The Priestly Writer


UPDATE: Since I’ve written this post several years ago, I have published a book whose 2nd chapter is devoted to the Priestly source—its composition, author, and themes. Chapter 2 of Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate discusses these topics:

  1. The Redaction of the Priestly Scroll
  2. The Priestly Source as It Now Stands
  3. Style, Vocabulary, and Message
  4. The Seven-Day Creation Account and the Rest of the Priestly Source: Stylistic and Thematic Parallels
  5. Creation and the Cult
  6. The Sacrificial Institution
  7. The Aaronid Priesthood
  8. “Yahweh’s” Pro-Aaronid Legislation and Eternal Laws
  9. Sacred Space
  10. The Pure and the Impure: A Priest’s Worldview
  11. A World without Satan, Demons, or Evil
  12. The Priestly Writer’s Covenants
  13. The “Divine” Punishment of Karet
  14. “He Shall be Put to Death!”

My original post here was an earlier draft focusing on only a few of these topics. I would strongly encourage looking at chapter 2 of my Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate for a thorough analysis and understanding of this text, its author, and his beliefs and worldview. Thanks for your support.

Literary Scope of the Priestly Source

The Priestly literature, which most likely once existed as an individual scroll, now makes up the largest portion of the Pentateuch and is by far the most represented of the four Pentateuchal sources. It is the Priestly source that provides the main voice and interpretive framework for the first four books of the Torah. Its creation account not only opens the book of Genesis (#1), but its formulaic inserts of genealogies, dates, land settlements, and marriage records provide a chronological framework to the JE material throughout Genesis and into the book of Exodus. It is in Exodus, however, that we first encounter large blocks of Priestly material. Exodus chapters 25-31 and 35-40 are entirely from the Priestly writer. All of the book of Leviticus is likewise from the Priestly pen,1 and approximately 75% of the book of Numbers as well. In fact, excluding Exodus 32-34, which is a compilation of JE material (see #155-160), the literature spanning Exodus 25:1 to Numbers 10:28, including the entire book of Leviticus, is all from P. In other words, a total of 50 consecutive chapters of Priestly material now occupy the central position of the Pentateuch, and the following texts make up an additional 70% of Priestly material. Excluding the book of Deuteronomy which was amended to the PJE text at a later period, the Priestly source makes up 55% of the first four books of the Pentateuch! If we break this down by book, 20% of the book of Genesis is from P, 50% of Exodus from P, 100% of Leviticus is P; and 75% of the book of Numbers was written by P. Its presence is more than twice the size of any one individual source! Approximately 17% of the Pentateuch is from the Elohist source; 18% was written by the Deuteronomist, 20% by the Yahwist, and a whopping 45% percent of the Pentateuch comes from the Priestly writer. Yet ironically, at least for modern readers, the Priestly literature and its author’s aims and theology are the least known of the Pentateuchal sources.

One of the reasons why the Priestly literature is not known to its modern readers is because of its meager appearance in the book of Genesis, which is the book of the Pentateuch that receives the most attention from modern readers. Even though Genesis opens with the Priestly writer’s creation account, which does make a formidable impression, this writer’s central concern with ritual and the cult is barely perceptible in the limited context of his creation account. This is compounded by the fact that the Priestly creation account is often read separately and divorced from the rest of the Priestly corpus. This, as we shall see, is a mistake. Additionally, the Priestly writer’s presence in the rest of Genesis 1-11 is quite limited as well: a genealogy from Adam to Noah (#7), a flood narrative emphasizing God’s covenantal relationship to all living beings (#14-18), and the dispersion and genealogy of Noah’s sons after the flood (#22). From these meager appearances it is clear that P has a vested concern in genealogies, dates, and covenants. Concerning the rest of the book of Genesis, the places were the Priestly writer felt that the JE text needed further commentary or direction are limited to: the covenant with Abraham and his seed (Gen 17), the purchase of a burial plot of land as a possession to Abraham and his seed (Gen 23), and in general further notices on genealogies, dates, and settlement and marriage  records.2 We will explore below how and why these issues are of interest to the Priestly writer, especially as a vehicle for imposing a new interpretive framework to the JE material. Perhaps the most visible of the Priestly writer’s structural and theological aims that he imposes onto the JE material in Genesis is his covenantal promise texts. These passages include: the covenantal promise to possess the land established with Abraham and his seed (Gen 17:1-14 [#28]); the transference of this covenantal blessing to Issac (28:1-5 [#40]); its transference to Jacob (Gen 35:9-15 [#46-47]); and finally the transference of this covenantal blessing to include Joseph’s two sons (Gen 48:3-7 [#78-79]). All these P passages display similar themes and features: El Shaddai, or Yahweh as El Shaddai, is the deity who (re)establishes this covenant in all of these passages; the Priestly refrain “be fruitful and multiply” is visibly articulated, as well as the promises of land and nationhood. Although this covenantal promise of land is of utmost importance to the Priestly writer, the Priestly writer’s main concern—the sacrificial cult and the Aaronid priesthood—is barley perceivable in these limited Priestly inserts in the book of Genesis.

The book of Exodus, on the other hand, starts to present a fuller picture of the Priestly writer’s agenda. The Priestly insert now found at Exodus 1:7 harkens back to the Priestly blessing in the opening creation account of the book of Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.” Here we are informed that that blessing has come to pass and that there has been a marked transition from the seventy male persons, the children of Jacob, that came down to Egypt to the over 600,000 males that embark on the exodus from Egypt. But the most significant additions to the JE material that the Priestly writer makes in the book of Exodus are: Yahweh’s revelation for the first time in human history to Moses in Egypt, which specifies that the deity has remembered—a Priestly favorite—his covenant with Abraham and his seed (Ex 6:2-8); a heightened significance of Aaron’s importance, even above that of Moses, throughout the plague and exodus narratives. For example, it is Aaron who now performs the miraculous signs (#194-199). Again, we will explore why the Priestly writer has changed these narrative details below. Continuing, Exodus 12 introduces the first cultic legislation of the Priestly writer, here presenting the stipulations for the observance of Passover. The Priestly writer was also compelled to rewrite the passage of the Reed sea event (#204-205), and the manna episode. But by far, the largest additions to the JE material was the instructions for building the tabernacle (Ex 25-31) and its construction (Ex 35-40), which introduces us to the cultic and scrifical institutions of the Aaronid guild and to the Aaronid priesthood itself who were consecrated as its sole officiating priests. It is here, the establishment of the institution of the cult and its priesthood, that the Priestly writer’s main agenda comes into greater focus. Creation, covenant, and cult are all brought together here (#1). The tabernacle, symbolic for the temple itself, is erected on the New Years day and the keeping of sacrificial and other ritual demands was intimately connected with the keeping of the goodness inherent in the created world as well as safeguarding the covenantal promises that God established to Abraham’s seed. These connections we will explore in greater detail through the list of forthcoming contradictions.

In large part, the Priestly writer like the Deuteronomist was interested in the latter end of the JE storyline—that is, in adding new laws and cultic legislation to the Sinai revelation. The book of Leviticus accomplishes just this; it is the core of the Priestly writer’s religious program, centered around the sacrificial cult officiated by Aaronid Priests. The opening chapters of the book of Leviticus is a priestly sacrificial guidebook writing by priests to instruct the Aaronid priesthood in the proper performance of the sacrifices. In other words, it was clearly an elitist text written for Aaronid priests only. The remainder of the legislation contained in the book of Leviticus focuses on ritual and ethical laws meant to separate the pure from the impure, clean practices and behaviors from those that were deemed unclean, and to safeguard the camp’s and the people’s holiness. The importance of ritual and ethical separation and holiness cannot be overstated. It coincides with one of the central theological tenets of the Priestly guild—namely, that Yahweh dwelt among the people. Thus all ritual and ethical impurities and uncleanliness threaten the deity’s holiness and presence in the camp. The whole sacrificial institution spearheaded by the Aaronids functioned to maintain holiness and purity within the camp where Yahweh dwelt by expiating and atoning for any ritual and ethical impurity or sin, and most importantly, preserve the holiness and ritual bounders that were established at creation (#1). In other words, the sacrificial cult preserved, and was the only means of preserving, the created order of the cosmos as God established it and intended it to be according to the Priestly writers.

The book of Numbers continues with many of these same Priestly concerns, but additionally includes: more settlement records, this time associated with the tribal organization of the camp; a census of all males over the age of twenty; and establishing a working itinerary for the scattered JE material in the larger wilderness narrative. The latter half of the book of Numbers evidences Priestly legislation of a later period in an attempt to amend previous laws now found in the book of Leviticus.

Style, Vocabulary, and Message

Like the book of Deuteronomy, the Priestly source displays a unique style, vocabulary, and theological message of its own. This is largely due to the fact that the Priestly literature was written by a single guild, a priestly school, which held fast to specific unswerving religious and cultic tenets, and had a language of its own for expressing those tenets. Since the large majority of the Priestly source started out as a private manual for the Aaronid priesthood detailing how to perform the various sacrifices and in what circumstances (Lev 1-8), its not surprising that we find an overabundance of cultic language and a style reflective of ritual formulaic expressions. At its core is its central figure, Aaron, who is mentioned 261 times in the Priestly literature. This is remarkable when we note that outside of P, Aaron is mentioned 35 time in E and only twice in D. The Priestly literature’s focus on Aaron, the Aaronid priesthood, and the sacrificial cult is even more pronounced when we compare the Priestly writer’s vocabulary with the other Pentateuchal sources. For instance, the term for sacrifice appears 82 times throughout P, while only 20 times in E, and merely a dozen times in D. The tabernacle, the central sacrificial institution, is mentioned in P over 100 times, while nothing is said of the tabernacle in D. The word “priest,” which not surprisingly gives this source its title, appears 275 times, while making a meager 7 appearances in D! This is not just a difference in terminology, but in the whole concept and purpose of religion as imagined by these two authors. The Aaronid priests of the Priestly source define religion in terms of the sacrificial cult. Furthermore, it is the Aaronid priests who are the sole mediators to Yahweh, and all sin, unintentional sins only, must be atoned through the sacrificial cult. The Deuteronomist, one the other hand, defines religion in vastly different terms. It is not equated with the cult.

Other terms appearing frequently throughout the Priestly source, while not at all or meagerly in the other Pentateuchal sources include the word “holy,” which is found 166 times in P and only 6 times in D! The term “separate,” as to separate the holy from the common appears 43 times in P and only 5 in D. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a unique Priestly expression occurring 12 times in P and no where else. “Yahweh’s glory” appears 13 times in the Pentateuch, 12 of which come from P. The term “chieftain” appears 69 times in the Pentateuch, 67 of which come from P. And the word “congregation”—a favorite of P’s—appears more than 100 times throughout the Pentateuch, all from P.3 In addition to terminology, concern for priestly matters such as blood, impurity, sexual taboos, cultic festivals, the separation between consecrated and common, distinguishing between clean and unclean foods, impure skin diseases, impure contamination, washing and hygiene, bodily emissions, the Sabbath, and the avoidance of blood and death are all concerns highlighted by our priestly authors.

The central most important element of the Priestly theology is the Tabernacle and its altar, along with the Priestly conviction that Yahweh tabernacles or dwells among the people. Thus over and over the Priestly writer is adamant to stress that on account of this very fact—namely, that God dwells among the people in his tabernacle—the people are to be holy and pure. Since God, the holy of all holiness dwells among the people, this holiness cannot be threatened or contaminated in any way. The people are to observe strict regulations of purity, both ritual and ethical purity. This is in fact the central most important message behind the book of Leviticus as a whole. The commandments and sacrificial observances are there in order to preserve the purity and holiness of the community. Thus Yahweh’s foe, to put it in these terms, is impurity and unholiness both ritually and ethically. Any individual who comes into contact with an impurity by extension puts Yahweh and his sanctuary at risk, since the deity dwells among the people. The longer the impurity is not dealt with the more this risk increases. In this Priestly conception there are no demonic forces or a Satan figure. Such ideas only emerge in later literature.

Anther expression unique to the Priestly corpus is its emphasis on eternal covenants and eternal laws. There are three eternal covenants in the Priestly literature: the covenant of circumcision with Abraham and his seed (Gen 17:1-14), the Sabbath (Ex 31:16), and the Aaronid priesthood (Num 25:10-13). Conversely, there is no recognition of the Deuteronomic covenant nor the Sinai covenant in the Priestly literature! Most notable are P’s “eternal laws,” which again accentuate this priestly guild’s cultic concerns. The observance of Passover and the festivals of Unleavened bread  and Booths are decreed as eternal laws (Ex 12:14, 17; Lev 23:14, 41). The Aronid priesthood itself is an eternal law (Ex 29:9; 40:15; Lev 6:15), as well as these cultic elements: the daily lamp that must be kept lite by the Aaronid priests (Ex 27:21; Lev 24:4), the Aaronid priesthood’s portion of the sacrifices (Ex 29:28; Lev 6:11; 7:34; 10:15; 24:9), the washing of the Aaronid priests as they enter the tabernacle (Ex 30:21), the prohibition of beer and wine for Aaronids before entering Yahweh’s presence (Lev 10:9). In addition to these eternal laws, there are also the following: all fat is not to be consumed; it is Yahweh’s (Lev 3:17); and the observance of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29, 31), and the prohibition against sacrifices made in the open field (Lev 17:7) are all decreed as eternal laws from the mouth of Yahweh himself. In other words, the whole care for and legitimation of the Aaronid priesthood and the sacrificial cult is repeatedly highlighted throughout the Priestly source.

Another feature and expression unique to the Priestly corpus is its stern decree “to cut off” individuals guilty of particular offensives. These are all presented as divine condemnations. The neglect and non-observance of anyone of the following leads to being “cut off” from the community, and presumably also the land: circumcision (Gen 17:14); the festival of Unleavened bread (Ex 12:15, 19); Passover (Num 9:13); the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29, 40); Sabbath violations (Ex 31:14); contact with the dead (Num 19:13, 20); bootlegging holy oil or incense (Ex 30:33, 38); eating a sacrificial meal in a state of impurity (Lev 7:20, 21); eating fat or blood (Lev 7:25, 27), slaughtering or sacrificing outside the temple (Lev 17:4, 9); a blemished priest near the temple (Lev 22:3); various sexual offences (Lev 18:29; 20:17-18); necromancy (Lev 20:6); child sacrifice (Lev 20:2-5); and any intentional sin (Num 15:30-31).

As is apparent from this brief summary of expressions, the Priestly source rightly merits the title given to it by academics.



  1. Scholars now recognize a separate layer within the Priestly source itself, and this separate layer has come to be identified as the Holiness code (H)—Leviticus 17-27. Since this literature was also written by the Aaronid guild, and expresses many of the same ritual, ethical, and theological tenets as the main body of Priestly literature, I have decided to treat them together under the Priestly literature as awhole. That said, there are however a few contradictions between H and P that will be addressed.
  2. David Carr’s work on the book of Genesis is invaluable in these respects. I am indebted to him for clearly displaying these Priestly structural and thematic elements throughout Genesis. See his Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Westminster 1996), 78-113.
  3. See Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, 9.

5 thoughts on “The Priestly Writer

  1. @ Sid Knowles – I’ve been a subscriber to Steve’s regular biblical contradictions for the past two-three years, and I can’t begin to imagine how much time and effort this man has put into providing this service. Personally, I rarely comment on what I read – perhaps I should, as sometimes the producer of good work needs to know that someone is out there who appreciates it.

    I bookmark a lot of his pages and reread them from time to time. His work on the JEDP sources have been invaluable to my own work.

  2. Perhaps there’s a lot more readers than commenters. I agree that this is a special resource on the Web and hope that it continues to get more attention.

    Part of the issue is that I think most potential readers will need to see a specific article that grabs their attention before they keep coming back. I found a lot of the early articles from Genesis/Exodus to be keenly interesting, but I think it has to be admitted that the rest of the Pentateuch is overall the driest material in the Bible, and so the contradictions have often been likewise dry (e.g. details of sacrificial and festival arrangements).

    I expect that once Dr. DiMattei gets past Deuteronomy, we will see attention-grabbing subjects that may draw in more readers. And if he perseveres with his mission until he reaches the New Testament, then obviously there will be a whole cache of material to mine which will give rise to articles that are of interest to modern-day Christians.

  3. It’s disappointing to see that it appears that there is little interest in you site. I have read your article on the Deuteronomist many times. I am very interested in the topic and your article is one of the best I have seen.

  4. Your website is very well written and an eye opener tome. Through it one is able to begin to make sense of the disjointedness of a large portion of the old testament.

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