Genesis in cuneiform on tablets

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Sat Sep 28 2002 - 00:58:26 EDT

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    The subject of the Genesis tablets may have been mentioned before on
    this list, but I don't remember any discussion.

    The thesis that the Genesis texts were originally written in cuneiform
    on clay tablets was proposed and argued by Percy J. Wiseman in his 1936
    book, "New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis". It has been
    translated into German (and probably other languages), but all English
    and German editions are out-of-print. I couldn't find any library copy,
    either. Now a friend sent me a photocopy of an undated German version,
    "Die Entstehung der Genesis" (presumably the first edition of 1957).
    This version includes some updates proposed by Dennis J. Wiseman, the
    author's son, an archeologist then at the British Museum in London. The
    father, Percy J. Wiseman, had been working as an archeologist in Iraq
    for many years.

    Here I should like to present a short summary of the main points of
    Wiseman's thesis, in order to ask the experts and others among you what
    you think about it. Are there points that are no longer defensible (or
    never were)? Are there others that must be modified? Are there any
    relevant newer finds or other data? Please don't just refer to the
    opinions of some authorities, but summarize the relevant arguments and
    evidences for any criticisms you might have. What follows is my summary
    of what I found most important in Wiseman's book (but without any
    comments of my own).

    Peter Ruest

    Percy J. Wiseman, "New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis"
    1. Writing was very common in Babylonia at least from the late 4th
    millennium BC onward. It was used for ordinary things, as well as for
    important ones. One wrote on clay tablets using cuneiform script
    (developing over time). This writing culture extended at least to the
    middle of the 1st millennium BC and as far west as the countries of the
    eastern Mediterranean. Cuneiform was readily understood in Egypt, as
    well (cf. the Tell-el-Amarna tablets of 1400 BC). Apparently, important
    people had their genealogies and other historical events written on
    tablets, which were then kept and copied as family documents. It would
    be surprising if the biblical patriarchs had not done so with their own
    genealogies and with the wonderful divine promises they had received.
    The reference to a "book" or "written record" ("sepher") in Gen.5:1
    states as much.

    2. Some relevant characteristics often found on those tablets are as
    follows. At the bottom, a seal of the author or owner of the tablet was
    imprinted, sometimes a date was indicated. In order to link different
    tablets belonging to the same longer text, titles, keywords, and
    sequence numbers were used. Linking keywords consisted of a word or a
    group of words occurring at the beginning or end of one tablet, which
    were repeated at the beginning or end of the next one. The name of the
    owner, the date of writing, and the title of the tablet or series of
    tablets were placed in a "colophon" at the end of the text (not at the

    3. The key for discerning the structure of Genesis is the word
    "toledoth", translated "account of", "lines of", "generations", or
    "genealogy". The usual word for "generation" is "dor". But "toledoth" is
    used in a very specific context only: it marks the colophons at the ends
    of clay tablets. Most bible editions link this expression to what
    follows; this is a mistake, due to ignorance of the ancient writing
    customs. Connecting the "toledoth" with the preceding text, rather than
    with what follows, solves various textual difficulties, at the same
    time; in Gen.2:4, Gen.37:2, Num.3:1, the "toledoth" clearly cannot refer
    to what follows. These colophons define 11 tablets covering Gen.1-36,
    with their authors/owners indicated (except for 2:4a):
    (1) 1:1 - 2:4a, the heavens and the earth;
    (2) 2:4b - 5:1a, Adam;
    (3) 5:1b - 6:9a, Noah;
    (4) 6:9b - 10:1a, sons of Noah;
    (5) 10:1b - 11:10a, Shem;
    (6) 11:10b - 11:27a, Terah;
    (7) 11:27b - 25:12, Ishmael;
    (8) 25:13 - 25:19a, Isaac;
    (9) 25:19b - 36:1, Esau;
    (10) 36:2 - 36:9, Esau;
    (11) 36:10 - 37:2a, Jacob.
    Each of the tablets (apart from the first one) includes only items which
    the author/owner could have known from his own experience. The 12th
    section of Genesis, including 37:2b - 50:26, does not conform to the
    tablet scheme: it deals with Joseph's history in Egypt, where different
    writing customs obtained, using papyrus. Apart from the end chapter(s),
    it may have been commissioned by Joseph. This section contains Egyptian
    words and concepts indicative of an intimate knowledge of the
    corresponding environment, whereas Gen.1-11 similarly contains
    Babylonian ones, but nothing Egyptian. Interestingly, Exodus to
    Deuteronomy contain no such Babylonian words.

    4. Some keyword links between the tablets are found at (tablet number
    and b for beginning or e for end are given in parentheses):
    (1b) 1:1 "God created the heavens and the earth" - (2b) 2:4c "God Yahweh
    made the earth and the heavens";
    (2b) 2:4b "when they were created" - (3b) 5:2b "at the time they were
    (4b) 6:10 "Shem, Ham, and Japheth" - (5b) 10:1b "Shem, Ham, and
    (5b) 10:1c "after the flood" - (6b) 11:10b "after the flood";
    (6e) 11:26 "Abram, Nahor, and Haran" - (7b) 11:27b "Abram, Nahor, and
    (7e) 25:12 "son of Abraham" - (8e) 25:19 "son of Abraham";
    (9e) 36:1 "Edom" - (10e) 36:9 "Edom"
    (10e) 36:9 "father of Edom" - (11e) 36:43 "father of Edom".
    In places other than at the beginning of a tablet or near the colophon
    at the end, such repetitions are hardly ever found. Some so-called
    doublets seem to be a consequence of multiple authors (e.g. the sons of

    5. Some residues of ancient methods of dating a tablet (near the
    colophon) are found in 11:26a; 25:11b; 36:8; 37:1.

    6. During the 40 years in the Sinai desert, Moses wrote the first
    complete Genesis edition by copying the tablet copies handed down to
    him. This tablet collection constituted Israel's "bible" at that time.
    Moses added the Joseph section to Genesis, then, in Exodus, he continued
    exactly where this Joseph record left off. Exodus presupposes the
    knowledge given in Genesis. In his other 4 books, Exodus to Deuteronomy,
    Moses repeatedly emphasized that God ordered him to write these
    accounts, but never in Genesis. If Genesis had been revealed to him by
    God directly, Moses would have said so. Similarly, Jesus and the
    apostles constantly referred to Moses as the author of Ex. to Deut., but
    never when quoting Gen. In compiling Genesis, Moses kept the colophons
    which indicate the sources of his information. He was very careful not
    to modify anything, not even eliminating duplicate expressions used as
    tablet links or originating from different authors writing about the
    same events. He did not update antiquated expressions (e.g. geographical
    designations) and ancient concepts, which might not have been understood
    by his contemporaries, but explained them (e.g. Gen.14). The idea of a
    merely oral tradition of the Genesis material is pure fiction: now much
    is known about the ancient Mesopotamian writing customs.

    7. The first tablet simply uses the designation "God", Elohim, for God.
    It must have originated in a time before polytheism arose. In contrast,
    the second tablet gives a specific name for God, in combination with
    Elohim, to distinguish the real God from the false gods of emerging
    polytheism. Finally, before the exodus, God for the first time reveals
    his name specifically as "Yahweh" (Ex.6,3). The apparent contradiction
    to the frequent occurrence of "Yahweh" in Genesis is resolved by
    assuming that Moses, when compiling Genesis, specifically replaced the
    earlier designations of God which were more specific than "God" with the
    new name Yahweh. During the many centuries of writing, copying and
    traditing the Genesis tablets, the pictographic and later cuneiform
    script changed and the language developed from Sumerian to Hebrew. In
    particular, the designations used for God changed connotations during
    the development of the polytheistic religions. While in the beginning,
    "Elohim" (God) was unmistakeably clear; later "El Elyon" (God Most High)
    or "El Shadday" (God Almighty) were more precise designations for the
    true God in contradistinction to the heathen gods; finally, these terms,
    too, were usurped for polytheistic use. When Israel was established as a
    separate nation through the exodus, God revealed his special name
    "Yahweh" (I am who I am), which from now on was identified specifically
    as the name of the God of his people of Israel, thus preventing further
    polytheistic corruption. Elohim, El Elyon, and El Shadday are titles of
    God, Yahweh is his name. When polytheism grew, the gods needed names to
    distinguish them, as the "god" titles became ambiguous. Moses therefore,
    when translating the ancient texts into contemporary Hebrew, chose the
    new, unique name Yahweh to translate any ancient designation marking
    God's uniqueness, such as El Shadday or El Elyon (these titles were
    retained only in very specific situations where the categorical
    distinction between God and gods was emphasized, at a time when these
    titles were not yet used for pagan gods). The changed cultural
    environment forced Moses to use this "anachronism". Every Bible
    translator has the same problem. Should one use the name "Allah" for God
    in Arabic translations, or designations like "Lord of heaven", "Most
    high Ruler", or "Spirit", which are intimately coupled with the original
    pagan religions, in Chinese translations?

    8. The completely different picture given by Source Criticism (or
    "Higher Criticism") was developed at a time when virtually nothing was
    known about the archeological findings which demonstrate what the
    ancient Mesopotamian cultures really were like. Now it is known that
    many of the source-critical starting assumptions, like writing unknown,
    polytheism before monotheism, not more than one divine name per author,
    late origins of the Pentateuch texts, etc., were simply mistaken.
    Unfortunately, this entire source-critical construction survived, with
    only minor modifications, being adopted even by many evangelical

    9. One of the problems the source-critical scholars had, was of course
    the use made of Torah texts by Jesus and his apostles. This led Semler
    to formulate his theory of accommodation, saying that Jesus knew that
    these texts were not written by Moses, but didn't say so, accommodating
    himself to the erroneous beliefs of his time. Wellhausen then even
    claimed that Jesus didn't know it himself (kenosis, Jesus having
    "emptied himself", Phil.2:7). Semler called Jesus' trustworthiness into
    question, Wellhausen his knowledge of reality. Yet Jesus never hesitated
    to challenge the mistaken views of his contemporaries, particularly the
    bible scholars. Why did he never introduce them to source criticism?
    Jesus and the apostles took the reports of Genesis to be historical.
    >From the beginning, biblical theology was based on history.

    10. The account of creation on the first tablet differs in type from all
    other tablets. Clearly, no one could have written it from personal
    experience. Its contents transcend by far any ancient worldviews, but
    nevertheless it is written in a way Adam could understand. It is not
    presented as a vision, but expressed in direct statements. It contains
    neither myths nor legends, nor any trace of a philosophical system, or
    of specifically Babylonian, Egyptian, or Jewish views. It is unique.

    11. There are parallels between several of the Genesis tablets and many
    Sumerian cuneiform tablets from the third Millenium BC, such as
    creation, the genealogy of Gen.5, and the flood. But in each case, the
    Babylonian version is clearly a badly degenerated derivative of the
    Genesis accounts, contaminated with a debased polytheism and
    exaggerations. Source critics dated Genesis late, claiming its accounts
    to be "purified" versions of the pagan myths, as a consequence of their
    gratuitous assumption that biblical monotheism evolved from an original
    animism through polytheism. But from what we know now, it certainly
    would be a mistake to interpret the Genesis texts on the basis of the
    Babylonian myths. Egyptian myths (e.g. the cult of the dead) never
    entered the biblical texts in any way, although the Israelites
    repeatedly were under Egyptian influence. So why should Babylonian myths
    have done so? The fact that the tablet copies tradited to Moses remained
    free of any polytheistic corruption also documents the clear monotheism
    not just of Abraham and his descendants, but of all the patriarchs


    Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
    <> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
    "..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)

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