The Yahwist

The textual tradition know as the Yahwist (J) was so named by academics because of its consistent and unequivocal use of the god of Israel’s name, Yahweh. 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—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), and his placement within and 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 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. 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 actually 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. That is the Yahwist adopted these stories from earlier traditions and shaped them into a narrative that supported his own aims and purposes. Thus the Yahwist, as well as the Elohist, are themselves editors who collected and reused earlier traditions. The final form of the Yahwist text was probably fixed sometime in the 7th century BC and continued to be revised into the exilic period (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 world views of its author and its community to other elites and powerful political figures, or to condemn and illegitimate the position of others.

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 supported and legitimated the king’s policies and even his ascension to the throne if need be. The Yahwist is no exception to these literary tactics. 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 Negev, 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 as political propaganda 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 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 that the birthright of the firstborn son is subverted on every account. What could possibly be the political agenda of such narratives? Anyone familiar with the narratives legitimating David’s ascension to the northern throne over and against Saul’s own sons in 2 Samuel, or Solomon’s ascension to the throne of a united Israel over and against his older brothers in 1 Kings, should be able to answer this question. This is one of the purposes of ancient scribal literature. 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 which is also found in the literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Thus 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 political and religious ruler of the southern kingdom.

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