The book of Genesis as it now stands contains two separate Abrahamic covenant passages: Genesis 15:1-18 and Genesis 17:1-14. When we examine these two passages closely we notice that each one has its own particular style, vocabulary, and theological emphasis.
For example, the version in Genesis 15 consistently uses the name Yahweh when referring to the deity, is set as an informal dialogue between Abraham and Yahweh, the conversation is focused on the issue of Abraham’s inheritance/possession (since he is childless), and Yahweh literally “cuts” a covenant via an archaic sacrificial rite that binds the deity to his covenantal promise that Abraham will have descendants and an inheritance, i.e., the land of Canaan.
The covenant passage in Genesis 17 starts anew with no acknowledgement of the previous covenant ceremony of Genesis 15. It is interested in ages, specifies that the deity is Yahweh as El Shaddai, emphasizes Abraham’s ritual purity, presents the covenant as being “established” or “put” between El Shaddai and Abraham and his desendants, the Priestly creation refrain “be fruitful and multiply” is alluded to, and the covenantal promises are now conditioned upon Abraham and his descendants observance of circumcision. We will look at some of these differences more closely below.
By now my readers ought to be able to identify some of these features. The covenant account in Genesis 15 belongs to the Yahwist tradition; while the one in Genesis 17 belongs to the Priestly source. Although a later Priestly redactor has placed these two covenant texts together as part of the same narrative, they were nevertheless once two separate accounts that belonged to two different textual traditions. Let’s explore this further.
In earlier posts, I presented the hypothesis that the later Priestly writer was actually writing a new “history” to modify, replace, or even “correct” the earlier Yahwist account. That due to his and his audience’s historical circumstances—living in exile in Babylon after the destruction of their land—a new history had to be written, one which reflected their current plight and addressed their current concerns and needs. Let’s test this hypothesis in out present case and see how it holds up. So, as a preliminary question we might ask: in what ways does the Priestly account modify, expand upon, or reorient the Yahwist version?
We might start by noticing what the Priestly writer emphasizes in his version of the Abrahamic covenant, as if he felt it was necessary to clarify or highlight themes absent or latent in the Yahwist version.
For example, the word “covenant” appears but 1 time in the Yahwist account: “Yahweh made a covenant with Abram saying: ‘I’ve given this land to your seed’” (15:18). The Priestly account, however, seems to be over anxious to highlight and stress the nature of this covenant, as if to fulfill a need to its immediate audience. The word “covenant” appears 10 times in the Priestly account in Genesis 17:1-14, and it is often stressed from El Shaddai’s mouth as “my covenant between me and you” and “my eternal covenant.” Moreover, the adjective “eternal” is used to qualify this covenant on 3 separate accounts, and each time to clarify the components of this covenant: the eternal covenant, the eternal possession of the land, and the eternal observance of circumcision. And 4 times the Priestly writer has the deity stress that this eternal covenant is between “me and you and your seed,” “through your generations.” These are not haphazard phrases and without reason. There seems to be a heightened anxiety on the part of the Priestly writer to emphasis the covenant and its eternal nature, as if he were consciously attempting to address the specific needs and concerns of his audience, who may have started doubting the covenant since indeed they were presently landless exiles living in Babylon.
If the Priestly writer has drafted his composition around the Yahwist covenant text to assuage the doubts and worries of an exilic community, then we start to see why. For the Yahwist account leaves unanswered many questions, particularly to an exilic community that has lost their land. For instance, in the Yahwist account, the covenant is depicted as an action that Yahweh does with Abraham alone. Yahweh, literally, cuts a covenant with Abraham by performing a ritualized sacrifice that binds the deity to his promise, the promise of the land of Canaan as a possession to Abraham’s seed. Yet what proof can this account muster up to lessen the fears of an exilic community whose historical circumstances has caused them to question whether or not their god will re-give them the land as a possession (see Ezekiel 33:23-29), whether or not this was actually promised by Yahweh? By referencing a story about a sacrifice that Yahweh cut with Abraham? Hardly. This account does little to abate those concerns. And frankly it was not written to that effect. P’s account however was.
In the Priestly account El Shaddai, the god of covenants, places the covenant as a ritual observance that not only Abraham must do but all his seed as well, eternally, throughout the generations. Contrary to J’s text where Yahweh is the initiator of the covenantal promises, in the Priestly account the responsibility falls on Abraham’s seed; it is they who preserve the covenant by observing the practice of circumcision! It is an empirical sign, proof, of the covenant made with all of Abraham’s descendants.
“This is my covenant that you shall observe between me and you and your seed after you: every male is to be circumcised among you. And you shall be circumcised at the flesh of your foreskin, and it will become a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:10-11). “And my covenant will become an eternal covenant in your flesh” (17:13).
As long as this is faithfully practiced, there can be no doubt that God will bring the exiles back to the land that he promised “as an eternal possession.” This seems to be what the Priestly writer is explicitly stressing.
It would seem, then, that P is much more concerned about avowing, perhaps even in the face of uncertainty, God’s eternal covenant with Abraham’s seed to possess the land. In fact the Priestly writer rewrites the episode. No longer is Yahweh required to bind the covenant through the act of a sacrifice, but it is Abraham and his descendants who need to ratify the covenant through a sacrificial act required of them: circumcision. Anyone who is not circumcised will be “cut off” from this covenantal promise (17:14).
This is a powerful narrative and speaks volumes to an exilic community currently cut off from their land. The Priestly writer seems to be saying that as sure as the exilic community upholds the observance of circumcision (Passover and Sabbath too as we will encounter in other passages), then Yahweh will return the exiles as promised. For the Priestly writer, the observance of circumcision, the Sabbath, and Passover served to preserve Israelite identity during the Babylonian exile. Upholding these ritual observances assures that the exilic community will return to their land.
I hope my readers starts to see how later writers, due to their own historical circumstances and theological convictions, rewrote earlier texts in order to have these stories speak to the concerns of their audience, and how even later editors/redactors combined these two once separate stories into a single narrative fabric. The contradictions that we are examining are merely the points of convergence between the Bible’s many, and often conflicting, textual traditions.