For nearly three centuries now, scholars and critical readers of the book of Genesis have acknowledged that Genesis is a composite text (See How the Torah was Discovered to be a Collection of Competing Traditions). That is in its present form the Hebrew text, both on linguistic and thematic grounds reveals that it was composed of different, and often competing, textual traditions. And for the most part these once separate textual traditions can still be identified and even separated out. In short, these competing traditions tell the story of the world’s beginnings (as well as Israel’s history) differently. And these differences were mostly shaped by different cultural perspectives, worldviews, and even ideologies.
For instance, the Yahwist’s primeval history is a story of increasing disobedience, violence, and corruption. It starts with an etiological tale (Gen 2:4b-3:24) recounting how and why man has fallen from the presence of his god, specifically identified as Yahweh, and is consigned to toil a ground that has now become cursed to him, namely on account of his desire to follow his own will. We are then introduced to a story of fratricide, perpetrated by the first human brothers (4:1-16), a mythic tale describing the corruption of mortal women by the sons of the gods (6:1-4), and the increasing violence and corruption of mortals in general due to their inherent “evil inclination” (6:5-7). This sad state of affairs becomes the catalyst for the flood, which actually solves nothing since the end of J’s flood narrative states that mankind still inclines his heart toward evil (8:21). We then hear of a story relating how the Canaanites have become cursed (9:18-27), how the mighty Babylonian empire emerged from Nimrod, a fierce warrior and hunter (10:8-12), and finally how the peoples were dispersed and given different languages due to their hubristic enterprise of building monuments that vaunted their names to the heavens (11:1-9)—in short, not a flattering portrait of nascent humanity.
As modern readers of this ancient tale, we should pause, acknowledge this author’s message, and attempt to understand it against his cultural context. For what ever reasons, this author and his cultural had a pretty negative impression of mankind—prone to violence, disobedience, and strife. This is how our author viewed mankind of his day and he retrojected his perception of man back into the story of mankind’s archaic beginnings.
The Priestly version of the world’s primeval beginnings is vastly different. It starts with a creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3) that rather affirms the goodness of the created order as well as the inherent goodness of mankind. In fact mankind, male and female, is created in God’s image; mankind is portrayed as God’s representative (re-presentation in image and likeness) on earth. Additionally, God bestows blessings upon the primordial pair and establishes a holy day. These are not coincidental details to our Priestly writer, as we shall see. This creation account is immediately followed by the Priestly writer’s genealogy from Adam to Noah (Gen 5:1-32) which emphasizes, in drastically contradictory terms to the Yahwist’s genealogy of increased violence, how the creation of humanity’s earliest generations all proceed from the original creation in “likeness and image.” This genealogy terminates in the Priestly version of the flood, which, although picking up the theme of the corruption of all flesh on earth, significantly downplays the Yahwist’s emphasis on man’s inherit sinful nature. After the flood, the Priestly writer records God’s first covenant with his creation, and another genealogy explaining the origin of man’s diverse languages, contrary to the Yahwist, as a natural genealogical process (Gen 10:1-7, 20, 31-32).
If one were to read these two texts separately, as they once existed, J’s and P’s unique features and emphases would be more easily discernable. As it happens, however, these two texts were redacted together by later scribes, most likely in an effort to preserve both of these textual traditions. It is important to keep in mind that these accounts are not historical, nor even imagined to be historical by our writers. They are narratives whose purpose was to explain the origins and identity of a people as perceived through the writer’s own worldview or the particular elitist guild to which he belonged. Originally the Priestly writer, disagreeing with the earlier Yahwist version or finding that it did not suit his purposes or accord with his perception of the world, took upon him to “re-write” and most likely replace (!) this version of primeval history and craft a new one that better reflected his own theological agenda, and the needs and concerns of the audience to which his text was originally addressed. At a later point in time, this Priestly version, which was written to replace the early Yahwist text, was nevertheless inserted into the Yahwist text by a redactor. In other words, in a later interpretive endeavor to safeguard both traditions, a redactor strategically inserted the Priestly version into the Yahwist text. This in and of itself reorients the Yahwist text towards the more optimistic tenor of the Priestly writer’s account. The following contradictions that will be posted are the points of convergence where this new PJ text came into conflict with each other.
Addition: See my recently added 14-post series Genesis’ Two Creation Accounts for a detailed comparison between the Yahwist creation account (Gen 2:4b-24) and the Priestly creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3)—guaranteed to satisfy!