The Book of Genesis is one of the most polarizing books in the Bible. People bring to it all sorts of presuppositions that predetermine their viewpoint of its accuracy. From its description of the origins of the Universe and all that is in it, to Israel’s right to the land, Genesis is a polarizing book. Since the Gospels quote from or allude to Genesis 1-7 and the entire New Testament quotes from or alludes to all chapters of Genesis except for chapters 31, 43 and 44, it is important to consider the accuracy of the Old Testament book of Genesis.
One of the most persistent attacks on Genesis, and the rest of the Pentateuch, is what is called the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. Originating before H. K. Graf in the 1700s but developed by him and subsequently by Julius Wellhausen, it posits that the Pentateuch is a late compilation of the writings of four sources: J, E, D, and P. J is the Jehovistic source from the 9th century B.C., E is the Elohistic source from the 8th century B.C., D is the book of Deuteronomy from the time of King Josiah, and P is the priestly source from the period following the exile, or the 5th century B.C.. The terms ‘Jehovistic’ and ‘Elohistic’ refers to their preferred names for God, “Jehovah (Yahweh)” being the proper name and “Elohim” the generic word ‘God,’ indicating different authors. That an author could and would use different names was rejected. The priestly document supposedly reflected the concerns of the priesthood and the Deuteronomic document supposedly reflected Levitical concerns. According to Wellhuasen’s 1877 book,
“… the Jehovistic author compiled a narrative document from the sources J and E, and this was supplemented by the addition of Deuteronomy in the time of Josiah. Leviticus 17-26 was added to the priestly document somewhat after the time of Ezekiel, while the remainder of the priestly material in the Elohistic source was compiled by Ezra. At a subsequent period the entire corpus was revised and edited to form the extant Pentateuch, perhaps by about 200 B.C.” (Harrison, 22-23)
By the 20th century, the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis had become the accepted narrative for the origin of the Pentateuch, including Genesis, in liberal scholarship, and continues so to this day. The hypothesis has not remained static but, in the hands of various liberal scholars, has been expanded. In 1907, E. Sievers divided J, E, and P into five, three and six different sources making fifteen sources. Others have shortened sources to three or expanded them to five and frequently many more. Some rearrange them in chronological order. The large range of proposals show the emotional rather than factual basis of this hypothesis.
The hypothesis was not without its vigorous opponents. Conservative scholarship has attacked the hypothesis all along. As archaeology of the Middle East began to make leaps and bounds in the late 1800s as royal libraries were being discovered, Genesis 12-50 began to be recognized as fitting into the larger picture of the early second millennium B.C. Rather than being a fabrication to give Israel some history, Genesis was being shown to fit within the cultural and political milieu of the time it claimed its events were occurring. M. J. Selman, after an extensive discussion of early second millennium texts from Mari, Ugarit, and other places, listed thirteen cultural similarities to the passages in Genesis from the early second millennium culture (Selman, 91-139). Kenneth Kitchen listed several aspects of Genesis and the Old Testament that showed the texts were from the period they claim to be from. First, he noted how the price for slaves listed at various places in the OT reflected accurately the increasing price for slaves in the larger culture. Second, he noted how the forms of the various treaties and covenants given in the OT reflected the forms of treaties and covenants recorded in the texts of the wider culture, changing over time and that change accurately reflected in the changes in the form of treaties and covenants over time in the OT. Third, he noted how the geo-political conditions described in Genesis and the rest of the OT accurately reflect the geo-political conditions garnered from archaeology and ancient records. Fourth, the political conditions in Egypt also reflect that given in Genesis at the time Genesis claims to be occurring. Fifth, “the form of the patriarchal names themselves can help us date the Patriarchal Age. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and even Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) have names that in their original language (Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yoseph and Yishmael) begin with an i/y-prefix; scholars of Northwest Semitic languages call these ‘Amorite imperfective’ names” (BAR 21:02, 1995). Kitchen went on to note that, for the early second millennium B.C., of over 6,000 names, 55% of all names beginning with i/y are Amorite imperfective names. Compare this to the late second millennium names where the percentage for Amorite imperfective names is down to 30% and 25%. For the Iron Age (c. 1200 – 700 B.C.), it drops to 12%. For Assyria it drops to 1.6%. So the names of all the Patriarchs except Abraham reflects mainly the early second millennium, just as Genesis presents them (BAR 21:02).
Then there is Hebrew poetry. A simple look at the book of Psalms shows the usage of various names for God within the same composition. If we applied the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis to the Psalms, we would have to literally shred them. For example, notice how these two passages use both Yahweh (LORD) and Elohim (God):
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. (Psalm 90:1-2)
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!” (Psalm 91:1-2)
The famed archeologist Cyrus Gordon rejected the JEDP hypothesis based on his observations of early Middle Eastern texts. He noted, “The urge to chop the Bible (and other ancient writing) up into sources is often due to the false assumption that a different style must mean a different author” (Gordon, 4). He continued,
One of the fragile cornerstones of the JEDP hypothesis is the notion that the mention of “Jehovah” (actually “Yahweh”) typifies a J document while “Elohim” typifies an E document. A conflation of J and E sources into JE is supposed to account for the compound name Yahweh Elohim. All this is admirably logical and for years I never questioned it. But my Ugaritic studies destroyed this kind of logic with relevant facts. At Ugarit, deities often have compound names. One deity is called Qadish-Amrar; another, Ibb-Nikkal. … The most famous is perhaps [the Egyptian god] Amon-Re… [W]hen we are told that ‘Yahweh-Elohim’ is the result of documentary conflation, we cannot accept it any more than we can understand Amon-Re to be the result of combining an ‘A’ document with an ‘R’ document (Gordon, 4-5).
A seriously flawed system of fragmentation, the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis cannot support the weight of a fragmented, developing series of myths written to create a national and theological history for the Jews: i.e the critics view of the Old Testament. Instead, the Pentateuch, and primarily Genesis, presents details that fit very well into the cultural and geopolitical historic time period that the Pentateuch, including Genesis, claims to present. It is history, not myth.
Cyrus H. Gordon, Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit, Christianity Today IV/4, 1959.
Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999).
Kenneth Kitchen, The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?, Biblical Archaeology Review 21:02, 1995.
M. J. Selman, Comparative Customs and the Patriarchal Age in Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives, ed. A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1980).