The Elohist

The Elohist source (E), so-named on account of its use of the Hebrew elohim (“god/s”) to designate the deity prior to Yahweh’s revelation to Moses in Exodus, clearly orients itself around the traditions, cultic sites, and patriarchs of the northern kingdom, and is thus accredited with the north as its place of composition. E’s date of composition has variously been assigned to the 9th century BC reign of Jeroboam, as a counter narrative to the pro-Solomonic Judean narrative of J, to any time prior to the northern kingdom’s fall in 722 BC. It is the shortest in length of the Pentateuchal sources making its first appearance midway through the book of Genesis (20:1)—presenting itself as a doublet to J—and extending itself into the book of Exodus where it has its strongest showing. Both in the book of Genesis and in the book of Exodus, E is often presented as narrating the same story as J, however, with contrasting narrative details and theological emphases to those of J. These differences might be accounted for by similar traditions being absorbed and modified in different geographical and political contexts, and the varying historical circumstances of its audiences. Or, as a growing number of recent scholars contend, E was added to J in a manner to supplement the J narrative, in an attempt to reinterpret and moralize the J narrative, especially with respect to J’s characterization of Jacob as a trickster and usurper. Of course, there are passages were E does not double J at all. These include E’s stories about the origins of northern cultic centers such as Bethel and Shechem, E’s plague and Passover narratives, which will receive contradictory interpretive insertions by the later Priestly writer (#196-201), and E’s covenant ceremony and the giving of the law at mount Horeb—although here the Yahwist tradition does record a variant and contradictory covenant ceremony, but at Sinai and with a completely different set of Ten Commandments (#57-59)! Contrary to the Yahwist, the climatic event in the narrative of the Elohist is the Moses story. In fact, the Elohist’s primary hero is Moses, and this may account for the fact that the Elohist was most likely written by Levites or at least scribes sympathetic to Levite concerns. This is brought out in episodes like the golden calf narrative.

The north had particular cultic practices that, although strongly condemned by the southern writers, particularly the Deuteronomist, were most likely more ancient than the Yahweh-centered cult at Jerusalem in the late 8th century BC. In the north, Yahweh was strongly identified with El and his cultic symbol, the bull (#26). Additionally, a number of E texts speak of El and/or Yahweh at Shechem, Beth-El, or with Jacob in general. In all likelihood the body of literature known as the Elohist is rather a collection of traditions from the north which had a preference for non-anthropomorphic depictions of God, prophecy and divine revelation, and a penchant for moralizing tales. Additional features of the Elohist include its emphasis on the figures Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, on prophetic traditions of the north and prophecy in general, on divine providence and dreams as the mode of divine communication, and moral propriety often portrayed through the fear-of-god motive.

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