The historian’s difficulties increase the further back he goes into past. The most intractable problem is … that of the first ancestors whom Israel claimed as her own, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose “history” is told in Genesis 12–35. The history of Joseph, which occupies the rest of Genesis with the exception of Genesis 38 and 49, belongs to the following period, that of Israel’s stay in Egypt.
Despite the enormous amount of work that has been done during the past two centuries in the field of literary criticism, especially in connection with the Pentateuch in general and with Genesis in particular, the conclusions that have been reached are far from unanimous and the foundations on which this literary criticism has been based have been called into question again and again. The view that is still encountered more frequently than any other is based on the documentary hypothesis, according to which the Pentateuch can be traced back to three or four great sources—the Yahwistic source (J), the Elohistic source (E) and the priestly source (P). Deuteronomy is a separate source and is designated (D). General agreement has been reached as to how, at least in broad outline, the text should be divided between these three sources.
The smallest share in the compilation of the Pentateuch is attributed to P. The priestly writers, it is maintained, touched up and completed certain accounts and inserted the lists, the genealogies and the details of the births, deaths and ages of the patriarchs, thus providing a chronological framework for the narrative. According to this theory, only two long passages were written in full by the priestly authors. The first is Genesis 17, which describes the covenant with Abraham, the promise of numerous descendants and of the land of Canaan, and the institution of circumcision. The second passage, Genesis 23, describes how the cave of Machpelah was acquired for the tomb of the patriarchs.
Most of the stories are regarded as a combination of J and E. The first evidence of Elohistic material is found in Genesis 15, describing the covenant with Abraham and the promise of many descendants and of the land, a chapter which is, of course, parallel to Genesis 17 (P).
The literary composition of Genesis 15 is, however, very complex and to some extent all the other patriarchal narratives are characterized by the same difficulty, that of the combination of two sources. The Elohist’s share is most apparent in certain doubletsa- Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12-10–13-1, J) and Abraham and Sarah at Gerar (Genesis 20-1–18, E); Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness (Genesis 16-1–14, J) and Hagar and Ishmael at Abraham’s house (Genesis 21-8–21, E); Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 21-22–34, E) and Isaac and Abimelech (Genesis 26-12–23, J). Elohistic material can also be found in short passages in Genesis which have no equivalent in J, for example, Jacob’s building of an altar at Bethel (Genesis 35-1–7) and the birth of Benjamin, and the death of Rachel (Genesis 35-16–20). Finally, there is general agreement among scholars that Genesis 14, which describes Abraham’s victory over the four kings and his meeting with Melchizedek, does not belong to any of these three sources.
Even granted the existence of these different sources, there are still very many questions which have to be asked about the inner unity and the nature of each of these sources and about the period at, and the environment in which they originated. The only real way of finding a satisfactory answer to these questions is to study, together with Genesis, the other books of the Pentateuch in which material from these sources is also found. All that can be done here is to summarize the most probable conclusions and to apply them to the patriarchal narratives.
No really serious problem is posed by P, which was the work of priests of the Temple of Jerusalem and was edited at the end of the exile [late 4th century B.C.] or soon after the return from exile. It is, however, possible that earlier traditions were incorporated into P.
It would seem that the Yahwist (J) was a single author, a Judean at the King’s court, probably during the reign of Solomon.
More important for the historian is the problem raised by the Elohistic source. From the literary point of view, it is indisputable that the elements attributed to the Elohist were inserted later into the Yahwistic material with which they became merged or with which they sometimes competed.
According to one very widespread opinion, these Elohistic elements are derived from an oral or written source which was formed and transmitted independently of J before becoming combined with it. There is less general agreement about the period and the environment in which this source originated, the predominant view being that it became established during the eighth century B.C., that it gathered together various traditions that were prevalent in the north, and that it was connected with the prophetic movement. From Abraham on, E runs parallel to J.
Certain scholars, however, do not accept the existence of an Elohistic source which ran parallel to J and was independent of it. The distinction that has been made between J and E is, in many passages, in no sense striking and, in other passages the fragments attributed to E give the impression of being additions or corrections to the J text, reflecting loftier moral and religious ideas. According to these scholars, the existence of a parallel and independent source E cannot be proved, and J was revised, completed and corrected orally in the first place and, in the second place, edited with the help of these traditional E variants.
There are several convincing arguments in favor of this second theory. It has to be admitted that there are many uncertainties in the distribution between two ‘sources’ of those texts which are regarded as common to both J and E, and it should not be forgotten that, taken as a whole, the classical documentary theory is still hypothetical. All the same, the unvarying character of the words used and the ideas expressed in the elements ascribed to E and the fact that they are parallel to those occurring in J certainly tip the balance in favor of the documentary hypothesis.
On the other hand, we may accept this fully and still agree that there was a tradition common to and prior to both J and E. Despite this, at least in our literary criticism of the Pentateuch, we cannot go back earlier than the period when the tribes, once settled in Canaan, regarded themselves as united by ties of blood and by a common faith. They were, they believed, a single people descended from Abraham. They worshipped one God, who was the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They inhabited one country, which was the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This threefold unity is proclaimed throughout the whole of the Pentateuch. How did the authors of these books arrive at this conviction and what is the real value of this unified tradition? To answer these questions it is necessary to leave the sphere of literary criticism and enter that of the history of traditions.
Whether or not we accept the existence of the Elohist, we cannot dispute the fact that the Yahwist made use of an already formed tradition.
The only places in which this tradition could have been found or transmitted were the sanctuaries where the tribes worshipped the same God together. The basic article of their faith was that this God had delivered their ancestors from the Pharaoh’s oppression and had led them into Canaan. Memories of the exodus from Egypt combined with memories of the possession of the land to form part of this primitive tradition, which also included—contrary to the opinion of certain scholars—memories of Sinai, since this encounter with God was at the very beginning of their common faith.
On the other hand, we are bound to ask whether the patriarchs were not integrated into this tradition at a later stage, because there is a remarkable break between Genesis and Exodus, that is, between the end of the story of the patriarchs and the beginning of the story of the exodus from Egypt. No memory has been preserved of the intervening period and the editors of the Pentateuch did not try to fill in that gap.
In its present form, the story of the patriarchs is linked to the stories of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land by the theme of the promise. In other words, the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan is the fulfillment of the promises made to their early ancestors that they would have many descendants and a land. This theme also unites the various patriarchal narratives, which are set within a framework of the announcement made to Abraham- “It is to your descendants that I will give this land” (Genesis 12-7), and Joseph’s last words- “God will be sure to remember you kindly and take you back from this country to the land that he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Genesis 50-24). This link presupposes that the end, that is, the existence of Israel as a people settled in Canaan, was known and that the idea of a history of salvation beginning with Abraham and ending with the conquest of Canaan was already firmly established.
The narratives of the promises must, in their earliest form, have included the fulfillment of those promises. The promise of posterity must, for example, have been followed by the birth of a son, as in Genesis 18, and the promise of land was certainly followed by an account of the taking of that land—this is clear in Genesis 12-7; 13-15; 28-13. In its final form, this link between the promise and its fulfillment is extended to include the period spent in Egypt, the exodus and the conquest. It was explained that this long delay in the fulfillment of the promise had already been announced by God to Abraham (Genesis 15-13–16).
It is possible to reconstruct the stages by which this tradition became the common property of the whole of Israel, but the result is purely conjectural.
Each group forming part of the people of Israel had its own special traditions and above all its own ancestor, whose story was told and who was remembered in the group’s cult of the “god of the father.” Several of these groups later became united and three leading (“patriarchal”) figures emerged from this early multiplicity of ancestors—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The bonds formed between these enlarged groups were then expressed as a genealogy which showed all the descendents of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob—Israel, to be the “sons of Israel.” This prehistory is evident in the many different traditions referring to each patriarch.
The great cycle of traditions around Abraham (Genesis 12–25-18) and the cycle of Jacob traditions (Genesis 25-19–34) spring at once to mind, but it is more difficult to distinguish a cycle of Isaac traditions. The story of Isaac is in the first place included within the story of his father Abraham (Genesis 21; 22; 24) and secondarily in that of his sons Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-19–28; 27; 28-1–9; 35-27–29). It is only in Genesis 26 that Isaac is the central figure, yet even here the stories are only about his relationships with the people of Gerar and are all duplicated in the story of Abraham the testing of Rebekah (Genesis 26-1–16; cf. Genesis 20-2–18); the matter of the wells (Genesis 26-15–25; cf. Genesis 21-25–31) and the alliance with Abimelech (Genesis 26-26–33; cf. Genesis 21-22–32). These separate passages may possibly be remnants of an independent and earlier Isaac cycle, the various elements of which may have been integrated into, or duplicated in; the story of Abraham, once a genealogical connection had been established between Abraham and Isaac and the latter had become the link joining Abraham to Jacob.
The geographical links, however, are different—the Abraham tradition is above all established at Hebron and Mamre, whereas the tradition of Isaac is very firmly attached to Beersheba and the neighbouring well of Lahai Roi.
It is also possible that there never was an Isaac cycle. After all, Genesis 12–25 form what is essentially a family story, the main interest being the question of posterity. The announcement of Isaac’s birth (Genesis 18-1–15) forms the central story in the [Abraham] cycle. The story of Isaac’s marriage (Genesis 24) may be regarded as the normal conclusion to this group of narratives. In this concluding story, the continued existence of the race, which is the main theme in this cycle, is assured and Abraham can die in peace (Genesis 24-1, 25-11, J). Very little remains in this Abraham cycle if everything that has to do with Isaac is removed from it. A cycle of Abraham and Isaac is in fact the earliest traditional body of narratives to which we can go back and it would probably be futile to try to go back any further in history. The events attributed to Isaac in Genesis 26 may therefore be regarded not as remnants of an independent cycle of stories, but rather as an attempt to enrich the figure of Isaac by borrowing from the Abraham cycle and to strengthen the already established link between the cycles of Abraham and of Jacob. Whatever may be the case here, the fact remains that the traditions connected with Abraham and Isaac are all situated in the south of Palestine, in the Negeb and at Hebron and Mamre, Beersheba and the well of Lahai Roi and at Gerar, and that they clearly have their origin in groups living in the south.
These traditions are also connected with another story of a different origin, that of Lot. The germinal idea of this story is to be found in a popular tradition concerning a natural disaster which occured to the south and south-west of the Dead Sea (Genesis 19). It is quite possible that the memory of a geological subsidence which took place in historical times is preserved in the tradition of Lot, but its literary genre is certainly much more closely related to that of the flood myths than to that of the patriarchal accounts. Just as the flood was explained as a punishment for man’s sins, so too was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah regarded as a punishment for the perversity of the inhabitants (see, for example, Genesis 13-13, 18-16–32).
The origin of the Moabites and the Ammonites (Genesis 19-30–38) is added to the story of the destruction of Sodom. These are clearly traditions which originated in Transjordan and which were incorporated into the story of Abraham. Lot was Abraham’s nephew (Genesis 12-5), Abraham and Lot shared the land between them (Genesis 13) and God saved Lot from the disaster that destroyed Sodom because of Abraham (Genesis 19-29). The Israelites may have been originally related to their “cousins” in Transjordania. The purely family interest in the story of Abraham was in this way extended to include relationships between different peoples, so that the scope of the story went beyond Palestine itself.
The story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-19–34; Genesis 27; Genesis 32–33) is, of course, also a family story, like the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is different from that of Abraham and Isaac in that the center of interest is not the descent from father to son but the relationships between two rival brothers. The twins fought with each other even when they were in their mother’s womb (Genesis 25-22). The name Jacob means “supplanter” (Genesis 27-36). Jacob in fact deprived his brother of his birthright as the first-born son (Genesis 25-29–34) and of his father’s blessing (Genesis 27-1–40). If Jacob pretended to be reconciled to Esau, it was only in order to deceive him better (Genesis 32-4–22; Genesis 33-1–11). Jacob was a cunning man and his mother’s favorite, whereas Esau was stupid and loved by his father. The strictly family interest in the cycle of stories, however, is transcended in that Jacob and Esau represent two social types of the period. Jacob is a peace-loving herdsman who succeeds not by force but by skill and intelligence, whereas Esau is a nomad, living from hunting and pillage (Genesis 25-27, Genesis 27-39–40). What is most important is that, although the nomadic hunter was the first inhabitant, he had to give way to the herdsman.
This story of two rival brothers has in this case been modified by the addition of another element- Esau was at the same time Edom, the ancestor of the Edomites. This points to something beyond the simple rivalry between the herdsman and the hunter in the early story of Jacob and Esau. It refers in fact to the contrast between the fertile land of Palestine where the Israelites lived and the mountainous, desert region of Transjordania inhabited by the Edomites.
The story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 29–31) was originally independent of the story of Jacob and Esau. It is also a composite narrative. In the first place, it is a family story, describing the period which Jacob spent with his uncle and his marriage with Laban’s two daughters, his wealth, and his flight. This account is followed by the story of the treaty between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31-43–54), which is presented both as a family agreement with the purpose of safeguarding the position of Laban’s daughters and thus continuing the previous narrative (Genesis 31-50), and also as a political pact establishing the frontier between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31-52). Clearly, this was a treaty, not between two individuals, but between two peoples, the Israelites or their ancestors and the Aramaeans.
A third group of stories connects Jacob with the sanctuaries at Shechem and Bethel. There is no mention of Esau or of Laban in these accounts, in which we are told of Jacob dreaming and erecting a monument, a massebah at Bethel (Genesis 28-10–22, JE), setting up an altar and a stele, again at Bethel (Genesis 35-7–14, E) and buying a field and erecting an altar at Shechem (Genesis 33-19–20, E). The two sanctuaries are brought together in a cultic passage (Genesis 35-2–4, E), in which Jacob’s family buries the images of the foreign gods under the oak tree near Shechem and goes on a pilgrimage to Bethel to erect an altar there.
In Genesis 32-29 and 35-10, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel and, in Genesis 33-20, Jacob erects an altar at Shechem to “El, God of Israel.” These are the first references in the Bible to Israel and they are often interpreted as taking the collective name of the tribes believed to have descended from a common ancestor back to that single ancestor. “Israel,” however, has the form of a personal name and it certainly seems to have been in the first place the name of the ancestor of a special group with which the group of Jacob became united. In fact, the change of name and the rather clumsy etymological explanation of the name Israel seem to be of secondary importance in the account of Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious being at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32-23–32). The account itself goes back to a very old legend adopted by the Jacob cycle. In the second reference (Genesis 35-10), the change of the name Jacob into Israel is linked with an appearance of God at Bethel (Genesis 35-9–13). This passage has, correctly, been attributed to P, but it is quite possible that verse 10 is a very early element coming from the Elohistic source.
Geographically, the traditions concerning Jacob are divided into two groups. Those about Jacob and Esau and about the treaty with Laban have their situation in a small part of Transjordania, primitive Gilead and the lower course of the Jabbok, Peniel, Mahanaim and Succoth. It is possibly in this district that one tradition situated a tomb of Jacob in Transjordania (Genesis 50-10). The traditions concerning Jacob at Shechem and Bethel and concerning Jacob—Israel are situated in central Palestine. The Transjordanian tradition is very early. The traditions concerning Jacob probably originated in central Palestine at Shechem, after which they were taken into Transjordania and enriched.
Shared memories going back to the remote past facilitated and prepared the way for this merging together of the two groups. At the time of the patriarchs, in the region of Shechem where Israel first lived, there were also clans of the house of Jacob (Genesis 34) who were of the same stock and who practiced the same cult of El, associated with the God of the father at Shechem and Bethel.
A little light can be thrown on this obscure early history, if the status of the ‘tribes’ of Israel at this time is recognized. Above all, they had not become separated into individual tribes with distinct names and their relationships with each other were not at this time stable. This happened only after they had become settled. Until then, they were only groups of people vaguely related by blood, a common abode and similar social and religious practices.
However much uncertainty there may be, we may be quite sure that the geographical area in which the cycle of Jacob stories is set, that of central Palestine and central Transjordania, is quite different from that in which the Abraham cycle takes place, namely southern Palestine in the case of Abraham and Isaac and southern Transjordan in the case of Abraham and Lot. These two sets of traditions are also different in form and in their central theme. The Abraham cycle is above all the story of a family and its continuity, the ethnological element, that of the ancestor who personifies the group which has descended from him being no more than secondary and appearing only in the figure of Ishmael and in the story of Lot’s daughters. In the Jacob cycle, the family element is still present, the relationships in this case being between brothers and not, as in the Abraham cycle, between a father and sons, but the individuals also—or perhaps only—represent groups. For instance, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau is representative of the rivalry between herdsmen and hunters or, in the blessings in Genesis 28, between peasants and nomads. Jacob and Edom are the Israelites and the Edomites. The treaty with Laban involves the Israelites and the Aramaeans. Generally speaking, what is said about the twelve sons of Jacob and even about their birth can be explained only in terms of the twelve tribes of Israel. On the other hand, the central theme is not the same. The theme of the Abraham cycle is the promise, whereas that of the Jacob cycle is the blessing. After wrestling with God, Jacob is given, not a promise but a blessing (Genesis 32-27–30). It is this blessing from God which explains his superhuman strength (Genesis 32-28) and his success in his encounters with Esau and Laban. The theme of the blessing is also repeated in different forms in this cycle. Jacob receives his father’s blessing (Genesis 27), Laban is blessed because of Jacob (Genesis 30-27, Genesis 30-30) and the dying Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons (Genesis 48).
These differences of origin and conception imply that the Abraham-Isaac cycle and the Jacob cycle were in the first place independent of each other. Internal criticism of the patriarchal traditions has shown how complicated their development has been. Scholars in this field have concluded that a long oral transmission might have been faithful with regard to certain points, but that his faithfulness had its limits. At the present stage of research, all that the historian can say is that it is possible for Israel to have preserved memories of its origins. If he is to go any further than this, he has to go outside the Bible.
This article is excerpted from The Early History of Israel, by Roland de Vaux. English Translation- © Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978. Printed in the U.S.A. by The Westminster Press. Used by permission.