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Introduction to the Book of Genesis

Chapter One: The Classical Source Theory of the Pentateuch

The first five books of the Bible are known as the Pentateuch (=five rolls) from the papyrus scrolls on which the five books were originally handed down.According to the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition the Pentateuch was written by Moses, though critics did remark that this caused some awkwardness in that it contained the account of Moses’ own death (Dt 34). Already at the Reformation this ancient tradition was questioned, first by the Protestant A.B. Karlstadt (1486-1541), who wrote in 1520 Mosen non fuisse scriptorem quinque librorum (that Moses was not the author of the five books). The Catholic Andreas Masius (1516-1573) agreed, accepting that the scribe Ezra was the final editor of the Pentateuch. For some reason the better-known questioning of the tradition stems from Jean Astruc, a physician at the court of Louis XIV, who noted in his Conjectures (1753) that two different divine names predominate in Genesis, namely Yahweh and Elohim. He deduced that the book was composed by an amalgamation of two different memoirs. Despite early unfavourable reactions, this insight was developed, and finally reached its classic formulation in the work of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), notably in his Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1883). The synthesis there expressed dominated scholarship and was taken virtually for granted during nearly a century. A neat exposé of the theory may be found in J.L. McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible (1967), pp. 654-657, or L. Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament (1984), pp. 94-108.

1. The Classic Theory

The authorship of the Pentateuch was attributed to four different sources, the Yahwist (‘J’, so named after the German spelling of the name, ‘Der Jahwist’), the Elohist (E), the Priestly Writer (P) and the Deuteronomic Writer (Dt). The last of these plays little part in Genesis. Any such literary theory, for which there is no external confirmation or evidence, wins acceptance by its ability to explain the phenomena of the text, and this division certainly brings a great deal of clarity and understanding to the text. The feature which most obvsiously demands some explanation is the existence of several stories in two or more versions, for example:

Two stories of the Creation (roughly Gn 1 and 2)

Two intermingled versions of the Flood (6-9)

Three stories of the Wife of the Patriarch Endangered (Abram and Sarai in Egypt, 12.10-20; Abraham and Sarah at Gerar, 20; Isaac and ebekah at Gerar, 26.1-14)

Two stories of the Dismissal of Hagar (16; 21.8-21)

Two intermingled versions of the Joseph story - possibly (37-48)

There is also a certain number of contradictions between the stories. To mention only the clearest instances in Genesis, the order and starting-point of creation differs entirely in the two narratives: the first narrative starts with a formless void, darkness over the deep and a divine wind sweeping over the waters, while the second begins with dry land, infertile through total lack of rain and of any human being to cultivate it. At the Flood, according to one passage Noah took seven pairs of every species aboard the ark (7.2 - which leaves plenty of lee-way for both eating and reproduction), while in the other he is allowed only one pair (6.19; 7.13-16). In one version of the Dismissal of Hagar Ishmael is a babe in arms (21.14); in the other he must be a teenager (from the ages of Abraham in consecutive verses, 16.16 and 17.1). Benjamin appears to be born according to one account in Bethlehem (35.18-19), according to another list in Paddan-Aram (35.24-26)

The portraits of the different authors or strands of tradition was carefully and consistently elaborated (and will be given below). There remained always dispute whether certain particular verses should be attributed to one or another of the sources, but the principal points for scholarly discussion remained at the edge of the theory, namely

1. Whether these sources should be considered to have been actually written documents or whether they were better named ‘oral traditions’, stories handed down by word of mouth. The former, earlier, opinion gradually gave way to the latter.

2. Whether the portions ascribed to J and E can always be sharply distinguished. There are many passages where features, normally ascribed to J or E separately, occur mixed together higgeldy-piggeldy.

3. Whether these sources could be profitably subdivided, e.g. J 1, J 2, J 3, etc., according to different authors, or stories preserved in different places, within the same tradition. For instance, in the J-version of the Joseph-story the name ‘Yahweh’ is carefully used only by the narrator, not by the characters in the story. This avoids the anachronism of people using the name before it has been revealed to Moses. But such a distinction between narrator and characters in the story is not always observed.

4. Whether each of these sources gives a complete and independent story, or whether, for instance, E gives only a partial account, building on and supplementing J, and P supplementing the product of them both. By putting together the J-sections, the E-sections and the P-sections can one get three different and self-sufficient stories?

5. Where did the Yahwist epic end?

2. A Portrait of these Sources

The Yahwist

The most obvious and defining characteristic of this source, which led to its isolation in the first place, is the use of Yahweh as the divine name, even before it was revealed to Moses. In Exodus 6.3 God says to Moses explicitly that he did not make known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the name ‘Yahweh’, and yet it is already used by this source throughout Genesis. There are other differences in names between J and E which serve as an easy distinguishing feature:

J Yahweh E Elohim

Sinai Horeb

Jacob Israel

Canaanites Amorrhites

The story-telling style of the Yahwist is another most marked feature. It is a witty and vivid style. God is represented in a friendly, familiar and affectionate way. He comes - as though from another world - to visit and see what is going on in the Garden of Eden, at Babel, after the Flood. He can learn things and can change his mind: he discovers that Adam is lonely with only the animals for company, mitigates Cain’s punishment when Cain finds it unbearable, regrets having made human beings before the Flood, talks to himself and makes up his mind never again to do it. He acts as a surgeon in extracting a rib and then closing up the wound in Adam’s side, as a tailor in fashioning clothing for Adam and Eve. He is content to dialogue with human beings, to ask them what is going on or what the matter is, and even to go along with Abraham’s outrageous bargaining over Sodom. He even gets emotionally involved at the plight of Ishmael, crying as he is abandoned to die. Most striking of all, Yahweh even seems to engage himself by a primitive curse-formula when he passes between the severed halves of the animals which Abraham has laid out (15.17). A God who invokes on himself a curse if he breaks an engagement is indeed anthropomorphic.

In these very human family-stories women are allowed to play a major role, as Eve at the Fall. Sarah has her part to play in explaining that she is Abraham’s sister (12.13) and makes all the going to have Hagar expelled (16.5). Sarah may decorously stay inside the tent when the visitors come to Mamre, but she listens at the entrance and laughs at the suggestion that she will have a son (18.10). Rebekah plays a lively part in receiving Abraham’s servant when he comes looking for a wife for his master’s son, and no decision is made on her marriage till she gives her consent (24). Later on she will egg on her reluctant son to deceive his father, and is happy to take the blame on herself (27). These are strong-willed, self-reliant, independent women, worthy matriarchs of Israel. Particularly in the case of Rebekah it is clear that they stand in the same tradition as their menfolk, for whom successful trickery is a badge of distinction: Abraham protects himself from Pharoah by a barefaced lie; later he really outwits Yahweh by his bargaining techniques, just as Isaac cheats his brother Esau out of a blessing. On other occasions the part played by women is less model but still prominent: it is the union of the daughters of men with the sons of God which finally convinces Yahweh that he has no alternative but to destroy the world by flood (6.1-4), and after the destruction of Sodom it is Lot’s daughters who befuddle him with wine in order to bear children by him (19.30).

The Yahwist story has been termed ‘the national epic of Israel’ because of the prominence of the promises to Abraham and from the way it traces the history of Israel through to the climax of Balaam’s blessing in Nm 24. The prophet Balaam had been suborned by Balak to curse Israel, but instead he blesses them with the climactic

A star is emerging from Jacob,

a sceptre is rising from Israel,

to strike the brow of Moab,

the skulls of all the children of Seth.


Provenance of the tradition

The time of composition of this splendid epic was generally agreed to be the time of David, for the confidenttemper of the whole narrative fits the era of David, a time when in fact Israel’s rule extended into Transjordan to ‘strike the brow of Moab’. There is a certain expansiveness and awareness of Israel’s mission to other nations which is a constant factor in the extension of the blessings of Abraham and his successors to all nations, ‘all clans on earth will bless themselves by you’ (12.3, etc); this fits a period of imperial expansion such as the time of David and Solomon. On the other hand there is no mention of or allusion to the division of the kingdoms which occurred at the death of Solomon, and absolutely no interest in the great nations which were soon to become Israel’s oppressors, Assyria and Babylon. Other factors also accord with this attribution. Firstly, the narrative is attached to the southern territories of Judah, the homeland and power-base of David, locating many stories around the Oak of Mamre and the Cave of Machpelah, the tribal centre of Judah, now Hebron. Secondly, the patriarch Judah, ancestor of the chief tribe of the south, has a special prominence in the stories, for instance as protagonist in the Joseph stories, and instrumental both in rescuing the young Joseph from death at the hands of the other brothers led by Reuben (37.26) and in the recognition scenes in Egypt (43.8; 44.18). Thirdly, the confidence and the superb and lucid style of the narrative is similar to that of the narratives about David and the Succession (2 Sm 9-20), which was obviously written by someone familiar with the personalities of the court of David, at this short moment in history when the naturally great powers of the Near East were dormant, and Israel was a real mistress of empire, at the height of its powers and its territorial expansion.

Most of all, a theological theme runs through the narratives, the choice of the younger in preference to the elder brother, just as David was himself chosen to be anointed king in preference to his elder brothers, the other sons of Jesse (1 Sm 16.1-13). The same preference is visible in the choice of Abel above Cain, Jacob above Esau, and the youngest (or at least the penultimate) of Jacob’s sons, Joseph. Such a divine choice on these several occasions not only fits the case of David, but exemplifies the sovereign divine will of God, who chooses whom he will.

The Yahwistic tradition would, then, have consisted of traditions from the southern part of Israel, which crystallized and took shape around the reign of King David. At the same time, however, the fidelity of the tradition to history must be stressed. At a time when Jerusalem and the monarchy were all-important, these seem to have played no part in shaping the story. There is no mention of monarchy, and in Genesis the only possible allusion to Jerusalem comes in the strange Gn 14 (‘Melchizedek, king of Salem’), which is difficult to attribute to any of the classical sources. On the contrary, many of the details of the stories seemed to fit perfectly with documents of the second millenium, and to have been preserved faithfully over many generations.

The Elohist


The Elohistic narrative as we have it begins in the middle of the Abraham story, though it refers back to events earlier than this. The story of Abraham in Egypt cannot have been the beginning of a complete and continuous narrative, which suggests that what we now have is merely fragments, supplements to the Jahwist narrative. There are, too, elements unexplained in the stories which we can understand only if the Jahwist narrative is taken into account; for example, in 20.9 ‘Hagar the Egyptian’ is abruptly introduced for the first time without any explanation. It is hardly, therefore, fair to deduce that the Elohist’s outlook, starting so late in the story and lacking a creation-narrative, is narrower than that of the other traditions.

The impression received is that the Elohist’s characters are far more sensitive, more emotional and more concerned with morality. One very important guiding element in their lives is the fear of God. In Genesis alone this motivation plays an important part: Abraham claims that his subterfuge about his wife is necessary because he thinks there is no fear of God in Gerar (20.11). The testing of Abraham over the sacrifice of Isaac comes to an end when it is clear that Abraham fears God (22.12). Jacob’s reaction to his dream about the Ladder is to appreciate the fear of God at Bethel (28.17). Again and again this lesson is borne in on the reader or listener (Gn 42.24; Ex 1.15-17; 3.6; 18.21). A feature which follows from this fear of God is clearest in the Abimelech story, the desire of all to play straight and serve God. It is stressed that Sarah really is Abraham’s sister as well as his wife. She acts out of love for her husband (20.13) Abimelech has a doubly clear conscience: not only does he not realise the danger of adultery, but even so he avoids close involvement with Sarah ‘with a clear conscience and clean hands’ (v. 5), and is inexplicably generous to the Abraham who led him into the trap (v. 14). The fear of God is a somewhat puzzled and awesome fear; the actors never quite know what God’s intentions are or why. The same fairness and delicacy becomes apparent in the story of Jacob and his wives: where the Yahwist dwells on Jacob’s successful trickery (30.25-43; 32; 33.12-17), the Elohist is concerned to show that Jacob is no thief (31.42) and that there is a real, loving reconciliation between the two brothers (31.43-44; 33.10-11)

The narrative technique is less robust and rumbustious than the Yahwist’s, more delicate and sensitive, and very fine. God is closely involved in the human situation, though not in such an overt way as in the Yahwist’s narratives. God does not appear or enter into dialogue; instructions are given through the intermediary of dreams and visions (20.3, 6; 31.11, 24; 46.2) or a divine messenger (21.17). A frequent pattern is that God sets up an horrendous human situation; by the obedience of the human personality the dire consequences ensue, and then God re-enters to bring good out of evil. This is the case in the Elohist version of Abraham at Gerar (20), the Dismissal of Hagar (21.8-21), the Sacrifice of Isaac (22).

The atmosphere of the stories is often tense with emotion as these dire consequences threaten. The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac may serve as an example. The reader is brought into the vividness of the scene by Abraham’s thrice-repeated ‘Here I am’, but the dread which hangs over Abraham is intensified both by the five dead-pan repetitions of ‘and he said’, and by the air of empty silence. Abraham does not voice his despair nor explain what he is doing when he chops wood or halts the servants. Then follows the devoted thoughtfulness by which Abraham lets Isaac carry the wood, but keeps for himself anything which might hurt the boy, the knife and the fire, as father and son proceed silently on their way. The contrast between the boy’s chirpy questions and Abraham’s blank and miserable replies is agonizing, increasing as the boy joins his father’s silence at the immediate preparations for sacrifice. The final master-stroke is the double urgent cry at the last minute, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ - how different from the the first low-key call, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’, at the beginning of the story! In the Elohist story of the Dismissal of Hagar the distress of all the participants (except Sarah, who initiates the expulsion, and is so nasty that, rather than name Hagar and Ishmael, she speaks of her rival always as ‘the slave-girl’ and of ‘her son’) is palpable, Abraham (21.11), Hagar (v. 16), Ishmael (v. 15) and God himself (v. 17).

Provenance of the tradition

The importance of northern names directs attention to the northern kingdom as the origin of this tradition (Bethel, Reuben and Ephraim). Cities of the northern kingdom have special importance: a crucial moment is the re-naming of Jacob as Israel after the struggle with the angel at Peniel, a town in the northern territories built by King Jeroboam. Joseph is buried at Sichem, close to the later capital of Samaria. As the backbone of the southern kingdom was Davidic tradition, so in the north the prophetic tradition predominated. Thus in the Elohistic stories Abraham is described as a prophet (20.7) and the dreams and their interpretation, rather than face-to-face confrontation with Yahweh, suggest an attachment to prophetic circles. By contrast to the promises to Abraham, which prefigure the promises to David (2 Sm 7) the stress lies on the covenant, which was all-important in the northern kingdom (Ho 2.21; 6.7). The Elohist, too, is aware of the importance of international relations, but in a more covenantal and less imperialist way than the Yahwist. Thus Abraham and Abimelech make a fair and observable treaty (21.15-31), in an atmosphere quite unlike that of the squabbling and high-handedness which goes on in the Yahwist story of Isaac in the same situation (26.15-24). There is here a clear sympathy for and understanding of foreigners, which accords with the important trade-relations and marital alliances (e.g. of King Ahaz, 874-853, with Jezebel, the princess of Sidon) of the northern kingdom with the coastal peoples.

The date of these traditions is less easy to establish than their place of origin, though they bear the mark of the eighth century prophetic movement in the north. It seems easiest to assume that the traditions were brought to the south by exiles from the northern kingdom after the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians in 721. That at least the outline of the Jacob story and some of its details were known in the northern kingdom in the mid-eighth century is clear from its use by Hosea 12.2-6, which mentions Jacob’s trickery and fraternal rivalry, his wrestling with an angel and his encounter with God at Bethel (see p. 78).

The Priestly Writer

The Yahwist and Elohist traditions are often so intermingled that it is difficult to distinguish them, and many scholars speak of the combination as the ‘Jehowist tradition’. The Priestly writer’s re-interpretation of the tradition is much more clear-cut. The most easily discernible stylistic feature is a preoccupation with dates, ages and genealogies (5; 8.13-14), and an affection for the repetition of formulae (most unmistakable in the first Creation Narrative).

There is no suggestion that P ever provided a full account of the early history or proto-history of Israel. He was concerned rather to found in the past the present practices of Israel which later became the backbone and support of Judaism. The whole of P’s early history is organised according to toledot (literally=‘generations’), at 2.4, the Creation account; 5.1, Adam’s descendants; 6.9, the story of Noah; 10.1, Noah’s descendants; 11.10, Shem’s descendants; 11.27, Terah’s descendants; 25.12, the descendants of Ishmael; 25.19, the descendants of Isaac; 36.1, the descendants of Esau; 36.9, the descendants of Esau again; 37.2, the story of Joseph. The purpose of the genealogies is to show that God’s design for Israel is no recent innovation but can be traced back to the very earliest days. Similarly, the institutions of Israel, if not part of the actual fabric of the universe (as the Sabbath is an essential aspect of the Creation in seven days), were as much a part of God’s design for the universe as we know it now as is the rainbow (clean and unclean food, and the institution of sacrifice decreed as part of the re-constitution of the world after the Flood). In the later books of the Pentateuch this author will anachronistically describe the Laws of the Temple cult as having been instituted as part of the legislation imparted to Moses in the desert, and will describe the Tent of Meeting in terms of the Temple itself, as the dwelling-place of God in the midst of his people.

In the P narratives there are none of the personal and human touches or character traits which were visible particularly in J. In J’s delightful version of the Flood Noah won God’s favour (6.8) because he was an upright man (7.1). Noah’s action is motivated to preserve the species (7.3). Yahweh thoughtfully shut the door of the ark (7.16). He was pleased with smell of the sacrifice and said to himself... (8.3). P disregards the dramatic interplay between Yahweh and Noah, replacing the art of story-telling of gentle, human features with strict, unmotivated formal structure.

A copybook example of P’s narrative technique is provided by the account of the institution of the covenant with Abraham and circumcision in 17. The material for this is paralleled by, and presumably derived from, the accounts of the covenant in 15 (for 17.1-8) and of Yahweh’s visit to Abraham at Mamre (18.1-16 for 17.16-22). In P’s version, however, it is not really a story, for no motivation is given nor any human touches; it is simply a series of speeches by God. The chapter is an excellent example of P’s tight formal construction. The whole is bracketed by a date (inclusio, verses 1 and 24-25). Within that there are two panels:

God’s promise of numerous descendants 2 16a

Abram bows to the ground 3 16b

Abraham to be father of nations/Sarah to have a son 4-6 19a

God will carry out his oath 7 19b

The climax: circumcision, the sign of the covenant 9-14 23-27

Besides this pattern there are at least three instances of a pattern much beloved of P (also in 35.9-15), the chiasmus or palindrome (=turning back), in verses 1-8 and 9-14. In each case the climax is in the centre.

1b I am El Shaddai

2a I shall grant a covenant between myself and you

2b I shall make you very numerous

4-5 This is my covenant with you

6a I shall make you exceedingly fertile

7a I shall maintain my covenant between myself and you

8b I shall be their God

The central and most important of God’s five speeches, itself centring on the act of circumcision, is again a palindrome:

9 You must keep my covenant (positive)

10-11 You must circumcise the flesh as a sign

12 As soon as he is 8 days old, every one of your males must be circumcised

13 They must be circumcised...in the flesh as a sign

14 The uncircumcised male has broken my covenant (negative)

The last of God’s five speeches, the blessing on Ishmael as well as Isaac, exemplifies the same formal structure:

19a Sarah will bear you a son...Isaac

19b I will maintain my covenant with him

20 For Ishmael I grant your request: I will bless him

21a I will maintain my covenant with Isaac

21 whom Sarah will bear you at this time next year

This formal structure so integral to P’s style of writing is also integral to P’s theological message. It is a message of hope and re-assurance at or around the time of the Exile that the incidentals of history and of personalities are unimportant compared to the fixed and unalterable promises of God expressed and elaborated in the details of Israel’s way of life. P has a careful scheme of promise and fulfilment: the promise of Isaac’s birth in 17.21 is fulfilled in 21.1; the command to circumcise in 17.12 is fulfilled in 21.4; the promise of land in 17.8 is picked up in 28.4 and 35.12. This is all to show that the promises of God cannot go unfulfilled, and their fulfilment is intimately bound up with the institutions, especially the cultic institutions, of Israel as laid down in the constitution of the world (Gn 1) or in the very earliest history of humanity (Gn 2-11).

Provenance of the tradition

It is clear that P issues from priestly circles. The date of P is, however, disputed. Though it is certainly later than J and E, and builds on them, it is not easy to say whether it dates only from the Babylonian Exile or before then.. The battle is fought out not so much on the Genesis P material as on the P material in the cultic legislation of the other books of the Pentateuch. Some elements at least have pre-exilic forbears. The P list of the levitical cities (Nm 35) is Solomonic, since only at that time were all the cities mentioned within the territories of Israel, and they are grouped according to Solomon’s administrative structure. At the other extreme, it has been claimed that the sacrificial system reflected by the P legislation dates from the Second Temple, restored after the return from Exile, which would, in its turn, date P after the return. But at least part of the sacrificial system, developed considerably after the return from Exile, was pre-exilic, and several sacrificial terms and regulations of the Second Temple period, as seen in 1-2 Chronicles, are different from those of P (e.g. 2 Chr 29.22 has md lbq , whereas P uses the term md hql . P uses the term hdwb[ for hard physical labour performed by the levites, whereas after the exile the levites may not perform hdwb[ ). It is also difficult to see how after the Exile there could be such an interest in the tabernacle, since it played no part in the Second Temple.

A useful ‘frontier-text’ with which to compare P is Ezekiel, writing early in the exilic period. The similarities between Ezekiel and the ‘Holiness Code’ of P (Lv 17-26) are striking and widespread, as a glance at the marginal references of the Holiness Code in aNy Judicious study Bible will show. There are many other similarities with Ezekiel, but P seems to be slightly earlier: a number of terms which occur in Ezekiel and later texts are still absent from P. Stylistically also P seems to be nearer the great traditions of earlier Hebrew prose than is Ezekiel. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel seem to allude to passages in P, which suggests that P represents a slightly earlier stage of evolution. J. Milgrom in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1991) suggests that the first edition of P was composed at Shiloh at the end of the eighth century. It could, of course, have undergone subsequent editions and development. For example, the stress in the sacrificial legislation on the division between priests and levites, and on the centralisation of the cult in Jerusalem, both indicate the reign of Hezekiah (716-687), when these were live issues.

Personal Work


Make a photocopy of the Flood Narrative (Gn 6.9-9.17).

Using the information given on both authors here and elsewhere highlight in different colours those parts which you can safely attribute to the Yahwist or the Priestly Writer. Note down your reasons.

Then, using lighter but similar colours, see if you can make two complete stories.


NB It might be wise in the early stages to use a pencil which can be erased!

It should be noted that the footnotes of the New Jerusalem Bible confidently attribute passages to one source or another. I edited this part in the late 1970s, working on the 1972 edition of the French Bible de Jérusalem. At this time there was even more uncertainty than now, and quite insufficient consensus to warrant departure from the Wellhausian scheme.

This point in particular came to be disputed later (see below). One particular difficulty was always that it was difficult to date the archaeological ‘home’ of the stories. Some scholars placed them in the late third millenium, others anywhere in the first half of the second millenium.

A full list of such differences is given by A Hurwitz in Revue biblique 81 (1974), 24-56.


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