J Source

The J Source is the earliest of the Hebrew sources to be included in the Pentateuch. J Source material is found in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers. The J Source represents the encapsulation of oral traditions that were carried forward in the southern tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin.

Encapsulated oral traditions are not just a different form of written evidence; they have their own unique characteristics. Stories handed down orally will always have a “present aspect,” since the stories are retold because they have present-day relevance. This means that the details, and the emphases of the stories, will change over time. Therefore, when discussing the J source, we must recognize that while this source retains a rich heritage of information that would otherwise have been lost if it had not been handed down orally, when we come to specific details of those stories, we can also appreciate that they changed over time.

Documentary Hypothesis

The letter “J” comes from Jahweh, the German for Yahweh, being the English spelling of the Hebrew divine name adopted from the time of Moses. The creator / popularizer of the Documentary Hypothesis, Julius Wellhausen, attached this label simply because one of the major markers he used to attribute this text to this source is its use of that divine name. Scholars quite logically consider that the J text was the first version of these early accounts to be written in the Hebrew language. As such, it cannot be dated much earlier than the reign of King David (ca. 1000 BC), when the Hebrew script was first invented. This was the time when many of the old oral traditions of the people were written down, such as the underlying text for the books Judges, and Ruth, and the original sources of the early stories of Samuel and David, which are found in 1 Samuel. David’s psalms also belong to this period, as a clear pointer to the flowering of Israelite culture that naturally follows “heart-language” literacy.

Aaronite Levites

The books of Joshua and Judges give the strong impression that the Levites were the educated class of the Israelites, being scattered throughout the cities of Israel. Their high status in Israelite society can be easily attributed to an acquired privileged status, which appears to have been gained after the Levite child, Moses, found himself in Pharaoh’s household. Moses was likely to have been literate, and subsequent history indicates that Aaron and at least some of the other Levites were also literate in Akkadian, the international language of the time.

Since one can surmise from the (admittedly limited) evidence that Aaron and some of his fellow Levites were brought up to be literate in Akkadian, this would have made them the natural source of scribes for Israel. This special role, and its importance for the new Israelite society, could also explain why the Levites were never counted in the lists of warriors. Indeed, the book of Joshua points to the Levites occupying exactly this kind of “educated elite” role, being assigned to the major towns of the Israelite tribes, where they would have been able to fulfil a necessary commercial function in writing up and arbitrating contracts between Israelites, and with foreign peoples.

In addition to this commercial function, it is likely that one of their inherited roles among the people would have been to retell the stories of Israel’s beginnings, being the account of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and then of Moses and the Exodus, and finally that of Joshua and the settlement of Canaan.

The disposition of the Levite clans among the Israelite tribes is surprising. It is clear that the leaders of the tribe of Ephraim considered themselves to be the real leaders of the whole of Israel, yet it is very notable that the descendants of Aaron, the leading family among the Levites, did not choose (or were not given) cities among the tribe of Ephraim, but were allocated towns among the (southern) tribes of Judah and Simeon, and also among the tribe of Benjamin. (The other Levite families were given cities among the northern tribes, including Ephraim.)

Since the tablets containing the written records of the early history of the Israelites are likely to have been kept at Shiloh in northern Israel (where the Tent of Meeting was located), the “Aaronite Levites” did not have easy access to these tablets. On this basis, in telling the stories of Israel’s beginnings, Aaron’s descendants in Judah and Simeon would have been required to rely on their memories of whatever written material had survived from Egypt and the exodus, with this being supplemented with traditional stories handed down orally from their direct ancestor, Aaron. This process is most easily conceived as happening in Hebron, the first city of the united tribes of Judah and Simeon. Significantly, Hebron gets several mentions in some of the J source material (which is another pointer to the place of origin of this text being Hebron in Judah).

The direct connection that can be drawn between the Aaronite Levites and the J Source easily explains the fact that the story of Moses being rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh is only found in J: the Aaronite Levites had the most personal interest in this story. We can also credit the Aaronites with retelling and carrying forward the stories of the earlier Patriarchs, whose written stories in Akkadian can be attributed to Joseph’s educated children or grandchildren, but whose descendants probably could not read Akkadian. The role of the Ephraimites in Numbers and in Joshua and Judges can be found as leading warriors, not leading scribes.

Among the Levites, and also for the nation as a whole, the Aaronites proved to be the leading theological thinkers of Israel, at least in the period before the establishment of the united kingdom of Israel, and before the emergence of David and the prophets of both that kingdom and the divided kingdoms of Judah and (northern) Israel.

Adam and Eve

We can attribute the story of Adam and Eve either to Aaron and his descendants, or to Moses himself. It reflects and opposes Egyptian ideas, suggesting that it was either developed in latter years of the Israelites’ Egyptian sojourn, or during the time of their wilderness wanderings. At the very latest, it must have been developed fairly soon after the Israelites arrived in Canaan, while Egyptian ways of thinking were still relevant and influential among the intellectual elite of the people.

The first account of creation, the “six days of creation” found in Genesis 1, is very Egyptian: it reflects the traditions developed in Heliopolis (the Egyptian city of On). We can attribute this creation account to an Israelite interpretation of Egyptian ideas by those who belonged to Joseph’s family. This account represents a benign view of the world.

While it is likely that some among Joseph’s family were still privileged in Egypt, even up to the time of the exodus, most Israelites struggled, and were forced to labour for their food. At the very least, most of the Israelites were exposed to arbitrary rules and fierce taskmasters, as the J Source reports. In this circumstance, the comfortable view of life in the “six days of creation” was not so easy to maintain. While in the first creation account, each of the six days of creation ends with God saying, “it is very good,” in the alternative creation account, the Adam and Eve story, sin entered very quickly.

While the Adam and Eve story is written in the style of an Egyptian story or myth, and in this regard it has a more mythological style than the “six days of creation,” the theological thoughts in the Adam and Eve story do not conform to the basic presumptions of Egyptian mythology. In particular, the Adam and Eve story runs directly against the Egyptian idea of man’s relationships with the gods. In Egyptian mythology, the individual was assured of free access to eternal life with the gods, provided that person knew the right words, such as those found in the Book of the Dead. Yet in the Adam and Eve story, the sin of the first pair resulted in them being denied access to the Tree of Life – secret words could not be used to hide their secret sin.

According to the Adam and Eve story, it was illicit access to the knowledge of good and evil – the very essence of the Book of the Dead – that caused the first humans to be cast out of the Garden of Eden. It was a radical remaking of the Egyptian view of life and death. In the J Source version of the creation myth, instead of knowledge of magic formulae providing salvation, each person was responsible for their own behaviour. For the J Source author of this account, the way to seek favour with Yahweh was through obedience to his commands. This included participation in monthly, seasonal and annual rituals, including the sacrifice of animals. This was a quite “un-Egyptian” way of looking at such matters.

Adam and Eve were not the end of this story, but the J Source provides a parallel to the Akkadian Source‘s story, which stretches from creation to Noah. The genealogy is similar, but different, as is the Noah story itself. Whereas the Akkadian Source flood story appears to be drawn from the Mesopotamian Atrakhasis myth, it is possible that the J Source story of the flood has drawn its details from the parallel account of the great flood found in the Gilgamesh Epic. J also has a genealogy of the nations, and the story of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations. For the J author, the whole world could be seen in context of Yahweh’s rule. It was a grand vision.

Patriarchal stories

It is likely that the Aaronite Levites knew the story of the Patriarchs from the recounting of these stories back in Egypt and on the wilderness journeys. However, once in Israel, they were unable to gain direct access to the original source, since the Akkadian tablets would have been kept in Shiloh. As a result, the control provided by a written source was lost. The upside for the story-tellers was that they could exercise total freedom in shaping their stories to make whatever points they wished to make.

Whereas the original Akkadian Source for the birth of Isaac might have contained only this reference:

After Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Sarai also bore Abram a son, and Abram gave him the name Isaac.

in the hands of the Aaronite story-tellers it became the full drama of angel visitors and Sarah having already passed menopause.

This was not all. In a story-telling mode quite familiar to a modern audience, the whole Abrahamic story has multiple threads, bringing in the following elements:

  • A promise to Abraham of the entire land and of many descendants.
  • The incipient failure of Sarah to conceive the child of promise, and the promise that she would deliver a child in her old age.
  • The claim, via the Melchizedek story, that after a war with the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (and others), the king of Jerusalem entered into a treaty with Abraham. This claim is likely to have been of Amorite / Jebusite origin, since it strengthened the force of the Jebusite dynasty’s hold on the title “king of Jerusalem,” being the sole surviving Amorite enclave in the hill country of Israel.
  • The story of Sodom and Gomorrah being swallowed up by fire and brimstone. This is likely to have been a development of an existing story from Canaan about the loss of two cities in a volcanic explosion. (An event like this probably led to the formation of Lake Ram, in the Golan Heights of Syria / Israel.) In the hands of this story-teller, it can be seen as a lesson about Yahweh’s disapproval of sodomy. This was practiced among the former peoples; it also emerged among the Israelites in Benjamin (Judges 19), with its suppression having devastating consequences.
  • The story of the beginnings of the tribe of Moab. (The J Source story-tellers had a great interest in the origins of the nations, and they were able to “discover” founders of many Semitic people in Abraham’s reputed offspring. In a different class of information, J also provides king lists for Edom and tribal chiefs for Esau.)

The J Source has doubled up on the story of Abraham’s attempt to pass off his (much younger) wife, Sarah, as his sister. It has a story of Abraham deceived Pharaoh in Egypt (which is unlikely) and it has Isaac deceiving Abimelek in the city of Gerar. In the latter case, J has anachronistically made Abimelek of Gerar a Philistine, even though the Philistines did not enter Canaan until after the Israelites settled the land. Of course, the J story of Isaac and Abimelek is more colourful than the story of Abraham and Abimilek found in the Akkadian Source.

The J Source story-tellers created a story of the discovery of a woman chosen to be Isaac’s wife among Abraham’s Aramean relatives. This can be considered to be an elaboration of the Akkadian Source account, which is quite simple and matter-of-fact:

Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

As can be expected, the closer that past events were to the time of the writer of the Akkadian Source “family history,” the more detail we can expect to have been included. However, the Akkadian Source story of the birth of Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob, to Rebekah has dropped out of Genesis, so we have no way of judging whether J Source’s report of Rebekah’s initial infertility was a story-teller’s elaboration or not. At least we can be confident that the J Source has greatly elaborated on the Akkadian source story of Jacob’s time with Laban, his Aramean relative, and on the birth of his sons to his two wives and two maid-servants, and of his dealings with his brother, Esau.

J has two extra stories not found anywhere else.

  • The first relates to Jacob’s settlement near Shechem, and the conversion of the Hurrian people of Shechem to following El Shaddai (Jacob’s name for God). Since we know that the Shechemites were integrated into Israel in the time of Joshua, this aspect of this story cannot be disputed. (Even the fact of a military skirmish cannot be ruled out if we take the E Source reference in Genesis 48.22 to be an allusion to this event.)
  • The second relates to Jacob’s son, Judah, fathering twin sons through his widowed daughter-in-law. The basic elements of this story are difficult to dispute, since many descendants of Judah are reported to have come through these sons.

The Joseph story in the J Source follows a similar pattern to that found in the E Source (with this latter source likely to have been drawn more directly from the Akkadian Source). It also has some more colourful features – the coat of many colours, the dreams about Joseph’s family bowing down to him, camels as beasts of burden (an anachronism), Potiphar’s wife, and quite elaborated accounts of Joseph’s meetings with his brothers in Egypt. Finally, it includes an elaboration of Jacob’s blessings of his sons. The final form of this blessing can probably be dated after the tribe of Dan moved from the coast to northern Israel, taking Jonathan’s silver idol with them (implied by the reference to Dan as a venomous snake that bites the horse’s heels.)

Wilderness wanderings

Once we come to the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, we are starved of information between the first attempt to enter Canaan (from the south) and the second attempt (via the east side of the Dead Sea).

However, the information available to us in the J Source shows a bias towards, or a particular interest in, Caleb, the first ruler of the tribe of Judah. This is reflected in the fact that, in the J Source, only Caleb was confident that they could take the land. Later, in Judges 1 – an extension of J Source material – the people only entered the land of Canaan after Joshua had died.

This particular interest in Caleb in the J Source is not surprising, especially since it is likely that the Calebites retained authority in that tribe until David became king (1 Sam. 25).

Interestingly, the authors of the J Source had access to a written record of the defeat of King Sihon of Heshbon. The record, which it calls the Record of the Wars of Yahweh, probably also contains accounts of matters not found elsewhere, such as the earlier battle against the king of Arad in the Sinai. This Akkadian record must have found its way to Hebron, with the Aaronites, and not have been kept in Shiloh.


The desire of those who want to insist that everything in the Pentateuch is historically accurate have misunderstood the nature of these books. Once we have divided the Pentateuch into its component parts we can begin to appreciate the rich heritage we have in the Israelite history, and of God’s dealings with that people. It contains much history, but that historical material has also been passed through story-tellers’ hands.

In addition, just as the history of the Christian Church is full of false steps and mistakes, as well as wonderful opportunities, so also the history of Israel is full of false steps and mistakes, as well as amazing events. We do not have to accept that the interpretations put on these events by the various authors of the Biblical account are God’s final word on these things. Instead, we should remain open to see what God has to say to us about these things before rushing to hasty conclusions. Just as oral traditions have a “present aspect,” so also should our reading of these events. We should approach these things with our eyes wide open, not with self-imposed blinkers.

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