The Formation of the Pentateuch and the Primeval History Genesis 4–11

The first part of this chapter discusses how repetitions or variant discussions of the same subject matter (doublets) within the biblical text indicate that more than one writer is responsible for the authorship of the Pentateuch. The second part of the chapter focuses on Genesis 4–11 and its accounts of early human, postcreation history before Abraham. The primary goal is to expand discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis and to apply it to Genesis 4–11. This chapter also shows how the Flood narratives, like the creation myths in Genesis 1–3, borrow heavily from the antecedent Flood narratives of Israel’s Near Eastern neighbors.

History of Scholarship

The traditional view on the authorship of the Pentateuch is that Moses himself composed all five books. By the seventeenth century this view was challenged primarily on the basis that there were too many inconsistencies and repetitions within the text. The great methodological innovations for biblical interpretation came about in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although Jean Astruc agreed that Moses authored the Pentateuch, he also posited that the overall disparities between the creation narratives (including the different names of God in each) suggested that Moses was using two distinct sources when he wrote Genesis 1–3.

            The most significant contribution came from Julius Wellhausen, who, drawing on the work of many others, developed the Documentary Hypothesis as a means of sorting out the variations and repetitions present in the Pentateuch. In sum, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Pentateuch was formed by four distinct sources known as J, E, D, and P. While many aspects of Wellhausen’s work are highly problematic, the basic conclusion that there were four separate voices that contributed to the formation of the Torah became a mainstay in biblical scholarship.

            This chapter also points out some of the major critiques and adaptations of the Documentary Hypothesis. Scholars have found fault with the dating of the Pentateuchal sources and the number of distinct, identifiable sources.  Although the evidence does not fit as neatly into the classical formulation of the hypothesis as scholars at one time thought, almost all biblical scholars recognize that the repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Pentateuch are best explained by the existence of distinct sources dating to different historical periods.

            The second part of this chapter further illustrates these issues of authorship as it covers the narrative of chapters 4–11 of Genesis. Using the Documentary Hypothesis as a starting point, it is possible to see two separate sources for Genesis 4–11. The J and P sources are often presented separately, in distinct and uninterrupted blocks of text. For example, Genesis 11.1–9 is made up entirely of the J source, while 11.10–26 is exclusively P. In other places, such as the Flood narrative, J and P are blended together, demonstrating the complexities of a redactor’s work.

Primeval History

Genesis 4–11 continues the biblical account of early human history after the creation narrative. Throughout these chapters the J source presents recurring themes describing the ever-deteriorating human condition and the widening gap between the evils of the world and the golden age of Eden. These themes include a worsening relationship between humans and the soil, an increased alienation between God and humans, and the increasing evil of humanity as a whole.

            Genesis 4–11 also contains genealogies from both the J and P sources. However, J and P utilize genealogies in different ways. The J genealogies (Genesis 4 and 10) are segmented and act as a vehicle for launching into narratives about several different personalities, including Cain and Abel’s descendants.  The P genealogies are concerned with continuity, demonstrating the familial connections from Adam to Abraham. Furthermore, the P genealogies and the J material in Genesis 4–11 as a whole both seem to point to a similar conclusion: humans and life on earth in general were getting increasingly worse. P does this by showing that the life spans of the biblical figures were getting successively shorter, and presumably more corrupt, with each passing generation. 

The Flood

The account of Noah and the Flood is one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. Beyond the rather stern moral message about God’s punishment of wickedness, this passage is also a model of how the Documentary Hypothesis works. Up to this point in Genesis, the J and P sources have appeared separately, one after another. In Genesis 6.5–9.17 the two sources are interconnected and woven together. Despite these complications, J can usually be identified by its style and language, including the use of the name “Yahweh” for God and the continued use of vivid anthropomorphisms, as we saw in J’s creation story. P too is recognizable by its use of elohim instead of Yahweh as well as its descriptions of the Flood as an undoing of creation and a renewal of creation after the deluge.

Near Eastern Parallels

In addition to the complexities of the sources in Genesis 6.5–9.17, the Flood story, much like the creation accounts, shares many affinities with its Near Eastern counterparts. Stories of a great Flood were prevalent in many ancient societies, and some have questioned whether other cultures borrowed from the biblical narrative. However, dating indicates that the Babylonian epics, including Atrahasis and the pertinent sections of Gilgamesh, were earlier and undoubtedly influenced the biblical writers.

Implications for Our Study

Despite its limitations, the Documentary Hypothesis has helped open up critical discussion on the Pentateuch for both scholars and students alike. Critical methods of interpretation enable us to appreciate the inclusion of repetitions and alternative accounts within the biblical texts as a demonstration of the pluralism in ancient Israel. The ability to identify common themes and vocabulary within these sources also gives us a better understanding of their development and possible history. The first eleven chapters of Genesis retell myths of origins known from other ancient Near Eastern peoples and introduce themes that will be developed further as the narrative continues.