Story Line. The Elohist source is the most difficult source to handle. It is certainly more fragmentary than the Yahwist source, probably because where it duplicated the Yahwist source its version was dropped. It was perhaps designed to be a corrective supplement to the Yahwist source. In any case, there is more controversy about the Elohist than about any other source in the Pentateuch. Some scholars dispute that it ever existed. They suggest that the Elohist was not a continuous source but only the residue of some editing done by a group of priests from northern Israel who supplemented the Yahwist. Westermann (1976) claims that the so-called Elohist material does not come from a common source but is a pot pourri from a variety of different places.
Nonetheless, there may be enough evidence to suggest that an Elohist source once did exist. For instance, doublets of certain basic story plots are found, and the duplicates evidence the characteristic vocabulary of the sources. The patriarch who tells a prominent foreigner that his wife is his sister so that he would not be killed for her is found in both Yahwist (Genesis 12:10-20 and 26:7-11) and Elohist (Genesis 20:1-18) versions. Also, certain narratives contain a combination of both Yahwist and Elohist material, suggesting that both traditions had the same story and were later combined. Examples of this are Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:10-22), Moses's calling (Exodus 3), and the theophany at Sinai (Exodus 19).
The Yahwist uses the divine name Yahweh from the very beginning. In contrast, the Elohist is more historically accurate. In his account (as also in the Priestly account), the name Yahweh was first revealed to Moses just before the exodus. So in his stories before the time of Moses he uses the divine name Elohim, the more generic Hebrew way of referring to God.
Beginning with Exodus 3, however, it is especially difficult to tell the difference between Yahwist material and Elohist material. Beginning at that point both use the divine name Yahweh. Usually, though, we can still identify them by their characteristic vocabularies, styles, and themes.
Major Episodes of the Elohist Source
|Sarah as Sister||Genesis 20:1-18|
|Sacrifice of Isaac||Genesis 22:1-10, 16b-19|
|Jacob wrestles with God||Genesis 32:22-32|
|Joseph Short Story||Genesis 37-50 (with J and P)|
|Exodus and Sinai|
|Burning Bush||Exodus 3:1-15 (with J)|
|Exodus from Egypt||Exodus 13|
|Wilderness Incidents||Exodus 17-18|
|Ten Commandments||Exodus 20:1-17 (with P)|
|Book of the Covenant||Exodus 20:18-23:33|
|Covenant Ceremony||Exodus 24:1-18 (with P)|
|Golden Calf||Exodus 32-33|
|Complaints and Disputes||Numbers 11-12|
|Balaam and the Moabites||Numbers 22-24|
Style. The distinguishing vocabulary of the Elohist writer includes using Jethro to refer to Moses' father-in-law (Reuel or Hobab in the Yahwist). Instead of Sinai as the place of covenant making (as in the Yahwist and in the Priestly source), the Elohist calls it the mountain of Elohim or Horeb.
The Elohist is fond of using repetitions when God is calling someone, for example, "Abraham, Abraham" (Genesis 22) and "Moses, Moses" (Exodus 3). And the preferred response is "I'm here".
The Elohist source does not have any preancestral stories: no stories of creation or the universal origins of humankind. Perhaps this indicates that the Elohist was more narrowly focused on Israel as the people of God. The Yahwist, in contrast, had a universal interest. Abraham was called to be a blessing to the nations. According to the Elohist, Israel was called to be God's people, exclusively devoted to him.
The Elohist is hesitant to criticize the ancestors and leaders (except Aaron). The story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 20) is instructive in this regard. The Elohist implies that Abraham is at least technically correct, if not entirely candid, when he says to Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. When the Yahwist tells basically the same story in Genesis 12 he does not leave Abraham any room for doubt like the Elohist, but instead implies his guilt.
Coming to faith and living the life of faith were not easy in the view of the Elohist. God initiated trials and tests to hone the faith of God's people. Abraham was tried, Israel was tested. But God always provided, in the end. The Elohist had a special interest in the faith and obedience of the covenant people. He was concerned that the people be obedient first of all to God. That obedience is crystalized in the phrase "the fear of God" in the Elohist stories. Virtually every story has a moral about fearing God. No doubt it recommends the attitude of fearing God because of the propensity, especially of people in the north, to offend the God of Israel by worshiping Baal of the Canaanites.
Theology. The Elohist emphasized the transcendent nature of God. There are no direct encounters between God and the people, as in the Yahwist account. When God does come to people, he typically does so in dreams, visions, or by messengers, and always from a distance. When God appears, it is in the form of a cloud or a flame. And even when he appears personally to Moses (Exodus 33), Moses sees only God's back. Consistent with this fear of the presence of God, it is the Elohist who tells us that no one can look at God and live (Exodus 33:20).
Another distinctive feature of the Elohist is his concern with prophecy and hearing God. The premonarchic heroes of the faith, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, are portrayed as prophets. They show tremendous respect for God and "fear" him. When they approach God, they do so by using the appropriate ritual forms. The Elohist's interest in prophets and prophecy suggests that he might have had significant contact with the prophetic circles in Israel, probably the circles associated with Elijah and Elisha, who were prophets in northern Israel in the ninth century B.C.E.
The Elohist highlights Moses as the spiritual leader of the people. Moses had an indispensible role in mediating the covenant. The Elohist does not talk at all about a covenant with Abraham as the basis of God's future relationship with the Israelites. Rather, the Mosaic covenant established at Horeb (the Elohist way of referring to Mount Sinai) is the basis of the people's bond with God.
The Elohist pays particular attention to Israel's special covenantal relationship with God. He stresses that the covenant community God formed with Israel at Horeb in Moses' day is more fundamental than the ruling arrangement with the Davidic dynasty in Judah, or the newly shaped dynasties in the Northern Kingdom. The Elohist was not awed by powerful governmental structures, as was the Yahwist of the Davidic court. He was more critical of the establishment and the powers that be.
The Elohist points out God's special interest in Israel. He tells how God acted decisively to preserve his people at critical junctures in their history. In the Elohist portion of the Joseph story, Joseph remarked to his brothers that what they had done to him was part of God's plan to preserve a remnant during the devasting famine (Genesis 45:5-7). The story of the faithful midwives Shiphrah and Puah "who feared God" (Exodus 1:15-21) tells how they helped to preserve the family of Jacob during hard times in Egypt.
In summary, the Elohist suggests that Israel must fear God and be obedient. That obedience must be shaped by the covenant. God is present to his people, but at a distance and in a veiled way, because he is so terrifying.