Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)

Gerald A. Larue


Chapter 13 - J and the Law

IT has been noted that Solomon's time was marked by great literary activity and, if one can generalize from the Gezer Calendar, literacy may have been widespread.1 In addition to the material pertaining to the monarchy, the so-called "J" materials came into being. J should not be treated as history, in the modern sense, but rather as a religious saga recounting myths, legends and folktales. How much of J was in written form, gathered and combined prior to this time, cannot be determined. Some legends were probably preserved in oral form as tribal recitations. Certain stories appear to be Hebraized Canaanite shrine legends, for they refer to Canaanite cult objects2 and some designations suggest shrine deities.3 Some stories, such as the flood story, can be traced back to Babylonian and Sumerian accounts and were perhaps drawn from Canaanite versions of these stories. A few passages, such as Gen. 4:23-the song of Lamech-come from specific tribal groups. This is to say that the J writer did not originate the material but compiled, edited and reworked sources into a great schematic framework. Three major themes appear to have been combined:

  1. Legends and myths pertaining to human beginnings, containing aetiological materials explaining why certain aspects of life are the way they are.
  2. Patriarchal narratives demonstrating that Yahweh, the creator of the heavens and earth and all that is within them, was the same deity who miraculously led the fathers of the Hebrew nation and prepared the Hebrew people for their glorious role, rejecting other neighboring groups which became subsidiaries of the Solomonic kingdom (such as the legends about Esau/Edom).
  3. The Mosaic tradition leading up to the invasion of Palestine.

Within this framework, a pattern can be discerned consisting of a series of waves, with each peak symbolizing a new beginning in Yahweh's relationships with man and each trough representing the miscarriage of the experiment.


Man is introduced as Yahweh's gardener in Eden, but is expelled when he attempts to become like the deity. Yahweh expunged this poor beginning with the flood and preserved only a righteous remnant, Noah, as the foundation for a new beginning. When Noah's descendants attempted to invade the realm of the divine, Yahweh limited mankind's powers by creating non-co-operating language groups. From one group Yahweh chose Abraham, and when the patriarch's descendants became enslaved in Egypt, a new beginning was made in the Exodus under Moses. Because the people sinned in the desert, they could not enter Palestine. Another new beginning, of which J was a part, is to be seen in the Davidic kingdom, firmly established in J's time in the promised land. If J saw signs portending failure in Solomon's reign, he gives no clear indication in his writings.

Another pattern appears in J's implication that Yahweh's efforts to work with mankind in general were unsuccessful, so the deity singled out a specific group to be identified as his own people.


It is J's concern to indicate that what had occurred in history, in the creation of the Hebrew nation, in the development of wealth and power as experienced under David and Solomon, did not "just happen" but came about through the intervention of Yahweh in human affairs. The present status of the nation could only be appreciated through a theologized version of past tradition. Furthermore, emphasis upon what Yahweh had done in the past dramatized what the relationship of the people to Yahweh in the present should be, for Yahweh was continuing to do in the present what he had done in the past.

There can be little doubt that the writer was a Judaean, a learned master of magnificent prose characterized by the direct simplicity of the folktale, the adroit use of adjectives, and the sophisticated wisdom of one who has insight into national destiny. J was proud of the Hebrew kingdom and at times exhibited a spirit of superiority as he looked upon the pre-Hebrew inhabitants of Palestine whom he called "Canaanites" (Gen. 24:3, 37), or revealed his feelings about the Bedouins ("Ishmaelites," Gen. 16:12). At times he appears to have moved toward universalism, but he actually never abandoned the nationalistic, particularistic point of view. Yahweh was the creator of all, but Yahweh was Israel's god and Israel was Yahweh's people. All the nations of all the world will secure blessing-but through Abraham (Gen. 12:3b).

While there is absolutely no hint provided as to authorship, it is perhaps not amiss to suggest that the writer was associated with the Temple and that this great saga was used when rites of renewal and rebirth would quite properly call for a recital or dramatization of the creation account,4 perhaps at great religious festivals such as the New Year. Some parts of the narrative may have been used for other festal occasions, such as rites of enthronement in which the allegiance of the nation was pledged to the monarch in the form of a covenant ceremony, blessed and protected by Yahweh.5 It is doubtful that the saga was set apart for priestly perusal, but any suggestions as to how it may have been used are hypothetical.

Only a few clues enable scholars to suggest the reign of Solomon as the time of writing. In the first place the Deuteronomic material presumes a knowledge of J so that if the setting of Deuteronomy in the seventh century is correct then J must have been written before that time. In the second place, Gen. 27:40, which deals with Hebrew-Edomite relations suggests by the phrase "and you shall serve your brother" that Edom had been subdued, and according to II Sam. 8 this occurred during the reign of David. The subsequent part of the verse suggests that Edom had broken free from this bondage, and it has been suggested that this may have taken place in Solomon's reign when Hadad led a rebellion (I Kings 11:14-25). The only other times when an Edomitic revolt is noted are in the ninth century during the reign of Jehoshaphat when, according to I Kings 22:47, Edom was ruled by a deputy (cf., however, II Chron. 20), or during the reign of Jehoram (second half of the ninth century) when Edom won freedom (II Kings 8:20), thus giving a ninth century date for J. Because there is no hint of the division of the Hebrew kingdom into independent northern and southern units, it would seem that J should be dated in the tenth century. The physical abundance depicted in the "blessing of Jacob" (Gen. 49) and the twelve-tribe pattern also seem to reflect Solomon's era.

The following list of passages indicates those forming the core of the J saga. To read these passages without reference to the material which was later added to expand and amplify the stories is difficult, for the gaps that appear in the development of the theme are sometimes due to the incorporation of significant themes in the sections treated as additions. For example, in the Moses cycle the persecution of the Hebrews is introduced in Exod. 1:8-13, and Moses suddenly appears in 2:11-23a. Whatever stories may have been included in the early strand of tradition are gone, and at a later time the story of Moses as the hero of the Exodus was expanded by a story of the miraculous deliverance of Moses from the hostility of Pharaoh as a child (just as J has him escape as an adult in 2:15), modeled after the story of Sargon of Agade. At the same time, it is possible from the outline below to see how the writer developed his theme from creation to the time when the Hebrews were about to enter Canaan. Almost every documentary analysis is in agreement on the bulk of what is to be included in the various collections, but each scholar finds some passages that do not fit the schema. J materials listed below represent generally accepted passages. Those marked with an asterisk are, according to personal analysis, probably not J. The parenthetical remarks, also marked with an asterisk, indicate where this writer believes they belong.6


Gen. 2:4b-3:24 Creation myth.
Gen. 4:1-16 Why the blacksmith bears a trade-mark.
Gen. 4:17a The birth of Enoch (the account of Cain as a city dweller in 4:17b contradicts 4:1-16 and hence represents a different tradition).
Gen. 4:18-26 The beginnings of nomadism (note 4:26b where the beginning of Yahwism is indicated in spite of Gen. 4:1-16).
Gen. 5:29 Noah is blessed for the gift of wine (cf. Gen. 9:18-27).
Gen. 6:1-4 The sons of God and the daughters of men.
The Noah Cycle
Gen. 6:5-8 God's decision to destroy men by flood.
Gen. 7:1-5, 7-10, 12, 16b, 22-23; 8:2b-3a, 6-12,13b Noah and the flood.
Gen. 8:20-22 Noah's offering.
Gen. 9:18-27 Noah's vineyard and drunkenness.
Gen. 10:8-19, 21, 24-30 The descendants of Noah.
The Diffusion of Tongues
Gen. 11:1-9 The tower of Babel.
The Abram (Abraham)-Isaac Cycle
Gen. 11:28-30 Remnants of the Abram (Abraham) genealogy.
Gen. 12:1-4a The summons to leave home.
Gen. 12:6-9 Abram in Canaan.
Gen. 12:10-20 Abram and Sarai in Egypt.
Gen. 13:1-5, 6a, 7-11a, 12b-18 Abram and Lot.
Gen. 16:1-2, 4-8, 11-14 Abram's son Ishmael.
Gen. 18:1-16, 20-19:28 The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Gen. 19:30-38 The ancestry of Moab and Ammon.
Gen. 21:1-2a, 7 The birth of Isaac.
Gen. 21:33 Abraham at Beer-sheba.
*Gen.22:15-18, 20-24 Renewal of promise to Abraham (*15-18 appears to be a post-D redaction; 20-24 come from an unknown source).
Gen. 24:1-67 Isaac takes Rebekah as wife.
Gen. 25:1-6, 11b Abraham's other children (because this account comes as an intrusion in the J account it is often treated as a late addition.
Gen. 26:1-3a, 6-33 Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar (note the repetition of the Abraham legends. Cf. Gen.26:1-5 and Gen. 12:1-4; Gen. 26:6-11 and Gen. 12:10-20).
The Jacob Cycle
Gen. 25:21-26a The birth of Esau and Jacob.
Gen. 25:27-34 Esau sells his birthright.
Gen. 27:1-45 By deception Jacob obtains Esau's blessing (two accounts are blended; the earliest is: 27:1-10, 17, 18a, 20, 24-27a, 29b-32, 35-39a, 40a, 41-45).
Gen. 28:10-22 Jacob at Bethel (The full account is probably an expansion of the J material).
Gen. 29:1-30 Jacob marries.
Gen. 29:31-35 The birth of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.
Gen. 30:1-43 Jacob and Laban (conflation of J and E materials. Probably J=30:9-16, 22, 24b, 25, 27, 29-43).
Gen. 31:1, 3, 21a, 44, 46, 48 and parts of 51-53a Jacob's flight. The covenant with Laban.
Gen. 32:3-12, 22 Jacob prepares to meet Esau.
Gen. 33:1-17 Jacob meets Esau.
Gen. 34:3, 5, 7, 11-13, 18, 19, 25-26, 30-31. The defeat of Shechem.
Gen. 35:21-22a. Reuben and Bilhah.
Gen. 38:1-30 Tamar and Judah.
The Joseph Cycle (overlaps Jacob Cycle)
Gen. 30:22-24 The birth of Joseph (a conflation of J and E).
Gen. 37:3-36 Joseph and his brothers. (The original "J" material has been expanded. Probably J=Verses 3-4, 12-18, 21, 23, 25-27, 28b, 31-35).
Gen. 39:1-23 Joseph and Potiphar's wife.
Gen. 42 Joseph and his brothers. (An expanded J story. J=42:2, 5-7, 26-28, 38.)
Gen. 43 Joseph and the second visit of his brothers.
Gen. 44-45:4 Joseph reveals his true identity.
Gen. 45:9-14, 19, 21-24, 28; 46:28-34 Jacob comes to Joseph.
Gen. 47:1-26 Jacob settles in Egypt.
Gen. 47:29-31; 48:2b, 9b-10a, 13-14, 17-19 Jacob's blessing.
*Gen. 49:1-27 Poetic form of blessing (* from an early non-J source).
Gen. 50:1-11,14 The death and burial of Jacob.
Exod. 1:6 The death of Joseph.
The Moses Cycle
Exod. 1:8-12 The persecution of the Hebrews.
Exod. 2:11-23a Moses' flight to Midian.
Exod. 3:2-4a, 5, 7-8a, 16, 18; 4:1-16, 19-20a, 22-23 Moses is told to save the Hebrews.
Exod. 4:24-26 Yahweh tries to kill Moses.
Exod. 4:29-31 Moses convinces the Hebrews.
Exod. 5:3, 5-23; 6:1 Moses and Pharoah (references to Aaron are redactional).
Exod. 7:14-15a, 16-17a, 18, 21a, 23-25 Nile waters are turned to blood.
Exod. 8:1-4, 8-15a The swarm of frogs.
Exod. 8:20-32 The swarm of flies.
Exod. 9:1-7 The death of the cattle.
Exod. 9:13, 17-18, 23b-24, 25b-29a, 33-34 The hailstorm (9:14-16, 19-21, 29b-32 are redactions possibly added by the compiler of JE).
Exod. 10:1, 3-11, 13b, 14b-19 The plague of locusts (10:2 is a redaction).
Exod. 10:24-26, 28-29 Pharoah accedes to Moses' demands.
Exod. 11:4-8; 12:29-30 Death of Egyptian firstborn.
*Exod. 12:21-27 Passover rite (*late redaction).
*Exod. 13:3-16 Firstfruits ritual (*late redaction).
Exod. 13:21-22 Yahweh leads his people.
Exod. 14:5-7, 10-14 Pharoah's pursuit.
Exod. 14:19b-20, 24-25, 27b, 30-31 Yahweh saves his people.
Exod. 15:22-25, 27 Wilderness wanderings.
Exod. 16:4-5 Yahweh gives his people daily bread.
Exod. 17:1b-2, 7 The people thirst.
Exod. 19:2 At Sinai (2b may be E).
*Exod. 19:3b-9 Covenant terms (*a late redaction, probably Exilic).
Exod. 19:18, 20a, 21 Yahweh on Sinai.
*Exod. 24:1-2, 9-11 The Covenant meal (*a late redaction extending the idea of Exod. 18:12-E).
Exod. 32:9-14 Moses intercedes for the people.
*Exod. 32:25-34 Punishment (*verses 30-34 are the work of Rje).
Exod. 33:12-23 The glory of Yahweh.
*Exod. 34:1-28 The tablets of law, including the "ritual decalogue" (*possibly a D source reworked by Rp).
Num. 10:29-32** Moses with Hobab (here Hobab is Moses' brother-in-law. Cf. Judg. 4:11).
Num. 10:35-6 The Song of the Ark (an old poem used by J).
Num. 11:4-15, 18-23, 31-35 Quails for food.
Num. 12:16; 13:17b-20, 22-24, 26b, 28, 30-32 Spying out Canaan.
Num. 14:1, 3-4, 11-12, 31-32, 39-45 The failure of the first attack.
*Num. 16:1a, 12-15, 25-26, 27b-34 Revolt of Dathan and Abiram (*J reworked in the spirit of D).
Num. 20:1b Death of Miriam.
Num. 20:2a, 3 Lack of water.
Num. 21:1-3 The struggle at Hormah.
Num. 21:14-18, 27-30 Early poems probably preserved in J.
Num. 22:2-3a, 5-7, 17-18, 22-35a Balaam and his ass.
Num. 24:3-9, 15-19 Balaams's oracles.
Num. 25:1-5 Israel yoked to Ba'al of Pe'or.
Num. 32:34-39, 41-42 J's summary of holdings of Ga, Reuben and Manasseh.

** The J material in Numbers is so interwoven with the material that was added to expand the account that it is impossible to separate J with any certainty. The material attributed to J must be accepted as conjectural.



Read Gen. 2:4b-3:24
Just when or how the J creation myth (Gen. 2:4b-3:24) originated is not known. Because scholars believe that various older myths can be traced within the story, it is not likely that the J writers invented the story.7 As it stands in its present form, the myth describes God in anthropomorphic terms planting a pleasure park, molding man from clay as a potter might do, and blowing into man's nostrils his own breath, animating the earth that was man so that man began to breathe.8 This creature was to be a gardener and was forbidden to eat of the tree of moral knowledge on threat of immediate death (2:16 f.). Perceiving the loneliness of man, Yahweh decided to create a helper and continued to mold creatures out of clay, bringing each in turn to the man. Man named each creature (thus J explains how creatures received their specific designations) but found none that was really suited to his needs. Then God caused man to sleep and extracted a rib (perhaps J's explanation of our "floating ribs") and modeled a new creation from this part of man. When man awoke and saw this new creature, he cried "At last! This is it!" (Perhaps J implies that this is the experience of every man who falls in love.) In man's recognition that woman is "bone of my bone" and "flesh of my flesh" and in the observation of Verse 24, J implies that man is incomplete until he finds the one who represents his missing part! J's delight in punning is apparent, for the new creature is called ishshah (woman) because she was taken from ish (man).9 Man, therefore, rejected the animal kingdom in favor of the creature made from himself-woman-and perhaps J intended to provoke a smile, for in this instance woman was "born" of man.

At this point the serpent is introduced, a creature made to be a helper but rejected by man. Wiser or more cunning than the other creatures, the serpent scoffed at the prohibition pertaining to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, pointing out that eating the fruit would not bring death but would result in possession of knowledge restricted to divine beings. Thus tempted, the woman and man ate and, as the serpent had promised, found that they did not die but possessed moral knowledge. The new knowledge brought awareness of nudity and so men, unlike animals, require artificial clothing-first of leaves, then of animal skins. In guilty awareness of the violation of God's command, the couple attempted to hide. Yahweh, walking in the garden, could not find them and called them forth, and all three participants in the misdemeanor were punished. The sentences explain phenomena of life-why the serpent crawls upon its belly, why men kill snakes, why snakes bite men, why women experience pain in childbirth and yet continue to have children, why men toil so hard for a living, and why nature seems to thwart man's best efforts. Now, lest man should eat of the other tree-the tree of immortality-and become like a god, the man and his wife were expelled from the garden and prevented from re-entering by the guardian cherubim and the sword of lightening.

ImageTHE SERPENT SE-TA. The serpent is portrayed with a pair of human legs in the fifteenth century B.C. Egyptian Papyrus of Ani, the so-called "Book of the Dead."

The motifs within this story are very familiar. The mortality of man, the kinship of man and animal, the separation of man and animal,10 and the similarity of man to the gods except that man does not possess immortality are all themes within the Gilgamesh Epic. While other pre-Exilic Hebrew literature known to us ignores this story and while some scholars have argued that it should not be included within the J material,11 there is elsewhere in J (the Tower of Babel story) the theme of man seeking to enter the realm of the divine, and the Psalmists have picked up the theme of man's mortality and sub-divine status (compare Ps. 8:5; 49:20). Centuries later, Christian theologians interpreted the story in terms of man's "fall" from a pure state and although the story does tell of the expulsion of Adam from paradise (see Rom. 5), its central theme is the ascent of man through moral knowledge to a level of awareness akin to that possessed by the deity.

Read Gen. 4:1-16
The story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, is a legend relating to a specific group of people, revealing the author's belief that animal offerings (symbolic of the herdsman) are superior to agricultural offerings (symbolic of the farmer).12 The account is aetiological, explaining why the roving blacksmiths (one meaning of the name Cain is "smith") are able to roam from place to place with no strong tribe to guarantee safety and, possibly, explaining how a peculiar mark, which may have been the symbol of the smith's trade, came into being. In its present setting the story forms part of the pattern of deepening evil that culminated in the flood. In a sense, Cain and Abel are "everyman"-brothers separated by jealousy and misunderstanding that leads to violence. J indicates that man having acquired moral knowledge had not achieved moral responsibility.

Read Gen. 6:1-4
Of the stories pertaining to human beginnings, perhaps that telling of the intermarriage of divine beings and "the daughters of men" is most perplexing. Divine-human marriages were common in the mythologies of the Near East and quite often the children were mighty warriors, so perhaps J was drawing on one of these themes.13 Perhaps he saw in the story another example of man's arrogance and an attempt to achieve divinity; but God limited human life to a maximum of 120 years. It is also possible that J is attacking Canaanite cult prostitution in which the hierodules, both male and female, played the role of the deities who met with worshipers in sacred copulation rites. J notes that such relationships were the prelude to the flood. In any case, we have only a truncated myth, and J's purpose in recounting it is not clear.

Read the Noah Cycle
The source of the flood story can be traced to Mesopotamia and the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, which in turn rests upon an older Sumerian flood legend.14 It is unlikely that such a story would develop within Palestine where the Jordan flows below sea level. The obvious marks of literary borrowing and the discovery of a fragment of the Gilgamesh Epic at Megiddo from the fourteenth-century level15 suggests that the story was known in Canaan prior to the Hebrew invasion, and would have come into the J material from Canaanite sources.

Certain noteworthy differences between the Mesopotamian versions and the J account can be discerned. When the Hebrews borrowed the story, they related it to their own deity, Yahweh, discarding the polytheistic pattern of the Gilgamesh account. Furthermore, the flood in the Hebrew story came as a judgment resulting from Yahweh's regret that he had made man because of the latter's continued evil action, while in Gilgamesh mankind was to be destroyed by vote of the gods with no real reason provided.16 Finally, the hero of the Gilgamesh flood story, Utnapishtim, is rewarded with immortality for himself and his wife, while Noah and his family die as all mortals must. What the Hebrew writers borrowed they transformed in the light of their own theological convictions.

During the excavation of ancient Ur and nearby Al 'Ubaid, Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered evidence of what he interpreted as a major flood which occurred in the middle of the fourth millennium, and which covered an existing culture with a deposit of sediment to depths varying from eight to eleven feet.17 Similar deposits were found in other Mesopotamian sites, but these were from different periods. It has been argued that the Mesopotamian and biblical flood traditions may have their origin in a flood of unprecedented proportions. Woolley's interpretation of the evidence has been challenged and there are those who argue that what Woolley and others interpreted as river sediment is, in fact, a great layer of sand deposited by the dreaded idyah, a dust storm which occurs in the spring and summer in Mesopotamia, and which may lay down a thick layer of sand particles to form what is known as an "aeolian formation." The aeolian formation is quite different from river sediment. But this re-interpretation cannot be accepted as final, as the rebuttal from supporters of the Woolley hypothesis has demonstrated. We can only conclude that Mesopotamian floods did occur, that there is ample literary evidence of the disaster they brought to some settled areas and that it is quite possible that the flood traditions rest in an actual experience or series of experiences of the destruction wrought by these high waters.

Read Gen. 11:1-9
The tower of Babel story can be related to the ziggurats or temple towers of Mesopotamia. These huge, man-made mountains of sun-dried brick, faced with kiln-baked brick often in beautiful enamels, rose several hundred feet above the flat plains of Mesopotamia. Used in the worship of the various deities to whom they were consecrated, they seemed to J a fitting symbol of man's arrogant pride. Selecting the ziggurat at Babylon dedicated to Bel-Marduk, J describes the great building project as an attempt of man to invade heaven, which, in Near Eastern thought, was believed to be just above the zenith of the firmament. To thwart human ambitions, Yahweh caused men to speak in different languages, and because men who cannot speak together cannot work together, the project failed. This, J explained, was why mankind, descended from a common ancestor, Noah, spoke different languages. Once again J's delight in puns is demonstrated for God confused ( balel) man's speech at Babel, or as Dr. Moffatt's translation aptly puts it, the place "was called Babylonia" for there God "made a babble of the languages."

Read the Abraham Cycle
The patriarchal narratives begin with the story of Abraham and tell of a promise made by Yahweh that a great nation would come from Abraham's offspring (which J believed was fulfilled in his time). Placed as it is, following three failures of man to fulfill divine expectations (Adam, Noah, Babel), the Abrahamic cycle represents a new beginning, a new creation by Yahweh, centered not in mankind in general but in one individual who responds to a divine call and through whom mankind in general may receive blessing. The thrust of the story, as indicated by its location, is in the concept of election, the special choice by Yahweh of a man, and hence a people, through whom the divine intention might be realized. It is possible that the remnant motif, which plays a large role in later thought, finds its beginning here, for it is in the faithful one that Yahweh puts his trust and builds for the future.18 Where the Abraham tradition originated is not known, but most likely it came from tribal families among the Hebrews with a tradition of Mesopotamian origins. The two names for the patriarch, Abram and Abraham, may reflect separate cycles. The identification of the two names is preserved in a late priestly tradition (See Gen. 17:5).

Like other Hebrew heroes, Abraham went to Egypt19 and returned, rich in material wealth, to spend some time in the Negeb (Gen. 13:1-2). If there is any remnant of historical truth within this account, the Negeb journeys would seem to fit best into the period between the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries, a period during which, according to the great explorer and archaeologist Dr. Nelson Glueck, numerous settlements dotted the Negeb.20 Moving northward into Palestine, the families of Abraham and Lot separated. Lot went to Sodom to become the paternal ancestor of the Ammonites and Edomites.21 Abraham, after being promised the area subsequently occupied by the Davidic-Solomonic kingdoms, settled at Hebron where he is said to have founded the shrine (Gen. 13:18). Abraham became the patriarchal ancestor of the Ishmaelites, of Isaac and the tribes descended from him, and of various other unknown tribal groups.

Read the Isaac Cycle
The Isaac stories repeat many of the motifs found in the Abrahamic cycle, so it would appear that the J writer had cycles of very similar material pertaining to the patriarchs, and he combined them by making one figure the ancestor of the other. The election motif is touched with the element of the miraculous, for when Abraham's hope for posterity has faded, Isaac is born. Isaac became the paternal ancestor of the Edomites (Esau) and the Israelites (Jacob), and from Jacob came the majority of the tribes forming the Hebrew nation.

Read the Jacob Cycle
The familiar motif of an old woman bearing offspring after many years of barrenness through the gracious intervention of Yahweh appears again, this time associated with Rebekah (compare Sarah: Gen. 11:30; 16:1; Rachel: Gen. 29:31; 30:22). Rivalry between Edom and Israel, symbolized by the twins Esau and Jacob, began in the womb and the results of that struggle were predetermined by Yahweh. Like Ishmael, the first-born of Abraham, Esau, the first-born of Isaac, did not enjoy the preferential status usually associated with primogeniture (see Gen. 43:33), and this loss of stature is explained by Esau's sale of his birthright, an action that parallels an incident recorded in Nuzi texts. J does not condemn Jacob's deception of Isaac to obtain Esau's blessing, possibly because what took place was actually in accord with Yahweh's prediction and was, therefore, a fulfillment of Yahweh's will. On the other hand, there is little condemnation of trickery in J, for it was assumed that a clever person would resort to such tactics.

J's literary artistry is clearly demonstrated in depicting the rugged, hungry hunter selling his birthright for a bowl of lentils; in the picture of the bewildered, blind father seeking to assuage Esau's bitter disappointment with a second blessing; and in the interplay of characters: father, mother and sons. His delight in the play on words appears when Jacob ( Ya'akob) grabs his brother's heel ( 'akeb). The differences between the two boys, foreshadowing distinctive way of life for their descendants, is emphasized by the separateness of their habits, interests, food, attitudes and associations. Esau is the hunter, the man of the steppes; Jacob symbolizes the established farmer or herdsman, the businessman, the man given to the settled life.

Jacob's Bethel vision is undoubtedly linked to the concept of the Mesopotamian ziggurat with its stairway between heaven and earth. Even Jacob's assertion that this was the "gate of heaven" is reminiscent of the name Babylon ( Bab-ilu, "gate of gods"), a city with a great ziggurat. The story links Jacob with the important cult center at Bethel and provides an aetiological basis for the massebah that must have stood there. Archaeological research has disclosed that the city was standing during the Middle Bronze period, and it is possible that the name "Bethel" ("House of El") symbolizes its importance as a Canaanite sanctuary.22 Cult legends associating the place with the patriarchs sanctified it as a Yahweh shrine, which it was to become. What is most significant in the episode is the divine assurance of fulfillment of the election promise given to Abraham, by which J clearly keeps before the reader the line of succession for the chosen people.

Haran again becomes the center of patriarchal action in the marriage sequence when Jacob is bested by his uncle Laban. Once again J's literary skill is revealed. The communal watering hole which could not be utilized until all owners were present, was opened by a young man determined to prove himself before an attractive young woman. The substitution of Leah, the older and presumably the less comely daughter, for Rachel on the wedding night, becomes a test of Jacob's love for Rachel and, ironically enough, provides the offspring from which came the tribal groups that produced the great Hebrew leaders Moses and David.

Jacob's methods of increasing his flocks rested on beliefs in magic. Finally, financially secure, he left Laban to return to his homeland where, despite his fears, he was warmly welcomed by Esau.

The story of Judah and Tamar, which has no particular relationship to the Jacob cycle, preserves an independent tradition of the way in which the Judah tribe was saved from extinction by a wily widow. The responsibility for continuing the line of a married man who died without offspring rested with the next of kin, according to a custom known as "levirate" (husband's brother) marriage (cf. Deut. 25:5 ff.).

Read the Joseph Cycle
The Joseph traditions reflect dependency upon older Egyptian stories. The story of Potiphar's wife is like the Egyptian "Tale of the Two Brothers,"23 and the account of the seven lean years may be related to the "Tradition of the Seven Lean Years in Egypt" found in the Egyptian sources.24

Read the Moses Cycle
The election motif is continued in the Moses cycle but, with the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt, it takes on the new emphasis of salvation-history, a theological interpretation greatly expanded by later writers. The real character of Moses cannot be ascertained from J or from the expansion of his story by subsequent editors. All that remains is an interpretation of this great leader by those who wrote long after Moses had died. The participation in building Pithom and Raamses may rest upon sound historical memory. Pictures of slaves, including Syrians, making bricks have been found in the fifteenth-century tomb painting depicting the building of the temple of Amun at Karnak (cf. Exod. 5:6 ff.).

Moses is introduced as an adult, a murderer compelled to flee because his act was witnessed by a Hebrew. The sneering rebuke of the witness may reflect a lost J tradition of Moses' involvement with the royal family of Egypt or may simply imply that Moses was setting himself above others. The flight to the desert brought Moses into the family of Reuel, the Midianite. At the burning bush (note the absence of any mention of the sacred mountain), Moses was summoned by Yahweh to deliver the people from Egypt. The strange record of Yahweh's attempt to kill Moses and the rescue by the action of Zipporah, Moses' Midianite wife, is related to the origin of the rite of circumcision, possibly suggesting that Israel learned the custom from the Midianites.25 The reluctant pharaoh, finally persuaded by dramatic acts, released the Hebrews. Passages making a definite link between the Exodus and Passover and Firstfruits are often associated with the J source but may also be treated as later additions.

Yahweh's presence with the fleeing Hebrews was symbolized by pillars of cloud and fire. Just how the pursuing Egyptians were halted is not clear, except that their chariots became mired in the sea. After wandering in the wilderness, the complaining people reached Mount Sinai where, according to tradition, covenant terms and law were given. The account concludes with the abortive attempts to enter Palestine and the apostasy of the people.



As we shall see, subsequent writers expanded the role of Moses, exalting him as the founder of law, religious faith and the nation Israel. There can be little doubt that Moses played an important role in bringing at least some of the tribes into a unity centered in the worship of Yahweh and in leading his followers away from Egypt to the outskirts of Palestine. The idealization of his savior role by later generations points back to some kind of charismatic greatness. Historically, almost nothing can be known of him for certain; there remains only the impact of his personality, amplified generation by generation as men looked backward with reverent awe to their founder. To argue that Moses was a monotheist and to attempt to trace specific laws to him pushes the evidence too far.

Moses' significance lay not only in what he represented to those who knew him, but in what he symbolized to generations who never saw him and for whom the interpretation was more important than the historical fact. The legal materials attributed to Moses and often included in J appear to represent settled culture rather than rules for persons living at the edge of agricultural communities; for example, the parts of the ritual decalogue (Exod. 34:10-26) referring to the wheat harvest, ingathering festivals and firstfruit rites.



The successful management of any organization of people must proceed according to rules, and the government of a nation requires law that provides means to prevent anarchy and to guarantee justice to the people. No royal edicts and no promulgations by legal councils are found in the Bible. Nor have any law codes from ancient Palestine been found to date. Yet Saul, and more particularly David and Solomon, must have had some legal precedents to govern the land. The role of the king as arbitrator in difficult cases is hinted at in Nathan's parable (II Sam. 12), in the case of the woman of Tekoa (II Sam. 14) and in Absalom's contentions (II Sam. 15:1-5). It seems probable that Hebrew administrative policy and law was built upon existing Canaanite precedents, although no such codes are known to us.

Many laws are contained within the Pentateuch but just when and how these laws developed is a moot question. A basic principle to be remembered in the study of the history of law is that legal rulings do not precede the conditions they seek to control. Law develops out of situations, not before them. Therefore, laws pertaining to problems of settled culture cannot be of Mosaic origin but, being in existence in Canaan when the Hebrews entered the land, were adopted and adapted. To argue that Moses prescribed for conditions which the Hebrews would encounter upon entering the land ignores the variations that occur in the laws ascribed to Moses, and the disarrangement of the laws indicates that the legal prescriptions developed over a period of time and were not uttered at one moment. As Johs. Pederson has put it: "When everything authoritative is Mosaic, then every generation will naturally lend to the time of Moses its own manner of living and thinking."26

The discovery of Oriental codes much older than those of the Bible, yet prescribing laws similar to those found within the Bible, has helped scholars to understand better the nature of Hebrew law. The Imperial law code of King Hammurabi of Babylon, coming from the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, was discovered by the French in 1901-02. Hammurabi's laws were not an original creation but reveal development, for it can be demonstrated that the Hammurabi code is related to the law code of King Lipit-Ishtar of the city of Eshnunna who lived in the nineteenth century B.C. Behind Lipit-Ishtar's law code, it can be assumed that older formulations of law stand, extending back into Sumerian times.27 Both the Hammurabi code and the Lipit-Ishtar code indicate that the laws had divine sanction. The stele upon which the Hammurabi laws were inscribed depicts, in a relief, the monarch receiving authority to enact law from Shamash, the sun god and patron of justice. In like manner King Lipit-Ishtar, in the prologue to his law code, indicates that he was summoned by the god Enlil to establish justice in the land which he proceeded to do in accordance with the divine command.28 Just how the laws were supposed to have been imparted to the monarchs is not revealed, but the point was that the directions or laws for the guidance of human affairs were given by the gods and therefore were superior to the intentions and desires of any single human being. In the same way, the Hebrew people declared that their laws came from Yahweh and were to be obeyed.

Within the Old Testament two different kinds of law are to be found. The first, known as casuistic law, presents the ruling in a conditional formula beginning "If a man . . ." or "When a man . . ." etc. (cf. Exod. 22:lf., 10f.). This pattern of presentation is found in codes throughout the ancient Near East and in the Bible probably reflects laws current among the pre-Hebrew inhabitants of the land.29 The other form of law, called apodictic law, sets the ruling in a terse statement of prohibition or command: "You must not . . ." or "You shall not . . ." or "You shall . . ." (cf. Exod. 23:18, 19). While apodictic law is found in other ancient law codes, it does appear in far greater measure in the Old Testament than elsewhere. It is therefore proper to suggest, as many scholars have done, that these laws, particularly those involving the name of Yahweh, represent original Hebrew law,30 although it is impossible to know just when these laws may have originated.

Within the Bible one of the oldest collections of law is embodied in what is known as "The Covenant Code," which has been given a literary setting in the midst of a covenant ceremony involving Moses and Yahweh (cf. Exod. 20:22-23:33). Quite obviously, the editors sought to give divine sanctions to these laws. As these laws reflect festivals relating to an agricultural economy, they cannot be earlier than the Hebrew invasion of Palestine and most probably reflect an ancient Canaanite code which was Hebraized. Such laws of the harvest festival as the law of the firstfruits (Exod. 22:29b-30), the law of the Sabbath (Exod. 23:12), the festival laws related to the feasts of the unleavened bread, the firstfruits and the ingathering (Exod. 23:15-19a) are listed with other early rulings such as the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk (Exod. 23:19b).31 How many other laws belong to a very early period is a matter of debate, for the setting in which they now appear is late and reflects the work of editing. 




Punishment in Hammurabi's Code

Punishment in The Covenant Code

Thief is put to death. Exod. 22:2-3. If the thief is injured or killed during darkness there is no blood guilt on his killer.


In murder cases: death penalty.
In sorcery cases: ordeal by water.
In property cases: according to the individual case.
Exod. 23:1-3. Perjury prohibited and no penalty given.
Restitution 10 to 30-fold. Exod. 22:1. Restitution 2 or 4 or 5-fold.
Thief is put to death. Exod. 21:16. Thief is put to death.
The son loses his hand. Exod. 21:15 The son is put to death


The lex talionis (law of retaliation) is invoked among equals; fines are paid when a noble strikes a freeman or slave. Exod. 21:20-27. The lex talionis is invoked among equals; freedom is granted to a slave permanently injured.


A fine is paid for the death of the fetus. If the woman dies, restitution is made in silver, but if she is a noblewoman the killer's daughter is put to death. Exod. 21:22. A fine is paid. If physical injury occurs to the mother the lex talionis is invoked.


No penalty unless the ox was known to be a gorer and then reparations are paid. Exod. 21:28-32. If an ox known to be a gorer kills a man, the ox and its owner are killed. If a slave is gored the ox is killed and reparations paid.

It is possible to surmise the probable sources of Hebrew law and to suggest that codification began during the period of the early monarchy, although it is impossible to determine which laws may have come from that time. The process appears to have involved the adoption of certain Canaanite civil and agricultural laws which probably reflected the effects of Egyptian control and the proximity of Mesopotamian culture; the modification of Canaanite jurisprudence by tribal traditions (cf. Judg. 19-20) ; the role of king as interpreter and enforcer of law; and contributions from prophetic and priestly circles. Some form of national code must have developed, and there can be little doubt that it is preserved in part in the Bible.

The abundance of religious law designed to guide the professional in the various responsibilities of the priesthood, may have originated in guidance-giving oracles. The placing of all law within the framework of a God-given code reflects the conviction that the nation-including its coming-into-being, its organization and administration and the status of every individual within it-was, so to speak, under Yahweh.


  1. The Gezer Calendar, found in 1908 during the excavation of Gezer and usually described as a schoolboy's "exercise tablet," is an inscription in soft limestone in late Iron I script listing agricultural activities or seasons. The pattern is reminiscent of "Thirty days hath September. . . ."
  2. Cf. Gen. 12:6; 13:18; 18:1, where references are made to "terebinths."
  3. Cf. "El-roi," the god of Beer-lahai-roil Gen. 16:13 f.; "El Olam," god of Beer-sheba, Gen. 21:33.
  4. Cf. Part Seven, chap. 23, the references to the Akitu festival.
  5. Prior to the construction of the temple such a ritual may have been performed at Shechem in the temple of Ba'al-berith (Judg. 8:33; 9:4), or El-berith, "the covenant god" (Judg. 9:46).
  6. Some analyses are similar to those proposed by F. V. Winnett, The Mosaic Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949).
  7. For example, vs. 8 is repeated in vs. 9, vss. 10-14 interrupt the sequence and vs. 24 appears to conclude a section. Vss. 3:17c, 19ab and 3:18, 19c, reflect a combination of differing conclusions, the first referring to an agricultural community, the second to a Bedouin way of life. Man is expelled from the garden in 3:23 and again in 3:24, etc.
  8. The breath should not be interpreted as "soul" but rather as the vitalizing principle in life: plants, animals, and men. In the mind of the J writer, man is simply animated earth, and he distinguishes between body and life rather than between body and soul. Cf. von Rad, Genesis, trans. by John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 75.
  9. The term translated "man" elsewhere in this story is adam and here again J has a pun for adam (mankind) is made from adamah (the reddish mother earth).
  10. Cf. the separation of Enkidu from the animals in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 1.
  11. Cf. Pfeiffer, op. cit., p. 160.
  12. A similar rivalry is found in the Sumerian story of Dumuzi and Enkimdu; cf. ANET, p. 41.
  13. Cf. Gilgamesh Epic where Gilgamesh is the child of a goddess and a human father and is a great fighter, Hercules in Greek mythology, etc.
  14. Cf. A. Parrot, The Flood and Noah's Ark, E. Hudson (trans.) (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955); A. Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, a Phoenix Book, 1946 and 1963).
  15. D. J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans, I958), p. 13.
  16. In the so-called "Atrahasis Epic," the noise made by man disturbed the gods and brought on the flood. Cf. E. A. Speiser's translation of "Atrahasis" in ANET, p. 104.
  17. Woolley's thesis is presented in L. Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1950), chap. 1, and A. Parrot, The Flood and Noah's Ark, pp. 13ff. The challenge is published in Martin A. Beek, Atlas of Mesopotamia, H. H. Rowley (ed.), D. R. Welsh (trans.) (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), p. 12, and the rebuttal is by M. E. Mallowan, "Noah's Flood Reconsidered," Iraq, XXVI (1964), pp. 62-82.
  18. Cf. G. A. Danell, "The Idea of God's People in the Bible" in The Root of the Vine (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1953), pp. 23-36.
  19. Nomadic peoples frequently entered Egypt; cf. Papyrus Anastasi VI, "The Report of a Frontier Official," ANET, P. 259.
  20. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, pp. 68 ff.
  21. According to this tradition Sodom would appear to be to the north of the Dead Sea for Abraham and Lot are pictured standing between Ai and Bethel, and Lot went eastward from this spot.
  22. G. von Rad, Genesis, p. 281, suggests there may have been a god named "Bethel."
  23. Cf. John A. Wilson, "The Story of the Two Brothers," ANET, pp. 23 ff.
  24. John A. Wilson, "The Tradition of the Seven Lean Years in Egypt," ANET, pp. 31 f.
  25. For a summary of different interpretations cf. J. C. Rylaarsdam, "Exegesis: Exodus," The Interpreter's Bible, I, 882.
  26. J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (Copenhagen: Povl Branner, 1926), I-II, 18.
  27. Cf. T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins, chap. 2.
  28. Cf. ANET, p. 159.
  29. The similarity between Hebrew law and the Hammurabi code has been commented upon many times. Cf. T. J. Meek in the footnotes to the translation of the Hammurabi code in ANET, pp. 164-180.
  30. Wm. F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, pp. 267 f., goes too far in insisting that apodictic laws are unique in Israel. Cf. T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins, pp. 72 f., for a modification of this concept.
  31. This law is often understood as a protest against a Canaanite practice recorded in the Ras es-Shamra texts. Cf. Cyrus Gordon, "Canaanite Mythology" in Mythologies of the Ancient World, S. N. Kramer (ed.) (Chicago: Quadrangle Books Inc., 1961), p. 186.
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