The Priestly writer’s reworking of the Yahwist material of Genesis 1-11


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!

13 thoughts on “The Priestly writer’s reworking of the Yahwist material of Genesis 1-11

    1. Hmmm… curious to how this topic got started here on this post. Anyway, to add to John’s and KW’s comment it might be stressed—John’s point #3 does this—that there is no textual support for equating Yahweh with Yam. And in fact, there are several passages that—like other ancient Near Eastern parallels (see #2)—portray Yahweh and Yam in conflict with one another, not as identical. Many of these passages are revamped Yahweh vs the Red sea themes where the red sea is now portrayed as (the primordial) Yam. So Ps 74-15 (cf. Ps 114:3; 104) portrays Yahweh conquering and dividing Yam, like Marduk does to Tiamat. Likewise, Ps 77:16-19 portrays Yam fleeing from Yahweh. And interesting, these Psalms are personifying Yam! And although not personified, Yahweh essentially also conquers Yam in the Yahwist version of the Red sea story (see #120-122) and the song of Exodus 15.

      As pointed out by both KW and John, the polemic against Baal throughout the biblical literature is there precisely because the Israelites/Canaanites worshiped interchangeably Yahweh and Baal—it was they who were perceived in “identical” terms and functions! See Smith’s book. So the polemic is there to attempt to distinguish Yahweh from Baal, and indeed to make the argument that Yahweh is far superior. Indeed, the epithet “God of gods” is employed to Yahweh in the context we’re discussing. Like Marduk who gets proclaimed “God of gods” in the Enuma elish after slaying the chaotic sea waters (Tiamat)—when no other god could or would—so too Yahweh is proclaimed the same after his “slaying” (dividing) of Yam (Ex 15:11).

  1. Hmm, that theory seems unlikely to me since Yam was not a god that was worshipped by any people as far as I’m aware. He was a primal force of chaos, set up in the myths as kind of a villain to be defeated. Glancing at Wikipedia, it seems that the “Yaw” variant of “Yam” could be a mistake based on a damaged tablet.

    One theory about YHWH is sort of the opposite of this one — that YHWH seems to have taken the place of *Baal Hadad*. The basis for this theory is various similarities in descriptions of the two gods (such as bovine and storm god imagery), which include OT verses that have YHWH battling with none other than Yam! See Psalms 74:13 and Isaiah 51:9, 10, for instance. The reason for the Bible’s well-known screeds against Baal, according to this theory, is simply because the priests were assigning aspects of Baal to YHWH, so they would also want to denigrate the original god that they were supplanting.

    Regardless of where YHWH came from, the degree of contention with worshippers of Baal could simply be due to Baal Hadad worship being the hardest to root out of Israel as the priestly class attempted to re-direct all worship to YHWH.

    As for the mentions of Asherah in the Bible, those are pretty clearly the result of this same challenge the priests faced in eliminating a competing god from the people’s habitual worship practices. See I would additionally point out that, as the wife of El (who YHWH also replaced), she could be considered the biggest threat to the newly-developed Israelite concept of a “one true god” (and maybe her worship also threatened the patriarchal system of the YHWH priesthood).

  2. Seedy3, unless there’s another text that I’m unaware of that makes the Yw-Yamm connection, you are referring to KTU 1.1 IV 14 from the Ugaritic (Ras Shamra) texts. See this link for Mark S. Smith’s translation: The link I mention above (on 7-29-15) makes reference to this passage, and I can add this one as well: Briefly, I don’t think that the connection can be proven because of these reasons, some of which I mention in the links:

    1) Yahweh appears to have his origins south of Israel, thus not in Canaan. See Judges 5, Deuteronomy 33, Habakkuk 3.
    2) The KTU text in question appears in a “damaged section of the Baal Cycle,” and thus we cannot be certain what it originally said. Even Smith, whose translation says “Yw,” doesn’t believe that “Yw” is Yahweh.
    3) There are polemics against Yamm in the Hebrew Bible’s mythology. Yahweh conquers the sea (yam) and the sea monsters: Psalm 74:13, Isaiah 51:9-10, Job 26:12 (cf. Job 7:12).

  3. After some research, there are some schools of thought that Yam and YHVH may be the same God. Yam, they say could be spelled Yaw or even Ya’a. If this is so, then it is with good reason that YHVH would rail against Baal in the bible more then any other. Being they were mortal enemies and Baal Hadad usurped Yam from the position of King of the Gods. Asherah as well was involved with the infighting between the 2 gods which may be the reason that she too is demonized in the bible.

  4. Sorry; computers again! To continue, t
    Maybe the Divine Council was assimilated into the religion of Jerusalem and developed by the priests of the city.
    Sorry about the break.

  5. Hi;
    I assume you do come back to old posts, cos that’s what I’ve just done. I read somewhere that the two stories were written after Solomon’s death, one from Judah, one from Israel. The implication was that the first story came from Israel [in the north] and the second was from Judah [in the south].
    The assumption was that the Israelite priests escaped the [Assyrian?] Exile by traveling to Jerusalem.
    What is interesting are the texts from Ugarit that refer to EL. These texts must date to before 1200 BCE since Ugarit collapsed about that time and had virtually ceased to exist by 1000BCE. They also refer to Baal, Asherah and the Divine Council.
    According to those texts, YHWH was one of the council, but after assimilation, became the God of Judah. I seem to remember that you mentioned this in another post.
    I find it peculiar that Israel could have picked the religion of Ugarit; perhaps it spread further into Canaan and was picked up by Israel, then the Divine Council was assimilated imin

  6. Good Day,

    I am trying to figure out or read about the differences between the P version and the Y version of Noah and the flood.
    The P version seems to be to the point, whereas the Y version seems to be long winded and confusing? Thanks for your time.
    Be Blessed,

  7. Hello Steven,

    I look forward to your posting of contradictions, I am hoping you will purposeful in your postings, meaning that you are going somewhere with this, even though posting contradictions could be a stated purpose, i feel it should have relevant spiritual direction instead of a flat purpose. Billions of people use the internet everyday, and of those finding your website, I pray they suffer no disillusionment as it is often the case, some people take connotations and run with them, whether or not negative or positive is the indicated purpose of those connotations. A flat purpose is still something that can easily estrange, mislead, or disillusion as our human nature is bound by sin, we are subject to mis-perceptions even the most “worldly acclaimed” spiritual of us suffer from this malady. Lets face it being nonobjective is just not something 99% of the human race is not good at, so that is a big number when it comes to espousing non purposeful assumptions and or hypotheses on the internet or wherever. I again look forward to your post, and hope for the best while it is a relevant and meaningful position you are taking, I am hoping that it will show it accentuation to be positive, although under the divine right of free will, even negative accentuation can be heard. Peace

    1. Paul,

      Thanks for the post. The purpose, as outlined in some of my earliest posts, is to educated on the compositional nature of the Bible, i.e., how it was assembled, by whom, to whom, for what purpose, etc. Studying the places where the Bible’s different textual traditions converge is an excellent way of doing that. That said, I am sensitive to the spiritual or, lack thereof in the case, aspects of this pursuit, but at present I’m more interested in the biblical text, and how it came to be, i.e., not what the biblical text says about us, if indeed it says anything at all, but what it says about itself. In the end, this is more of a historical endeavor than a spiritual one. How the historical and spiritual relate, that’s the discussion. Read some of the future contradictions, and we’ll engage again on this topic.


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