Composition of the Book of Genesis

The Yahwist compiled a number of traditions regarding Israel’s history, its religious beliefs, and a story of humankind’s origins to form the book of Genesis, a significant book for not only Judaism but also Christianity and Islam.

Summary of Event

The reign of Solomon (c. 961-930 b.c.e.), king of Israel, was the culmination of two generations of an immense political and social transformation in Palestine. A weak and loosely organized confederation of Israelite tribes had been welded by the military and political astuteness of David into a powerful monarchy with a centralized national administration and religious center at Jerusalem. The Philistine harassment had been conclusively ended, the hitherto unconquered Canaanite cities had been absorbed into the new state, and the burgeoning Israelite empire had come to encompass the neighboring peoples of Aram, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. Under Solomon, trade flourished and wealth flowed into the new capital. Israel had become conscious of its national identity and now began to mold its ancient traditions, which had long been transmitted orally, into an epic of its national destiny. Yahwist

Modern biblical criticism has determined that the essential pattern into which these ancient traditions were consolidated was developed by an anonymous tenth century writer whom scholars designate the Yahwist in recognition of the divine name Yahweh in those portions of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) assigned by literary criticism to him. The fundamental framework of the epic was provided by the settlement traditions: The ancestors of the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt when their god Yahweh called them forth into freedom and gave them the land of Canaan in which to dwell. A second tradition, incorporated by the Yahwist into the framework of the settlement narrative, told of the solemn covenant made at the sacred mountain Sinai by Yahweh with Israel and of Yahweh’s covenant legislation by which Israel was bound. A third body of traditions concerning Israel’s patriarchal ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom that land had been promised by Yahweh as a habitation for their descendants and who had sojourned in it before the Egyptian enslavement, was prefixed to the settlement narrative. The whole scheme, finally, was introduced by a fourth block of traditional materials dealing with the primeval history of humankind. Thus four groups of traditional material were incorporated into a single narrative tracing the divine providence of Yahweh by which the Israelite tribes had taken possession of Canaan in fulfillment of their national destiny.

The Yahwist not only molded the traditions together but also infused the work as a whole with a theological perspective that makes the Hebrew epic more than a glorification of national success or a religious justification of Israel’s claim to a conquered land. By means of the primeval history, which traces the progressive alienation of humankind from God from the time of creation to the dispersal of peoples from Mesopotamia, the Yahwist set Hebrew national history in the context of Yahweh’s redemptive purposes for all humankind: The departure of Abraham toward the Promised Land is heralded with the promise that the nation to be formed by his descendants will be implicated in the blessing of all communities of human beings. By means of the patriarchal history, the Yahwist formulated the theological perspective on history that was to characterize the prophets of Israel: secular history, wherein people freely and responsibly interact to shape their own destinies, is the sphere in which Yahweh’s historical purposes for Israel and all nations are worked out. Finally, through the incorporation of the Sinai tradition into the settlement account, the Yahwist enunciated another theological concept that was to be fundamental in the prophetic tradition: Israel’s tenure of the Promised Land and its very national identity is intimately bound up with its obedience to Yahweh, its sole legitimate sovereign, and to his covenant demand for justice and brotherhood in national corporate life.

Several additional blocks of material were incorporated into the Yahwist narrative before the Pentateuch assumed its authoritative form toward the end of the sixth century b.c.e. A second epic incorporating the settlement and patriarchal traditions of the northern tribes was composed in the ninth century b.c.e. by a second anonymous writer termed the Elohist by scholars, to distinguish him from the Yahwist, because of his characteristic use of the divine name Elohim in his narrative. In the course of the seventh century b.c.e., materials from the premonarchic covenant-renewal ceremony of the tribes were edited into the core of the book of Deuteronomy (fifth book of the Bible). Finally, during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon, the traditional ritual law and theology of history of the Jerusalem priesthood was formally written down as a framework binding together the whole complex of historical and cultic traditions of Israel into a literary whole. The resultant literary corpus is a complex document representing several distinct eras and theological perspectives and reflecting the richness and diversity of Israel’s national religious experience.


Although the Priestly Writers of the Pentateuch in its final form seem to have intended the document to serve as a constitutional foundation for the theocratic life of the second temple, the theological concepts of the Yahwist, most clearly evident in Genesis, where his contributions bulk largest, mark the book as one of religious significance extending beyond Judaism to the Christian and Islamic traditions and as a major constitutive element of Western European culture.

Further Reading

  • Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. Criticism and interpretation of the book of Genesis. Supplement to the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Garrtt, Duane A. Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Bible. 1991. Reprint. Fearn, England: Mentor, 2000. Garrett examines the sources and authorship of the various traditions that make up Genesis, arguing that the seven days of Genesis are actually revelations made to Moses. Bibliography.
  • Lemche, Niels Peter. Prelude to Israel’s Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998. An examination of the history of Israel that deals with the book of Genesis.
  • Van Seters, John. Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis. Louisville, Ky.: Westminister/J. Knox Press, 1992. Looks at the role of the Yahwist in writing Genesis as well as the history of Israel. Bibliography and index.
  • Wénin, A., ed. Studies in the Book of Genesis: Literature, Redation, and History. Sterling, Va.: Uitgeverij Peeters, 2001. A collection of papers presented at the Forty-eighth Colloquium Biblicum Lovaniense, in July, 1999, on the book of Genesis. Bibliography and indexes.