Understanding the book of Genesis and how to spot (and understand) its multiple authors

Disclaimer: This blog is not written from a religious/spiritual perspective. This is a scholarly/intellectual dive into the book of Genesis, and the writers that influenced it.

Genesis, like the other books of the Bible, wasn’t drafted by a single author. It’s a merger of texts from various authors, spanning across time periods and locations. What’s fascinating is that once you know these different voices, you can see them quite clearly. In fact, it can bring a lot of peace to religious individuals when they come across the many contradictions within this book and others.

The writers of Genesis can be broken down into three types and time periods: Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly (There is a fourth set of authors, although this is specifically for the book of Deuteronomy (D). This was written some time within the seventh century. Despite what many believe, it was not written by Moses – hence the third person narrative – but some believe it to be an account of his sermons drafted by second-generation Israelites).

Yahwist (J)

The oldest of the texts, the Yahwist text was written somewhere between the tenth or ninth century (900-ish b.c.e), around the reign of Solomon or within a century after. As a result, it loves making connections between God and David, further legitimizing the Davidic line’s claim to the throne. Thus, you’ll see a lot of mention of Judah (the Northern of the two kingdoms) and connecting David to Abraham.

This is the main source of the Torah, with the other writings (E, D, and P) supplementing it.

It’s named for its use of YHWH, or Jehovah, in reference to God. Translated into English, this is typically seen as “the LORD” or “the LORD God.” It’s also known for anthropomorphism (e.g., God walking with Adam in Eden).

Other characteristics include: divine promises from God and curses in retaliation for disobedience, sin painted as the impulse to be like God or the gods, and geographical references related to Judah.

Elohist (E)

The Elohist is the second-oldest, dated somewhere within the ninth or eighth century (850-ish b.c.e.). Only fragments of this text survived to enter the canonized bible. You’ll find “snippets” of it scattered throughout Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers (possibly even Judges and Joshua).

The Elohist texts refers to God as Elohim, or simply “God.” You’ll notice they paint God as set apart from man, ruling from a distance and communicating indirectly via dreams or angels. The author is suspected to have been a Levite, and writes like a theologian.

Other characteristics include: concerns with morals/ethics, geographical focus on Israel (the northern kingdom rather than the southern kingdom of Judah), portraying faith-based heroes as prophets, and reinforcing the “fear of God.”

The Elohist text was combined with the Yahwist texts some time after Israel fell in 721 b.c.e.

Priestly (P)

The Priestly texts date around the sixth or fifth century (587-539-ish b.c.e.). These writers combined J and E documents in their draft after the Babylonian exile with the intent of uniting the displaced Israelites and explaining why their God let the Babylonians overtake Israel, which was supposedly protected by God. Their narrative is that clearly they had broken their covenant with God, but provided hope in the idea that everything happened according to God’s plan, and that He would forgive them and restore that covenant if they repent and turn back.

Other characteristics include: the idea of God blessing them via “fruitfulness and multiplying”, significant social and religious roles of priests, strong focus on genealogies that connect people and events, Word of God steering the course of history, and emphasis on God’s covenants marking pivotal moments in history.

Applying This Lens to the Two Creation Stories in Genesis

There are, in fact, two creation stories, and they’re a great way to introduce yourself to the different authors and their perspectives.

The first creation story (Genesis 1-2:4) is from the Elohist text. The first and easiest way to recognize this is the way God is referenced. The texts refers to the deity as Elohim, which in most translations of the bible, is written simply as God (easy way to remember this is that they believe in a distant god, so they aren’t exactly on an almost-first-name-basis like the Yahwist writers).

In this tale, God is pretty lacking in the personality department. He’s a disembodied deity that uses his voice to command the Earth to take shape from a voidless span of water.

You’ll find that the story is written very much like an Epic. It’s very dramatic in its telling, with a distinct cadence and poetic lines like, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In this story, Elohim/God creates everything, sets man in charge and then sits back and relaxes. Notice that the seventh day is called the Sabbath. Perhaps we’re seeing a bit of editing here from the Priestly writers reinforcing the ritual of the Sabbath? We also see Priestly edits in 2:4a – “This is what became of heaven and earth when they were created.” – which is a transition line connecting this first creation story to the second creation story.

The second creation story spans Genesis 2:4-24, and it quickly switches gears. The voice changes. Immediately, you’ll notice the use of “LORD God”; LORD is in all caps, which is the English translation of YHWH.

We’re also suddenly brought into the creation of the world which starts with land, not water. Notice also how God is a more intimate player in this creation. He is not a disembodied voice commanding Earthly things to manifest. He is there, on the ground, bringing up water from the depths of the Earth and creating man from the very soil of that Earth.

This is classic anthropomorphism attributed to Yahwist writing. It continues with the creation of Eden, of Adam and animals. We have more character development here, with God showing compassion for man by creating him companions in attempt to stave his loneliness. This eventually leads to the creation of Eve.

Two Stories Joined Together by Priestly Writers

The Yahwist version of this story is actually the older of the two, but it comes after the Elohist version because the Priestly authors meticulously fashioned these stories together in a way that would connect the dots. It was no secret that the Torah they would fashion was created from multiple documents with multiple authors. What’s interesting is that the very contradictions in these stories that some use to disprove the Bible today likely served back then as a reinforcement of belief in a God shared across time and geographical location.

Understanding and seeing these nuances and how it all came together is more than just fascinating; it’s eye-opening. You begin to see various views/interpretations/iterations of the Hebrew/Jewish God and how it developed over the course of time. As a result, things make a bit more sense. We have a clearer view into the mindsets of the writers and the angle in which they write – for all of these stories were written with a specific purpose in mind (e.g., to reinforce the divine connection between God and David’s line, to explain the overall reason for God’s apparent absence in times of tragedy such as the Babylonian exile, etc.).

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