Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering (painting...
Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering (painting circa 1803 by Joseph Anton Koch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doubting the Documentary Hypothesis

Back in October of last year I mentioned that I wanted at some point in the future to take a more detailed look at Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis, with special emphasis on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). As you recall, Rendsburg doubts many of the claims advanced by DH scholars, especially Julius Wellhausen.

While he would grant the existence of another tradition behind the book of Leviticus (i.e., the Priestly or P source), as well as behind the book of Deuteronomy (i.e., the Deuteronomist, D), Rendsburg rejects the idea of trying to separate sources in the book of Genesis. He prefers to understand the text as a unified whole.

As with many DH-doubters, Rendsburg reserves a special level of skepticism (if not outright disdain) for the notion that two separate sources comprise the story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6-9). In his 2004 article, “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account” (in the pricey Gilgameš and the World of Assyria), Rendsburg insists that we cannot split the story into the supposed P and J (i.e., Jahwist or Yahwist) sources, because:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115)

He finds the very idea worthy of derision.

That is to say, according to the dominant view of biblical scholars, we are supposed to believe that two separate authors wrote two separate accounts of Noah and the flood, and that neither of them included all the elements found in the Gilgameš Epic, but that when the two were interwoven by the redactor, voilà, the story paralleled the Gilgameš flood story point-by-point, feature-by-feature, element-by-element. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 116, emphasis mine)

Rendsburg unwittingly provides an object lesson in how conservative scholars habitually misunderstand and misrepresent the DH. In this and subsequent posts we’ll look at his thesis, as he put it, point by point.

Two sources: separate and complete?

Prof. Rendsburg makes the common mistake of assuming Wellhausen believed that the flood story in Genesis could be separated into two complete sources. But, in fact, he said no such thing.

The Priestly Code has the rainbow, which the Jehovist [Jahwist], as we now have him, wants [i.e., lacks]. But we have to remember that in Gen. vi.-ix. the Jehovist account is mutilated, but the priestly one preserved entire. If the rainbow occurred both in JE and in Q [Wellhausen’s term for the text of Priestly tradition], one of the accounts of it had to be omitted, and according to the editor’s usual procedure the omission had to be from JE. (Wellhausen, 1885, p. 311, emphasis mine)

[Wellhausen assumed that by the time the Redactor stitched together the Jahwist and the Priestly account, the J and E (Elohist) traditions had already been joined together. Hence, he typically referred to it as JE, rather than just J.]

Hence, for Wellhausen, some of the JE account was left on the cutting room floor, since whenever the redactor found redundancies he preferred not to keep, he retained P and dropped JE.

Just as an aside, I think perhaps Richard Elliott Friedman tries too hard to create two complete stories from J and P in the flood story. For example, in recent works (but not in Who Wrote the Bible, 1987), at the start of chapter 7, Friedman translates “into the ark” as “into an ark,” because J is missing the entire set of plans for the sea-going box. (See Friedman, 2009 and 2010.) Out of the blue, YHWH tells Noah to pick up his family and household and go into the ark.

Um. Ark? What ark? Without the intervening verses from the Priestly source that describe how to build the ark, the abrupt command is perplexing.

Friedman actually says in Who Wrote the Bible, “The two flood stories are separable and complete.” (Friedman, 1997, p. 60) However, after a more careful analysis of the material, we would have to emend that statement as: “The two flood stories are separable and mostly complete, except where the P material has eclipsed J.”

The name of God and “apparent inconsistencies”

Many apologists refer to the DH as the JEDP Theory, much in the way creationists refer to evolution as Darwinism.

In his course on Genesis, Rendsburg said (Lecture 7, 23:25):

Now let’s talk about this story — the flood story — in conjunction with the JEDP Theory, which we talked about in the last lecture. (Rendsburg, 2006, emphasis mine)

We must interrupt here to explain that many apologists refer to the DH as the JEDP Theory, much in the way creationists refer to evolution as Darwinism. Its use is in fact a useful indicator, as it marks the author as so hostile to the DH that he or she cannot bear to call it by its correct name. (See these titles, for example.)

Ironically, Friedman has said on more than one occasion that we should stop calling the DH a hypothesis, because by now it’s a full-blown theory. But I suspect that apologists prefer the term “JEDP Theory” because they’re accustomed to the popular definition of the word theory, and they enjoy repeating the dismissive phrase — “It’s only a theory!” Moreover, they probably think hypothesis sounds too scientific and that calling it the Documentary Hypothesis gives it too much credit.

Rendsburg continues:

Now most scholars believe the biblical flood story — certainly those scholars which are the majority, who adhere to the JEDP Theory — they believe that the biblical flood story is redacted from two separate stories. If you look through Genesis 6 through 8, you will notice that the name of God is sometimes God, Elohim, and sometimes, Yahweh. And therefore, according to this theory there must be two sources present. One of them is clearly the J source, because the name Yahweh is used only by the Jahwist, and the other is the P source, who uses the word Elohim. (Rendsburg, 2006)

Observant readers will, of course, note that all sources eventually call God by his proper name, Yahweh (YHWH) after the revelation of the divine name in the book of Exodus. Indeed we might be inclined to give Rendsburg a pass, since his course covers only Genesis, but that would be wrong. Recall that in Gen. 17 the P source has the following:

1. And Abram was ninety years and nine years old, and YHWH appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shadday. Walk before me and be unblemished,

2. and let me place my covenant between me and you, and I’ll make you very, very numerous.”
(Friedman, 2009, p. 56, emphasis mine)

Hence, the narrative portion of P uses the name of God that all of his readers will know quite well — YHWH — but when God speaks to Abram, he calls himself “El Shadday.”

Rendsburg is simply incorrect in saying that “Yahweh is used only by the Jahwist,” even if he tacitly means “only in Genesis.” The difference between J on the one hand, and E and P on the other, is that the author of J believed humans had known the name of Yahweh from the beginning of creation, while the other two believed it was not revealed until Moses learned it at the burning bush.

Continuing with Rendsburg’s lecture:

Most of the material is ascribed to the P source (the Priestly source), and some of the material is ascribed to the J source (the Jahwist source) and again, the chart in the course booklet illustrates this for you. (Rendsburg, 2006)

Note that the chart in the course booklet is rather incomplete and focuses mainly on comparing certain features of the biblical story with the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. We will build our own, more complete chart later on in the second part of this post.

This explains the apparent inconsistencies in the biblical account, as we’ve already noted — most importantly, the number of animals that Noah brought onto the ark. So, for example, at the end of chapter 6, where he is commanded to bring one pair of each species of animal onto the ark, the word God is used there — at the end of chapter 6. This must be the Priestly source, because the word is Elohim.

At the beginning of chapter 7, where now the Lord — or Yahweh — commands Noah to bring on seven pairs of the pure animals and one pair of the impure animals, as I just indicated the word Lord is used there. And therefore, this has to be Yahweh — the Jahwist source. (Rendsburg, 2006, bold emphasis mine)

For apologists, inconsistencies in the Bible are always either “supposed” or “apparent.” But you should note well that Rendsburg is no apologist when it comes to the flood story. He argues persuasively that it comes from a much older Sumerian tale, which the Hebrews borrowed at a later date. He is not arguing for Mosaic authorship. Instead he uses the word “apparent,” because he seeks to prove that the flood narrative in Genesis is a single narrative whole that only seems to have contradictions and appears to come from two sources.

Resuming Rendsburg’s lecture:

And there the theory goes and builds up the idea that we have two sources — the Jahwist and the Priestly — one dated to the tenth century, you’ll recall — one dated to the fifth century, and these two were brought together by our redactor in the fifth century. (Rendsburg, 2006)

Other indicators of J and P

Rendsburg left out other reasons for thinking a later editor constructed the flood story from two separate sources. Given that in his course he assigned two works by Friedman, we have to assume that he either has not read them or that he simply chose not to talk about the remaining evidence. In any case, it’s up to us fill in the blanks. For each criterion below, please remember that the point is not simply that the two sources exist and that they sometimes differ, but also that they differ in consistent ways throughout.


As Hermann Gunkel pointed out long ago in his commentary on Genesis:

The two names of God [YHWH and Elohim], employed alternately and with no perceptible difference in meaning (cf. 6:22 with 7:5) point to dual sources. One may further note a multitude of repetitions.

[1] It is narrated twice that God sees the evil of humanity (6:5 ‖ 11, 12),

[2] that God announces to Noah the destruction of humanity by a Flood (6:17 ‖ 7:4),

[3] that God commands him to enter the Ark (6:8 ‖ 7:1)

[4] together with his whole household (6:18 ‖ 7:1)

[5] and a certain number of all clean and unclean animals (6:19, 20 ‖ 7:2),

[6] in order to preserve them alive (6:19 ‖ 7:3).

[7] Then we hear twice that Noah enters the Ark (7:7 ‖ 13);

[8] together with all his family and animals (7:7-9 ‖ 13-16),

[9] that the Flood comes (7:10 ‖ 1),

[10] that the waters rise and the Ark floats on the waters (7:17 ‖ 18),

[11] and that all living things die (7:21 ‖ 22).

[12] The cessation of the Flood is announced twice (8:2a ‖ 2b);

[13] Noah twice learns that he can leave the Ark (8:6-12, 13b ‖ 15, 16);

[14] Twice God promises not to send another Flood (8:20-22 ‖ 9:8-17).

(Gunkel, 1992, p. 139, formatting and emphasis mine)

As listed above, the repetitions are perhaps even more striking than the presence of the alternating names for God. They are certainly at least as noteworthy as Rendsburg’s “apparent” contradictions.


Some scholars lump the name of God into this category, but the decision to use YHWH or Elohim has less to do with word choice than with theology. We’re looking instead for vocabulary differences that not only appear in the separated sources of the flood story, but that also indicate clear tendencies in all of P or J.

  • Die” vs. “expire” — The author of J uses the Hebrew word “to die” — מוּת (muth) — (see Gen. 7:22), which is the same word used in the J creation story (Gen. 2:17, 3:3, 3:4). In P, on the other hand, we find the word גָּוַע (gava), which literally means “to breathe out [one’s last breath],” and is often translated as “give up the ghost” or “expire.”
  • Dry ground” vs. “earth” — The introduction of J’s narrative of the Deluge (Gen. 6:1-7) uses the Hebrew word for “land” or “dry ground” — אֲדָמָה (adamah) — along with “man/humankind” — אָדָם (adam). Recall that J’s creation story also plays word games with Adam, the man (ha adam), and the dry ground (ha adamah). P, starting with (Gen. 6:9b), uses the word for earth — אָ֫רֶץ (erets). Ha erets also appears in J, but is much more common in P.
  • Humankind” vs “all flesh” — As noted above, J prefers the term “ha adam.” However, P likes to use “all flesh” — כָּל־ בָּשָׂ֛ר (kal basar) when referring to the people (and animals) he’s about to destroy.
  • Breath of the spirit of life” vs. “spirit of life” — Both J and P talk about “the spirit of life” — ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים (ruah hayyim) — but only J (in 7:22) adds the word for “breath” — נְשָׁמָה (neshamah). Notice, too, that in 7:22 we have the word for nostrils — אַף (aph) — which corresponds to Gen. 2:7 in the J creation story, in which God breathes the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. We understand from these references that the Flood is the undoing of the Creation.
    • 2:7 — And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
    • 7:22 — All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. (KJV)
  • Man and his wife” vs. “male and female” — J refers to the male and female pairs of animals as man — אּישׁ (ish) — and his wife — וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ (we-ishtow). P, by contrast, uses זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה (zakar u-neqebah) — male and female.

(See Carr, 1996, pp. 52-55)

Contradictions and differing emphases

Besides using a different vocabulary, the authors of P and J have their own peculiar interests and emphases that will sometimes result in contradictions.

  • Number of animals — In P, Noah must collect two of each species of animal, while in J he must collect one pair of each unclean species and seven pairs of clean (i.e., edible, able to be sacrificed) animals. There are no sacrifices in P until the construction of the Tabernacle. On the other hand, as we saw in the story of Cain and Abel, J imagines the practice of animal sacrifice to Yahweh occurring from the very beginning.
  • Anthropomorphic deity — In J, God sees Noah, shuts the door of the ark, smells the savory sacrifice, and regrets in his heart. This view of Yahweh corresponds to the deity in the Garden of Eden who comes down from heaven and walks in the cool evening breezes. In P, God is transcendent and removed. In J, God is present and personal.
  • Relative dates vs. absolute dates — The author of J prefers relative dates, using 7- and 40-day intervals. The author of P prefers absolute dates, i.e, calendar dates along with references to Noah’s age. See, for example, Gen. 7:11a — “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month . . .” (KJV)
  • Rain vs. portals in heaven — J says that the flood happened because of rain (7:4, 12; 8:2), while P imagines fountains in the deep breaking up and portals in heaven opening. P’s story is a worldwide cataclysm, threatening to return the universe to the state of chaos described in Genesis 1, before God separated the water from the dry land.

 (Carr, 1996, pp. 53-55, Friedman, 1997, pp. 53-60)

Interim Conclusions

Rendsburg peddles the myth that DH scholars claim the author of P didn’t use the divine name YHWH. But of course he did — even in Genesis.

Well, we’ve run perilously close to 3,000 words in this post and we haven’t even gotten to the meat of Rendsburg’s argument with respect to the Great Flood in Genesis and its relationship to the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. That will have to wait for part 2.

Just to recap: we learned that we can separate the two narrative threads not just by identifying the divine name, but by using a variety of other clearly defined criteria. We learned that Rendsburg likes to use the term “JEDP Theory,” which is commonly used by apologists and conservatives who regularly distort the goals, methods, and conclusions of the DH. We also learned that he peddles the myth that DH scholars claim the author of P didn’t use the divine name YHWH. But of course he did — even in Genesis.

In the next post we’ll examine Rendsburg’s claim that the Genesis flood story is (and always was) a unified whole, and that the author patterned the narrative sequence on the flood story told by Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.


Carr, David M.

Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996

Friedman, Richard E.

“Torah (Pentateuch),” pp. 605-622, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, Doubleday, 1992

Who Wrote the Bible? Harper Collins, 1997

The Bible with Sources Revealed, Harper Collins, 2009

Commentary on the Torah, Harper Collins, 2012

Gunkel, Hermann

Genesis [Translated and Interpreted by Hermann Gunkel], trans. Biddle, Mercer University Press, 1997 (English translation of 1910 edition)

Rendsburg, Gary

“The Biblical Flood Story in Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account,” pp. 115-127, Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria, ed. Azize J., Weeks N., Peeters, 2007

“Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story (Lecture 7),” The Book of Genesis, The Great Courses, 2006

 Wellhausen, Julius

Prolegomena to the History of Israel, trans. Black and Menzies, Adam and Charles Black, 1885

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)”

  1. Neil – I’m a bit confused I think. Your post suggests that Rendsburg insists that the Flood narrative is a whole and complete single narrative but doesn’t take up the fact that Noah is given two different and contradictory commands by YHWH on the number of animals to bring into the Ark? That’s the piece that has always been the most convincing to me is that the command to bring pairs of all animals into the ark is followed up by a command to bring seven pairs of clean animals on the ark and a single pair of unclean animals on the ark and yet both of these commands are preserved. Once you see it it is hard to unsee it, and if someone is going to make an argument that the Flood narrative is a clean, single story put down by a single author I’d expect at least a nod in the general direction of explaining that contradiction even before getting into the differences of language, use of names, and other style issues (though the argument on the anthropomorphic vs. cosmic presentation of the deity is also such a strong point to me that I would need an explanation there as well, I know others are not as impressed by the change in style from J to P on that one).

    Also the idea that the Redactor took two different Flood narratives that were both partial narratives and smooshed them together into a single narrative is such a strawman presentation of the DH that I’m not certain what else you need to take down. That is so clearly a false premise that any conclusion that Rendsburg comes to about the DH that springs from it couldn’t have any value.

    1. (Actually, this is a “Tim post.”)

      We’ll see in the next post (or two) that Rendsburg’s argument is similar to that of Umberto Cassuto and other anti-DH scholars. That is, the supposed single author of the flood story deliberately talks about God in one way when he gives commands from on high (calling him Elohim) and a different way when he talks about God in his capacity as a merciful creator. Rendsburg sees no problem with God telling Noah the general plan of action first, namely to collect a pair of each animal, and a subsequent elaboration on that command, namely to get seven pairs of the animals he’ll need to sacrifice.

  2. Other studies point to the possibility that the details of the absolute dates were added by a second hand after the rest of the biblical account was written. This may have been part of a larger effort to ensure a 4,000 year span from Creation to the Dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabee in 164 BCE.

  3. Great, can’t wait till the next bit on the anti DH geeks. Very interesting. Also bty, it seems the emphasis, predictably enough nowadays in religious circles , is on the nurture aspect of the name of El Shaddai rather than the warlike aspect which eventually translated as Omnipotens into the Vulgate.

  4. Even if we accept Rendsburg’s criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis as completely invalid, there are other grounds for rejecting the Documentary Hypothesis, which at its core argues for the evolutionary development of the Pentateuch over time based on the perception of different sources (and even the perception of different Hebrew).

    If we assume as fact that there were multiple sources, that does not imply and certainly does not require the passage of time argued by the DH. The multiple sources could have worked together at the same time, something that I believe both Wajdenbaum and Gmirkin argue.

    But some of the bases for identifying and discriminating between sources seem somewhat spurious and based on unspoken assumptions and/or retrojections. For example, the OT’s use of double narratives or “doublets” such as the Noah doublet, above, is argued to be an indicator of two different oral sources of the Noah story. Different biblical critics have different reasons for believing this to be the case. For example, some who believe the OT to be history (as opposed to historiography) analogize the telling of the two stories as being the historian’s sharing two different accounts of the same event, as ancient historians often did (although they made it clear that they were doing so). On the other hand, some who believe the OT to be literature retroject their modern understanding of literature– which is supposed to tell a single, coherent story– see doublets as an artifact of two different oral histories that the compiler could not reconcile or alter because of religious reasons (in spite of the fact that the OT has been subject to numerous additions and deletions; the sacred nature of the text offers no impediment).

    Both approaches to doublets are based on assumptions about the nature and purpose of the text, and they fail to see other, perhaps better explanations than the existence of different sources. For example, we have to remember that the OT was a book written in a time when 95% of the population was illiterate, i.e., it was a book for people who could not read, or literature for the illiterate, that had to be read aloud. One possible purpose of doublets may have been to help identify people with good memories and inquisitive minds, who would be good candidates to become literate (e.g., scribes or priests). Another possibility is that doublets were meant as riddles hiding a deeper message or truth, particularly for those who were literate and more widely read (i.e., these riddles were actually allusions to other texts). We will never know, but approaching doublets as riddles makes reading the OT a lot more fun. 🙂

    While I have no doubt that at least some doublets are the artifact of multiple sources, that has not been proven to be the case, nor can it be. The doublet-based analysis is not falsifiable because of the assumption of oral histories that underlies it.

    That said, there are other reasons to accept the identification of multiple sources. Again, however, I don’t accept the attempt to distinguish between early and late biblical Hebrew as a basis for dating J, E, D or P.

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