The Jahwist, also referred to as the Jehovist, Yahwist, or simply as J, is one of the four major sources of the Torah postulated by the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). It is the oldest source, whose narratives make up half of Genesis and the first half of Exodus, plus fragments of Numbers. J describes a human-like God, called Yahweh (or rather YHWH) throughout, and has a special interest in the territory of the Kingdom of Judah and individuals connected with its history. J is believed to have been composed in c 950 BC and later incorporated into the Torah (c 400 BC).
The Yahwist author of Genesis was first identified in 1753 by the French physician, Jean Astruc (1684–1766) in his Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paraît que Moïse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse ("Conjectures on the Original Memoirs Apparently Used by Moses to Compose the Book of Genesis"). The term became "Jahwist" in later German scholarship, in accordance with the German transcription of the name Yahweh.
Nature of the Yahwist text
In this source God is called YHWH. Known as the tetragrammaton, scholars transliterate it as Yahweh (or as Jahweh, after the German spelling: Jahweh), and in earlier times as Jehovah. In most English translations of the Bible the tetragrammaton is replaced with the LORD. Note that the "w" sound in Yahweh is not present in modern Hebrew, as it was in earlier forms.
In J, YHWH is an anthropomorphic figure, fond of Edenic walks in the "cool of the evening," killing animals so as to clothe Eve and Adam with their pelts, able to eat the food Abram offers Him, visible face-to-face (as in the theophany on Mt. Sinai, Ex. 24:10-11), and burying Moses with his own hands. YHWH can be reasoned with, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abram haggles with YHWH over the fate of the cities. Similarly, during the exodus, YHWH, incensed by the Israelites, offers to destroy them all, and raise Moses' descendants instead, but is dissuaded by Moses. YHWH then relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened(Exodus 32: 14).
YHWH does not correspond to the normative picture of a benign God in heaven; he can be dangerous, as when he attempts to kill his newly-chosen prophet Moses at the inn (see Zipporah at the inn), potentially malign, as in the story of the Binding of Isaac, or arbitrarily withholding, preventing Moses from entering Canaan without giving reasons.
J has a particular fascination for traditions concerning Judah, including those concerning its relationship with its neighbour Edom. J also supports Judah against Israel, for example suggesting that Israel acquired Shechem (its capital city) by massacring the inhabitants. J supports the priests descended from Aaron who were established in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.
In attempting to identify the author of the Jahwist text, some orthodox Christians and Jews suggest that this original "core" of the Torah was written by Moses himself, and that the obviously post-schism pro-Judah material was added by the JE redactor to balance the pro-Israel material of the Elohist. This would put the origin of the original Jahwist text somewhere around 1300-1500 BC. This is not accepted by non-fundamentalist scholars, who on the basis of internal evidence date the Yahwist sources to the period in which the Aaronic priesthood was established and entrenched in their control over the Jerusalem temple, in the Monarchical period.
Contrast with the Elohist
The Jahwist's story probably begins with the story of Adam and Eve; the familiar Creation story, in which God creates light, is considered to be the work of P, the Priestly author, perhaps emanating from alternative oral traditions. J's creation account is now missing and we shall perhaps never know it. H. Bloom has surmised, however, that the Leviathan whose destruction is mentioned in the Psalms figured in the J's original story: the overcoming of an opposite force may therefore have been an aspect of YHWH's creating.
J introduces stories concerning the general human condition, both large tales such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, as well as brief stories, like that of the Curse of Ham, and the tower of Babel. It also includes the story of the flood, and the badly truncated, and thus difficult to interpret, story of the Nephilim.
Unlike the Elohist, the covenant involving Isaac in the Jahwist account is one in which God freely makes to an adult Isaac. The Jahwist thus contains a tale of Isaac meeting his wife, when she comes out at the provision of water, and repeats the tale of Abimelech confusing a wife for a sister with Isaac and his wife rather than Abram and his. Jacob later is described as meeting his wife in similar circumstances, his having helped some sheep to drink. This repetition may be deliberate, or may reflect variant versions of the same story being placed in the same work but with different names, possibly indicating two earlier sources on which the Jahwist work could be based.
It is noticeable that the Jahwist predominantly contains stories concerning the southern kingdom of Judah, which became an important regional centre only after the eclipse of the northern kingdom of Israel, which are not present in the Elohist source, which is more concerned with the north. For example, the Jahwist describes the tales of Esau, the eponymous ancestor of Edom, his anger against Jacob, and his reconciliation (which the Elohist also mentions), as well as a list of Edomite kings, which famously includes kings postdating Moses, the person traditionally said to have written the work, including that list of kings.
As well as Edom, the Jahwist, unlike the Elohist, is concerned with the cities of the plain, and their eponymous ancestor, Lot. The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is from the Jahwist, and demonstrates the Jahwist's very human-like god, easily dissuaded from his original intent by Abram's bargaining. The story denigrating Moab and Ammon, the nations by the plain, as being descended from an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, is also part of the Jahwist narrative.
The Jahwist also provides some tales describing the political situation of the southern tribes, the most relevant of which is the tale of the rape of Dinah, a story which both explains the ownership of Shechem, and why the tribes of Simeon and Levi lack territory. The Jahwist also seeks to explain why, despite being the firstborn, Reuben has little territory. Though the story involving Reuben and Bilhah in incest is widely regarded by academics as having been abruptly truncated during redaction, only one line of it remains in the torah.
Despite the pre-occupation with the southern tribes, the Jahwist isn't entirely favourable to Judah, as it includes tales in which all of Judah's children are in some way blemished, Er being wicked in an unspecified way, Onan refusing to perform Levirate marriage, Shelah as being childless, and Pharez and Zarah being the children of prostitution and incest. The Jahwist also humiliates the northern hero of Joseph as the victim of attempted rape by Potiphar's wife, rather than the interpreter of dreams that the Elohist presents, and also casts Moses as a murderer in his youth.
Compared with the Elohist, the Jahwist's tale extends further in time, presenting the description of how the Israelites were dissuaded from a direct invasion of Canaan by the report of spies. The Jahwist also describes the circuitous route they took instead, conquering certain eastern lands as they went, leading to the presence of Israelite tribes east of the Jordan, despite this being a northern story. It is sometimes difficult to separate the Jahwist and Elohist (unlike the very distinct Priestly source), and it may be the case that this tale actually belongs with the Elohist, the Elohist thus describing a central/northern conquest of Canaan by the northern tribes, and the Jahwist describing a southern invasion into the southern territory, the second half of the Jahwist tale, involving the invasion after the rebellion was quelled, being lost to redaction.
The Jahwist's religious concerns differ from those of the Elohist - it is the Jahwist that introduces the practice of circumcision, which, curiously, is not found in the Elohist source. The first circumcision, of Ishmael, is told in the Jahwist tale, as is the tale of Zipporah at the inn, which is widely believed to be very truncated in the surviving torah, and consequently not very well understood, academically.
Generally, the Jahwist presents a less supernatural world than the Elohist, for example, by Moses having no supernatural powers, but instead acting as an intercessor who begs God to undo each of the Plagues of Egypt, after the Pharaoh has equally begged Moses for help. Nevertheless, the Jahwist is the only source involving talking animals, both in the tale of Adam and Eve, and also in the episode of the Ass of Balaam, neither of which appear in the Elohist work.
Origin of the Jahwist text
J is thought to have been composed by collecting together the various stories and traditions concerning Judah and its associated tribes (Levi, Judah, Simeon, and Reuben), and weaving them into a single text. J also contains traditions associated with Edom, and with the plain - Moab and Ammon, nations which bordered the southern tribes, and which Judah considered to have the same ethnic origin as itself, being descended from Esau, and Lot's two daughters, respectively. Some independent source texts thought to have been embedded in it include
- The Blessing of Jacob, a poem used at Genesis 49:1 - 27
- The Song of the sea, a poem used at Exodus 15:1 - 18
J is thought to derive from amongst the Aaronid priesthood, and to reflect their polemic opinions in the text. J has a reduced focus on Moses' importance (the priests of Shiloh were more likely to be descended from Moses than from Aaron - hence "Mushites"), and supports the symbols controlled by the Aaronid religion such as the Ark and the Jerusalem Temple. J never mentions the Tent of Meeting or the Nehushtan associated with the Shiloh priesthood. J also reflects the polemic against the King of Israel's changes to the religion, attacking the Golden Calves he set up (having one of the ten commandments against molten gods - the Cherubim of Judah's temple were only gold plated).
J also advances the interests of the Davidic dynasty, tracing David's ancestry back through Jesse to Pharez, eldest son of Judah, and thus the inheritor of the birthright of Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Shem and Noah - in effect, the eldest sons of the human race, and God's chosen among all men.
Richard Elliot Friedman argues that the J source shows strong thematic continuity and also includes much of the story of Joshua and Samuel, down to the "court history" of the reign of Solomon, and was composed by someone, possibly a woman, sometime after Edom had broken away from Judah (in 815 BCE) but before the collapse of Israel in 722 BCE. He argues that J commences with "On the day in which Yahweh made Heaven and Earth", and that the whole epic of the six days of creation is no part of J.
Israel Finkelstein  argues that the form of society described in the reign of David and Solomon only appeared after the collapse of the northern Kingdom of Israel, during a period in which Jerusalem, swollen with refugees from the north, grew by over 500%. He argues that the J source comes from at or after this period.
- Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
- Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Niel Asher (2001), "The Bible Unearthed:Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts" (Free Press)
- Bloom, Harold and Rosenberg, David. The Book of J. Publisher: Grove Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8021-4191-9.
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