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Lisbeth S. Fried





Who Wrote the Story of Noah, and When?





APA e-journal

Lisbeth S. Fried





Who Wrote the Story of Noah, and When?








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Who Wrote the Story of Noah, and When?

Clue: Seven pairs of kosher animals are brought to the ark so that Noah can sacrifice to YHWH after the flood.


Who Wrote the Story of Noah, and When?

Noah's Sacrifice, James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum.

The Torah’s story of Noah and the flood is a result of two different accounts by two separate authors which were later woven together.[1] The two authors differ on not only how they refer to God—YHWH in the J text and Elohim in the P or Priestly text—but in many other details, such as the origin of the flood waters and how long the flood lasted.[2]

A further example of the differences between the stories concerns how many animals were brought on the boat. On the surface, this may seem trivial, but it highlights a major conceptual difference between these two sources.

Does Noah Sacrifice After the Flood?

In the Priestly text, God commands Noah to bring only two of each species of animal onto the ark:

בראשית ו:יט וּמִכָּל הָחַי מִכָּל בָּשָׂר שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל תָּבִיא אֶל הַתֵּבָה לְהַחֲיֹת אִתָּךְ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה יִהְיוּ. ו:כ מֵהָעוֹף לְמִינֵהוּ וּמִן הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ מִכֹּל רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל יָבֹאוּ אֵלֶיךָ לְהַחֲיוֹת.
Gen 6:19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 6:20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come into you, to keep them alive.

The J text also has two of each species of animals that are ritually impure, but also seven pairs of each clean animal,[3] i.e., animals that are permissible for Israelites to eat and which can be offered as sacrifices to YHWH:

בראשית ז:ב מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה תִּקַּח לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּמִן הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא שְׁנַיִם אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ. ז:ג גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 7:2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.

The reason for this difference becomes clear later in the story, when only in J Noah offers sacrifices to YHWH from the clean animals and birds on the ark:

בראשית ח:כ וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ.
Gen 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and took from every clean animal and from every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

Clearly, if Noah was to offer sacrifices from the clean animals, he would need more than just one pair. These sacrifices are a key part of the story, since only when YHWH smells the pleasing odor of the roasted meat does he resolve never again to bring a flood on the earth to destroy humanity:

בראשית ח:כא וַיָּרַח יְ־הוָה אֶת רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ: לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת כָּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי. ח:כב עֹד כָּל יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.
Gen 8:21 And when YHWH smelled the pleasing odor, YHWH said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 8:22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

For P, the promise never to flood the world again is independent of any human initiative, and is connected instead to the creation of the rainbow; no sacrifice is necessary. Thus, in P, God’s only command about the animals after the flood is that they should be fruitful and multiply, which echoes the Priestly creation story in Genesis 1:22, 28:

בראשית ח:יז כָּל הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר אִתְּךָ מִכָּל בָּשָׂר בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ (הוצא) [הַיְצֵא] אִתָּךְ וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 8:17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.

This difference between the P and J flood stories reflects a conceptual difference about sacrifices in the patriarchal and early monarchic periods that can be seen throughout both sources.

P: Sacrifices Only by Priests and Only in the Temple

For the Priestly writer, sacrifices are a system of ritual requirements commanded by YHWH first at Mount Sinai (Lev 1–7, 23, Num 15, 29–30), and controlled by priests of the Aaronide lineage (Exod 28, Lev 8). They may be offered only in the Tabernacle (Lev 17) and later at the Jerusalem Temple. Building an altar just anywhere and sacrificing on it is not permissible at all.

While P includes the option of private sacrifices for individuals at the Tabernacle or Temple, whether as gifts or thanks or to atone for sins, these sacrifices are not willy-nilly, a function of a random mood of the worshipper. Moreover, YHWH need not rely on these random contributions, as he is to receive automatic twice-daily burnt offerings, one lamb in the morning and another at twilight (Num 28:4), accompanied by an ephah of grain mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil (Num 28:5) and another quarter hin of wine/alcoholic beverage.[4]

In other words, the priests feed YHWH a full meal twice a day, his daily breakfast and supper, prepared just the way he liked it. And this does not include the additional offerings on Shabbat, New Moon, and festivals. For P, the sacrificial system is primarily a function of priests serving the deity in his dwelling place, the Tabernacle/Temple.

P never mentions sacrifices in Genesis. In P, before the construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus, no sacrifices are offered at all.

J: Spontaneous Altars and Sacrifices

From the very beginning, J mentions sacrifices and altars. The first story of humans outside the Garden of Eden includes two brothers who offer sacrifices to YHWH:

בראשית ד:ג וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַי־הוָה. ד:ד וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן...
Gen 4:3 In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to YHWH from the fruit of the soil; 4:4 and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock…

Each brother makes an offering wherever he chooses; no mention is made of a special holy spot. This becomes clear in the J stories of the patriarchs, who build altars in various and sundry places, calling on the name of YHWH. Thus, after Abram leaves his homeland at YHWH’s command, and arrives in the land of Canaan, he builds an altar near Shechem:

בראשית יב:ז וַיֵּרָא יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלָיו.
Gen 12:7 YHWH appeared to Abram and said, “I will assign this land to your offspring.” And he built an altar there to YHWH who had appeared to him.

Abram then moves further south and builds another altar:

בראשית יב:ח וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית אֵל וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה בֵּית אֵל מִיָּם וְהָעַי מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Gen 12:8 From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to YHWH and invoked YHWH by name.

Later in the story, Abram builds yet a third altar further south, in the area near Hebron:

בראשית יג:יח וַיֶּאֱהַל אַבְרָם וַיָּבֹא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא אֲשֶׁר בְּחֶבְרוֹן וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה.
Gen 13:18 And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to YHWH.

Upon arriving there and receiving a communication from YHWH, Isaac builds an altar in Beersheba:

בראשית כו:כה וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה וַיֶּט שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּכְרוּ שָׁם עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק בְּאֵר.
Gen 26:25 So he built an altar there and invoked YHWH by name. Isaac pitched his tent there and his servants started digging a well.

According to the J-writer, whenever and wherever anyone feels inspired, he can build a simple altar and call on the name of YHWH.[5]

Saul and David Build Altars

This type of spontaneous altar building also appears in the story of Saul’s battle with the Philistines. When he sees that the soldiers of his army are eating improperly prepared animals, he builds an altar on the spot so that they eat only sacrificed meat:

שמואל א יד:לה וַיִּבֶן שָׁאוּל מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֹתוֹ הֵחֵל לִבְנוֹת מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה.
1 Sam 14:35 Thus Saul set up an altar to YHWH; it was the first altar he erected to YHWH.

David also spontaneously sets up an altar as part of his attempt to stop the plague that was overtaking Israel at the time:

שמואל ב כד:כה וַיִּבֶן שָׁם דָּוִד מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה וַיַּעַל עֹלוֹת וּשְׁלָמִים וַיֵּעָתֵר יְ־הוָה לָאָרֶץ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Sam 24:25 And David built there an altar to YHWH and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. YHWH responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked.

This description of the patriarchs and the early kings going about building altars whenever they experience an epiphany or see a religious need is discordant with the worship practices of the religions of the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the cities of the Fertile Crescent), but it is the practice of ancient Greece.

Ancient Near Eastern Temples and P

In the ancient Near East, the temples were the fixed homes of the gods. This is where they lived, where their daily life was carried out, where their cult statues were washed and clothed, and where they were fed their daily meals morning and evening by the priests who composed their household staff.[6]

Although the biblical text has no room for an icon of YHWH as part of its worship,[7] and thus includes no provisions for the regularly clothing or washing the deity, the ANE conception of the god’s daily meal is quite reminiscent of the Priestly depiction of the Tabernacle and its sacrificial system.

As already discussed, YHWH is certainly fed his morning and evening meals. Moreover, the Priestly writers assumed that YHWH inhabited the Tabernacle:

שמות מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exod 40:35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and YHWH’s glory filled the tabernacle.

This same imagery appears in the book of Kings, describing what happened upon the sanctification of Solomon’s Temple:

מלכים א ח:י וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת הַכֹּהֲנִים מִן הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְהֶעָנָן מָלֵא אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה. ח:יא וְלֹא יָכְלוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים לַעֲמֹד לְשָׁרֵת מִפְּנֵי הֶעָנָן כִּי מָלֵא כְבוֹד יְ־הוָה אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה.
1 Kgs 8:10 When the priests came out of the sanctuary—for the cloud had filled the House of YHWH 8:11 and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Glory of YHWH filled the House of YHWH.

The implicit assumption of these priestly texts is that YHWH dwells in these structures, and it is there where he must be fed. Such a conception has no room for random small altars out in the countryside, built by the inspirational whim of a person who wishes to worship YHWH, as described in J and of the early kings.

Wellhausen: P Is a Late Degradation of J

In his 1878 (Prolegomena to) the History of Israel,[8] Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), one of the towering figures of biblical critical studies, argued that the oldest layer of Israelite religion is described in the spontaneous Israelite religion of the pre-exilic prophets.[9] This religion is portrayed by the J-writer, or the Yahwist, and appears in the book of Samuel as well, with its account of the ancient kings Saul and David.

In contrast, Wellhausen asserts, the Priestly Text (P), which contains the legal sections of the Pentateuch that deal with ritual laws, reflects post-exilic Judaism and is therefore a deviation from the older authentic, spontaneous religion of the J text. The priestly code, according to Wellhausen, was the “constitution” of Judaism, which arose as an entirely new (degenerate) and legalistic phenomenon after the return from exile.

Wellhausen argues that after the exile, when the priests took control of government, they introduced a theocracy, so that natural religion died, and legalism took over.[10] The law marked the beginning of the stagnation that is Judaism and had nothing to do with the people Israel or the spontaneous “authentic” Israelite religion of the pre-exilic period.

Wellhausen begins his arguments for his evolutionary scheme with the different sources’ conceptions of places of worship. He finds in the biblical portrayal of Genesis, as well as in the books of Judges and Samuel, not a hint of fixed sanctuaries,[11] but rather a multiplicity of altars each used only once and having no priesthood or other officiants. To Wellhausen and his followers, this is an authentic portrayal of Israel’s original, spontaneous, and natural religion.

Nevertheless, when we look at the Torah against the backdrop of ancient religious systems, we see the opposite. P’s theology fits well in the context of the ancient Near East and its conceptions.

Wellhausen’s understanding of Yom Kippur is a good example of how he got P backwards.

Temple Purgation in P and the ANE

Leviticus 16, part of the Priestly text, describes a day for the annual cleansing (kipper/kapper) of the sanctuary:

ויקרא טז:לג וְכִפֶּר אֶת מִקְדַּשׁ הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ יְכַפֵּר וְעַל הַכֹּהֲנִים וְעַל כָּל עַם הַקָּהָל יְכַפֵּר.
Lev 16:33 He shall purge the innermost Shrine; he shall purge the Tent of Meeting and the altar; and he shall make expiation for the priests and for all the people of the congregation.

This rite in ancient Judah and Israel is typical of the ancient Near East. Because ancient Near Eastern temples were the home of the gods, they went through regular temple cleansing or purification rites called kuppuru—Akkadian for “to purge,” “wipe off,” “cleanse,” cognate of the Hebrew kipper—usually as part of the preparations for the annual New Year’s celebration.[12] We read the following excerpt for the purgation ritual for the Temple of Marduk in Babylon:

On the fifth day of the month Nisannu, the sheshgallu priest shall arise and wash … he shall put on a linen robe in front of the god Bel [Marduk] and the goddess Beltiya. He shall enter the temple Ezida, into the cella of the god Nabu with censor, torch, and egubbu-vessel to purify the temple. He shall sprinkle on the sanctuary water from the cisterns of the Tigris and Euphrates. He shall smear all the doors of the sanctuary with cedar oil. … He shall call a slaughterer to decapitate a ram, the body of which the mashmashu priest shall use in performing the kupparu-ritual for the temple. He shall recite the incantations for exorcising the temple.[13]

A similar annual purgation literature can be seen in Hittite texts as well and were common throughout the ancient Near East.[14]

Thus, P’s Yom Kippur ritual has nothing to do with either the exile, or any “leaden weight of sin” on Judean shoulders, it is simply a kapparu ritual. This is because the concept of temple and temple-ritual in P is the ancient Near Eastern concept, and exactly what we would expect from a text written in the Iron Age or even the Persian Period.

Indeed, archaeology reveals numerous temples and cult sites throughout Iron Age Judah and southern Israel, which all served as houses of the god. In fact, it was because they were considered houses of the god, that they were all destroyed during the invasions of Pharoah Sheshonq I, Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, or Sennacherib.[15]

In contrast, J’s religious world is heavily influenced by the later, classical Greek religion.

The Role of the Temple in Ancient Greece

The Greek view of the role of the temple stands in stark contrast to the view prevalent throughout the ancient Near East, Canaan, and Egypt. Ancient Greeks also prayed and made offerings to their gods in each god’s sanctuary, however, these sanctuaries were outdoors, usually consisting simply of an altar with a surrounding fence delineating the temenos, the sacred precinct, with no temple in it at all.[16]

Only about twenty Greek sanctuaries included temples and fewer still contained a statue of the god, compared with thousands of the simpler kind, consisting of an altar only in a demarcated temenos.[17] Indeed, even when there were temples, the altar would have been older than the temple within it.[18]

In the Greek conception, the gods did not require a temple or a house to live in; most lived in the sky or on Mount Olympus.[19] On the occasion of a sacrifice, the worshipper would begin with a prayer inviting the god to enter the sacred area (since they did not live there) and receive the offering. If a temple was eventually built in that location, it would have been built to shelter the many votive offerings dedicated to the god, not to house the god himself.[20]

One such gift or offering may have even been a statue of the god, but the temple was not built to house the statue. The statues, moreover, were the work of famous artists, known by name, and were gifts in which the god delighted.[21] The god was not considered present in his cult statue; there was no rite like the “opening of the mouth ceremony” that existed in Mesopotamia to enliven the cult image. [22] Because the god was not considered present within the statue, there was no ceremony to induct it into the temple, as was required in the ancient Near East.[23]

Further, animal sacrifices were offered only occasionally at the deity’s festival days or at the whim of a worshipper, not twice daily to provide the god with meals. The typical offerings to the god on his altar were votive gifts, gifts made in fulfillment of a vow such as animal horns and skulls from the victims of a hunt. They were not to provide the god with meals or food.

Wellhausen Reversed

In sum, the description of the patriarchs and of Saul and David setting up isolated altars to call on the name of YHWH, a description that Wellhausen found so spontaneous, natural, and authentic, is a description of religion found throughout the Greek world, not a description of religious life in the ancient Near East. This inverts the well-known and controversial argument of Julius Wellhausen.

In reality, the Priestly cultic law reflects the norms of ancient Near Eastern religious worship, as we would expect from an iron age polity like Judah, but the informal worship in various small sites reflects the influence of Greek culture on the Hellenistic period J text.

It is rather the Priestly writer’s description of religious life that reflects Judaism’s deep antiquity, not J’s. And thus, J’s idea that the ancient patriarchs, including Noah, offered sacrifices outside the context of fixed temples reflects not an early conception of free religious worship, but a Hellenistic concept of altars, gods, and temples, unlike that of the ancient Near East.


October 22, 2023


Last Updated

June 17, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Lisbeth S. Fried is Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan’s Department of Middle East Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from NYU and another in psychology from University of Michigan. Among her many publications are The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire, Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition, Ezra, a Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2015), Nehemiah: A Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2021), and Ruth a Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2023).