Yahwist Narrative

Story Line. The Yahwist narrative begins at Genesis 2:4 and continues through the book of Numbers. When the individual episodes are gleaned out of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, and viewed together in isolation, the Yahwist epic tells a story of marvelous scope and deep human interest. The Yahwist epic extends from the creation of humankind, through the age of the ancestors, to the deliverance from Egypt and the journey through the Sinai wilderness. Some scholars even argue that the Yahwist source continues into the books of Joshua and Judges, incorporating accounts of the conquest and settlement.
   The overall plot of the Torah was shaped by the historical sequence of events in the Yahwist source. By the stories it contains, it established the seven major event complexes that constitute the structure of pre-Israelite history.
  1. Stories of human origins
  2. A covenant with the patriarchs
  3. Persecution in Egypt
  4. Exit from Egypt
  5. Wandering in the Sinai wilderness
  6. A covenant made at Mount Sinai
  7. Temporary encampment in Transjordan
   The later sources added additional stories to these topics but did not essentially change this direction of development or the itinerary.

Major Episodes of the Yahwist Narrative
Story ComplexEpisodeReference
Primeval Story
CreationGenesis 2:4b-25
Garden of EdenGenesis 3:1-24
Cain and AbelGenesis 4:1-16
Sons of GodGenesis 6:1-4
FloodGenesis 6-9 (with P)
Tower of BabelGenesis 11:1-9
Ancestral Story
Abraham: Ur to CanaanGenesis 12:1-13:18
Hagar and IshmaelGenesis 16
Sodom and GomorrahGenesis 18-19
Wife for IsaacGenesis 24
Sarah as SisterGenesis 26
Jacob, Leah and RachelGenesis 29
Dinah and ShechemGenesis 34
Joseph StoryGenesis 37-50 (with E and P)
Exodus and Sinai
Plagues and ExodusExodus 1-17 (with E and P)
Ritual DecalogueExodus 34 (with E)
Wilderness Experiences
SpiesNumbers 13-14 (with P)
Rebellion of KorahNumbers 16 (with P)

Style. The Yahwist was a gifted storyteller who was especially interested in the human side of things. The following are some of the stylistic features of the Yahwist.
   Yahweh is often represented with humanlike qualities. He is alternately a potter, a gardener, a "man" -- the literary technique of anthropomorphism. Yahweh walks with Adam and Eve, seals the door of the ark, has a meal with Abraham, bargains with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah, and actually changes his mind about destroying Israel because of the golden calves. Yahweh appears directly to people and expects a childlike faith and obedience.
   Yahweh is intent on working out events so that the objects of his attention will be blessed. Yet he is a God who is absolutely opposed to sin. After it happens, he confronts the offenders and does not let a challenge to his authority go unpunished, as in the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel stories.
   The Yahwist has his own characteristic vocabulary. Some examples:

  • "to bless" is the characteristic way Yahweh deals kindly with others
  • "to know" is a euphemism for sexual intercourse
  • "to find favor" for pleasing someone
  • Canaanites for the inhabitants of Palestine, whereas the Elohist uses Amorites
  • Reuel or Hobab for Moses's father-in-law, whereas the Elohist uses Jethro
  • Sinai for the residence of Yahweh, whereas the Elohist calls it Horeb
  • Israel rather than the name Jacob for the third patriarch
   The Yahwist is also very fond of word play, often using it to make a theological point, or provide a suggestion of the origin of someone or something -- called an etiology:
  • Eve, the mother of all living, from hawwah, "life" (Genesis 3:20)
  • Babel, the place where language was confused, from balal, "to confuse" (Genesis 11:9)
  • Edom, an alternate name for Esau, from edom, "red," the color of Esau's complexion, the color of the stew he ate in lieu of his birthright, and the color of the mountains of the territory called Edom
  • Israel, "one who strives with God," the name for Jacob after he wrestled with God at the Jabbok (Genesis 32:27)
   The Yahwist is refreshingly honest when he deals with the character flaws, even sometimes blatant sins, of the main characters. He is not interested in white-washing them, or making them squeaky clean "heroes of the faith." He exposes:
  • the lie of Abraham when he tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister (Genesis 12:10-20)
  • the underhanded deceit of Jacob in tricking Esau and Laban (Genesis 27; 30-31)
  • the dastardly trick of Simeon and Levi in killing the Shechemites (Genesis 34)
   The Yahwist writer tends to express his theology through speeches of Yahweh placed at decisive transition points in the epic. The following divine speeches occur in Genesis:
  • the prohibition of eating from the tree, "lest you die" (Genesis 2:16-17)
  • the curses on the serpent, woman and man (Genesis 3:14-19)
  • to Cain, "if you do well you will be acceptable" (Genesis 4:6-7,11ff.)
  • before the flood, "I am sorry that I have made them" (Genesis 6:3, 5-8)
  • after the flood, "I will never again curse the ground" (Genesis 8:21-22)
  • Tower of Babel, "this is only the beginning of what they will do (11:6-7)
  • to Abraham after Lot separated (Genesis 13:14-17)
  • about Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:17-19)
   Such theologizing in speech typifies the Yahwist's literary-theological perspective that God was immediately present to these people, and spoke with them directly.

Theology. The core of the Yahwist epic is the divine promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. The groundwork justifying the need for divine help and promise was laid in the stories of the growth of sin in the primeval era. Humankind tried to become great on its own, to be like God. But it resulted in utter failure.
   Greatness would come only through Yahweh's initiative. Yahweh took that initiative with Abraham. Israel's history is interpreted as illustration and fulfillment of the promises made to him. "I will make your name great" (12:2) becomes the prefiguring of the great name of David and Israel (2 Samuel 7:9-16).
   The unconditional promise made to Abraham, from the perspective of the Yahwist at the Davidic court, echoes the promise Yahweh made to David. The promises were made without demands, as a gift from the divine king to his favored "son." Even when the recipient demonstrates himself unworthy, the promise is not withdrawn.
   The promise, however, was not intended to be a merit badge worn with self-satisfaction. It was unearned. But it was to be worn as a reminder of responsibility. Abraham, and hence David and all Israel, were chosen to be an instrument of blessing: "Through you all families of the earth shall bless themselves/be blessed." This universal intent was certainly reinforced and justified when the Yahwist prefaced the national story with the "all-world" Primeval Story, Genesis 2.11
   The optimism of the royal court is certainly communicated in this vision of national destiny. Yahweh was working out his universal plan through Israel. The Yahwist never flagged in his zeal for this mission: to extend the blessings of Yahweh to the other nations. Only later, when the shortcomings of the Davidic dynasty became evident and competing theologies demanded a hearing, was there a challenge to this vision. The first to offer a counterview was the Elohist writer.