Contradictory Stories about Jacob: Yawhist and Elohist storytellers


This post follows from a previous post on the stories of Abraham (#44—scroll down), and will serve us as a brief introduction to the duplicate stories about Jacob by the northern Elohist and the southern Yahwist that we will start to look at tomorrow. We will then look at how the later Priestly writer also modified a few of these stories and amended them to the JE compilation.

Remember stories were told, modified, and retold, and then later collected, written down, and codified as scripture. You can read more about ancient stories and storytelling in general in the post titled Stories from the North and the South.

Most of the Bible’s stories about Jacob are stories about Israel since Jacob is eponymously Israel. He is the father of Israel’s twelve tribes. The stories about Jacob can be divided into two categories: stories about him establishing important northern cultic places such as Bethel, Penuel, and Shechem; and stories that tell of his conflicts with his brother Esau and his uncle Laban. The former stories are from the north and their emphasis on these important northern cultic sanctuaries and cities have served as clues in providing scholars with knowledge about where these stories originated. They are part of the Elohist tradition. The conflict stories, on the other hand, are preserved in both the Elohist and Yahwist traditions, and like many of the Abrahamic stories they are duplicates. Variations in narrative details as well as theological emphases can be detected between the two versions.

Additionally, as we will see, the portrait of Jacob painted by each tradition is at odds with one another. The Jacob of the southern Yahwist tradition is a swindler and trickster, having no moral conscience nor concern. The Jacob of the northern Elohist tradition is pious and morally irreproachable. Certainly we will have to entertain the question as to why these two traditions painted Jacob-Israel differently. Are each of these two traditions, the norther and southern, offering a commentary about Israel through the way in which they represent Jacob?

We should also bear in mind that these conflict stories, which detail Jacob’s conflicts with Esau and Laban, are actually stories that explain Israel’s struggle for independence from and treaty with its northern foe Aram (Laban) and its southeastern kinsmen Edom (Esau). Jacob, Laban, and Esau each stand for Israel, Aram, and Edom respectively, and these stories depict, through the perspective of their authors, the geopolitical relationships that Israel shared with its ethnic neighbors, Aram and Edom, in the 9th through the 8th centuries BC. In other words, they are archaized stories shaped by the geopolitical world of the 9th and 8th centuries BC which then served to explain Israel’s 9th and 8th century BC relationships with its ethnic neighbors. This has already been pointed out in the Jacob-Esau stories (#45-48).

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