Genesis and the Moses Story

Genesis and the Moses story were two competing myths of origin for Israel that were literarily and conceptually independent from each other. They both explained in different ways how Israel came to be.

See also Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel's Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible (Siphrut 3; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010)

By Konrad Schmid
Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism
University of Zurich, Switzerland
October 2010

In the 20th century, the so-called Documentary Hypothesis with its four elements J, E, P, D was a commonly accepted explanation for the literary growth of the Pentateuch. This hypothesis is based on the assumption that there are three similar narrative accounts of Israel's history of the creation, the ancestors, the exodus, and the conquest of the land: J, E, and P. The story line of the Pentateuch was considered very ancient. J adapted the structure of the narrative from the old creeds of ancient Israel, and the structure of the narrative accounts of E and P were mere epigones or imitations of J. However, in the last thirty years, serious doubts have arisen concerning this model. Only P, because of its clear structure and its specific language, has remained generally uncontested.

Since the work of Rolf Rendtorff[1] and others, a very common and simple observation on the narrative structure of the Pentateuch has gained increasing acceptance: the different narrative parts of the Pentateuch – especially Genesis on the one hand and the Moses story in Exodus and the following books on the other hand – stand more or less on their own. They seem much more likely to have been autonomous literary units in their original form than parts of a long story extending from the creation to the conquest of the land. So the question arises: did the older sources, J and E, which are supposed to connect all the themes of the Pentateuch together, really exist? Or should we look for other solutions in order to explain the genesis of the Pentateuch before P?

The weakness of E has long been recognized. Its different parts do not form a continuous narrative account, but they are instead mere fragments. But also J has been the object of controversial discussion in recent years.[2] The J hypothesis was developed from the texts in the book of Genesis, and it never really fit the other books of the Pentateuch. Martin Noth, for example, wrote at the outset of his commentary on Numbers: "If one takes the book of Numbers for itself, one would not explain it by 'continuous sources.'"[3] This is exactly how many European scholars today think of the composition of the pre-Priestly Pentateuch: It is not made up out of three continuing sources, but of larger units like the ancestor's story or the exodus story. Only on the level of P, the sole surviving source dating to the early postexilic period, is there clear evidence of a literary connection between Genesis and Exodus, as I have argued in detail in my Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel's Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible(Siphrut 3; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010). Before P, Genesis and the Moses story were two competing myths of origin for Israel that were literarily and conceptually independent from each other. They both explained in different ways how Israel came to be. Genesis does this in a peaceful, inclusive, and autochthonous (Israel originating from its own land) manner, while the Moses story sets some more aggressive, exclusive, and allochthonous (Israel's origins lie in the exodus from Egypt) accents. The fundamental literary-historical separation of Genesis and the Moses story proposed in my book relies on fundamental observations made in 1928 by Kurt Galling and in 1943 by Martin Noth.[4] Furthermore, Albert de Pury and Thomas Römer suggested already in 1989 and 1990 that there are no pre-Priestly links between Genesis and Exodus.[5] Independent from my work, Jan Christian Gertz came to the same conclusion in his study on the exodus story.[6] Eckart Otto's recent publications and, to a certain extent, but with some hesitations, Reinhard Kratz's The Composition of the Historical Books of the Old Testament as well, share the same basic tenets of this theory.[7]

What are the reasons that make some European scholars think this way? There are several arguments that need to be taken into account. Firstly, P's report of the call of Moses in Exod 6:2–3 explains that God has revealed himself to the patriarchs as El Shadday,but now he announces that his name is YHWH. P's theory is so well known among exegetes that one has hardly ever bothered to ask why P makes such a distinction. Sometimes it has been argued that P adopts the theological concept of E since E was supposed to include a similar change from Elohim to YHWH in Exod 3, but this does not explain the use of El Shadday. Furthermore, on a methodological level it is hardly convincing to use a problematic hypothesis like E to explain literary problems of other texts. Furthermore, there is also little reason within the internal logic of P itself to separate the period of the patriarchs from the one of the exodus. For P, the time of Moses is the time of the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, and a qualitative separation of the two is far from natural for P. Apparently, this theory was necessary to help P combine two divergent blocks of tradition, the pre-Priestly Genesis and the Moses story. Exod 6:2–3 shows quite clearly that P was unable to utilize any previously known sequence of the epochs of the history of Israel that could simply be reproduced with a slightly different focus. P instead had to create this sequence from scratch.

Secondly, the Joseph story (Genesis 37–50) casts further doubts on an original continuing narrative in Genesis – Exodus as the J and E hypotheses would suggest. The narrative goes to great pains to explain why and how Israel ended up in Egypt. However, it does not succeed in creating a wholly plausible transition from the patriarchs to the exodus: the book of Genesis depicts Joseph as an honored man serving at the Egyptian court under a pharaoh who was favorable towards him, while also picturing the Israelites as nomads. Yet the same Israelites appear in the beginning of the book of Exodus as badly treated conscript laborers (a status normally reserved for prisoners of war) under a pharaoh who is now a cruel despot and who attempts to exploit and contain them. This complete change in circumstances and setting of the narrative is only explained by a brief transitional note in Exod 1:6–8, which mentions the death of Joseph and his generation. This text, moreover, introduces a new pharaoh that is no longer acquainted with Joseph, even though Joseph's position of leadership had made him the second most prominent man in the state. Is that the narrative style of a continuous story? One gets the impression that two already fixed and separate literary blocks were joined together, rather than a single narrative in which events move organically from Genesis to Exodus. Apparently the statement in Exod 1:8, "Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph," is a narrative device that serves to set the story of Joseph in parentheses because otherwise the story of the exodus cannot be told. This means at the same time that the Joseph story was not originally shaped to bridge the gap between Genesis and Exodus. Only by means of later redactional insertions could the story of Joseph fulfill this function as is evident in Gen 50:14.[8] The forefathers of Israel dwell in the Land of Canaan in Gen 50, and it is only by means of this one verse (Gen 50:14) that they are brought back to Egypt to set the stage for the exodus.

Thirdly, the several promises to the patriarchs, which are obviously the most important redactional pieces of cohesion in Genesis, do not imply that they originally focused on the exodus. Among the many promises of the land in Genesis, only one passage (Gen 15:13–16; cf. 50:24) states that the descendants of the patriarchs will have to leave Canaan first before the promise of the land will be fulfilled in a second immigration. The other promises in Genesis do not share this view. On the contrary it is quite alien to them as the formulation, "to you and to your descendants," indicates.

In addition, the non-P texts containing promises (the traditional J texts) concerning the increase of descendants do not point to the story of the exodus. The same absence of a literary connection can be noticed in the non-P stories in Exodus. The statement about Israel becoming a great people does not refer to the prominent non-Priestly promises of increase at the beginning of the patriarchal narrative (e.g., Gen 12:2; 13:13). The comparison of the promise of descendants to Abraham in Gen 12:2 and the statement of Pharaoh in Exod 1:9 illustrates the absence of a clear relationship between the two bodies of literature.

Gen 12:2

On the other hand, it is all the more remarkable that the connections on the P-level are very tight.

Gen 1:28


If the non-Priestly substance of the patriarchal and exodus narrative was really written by the same author, it would be very difficult to explain why he did not correlate the promise to become a great people with its fulfillment as is done in P. Therefore, it is much more likely that Gen 12:2 and Exod 1:9 were written by different authors than to assume that it is a Yahwistic bridge between Genesis and Exodus as the traditional Documentary Hypothesis suggests.

Apart from the P connections between Genesis and Exodus, Genesis 15 and Exodus 3 are also key texts linking the two blocks together. However, both pieces are stand-alone units in their contexts (which they interrupt). Both also seem too dependent upon their P-counterparts in Genesis 17 and Exodus 6 and thus to be dated after P.[9]

Therefore, it is not a far lying assumption to conclude that both the narrative substance of the book of Genesis as well as its reception outside the Pentateuch support the suspicion that this text was not originally written as a prelude to the book of Exodus. Explicit literary connections between Genesis and Exodus appear only in Priestly texts or in texts that presuppose P. P itself shows in Exod 6:2–3 that it creates something new by joining the patriarchal narrative with the exodus. Furthermore, the literature from outside the Pentateuch also points to the fundamental separation between the patriarchs and the exodus. The Psalms provide especially strong evidence for an original separation between Genesis and the Moses story: Apart from the late Psalm 105, the so-called historical Psalms all reckon with the beginning of Israel's history in the exodus. Apparently the Psalms attest to Genesis as a secondary introduction before the Moses story. The prophetic books reinforce this impression. Hosea 12 places Jacob and Moses ("a prophet") in opposition to each other. The contrast is especially striking, and the detailed interpretation of this chapter by Albert de Pury supports the theory of a fundamental separation of the Jacob and the Moses stories.[10] Finally, one could mention texts like Amos 3:11; Mic 7:20; Ezek 20:5; 33:24, which seem to imply the same thing, but limited space does not allow a detailed discussion here.[11]

The redaction-historical separation of Genesis and Exodus before P has fundamental consequences for the understanding of the history of religion and theology of the Hebrew Bible. Firstly, it is obvious that this new perspective abandons the thesis so popular in the 20th century that the religion of ancient Israel is based on salvation history (Heilsgeschichte). That such a view can no longer be maintained has been made clear by the numerous archaeological finds published in recent years. One should envisage the religion of Israel differently than the biblical picture suggests. The polemics of the Deuteronomists are probably closer to the preexilic reality in ancient Israel than the normative-orthodox statements in the Bible that promulgate a salvation-history based monotheism. Without the J hypothesis, the paradigm of a clear discontinuity between ancient Israel and its neighbors can no longer be maintained. This paradigm of discontinuity developed in the wake of Karl Barth's dialectical theology and can be explained as an application of its basic tenets to the history of ancient Israel's religion. It presupposed that Israel occupies a very special place in the ancient Near East from its very beginning. But if there has been no early (i.e., Solomonic) or at least monarchic (Josiah) conception of a salvation history that begins with the creation and ends with the conquest of the land, Israel must be seen in continuity rather than discontinuity with its neighbors. The paradigm of discontinuity is not a peculiarity of ancient Israel but rather a characteristic feature of the Judaism of the Persian period which projects its ideals back into the Hebrew Bible.

Contrary to the assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis, Genesis and the Moses story stood next to each other as two competing concepts containing two traditions of the origin of Israel with different theological profiles. The different conceptions still remain apparent behind the carefully crafted final form of the Pentateuch. Genesis is mainly autochthonous and inclusive, while the Moses story is allochthonous and exclusive. Of course such a polar opposition can only serve as a model, but it points nevertheless to a basic difference between the two blocks of tradition. To be more precise, the patriarchal narrative constructs a picture of the origin of Israel in its own land – a fact that is especially prominent in the specific formulations of the promises of the land, which do not presuppose that there will be several centuries between promise and fulfillment. At the same time, the patriarchal story is both theologically and politically inclusive: the different gods can – without any problems – be identified with YHWH, and the Patriarchs dwell together with the inhabitants of the land and make treaties with them. In contrast, the story of the exodus stresses Israel's origin abroad in Egypt and puts forward an exclusive theological argument: YHWH is a jealous god that does not tolerate any other gods besides himself and the Israelites shall not make peace with the inhabitants of the land.

The Bible therefore contains both concepts that also serve as arguments in modern discussions: inclusiveness and exclusiveness. However, it is only by means of historical reconstruction that this important inner-biblical difference regarding how Genesis and the Moses story determine Israel's origins and its relation to its land and to other nations becomes fully apparent.


[1] Rolf Rendtorff, Das überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Pentateuch (BZAW 147; Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977), English translation: The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch (JSOTSup 89: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).

[2] See especially Jan Christian Gertz, Konrad Schmid, and Markus Witte, eds., Abschied vom Jahwisten. Die Komposition des Hexateuch in der jüngsten Diskussion (BZAW 315; Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2002) and Tom Dozeman and Konrad Schmid, eds., A Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Discussion (SBLSS 34; Atlanta: SBL, 2006).

[3] Martin Noth, Das vierte Buch Mose. Numeri (3d ed.; ATD 7; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977), 7 (translation mine).

[4] See Kurt Galling, Die Erwählungstraditionen Israels (Giessen: Töpelmann, 1928); Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1948)

[5] Thomas Römer, Israels Väter: Untersuchungen zur Väterthematik im Deuteronomium und in der deuteronomistischen Tradition (OBO 99; Fribourg: Editions Universitaires and Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990); Albert Pury, "Le cycle de Jacob comme légende autonome des origines d'Israël," in Congress Volume Leuven 1989 (ed. by J. A. Emerton; VTSup 43; Leiden: Brill, 1991), 78–96.

[6] Jan Christian Gertz, Tradition und Redaktion in der Exoduserzählung: Untersuchungen zur Endredaktion des Pentateuch (FRLANT 186; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2000), specially 381–88.

[7] Eckart Otto "Mose und das Gesetz: Die Mose-Figur als Gegenentwurf Politischer Theologie zur neuassyrischen Königsideologie im 7. Jh. v.Chr," in Mose: Ägypten und das Alte Testament (ed. idem; SBS 189, Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2000), 43–83; idem, Das Deuteronomium im Pentateuch und im Hexateuch: Studien zur Literaturgeschichte von entateuch und Hexateuch im Lichte des Deuteronomiumrahmens (FAT 30, Tübingen: Mohr 2000); idem, Mose: Geschichte und Legende (Munich: Beck, 2006); Reinhard Kratz, The Composition of the Historical Books of the Old Testament (T & T Clark, London, 2005)

[8] Cf. Konrad Schmid, "Die Josephsgeschichte im Pentateuch," in Abschied vom Jahwisten, 83–118.

[9] See the detailed discussion in my Genesis and the Moses Story, 158–93.

10 See "Osée 12 et ses implications pour le débat actuel sur le Pentateuque," in Le Pentateuque: Débats et recherches (ed. Pierre Haudebert; LD 151; Paris: Cerf, 1992), 175–207; idem, "Erwägungen zu einem vorexilischen Stämmejahwismus: Hosea 12 und die Auseinandersetzung um die Identität Israels und seines Gottes," in Ein Gott allein? JHWH-Verehrung und biblischer Monotheismus im Kontext der israelitischen und altorientalischen Religionsgeschichte (eds. Walter Dietrich and Martin A. Klopfenstein; OBO 139; Fribourg: Universitätsverlag and Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994), 413–39.

11 See my Genesis and the Moses Story, 70–80.

Comments (3)

Are we faced with two basically incompatible theologies and with final compilers who declined to edit, ie take theological decisions of their own, and simply juxtaposed, even resorted in some sense to scissors and paste?
I don't say this is incredible - it may not be a greater problem than the juxtaposed synoptic and Johannine accounts of Jesus' life, which are not that easy to reconcile.
But isn't there a possibility that there is a unifying theology at work between Genesis and Exodus plus the conquest narratives? It might seem more understandable to have the Israelites seize land from the Canaanites, who after all have done nothing really wrong, if the Israelites were making a sacred journey and returning to the place where their ancestors had communed with God as El Shadday and set up shrines to Him?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 10/26/2010 - 22:06

You are certainly right: Genesis and the Moses story have been combined by skillful theological redaction which is responsible especially for Genesis 15, Exodus 3-4 and Joshua 24. By means of these textes, the two origin stories of Israel have been merged into a new concept, the one that every current reader of the Bible is familiar with. More on this in the respective chapters of my book.

#2 - Konrad Schmid - 11/03/2010 - 10:59

These are not different accounts of Israel's origins since the people of both Genesis and Exodus are one people: a caste of Horite ruler-priests. Moses and his father have the identical kinhip pattern of Abraham and his father. It is a unique pattern and easily identified in Scripture.

#3 - Alice C. Linsley - 03/14/2011 - 15:57

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