Literary Criticism of the Old Testament

By Norman C. Habel | Go to book overview

IV
Interpreting Literary Sources: The
Priestly Writer and the Covenant
The Priestly Writer has been called everything from a fastidious archivist to a cultic activist. Neither characterization is happy. Rather, he is a literary architect whose materials include history, theology, and liturgy. He is a designer who is more interested in symmetry than in storytelling. He favors continuity over color. He concentrates, above all, on where and how the God-given orders of life and salvation fit together. Hence he searches for patterns in the progression of God's activity from creation to Canaan. In so doing he uncovers a divine master plan that embraces a series of related orders, progressions, patterns, and structures. Some of these reflect the adaptation of existing forms, while others seem to be his own inspired discoveries. An example of the latter can be seen in his unveiling of the names of God. We mentioned earlier that the Yahwist used the name Yahweh for God even in the early chapters of Genesis. Seth calls upon the name of Yahweh (Gen. 4:26). The Priestly Writer, however, distinguishes three stages in the revealing of God's name. Each stage, it would seem, corresponds to a fixed period in the plan of redemption:
a. Elohim is the general name for God. This title alone is used by the Priestly Writer for the primeval period (Gen. 1:1 ff.).
b. El Shaddai is the first special name for God. This name is first revealed to the chosen patriarchs and is reserved for that era (Gen. 17:1 ff.).
c. Yahweh is the second special name for God. This name is first revealed to Moses and is never set in the mouth of any speaker prior to Moses (Exod. 6:2 ff.).

How does the preceding characterization of the Priestly Writing fare when we begin to analyze the texts after Genesis 1–9? Can the formal features of the so-called master plan of redemption be isolated? We contend that they can. And hence our first concern will be a study of the structural framework and features usually assigned to the hand of this writer. Since he is also a theologian, we may assume that he employs his literary structures for exhibiting his theological

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