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

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 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 (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.

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, 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!

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

  1. Paul Osborne says:

    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

  2. Steven DiMattei says:

    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.

    Cheers,

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