Pink Elephants and the Pentateuch

Pink Elephants on Parade—the sequence in Disney’s Dumbo is a surprisingly spooky break from the animation style of the rest of the film. I remember finding it to be among the creepiest scenes in any cartoon I watched growing up, and I imagine it has inspired nightmares in many children. I was always perplexed as to why such a sequence was included in Dumbo, and I few years ago I finally decided to do some research to find out what was known about it. While doing this research, I was surprised to discover that the production of Dumbo might shed some light on the formation of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible).

Uploaded to YouTube by Dumbo Lover

The Pink Elephants sequence comes after the main character, a small elephant named Dumbo, accidentally ingests some champagne from a water bucket—presumably inspired by the well-known tendency of elephants to pursue fermented substances (consider, for example, the case where a herd of 50 elephants ransacked a village in India after gulping 500 liters of alcohol). I find it difficult to believe that Dumbo only consumed alcohol, for I have drank plenty of alcohol in my life and it has never given me such wild hallucinations.

East Coast Vs. West Coast Animation

I came across a paper by Mark Langer, a professor of Film Studies, called “Regionalism in Disney Animation”, which gives a nice description of important factors that led to the qualities that made Dumbo stand out from other Disney films at the time, including the Pink Elephants sequence.

In the early 20th century, there were 2 basic styles of animation: West Coast and East Coast (or New York). The West Coast style is epitomized by Disney’s feature-length films such as Bambi, Snow White, and Cinderella, where the animation is characterized by realistic motions of the characters and objects as well as a clear overarching narrative structure. The artists of the tradition spent lots of time observing creatures in the real world on which they would base their animations (there is the famous example of Disney animators observing live deer as models in the production of Bambi).

The East Coast or New York style, on the other hand, was characterized by unrealistic “cartoony” movements that flowed together in a sort of surreal dreamlike series of events. A good illustration of this style can be seen in the St. James Infirmary Blues sequence in Betty Boop Snow-White:

Uploaded to YouTube by Karl Sabastian Sollenhag

The reason for this difference is straightforward: the original practitioners of the New York style were originally cartoonists for newspapers and magazines. Thus, when they began animating, the style closely resembled the cartoonish nature of newspaper comics. Langer gives the following summary of the New York style:

“…until about 1934, New York studios tended to use a style called ‘rubber animation’ in which both animate and inanimate objects moved with bouncy flexibility as if they were made of rubber. Objects took on the function or characteristics of other things, emphasizing mutability and metamorphosis. Morbid imagery and themes of death, violence, and mutilation were common in New York series.”

Langer, 308

West Coast Influence on Pink Elephants

As a Disney film, we would expect Dumbo to follow the stylistic preferences of the East Coast. However, a series of events caused a massive influx of West Coast animation to creep into the film.

When production on Dumbo began, Walt Disney was supervising the project. Perhaps due to lower-than-expected earnings from Pinnochio and Fantasia, Disney dropped the project after the completion of the preliminary storyboard. The project was later resumed by Joe Grant and Dick Heumer, who rewrote it and added the Pink Elephants sequence (Walt Disney himself remained relatively uninvolved). Dick Heumer was a veteran of the New York tradition, formerly a senior animator at Fleischer Studios (West Coast) who joined Disney in 1934. Animation for Pink Elephants on Parade was supervised by Norman Ferguson and executed by Hicks Lowkey and Howard Smith. Both Ferguson and Lowkey had previously worked on New York animation in the 1920s.

Due to the influx of West Coast animators at Disney and Walt Disney’s decreased involvement, Dumbo stands as a clear case of stylistic convergence in a single film. And this convergence isn’t only evident in the Pink Elephants sequence—you can also observe an alternation of East Coast and West Coast styles throughout the film.

A New Approach to Pentateuchal Source Criticism

Learning about the amalgamated nature of Dumbo got me thinking about a major concern in my own discipline: the problem of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch consists of the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Within the text of these books, there is clear evidence of various sources having been amalgamated into the single-flowing narrative we have today. Scholars have traditionally held that there were originally 4 source texts, the “Yahwist,” “Elohist,” “Deuteronomist,” and “Priestly” (abbreviated J, E, D, and P). One piece of evidence for this is what appears to be contradicting duplicated narratives. So, for example, we read the following in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:

“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so.
And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 1:24-27 (ESV)

The sequence in this narrative is 1) God creates the nonhuman animals, and then 2) God creates humans to rule over the nonhuman animals. Now look at the order of events in the creation narrative in Genesis 2:

“Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature…
Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”

Genesis 2:7, 18-19 (ESV [translated with the footnote for 19a])

The sequence of events in this narrative are 1) God creates the first man, and then 2) God creates the animals to keep the man company. Further supporting the idea that these are two contradicting descriptions of the same narrative, originating from different authors, is the fact that Genesis 1 only refers to God as “God” (Hebrew: Elohim) while Genesis 2 refers to God as “LORD God” (Hebrew: Yahweh Elohim), indicating 2 distinct authorial styles.

Traditional source critics, as mentioned above, hypothesized the existence of several documents that functioned as source material for the Pentateuch. This theory, which is used to account for textual oddities in the Pentateuch is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. It has traditionally been argued that once the various sources have been teased apart, one can infer the region and period from which the source originated (there is also another theory, known as the Supplementary Hypothesis, which argues that some of the sources were not independent works but were simply narrative additions that accumulated to the text at various times by different redactors).

However, identifying the specific sources underlying various narratives in the Pentateuch is not an easy business, and scholars often disagree as to which pericopes were derived from which sources. Despite evidence of the sort mentioned above, it also seems to be the case that when the source texts were amalgamated into the Pentateuch, the redactors responsible for this project edited the texts to help the disparate narratives flow together (see, for example, The Redaction of Genesis by Gary A. Rendsburg). We therefore need to consider the context and intentions of the Reactor (add “R” to our list of sources—JEDPR) as much as the source texts being redacted.

Very often, the final Redactor is conceptualized as a single author or school of scribes who took the various documents JEDP and combined them, perhaps adding their own narrative contributions. (For example, Israel Knohl associates R with the Holiness Code [a late collection of Priestly material] and therefore all of its theological predispositions are assumed to govern the Pentateuch’s narratives and legal material). However, it is a bit difficult to see why the Holiness School would preserve so much contradicting content in its final edit. Even if one accepts a Supplementary model, it still doesn’t account for the preservation of contradicting ideologies.

Furthermore, while a few narratives make more sense when separated according to their hypothesized sources, many more become less cogent when divided up in this fashion. For example, many scholars have noted that the Joseph novella (Genesis 37-50) loses its narrative flow when chopped up between the various sources. So the Documentary Hypothesis is challenged by 3 facts:

1. Contradictions preserved between the various sources

2. Interruption of flow when sources are teased apart

3. Seamlessly combinations of stylistic elements from multiple sources

These points create a sort of catch-22, for if the Pentateuch was heavily redacted by a single scribal school, one would not expect the preservation of contradictions (as seen with point 1), yet if the Pentateuch was not heavily redacted, one would expect the narratives to consistently read better when separated (as seen with points 2-3). This is not an insurmountable challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis, for it makes some unnecessary (even if reasonable) assumptions about what the Redactor would have wanted to do, and we simply cannot know with certainty all of the Redactor’s aims and methods. I am happy to accept a version of the Documentary Hypothesis with heavy redaction by a single scribe or school, but nevertheless, this challenge does serve as an impetus to consider new ways of conceptualizing the development of the Pentateuch.

One possible solution to the Pentateuch problem is to think of the creation of the Pentateuch as a parallel phenomenon to the creation of Disney’s Dumbo. The movie Dumbo is not the amalgamation of 2 films—one West Coast and one East Coast—being combined into a single movie. On the contrary, as I learned from Langer’s article, Dumbo is the cumulative result of stylistically divergent animators working together on a single project. In a similar fashion, it is possible that the Pentateuch is the result of a collective effort of contemporaneous scribes from various schools bringing together their own respective source material and contributing their own methods for revising and smoothing out the narratives in a joint effort.

And I am not the first person to come up with such an idea. Russell Gmirkin has proposed precisely this in a 2020 article titled “Can the Documentary Hypothesis be Rehabilitated?”. Gmirkin argues that the conventional Documentary model doesn’t square well with known scribal practices from the Ancient Near East, but a “Synchronic Documentary Model” fits the evidence rather well (his argument deserves being quoted at length):

“The guiding principle for including, excluding, revising or augmenting older materials in other ancient written texts was typically conformity with the ideology of the revisionist. This is exactly what one sees in Chronicles, which (in its narrative portions) revised Samuel–Kings by omitting or rewriting older materials and adding new materials to achieve a new version of the history of the monarchy that consistently reflected the priestly viewpoint of the Chronicler. While the natural instinct of every ideology or theological program is to extinguish contradictory viewpoints, this is not what was seen in the Pentateuch. The carefully crafted combination of widely divergent materials in the Pentateuch requires a different model. Rather than a sequence of authors (with their attendant redactors) who reflected successive religious theologies down through the centuries, one should instead envision a number of distinct authorial groups, J, E, D and P who each reflected differing but contemporary Judaisms…”

“How and why did possession of the evolving Pentateuch passed from southern storytellers (J) to northern storytellers (E) to Josiah’s Jerusalemite Deuteronomist (D) to exilic priests (P and H)? Why did the previous groups relinquish control of the text and why did the new group feel authorized to take control of, revise, and reissue the Pentateuch in altered form? Under the Diachronic Documentary Model, such questions have gone unasked and unanswered. The passing of documentary control between different sociological groups down through time was simply assumed as a necessary implication of the diachronic evolution of the Pentateuch. But comparative analysis of Mesopotamian texts in the same general time frame indicates that documents of the Ancient Near East tended to start within the possession of a single sociological group down through time: priestly magical and ritual documents staying within priestly circles, astronomical and scientific texts closely guarded by scientific guilds, and so forth. Such texts might undergo redaction within their community, but not be passed from one sociological group to another as hypothesized under the Diachronic Documentary Model. But the existence of authorial groups from distinct sociological backgrounds is highly compatible with the Synchronic Documentary Model. One may again point to the creation of the Egyptian law code in the time of Darius by the priestly, warrior and scribal classes as a striking parallel of literary cooperation among different contemporary sociological groups under an overarching royal mandate.”

For me, the attraction of Gmirkin’s Synchronic Documentary Model is that it resolves the major problems of the Documentary Hypothesis while still preserving the useful elements of Documentarianism. So for example, the Documentary Hypothesis gives us a great explanation for instances where the individual sources flow better when separated into their respective hypothesized sources—namely, that documents containing cogent narratives were broken up by the Redactor for the purpose of inserting relevant information from other sources. Gmirikin’s synchronic model is consistent with this evidence, for it is likely that the contemporaneous schools who assembled the Pentateuch had textual source materials, and therefore the explanatory power of the Documentary Hypothesis in this regard is not abandoned when the synchronic model is adopted.


Gmirkin, Russell. “Can the Documentary Hypothesis be Rehabilitated? A New Model of the Collaborative Composition of the Pentateuch.” [Draft] Journal of Higher Criticism (Fall 2020): 4-48.

Langer, Mark. “Regionalism in Disney Animation: Pink Elephants and Dumbo.” Film History vol. 4 no. 4 (1990): 305-321.

Rendsburg, Gary A. The Redaction of Genesis. Eisenbrauns, 1986.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑