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Reflections on the Composition of Genesis

Although some believe the Yahwist lived and worked in the exilic or post-exilic periods of Israel’s history, I assume the more traditional position that the Yahwist was a historian of the southern kingdom, writing during the eighth or ninth centuries BCE, or before. Indeed, a strong case can be made for a tenth-century origin for Israel’s national epic, and some even assume it may be precisely fixed to the reign of David. (Reprinted by permission of Cambridge University Press, © Bill T. Arnold 2009)

Reflections on the Composition of Genesis

By Bill T. Arnold

Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation

Asbury Theological Seminary

December 2008

Theories on the composition of the book of Genesis have a long and complicated history. This subject will never lose its fascination or cease to be an object of scholarly speculation, like one or two other topics in biblical studies, such as the “synoptic problem” of the Gospels or the quest for the historical Jesus. No matter how much we protest today that these topics are no longer central to the interpretive enterprise in the twenty-first century, we will no doubt continue to explore new avenues for understanding the origins of these important texts.

From the beginning, source analysis of the Pentateuch has been focused on Genesis. In a recent commentary, I summarize the history of those investigations and offer tentative conclusions about the composition of the book.1 From the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, various scholars across Europe began speculation about sources used in the composition of Genesis. This source-critical approach crystallized in the nineteenth century in the works of Karl H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen in the so-called Graf-Wellhausen synthesis of the Documentary Hypothesis.2 This hypothesis inaugurated an era of general consensus on the documents behind the Pentateuch and their transmission history, in which it was taken for granted that earlier Yahwistic (J for Jehovistic) and Elohistic (E) sources were combined as a product of the early divided monarchy of ancient Israel. This so-called JE source was combined much later with a D source, which was essentially the core of the book of Deuteronomy composed in the seventh century BCE, and finally with a priestly source (P) produced as part of the postexilic restoration. Wellhausen so persuasively made the case for this four-source theory (the now familiar “JEDP”) that the hypothesis essentially convinced most of the scholarly world by the turn of the twentieth century. Scholars continued working on the pre-history and compilation of these sources, as well as their tradition history, analyzing larger complexes of tradition.3 But by and large, the four-source hypothesis was fundamental to these investigations.

The first period in this overview may therefore be called the regnant source analysis of Pentateuchal studies, dating from Wellhausen (1844-1918) until approximately 1970. Essentially, the conclusions of the four-source Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis were unchallenged, although there were many developments and nuanced interpretations along the lines of form-critical and tradition-critical investigation. The second development in critical studies of Genesis may be called nascent literary criticism, in which rhetorical or aesthetic criticism attempted to overcome the atomizing excesses of source- and form-criticism.4 The closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a burgeoning secondary literature exploring the rhetorical sophistication of these narratives, often assuming a dichotomy between “final form” readings and source criticism, or to put it another way, between diachronic approaches (most coming before approximately 1970) and synchronic approaches. Many of these newer approaches were also less likely to accept the classical expression of the four-source theory, and although there was certainly no uniformity in this, the Graf-Wellhausen formulation no longer dominated the field of research.

The third stage of Pentateuchal research may be called the maturation of literary criticism. While some proponents of rhetorical criticism continue to jettison the source-critical approach altogether, more are regretting the retrenchment of scholars into synchronic and diachronic camps, rejecting this as a false dichotomy, and attempting to hold together a source approach with a sensitivity to the rhetorical sophistication of the text. In particular, I have been most impressed by recent appeals for a balance between the diachronic and synchronic approaches, especially in the way we should think of the intratextuality of ancient compositions, which is especially true of a book like Genesis. We may speak of intertextuality as the way a text is interwoven with references, allusions, even quotations, with other texts and indeed, with an entire cultural system (although the definition of “intertextuality” is contested). On the other hand, intratextuality refers to the way a later text “builds itself around an earlier text, claiming to reproduce it.”5 So the resultant composite text claims the authority of the earlier text it has incorporated, even as it has absorbed and transformed it. Thus the process of exegesis is not unlike the following analogy.6 Traditional historical-critical scholarship may be compared to “strip mining,” in which layers of traditions and sources are opened up like a seam in the earth’s surface. Newer literary and canonical approaches are more like a “wilderness preserve” in which the boundaries and integrity of a text are protected and admired. Ultimately, however, we must combine the investigation of the final form of the text with a “geological” approach in which the contours of the text’s landscape are scrutinized and hypotheses are developed to explain how the landscape was created. Such an approach contributes depth perception to our exegesis and avoids the extremes of either the strip-mining or preserve approaches.

In my recent commentary, I assumed the essential validity of this source analysis for Genesis, although I differ at several points on the date and origins of the sources.7 The book of Genesis as we now have it was composed of the following sources. The first in the series is the old epic narrative of Israel’s history written at a point in time impossible for us to determine. This great epic account is distinguished in a number of ways, such as theology and literary style,8 but especially in the ways it uses the sacred name for God, YHWH/Yahweh, or “the Lord” in most translations, and therefore the author is often referred to as the Yahwist (or J). Although some believe the Yahwist lived and worked in the exilic or post-exilic periods of Israel’s history, I assume the more traditional position that the Yahwist was a historian of the southern kingdom, writing during the eighth or ninth centuries BCE, or before.9 Indeed, a strong case can be made for a tenth-century origin for Israel’s national epic, and some even assume it may be precisely fixed to the reign of David.10 The extent of the work has been much debated. One proposal assumes a single Yahwistic author, living in the ninth century BCE, writing a continuous story from the creation of the world (Gen 2:4) through the Davidic kingdom to David’s successor, Solomon (1 Kings 2:5-46).11

In the classic understanding of the documentary approach to Pentateuchal origins, the Yahwistic source was itself a composite of earlier sources, especially including those of the older traditions from the northern kingdom, often associated with an Elohistic author (or E). It is doubtful whether E ever existed as an independent and complete work, and a growing number of scholars have come to think of it as a supplement to J.12 Thus the siglum used to designate the Yahwist in the secondary literature on Genesis is often JE, although RJE, for redactor of the JE materials, is strictly more apropos. The composite nature of JE is most apparent in Genesis but impossible to disentangle thereafter in Exodus-Numbers. All of this merely illustrates the fact that the earliest stages of tradition transmission for the materials in Genesis are beyond our ability to reconstruct.13

The second source discernible in Genesis and elsewhere in the Pentateuch is attributable to priestly tradents, and therefore typically known by the standard siglum P. Like JE, this source is distinguished by theology and style, and by its habitual use of Elohim, “God” rather than Yahweh. An impressive consensus has emerged on the identification of the priestly material in Genesis, and the current debate is devoted more to the nature of the material than to its scope.14 On the other hand, a few interpreters argue that the priestly material is redactional only, an expansionistic stratum rather than an independent source or document.15 Yet this approach has been convincingly countered.16 I have become convinced by the impressive linguistic data garnered in recent decades to argue in favor of a pre-exilic date for the priestly material, over against the more traditional source-critical assumption that P is post-exilic.17

Third, I also assume the Pentateuch contains materials originating from a Holiness school distinct from other priestly materials (often labeled as H), which was comprised primarily of Leviticus 17-26. Recent work on these portions has shown convincingly, in my opinion, that both the priestly materials and the Holiness texts have pre-exilic origins, and that H assumes earlier P traditions (reversing the assumed sequence of earlier source critics).18 Perhaps less conventionally, I do not assume the Holiness texts comprised a pre-existing document, which was later edited into our final form of Genesis. Rather, I propose that the Holiness editor has composed portions of Genesis as new material and edited the whole. So, for example, Gen. 1:1-2:3 and the tôlĕdôt structuring clauses (“the descendants of…”) may be explained as the Holiness redactor’s way of introducing and tying together the authoritative and long-revered Yahwistic traditions together with the equally authoritative but more recent priestly materials. The result is a unified whole. The precise details of this approach and its implications are topics I hope to pursue in future research.

The final source, the Joseph narrative in Gen. 37-50, or more particularly the Joseph Novel (Gen. 37, 39-45, and portions of 46-47), had a different editorial history. While earlier source critics sought J and P origins behind the current Joseph Novel, that search has rightly been abandoned. The Novel is now seen as having an independent history, although its sources are now largely unreconstructable.19 It has been adapted for use in Genesis, and its final portions were interspersed with the editor’s additions using traditional materials from the J and P sources in Gen. 46-50. Thus Genesis is a carefully structured composite text of ancient Yahwistic and priestly materials, edited and joined together by a redactor of the Holiness tradition, who also incorporated a Joseph Novel near the conclusion.20 We may continue to use the sigla J (or JE) and P to maintain continuity with the history of scholarship although the definitions and criteria for these sources can no longer be maintained as used in the classical Graf-Wellhausen model.

The process of composition of the book of Genesis, using these various sources and traditions of ancient Israel may be compared to the composition of the Gospels of the New Testament.21 As the gospel authors collected the narratives and teachings of Jesus, combining both written and oral sources, producing “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4), so a final redactor has done for ancient Israel’s traditions devoted to origins – primeval and ancestral.22 I propose the final edition of Genesis is the result of a similar process by an editor of the Holiness school of pre-exilic Israel, who combined and organized these various materials into a continuous and meaningful whole.


1 Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (The New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 12-18, excerpted and adapted here.

2 For bibliography of their works and those of the scholars mentioned in the next note, see Bill T. Arnold, “Pentateuchal Criticism, History of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), 622-31, esp. 622-26.

3 Form-critical investigation, pioneered by Hermann Gunkel and Hugo Gressmann, and tradition-historical research led first and foremost by Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth dominated much of the early twentieth century.

4 This development is often traced to James Muilenburg’s 1968 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, published as “Form Criticism and Beyond,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88(1969): 1-18. This assumption is simplistic since his paper did not launch a new movement, but it has become symbolic nonetheless. Also, although not precisely correct, we may include the rise of so-called canonical criticism in this category, often associated with Brevard S. Childs and James A. Sanders, although the former resisted such a categorization.

5 David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 12-13; and cf. Kirsten Nielsen, "Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible," in Congress Volume, Oslo 1998, eds. André Lemaire and Magne Sæbø (VTSup 80; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 17-31. And on the rapprochement between diachronic and synchronic studies more generally, see in addition to David Carr, John Barton, “Intertextuality and the ‘Final Form’ of the Text,” in Congress Volume, Oslo 1998, eds. André Lemaire and Magne Sæbø (VTSup 80; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 33-37; and Daniel B. Mathewson, “A Critical Binarism: Source Criticism and Deconstructive Criticism,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (2002): 3-28.

6 Noted by a number of scholars for over a century, and conveniently summarized by Carr, to whom I am indebted for this discussion (Reading the Fractures [1996]: 15).

7 Of course, the present Hebrew text of Genesis contains many late features, which likely have little to do with the actual time of composition. For discussion of the origins of Biblical Hebrew, how it evolved over time, and the promises and pitfalls of using these data for dating biblical texts, see Jens B. Kofoed, Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 113-63.

8 By “literary style,” I mean much more than mere lexical or syntactical preferences, but a register of set phrases in a rhythmic-verbal style characteristic of the classical strata of Biblical Hebrew narrative and shared with ancient Semitic epic poetry. This style is most prevalent in the Abraham and Jacob narratives. See Frank H. Polak, “Linguistic and Stylistic Aspects of Epic Formulae in Ancient Semitic Poetry and Biblical Narrative,” in Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives, eds. Steven E. Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz (PIAS 1; Winona Lake, Ind./Jerusalem: Eisenbrauns/Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006), 285-304, and the bibliography there.

9 For arguments in favor of an exilic date based on Mesopotamian and Greek parallels, see John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). For opposite conclusions based on some of the same parallels, see Moshe Weinfeld, The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites (Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies 3; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 1-21. The view that the matrix for Israelite history writing, including J, was the literary tradition found in the Northwest Semitic inscriptions of the ninth-seventh centuries BCE has much to commend it, see John A. Emerton, "The Date of the Yahwist," in In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. John Day (JSOTSup 406; London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 107-29, and John A. Emerton, "The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel and Ancient Hebrew History Writing," in Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting, eds. S. E. Fassberg and A. Hurvitz (2006), 33-49.

10 Robert B. Coote and David R. Ord, The Bible's First History: From Eden to the Court of David with the Yahwist (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989). Coote and Ord assume that J is an exemplar of what anthropologists term the "great tradition," literature developed in and for an urban context at the courts and chapels of ancient monarchs. The nomadic pastoralists that appear in Genesis were, in this scenario, the powerful Bedouin sheikhs of David's day, who banded with him in his rise to power. See also George Mendenhall, "The Nature and Purpose of the Abraham Narratives," in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, eds. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Paul D. Hanson, and S. D. McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 337-57 who argues that David’s monarchy was legitimized by replacing the common eponymous ancestor Jacob with Abraham in an attempt to bring together the urban Canaanite population and the village Yahwists.

11 Richard E. Friedman, The Hidden Book in the Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), esp. 3-56.

12 Sean McEvenue, “The Elohist at Work,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 96 (1984): 315-32; Jean L. Ska, “Gn 22, 1-19: Essai sur les niveaus de lecture,” Biblica 69 (1988): 324-37.

13 D. M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis (1996), 36-37.

14 Marc Vervenne, "Genesis 1,1-2,4: The Compositional Texture of the Priestly Overture to the Pentateuch," in Studies in the Book of Genesis: Literature, Redaction and History, ed. André Wénin (BETL 155; Leuven/Sterling, Va.: Leuven University Press/Uitgeverij Peeters, 2001), 35-79, esp. 37-38.

15 Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 293-325.

16 See the objections of J. A. Emerton, “The Priestly Writer in Genesis,” Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988): 381-400; Klaus Koch, “P -- kein Redaktor! Erinnerung an zwei Eckdaten der Quellenscheidung,” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 446-61; B. Renaud, “Les généalogies et la structure de l’histoire sacerdotale dans le Livre de la Genése,” Revue Biblique 97 (1990): 5-30.

17 See the many works of Avi Hurvitz on this topic, e.g., Avi Hurvitz, “Once Again: The Linguistic Profile of the Priestly Material in the Pentateuch and its Historical Age: A Response to J. Blenkinsopp,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 112 (2000): 180-191, and for convenient recent survey of other relevant literature, see Ronald S. Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 109-17. For decades, many Jewish scholars have argued that P antedates the book of Deuteronomy and is therefore pre-exilic, although Christian scholarship has typically followed the Wellhausenian approach that P is post-exilic; for discussion and bibliography, see Moshe Weinfeld, The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel (VTSup 100; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004). Weinfeld especially argues that the distinctive themes of P are due to its origins in the sanctuary and priesthood, not to its late origins in the postexilic period (80-81), and further that D originated either among the common people (79), or among the royal court (81). Zevit proposes a date in the late tenth century BCE; Ziony Zevit, “Philology, Archaeology, and a Terminus a Quo for P's hatta't Legislation,” in Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom, eds. David P. Wright, David N. Freedman, and Avi Hurvitz (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 29-38.

18 On the priority of P to H, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3A; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1319-67; and Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

19 D. M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis (1996):283-89.

20 As I have stated, these are my “assumptions,” based on the exegesis I have done in the commentary proper. At this moment in the discipline, another view is gaining favor, which takes P as the first overarching history of early Israel, assuming a postexilic Priestly author used a collection of “non-P” materials (those formerly attributed to J) to create the master narrative of the Pentateuch; see the editors’ introduction in Thomas B. Dozeman and Konrad Schmid, eds., A Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation (SBLSymS 34; Boston: Brill, 2006), 1-7, and the other essays there. These scholars are establishing a new series of questions for investigation, but so far their solutions lack explanatory power. Others have argued for an exilic Yahwistic editor of the whole Pentateuch, a theory that raises more difficulties than it settles; Christoph Levin, “The Yahwist: The Earliest Editor in the Pentateuch,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126/2 (2007): 209-30.

21 For this comparison, see John E. Hartley, Genesis (NIBCOT 1; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 16-17.

22 Of course, my approach spurns entirely the recent attempt to deny anything like editions of literary works in antiquity, including the role of editors and redactors; John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2006).