Priestly Document

Story Line. The Priestly writer contributed a great deal of material to the Pentateuch. Priestly material is found throughout the first four books, from the primeval story of Genesis to the book of Numbers.
   Priests who survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. were concerned that the story of God and his people not disappear. They also wanted to preserve and even revive traditional religious practices. They felt that neglect of such religious practices was the major reason God punished Israel with the Babylonian exile. Maybe if they were diligent, they reasoned, it would not happen again.
   Instead of concentrating on Israel's historical traditions, P deals more with formal religion and worship, the priesthood and its regulations, genealogies, and sacrificial practices; in short, everything that enabled the community to maintain a right relationship with God and retain its identity in the face of changing times.

Major Episodes of the Priestly Document
Story ComplexEpisodeReference
Primeval Story
CreationGenesis 1:1-2:4
Geneology of SethGenesis 5:1-28, 30-32
FloodGenesis 6-9 (with J)
Table of NationsGenesis 10
Geneology of ShemGenesis 11:10-27
Ancestral Story
Covenant of CircumcisionGenesis 17
Abraham buys MachpelahGenesis 23
Joseph StoryGenesis 37-50 (with J and E)
Exodus and Sinai
Call of MosesExodus 6-7 (with J)
ExodusExodus 12-14 (with J and E)
Tabernacle designExodus 25-31
Tabernacle constructionExodus 35-40
Cultic regulationsLeviticus 1-27
Sinai wrapup, departureNumbers 1-10
Wilderness Experiences
SpiesNumbers 13-14 (with J)
Rebellion of KorahNumbers 16 (with J)
LevitesNumbers 17-18
Red HeiferNumbers 19
Baal Peor sinNumbers 25 (with J)
AppendicesNumbers 26-36

Style. Not the storyteller that the Yahwist was, the Priestly writer is more interested in discerning order and structure in God's plan for the world. This concern for order extends all the way from his story of creation, through the genealogies, into the categories of sacred and profane, pure and impure, clean and unclean.
   The Priestly writer did have a sense of history, and was very attentive to historical progression. This can be seen, for example, in his designations for God. God reveals himself progressively in history, and each major stage of the Priestly source is marked by a self-consciously appropriate divine name. The first stage is creation. Elohim is used to refer to God. Elohim is the generic name for God and has connotations of power and distance, consistent with P's rendition of creation.
   The second stage is the ancestral period. Elohim revealed himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1). We are not sure what this name means. It could be "God of the mountain" or "Mighty God," but it was used uniquely in this age, and uniquely by P. The third stage is the Mosaic era, when Elohim revealed his personal name Yahweh to Israel through Moses (Exodus 6:2-3).
   The Priestly writer has a set of stock phrases that distinguish his writing. Some of them are as follows:

  • "to be fruitful and multiply"
  • "throughout your generations"
  • "this very day"
  • "to establish a covenant," as opposed to "to cut a covenant" in JE "this is the thing that YHWH commanded"
    In addition, the Priestly writer uses different technical vocabulary from the Yahwist or Elohist writers--for example, the words for person, congregation, tribe, and words for different types of property.

Theology. The Priestly source emphasizes the continuity of God's care for Israel as demonstrated in its history. This is evident in certain pervasive themes:

    Blessing. Blessing is something God does for the world. It is an expression of his favor. There are four epochs of blessing in the Priestly History. Each epoch of blessing is a stage in the development of God's interaction with his creation, culminating in blessing to Israel.

      Humanity
      "And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'" (Genesis 1:28)
      Noah
      "And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.'" (Genesis 9:1-2)
      Abraham
      "I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." (Genesis 17:8)
      Israel
      "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. . . . I am God Almighty: Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a group of nations will come from you; kings will come from your virility." (Genesis 35:10-11)
    Word of God. Each of these stages of God's involvement with his world was driven by the spoken word of God. God's word brought the world into being (Genesis 1), it made a covenant with Noah after the flood (Genesis 9) and later with Abraham (Genesis 17), and finally drew up the national covenant with Israel (Exodus 20).

    Presence of God. The Priestly source added a great deal of material relating to the presence of God among his people. It described in great detail the design and making of the ark of the covenant and the religious rites that would ensure that God would remain among his people.

   What was the theological vision of this writer? What did he believe about God and the world? He envisioned a world ordered and controlled by God. Israel's history progressed according to a plan predetermined by God. God was in total control, and the world was secure and stable. The relationship between God and Israel was ordered by covenant.
   Even if for some reason Israel alienated itself from God, there were sacrifices and rituals whereby a proper relationship could be reestablished. While on the one hand Yahweh was a demanding God, on the other hand he really only wanted to bless Israel. These assurances inspired hope in the hearts of an exilic Israel struggling to keep hope alive.