E Source material in the Pentateuch can be distinguished from the parallel J Source material in the Pentateuch in that E Source material uses both the Elohim and Yahweh as names of the god of Israel, whereas as the J Source material mostly (or always) uses Yahweh. Both names refer to the same divinity.
J Source material is earlier than the E Source material. Whereas the J Source can be associated with the oral traditions of the two southern tribes of Israel, the origin of the E Source material is more complex, but at least can be attributed to the northern tribes of Israel. For the most part, the southern tribes were led by the Calebite head of the tribe of Judah, and by the descendents of Aaron the Levite, who resided amongst them. The leadership of the northern tribes was more complex, with different individuals taking a leadership role in the various tribes, and with the central tribes of Ephraim, the western branch of the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Benjamin coalescing around the central shrine at Shiloh. The leaders of Ephraim considered themselves to have some right of leadership for Israel as a whole.
In order to better communicate to readers the historical context of these sources, we can call the J Source material in the Pentateuch “Judah’s Israelite history”; similarly, we can call the E Source material “Ephraim’s Israelite history.”
Writing in Hebrew can be dated to the lifetime of the high priest and prophet, Samuel. This can be placed a little before 1000 BC. The invention of writing in the Hebrew language brought about the first flowering of Hebrew literature. Judah’s Israelite history was written down around that time. Ephraim’s Israelite history can be dated a little later, around 900 BC. This dating can be established on the basis that the contextual information included in that history points to the controversy aroused when King Jeroboam of the (northern) kingdom of Israel created a golden calf as the iconic image of Jahveh (KJV Jehovah; NIV Lord God), the god of the Israelites.
A mixed source
Whereas Judah’s Israelite history shows no indication that it drew on anything except the oral traditions of the tribes of Judah and Simeon (and of the Aaronic Levites located in their midst), it can be seen that Ephraim’s Israelite history also drew directly upon much earlier Akkadian Source material (dated ca. 1300 BC). The lack of obvious anachronisms in Ephraim’s Israelite history supports this proposition.
Nevertheless, there are elaborations in Ephraim’s Israelite history, related to the exodus from Egypt, that are not likely to have been drawn from that Akkadian Source. Distinguishing between these elements in the Pentateuch is not designed to find a way to reject the generally accepted historical framework of Israel’s early history. Rather, the process of scholarly examination of the text should help us all to understand the genre of the discrete elements of that work, and to recognize that, while some elements have a firm historical foundation, other elements are the product of successive generations of passing down the stories via oral traditions.
Story development is the natural consequence of stories being passed on orally to the next generation. Since story-tellers try to ensure that their narratives have contemporary relevance, they do not pass the stories in an unchanged manner, but they are shaped as they are told and retold. In this way, the relevance of the dramatic events of their past and enlivened for the current audience is retained. When these stories were eventually written down, it was the final version of these orally transmitted stories that was captured.
A “prophetic” source
The writer of Ephraim’s Israelite history wanted to do more than just bring forward Israel’s story from his Akkadian Source, even beyond including supplements drawn from the oral traditions of the people; he also had in mind a prophetic purpose for his version. He wanted to use Israel’s stories to make pointed references to things that he believed were wrong about the Israelite society of his own day. In this way, he took on the role of the prophetic story-teller.
For example, the account in Exodus of the golden calves reportedly set up by Aaron is likely to have been a “prophetic contribution.” This story, when originally told, would have been understood as an obvious fiction, being clearly designed with the intention of striking a blow against the worship of the golden calves introduced in Israel by King Jeroboam. The reference in this story to the Levites as the defenders of the true worship of Yahweh can be seen as being intended to reflect unfavourably on Jeroboam’s decision to draw his priests from tribes other than from the tribe of Levites. Finally, the reference to Aaron’s involvement in the setting up of the golden calf can be taken as a reflection on the action of the Aaronic Levite, Jonathan, whose silver idol provided the model used by Jeroboam for his own actions (cf. Judges 17-18).
Why should we be surprised at historical events being adapted in this way to make a prophetic point? What is surprising is that this has not been given more attention, given the nature of Israelite prophetic speech found throughout the Old Testament. For example, Nathan told King David a story about the rich man who stole a sheep from the poor man. David believed that Nathan was talking about a real rich man and a real poor man, even though Nathan’s story was not “historical;” it was Nathan’s way of exposing David’s sin in killing Uriah the Hittite in order to take Bathsheba as his own wife.
A living source
We can be even more surprised at the position of those scholars who imagine that the events depicted in Genesis and Exodus were not important to the Israelites until the time of the exile to Babylon. Yet these same scholars posit (quite correctly) the multiple sources of the Pentateuch. Surely, the very existence of such sources indicate the importance of the stories of the Patriarchs and of the exodus events in establishing the Israelite sense of self-identity. Indeed, the existence of multiple sources also does not support the proposition that these sources were created out of nothing. Their existence and liveliness can only reasonably be explained on the basis that they represent real events in Israel’s past, even if it is conceded that they have been elaborated over time in accordance with the polemical and religious needs at the time these sources were written.
Ephraim’s Israelite history is an interesting example of an account of Israel’s history that stands on both sides of the literary divide, with the Akkadian Source on the one hand and oral traditions on the other, and with the relatively new Hebrew script providing the means of capturing these old stories, as well as enabling all of this material to be used in new ways.