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The Tablet Theory of Genesis Authorship
© 1998-2001 by
Curt Sewell. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Originally published by
the archaeological magazine Bible and Spade, Winter 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1
Many pastors, writers, and even seminary professors rely on the “JEDP
Documentary Hypothesis” to explain how the book of Genesis was
originally written. This concept says that for many centuries the
stories were passed down orally, usually with embellishments or
deletions, and were not committed to writing until much later than the
events they describe. Naturally, this idea doesn’t tend to
inspire confidence in the literal accuracy of the account. Thus
it’s favored by theologians of a liberal bent.
In contrast, the “Tablet Theory” suggests that portions of Genesis were
originally written on clay tablets by men who personally experienced
the events described. The tablets were later compiled by Moses.
Since the original writers were said to be eye-witnesses, their
accounts should be historically accurate. This article briefly
describes the development and implications of these two theories.
Who Wrote Genesis?
We’ll assume that most “good conservative Christians” probably agree
that the Bible, at least in its original manuscript, was inspired by
God, and is truth. The mechanics of this inspiration have been
debated by many scholars, and we won’t go into them in this chapter,
except to say that the basis for our belief that the Bible is the true
and inspired Word of God lies in this work of the Holy Spirit of God,
not the personal knowledge of the human writers. The Bible is not
just an ancient piece of human literature.
Having said that, the question that remains is “Who were the human
authors? How did they know what to write? How did the little historical
details get preserved?” Here we’ll restrict our discussion to the book
of Genesis, which is the one most often criticised.
The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers,
and Deuteronomy) are collectively called the Books of the Law, or the
Torah, or the Books of Moses. Those last four books have many
verses that attribute them directly to Moses. But he’s not even
mentioned anywhere in the book of Genesis. Why is this?
We’ll try to show in this little chapter that there’s considerable
internal evidence, and some archaeological evidence, that Genesis was
actually first written in sections, most likely on clay tablets, by a
number of different men who were eye-witnesses to the actions
described. These men signed their names at the bottom of their
respective tablets, and later Moses compiled these tablets into what we
call the “book of Genesis.”
Why Religious Liberalism?
Why did so many theologians become critical of Biblical truth? Do they
have any scientific basis for their doubts? Not really. Doubting
criticism started on a large scale with G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), a
German philosopher who taught that religion, like the rest of
civilization, developed gradually. He said that primitive
“cave-men” began a polytheistic worship of the things around
them. Later, he said, higher concepts such as a supreme God
evolved in people’s minds.
A quasi-scientific basis for retreat from Biblical authority took root
when, in 1830, Charles Lyell published “Principles of Geology,” which
first described the so-called “Geologic Column.” Here the age of
a rock stratum was supposedly given by the types of fossils which it
contains. This idea set the stage for Charles Darwin’s
publication, in 1859, of his famous “Origin of Species.” His
organic evolution theory captured the imagination of most scientists.
There is no real technical basis for not believing the Bible as it was
written. Nowhere does the Biblical text mention anything that
implies evolution, nor is there any Biblical incident that’s been
proven definitely wrong. The only reason to doubt the clear text
of the Bible is an attempt to compromise with secularism, and its
rejection of God. But most evolutionist scientists object just as
much to theistic evolution as they do to miraculous creation. And
most theologians don’t really understand the principles of
evolution—they don’t realize that you can’t just shove God into the
secular theory. This compromise attempt doesn’t really work, and
it’s a dangerous path to follow.
The Documentary Hypothesis
These theories all influenced Hegel’s student, the theologian K.H. Graf
(1815-1868), and his student Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). From
an idea first proposed by Jean Astruc (1684-1766) they developed the
“JEDP Documentary Hypothesis” of higher criticism, which said that the
early parts of the Old Testament couldn’t have been written during the
times they described. They based this on the belief that writing
had not evolved until about 1000 BC. Therefore they assumed
wrongly that sagas, epics, poetry etc. which were later used to compile
the Bible were passed down orally for millenia. The result was
that the early books of the Bible were said to have been written by
various unknown teachers during the Divided Kingdom era, beginning
about 800 BC, and continued until after the Babylonian Exile.
These books are said to have been compiled or redacted from several
stories, or documents, each of which could be distinguished by the name
used for God. The J-Document used the name Jehovah, the
E-Document used Elohim, while the D and P documents were named for
Deuteronomic and Priestly. This teaching led many people to lose
confidence in the Bible’s authenticity.
Did Hegel, Graf, Wellhausen, etc. have any good basis for their JEDP
theory? No, there has never been any trace of the “documents” they
refer to (Jehovist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly), and even in
their day there had been some good archaeological finds that
contradicted the very basis of their theory— that early writing was
unknown. More recently, scholars and archaeologists have
uncovered excellent proofs of the truth of the Bible’s historicity.
There have been complete libraries uncovered, and enough translations
made to confirm Biblical events described in the lives of the
patriarchs. Several of these libraries date from long before
Abraham’s time. Excavations at Ebla, Mari, and Nuzi have all
yielded much confirmation of Old Testament history. The Mari
archives contained actual names used in the Bible—Peleg, Terah, Abram,
Jacob, Laban, and others. These cannot be linked directly with
Biblical characters, but they do show that these names were in use in
those early days. The Nuzi archive had some 20,000 clay tablets;
many were legal documents describing laws and customs of the
land. These explain a number of Biblical incidents that used to
seem strange to us, but they were simply the normal customs of that era.
The Tablet Theory
During his tour of duty in Mesopotamia, where much of the earliest
Bible activity took place, Air Commodore P.J. Wiseman became interested
in the archaeology of that area, and especially in the many ancient
clay tablets that had been dated to long before the time of
Abraham. He recognized that they held the key to the original
writings of the early Bible, and especially to the Book of
Genesis. He published his book in 1936. More recently his
son, Professor of Assyriology D.J. Wiseman, updated and revised his
father’s book: P.J. Wiseman, “Ancient Records and the Structure of
Genesis” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
He found that most of the old clay tablets had “colophon phrases” at
the end; these named the writer or owner of the tablet; they had words
to identify the subject, and often some sort of dating phrase. If
multiple tablets were involved, there were also “catch-lines” to
connect a tablet to its next in sequence. Many of these old
records related to family histories and origins, which were evidently
highly important to those ancient people. Wiseman noticed the
similarity of many of these to the sections of the book of Genesis.
Many scholars have noticed that Genesis is divided into sections,
separated by phrases that are translated “These are the generations of
... ” The Hebrew word used for “generation” is toledoth, which means
“history, especially family history ... the story of their
origin.” Wiseman, op.cit., pg.62. Wiseman took this
quotation from the pioneer Hebrew lexicographer Gesenius. Most
scholars have recognized that these “toledoth phrases” must be
important, but they have been misled by assuming incorrectly that these
are the introduction to the text that follows. (Several modern
translations have even garbled these phrases.) This has led to serious
questions, because in several cases they don’t seem to fit. For
example, Genesis 37:2 begins, “These are the generations of Jacob.
...” But from that spot on, the text describes Joseph and his
brothers, and almost nothing about Jacob, who was the central character
in the previous section.
However, Wiseman saw that the colophons in the ancient tablets always
were at the end, not the beginning. He applied this idea to the
toledoth phrases in Genesis, and found that in every case it suddenly
made good sense. The text just before the phrase “These are the
generations of ... ” contained information about events that the man
named in that phrase would have known about. That person would
have been the logical one to write that part. In other words,
each toledoth phrase contains the name of the man who probably wrote
the text preceding that phrase. Or, in still other words, the
book of Genesis consists of a set of tablets, each of which was written
by an actual eye-witness to the events described therein. These
tablets were finally compiled by Moses.
Enough archaeological confirmation has been found so that many
historians now consider the Old Testament, at least that part after
about the eleventh chapter of Genesis, to be historically
correct. It seems strange that seminary professors often still
teach the old “doubtful criticism” theories, even though the basis on
which they were started has now been thoroughly discredited.
I’ve incorporated a few minor modifications into Wiseman’s original
theory. These help to explain some remaining problems. For
example, tablets #8 and #10 are shorter, and describe two sets of
descendants that are outside of the Bible’s main-line. They’re
also structured differently. I’ve called these Sub-Tablets.
To illustrate how this all really works, let’s look at each of the
tablets, and see how the theory makes sense.
||Owner or Writer
||God Himself (?)
||Shem, Ham & Japheth
||Ishmael, through Isaac
||Esau, through Jacob
|Jacob’s 12 sons
Tablet #1 begins with the first verse of Genesis, and ends with the
toledoth phrase in Gen.2:4a, “These are the generations of the heavens
and of the earth when they were created.”
I should say here that the following discussion is based on a firm
belief that the six days of creation are literal 24-hour days, as the
clear phraseology of the Bible states.
In this first tablet, there’s no author’s name in that closing
verse. Who could have personal knowledge of what was written
there? Only the Creator Himself. God could have written this with
His own fingers (like He wrote in Exodus 31:18). I think it’s
just as possible that He orally dictated it to Adam. At that same
time He might have been using this as a teaching tool, showing Adam how
to write, and maybe this served as Adam’s “practice slate.”
Whatever the mode, God was the personal author of that first tablet,
the actual creation account.
The basic meaning of toledoth, according to Gesenius, is “family
history ... or the story of their origins.” For Tablet #1, the
“family” consists of the entire cosmos and its occupants. So this
tablet might be thought of as “the family history of the entire cosmos
and its plants and animals.”
Tablet #2 begins with the next part of Gen.2:4b, “In the day that the
LORD God made the earth and the heavens, ...” The closing
toledoth is in Gen.5:1a, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”
Many people have been confused at what they’ve been told were two
different creation accounts in these first two chapters. But we
can see that this isn’t correct. Chapter 1 is the only “creation
account,” since it gives detailed listing and timing of the creative
acts of God. Chapter 2 does not attempt to say “This happened and
then that happened.” It’s just Adam’s own account of his own
beginnings, written from his own viewpoint.
The confusion comes about because of peculiarities in words. It
only shows up in some languages. The English language has
definite past, present, and future tenses for its verbs, but Hebrew
(the language of Genesis) does not. In Hebrew, the relative
timing must be taken from the context, not the actual words themselves.
In Tablet #1 (Gen.1:1 - 2:4a), the timing is carefully told -- the
creation of land animals and humans took place on the sixth day, and in
the order stated (first the animals, then both man and woman).
This tablet is written from the Creator’s viewpoint (on His tablet),
and outlines the exact things He did.
But in Tablet #2 (Gen.2:4b - 5:1a), there are no timing
statements. This tablet was written from a different viewpoint (I
think by Adam himself), and describes events as he saw them. He
first briefly described the area around him (in Gen.2:4b - 2:15), and
the instructions and promise of a help-mate, that God had given
him. He then told of the huge task that he had been given by God
(naming the animals) and how he did that. These verses show that
Adam must have been a very intelligent person and a knowledgeable
taxonomist, not the ignorant “cave-man” that some people imagine.
The Hebrew words in Genesis 2:19 could have been translated, “And out
of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast ...” (past
tense). It seems to this writer that Adam simply put verses 19
and 20 (naming the animals) at this spot for his own convenience, not
for indicating sequential action, so that he could then move on to the
more important matter of the establishment of the human home, family,
and population growth. In Gen.2:21 through 2:25 he used a
literary flashback to describe the formation of his wife (which had
happened previously on Day #6 of Creation Week), and then moved
smoothly into telling of their activities together.
Unfortunately, the first activity that he described involved the
world’s first sin, and its terrible consequences.
If this explanation isn’t true, then we have to consider Chapter 2 as a
sequential description that conflicts with Chapter 1. We’re faced
with a hard-to-explain situation, as follows: In 2:18 God promised Adam
a help-mate, then in 2:19-20 He created the animals, and told Adam to
name them, sounding as if one of them might be that help-mate.
When that didn’t work out right, only then did God create the
woman. This sounds as if God didn’t really know what He was
doing— an impossible accusation! It also changes the sequence of what
God created on Day #6—saying that He first created man, then land
animals, then woman. That violates the timing description in
Genesis 1, in which the timing is definitely stated.
By now, someone is probably asking “Why does a tablet end in the middle
of a verse, and the next tablet start in the middle of that same verse?
Why not stop each tablet at the end of a verse?”
That’s a good question, and I think there’s a good answer. The
original text was written simply with a string of paleoHebrew
characters, with no punctuation, and that original text didn’t have
chapter and verse divisions—those didn’t come along until the Geneva
Bible was translated, in the 1500s A.D. Those translators didn’t
understand the word “toledoth,” and didn’t recognize the tablet
structure. It was only in the early 1900s that the ancient
libraries at Nuzi yielded the key to that puzzle. It’s
unfortunate that we have that confusing verse structure in our modern
Tablet #3 begins with Gen.5:1b, “In the day that God created man, in
the likeness of God made he him; ...” Who wrote this? Look ahead
to the next occurance of “... the generations of xxx.” That
toledoth phrase is in Gen.6:9a, “These are the generations of
Noah.” So this tablet, giving the geneology from Adam to Noah,
and God’s first commands to Noah, were written by the logical man for
that job—Noah himself.
Now for Tablet #4, which begins in Gen.6:9b, “Noah was a just man and
perfect in his generations, ...” We’ll see later that this was
the opening verse of the combined diaries of Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham, and
Japheth. What better way for them to start their portion than by
mentioning their father?
This is the section that describes the Great Flood, and their
experience of riding the Ark for a year, with its strange load of
animals. This portion has several spots that sound
repetitious. Gen.6:11, Gen.6:12-13, and Gen.6:17 almost say the
same thing—why is this? Also Gen.7:18, Gen.7:19, and Gen.7:20 are
almost the same. That’s puzzled many people, but when we see that
there were really three separate diaries that were combined by Moses,
about 1000 years later, it makes perfect sense. This joint
authorship is shown in the toledoth phrase, found in Gen.10:1a, “Now
these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth:”
Incidentally, these three sons are not named in the sequence of their
ages. Gen.9:24 says that Ham was the youngest, and Gen.10:21
tells us that Japheth was the elder; Shem must have been in the middle.
Next, Shem takes up the story by himself. Tablet #5 begins in
Gen.10:1b, “Unto them were sons born after the flood.” Shem lived
for about 500 years after the flood, and kept track of the heads of all
the families that formed the post-flood world. This section tells
the “Table of Nations,” and the scattering of the people at the Tower
of Babel. His closing toledoth phrase is in Gen.11:10a, “These
are the generations of Shem.”
Tablet #6 begins in Gen.11:10b, “Shem was an hundred years old, and
begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:” It lists a number of
descendants down through Terah and his three sons, Abram, Nahor, and
Haran. The closing toledoth phrase is in Gen.11:27a, “Now these
are the generations of Terah:” So who was the author of this short
tablet? It must have been Terah.
Tablet #7 is much longer than those we’ve just discussed. It
begins with Gen.11:27b, “Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran,
...” The main protagonist of this section is Abraham, which has
led many people to wonder “Why isn’t this tablet named for Abraham,
rather than Isaac?” With this new understanding of tablets, we can see
the simple answer is that Abraham didn’t write this part— his son Isaac
did. Isaac’s name is in the toledoth phrase in Gen.25:19a, “And
these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.”
Sub-Tablet #8 (Gen.25:12 to 25:18) is structured differently than the
others. It lists the sons of Ishmael, and where they lived.
It seems to be inserted at the end of the much longer tablet written by
his brother Isaac. And the “toledoth phrase” is placed at its
beginning, rather than the end. How did Isaac get this
Look at Gen.25:8,9. We see that Abraham died, and his two sons
Isaac and Ishmael got together and buried him. At that time,
Isaac must have gotten Ishmael’s family information (either by copying
from his diary, or by just asking questions and writing as Ishmael
talked). He added that at the end of his own diary. This
short section doesn’t have a toledoth, but simply an introductory
phrase, in Gen.25:12.
Jacob’s diary is the basis for Tablet #9, which begins in Gen.25:19b,
“Abraham begat Isaac: And Isaac was forty years old when he took
Rebekah to wife, ...” We see that Jacob naturally began by
mentioning his grandfather, then his father and mother. The bulk
of Jacob’s diary tells a complicated tale of his own growth from being
a deceptive sneak until he finally had a life-changing experience with
God, and had his name changed to Israel—meaning “he struggles with
God.” This section also describes the birth of his twelve
sons—the “Sons of Israel.”
Sub-Tablet #10 (occupying all of Gen.36) is a short tablet from Jacob’s
brother Esau, merged into Jacob’s story. As described in the
Sub-Tablet #8 paragraph above, the “toledoth phrase” is placed at the
beginning, as a title rather than a closing colophon. This
probably happened in a very similar way that we mentioned for Ishmael’s
Sub-Tablet, above. Look at Gen.35:29. Isaac died, and his
sons Esau and Jacob buried him. This must have been the time when
Jacob learned about all of his nephews. I can imagine the
conversation, after the funeral—Jacob said, “Hey brother, tell me about
your kids, and their kids. What’s been happening with you?” Jacob
must have written rapidly, while Esau described his large family.
Or, of course, Esau may have just given Jacob a copy of his list.
The toledoth phrase for Jacob’s Tablet #9 is in Gen.37:1,2, “And Jacob
dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of
Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob.”
The last tablet, Tablet #11, of Genesis begins in Gen.37:2b, “Joseph,
being seventeen years old, ...” Many people have been confused at
this Gen.37:2 verse. It begins by saying “These are the
generations of Jacob,” and immediately starts discussing Joseph.
Jacob is a very minor character for the next dozen chapters. But
this is another case where the Tablet Theory clears up what has long
been a big puzzle. That verse, Gen.37:2, should have been divided
in its middle, to clarify that the first part was written by Jacob, and
the second part was written by Joseph.
The contents of Joseph’s tablet are very important in the history of
the Bible’s people. He was taken into slavery in Egypt and, in
the course of a dozen years, rose to become the second most powerful
man in Egypt. As events unfolded, his family was drawn into a
move to Egypt also, and there they and their descendants were to spend
several hundred years. The last portion of this tablet describes
the death of his father Jacob. But the book of Genesis closes
without telling of Joseph’s death, and there’s not any sort of toledoth
This must be a conjecture, but I think that Exodus 1:6, “And Joseph
died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.” could form
this closure. It may have been added by Moses, after he inherited
all the tablets, and began to combine them. Those last chapters
of Genesis must have been primarily written by Joseph, but of course he
couldn’t have recorded his own death. These few verses may have
been written by one of his surviving brothers.
R.K. Harrison suggests a different explanation for the Joseph portion
of Genesis (which this writer thinks is possible but not most
likely). He wrote: R.K. Harrison, Prof. of Old Testament,
Wycliffe College, Univ. Toronto, “Introduction to the Old Testament,”
Eerdsmans, 1969, pp. 542-553.
“The remainder of Genesis deals with the Joseph narratives (Gen. 37:2b
- 50:26), the Egyptian background of which has been so well attested by
scholars as to make further comment unnecessary. Most probably
this material was still in oral form when Moses was alive, and it may
be that it was he who reduced it to writing in magnificent literary
Hebrew. Quite possibly Moses was responsible for substituting
leather for the Amarna Age tablet-form vehicle of communication.”
However, Harrison does believe the earlier parts of Genesis were
probably written on clay tablets in a style patterned after the
What Were the Tablet
All of the original tablets have been long and completely lost, so we
don’t know anything about what they were like. All of what I’ve
written above is from textual evidence, not from physical remains.
We know, from the ancient Nuzi library, that clay tablets were commonly
used, at least as far back as Abraham’s time. These have lasted
for over 4000 years, and are still legible, in museums today.
Clay is certainly a likely material for the early Biblical tablets.
However, when Jacob’s descendants left Egypt, in the mid-1400s B.C.,
God inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, on Mount
Sinai. That’s also a possible material for the ones in
Genesis. Most of our preserved information from early Egypt is
carved on the stone of buildings (and thus is not at all
portable). But stone is heavier, and harder to work.
Later, papyrus and vellum (thin sheepskin) were also used, in Egypt and
elsewhere. Scrolls found in the Dead Sea caves in the mid-1900s
were on these materials, so they’ve lasted for over 2000 years.
But I don’t know of any proof that these came into use before the
middle of the second millenium B.C.
There’s an ancient Jewish tradition that the Torah should always be
written upon leather (vellum, or sheepskin), since this apparently was
the original material vehicle of its transmission (this is from R.K.
Harrison, cited above).
I think that probably Moses compiled all these tablets into one long
record, scroll, or book during the 40-year wilderness experience,
described in Exodus and Numbers. And I think that he probably
used vellum to write on, since papyrus is rare in Sinai, and the
Israelites had many sheep, thus vellum was easy to get.
The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers
and Deuteronomy—are traditionally known as the Books of Moses, and he
is quoted as the author of the last four. Nowhere does it say
that Moses actually composed and wrote Genesis, but it is certainly a
reasonable assumption that he was the compiler of that book.
The book of Genesis is an historical account, not an allegory.
Its accuracy is assured by the inspirational guidance of the Holy
Spirit. I think its details are best explained by this modified
tablet theory, which offers a more satisfactory explanation of all the
details, and doesn’t violate any known fact. It’s in good accord
with Scripture, and adds the authenticity that Genesis was composed of
eye-witness accounts. I believe that it’s true. We would do
well to simply believe the exact teaching of the Bible, just as God
inspired it. To do otherwise is an insult to its Author, our