Genesis 1-3 and The Documentary Hypothesis (again)

As scholars have noted for some time, and as I shall argue here, there are quite clearly two creation stories that presently exist side by side in Genesis chapters one through three, and which derive from two different sources which have been edited or redacted together.[1] The first source is the account of creation found in Genesis 1.1-2.4a (or, as some scholars might argue, Genesis 1.1-2.3), and is typically known as “P” (which stands for “Priestly,” as it is believed to have been written and edited by a group or “school” or priests) among critical scholars.[2] The second source follows thereafter and continues, for present purposes, up to Genesis 3.24. This source is known as “J” among biblical scholars (after its use of the divine name YHWH/Yahweh which is spelled with an initial J in German, the language in which much of the early research on this topic was conducted).

What sufficient reasons, then, have led virtually all biblical scholars to conclude that two creation stories stand parallel in these chapters? I shall break the arguments into three groups: 1)Narrative Inconsistencies and Content Differences, 2) Differences in Vocabulary, Literary Style, and Structure, and 3) Theological Differences/Differences in Theological Emphases.

As just mentioned, there are basic narrative inconsistencies and differences in content between the two stories. For instance, there are frequent doublets (descriptions of the same or similar event twice), but which at times differ in detail(s), language, and order. The most obvious example is that humans are created twice; once in Genesis 1.26-28 (P) and then again in 2.7-23 (J). The details differ in that in Genesis 1.26-28 man and woman are created simultaneously on day six after the animals, while Genesis 2.7-23 describes the creation of man first, and continues by describing the creation of animals, and then, lastly, woman (creation according to daily intervals is not found in the second account). The order of creation in P, then, is plants, animals and then man and woman together, while in J the order is man, plants, animals, and then woman separately. There are differences in content as well (which I shall discuss more fully further below) which simply cannot be obviated by the argument that what has been labeled by scholars as the J account is just a further elaboration of the creation account which begins in Genesis 1.1 and ends at Genesis 2.4a. For instance, in J there is no further description of the creation of the heavenly bodies (i.e., sun, moon, stars), which are the entire focus of day four in the P account. Even more significantly, in P we do not find any initial mention of the garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the associated divine commandments regarding them, human disobedience, or punishment for transgression–yet these topics dominate the J account. Such differences in order and content will become more significant as I continue, since they strongly converge with several other important arguments.

There are also important differences in vocabulary, literary style, and structure. Perhaps the most well known difference is that Genesis 1.1-2.4a (the “P” account) uses only the Hebrew word elohim to refer to God (in total thirty five times) and never by the specific divine name of the God of Israel, YHWH or Yahweh (from whence the name Jehovah is eventually derived); while on the other hand the following account in Genesis 2.4b-3.24 (the “J” account) only uses the divine name “YHWH” (eleven times) in conjunction with elohim (thus, “YHWH Elohim”), but never elohim alone. But vocabulary and style between the two accounts differs far more than this. For example, the two accounts consistently differ in the very verbs that they use to describe God’s various acts of creation. P uses the verb b-r-’ (seven times) to describe God’s act of creating; however, the J account never uses this verb, typically preferring y-ts-r (“(to) form” or “(to) fashion”) or ‘-s-h (“(to) make”) instead. Thus the P account in several places (e.g., Genesis 1.1 and 2.4a) says that God created (b-r-‘) the earth as well as man (1.1 and 1.27), whereas the J account uses the verb y-ts-r to describe the creation of man (again, not b-r-‘ as in P), while at the same time using ‘-s-h in Genesis 2.4b as a general term summarizing God’s creative activities for the following narrative.

Even more significant is the fact that the J account is lacking in the strict structure that is found throughout P–a structure that, in connection with other differences that this essay notes, strongly demarcates the literary boundaries of the P account–namely that of creating according to daily intervals with the culmination of a final day of rest on the final (seventh) day of the week. Moreover, literarily significant formulaic phrases that structure P’s sequential account of creation according to “days” do not occur in the J account at all either. For example, every day of creative activity in the story (days two through six) begins with the formulaic phrase “(And) God said, ’Let there be…’” while the phrase “(And) there was evening and there was morning, day…” decidedly ends each day of creative labor (again, days two through six) and precedes the former phrase. Other noticeable phrases or words that are found in Genesis1.1-2.4a and which provide important structure to the story, but which are not found in the following J account, include the phrase “it was so” (vv. 7, 9, 11, 15, 24 and 30), as well as God’s seeing in vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25 that his acts of creation were “good” (or “very good” after the last act of physical creation, namely that of humankind, on the final sixth day of creative activity in v. 31). As additional evidence that Genesis 1-2.4a is a literarily separate account from J, the elements created on each day may, significantly, be divided into two parallel groups as represented in the following table (this order and pattern is not mirrored in J).


Day 1: Light

Day 4: Luminary bodies

Day 2: Sky/Heaven(s) & Water Bodies

Day 5: Birds and fish

Day 3: Land and Vegetation

Day 6: Land animals


Another noticeable difference in style between P and J is J’s frequent use of wordplay. For example, Genesis 2.23 states that the “woman” (ishshah) is so called because she was taken out of “man” (ish), and in Genesis 2. 7 the first man “adam” is so called because he was formed from the ground (adamah). Furthermore, the J source makes puns which are only visible in the Hebrew text itself on the names of the four rivers which flow out of Eden (some of which wordplays or puns use metathesis, or the reversal of the root consonants), and in its description of the snake as “sly/cunning” (‘arum) compared with the humans who are “naked” (‘erom). Such kinds of wordplays do not seem to occur in the earlier P narrative. P, on the other hand, apparently deliberately uses alliterative phrases. For instance, Genesis 1.1 begins alliteratively bereishit bara with three identical consonants beginning both words. Genesis 1.2 then describes the pre-creation state of the earth as tohu v/wa–vohu (clearly alliterative) and also describes God’s wind (or spirit) hovering over the chaotic waters as ruach merchphet. Additionally, in Genesis 2.2-3 the words used for “seventh” (hashevi’i), “to cease” (shavat), and “to make/do” (‘sah) are alliterative as well. There are thus differences in literary artistry; in J we frequently find puns or wordplays, while in P we see limited deliberate use of alliteration but no such wordplays as are found in J. Finally, the J account often uses archetypical or symbolic language to name its various actors or characters. Thus “Eve’s” name is related to the word for life (meaning something like “pogenitress”), while “Adam” in Hebrew denotes mankind in general (especially with the use of the definite article ha-). Such symbolic naming of important characters is completely absent in P—in fact, besides God himself, there are really no other important agents in the P account at all.

Lastly, there are theological differences/differences in theological emphases on certain points, some of which differences also highlight and reinforce the structural and stylistic differences noted in the preceding paragraphs. For instance, P portrays God as majestically aloof, creating powerfully by his word alone from above. The J account on the other hand, describes YWHW (as mentioned, this is the divine name of the God of Israel; its pronunciation is not known for certain, and so I generally opt to write it without vowels. Yahweh is a typical scholarly reconstruction of the vowel pattern) in decidedly more anthropomorphic terms (but note the use of tselem in Genesis 1.27) moving or walking about (3.8 ) in the Garden which he planted (2.8), sculpting man from the dirt like a potter and then breathing into him the “breath of life”, cutting from man a rib and fashioning woman, conversing with man directly, and clothing them after having made garments for them, much like a tanner (3.21). Another potentially important difference in theological emphasis can be seen in the very first words of both accounts. In P God creates “the heavens and the earth” (the heavens have first position), while in J YHWH makes the “earth and the heavens” (with the earth in first position). This coincides with the fact that the P account appears to be primarily an ancient Israelite story of the creation of the cosmos by their powerful God who resides in the heavens above. This account can perhaps be seen as primarily theocentric in nature. J, on the other, is primarily anthropocentric, with the creation of the cosmos recounted only as it is relevant to humanity and its condition. While it is true that P, importantly, places emphasis on the creation of man and woman at the same time at the end of day six (the final day of creative labor), they are still just a part of creation like every other constituent which was created in the previous days (also note that the Sabbath day–a topic not present in the J account of creation–receives the prominent seventh day). In J, on the other hand, the primary focus is on man, clearly seen by the fact that he is created first (the earth in this account is seen as primordial, thus perhaps to allow man the first position in the creation sequence), and seeks to answer the perennial questions and problems that face humanity in general, such as: why is life so hard? Why do people die? Why are the sexes attracted to one another? Why is childbirth so painful? Why must man work so hard? And so on. In contrast, these questions do not appear to be a subject of inquiry in the prior P account.

There are additional differences and emphases found in one source and not the other and which intertwine with those arguments already mentioned. For instance, as noted, the P account of creation is highly structured and organized, contrasting with the looser and freer flowing J account. Historically, this emphasis on order is integral to the Priestly writers/School (as mentioned, this is where the abbreviation “P” derives), which was concerned with Priestly issues, such as proper social order and structure, (ceremonial) liturgy, cleanliness regulations, holy days, laws, proper genealogies, and various other institutions. Thus, for instance, the final day of creation in their account provides an important etiology for the origins of the Sabbath; however, such mention of a day of rest after creation is, significantly, nowhere mentioned in the J account. More importantly, however, in P creation is described as the antithesis of order—God creates (b-r-‘) by separating (from the Hebrew root b-d-l), seen, for instance, when God separates light from darkness in v.4 or when he divides the chaotic waters in vv.6-7 in order to create a space in which to form his creations (see additionally vv. 14 and 18). For the Priestly writers, God creates the earth by dividing and organizing primeval chaotic waters. In contrast, although the world in which YHWH begins to create in the J account is seen as primeval as well, it is dry and lifeless, and so YHWH instead causes a subterranean stream to moisten the ground so that he may make clay and mold it into a human figure.

As I mentioned above, I do not believe that these differences can be understood by the argument that what has been labeled by scholars as the J account is just a further clarification or an expansion of the creation account which begins in Genesis 1.1 and ends at Genesis 2.4a. The differences in details, emphases, content, style, order, and linguistic factors in my judgment, simply vitiate such a position. I believe that in sum the evidence is most thoroughly and adequately explained by reference to two originally distinct sources. And the strength of this position, in my judgment, lies not in any one of the arguments alone, but in their convergence.


[1] For the discussion which follows I have relied primarily on Richard Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed, (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 33-37; Michael Coogan’s The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3-19; Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 38-42; and Bernhard W. Anderson’s From Creation to New Creation, OTB (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 42-55.

[2] Some scholars argue that the P account was actually written by H, which stands for the “Holiness” school, a group which was heavily influenced by P. However, such a distinction is not relevant for my present purposes.

8 Replies to “Genesis 1-3 and The Documentary Hypothesis (again)”

  1. TYD,

    Welcome aboard!

    For me the greatest strength of the Documentary Hypothesis is that it make the Pentateuch understandable. If one does not posit something like it then one is left with basically two options. One, is to simply throw your hands up in the air and say that some passages are just not understandable, they are a mystery. The other is to ignore, take stuff out of context, and engage in eisegesis. The DH is really nice in that it allows one to understand the largest amount of text with the simplest explanation.

    I think the DH really shines in more obscure passages. Take for instance Numbers 16, the rebellion of Korah. If you read it as a unitary account the story makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. However, since almost nobody reads Numbers, and even fewer care about it, it doesn’t bother anyone that the story is a mess. However, once you posit JEDP you can untangle the story and have it make sense. To me this is really exciting, I want the Bible to be comprehensible, even the “less important parts.”

  2. Thanks Jacob. I figure someone has to write about it since I haven’t seen jupiterschild around lately! 🙂

    David Clark, I agree that the DocHyp has impressive explanatory power over a large body of material. I think I will write another post later that shows how easily and consistently P and J can be separated in other parts of Genesis using some of the distinctions I noted above.

    Best wishes,


  3. Thanks for putting this together. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention Anthony Hutchinson’s Dialogue article.

    As a non-Bible nerd, I’m thinking about getting Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? for Christmas, in order to get a better handle on this issue. Is there a better place to start?

  4. Jared*,

    You’re right that there are other resources which are directed more specifically to Mormon audiences that one can consult concerning the DocHypth. I would include Keith Norman’s article in Dialogue in that group as well. There are probably quite a few others too.

    I think Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources Revealed” is a good introduction for the general reader; it is also more recent than his other book “Who Wrote the Bible,” and he has revised some of his conclusions since that volume was first published.

    Best wishes,


  5. Jared*,

    Buy them both, amazon gives a discount when you buy them together. I have both. I would recommend reading Who wrote the Bible? first as it gives a Bird’s Eye view of the whole theory, its history, its motivations, etc. It reads like a detective novel, sort of. The Bible with Sources Revealed is mostly a color coded presentation of the Pentateuch. It’s what you get after applying the reasoning of Who wrote the Bible?.

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