Biblical Commentary

Genesis: An Introduction


The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)—also known as the Books of Law—or the Torah (“Torah” means “law” in Hebrew)—or the Books of Moses. Jews regard these five books as the most important of the Hebrew Scriptures.


The many theories regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch boil down to two. The first is that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The second is that multiple authors over a period of years each wrote portions—and that redactors (editors) later pieced the various writings together into the form that we recognize as individual books today.

MOSES: The traditional viewpoint, still held by many Jews and Christians, is that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. This is what the Talmud, Josephus, and the early church believed.

Biblical support for this viewpoint is found in both Old and New Testaments in the form of references to “the book of Moses” (2 Chronicles 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Mark 12:26). Also Jesus referred to “the gift that Moses commanded” (Matthew 8:4), and the book of Acts refers to “the prophets and Moses” (Acts 26:22). However, these references do not specifically state that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and fall short of conclusive proof that he did.

While some who subscribe to Mosaic authorship would say that God directed Moses to write particular words (so that Moses acted more or less as a stenographer), others would acknowledge that “Under divine guidance (Moses) may… have been led to make use of materials already existing in primeval documents, or even of traditions in a trustworthy form that had come down to his time” (Article on “Genesis,” Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary).

One of the more obvious problems with Mosaic authorship is that Deuteronomy 34, which Moses supposedly wrote, tells of his death and burial. It goes on to tell of a thirty-day mourning period following Moses’ death and the elevation of Joshua to the place of leadership. Further, it assesses Moses’ leadership, saying, “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses worked in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

It seems unlikely that Moses would write both the story of his death and this “Not… since” evaluation of his life work. However, rabbis recognized this problem centuries ago and resolved it by saying that Moses wrote the books of the Pentateuch only through Deuteronomy 33.

MULTIPLE AUTHORS: A large number of biblical scholars today believe that the Pentateuch is the work of multiple authors and redactors (editors). We can surmise that many biblical stories and bits of wisdom were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth over a period of many centuries. Then, as people became literate, they would commit the stories to writing. Later still, a redactor (editor) would pull together a number of stories into a single document, using whatever sources were available. That document might undergo further redaction by later redactors until such time that people began to accord the document as holy, forestalling further revision. The resulting document would have a patchwork quality in which stories and wisdom would retain something of the vocabulary and style of the original authors. That would enable later scholars to analyze the final document with an eye to determining which portions were written by a particular author.

There is no reason to assume that Moses could not have been one of these authors—or even that he could not have made a major contribution. However, according to this theory, he would not likely have been one of the final redactors, who came later.

The idea of multiple authors is the product of biblical criticism, a discipline (or series of disciplines) that examines biblical texts in various ways to gain particular insights.

BIBLICAL CRITICISM: The word “criticism” in its most common usage suggests the expression of an unfavorable opinion. The phrase “Biblical criticism” therefore sounds as if it is expressing an unfavorable opinion of the Bible. The word criticism has other meanings, however, one of which is “The scientific investigation of literary documents (such as the Bible) in regard to matters of origin, text, composition, character, or history” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is this meaning and not the “unfavorable opinion” meaning that applies when we speak of biblical criticism.

There are several terms associated with biblical criticism that might be helpful to know, at least in a passing way:

Lower criticism or textual criticism studies copies of biblical manuscripts (no original manuscripts exist) to try to determine the wording of the original text. Certain principles apply. For instance, older manuscripts are more likely to be better than newer ones, because the process of copying and recopying manuscripts is likely to introduce errors.

Higher criticism is an umbrella term that encompasses the more sophisticated types of biblical criticism, such as source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.

Source criticism attempts to determine the various sources, oral or written, that were used to write a particular book.

Form criticism classifies writings as associated with particular literary forms, such as narrative, poetry, parables, apocalyptic, etc. Many books of the Bible include more than one literary form.

Redaction criticism focuses on the work of redactors (editors) who pieced together oral and written sources to form the books of the bible as we now know them.

While the idea of multiple authors is associated especially with Julius Wellhausen, a 19th century German scholar, he was hardly the first to notice an unevenness of style, vocabulary, and emphasis throughout the Pentateuch. One of the more obvious differences has to do with the names used for God—Yahweh (or Jehovah) in some instances and Elohim in others. Scholars also noticed that there seemed to be multiple accounts of certain stories, such as the story of creation. Genesis 1:1—2:4a appears to be one account and 2:4b ff. appears to be a second account.

These and other differences of style or emphasis led scholars to believe that multiple authors were involved in the writing of Pentateuch and that later redactors (editors) wove together their writings into their current form. The classic theory is that there were four redactors (or four groups of redactors) involved in developing the Pentateuch. The four, commonly known by the letters J, E, D, and P, are (in chronological order):

J = the Yahwist (known as J because Yahweh is Jahweh in German)—so-called because the Yahwist uses the name YHWH for God (the original Hebrew did not include vowels—we transliterate the four letters as Yahweh). The Yahwist is thought to be from Judah, and is thought to have done his work in the 10th or 9th centuries B.C. The Yahwist was a storyteller, whose work is primarily narrative in nature, beginning with creation and ending with the conquest of Canaan. “The Yahwist…has one very definite theological (or theo-political) preoccupation: to establish Israel’s divinely bestowed right to the land of Canaan” (“The Torah,” Encyclopedia Britannica). In recent years, scholars have been placing increasing emphasis on the Yahwist and deceasing emphasis on the Elohist.

E = the Elohist—so-called because the Elohist uses the name Elohim for God. The Elohist is thought to be from the northern kingdom of Israel, and is thought to have lived and worked later than J, possibly after Assyria conquered Samaria in 721 B.C. However, recent scholars have noted the similarities between J and E and have questioned whether the Elohist is truly a separate source—and, if so, how significant his contributions were.

D = the Deuteronomist—so-called because his work is associated with the book of Deuteronomy and the reforms of Josiah in 621 B.C.

P = the Priestly redactors—so-called because they demonstrate a priestly interest in law and ritual. The priestly redactors are thought to have done their work during or after the Babylonian Exile (586-538 B.C.) While P includes laws, it sometimes weaves those into a narrative.

Three of these (J, E, and P) are thought to have contributed to the authorship of Genesis.

This is not to suggest that JEDP developed their materials in a vacuum. It is generally acknowledged that they incorporated oral and written materials, some quite ancient, into their writings.

One problem with JEDP is that scholars have further subdivided J, E, D, and P into subsets until the complexity has become overwhelming. Another problem is lack of consensus. To illustrate, I quote Blenkinsopp:

“If, for the sake of continuity, we continue to speak of J and E, we must now acknowledge that there is no longer any certainty about the origin, date, and extent of these sources. Some of the material assigned to them is either Deuteronomic or of unknown provenance. The J material in Genesis 1-11 may even be later than P, serving as a reflective supplement and commentary in the manner of the later stages. Both D and P have certainly incorporated early traditions and written sources in prose and verse, but the entire issue of pre-exilic source material in the Pentateuch—its extent, its origins written and oral, and its editorial history—remain to be clarified” (Blenkinsopp, 315).

In other words, we are not certain about very much.

Recent scholars have begun to move in a different direction, grouping stories under themes, such as “guidance out of Egypt, progress through the wilderness, entry into the arable land, promise to the ancestors, and the revelation at Sinai” (Blenkinsopp, 312). These scholars “focus on issues of literary criticism rather than literary history, on the texts as they are rather than any history prior to their present shape” (Fretheim, 323).

“This is certainly not the first time since Wellhausen that these theories have been rejected by some commentators, but in the past, rejection has usually come from orthodox Jews, conservative Christians, or others on the fringes of mainstream scholarship. The striking thing about the current debate is that it emanates from within the heart of critical orthodoxy” (Wenham).

“The recent scholarly consensus concerning the history of the patriarchal period is now very much under attack…. This consensus is now in doubt. Therefore, it seemed prudent not to rely on such unsettled opinion…. This scholarly criticism is not from those who conventionally resist source analysis. It is rather from those who believe either that the question of sources is the wrong question (Rendtorff) or that the sources must be dated later (Schmidt, Van Seters). Since matters are that precarious, it seemed unwise to pursue those issues here” (Brueggemann, Interpretation).

A PERSONAL NOTE: Because of the continuing ferment in Old Testament scholarship, I have found it difficult to summarize Pentateuchal authorship clearly and cleanly. Writing this introduction has been more like describing a journey than a destination. I have been able to describe some of what I found along the way, but am aware that the journey continues and its future direction is far from clear.

I am aware that the church is deeply divided with regard to its understanding of the authorship of the Pentateuch. Those who subscribe to Mosaic authorship tend to be quite conservative. Most mainline seminaries and clergy, both conservative and liberal, subscribe to the idea of multiple authors and redactors, and I am among that group. However, I am concerned that both groups (those who subscribe to Mosaic authorship and those who subscribe to multiple authors and redactors) have been far too proud of their opinions and much too ready to express judgment rather than charity toward those on the other side.

In my mind, the only legitimate purpose of biblical scholarship is to help us to better understand the bible so that we can better serve and glorify God. I believe that any biblical scholar who does his/her work out of a deep personal faith will tend to serve that purpose. I also believe that, in some cases, biblical scholars have become enamored of their scholarly disciplines and have moved away from the faith that brought them to their task. When that happens, their work is less likely to be helpful and, in some cases, can even become an obstacle to faith. When discussing this with my wife, she made note of a poem by Emily Dickinson that seems appropriate here:

Surgeons must be very careful
when they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
stirs the Culprit—Life!

If pressed for an answer to the authorship of the Pentateuch, I would simply say that God was the author. While I do not believe that God dictated words to those who wrote them, I do believe that God inspired and guided their efforts. That is the critical point. The process by which God chose to inspire the writers seems more of academic interest than of serious consequence. If God inspired Moses to write it, praise God! If God inspired multiple authors and redactors to write it, praise God!

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.



Blenkinsopp, Joseph, “The Formation of the Pentateuch, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1:  General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994.

Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation:  Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)

Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV––Year A (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)

Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge:  Trinity Press International, 1992)

Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1:  General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994.

Holladay, Carl R., “Contemporary Methods of Reading the Bible, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1:  General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994).

Keil, C.F., & Delitzsch, F., Commentary on the Old Testament:  Vol. 1: Pentateuch (WordSearch, 2003)

Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary:  Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville:  Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)

Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)

Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)

Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas:  Word Books, 1987)


Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993)

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Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)

Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)

Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Encyclopedia Britannica, articles on Biblical Criticism, Form Criticism, Genesis, Historical Criticism, Literary Criticism, and Textual Criticism,

Encarta, article on “The Pentateuch”

Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)

Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)

Lockyer, Herbert, Sr. (ed.), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)

May, Herbert G. (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (Third Edition) (New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2006)

Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)

Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 2003)

Rasmussen, Carl G., Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.

Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)

Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)

VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)

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Copyright 2006, 2018, Richard Niell Donovan