The Yahwist and Priestly Sources on God’s Relationship with Humankind in Primeval History

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Mary Grace Raddell, The Catholic University of America

Churches across the world have beautiful stained glass windows which depict saints, biblical stories, the Stations of the Cross, and overall pretty designs. The collage of beautiful colors awes the viewer with its sublimity and reminds them of the ideals of the Divine, particularly the Beautiful. The array of colors and shapes hewn together for a masterpiece are a physical representation of the Biblical stories which culminate to form a beautiful mosaic of Salvation History. Ronald Hendel, a biblical scholar, pinpoints the book of Genesis as “a layered ‘mosaic’ of meanings that is richer than any of the sources alone.” Sources, in this reference, are constituted by the Yahwist and Priestly at the beginning of Genesis with the Elohist coming in towards the end. The intertwining of the Yahwist and Priestly sources in the account of Primeval History presents us with an emphasis on certain attributes of God. Stories of God’s mercy despite cyclical sinning is seen in the Yahwist’s dramatic storytelling. God’s consistency of order and goodness is understood through the Priestly source’s order and listings. Through the complementarity of the sources, the Jewish people are able to realize how and why to be in relationship with God.

The Yahwist source, coined for the name of God used, YHWH, explains the Creation Story as a story and then a dialogue between the first humans and God. The purpose of the dramatized story is to encapsulate the merciful and just attributes of God. The very first scene in this drama after the literal creation of the world is Adam and Eve disobeying. Eve admits to the snake that God forbid her and Adam to  “God said ‘You shall not eat (the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden) or even touch it, or else you will die’” (Gen. 3:4). Temptingly, the serpent convinces Eve to eat it for “it was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen. 3:6). This thought lends itself to the sin of eating the fruit and Eve giving some to Adam. Expectedly, God punishes them for their disobedience. This aspect shows that He is a just God because He holds true to what is moral and immoral. God proclaimed the only commandment was to not eat of the tree of good and evil and Adam and Eve broke this. Hence, they should be punished. In conversation, God punishes the human race by intensifying “toil in childbearing” and making them labor over harvesting food (Gen. 3:16, 17). The reader, engaged in the storyline, knows and understands God as merciful when reading that God “made for the man and his wife garments of skin” immediately after He punished Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). Another provision of God to Adam and Eve is children. God granted them to have kids as Eve acknowledged that “with the help of the Lord” she gave birth to Cain (Gen. 4:1). God is just, yet His overflowing love for humanity begets merciful provisions.

While the Yahwist source engages the reader in a dramatic storyline, the Priestly source takes a systematic approach. The appropriately named Priestly source due to its human authorship by Jewish priests, paints a more structured account of the creation story. The Creation Story is presented as a seven day ordeal where God creates a more complex aspect of the world each day for six days culminating with the creation of Adam and Eve. Each day, it is said that God reflected on what was made and “saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Interestingly, God apparently finds the world to be “very good” after Adam and Eve are created (Gen. 1:31). The goodness of God and humanity being His beloved people are evident in the first Bible story written by the Priestly source. The splitting up of days highlights the creation of human beings to be the climax and God’s orderliness; the first three days are complemented by the next three. For example, the first day God commands there to be light and on the fourth God created “lights in the dome of the sky” which we know to be the sun and the moon (Gen. 1:14). Likewise, the second and fifth and the third and six parallel one another. On the second day, God creates the oceans and the sky and on the fifth, He creates the sea creatures to swim in these waters and birds to fly in these skies. The creation has a natural order to it as established by God. The order adds to understanding God’s constancy and manifestation of His goodness. He will always uphold what should be done next.

The complementarity we see in the Creation Stories can be seen in the next eight chapters of Genesis. Following the two accounts of the Creation Story comes the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy for God liking his offering more. God, like He does in the Yahwist Creation Story, immediately punishes Cain: 

Now you are banned from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the ground, it shall no longer give you its produce. You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth.

(Gen. 4:11-12)

Following sin comes punishment from God. Following God’s punishment comes His mercy. God claims that “if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times” (Gen. 4:15). Cain is provided protection by God. This proclamation by God is preceded by Cain complaining that his punishment is too much. The conversational style of the story is typical of the Yahwist source and yields sympathy from the reader. Who would not question such a terrible and constraining punishment? Yet, the response from God to protect Cain is merciful. God also provides Adam and Eve with another son, Seth, who Eve claims to be “another offspring in place of Abel…because Cain killed him” (Gen. 4:25). God not only showed He loved Cain through His promise but also to Adam and Eve by granting them the gift of another child. Again, the cycle of sin by humankind and mercy from God is noticed in the next major story: Noah and his ark. A flood was sent in response to God noticing “how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth” during the time of Noah (Gen. 6:5). The Yahwist source concludes the coming of the flood to kill the wicked and the ark’s inhabitants, Noah’s family and “seven pairs” of every animal, surviving the flood with Noah’s sacrifice to God (Gen. 7:2). When Noah performs the sacrifice to God, the Lord’s mercy to humankind is emphasized: “When the Lord smelled the sweet odor, the Lord said to himself: Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings” (Gen. 8:21). The Yahwist writings repeatedly capture the just and merciful nature of God as His creatures, the peak of Creation as noted in the Priestly source, continuously fall into sinful ways. 

Complementing the gift of Seth given to Adam and Eve and the ending to the flood story is the description of Adam’s descendents and the covenant established with the people as written by the Priestly source. The succession of Adam’s lineage is further proof of God’s just mercy and also His goodness and order. The listing may seem superfluous as the authors tell of names like “Enosh,” “Kenan,” and “Mahalalel” that are only seen once in the Bible (Gen. 5:10, 12). This addition made by the Priestly source is integral for the Jewish people to understand that God does not forget His people by the lineage ending with Noah who is saved from the great flood; God watches over His people and is consistent in being their God. The genealogies bridge the gap between covenants of God with His people. At the end of the flood, God’s statement, “I will establish my covenant with you (Noah and his descendants), that never again shall all creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood” is confirmed with him placing his bow in the sky as a sign (Gen. 9:11). Note that a genealogy from Noah to Abraham after this story is given by the Priestly source to provide evidence that the covenants are from the same consistent, orderly, and good God. 

The variance of sources throughout the first eleven chapters of Genesis highlights attributes of God. The Yahwist source’s dramatic storytelling shows God to be merciful and just despite humankind’s sinful nature. In the Priestly source’s listings which link covenants, God is good and orderly. The emphasis of these traits of God teach the Jewish people who God is and why they should be in relationship with him. The Jewish people are able to connect to a God who has these ideals realizing that they can have a relationship with God who is personal and cares for them. The Jews’ acceptance to follow and uphold their side of God’s covenants stems from this understanding of God presented by the Yahwist and Priestly sources in Genesis.

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