The Tablet Theory and Hints from the Text of Scripture


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.


Good summary, Mark. My only minor quibble is with this:

Moses broke the original tablets in careless anger

It was calculated anger - Moses saw that Israel had broken the covenenant whose stipulatios were on the two tablets. Indeed, the next chapter or two is about Moses’s intercession with God NOT to abandon the covenant (which God mkaes as if to do). Only after Moses succeeds does God replace the tablets.

Otherwise, seems a good representation of Wiseman.


Excellent presentation, Mark!
Yes, the controversy over whether the toledot MUST serve as colophons is what hampered the initial acceptance in the history of this theory.
Given how stone tablet libraries were organized, in rows of shelves with limited visible access to the texts thereupon, it comes as no surprise that short “titles” or the equivalent of what came to be attached to ancient scolls, “syllabos” tags, would be added to the spines, and the resulting toledoth phrase may have served, in some cases, as mere textual continuity identifiers.


@jongarvey , good distinction. But I also think this was at least as much a test of Moses, that God prepared him for, to some extent, as it was a failure on the part of the peoples’ theology. Given the cultural associations that an Egpytian religious syncretistic enculteration might result in, a golden calf made up of the spoils of Egypt would serve as a powerful religious symbol of a new, upstart “god” who had triumphed over Egypt. I honestly think that God was not completely surprised at the sheer vastness of the conceptual gulf the Hebrews would have to cross before giving up on pagan idols. Moses met with God “face to face,” and the people rightly did not worship Moses for that, but their conception of the “Personhood” of God was sorely lacking. They were thus prohibited from trying to make artistic representations of Him, and instead exposed to a book of stories which told of His “in person” visitations in sacred history.


An additional observation. Now that the toledot statements are treated by a majority as primarily forward-looking (though, granted, serving as links in a series) rather than as colophons, there have been arguments about the lack of one in the Gen 1 creation account.

Does “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void” serve as one, summarising the whole account, or is it an introduction only? Certainly it doesn’t follow the usual “These are the generations of…”

Combine that debate with the disontinuities in content and style that led the critical scholars and sequentialists like me to regard chs 1 and 2 as separate traditions, and it seems to me that an updated tablet theory frees us from what seems to me the rather artifical, and certainly YEC-biased, idea that God dictated to Adam what he’d been up to the previous week.

Instead, we could treat Gen 2.4-11.1 as the tradition, perhaps as physical tablets, that Moses received from his forebears (the Old Testament of the Old Testament), and the creation account as his own inspired theological introduction to that proto-history for the new Israel, full of the tabernacle imagery that forms a Yahwist cosmology, but also giving a universal scope to what, in itself (as Alice Linsley points out, for example) is a local dynastic history.

In that way, concordance issues are avoided because, unlike the proto-history, the creation account is ahistorical; the narrative drama begins, as it seems to, with the conflict in the garden; and Moses, being aware of that, becomes a wise author rather than a bad editor.


Yup. Tablet theory, reworked, and a sequential reading, combined with a “late” Adam as coming along well after the creation of mankind in God’s image, allows for whole new vistas of coherence while not undoing orthodoxy. Right with 'ya, @jongarvey !
I tend, however, to view the Genesis 1 account as part of the primeval tablet history Moses received as a recorded oral tradition; a “hymn of creation” possibly even taught by the Malak YHWH to Adam and Eve directly, as a matter of worldview formation.
I find no intractible problems with a soft concordist analysis of this material; rather, remarkable congruence. I am, after all, an only somewhat rogue RTB guy… : )


Well, I wasn’t there either, so I won’t insist…


I hadn’t heard that the “majority” had flipped the script on the toledots representing the subsequent material rather than the preceding material. If so, add that to the list of things I am convinced they have wrong, at least for most of them. The rules change for understandable reasons over the thousands of years the tablets represent. The first account does have a toledot- it starts at 2:4.



Wenham argues for “introductions” on the grounds of giving full weight to the chiastic structure of 2:4 and the literary function of the other toledots. He cites in support Jacob, Cassutoo, Cross, Woudstra, Tengstrom, Childs.

Kidner agrees, responding negatively to Wiseman’s thesis from the analysis of the Genesis toledots - adding as an example of the necessity of pointing forwards the toledot phrasing of Ruth 4:18 (though he also argues against the likelihood of “journal” type tablets).

John Walton (NIV Application Commentary) discusses the toledots and concludes they are introductions meaning “developments that arise out of…”

C John Collins emphasises the bridging character of 2:4-7, but sees the toledot as introducing an expansion of the work of the 6th day in the creation of Adam.

Sailhamer believes they are introductions, citing other Pentateuchal examples like Numbers 3:1. His only caveta is that, in the final form of the Pentateuch, they are not the sole indicator of divisions.

Seth Postell mentions the preference of most critical scholars to the toledots as conclusions, but in a lengthy discussion comes to the conclusion that they are introductions, including some less-explored matters (as a Jew) like the occurrences of words - “eretz” occurs a significant 3X7 times in the creation account… but if 2:4 is included, that number is an non-significant 22 - throughout the Pentateuch one finds such careful compositional factors, so it’s not irrelevant. Postell cites Otto and Stordalen’s work in support.

Greg Beale, assuming they are introductions, compares 2:4 with Matthew 1:1 (the same Greek as Septuagint) to take the latter as a deliberate introduction to the New Creation in the New Adam.

Richard Middleton argues for introductions simply because they all work as that, whereas not all work as conclusions, and disagrees with von Rad that 2:4a is a sole exception to the rule.


Well Jon @jongarvey that gives me a lot to dig my teeth into, assuming I can find the source material for the most promising on the list. I did notice in your list that S. Postell claimed that most critical scholars see them as conclusions, as did Wiseman.

Now I know you are a big fan of Middleton, and it seems like he is on the side of introductions on practical grounds- that is, they all “work” as introductions but not conclusions. So then I take it that if he could be shown another way that they would all “work” smoothly he would be amenable to considering it?

I ask because the view I lay out in Early Genesis is that they start as conclusions, but when two-sided tablets come along the narrative is put on one side and the genealogy is put on the other, with the colophon on the edge of the tablet placed in the middle. This format aligns well with the structure of Ruth though the genealogy there is very short. Later on, something else happens to make a soup of too-rigid an application of the Wiseman Hypothesis as described here…


Agreed, Mark. The placement of the toledots is a signal which arises more from physical aspects of the tablets than as an inviolable literary convention. Why can’t they vary between being introductory and /or conclusory?


Obviously I summarised all the sources to give a hint at their arguments. And I guess the way to judge how persuasible people are is to interact with them, rather than ask their readers! You can find his passage in The Liberating Image, and he uses s:4a as an introduction as a significant plank in his whole case for the message of Genesis, leading (like me, before I read his book) to the conclusion that 1:1-2:3 falls outside the toledot structure, as a prologue for the rest of Genesis and the whole Bible (for which view he cites Walter Brueggemann and Francis Watson).

So his interest here is mainly the relationship (which he dubs “transcendental”) between the creation account and what follows, and I don’t think he’d see any particular mileage in being persuaded otherwise.


What I find amazing is how scholars can reject the entire perspective of tablet theory just because they can’t settle this one question. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!


Ahh, much like the rest of us then.


I think the problem is generally over-stated in both directions:

The Tablet Theory doesn’t bring any more corroboration to the table…

But it does flesh out with specifics exactly how an “old narrative passed to the Biblical narrative” scenario could be mechanically executed by humans (presumably with all of God’s grace and inspiration usually associated with such ideas).


Actually, tablet theory identifies the likely sources, the literary antiquity of those sources, an explanation for how they got so much of ancient and patriarchal culture right, despite their historical remoteness from Moses, and suggests ways the oral stories underlying them may have been originally shaped --establishing a larger context in which to seek to know their meaning.
So vital is this underpinning, that I am completely stumped as to why the esteemed Dr. Jack Collins @jack.collins doesn’t seem to wish to weigh in on it. I hope he does, when the onus of his work on the Psalms commentary lightens up. Certainly, the current text contains anachronistic insertions, identifiable Egyptianisms, and other features which attest to a lively literary history, but at their core there is undeniable history and veracity.