Category Archives: torah

Who Wrote the Torah? JEDP

(This post is basically a compilation of various sources)


While tradition asserts that Moses was the author of the Torah (or Pentateuch), modern scholarship sees at least four different authors: JEDP. “J” stands for “Jahwist” or “Yahwist”, the author from the southern kingdom of Judah who prefers to write the Four Letters YHWH. “E” stands for “Elohist” and is from the northern kingdom of Israel. This author prefers the more generic Canaanite term for god “El” or “Elohim”. “D” stands for “Deuteronomist”; a reformist from king Josiah’s (or Josiah himself) court. “P” stands for “Priestly”, a writer who focuses on authentic priestly duties and lineage; sacrifices to YHWH or El could only be done by a priest from the tribe of Aaron, Moses’ brother. Thus any priestly duties occurring before the covenant on Sinai — like the enigmatic Melkitsedek (or Melchizedek) in Genesis 14 — would not have been written by P. There are actually arguments that Genesis 14 wasn’t written by any of the four streams due to the strange name. Melkitsedek can be liberally translated as “my righteous king”; Melkitsedek is both a king and a priest. This doesn’t happen in the history of Israel and Judah until Maccabean times (c. 150 BCE).

In P, only priests in the lineage of Aaron are people with access/communication to God. There are no angelic visitations, dreams, talking animals, or anything else like that. All the other sources include God communicating with people via these means. E and D both repeatedly refer to prophets and prophesy. Neither P nor J ever does (P uses the word once – metaphorically – to refer to Aaron himself). P never mentions judges – only allowing Aaronid priests to mediate. P also does not classify non-Aaronid Levites as priests, and only allows the Aaronids to have access to the Urim and Tummim. P only allows atonement for sins via sacrifices brought to Aaronid priests. In short, in P sources, the Aaronid priests and only the Aaronid priests have access to God. In D, on the other hand, all Levites are considered priests.

In P, as mentioned, the only contact with God is through priests. God never appears in person. He is never referred to as merciful or kind – indeed, the words “mercy”, “kindness”, “grace” and “repentance” are never used in P. The God described in P is implacable and all stories about him refer only to his wrath and justice; never to positive character traits. All the stories with positive (and more human) character traits of God are in J and E. In J, on the other hand, God makes frequent personal appearances. He walks in the garden in Eden, personally makes Adam and Eve’s clothes, personally closes the door of the Ark, and so on. In E as well, God wrestles with Jacob and appears personally to Moses. In P, on the other hand, God never makes a personal appearance.

J and P both refer to Mount Sinai repeatedly. E and D refer to it as Mount Horeb. There are no exceptions to this.

J and E range from 700-622 BCE, D to 622 BCE, P from 587-539 BCE, and the joining up done sometime around 450 BCE (although there is a good argument to suggest that tinkering with the text continued well into Hellenistic times). It is important to remember that nothing in the Torah (well… there are some poems like the Song of Miriam) is as old as Homer. These four authors also did not come from a vacuum, their theology was formed from pre-existing Canaanite theology and pantheon. Along with El (Elyon, or “El Most High”) and YHWH, the Canaanite pantheon included YHWH’s wife Asarah (or Asherah), Baal, Chemosh, Shalim, Shachar (“shachar” means “dawn”, and appears in Isaiah 14:12 [“dawn”]; the taunt song in Isaiah 14 is an old Canaanite song), and many others.

Basically, J and E were written independently, telling the same stories with slightly different emphases. At some point these were edited together into a single JE document. Some time after the writing of the first documents, a P document was written – telling the same stories but with a very different theological basis. Some time later still, a D document was written telling the more recent history of Judah and Israel, and claiming that they were once a unified kingdom, which fits with the period after the Assyrian conquest of Israel c. 720 BCE and the archaeological emergence of Judah due to Israelite refugees fleeing south. The tensions between the two nations before Assyrian conquest was apparent in such places as Isaiah 7:10-16. At some point after this, all four documents were edited together into a single document that became the Torah we know.

This might seem contrary to what’s taught in Sunday School, but just like most religions, there’s a separation between the religion practiced by the common people and the religion practiced by the priests. Analogous to modern times, there’s a huge gulf between the Christianity learned and taught by seminaries and Biblical scholars (“scholarly” Christianity) and the common person’s Christianity (“popular” Christianity). The same sociological context was extant in ancient Israel and Judah. Popular Judaism of ancient I&J was more polytheistic, acknowledging YHWH and his wife Asarah whereas the priestly Judaism of ancient I&J leaned more towards henotheism or monolatry. Of course, the priests controlled the texts since they were the ones writing them and eventually Priestly Judaism won out. Hence all of the Asarah bashing by D and P; archaeology shows a lot of veneration of Asarah by the common people.

If we look at all the J texts, they are consistent in that people started to call God YHWH right from the beginning (Gen 4:1 and Gen 4:26). The P and E texts, however, are both consistent in that people only started to call God YHWH when he revealed his name to Moses (Ex 6:2-3). Additionally, whilst the J author does call God Elohim, he only ever does this whilst narrating events – he never has a character refer to God as Elohim.

Multiple temples…

The letters from Elephantine show that both the Judean and Samaritan (capitol of the northern kingdom of Israel) temples coexisted. The Elephantine letters also strongly suggest that the holiday of passover was started during or after the Babylonian exile.

A recent carbon-dating of materials that come from a specifically locations in Israel (Megiddo K6 and Lachish VI — the numbers indicate strata) provides an uncalibrated dating range of 1194-1114 BCE. The Philistine pottery at those sites at those levels date early Philistine presence to that time. [I. Finkelstein & E. Piasetsky, “Radiocarbon Dating and Philistine Chronology”, Egypt and Levant XVII, ed M. Bietak, Vienna 2007]

A reading of Judges doesn’t know anything about the arrival of the Philistines on the Levantine coast. In fact, in Genesis the Philistines are already in the Levant at the time of Abraham and Isaac. The arrival of the Philistines was such a serious event in the area that soon after that time the Egyptians had lost control of the coastal area and later the uplands as well.

The bible knows nothing about the arrival of the Philistines, yet if a culture was there at the time they couldn’t miss such a presence. I’d have to conclude that there was no maintained tradition that reached back as far as the arrival of the Philistines, for if there had been, you’d expect the bang to be recorded. Instead, you have the local population (without sign of a recent arrival of its own) becoming aware of the Philistines as its awareness spread beyond its little world around Jerusalem and then the wider uplands area.

This suggests that this group of people as a cultural entity doesn’t go back as far as the arrival of the Philistines. (This seems to match the linguistic evidence that the Phoenicians were the earliest separation from the Canaanite group of languages and Hebrew was a later, more conservative split.)


YHWH vs. El

It is very common for people to point out the fact that “Elohim” is a plural, and therefore claim that all the places in the Torah where the word is used must be referring to multiple gods rather than a single god.

This is naive and wrong.

Similarly, it is also common for people to say that although “Elohim” is a plural, its use is like that of the “royal we” (for example Queen Victoria’s famous “We are not amused” quote) and refers to someone who is important enough to speak about themselves in the plural. Therefore, any usage of the word Elohim must be referring to a singular god – the God of the Christians.

This is also naive and wrong. The Hebrew language does not have such a grammatical construction.

So how should the word be treated?

The word is grammatically a plural, and as such it demands plural verb forms. However, the same word is used as a singular.

The best way to think of this is like the English word “Scissors”. We never talk about “a scissor”. Even when referring to a single item, we still refer to it as “some scissors”. We use plural verb forms too – for example we say “The scissors are over there” rather than “The scissors is over there”.

It is not quite the same, since we can also refer to scissors as a pair of scissors, but hopefully the similarity is enough to make the analogy work.

So how do we know whether to translate “Elohim” as “gods” or “god”? The simple answer is that we don’t. Again, this is similar to the English. If someone says “The car is over there”, you know that they are only talking about one car. If they say “the cars are over there” then you know they are talking about more than one car. However, if someone says “The scissors are over there” you don’t know if they are talking about one pair of scissors or many pairs.

We must use the context in which the word is used. If the verse(s) in question talk about “Elohim” and then say that “he” did or said something then it is safe to assume that it is talking about a single god. If the verse(s) talk about “Elohim” and then say that “they” did something then it is safe to assume that it is talking about multiple gods.

Of course, in the Torah, there are many places where neither assumption is safe…

Anyway, on to actual references.

Here is Psalm 82, in the ASV translation:

82:1 God standeth in the congregation of God; He judgeth among the gods.
82:2 How long will ye judge unjustly, And respect the persons of the wicked? Selah
82:3 Judge the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
82:4 Rescue the poor and needy: Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
82:5 They know not, neither do they understand; They walk to and fro in darkness: All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
82:6 I said, Ye are gods, And all of you sons of the Most High.
82:7 Nevertheless ye shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes.
82:8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; For thou shalt inherit all the nations.

Now this passage already has polytheistic themes in it, with the talk of God “judging amongst the gods”.

However, it is obvious from reading this that the translation of verse 1 is somewhat tortured – as if someone is trying to find a monotheistic interpretation of it.

If we look at the Hebrew, a direct translation would be…

‘Elohim’ stands in the council of ‘El’ and judges the ‘Elohim’

Here, the first “Elohim” is fairly clearly supposed to be “God”, and the second is fairly clearly supposed to be “gods”. So a better translation would be:

“God stands in the council of El and judges the gods”

This is clearly polytheistic. Particularly if we look at verse 6 too.

This psalm actually shows Canaanite polytheistic belief and their pantheon. The archaeological records that we have from various other Canaanite tribes (of which the Hebrews were one) shows that they had a pantheon consisting of El, the chief god, and his children, which included Baal, Dagon, Chemosh, As[h]arah, Mot, YHWH and others.

Interestingly, Ugarit inscriptions from the time show Asarah as being YHWH’s wife, as well as his sister. Which is a strange coincidence being that Abraham’s wife was also presented as his sister, and the difference between the names of the two being the letter “aleph” (ASRH אשרה [aleph-shin-resh-he] “As[h]arah” and SRH שרה [shin-resh-he] “S[h]arah”).

The Hebrew tribe(s), being native to Canaan (there was no Exodus), had YHWH as a patron, and this psalm appears to show YHWH standing in his father’s court judging his siblings. The “Most High” in verse 6 is “El-yon” or “El most high”.

A similar view (where El is the chief god and YHWH is one of his children) is shown in Deuteronomy 32:8-9

32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the children of men, He set the bounds of the peoples According to the number of the children of Israel.
32:9 For Jehovah’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

Again, the reference is to to “El-yon” translated here as simply “the Most High”. This verse shows El portioning off the various tribes amongst his children, specifically giving Jacob’s tribe to YHWH.

This is the standard reading of the traditional Hebrew text, which we refer to as the Masoretic (MT). It is the basic translation that will be found in the King James Version. However, scholars have known for centuries that in the Septuagint (LXX) version, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament or Tanakh made in the 2nd century BCE, the last phrase reads quite differently:

‘When the most High divided the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam (or man), He set the bounds of the people, according to the number of the sons of God (NOT “Israel”!).’

Obviously, the meaning is quite different, and might even have some important theological implications. As it turns out, to the surprise of us all, the Dead Sea texts of Deuteronomy, which date from before the time of Jesus, agree with the Greek LXX version, against the traditional Hebrew text (Masoretic)! In fact, the exact Hebrew of the Dead Sea texts is most interesting, it reads literally, ‘according to the sons of El.’ This divergence from the traditional text is rare, but when it occurs it is surely significant. This means that Jesus and the other Jews of the first century read copies of Deuteronomy that read ‘according to the sons of El,’ rather than ‘according to the number of the sons of Israel.’

Apart from these passages, which support the henotheistic views that we have from inscriptions left by the other Canaanite tribes, there are other clearly polytheistic statements in the OT, such as…

EX 15:11 Who is like unto thee, O Jehovah, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders?

EX 18:11 Now I know that Jehovah is greater than all gods; yea, in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them.

DEUT 32:12 Jehovah alone did lead him, And there was no foreign god with him.

PS 86:8 There is none like unto thee among the gods, O Lord; Neither `are there any works’ like unto thy works.

PS 95:3 For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.

Which explicitly compare YHWH with other gods and give no indication that the other gods are seen as false, only that YHWH is the best god around.

Exodus 22:28 is usually translated as a singular…

EX 22:28 Thou shalt not revile God, nor curse a ruler of thy people.

However, here the word used is not even Elohim. It is Ha-Elohim – the gods. This must be taken as a plural, not a singular. The correct translation of this verse should be “Thou shalt not revile the gods…”

Additionally, there is the story of the Exodus. In this, YHWH is explicitly described as smiting the Egyptian gods…

EX 12:12 For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Jehovah.

Now firstly this allegedly coming from YHWH’s own words – so it can’t be explained away as simply that some of his followers believed in other gods that didn’t really exist. Secondly, the apologetic that he was actually talking about smiting the statues or idols of Egypt flies in the face of the Hebrew, which uses the word “Elohim” to describe the Egyptian gods, not any of the Hebrew words for statues or idols.

It is clear that (at least to the writer of the passage) YHWH is smiting other actual gods – the gods of Egypt (whom he has already bested in “miracle competitions” to prove that he is more powerful than them).

There is also the fascinating story in 2 Kings 3 where the Moabites (who worshipped Chemosh – another son of El) are being fought by the Israelites makes a sacrifice to Chemosh and Chemosh has a “great wrath” against the Israelites and drives them back – demonstrating the henotheistic belief that each god is powerful when on his home turf.

3:26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not.
3:27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there was great wrath against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.

Of course there is finally the classic first commandment…

EX 34:14 for thou shalt worship no other god: for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:

…where YHWH does not claim to be the only god, he merely says that he is the only god who should be worshipped. He does not say “Worship me because I am the only god”. He says “Worship me because I am jealous”.

Comments Off on YHWH vs. El

Posted by on October 29, 2009 in asarah, el, henotheism, monotheism, polytheism, torah, YHWH

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