Re: Genesis in cuneiform on tablets

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Thu Oct 10 2002 - 00:54:17 EDT

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    Paul Seely <> wrote (Tue, 8 Oct 2002 23:44:20 EDT):
    > Paul: < In the ancient Near East in the time of the patriarchs, only about 5%
    > of the
    > > population could write. One had to hire a scribe (a lawyer) even to send a
    > > letter to someone, and at the other end, one had to hire a scribe to read
    > the
    > > letter to you.
    > Peter: < It probably wouldn't be easy to document such a figure of 5%, even
    > its
    > order of magnitude. I consider it a plain speculation.>
    > Paul: The figure is based on the indications in the tablets themselves. It
    > is not based on mere speculation. In her recent book, Daily Life in Ancient
    > Mesopotamia (2002), Karen Nemet-Nejat, professor at Yale U., says (p. 54),
    > "Most people were not literate. With approximately six hundred signs with
    > multiple values, education was confined to the few. Even priests, kings,
    > governors, and judges were illiterate, with few exceptions." In the most
    > authoritative up to date source on civilizations in the ancient Near East,
    > William Whitt writing in CANE, vol 4 p. 2395, says, "The most we can suppose
    > of craftsmen, merchants, and landowners is that they possessed the skills to
    > compose and read simple texts, such as accounts or inventories; there is no
    > reason to believe that very many of them could read difficult literary or
    > religious texts [which is what Genesis 1-37 is]. Most men in this group would
    > be considered semiliterate by today's standards. The size of this segment of
    > the population is difficult to estimate and must have varied from region to
    > region, but in the Levant it was probably less than 10% of all adult males.
    > The rest of the men, almost all of the women would be considered illiterate
    > in the modern sense of the word." Note that when the women are factored in,
    > you have less than 5% of the population able to read and write, and even that
    > is only at a semi-literate level.

    Ok, granted. So we have two possibilities: the patriarchs either
    belonged to the 5%, or they hired scribes. In my answer to Dick Fischer,
    I wrote: "As for the patriarchs writing clay tablets, Wiseman
    underscored the fact that the biblical text presents them as quite
    mighty princes in their times (cf. Abraham). And if the genealogies of
    Gen.5 and 11 can be set parallel to the king lists found on cuneiform
    tablets, the same would apply to these patriarchs. I think the usual
    representation of the patriarchs as 'primitive nomads' is not supported
    by the evidence." As for the 600 cuneiform signs with multiple values,
    how does this look in comparison with Chinese? Doesn't Chinese have many
    more signs? What's the literacy rate (in globo, and among simple people)
    in modern China? I was told that modern Tamil has 247 different signs,
    but all children learn them, even those who live here and have to learn
    up to three western languages besides.

    > Paul: > I have never heard of a semi-nomadic tribe carrying around cuneiform
    > tablets.>
    > Peter: <You have if you read P.J. Wiseman.>
    > Paul: I have read P.J. Wiseman, and I have still not seen it.
    > Paul: >Gen 5 or 11 could have existed, but Gen 12 - 36 is about a private
    > family of
    > > semi-nomads with lots of details about their history. There is nothing
    > > really comparable to that in the thousands of tablets thus far discovered
    > and
    > > translated. I could accept that maybe the genealogies per se were written
    > > down, though they are kept orally in most tribes, but the idea
    >that Gen 12 -
    > > 36 was all inscribed on tablets before the author of Genesis got it is
    > > historically improbable.>
    > Peter: <Wiseman estimated that (by 1936) 250,000 clay tablets had been found.
    > He
    > mentions some examples of very ordinary, every-day letters. Abraham's
    > family history contained some very important divine promises for future
    > generations. There is nothing really comparable to that in the rest of
    > ancient history. I think the supposition that Abraham's family wouldn't
    > have inscribed these things on tablets is historically improbable.
    > Wiseman calls the supposition of a merely oral tradition of the Genesis
    > material a fiction spun out of thin air.>
    > Paul: What Wiseman did not say about the ordinary letters is that they are
    > rare and a scribe probably composed them. In addition, letters are not
    > comparable to Gen 1-36. Nor is there any objective evidence that Abraham's
    > family wrote down anything or even that they probably would. As for Wiseman's
    > opinions about oral tradition, they are out of date and never were supported
    > by objective evidence. There is objective evidence that nomadic tribes commit
    > even the genealogies which are the foundation of their political and economic
    > power to oral tradition (R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical
    > World) If they are willing to trust their political and economic power to
    > oral tradition, then it is probable that they would trust divine promises to
    > it as well.

    Wiseman quotes Friedrich Delitzsch (I translate): "Among the multitude
    of [cuneiform] documents found, there are many of a type such as, e.g.,
    the letter of a woman to her husband who is on a trip. She tells him
    that the children are fine and asks for his counsel in an everyday
    matter. In another letter, a son tells his father that N.N. hat offended
    him deadly, that he would like to teach him a lesson, but would first
    like to know the father's opinion. Another son urges his father to at
    last send him the money he had promised him long ago. He underscores his
    insistence with the insolent offer that in this case he would again pray
    for him, etc. All these details indicate a well organized messaging
    system not lacking letter and postal connections." Of course, letters
    are not comparable to Gen.1-36, but such an important text would be
    committed to writing a fortiori. In the book you recommended last time
    (V.P.Hamilton, "The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17"), Sven Tengstr–m
    (1976) is mentioned as "play[ing] down any significant role for oral
    tradition in the development of... Genesis...". The comparison of the
    patriarchs with modern nomadic tribes is not conclusive: according to
    the biblical report, they were quite highly regarded personalities in
    their time, cf. above. In contradistinction to the customs of these
    modern nomadic tribes, many cuneiform tablets do contain genealogies.

    > Finally, if Gen 1-36 was written down on clay tablets in a series of "books"
    > beginning with one written by Adam, it was probably done by way of hiring a
    > scribe. Since there is no truly comparable such literature in the cuneiform
    > tablets so far discovered and translated, I do not find this probable.

    Of course there is no comparable such literature elsewhere. But this
    argument cuts both ways.

    > In fact, I find it chronologically impossible. Here's why:
    > The art of writing before 3000 B.C. and probably somewhat later was a matter
    > of pictographs without grammar. That is, it was not capable of expressing the
    > ideas present in Gen 1 ff. The first literary texts that we have are from c.
    > 2600 B.C., but could conceivably have been written somewhat earlier. Wiseman
    > proposes that Gen 1-5:2 was composed by Adam near the end of his life. Since
    > Adam would have needed a genuine writing system with grammar to compose such
    > a book, he must have died no earlier than 3000 B.C.

    Is it known for certain that early Sumerian pictographic writing was
    grammar-less? Or is it possible that an unconventional type of
    grammatical conventions is built-in but hasn't been deciphered as yet?

    > >From Gen 5:2 to 10:1 Wiseman says two books were written, one by Noah
    > (5:3-6:9a) and one by the sons of Noah (6:9b to 10:1). This latter book
    > includes the story of the Tower of Babel, as remembered and told by Noah's
    > sons according to Wiseman. Since the Tower of Babel must antedate 2200 B.C.
    > because it is mentioned as being rebuilt by King Sharkalisharri who is dated
    > c. 2200, you have 800 years at the most (3000 to 2200) between the death of
    > Adam and the Tower of Babel. So, according to Wiseman's theory, you only have
    > 800 years at most to cover the genealogy of Gen 5. from the death of Adam to
    > the sons of Noah. But, the genealogy clearly requires more than 800 years, so
    > Wiseman's theory is chronologically impossible.

    The two books or tablets you mention are the third and fourth ones. The
    story of the Tower of Babel is in Gen.11, i.e. on the fifth tablet
    written by Shem, who was born 626 years after Adam's death (if we assume
    no gaps). When he was 100, his first son was born. As this event is
    recorded on the sixth tablet (Gen.11:10b-27a), Shem probably wrote his
    tablet less than 726 years after Adam's death (the first two tablets
    would have ben written by Adam). These at most about 726 years are the
    only part of the genealogy in Gen.5 that has to be covered by a fully
    functional writing system. So the 800 years of grammatical writing you
    grant don't cause any problem. These circumstances certainly don't
    constitute an impossibility decisive against Wiseman's model.

    > There are other inconsistencies in Wiseman's theory that make it improbable,
    > but the one impossibilbity is decisive against it.
    > Paul

    In the meantime, I have looked up the "other reasons for doubting
    Wiseman's theory", for which you referred me to Hamilton's book. He sees
    three main problems:

    (1) " the five instances where the formula [toledot] precedes a
    genealogy (5:1; 10:1; 11:10; 25:12; 36:1), it is difficult not to
    include the colophon with what follows." This argument presupposes that
    this "colophon" has nothing to do with those on cuneiform tablets, which
    are agreed to always have their colophon at the end. Thus, he begs the
    (2) "...the Wiseman-Harrison reconstruction... suggests that Ishmael was
    primarily responsible for preserving the history of Abraham..., that
    Isaac was responsible for preserving Ishmael's history..., that Esau
    preserved Jacob's history..., and that Jacob preserved Esau's history...
    this... is highly unlikely." This argument has some force. But is it
    really enough, by itself, to derail the entire tablet model, which is
    based on many different indications?
    (3) "...toledot... comes from the verb yalad (to father, give birth,
    bear), and must refer to that which is born, or produced, i.e. the
    historical result. In the genitive, 'these are the toledot of', we have
    the starting point, the origin." A linguistic derivation of a meaning
    must rely on the context of use, which, in the case given, is the 10 or
    11 cases in Genesis (not just 5 of them), each in their contexts.
    Toledot need not necessarily refer to the result, with the genitive
    designating the origin. Toledot is the plural of a verbal noun, but a
    plural would not fit the progenitor as the "origin" of an unbranched
    chain of descent. In the tablet model, toledot would rather (more
    naturally) refer to the record of a genealogical process, with the
    genitive usually designating the author or owner of the record.

    Some further arguments, indicators of structural design in Genesis, are
    neutral with respect to the tablet model if there was any divine
    inspiration behind the Genesis text. Other arguments rest on
    interpretations which presuppose the rejection of the tablet model.
    Hamilton claims that contemporizations (e.g. "until this day") "give
    clear evidence" of a post-Mosaic updating of Genesis. But the 7
    occurrences of this phrase (19:37.38; 22:14; 26:33; 32:33; 35:20; 47:26)
    may easily have been introduced by Moses himself, in accordance with
    Wiseman's discussion of this point. One interesting detail, however, is
    the indication that the ancient versions (LXX, Masorah) lend no
    supporting evidence for the dissection of 2:4 (for attribution to E or

    But a crucial motivation of those rejecting Wiseman's tablet model of
    Genesis seems to be that it "bears on the question of authorship and
    composition", and the establishment doesn't want to jettison the JEPD
    construct. But Hamilton also mentions a series of scholars (from Jewish
    to evangelical) who reject the JEPD model of source criticism for
    various reasons, but are quite generally ignored by the "majority".


    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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