity.

I then have students pair up with a student who has the other flood story. Since we have previously read Gilgamesh and Atra-Hasis in my class, students are not surprised that they are being exposed to even more flood stories. The two students need to read over both texts and then make a list of the differences between the two. Often times students won’t even realize the two sheets are culled from the Bible.

Next, we use the board to write up a list of distinct characteristics in each text. Sometimes this requires a little prompting, but students often see the general differences. Within five to ten minutes the standard differences between J and P are up on the board.

Finally, the grand reveal: the two independent stories are entangled in the Bible. Further, I then move back to Gen 1-3 and use the criteria the students created to show the two separate creation stories (P and J). This last step is important because it helps students realize that the point of the exercise was not to make them feel stupid but rather to give them a new tool for looking at the text.

All in all, I’ve found this exercise helpful. There are a few other texts that can be used (see Norman Habel’s Literary Criticism of the Old Testament for some interesting ideas), but this is the one that works best for me. I encourage you all to try it and see how it goes.

n.b. The text is from NRSV (available online here). The source divisions are based largely on a combination of S. R. Driver’s An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (available as a free pdf from Google books here) and Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (see also his The Bible with Sources Revealed).

  1. January 13, 2010 1:07 pm


    I also like and have used The Sources of the Pentateuch by Campbell and O’Brien.

    • January 13, 2010 1:25 pm

      I haven’t used The Sources of the Pentateuch much, but I really like their Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History.

  2. dfrese permalink
    January 13, 2010 6:16 pm

    Very nice, Jim; thanks for sharing this. I like the idea of students really experiencing the narrative continuity of each strand. And finding the differences in the context of the pre-separated strands. (They really don’t seem to like looking for problems/contradictions in anything that looks like a legit Bible, especially their own Bible; there’s some kind of psychological barrier.) I’ve introduced the same subject to religious students by starting with the Diatessaron (not telling them anything except that it’s an early gospel account.) I let them notice some absurdities in the text, and then I reveal the sources – color-coded – of the conflate text. After that I turn them loose finding seams in the Flood Narrative. But they’re still wary. I may give your approach a try, or try to incorporate it somehow.

  3. January 13, 2010 11:02 pm

    I like how Noah knew which animals were clean and unclean so long before Moses. Maybe Moses had a time machine and traveled back to give Noah the Law so he could make an appropriate sacrifice. That would definitely be the thoughtful thing to do.

    This is why I will never write text books. I just can’t resist the sarcasm.

  4. January 14, 2010 2:06 am

    This… is hilarious. If I ever teach Genesis academically, I may try this.

  5. Mary permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:05 am

    I have had the same problem in all of my religion classes, especially with the so-called “western” religions. There are always several students who are convinced that they have completed their training in Christianity and, in so doing, they also know everything about Judaism because, well, all we need to know about the Jew next door can be found in Leviticus. And since my students sometimes watch the news and fashionably wear shemaghs, they’ve got their certificates in Islam as well.

    This is actually what makes teaching worth it. I think your post has inspired me to work on a few of my own assumption-blasting exercises. Thanks!

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