This post is entirely a quote from Ron Maimon at Christianity Stack Exchange. Full details, attribution, and link are at the end of the post. Note that I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the veracity of this essay, but I do think it’s interesting.
Genesis/Exodus/Leviticus are a compilation of several narratives, all dating to the 10th century BC or thereabouts, which are evident by the seams in them, and by the radically different styles. They are considered to be compiling Jewish narratives to make a unified tale which will bring the disparate tribes together in a kingdom.
There are three major threads:
This author is first rate, one of the greatest writers in history, if not the greatest. She writes about God in a very visceral, fully embodied fashion. She tends to emphasize the stories of women, providing first person internal monologues from the point of view of Eve, Rebecca, Sarah, and provides a wonderful story of female attempted seduction in Genesis 39. For this reason, I refer to her as a “she”, although this is obviously uncertain.
You can identify J easily by reading the narrative. There is no doubt when she is writing. She consistently uses “Yahweh” as God’s name, or “Yahweh God” in Genesis 2. She writes internal monologue and easy natural dialogue. She tends to write stories of women in detailed human terms, and of men in distant heroic terms.
The quintessential Yahwist narrative is exemplified by the following passage in Exodus, chapter 33, verses 17, in my translation, available here:
And Yahweh said to Moses: “Also this thing that I have spoken I will do, because you are pleasing to me, and I will know you by name.”
And he said: “Please show to me, your honor.”
And said, “I will bring by all my goodness in front of you, and I will call on the name of Yahweh in your presence, and I will grace that which I will grace, and I will feel for that which I will feel for.”
And He said: “You could not see my face, because a man will not see me and live.”
And Yahweh said: “Here is a place filled with me, and you will post yourself against the rock. And it will be as mine honor will pass, and I will put you in the nook of the rock, and I will lean my palm against you until I pass. And I will remove my palm, and you will see my back, but my face will not be shown.”
The idea of seeing God’s back, as He is moving away, lifting an enormous palm from a nook in the rock to uncover his mighty passing form, is simultaneously beautiful and haunting, and masculine erotic.
Elohist has a less fleshy description of God than J, and the drama is not as tense. Elohist writes about blessings and omens a lot. Here is some E (Genesis 48, in my translation, available on Wikisource):
And Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim in his right hand, to the left of Israel, and Menashe in his left hand, to the right of Israel, and he approached him. And Israel sent his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, and he is the younger, And his left hand on Menashe’s hand: with consideration upon his hands, because Menashe is firstborn.
And he blessed Joseph, and said: “The God in whose presence my fathers came before, Abraham and Isaac, the God who has shepharded me from before until this day, the angel who spares me from all harm, will bless these youths, and will call into them my name, and the name of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and they will multiply in the face of the land.”
And Joseph saw that his father had sent his right hand on the head of Ephraim— and this was wrong in his eyes. And he supported his father’s hand to take it off the head of Ephraim, to Menashe’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, father, because this is the firstborn, put your hand on his head.”
And his father declined, and he said: “I knew, my son, I knew. He also will be a great nation, and he also will grow in number; but his younger brother will grow more than him, and his seed will fill the nations.”
E uses “El Shaddai”, which is a weird moniker for God. He also has the extraordinary “I am that I am” (more literally, “I’ll be what I’ll be”), which is followed by a Yahweh tack-on with an obvious seam.
Priestly can’t write to save his life. He is almost surely a Levite priest, who is trying to canonize Leviticus law by attaching it to the timeless masterpieces produced by J and E. Priestly’s voice is heard at the end of Exodus and throughout Leviticus.
A typical Priestly passage (Leviticus 11, vs 41-45) in my translation, available on Wikisource:
And all the vermin that infests the Earth, it is an abomination, it will not be eaten. All the walks on its torso, and all that walks on four, unto any centipede, onto all the vermin that infests the earth— you will not eat them, because they are an abomination. Do not abominate your souls in all the vermin that infests, and do not defile in them, and you were defiled by them. Because I am Yahweh your God, and you were blessed holy and became holy, because I am holy. And you will not defile your souls in all the vermin that crawls on the earth. Because I am Yahweh, who raises you from the land of Egypt, to be a god for you, and you became blessed holy, because I am holy.
This block is particularly repetitive, but even this example does not do justice to Priestly’s cloying, unnecessary, mind numbing repetitions. Things are a “comforting smell to Yahweh” six times in a chapter, detailed grilling instructions are repeated, detail by detail, three times for three only slightly different situations. Priestly is boring, uninspired, pedantic, and generally unreadable. One of the best things about Christianity is that you can ignore nearly everything he wrote.
Priestly is also the master of stilted narrative. Here is Leviticus Chapter 10 (my translation, on Wikisource):
And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took from their sinstuff and they put fire to them, and they put incense upon it, and they sacrificed before Yawheh, on a foreign fire, which was not commanded of them. And a fire came out from before Yahweh, and consumed them, and they died before Yawheh.
And Moses said to Aaron: “That is what Yahweh spoke, saying: that with me I shall bless, and in front of all the people, I will be respected.” And Aaron fell silent.
And Moses called to Mishael and Eltzaphan, the sons of ‘uzi-el, Aaron’s uncle, and said to them: “approach and carry your brethren from facing the holiness, to outside the camp.” And they came close, and they carried them in their cloaks, to outside the camp, as Moses spoke.
This is so stilted and badly written. Aaron’s sons are immolated in his presence, and there is none of the drama of Lot running from the fire and brimstone, pleading with God to let him find shelter in a Mizar. None of the beauty and elegance of Jacob’s pining for his lost son, preyed on by wolves. No sign of the genius of pacing or drama of Genesis and the early half of Exodus. Their crime basically amounted to cooking communal meat on a grill different from the communal grill.
The only line of genius which can be safely attributed to Priestly is Leviticus 19:18 (in generic translation— I went with “You loved your compatriot as yourself”, but this phrase is famous).
“And you loved your neighbor as yourself”
This is surely his, because it is embedded in a set of verses that repeat “I am Yahweh” for no good reason again and again and again.
The Redactor is whoever put the narratives together to make a whole. This is probably Priestly, the way I see it. You can see the redactor at work at several places, where verses are inserted for no reason other than the discomfort of the editor at what is being said.
Consider Genesis 18, verses 16-22 in my Wikisource translation:
And the men stood from there, and they gazed towards Sodom, and Abraham walked with them, to send them off.
And Yahweh said: “I disguise from Abraham that which I am doing,
And Abraham, onwards will be a great big people, and through him all the nations of the Earth will be blessed.
Because it was known to him that which he commanded his sons and his household to do, and they kept the way of Yahweh, to make charity and justice— leading to Yahweh bringing Abraham that which he spoke to him about.
And Yahweh said, “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is so loud, and their sins, so very heavy. I will descend there and see if its cries which comes to me are due to them all; and if not, I will know it.”
And the men turned from there, and did go towards Sodom; and Abraham, still left standing before Yahweh.
There is an obvious break in the otherwise extraordinarily beautiful narrative, coming right after “I disguise from Abraham that which I am doing.” The thing that God wishes to disguise from Abraham is the destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah, but as the angels walk toward the city, Abraham argues with God about the destruction.
Anyway, redactor didn’t like that God is disguising something from Abraham, and so stuck in the completely inane two verses that follow, which simply repeat promises of God to Abraham from other passages, which are completely out of context here.
Unlike other translations, the translation above seeks to preserve the tone-deaf narrative and horrible writing style of redactor, which match the tone-deaf narrative and horrible writing style of Priestly. I don’t see any reason to think they are separate authors.
There is also the issue of the “and Aaron”‘s in Exodus. These read more naturally if omitted, so that God is speaking to Moses only. But the Exodus author tacks on “and Aaron” in many places, some places where it mismatches with the singular tense of the verb! This is R at work, although I don’t see any reason why this isn’t P.
Arguing against identifying R with P is the fact that while common authorship of writing of great genius is easy to identify, all hacks of the same era write alike.
There is supposedly a D author, the Deuternomist, who continues the narration into Deuteronomy and perhaps Judges. I didn’t translate those books, so I can’t judge.
As for other authorial guesses, I think that the author of Psalm 137 is also the author of Lamentations, either in whole or in part. The word choice and the strange baby imagery is so distinctive.
Copyright Ron Maimon. Originally published on Christianity Stack Exchange. License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.