The Elohist Texts
The fundamental issue to be faced in studies of the so-called Elohist traditions in the Pentateuch is not whether they constituted an original and continuous source but how they function within the text now. The question whether the Elohist was ever a complete source reaches back into a past that no longer exists; too little is left. There is widespread agreement that, if ever it had been a source, the Elohist is the least well preserved of the pentateuchal sources. The primary questions are, therefore: What is the nature of these Elohist texts that are now preserved in the Pentateuch? How do they function? and What are the implications of this for our understanding of Israelite literature and the history of thought and theology in ancient Israel?
Within Genesis, the E traditions preserved relate principally to the Jacob–Esau cycle and to the Joseph story. Roughly half the E material in Genesis is in the Joseph story and another quarter in the Jacob–Esau cycle. Within Exodus, the only relatively self-contained traditions are the story of Jethro and the meeting with God on Sinai. In Numbers, there are two stories of the Transjordan conquest and a variant of the Balaam tradition. When all these traditions are put together, the Jacob–Esau cycle and the Joseph story still account for a little more than half of the extant text.
These observations point to the existence of two major story cycles (Jacob–Esau and Joseph) being represented in E, as well as a limited number of other independent stories for which significant text is preserved.
Beyond an awareness of the extent and concentration of the E traditions, it is important also to recognize the contribution they make to our knowledge of matters pentateuchal. Little of the material is new in relation to the J narrative. The exceptions are the sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 22*); the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48*); the Jethro story (Exodus 18*); and the account of the victory over Sihon, king of the Amorites (Numbers 21*). There are shorter traditions without parallels in J, such as the return to Bethel and the birth of Benjamin (Gen 35:1–8, 16–20), Jacob’s theophany at Beer-sheba (Gen 46:1–5*), or Josephs final reconciliation with his brothers (Gen 50:15–21) and the testament of Joseph (Gen 50:22–26), but the first four above are the substantial passages. They constitute about onesixth of the total E material. The rest is made up of variant expressions of traditions similar to those in J, or traditions complementary to those in J, or variant traditions contrasting with those in J.
The significance of this is that some fivesixths of the E tradition offers variants of known