Genesis, Exodus, and the Composition of the Torah
Multiple Sources, One Narrative Arc
The narrative arc of Israelite history as told in the Hexateuch, the Bible’s first six books, is familiar: God chooses Abraham and brings him to the promised land. This special relationship continues with Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, and finally the children of Israel. The family ends up in Egypt during a famine, and although Jacob’s son Joseph saves Egypt, a later Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. God then sends Moses to free the people of Israel, who brings them through the wilderness, after which Joshua leads them into the Promised Land to settle it for good.
Most scholars see multiple traditions about Israel’s past and how they came to inhabit Canaan imbedded in this narrative. In one set of traditions, YHWH rescues them from Egypt. In another, he finds them in the wilderness, and in a third, he chooses Abraham and sends him to the land. Scholars understood these traditions as having existed separately in ancient times, probably in oral form. Nevertheless, these same scholars believed that the written sources of the Torah all incorporated the full narrative arc: patriarchs, exodus, wilderness, settlement—what some scholars call salvation history (Heilsgeschichte).
This idea lies at the core of the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), according to which, four independent documents, labelled J, E, P, and D, were compiled by one or more redactors, who added editorial smoothing here and there, but kept the documents more or less intact. The three main documents that make up most of the Torah—J, E, and P—all follow this narrative arc. The first to lay this out in writing was the Torah’s most ancient source, J, and from there it was adapted by E and finally P, dating probably to the early postexilic period.
The Priestly Narrative Arc: A European Model
In the last forty years, however, following the work of Rolf Rendtorff and other scholars, serious doubts have arisen concerning this model. While scholars agree that the Priestly text is clearly discernable, based on its structure and distinctive language, and that it contains the full narrative arc (ancestors to exodus, etc.), the non-Priestly text is more difficult to characterize.
One rather technical problem has to do with the difficulty of separating J from E, which is why many European scholars speak of “non-P” instead. More broadly, European scholars are increasingly doubtful whether this corpus is best described as a document containing all the major themes of the Pentateuch or the Hexateuch. Instead, a growing consensus in European scholarship contends that the non-Priestly text is better characterized as a secondary arrangement of formerly autonomous, larger literary units, thus taking up a fundamental observation of Martin Noth who highlighted the semi-autonomy of the larger “themes” of the Pentateuch, such as the ancestors and the exodus story.
The Priestly author was familiar with these units, and they probably served as the main source for the narratives in the Priestly text, the first document with the familiar narrative arc. Eventually, later editors worked the non-Priestly units into the Priestly text, adding supplementary material to make the whole more coherent, thus establishing the basic outlook of what eventually became the Torah.
Two such originally autonomous units are the non-Priestly ancestors story (Genesis) and the exodus story.
The Joseph Story: Not Really a Bridge
According to the Documentary Hypothesis, non-P composed the Joseph story (Genesis 37–50) as a bridge between the ancestor story and the exodus story. It is there to explain how the descendants of Jacob, who lived in Canaan, ended up as slaves in Egypt. Yet, the transition is neither natural nor narratively plausible.
The book of Genesis depicts Joseph serving under the pharaoh and the Israelites as a small group of nomads. Yet the same Israelites appear in the beginning of the book of Exodus as conscript laborers (a status normally reserved for prisoners of war) under a cruel Pharaoh who attempts to exploit and contain them.
This change of attitude towards the Israelites is explained in a brief transitional note:
שמות א:ו וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל אֶחָיו וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא. א:ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם. א:ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף.
Exod 1:6 Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. 1:7 But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. 1:8 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
These verses explain how and why the descendants of Joseph and his twelve brothers turned into a massive work force, building storage cities in Egypt. However, they hardly give a realistic explanation for the turn of events. Instead, it seems that these verses were written by an editor trying to connect two pre-existing, separate literary blocks: the ancestor story, which ends with Joseph, and the exodus story, beginning with Moses.
In other words, the Joseph story originally capped the account of the ancestors. In the original non-Priestly block here, the family returns to Canaan permanently with the burial of the patriarch Jacob. In fact, the return of Joseph and the brothers return to Egypt after burying Jacob appears in only one verse,
בראשית נ:יד וַיָּשָׁב יוֹסֵף מִצְרַיְמָה הוּא וְאֶחָיו וְכָל הָעֹלִים אִתּוֹ לִקְבֹּר אֶת אָבִיו אַחֲרֵי קָבְרוֹ אֶת אָבִיו.
Gen 50:14 After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
Like Exodus 1:6–8, this verse was added by the redactor, who combined the non-priestly narrative of the ancestors and the exodus story (and maybe also P), so that the Joseph story, which once functioned as the end of the ancestors account, could now serve as a bridge to the originally independent exodus account.
Promises to the Patriarchs
God’s promises to the ancestors, from creation through the patriarchs, serve as the most important points of cohesion in Genesis. In P, the literary connections between these promises and their fulfillment for Israel in Exodus are tight:
- Promise to the First Human Beings
בראשית א:כח פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ
Gen 1:28 Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth
- Promise to Noah
בראשית ט:ז וְאַתֶּם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ שִׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ וּרְבוּ בָהּ.
Gen 9:7 And you, be fruitful, and multiply; increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.
- Promise to Abraham
בראשית יז:ב וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד.
Gen 17:2 And I will multiply you exceedingly.
- The Growth of the Nation
שמות א:ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם.
Exod 1:7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
This is what we expect to see if the texts are written by the same author and are meant to have intertextual resonance. But it is not what we find in non-P. Here too, the promises to the patriarchs serve as important points of cohesion, but in this case, they bear no intertextual, literary relationship to the supposed fulfillment in Exodus:
- Promises to Abraham
בראשית יב:ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל...
Gen 12:2 I will make of you a great nation…
בראשית יג:טז וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ
Gen 13:16 I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth
- Pharaoh’s Complaint (Exodus)
שמות א:ט הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ.
Exod 1:9 Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we.
The word choice both for noun and adjective are different, which is not what we would expect had one author composed Exod 1:9 to demonstrate the fulfillment of the promises found in Genesis.
When read on their own, the promises in Genesis imply that the nation will grow out of patriarchs in the land itself. For example, God says to Abraham:
בראשית יג:יד שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה. יג:טו כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם.
Gen 13:14 Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, 13:15 for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.
The concept of Israelites having to leave the land before coming back to inherit seems alien to these texts.
Several biblical texts outside the Pentateuch also point to an original separation between the ancestors and exodus corpora.
Historical Psalms—Several psalms, sometimes called “historical psalms,” incorporate a kind of survey of Israel’s history. Most of these psalms begin their surveys with the exodus. For instance, Psalm 136 (see also Psalm 135:8–12) begins Israel’s history with the smiting of the Egyptian first born. In fact, Psalm 136 literally jumps from the creation of the world to this moment:
תהלים קלו:ט אֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְכוֹכָבִים לְמֶמְשְׁלוֹת בַּלָּיְלָה כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. קלו:י לְמַכֵּה מִצְרַיִם בִּבְכוֹרֵיהֶם כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ.
Ps 136:9 The moon and the stars to dominate the night, His steadfast love is eternal. 136:10 Who struck Egypt through their first-born, His steadfast love is eternal.
Psalm 78 contains two surveys—the first begins with the splitting of the sea (v. 13) and the second with the plague of blood (v. 44). Psalm 106 also begins with the splitting of the sea (v. 7). The absence of a reference to the ancestors in the majority of the historical psalms suggest that their inclusion in the narrative arc leading up to the exodus is secondary and unfamiliar to these authors.
Exceptional among the surveys is Psalm 105 (see v. 9), which, like Nehemiah 9 (see v. 7), begins its survey with Abraham. This likely attests to the lateness of these texts, which are already familiar with the historical arc of ancestors to exodus introduced by P.
Hosea—Hosea places Jacob and Moses (“a prophet”) in opposition to each other.
הושע יב:יג וַיִּבְרַח יַעֲקֹב שְׂדֵה אֲרָם וַיַּעֲבֹד יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאִשָּׁה וּבְאִשָּׁה שָׁמָר. יב:יד וּבְנָבִיא הֶעֱלָה יְ־הוָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם וּבְנָבִיא נִשְׁמָר.
Hos 12:13 And Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]. 12:14 But when YHWH brought Israel up from Egypt it was through a prophet; through a prophet they were guarded.
This juxtaposition suggests that the author is aware of both traditions but sees them as independent, even contrasting.
YHWH vs. El Shaddai
In short, P was faced with two independent origin stories, one now found in Genesis and the other in Exodus. When he decided to write his own work, incorporating both of these origin stories into one narrative arc, he needed to devise ways to bridge them. An important example of this type of synthesis is how P treats the revelation of the name of God.
P’s report of the call of Moses explains that God has revealed himself to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, but that now he is revealing a new name to Moses:
שמות ו:ב וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה. ו:ג וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְ־הוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
Exod 6:2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.
Why does P make this distinction? Perhaps it derives from P’s familiarity with the non-P ancestors and exodus units. The former makes use of a variety of names for God  while the latter uses YHWH almost exclusively. To create some order in this chaos, P proposes a three-step hierarchy in God’s revelation of his name in line with how P sees the proper political division world.
In the beginning of the Priestly Torah, God is always referred to by the generic name Elohim. When he speaks with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he reveals himself to them with a more specific name, El-Shaddai (Gen 17:1, 28:3, 35:11, 43:14, 48:3) that seems to be reserved for the Abrahamic peoples, i.e., the Israelites, the Ishmaelites, and the Edomites that all go back to Abraham as their ancestor. Finally, when he speaks with Moses, who will lead the Israelites out of bondage, he introduces the name YHWH. This is just one of the many ideas that P, who created the ancestors followed by exodus sequence, needed to create from scratch.
Consequences of Separating the Blocks
The redaction-historical separation of Genesis and Exodus before P has significant consequences for understanding the history of religion and theology of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast to the assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis, the older, non-Priestly Genesis and the Moses stories stood opposite each other as two competing traditions, from different theological outlooks, about the origin of Israel.
Each explained, in different ways, how Israel came to be. Genesis does this in a mainly peaceful, inclusive, and autochthonous (Israel originating from its own land) manner, while the Moses story takes a more aggressive, exclusive, and allochthonous (Israel’s origins lie in the exodus from Egypt) approach.
To be more precise, the ancestors’ narrative constructs a picture of the origin of Israel in its own land, a fact that is especially prominent in the specific formulations of the promises of the land, which do not presuppose several centuries between promise and fulfillment. At the same time, the ancestors’ story is both theologically and politically inclusive: It includes different names/manifestations of God, revelations to non-Israelites, and the Patriarchs dwell together with the inhabitants of the land and make treaties with them.
In contrast, the story of the exodus stresses Israel’s origin abroad in Egypt and presents an exclusive theological argument: YHWH is a jealous god that does not tolerate any other gods besides himself, and the Israelites shall not make peace with the inhabitants of the land.
Undoing the Exceptionalism Inherent in the Documentary Hypothesis
The Documentary Hypothesis suggested a clear discontinuity between ancient Israel and its neighbors, because it posited that Israel from its very beginnings believed in a God who acts for his people in history, in contrast to its neighboring cultures who mostly venerated cyclic processes of nature according to seasonal changes or exceptional natural events as divine.
Within the Documentary History, the inclusively structured ancestors’ story was seen as a mere prequel to the exodus story that stressed God’s unique and exclusive relationship to Israel, and Israel’s allegiance to him, instead of to a mundane empire like Egypt. The ancestor’s story was not perceived as a self-standing piece with its own importance.
But if there was no early (i.e., Solomonic) or at least monarchic (Josianic) conception of a salvation history—beginning with the creation and ending with the conquest of the land—that established God’s global rule, at least in monarchic times, Israel’s religion was probably quite comparable to those of its neighbors, like Ammon, Moab, or Edom: YHWH is in charge of Israel’s well-being, like Chemosh for Moab’s or Milqom for Ammon’s. Only starting with the exile, when P, by combining the ancestors and the exodus story, created the idea of an encompassing salvation history that differentiated Israel from the nations, Israel’s religion became an entity unto its own.
Historical reconstruction, therefore, allows us to uncover this important inner-biblical difference regarding Genesis and the Moses story, what each has to say about Israel’s origin and its relation to its land and to other nations, and how their combination laid the groundwork for the Torah as we have it today.
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Prof. Konrad Schmid is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He received his Ph.D. and his Habilitation from the University of Zurich. He is the author of Genesis and the Moses Story (2010); The Old Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012); and A Historical Theology of the Hebrew Bible (2019), and the co-editor of The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research [with Thomas B. Dozeman and Baruch J. Schwartz] (2011) and The Formation of the Pentateuch [with Jan C. Gertz, Bernard M. Levinson , and Dalit Rom-Shiloni] (2016). Since 2017, he has served as president of the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Theologie (Academic Society for Theology) and he is currently also the President of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT). In 2018, Schmid was awarded the Humboldt-Forschungspreis, and in 2019 an ERC Advanced Grant for the project How God Became a Lawgiver (www.divlaw.uzh.ch). In the fall of 2022, he served as Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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