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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

An Example of a Source-Critical Argument: The Analysis of the Flood Story (Gen 6–9 ) into its sources.


Now we shall move back from theory to practice, and look at some of the detailed claims made by the classical theory associated with Wellhausen and the arguments that were used to support them. Historically, Pentateuchal source-criticism seems to have begun with the observation that Genesis opens with not one but two different accounts of creation (so already H. B. Witter in 1711): 1:1–2:3 (or 2:4a ) and 2:4 (or 2:4b)–25 ). The second repeats a number of events already described in the first, but not in exactly the same order, and with some notable differences in presentation. The difference that was to be put to most productive use in subsequent scholarship was, of course, the difference over the divine names: the fact that whereas the first account refers to God only by the word ‘God’ (᾽ělōhîm); the second used the compound phrase ‘the Lord God’ = YHWH ᾽ělōhîm, combining with the word ‘God’ the proper name by which Israel knew her God, YHWH.


According to the word used to refer to God, the second account of creation was referred to as ‘Yahwistic’ and given the symbol J. J was used (after the German form, jahwistisch) because the abbreviations were worked out in Germany and the ‘y’ sound is represented by ‘j’ in German. The first account could be and was for a time called Elohistic (E), although this description of it was given up after Hupfeld's discovery that there were two major source-documents which avoided the name YHWH in Genesis. This source is known today as the Priestly Code, or Priestly Work (abbreviated as P), because of the prominent place given to priesthood and ritual in its later parts, particularly in the books from Exodus to Numbers. The early history of mankind, prior to the Flood, is also described twice, once in the form of a series of stories (chs. 3–4, 6:1–4 ), and once in the form of a genealogy (ch. 5 ). The first of these connects directly with ch. 3 , while the second has various similarities to ch. 1 , so they were attributed to J and P respectively.


In the Flood story ( 6:5–9:17 ) things are not so tidy. Does it belong to J or P? Uses of the name YHWH do occur, but only in restricted parts of the story ( 6:5–8; 7:1–5, 16; 8:20–2 ): elsewhere the word ‘God’ (᾽ělōhîm) is employed. Thus the story is hardly typical of P, which avoids YHWH, but yet it is not typical of J either, which uses YHWH much more consistently. What is one to make of this situation? Should one attribute the Flood story to a third source occupying an intermediate position with regard to the divine names between P and J? Or has either J or P changed its practice at this point?


Careful attention to the details of the story suggests that neither of these solutions is correct. We may note that there are a surprising number of repetitions or overlaps of details in it. Thus (1) vv. 5–7 describe how YHWH saw the evil which men did on the earth and declared that he would therefore destroy the human race. When, after three verses referring specifically to Noah, we come to vv. 11–13 we find another reference, this time to God seeing the corruption of ‘all flesh’ and saying that he will therefore destroy it. (2) The paragraph then continues with instructions to Noah about how the ark is to be built (vv. 14–16), how Noah and his family are to enter it (vv. 17–18) and how he is to take a pair of every kind of living creature with him (vv. 19–21). And this, we are told, is exactly what Noah did, ‘he did all that God commanded him’ (v. 22). It therefore comes as something of a surprise when, in 7:1–4 , we find YHWH telling Noah again to enter the ark with his family and the animals, and it again being said (v. 5) that Noah did as he was told. (3) By the time we get to the actual entry into the ark we are more prepared for repetitions, and we are not disappointed: 7:7–9 make explicit that Noah, his family, and the animals entered the ark, apparently with plenty of time to spare, as it was another 7 days before the flood started (v. 10). Then the rain began (vv. 11–12), and then we are told again that Noah, his family, and the animals all went into the ark, cutting it a bit fine this time we may suppose! It is a strange way to tell a story, and there are further curiosities to follow which we must forgo because of shortage of space, as we must do also with some details of the explanation which seems to be required to do justice to them.


But let us consider again the first two cases of repetition, in a slightly different way. We have in the paragraph 6:11–22 a speech of God to Noah with introduction and conclusion, a passage which makes perfectly coherent sense. But before it are two verses which parallel vv. 11–13, and after it are five verses which parallel vv. 17–22. And the striking thing is that whereas 6:11–22 use the word God (vv. 11, 12, 13, 22), the parallel passages placed before and after it use YHWH ( 6:5, 6, 7; 7:1, 5 ). That is, we seem to have here two versions of a part of the Flood story, one of them, like the creation account in Gen 2 , using the name YHWH, the other, like the creation account in Gen 1 , avoiding it and using ᾽ělōhîm instead. But instead of being placed one after the other, as with the creation accounts, the two versions of the Flood story have been interwoven, with sections from one alternating with sections of the other. This interpretation of the situation is strengthened by two additional factors:

  • 1. tensions or contradictions within the story which seem likely to be due to the combination of two different versions of it; e.g. the number of pairs of animals taken into the ark (one pair according to 6:19–20 ; seven pairs of clean animals, i.e. those that could be eaten, and of birds, but only one pair of the unclean animals according to 7:2–3 ).

  • 2. the fact that when the whole story is analysed, one is left with two substantially complete accounts of the Flood, one showing affinities (including the name YHWH) with the second creation account and the other showing affinities with the first.

One or two details remain unclear but the majority of scholars are agreed on something very like the following analysis: (a) 6:5–8; 7:1–5, 7–10, 12, 16b–17, 22–3; 8:2b–3a , 6–12, 13b , 20–2 (= J); (b) 6:9–22; 7:6, 11, 13–16a , 18–21, 24; 8:1–2a , 3b–5, 13a , 14–19; 9:1–17 (= P) . A more detailed presentation of the argument can be found in the commentaries on Genesis by S. R. Driver (1904: 85–6) and J. Skinner (1910: 147–50); cf. Habel (1971: 14–15).


This brief but important example will give an idea of how the analysis of the Pentateuch proceeds in the classical documentary hypothesis. It is work of this kind which lies behind the lists of passages belonging to J, E, D, and P in the standard introductions to the OT. There are, it should be said, some passages where scholars have not been unanimous about the recognition of the sources, and here caution is necessary. The following sketch will give a general idea of what has been thought to belong to each of the four sources:

Genesis: Chs. 1–11 are formed from J ( 2:4b–4:26; 6:1–4 ; part of the Flood Story (see above); 9:18–27 ; parts of 10; 11:1–9 ) and P ( 1:1–2:4a ; most of 5; the rest of the Flood Story; 9:28–9 ; the rest of 10; most of 11:10–32 ); most of chs. 12–50 come from J (including 12–13; 18; most of 19 and 24), E (including most of 20–2 and 40–2), and P (17; 23; 28:1–9; 35:9–13 ; and most of the genealogies).

Exodus: Chs. 1–24 are again made up of extracts from J, E, and P. The only passages of any length which are clearly from E are 1:15–21 and 3:9–15 . P is the source of 6:2–7:13; 12:1–20, 40–51 , and various shorter passages. Traditionally the Decalogue ( 20:1–17 ) and the Book of the Covenant ( 20:22–23:33 ) were ascribed to E, but it is now widely doubted if they appeared in any of the main sources. Chs. 32–4 are usually thought to have been based on J and E (32 E; 34 J; 33 parts from both), but they may be all J except for some late editorial additions. Chs. 25–31 and 35–40 are all from P.

Leviticus: The whole book, together with Num 1:1–10:28 , is from P, though it is clear that already existing collections of laws have been incorporated in Lev 1–7 and Lev 17–26 (the latter section being known as the Holiness Code = H).

Numbers: The rest of the book, from 10:29 , is again a mixture of J, E, and P. E is most clearly present in the story of Balaam (ch. 23 and some verses in 22 ). P provided the sections of chs. 16–18 that deal with the revolt of Korah and the vindication of the Aaronite priesthood, most of 25:6–36:13 , and some other passages; again older documents (including the wilderness itinerary in ch. 33 ) have been worked in.

Deuteronomy: from the D source, with the exception of a few passages, mostly at the end. But an original core in 4:45–29:1 from pre-exilic times can be distinguished from a framework placed around it in the Babylonian Exile (so esp. chs. 4 and 29–30 ).


Fuller details can be found, (1) in commentaries, among which special mention should be made of the ‘Polychrome Bible’, published from 1893 onwards, in which the sections drawn from the various sources were marked in different colours, a custom which has been widely followed by theological students in their own copies of the Bible as an aidemémoire (The proper title of the series was The Sacred Books of the OT, gen. ed. P. Haupt. A less colourful way of achieving the same end is by using different typefaces, as in von Rad's commentary on Genesis and Noth's on Exodus in the Old Testament Library series, where the P sections are printed in italics and the rest in ordinary type); and (2) in a synopsis of the Pentateuch, like those which are produced to show the relationships between the Synoptic Gospels, though they are hard to come by in English (but see Carpenter and Harford-Battersby (1900), ii; Campbell and O'Brien (1993) gives the texts of the sources separately, but not in parallel columns).

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