The Priestly Document
As envisaged by Martin Noth, the Priestly document is quite different from the Yahwist narrative. Rather than a continuous narrative, on the model of J, the Priestly document can be thought of as a necklace, with its major stories as pearls strung on the thread spun of genealogies, itineraries, and a terse story line.
Such pearls are the accounts of creation and flood, the covenant with Abraham and the burial of Sarah, the promise to Jacob at Bethel, the revelation of God to Moses, the plagues, the passover, the deliverance at the sea, and the manna. The story of Sinai occupies a substantial part of P, with its emphasis on God’s instructions for the construction of a sanctuary, the construction in compliance with these instructions, the commissioning of the sanctuary, and the organization of Israel around it, ready for the march into the promised land. The final pearls on this narrative necklace deal with Israel’s failure to enter the promised land and the replacement of its “first-generation” leadership. They are the stories of spying out the land, getting water from the rock, and the deaths of Aaron and Moses, succeeded by Eleazar and Joshua.1
These might not be the primary constituents of the story of Israel’s beginnings as we would tell it today. But the Priestly writer was telling it for a specific audience around the time of Israel’s exile—either shortly before it, during the exile itself, or shortly after it. Although many details elude us, the main lines of P’s thought seem clear: God set the world in motion in the majestic splendor of the creation account, crowned by God’s sabbath which, of all the world, only Israel observed. God’s purpose will not fail. God set Israel on the march toward the promised land, splendidly and majestically organized around the sanctuary of God’s presence to the people. God’s purpose will not fail. Individuals may fail and be replaced, as were even Aaron and Moses; God’s purpose will not fail.
In between these two great movements— entry into the world and entry into the land—P ponders the unconditional covenants of God with Noah for humankind and with Abraham for Israel. P looks at the story of Israel’s experience of God: the genealogies as threads joining key stories of Israel’s becoming a people of God; the itineraries as threads joining key stories of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Sinai and toward
1. For Noth, “the P narrative is not oriented toward an impending occupation of the land” (A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, trans. B. W. Anderson [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972; reprint, Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1981] 9); for discussion of the text, see n. 109 at the end of this chapter.