P.J. Wiseman was a military attaché in Mesopotamia who supported a number of archaeological digs. Wiseman noticed that many of the tablets recovered had phraseology similar to curious words in Genesis. Bear in mind that the artifacts they were discovering were rather close in time and location to those of the patriarch Abraham. We might expect literary devices used in his day to be found in the discoveries which Wiseman was encountering. Indeed subsequent discoveries showed that the same literary practices were in use for over two thousand years.
Wiseman’s son Donald became an accomplished archeologist at Oxford. He was so convinced that his father had hit upon something that he re-published his father’s work with basically no changes. Now one might at first count this as simply bias due to family ties, but he actually waited to publish until someone else supported the idea. His re-publishing of his father’s work came more than a decade after another scholar, Dr. R.K. Harrison, gave new credence to the hypothesis (Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdman’s 1969). It also popped up here and there in other publications, an article called “The Generations of Genesis” by Dale S. Dewitt (The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, Oct.-Dec., 1976) being an example.
What did Wiseman find? The medium for writing in those days was clay tablets or cylinders. Many times the writing on them would end with what amounted to what we would call a “colophon”. Today the colophon is that early page in the book which gives information about the title, the identification number, who owns or publishes a written work, and normally with some time reference. Up until recent times though, the colophon was typically printed at the end of a book.
Wiseman noticed in the book of Genesis that up until chapter 37 the phrase “these are the generations of X” cropped up repeatedly. The same phrase kept appearing in the tablets that the archaeologists around him were unearthing in Mesopotamia, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham.
Because that phrase often, but not always, appears right before a genealogical table in scripture, most modern readers conclude that the word translated “generations” means a list of descendants. But Wiseman found that was not always what it meant in the tablets his associates were finding. Wiseman found the phrase in the tablets his associates were discovering was used to mean “this is the account of” X or Y, where X or Y stood for the name of the owner and/or writer of that account.
It was not necessarily connected to a genealogical table. It (the word here was towledah or toledot ) served as the anchor for what we would today consider a colophon. If the towledah phrase said “these are the generations of Isaac” it meant that it was the history owned by Isaac. The person who “owned” the story usually told the story of his immediate ancestors. In Isaac’s case for example, that would be Abraham.
In early Genesis it looks like each generation was responsible for recording the story of the previous one. The life story of the father was told by a son or sons, whose account it was. The story of the previous generations was told (owned) by some member of the current one. The word towledah does have a literal meaning more akin to giving birth, but as an author I can tell you that the metaphor fits. If you write a book you feel something like “it’s your baby”.
The phrase identified whose work it was, either by ownership, authorship, or both. Many times it would list the immediate descendants of the owner as an aide to identification, and also to keep things in order when tracking family histories or property through time. It might also have a tag line, or repeat the first few words of the document in the towledah, much like we would use a title.
Wiseman found that the phrase was used at the end of the tablets, not the beginning. Sometimes, especially if the tablet was intended to be stored on shelves, the towledah would be found on the edge of the tablet so that a person looking through the shelves could easily find the right tablet. So an example might be “this is the account of Omar, Omar had two sons, Ahu and Shedbab.” Then it might have a few words describing the tablet or repeat a few words from the start of the tablet. Again, this would be at the end of the tablet, or on the edge of it.
This idea differed from the predominant understanding of Genesis that the phrase “these are the generations of” referred only to the material following the phrase. Wiseman said that they should instead be viewed as referring to the material preceding them. This would mean that the story of one patriarch would typically not be written by that person himself, but by one who came immediately after him.
Wiseman concluded that the phrase meant the same thing in Genesis as it did on the tablets he was finding. The phrase occurs eleven times in Genesis, or actually twelve depending on how narrowly you evaluate format. This implies that the writer of Genesis had in their possession clay tablets which they then compiled into the first thirty-six chapters of the book in the original Torah.
According to tradition, Moses wrote the first Torah on leather, and they are still written on leather to this day. In 2nd Timothy chapter four the Apostle Paul asks Timothy to bring some written materials with him. In this request he says “especially the parchments”. A parchment as used here was writing on the hide of an animal, showing that this medium continued to be used and valued in New Testament times.
Though far more durable than our paper, leather does not last nearly as long as the clay tablets from which we might suppose the author/editor of Genesis drew his material. Still, clay tablets can only be so large before they become difficult to hold or transport, and the weight of large tablets makes them more breakable. The contents of many, many clay tablets could be fit onto one leather scroll. A scroll was a superior medium for recording large amounts of information and there is every indication that Moses was familiar with that superior medium.
In spite of Moses being familiar with paper and leather scrolls, the concept of divine information being communicated in the form of tablets is well established in the Torah. Notice that in Exodus chapter 24 Moses receives God’s law in the form of stone tablets. These tablets were inscribed by God Himself. Moses broke the original tablets in careless anger when he came down from Mount Sinai and observed Israel worshiping the golden calf. God commanded Moses to cut out slabs of stone like those he broke and God once again wrote His law on those tablets. Later they were put into the Ark of the Covenant.
Now I want to emphasize that Moses was raised as an Egyptian Prince, and the people of Israel had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. Papyrus was the medium of choice for writing in the society which they had just left. Indeed using leather to form a scroll, which by tradition was how Moses wrote the first Torah, was far more similar to the Egyptian way of recording things than it was to the tablets of their Mesopotamian ancestors.
Yet in spite of all of that, the commandments came in tablet form. And the tablet medium was not merely chosen because it was what was handy at the time God first delivered them. When they were broken God specifically commanded Moses (Exodus 34) to go back and prepare two more blank tablets (translated “tables” in some versions).
Why the insistence on going back to tablets in a culture which had advanced and was now used to writing on flexible and compact mediums like papyrus or leather? One explanation would be that Moses and the Israelites had the prior expectation that sacred writings would be received in tablet form. The commandments were to be considered the most sacred of writings- not just written by someone with a special relationship with the Almighty, but rather by His own hand.
This does add some weight to the idea that Moses had in his possession ancient tablets inherited from the Israelite’s ancestors, and that these tablets were treasured as sacred records. It is recorded in Exodus 13:19 that when Moses left Egypt he took with him the bones of Joseph, who had died hundreds of years beforehand. This shows that Moses had possession of what might be termed heirlooms of his people.
Not only that, the reason given for taking the bones for re-interment in the Promised Land was the knowledge that Joseph had commanded that this be done some hundreds of years before, as recorded in the final two verses of Genesis. Thus I conclude Moses not only had the bones, but he had the written accounts which told him what to do with the bones!
Earlier in the fiftieth chapter of Genesis the burial of the patriarch Jacob is recorded. Jacob is buried in a field bought by his grandfather, Abraham, and the account even lists from whom the purchase was made. This was even though the clan of Jacob had vanished from the land of Canaan for years before they decided to come back and bury him in a plot of land purchased by his grandfather Abraham.
Apparently, there was a sophisticated record of land ownership in Canaan so that even an absentee land owner could come back and be buried in a cemetery purchased by their ancestors. The evidence suggests that when the Israelites returned to the Promised Land they possessed written records which they had retained for generations.
The traditional view that Moses received the whole of the Torah by dictation is contradicted by the Torah itself. Scripture explicitly states that at least part of the text was received by Moses from God Himself writing on tablets. I suggest that this was not the only portion of Torah which was received in the form of tablets. Rather it may be that much of Genesis was transmitted in tablet form through the less dramatic but still awe-inspiring procedure of inheritance of records that even in that day were of great antiquity.
So Moses was therefore familiar with sacred records in that form. In such a case the tablets directly inscribed by God represented the most miraculous example of a class of tablet records from which much of the earliest sections of the book of Genesis was compiled. I mostly agree with Wiseman and Harrison that the first thirty-six chapters of Genesis appear to have been sourced from tablets handed down through the generations.
Where I disagree, and I think this has also hampered acceptance of their theory, is that they appear to have assumed that the very same format was used by all of the tablets used to create most of the book of Genesis. The tablets discovered in Wiseman’s day typically had writing on one side only. The towledah phrase was written at the end of the tablet or the edge of it. Therefore when Wiseman saw a “these are the generations of” in Genesis he assumed that it was, in every case, only referring to what was written before the towledah. Sometimes his way of looking at it made sense, but other times it didn’t.
We now have the benefit of decades of new discoveries since Wiseman’s day. Now we know that the tablets don’t have to be one-sided. We have even found a couple where one side has a genealogy on it, with the towledah phrase at the bottom or on the edge, and the other side has a narrative-type story of some individual in the genealogy. If some of the Genesis tablets had a format like this, it would make a lot more sense of the text.
When one considers that these would be tablets from accounts separated in some cases by many centuries it just makes sense that not all of the tablets would follow the exact same format. There was a general style that was used, but we should not expect the format for all of them to be rigidly uniform.
Once you allow for the idea that the towledah phrase could be in the middle or edge of tablets which had a narrative account on the front and a genealogy on the back, most of the critiques of the Tablet Theory melt away- and I will deal with the rest in the next chapter. The material in Genesis both before and after the phrase could be, in some cases, from the same tablet. Basically if we look for some of the same types of literary devices found in past, and even present, books and written works we can better understand the material.
The next chapterin the book matches toledaw with passages in a way that answers the most common textual critiques of the tablet theory.