The Elohist (E) is, according to the documentary hypothesis, one of four sources of the Torah identified by most biblical scholars. Its name comes from Elohim, the term it uses for God. It is characterized by, among other things, an abstract view of God, using Horeb instead of Sinai for the mountain where Moses received the laws of Israel and the use of the phrase "fear of God". It habitually locates ancestral stories in the north, especially Ephraim, and the documentary hypothesis holds that it must have been composed in that region, possibly in the second half of the 9th century BCE. Some recent reconstructions leave out the Elohist altogether, proposing a Deuteronomist-Jahwist-Priestly source sequence written from the reign of Josiah into post-exilic times.
Modern scholars agree that separate sources and multiple authors underlie the Pentateuch, but there is much disagreement on how these sources were used to write the first five books of the bible. The explanation called the documentary hypothesis dominated much of the 20th century, but the 20th-century consensus surrounding this hypothesis has now broken down. Those who uphold it now tend to do so in a strongly modified form, giving a much larger role to the redactors (editors), who are now seen as adding much material of their own rather than as simply passive combiners of documents. Among those who reject the documentary approach altogether, the most significant revisions have been to combine E with J as a single source, and to see the Priestly source as a series of editorial revisions to that text.
The alternatives to the documentary approach can be broadly divided between "fragmentary" and "supplementary" theories. Fragmentary hypotheses, seen notably in the work of Rolf Rendtorff and Erhard Blum, see the Pentateuch as growing through the gradual accretion of material into larger and larger blocks before being joined together, first by a Deuteronomic writer ("Deuteronomic" means related to the Book of Deuteronomy, which was composed in the late 7th century BCE), and then by a Priestly writer (6th/5th century), who also added his own material.
The "supplementary" approach is exemplified in the work of John Van Seters, who places the composition of J (which he, unlike the "fragmentists", sees as a complete document) in the 6th century as an introduction to the Deuteronomistic history (the history of Israel that takes up the series of books from Joshua to Kings). The Priestly writers later added their supplements to this, and these expansions continued down to the end of the 4th century BCE.
Characteristics, date and scope
In this source God's name is always presented as "Elohim" or "El" until the revelation of God's name to Moses, after which God is referred to as "YHWH". E treats God as a figure capable of regret, and shows him appearing in person at events.
E has a particular fascination for traditions concerning the northern kingdom of Israel and its heroes such as Joshua and Joseph. E favors Israel over Judah (e.g., claiming that Shechem was purchased rather than massacred) and speaks negatively of Aaron (e.g., the story of the golden calf).
Contrasted with the Jahwist
Abram and Isaac
The Elohist's story begins, apparently, after Abram has begun migration, with the wife vs. sister story that is also present in the Jahwist tale. After that, the first major story about Abram is that of the sacrifice of Isaac. In the Elohist work, Isaac never appears again after the conclusion, and the story strongly implies that Isaac was truly sacrificed. The Jahwist, on the other hand, does not mention this tale of Isaac's sacrifice at all, although he does mention Isaac extensively. When the presumed redactor came to edit together their writings, Isaac's continued presence would thus need to be explained. The text attributed to the redactor presents an escape clause, the Lord's allowing Abram to sacrifice a ram in place of his son, allowing Isaac to live. But nevertheless, an early tradition recorded in a midrash still preserves a version of the tale in which Isaac was killed. Understandably, given the Elohist's narrative so far, the next tale the Elohist offers brings the chance for Abram to have other children.
Role of Angels
While the Yahwist presented an anthropomorphic God who could walk through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve, the Elohist frequently involves angels. For example, it is the Elohist version of the tale of Jacob's ladder in which there is a ladder of angels with God at the top, leading to Jacob later dedicating the place as Beth-El (House of God), whereas in the Jahwist tale, it is a simple dream in which God is simply above the location, without the ladder or angels. Likewise, the Elohist describes Jacob actually wrestling with God; later, it features the tale of Balaam and his divinely talking donkey, although this is often considered a tale that was accidentally added to the manuscript, as it appears quite unconnected to the rest of the work.
Favor of Northern Tribes?
Further into the text, the Elohist exhibits a noticeably positive attitude to the main northern tribes—those of Joseph. Unlike the Jahwist, the Elohist contains stories of the political position of the Joseph tribes: the birth of Benjamin, and the pre-eminence of Ephraim. Also, whereas the Jahwist portrays Joseph as the victim of an attempted rape in the tale of Potiphar's wife, which would have been mildly humiliating to the Joseph tribes, the Elohist instead portrays Joseph as an interpreter of dreams—as one who can understand God. This pre-occupation with northern concerns extends to the Elohist explaining the northern cultic object known as the Nehushtan.
Departure from Egypt
With regard to leaving Egypt, the Elohist presents a more elaborate tale than the Jahwist. Firstly, the Elohist version expands on the supposed cruelty of the Egyptians by presenting them as asking for difficult work such as bricks without straw. And secondly, whereas the Jahwist version of the Plagues of Egypt involves Moses only acting as an intercessor to ask God to stop each plague that God has wrought, the Elohist instead presents Moses as threatening the Pharaoh, and then bringing the plague down on the Egyptians himself. To the Elohist, the threat of the passover is enough to cause the Egyptians to chase the Israelites out, whereas the Jahwist presents the Egyptians as reluctantly giving in, and then changing their mind, and chasing after them to bring them back.
Ten Commandments and Covenant Code
Notably, where the Jahwist simply presents its version of the Ten Commandments as the law given by God at Sinai, the Elohist instead presents the more extensive Covenant Code. The Elohist then goes on to deal with how such an extensive code can be used in practice, by using a relative of Moses, Jethro, as a mouthpiece to explain the reason for the appointment of judges. To enforce the code further, the Elohist describes the process of the law code being read out to the people.
E is theorized to have been composed by collecting together the various stories and traditions concerning biblical Israel and its associated tribes (Dan, Napthali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin), and the Levites, and weaving them into a single text. In particular it records the importance of Ephraim, which was the tribe from which the King of Israel happened to derive.
As it is highly critical of the view of Samaritan claim to pre-eminence in Israel, it has been argued that it reflects the views of northern refugees who came to Judah after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC.
- Kugler&Hartin, p.48
- Kugler&Hartin, p.48
- Gnuse, Robert K. (2000), "Redefining the Elohist" (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 119, No. 2 (Summer, 2000)), pp. 201-220
- Van Seters, pp.13–14
- Van Seters, p.13
- Kugler&Hartin, p.49
- Kugler&Hartin, p.49
- Friedman, Richard (2003). The Bible With Sources Revealed. p. 65.
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- Van Seters, John (1998). "The Pentateuch". In Steven L. McKenzie, Matt Patrick Graham. The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues. Westminster John Knox Press.