This article was published in the Winter 1994 issue of Bible and Spade.
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.
Tablet Starting Verse Ending Verse Owner or Writer
1 Genesis 1:1 Genesis 2:4a God Himself (?)
2 Genesis 2:4b Genesis 5:1a Adam
3 Genesis 5:1b Genesis 6:9a Noah
4 Genesis 6:9b Genesis 10:1a Shem, Ham & Japheth
5 Genesis 10:1b Genesis 11:10a Shem
6 Genesis 11:10b Genesis 11:27a Terah
7 Genesis 11:27b Genesis 25:19a Isaac
8 Genesis 25:12 Genesis 25:18 Ishmael, through Isaac
9 Genesis 25:19b Genesis 37:2a Jacob
10 Genesis 36:1 Genesis 36:43 Esau, through Jacob
11 Genesis 37:2b Exodus 1:6 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 Bibles.
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 information?
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 phrase—why not?
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:
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.1
However, Harrison does believe the earlier parts of Genesis were probably written on clay tablets in a style patterned after the Mesoptamian habit.
What Were the Tablet Materials?
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 Creator God.
1. R.K. Harrison, Prof. of Old Testament, Wycliffe College, Univ. Toronto, “Introduction to the Old Testament,” Eerdsmans, 1969, pp. 542-553.