The Yahwist

The textual tradition known as the Yahwist (J) was so named by academics because of its consistent and unequivocal use of the god of Israel’s name, Yahweh.1 Even though the divine name appears approximately 1,800 times in the Pentateuch alone, the other Pentateuchal sources (Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly) restrain from using it prior to its revelation to Moses in Exodus: at 3:14-15 in the Elohist tradition and at 6:2-8 in the Priestly tradition. Only the Yahwist text, in other words, affirms and acknowledges—in contradiction to the claims of the later Priestly source (#11)—that the name Yahweh was known to and frequently invoked by the patriarchs prior to its revelation. Indeed, it is for this reason that the Yahwist tradition does not narrate a revelation of the divine name. According to this tradition, it was known right from the first generation of mortals (Gen 4:26). This is merely one of dozens of Yahwistic features that will be opposed and negated by later writers, and in so doing leave behind numerous contradictions in the Bible as it now stands.

The Yahwist text opens, in what is now Genesis 2:4b, with a mythic tale of man’s creation from the dust of the earth—not the cosmos’ creation as in P (#1)—and his placement in and later expulsion from a lush and fertile garden. Not incoincidentally, the Yahwist source ends with stories about the spying and future conquest of a lush and fertile land, bearing fruit and “flowing with milk and honey” (Num 13:27)—namely, the land of the southern kingdom of Judah. In other words, the majority of the stories told by the Yahwist focus on Judah, its geography, its political relationships with its ethnic neighbors, its important cultic centers, and its ancestral heroes. It is for this reason that scholars accredit the composition of the Yahwist text to southern Judean scribes. As we will see, many of these stories were written down by the Yahwist to serve a specific purpose: to legitimate and endorse the political and ideological views of the southern kingdom. The Yahwist additionally narrates stories about man’s primeval beginnings as a series of increasingly violent and disobedient acts (Gen 3-11), however now placed within a later Priestly interpretive framework that attempts to diminish and amend the Yahwist’s rather disappointing view of early humanity (chapter 3). Stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which were also heavily commented on by insertions made into the narrative by a later Priestly tradition are also found in the Yahwist source. A few of these stories are now also combined with duplicate stories from the Elohist tradition, which makes its first appearance at Genesis 20, thus providing yet another voice in this now polyphonic redacted text we call the Bible. The Yahwist textual tradition continues into the book of Exodus but quickly disappears and gives way to the much stronger presence of the Elohist and Priestly sources. Finally, the book of Numbers preserves a few stories from the Yahwist tradition that center on the spying of the land of Judah and the conquest of Transjordan—again heavily amended and commented on by later Priestly inserts and variant traditions from the Elohist source.

The Yahwist text itself is most likely a compilation of stories, traditions, and archival material that was shaped into a continuous narrative by a southern Judean scribe or scribes. It is difficult to say when these traditions and stories were shaped into the larger narrative we call the Yahwist, but it could not have been earlier than the 8th century BC. Many of the Yahwist’s stories display knowledge of the geopolitical world as it was in the 9th-8th centuries BC. The final form of the Yahwist text was probably fixed sometime in the 7th century BC and continued to be revised into the exilic and post-exilic periods (6th-5th centuries BC). We must bear in mind that ancient texts are products of their historical circumstances. Stories were written down to preserve tradition, define identity and/or nationality, and explain present religious and political institutions and beliefs by tracing them back to their ancestors. Much of the ancient literature that makes up what later tradition has come to understand and interpret as “the Bible,” had its roots in the scribal activity of the royal courts and temple precincts of the late monarchal (late 8th century and 7th century BC), exilic (598-539 BC), and post-exilic periods. As such it was literature that was never produced for dissemination to the public. In fact there was no such thing as a public readership; it did not exist! Rather, religious and political texts were written to support or legitimate the beliefs or worldviews of its author and its community to other elites and powerful political figures, or to condemn and illegitimate the position of others, as we will see.

In the majority of cases, scribes wrote for a scribal guild or a monarch. As patrons of their kings, one of the responsibilities of the court scribe was to write political propaganda—that is literature that advertised, endorsed, and legitimated the king’s policies and even his ascension to the throne if need be. The Yahwist is no exception to these literary aims. Many of the stories and traditions that were shaped by the Yahwist were used to serve his political agenda. There are stories, for example, that legitimate Israel’s borders as they were in the 9th-8th centuries, or Israel’s possession of certain towns and cultic centers in the 9th-8th centuries, or again Israel’s relationships with its ethnic neighbors as they were in the 9th through 8th centuries BC. This type of political legitimation was done through narratives about ancestors who eponymously stood for ethnic peoples and tribes, such as Ishmael for the Ishmaelites of the Negeb, or Esau for the people of Edom, or then again Judah for the southern kingdom by the same name. In fact, many of the patriarchal narratives in the Yahwist tradition were crafted to legitimate either the possession of a border town, supremacy over an ethnic neighbor, or the reign of the tribe Judah in the south over and against other tribal claimants. So for example, the Yahwist legitimates the tribe of Judah’s ascension to power in the south by presenting ancient narratives that disqualify, for one reason or another, Judah’s older brothers: Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (Gen 34:25-30, 35:21-22, 49:3-7). In fact, one of the central themes of the Yahwist is the undermining of the firstborn son’s birthright. What could possibly be the political agenda of such narratives? Anyone familiar with the narrative legitimating David’s ascension to the northern throne over and against Saul’s own sons in 2 Samuel 2-5, or Solomon’s ascension to the throne of a united Israel over and against his older brothers in 1 Kings 1-2 should recognize the literary procedure here. How do you legitimate and support a new king who has usurped his older brother(s) in gaining the throne? As a loyal patron on the king’s payroll, you write a narrative that 1) disqualifies the older brothers on moral or religious grounds, and 2) legitimates the ascension to the throne of the younger by constructing a theological narrative that has Israel’s god, Yahweh, chose the younger brother over the older. Baruch Halpern has written extensively about this common scribal technique found throughout the ancient Near East.2 Similarly, the Yahwist’s interest falls on the succession and inheritance of the patriarchal blessings. But more than that, the Yahwist narrative was written to legitimate (through archaized stories) the inheritance of Judah as the political and religious ruler of the southern kingdom, and to endorse her policies and points of view.

  1. The divine name for Israel’s god, Yahweh (transliterated as yhwh), is rendered in the majority of English translations as LORD. This practice, which is misleading as well as misrepresentative of the Hebrew text, follows a late Judaic oral practice of substituting the Hebrew adonai (lord) for yhwh in the reading of the Torah, since later Judaism—centuries after these texts were actually composed—conceived the name as sacred and unspeakable. Modern translation practices have regrettably chosen to follow this later oral tradition rather than the actual Hebrew text! Here, we will be as honest to the Hebrew texts as possible. Thus everywhere your English translation has LORD in small caps, the Hebrew manuscript has Yahweh, or more precisely yhwh.
  2. Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Eerdmans 2001). “The most common technique for justifying the seizure of power is to admit to usurpation, but then explain that a god elected a new king because one’s predecessors were weak, sinful, or corrupt” (102).

4 Responses to The Yahwist

  1. a believer in christ says:

    hello. where I am currently residing, I live with,a great man and friend who is a yawist. we have conversations in which he is way more educated in the old testament than I am. I myself who is a born again gentile in the lord jesus christ. my question is by your website’s outline of your movent should I consider this yawist man a fellow brother of the faith of christ jesus aka a”christian” or someother belief system? forgive if am ignorant of your message but what I gathered from the above description of a yahist is nothing more than,a old testament scribe or a christian Pharisee? please forgive if iam not very versed. god bless.

  2. Debra says:

    I am wondering the same as above commenter.

  3. Sivan says:

    I’m not the author of this article, so I can’t speak for him/her, but as a biblical scholar and as someone who just read the above article closely, I can say this in response to the two questions above: The argument made here (and elsewhere) is that the Yahwist was a scribe living and writing around the time of King David’s reign, and likely living in his court. As such, he or she would have been Jewish. Most biblical scholars agree that the Yahwist was writing (and that the entirety of the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible, for that matter, was written and redacted) before the birth of Christ, let alone Christianity.

  4. Indeed, thanks Sivan, and welcome. I likewise thought this was pretty self-explanatory from the post.

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