Who wrote Genesis?

There are, of course, many people who think the authorship and mode of writing Genesis is irrelevant, and are content to say: ‘The Holy Spirit wrote it’. This may be acceptable once a person has come to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but it can be a cop-out in terms of evangelism and the instruction of young believers, and even frustrate the minds of the mature and certainly spark the tendency to anger for atheists. We will quickly cover many different and sometimes difficult to understand topics and concepts. If you have trouble with any of them, please contact me by email or posting a reply and I’ll provide further detailed information.

We will take a brief look at four ways in which biblical scholars have approached the authorship and compilation of Genesis. This is important if we are to assess how carefully God provided and maintained the record of creation in the first 34 verses of Genesis as we know it today.

There are basically four theories concerning how Genesis was written and by whom.

  1. There are those who say Moses wrote it by an automatic dictation method, entirely supernaturally.
  2. At the other extreme, Mosaic authorship is denied in favour of a late composition during the 4th century BC.
  3. Some say Moses compiled Genesis from ancient sources, oral or written, with toledoth passages (‘These are the generations of …’) marking the boundaries, and that these toledoth are the titles of the segments following them, except for the first segment, Genesis 1:1 to 2:3.
  4. Finally, there are those who accept the toledoth hypothesis, but regard them as colophons, that is, as subscripts or bibliographical references at the end of each segment, including the first one.

We need not stay long with the first theory about Genesis, since it goes with a general view of all Scripture. It claims a mechanical writing of Scripture through entirely passive writers, through visions or some other means- popular with those who try to deny Scripture. Proof against this view are the references to the Lord’s use of expressions like: ‘Moses wrote’ or ‘Moses commanded’, emphasizing the authorship of parts of the Pentateuch.[i] God involves his servants in responsibility as well as in supernaturally imparted faith. Thus, we acknowledge the human author/compiler, with the implication that the Holy Spirit moved the writer to take up the pen.

The second theory is the ‘higher critical’ theory, traceable in several forms through such names as Spinoza, Wellhausen and others down to more recent proponents of lengthy oral traditions. Their theories are often based on the assumption that no Noahic Deluge intervened between early Genesis and ancient Babylonian cultures, and that the Bible begins with refinements of a Babylonian myth called Enuma Elish. (Look up http://creation.com/is-genesis-1-just-reworked-babylonian-myth for a wide ranging discussion). Oh, if I had a dollar for every time that has been brought up in a discussion with atheists and other unbelievers.

Perhaps this discussion of the way God appears to have brought the Word down to us will be of some help in convincing people of the wonder and yet the reasonableness of his ways. God appears to use existing means, and only brings in the miraculous at times when He wishes to communicate specially in signs and wonders.

Reference Type Meaning Example
anaphora refers to item in previous text ‘this’ in ‘We’ve lost all our money. This is the problem.
cataphora refers to item in following text ‘this’ in ‘This is the problem: We’ve lost all our money.’
exophora refers to item outside text ‘this’ in ‘Take this with you.’
Table 1. The various rhetorical terms/‘phoric’ reference relationships.

Having considered the terms in the Hebrew expression, we should now turn our attention to the differences between the third and fourth theories of the composition of Genesis.

The question now arises with the toledoth as to whether the expression, ‘these are the generations of …’, refers back anaphorically to a preceding passage, or cataphorically forward to genealogies and histories following. In effect, the pivotal word is not toledoth itself, but the Hebrew word ‘elleh, ‘these’ (or in one case Hebrew zeh, this’), rather than the whole sentence in which the words are found. However, there is one aspect of the word toledoth to which some attention should be given.

This would be the psychological factor implicit in translating this plural Hebrew expression into English in the singular. Is toledoth (and the referential ‘elleh) correctly translated ‘history’, ‘record’ (and correspondingly ‘this’), or is it correct to use a plural to translate a plural, as ‘generations’, ‘origins’, etc. (and correspondingly ‘these’)?

Those who know that the Hebrew word is plural may consider it inaccurate and therefore against a literal understanding of the Bible to make such a change as that from plural to singular. For example, ‘Elohim in Hebrew is a plural noun, and in almost every place it is rendered ‘God’ and not ‘gods’. This is done to avoid the suggestion of polytheism. We know it should not be translated ‘gods’, because the verb it agrees with, ‘created’, is singular. This is where we have to count on the hundreds of linguists who have studied everything written, painted or scraped on papyrus, walls, pottery or tablets. As they come to a greater understanding of ancient languages, that knowledge is applied to the Bible for greater clarification and revelation of the Word of God.

One of the strongest supporters of the cataphoric theory of reference is the creationist E. J. Young,[ii] who insists that even the lexicographer Gesenius is unreliable in translating toledoth as ‘origin’. He points to the fact that toledoth is derived from the verb yalad, ‘beget’, hence it must refer to something following or begotten by the person whose toledoth is being set forth. However, this sort of argument is linguistically unsound.

Clearly the use of toledoth in Hebrew is not restricted to things begotten and their effect on the future. It normally refers to how one came to be begotten, as it were. It may, indeed, be idiomatic and refer to written records ‘begotten’ by the writers out of the events they are recording. Indeed, the begetting of something is its origin, so that ‘origin’ is in fact a quite reasonable translation, derived though it may be from a verb ‘beget’.[iii]

The archeologists Wiseman[iv] has shown that ancient Middle East records were produced on clay tablets, using a metal or wood stylus which made wedge-shaped indentations on the damp clay during production. The tablets were then either sun-dried or baked for permanent storage. All this had been known for a century, but what Wiseman points out is the actual textual form of the tablets.

The characteristic format is that:

  1. The record begins straight away, without a heading as title, though in fact a tablet may be referred to by its opening words.
  2. Each tablet ends with a toledoth statement, referring to what has been written above. It is therefore anaphoric.
  3. A name in the toledoth statement refers either to the writer or to the owner of the tablet.

It must also be true that the writer or owner must have known everything recorded on a tablet. Thus, the information in each segment of Genesis should represent conditions that ended before the death of the person named in the record. Hence, it is most likely that the toledoth is a colophon, that is, a subscript and not a heading.

In the libraries of the Middle East there are numerous copies (including a small number of originals) of records similar to those that lie behind Genesis. The signature in the colophon confirms the truth of the contents. In the light of these discoveries, it is reasonable to see the Genesis toledoth as colophons confirming the actual truth of what was enumerated above the signatures. In effect, then, they are bibliographical details relating to the passages preceding them.

The very first record shows no writer’s or owner’s name, apart from the significant expression, ‘when they were created’, which suggests that this set of tablets only concerned God’s work in creation. The title of this record is taken from the opening words, ‘In the Beginning’, for this is how records were referred to in those days. At any rate, the Jews still call Genesis ‘In the Beginning’. The word ‘Genesis’ is taken from the Greek form of the Hebrew word toledoth, which is geneseis, the plural of genesis.

Who, then, was the writer of the first record? Was it Adam, instructed by God, or could it even be God himself, writing as he wrote the ten commandments?

Is it feasible that Adam could have written Genesis 1:1–2:4a as the result of his pre-Fall conversation with God, and Genesis 2:4b–5:1 as the record of his own experiences? There is no problem concerning his ability to have done so. Adam was created a mature man, endowed with all the DNA, knowledge and skill he needed to perform all the tasks assigned him by God. He was not an evolved Neanderthal! Adam knew enough horticulture ‘to dress and to keep’ the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and ample intelligence to recognize and name the distinct kinds of animals (Genesis 2:19). He (and Eve) could converse with God without ever having learned an alphabet, and there is no reason to suppose that he was not fully skilled in writing also.[v]

The Babylonian system enabled the ancient peoples to make multiple copies. Once impressed, all you had to do was to produce another slab of soft clay and take a reverse impression, then a third slab placed over the second one after it had dried, would produce on the third a copy of the first one. A simple copying machine! These tablets would be strung together to make continuous narratives or official records or whatever. Someone like Adam could have made a set or sets and passed them on to Noah within three generations.

As for the compilation, it becomes clear that Moses was very reliable and faithful in not changing these old sources. He left them, as far as reasonable, in their original textual state, with all the awkward joints visible. He knew he was dealing with a sacred set of documents, and beyond translating, he made no changes.

Assuming, then, that Moses put together the ancient sources that lie behind Genesis, how well did he preserve their identity?

As regards the contents, we notice that in the first series the sun and moon are not named. This would be in keeping with a very ancient nomenclature. We note that God himself named heaven and earth and the sea, and day and night. In terms of a reality, we note that there is no ‘I saw’, hence it is not a vision. In the second set of records, we find God ‘walking in the cool of the day’, which could hardly be a late expression. The Jews were so reverent by then and could hardly think of God walking and talking with Adam!

There are also cross-references between sets of tablets. Thus at Genesis 5:29 Noah’s record refers to Adam’s record at 3:17. Besides being a distinction between sources, there is continuity. Yet the tablets are not conflated. Genesis 11:10–18 repeats 10:22–29. Corruption in the earth is mentioned both in Genesis 6:5–8 and 6:9–13.

Critics have raised the question of the names of God, not only in their attempts to fragment Genesis unnecessarily, but because Exodus 6:3 tells us that God did not reveal himself to the ancestors of Moses as ‘Yahweh’, but as El Shadday. How does this square with Genesis 2:4b, where ‘Yahweh’ (translated into English as ‘the Lord’) is found, and from there onwards constantly occurs?

A quite reasonable answer can easily be discerned. Moses, while compiling Genesis from these Mesopotamian tablets, would come across the name ‘El Shadday’, yet God had already told Moses his special name for Israel was ‘Yahweh’. Nevertheless, it might cause misunderstanding and even sound like idolatry to use a foreign-sounding name along with ‘Yahweh’ in different places in the text.

In view of this, it may be that Moses did make alterations at this point to avoid idolatrous associations, for after all, God’s name must be preserved from blasphemy at any cost. To take a somewhat similar predicament for translators of the Bible into Arabic, is it right for Arabic Christians to use the name Allah? Or has it too many non-Christian associations?

But in all other ways Moses was very careful to preserve what God had caused to be handed down the ages. He was indeed faithful in preserving source references. He also explained unfamiliar names and places.

It is generally agreed that the alphabet was invented (or revealed?) by someone in the Sinai region round about 1450 BC.[vi] As any student of language knows, this does not mean that there was no writing before the alphabet. After all, modern Chinese does not use an alphabet.

Languages before the alphabet appeared were logographic (word-based, not letter-based), which means that if we ever found pre-alphabetic scripts, we would have no idea how the sounds were pronounced. Moses therefore would have his work cut out to transfer these scripts into an alphabet, as well as having to decipher the meanings.

Only a contemporary of Moses could transcribe the writing efficiently into Hebrew, and even if Hebrew had been used in the originals, it would not have been in an alphabetic script. Thus it appears that God channelled the important account of the creation, and that of the Deluge, through this one chosen vessel, Moses. And Moses was so faithful in the work.

In a somewhat similar way, we find that the New Testament writers’ documents in Greek were kept intact down to today by Christians who believed they should not alter one word, even though the writers were nearly all Jews writing in a foreign language. All their ‘bad grammar’ is preserved for us. This is not a defect. On the contrary, it indicates the faithfulness of the copyists. They would never dream of polishing them up. God delights to use weak vessels. Frank Morrison and others have shown that it is the irregularities in the Bible which bear witness to its genuineness and ensure that it will stand up in a court of law.[vii]

In the same way we see Moses leaving in Genesis all the toledoth or source ‘footnotes’ in the text, making it uneven. Yet in that very thing, he ensured under God that we today possess a truly faithful record of the mighty works of God in creation and judgment. There is no literary reason to doubt the truth of these things, and we ignore such truth at our peril.

You may find many more articles by typing “Genesis Moses” in the search box at or clicking below link:

http://creation.com/search?q=Genesis+Moses

[i] Christ Himself is recorded as speaking of Moses 19 times. On four of these occasions He said Moses ‘commanded’, twice Moses ‘wrote’, and once Moses ‘said’.

[ii] Young, E.J., Studies in Genesis One, Presbyterian and Reformed Press, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1979; pp. 59–60.

[iii] Brown, F., Driver, S.R., Briggs, C.A. and Gesenius, The New Hebrew and English Lexicon, Associated Publishers and Authors, Lafayette, Indiana, 1978; ad loc., s.v. yalad, No. 8435, p. 410, col. 1

[iv] Wiseman, P.J., New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1946; p. 86.

[v] Adam and Eve knew how to sew fig-leaf ‘aprons’ for themselves (Genesis 3:7). Within a few generations, Adam’s descendants founded a city (Genesis 4:17), were tent-makers, cattle farmers, musicians with the ability to make both stringed and wind instruments, and metallurgists with the ability to smelt the ores of copper, tin and iron and then to forge all kinds of bronze and iron tools (Genesis 4:20–24). Dr Henry M. Morris comments in The Genesis Record (Baker Book house, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1976, pp. 146–147):

‘It is significant to note that the elements which anthropologists identify as the attributes of the emergence of evolving men from the stone age into true civilization—urbanization, agriculture, animal domestication, and metallurgy—were all accomplished quickly by the early descendants of Adam and did not take hundreds of thousands of years.’

[vi] Diringer, D., The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, Hutchinson, London, 1949; pp. 109–202.

[vii] Morrison, F., Who Moved the Stone? Faber and Faber, London, 1930.

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1 Comment

  1. 1. Roy Marshall says:
    March 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm
    After reading the link you put forth at the Creation.com site, I am confused. Although I’m not a biblical scholar, I do find it difficult to determine the value in comparing genesis type creation myths of various cultures to the writing of the bible. ” Accepting Genesis as the true and factual creation story would therefore explain how increasingly garbled versions of creation circulated independently in differing forms among various ethnic groups in antiquity, and eventually came to be attached to debased, polytheistic myths at some early stage…” and of course the big refute of any debate, ” Genesis preserves the pristine and pure form of the creation narrative”
    This is the epitome of religious doctrine, nothing can be disputed, because the bible says so. That is the argument given at nearly all the sites you have recommended I look at. Oh if I had a dollar for every time that non-secular people have given me that same argument to refute science.
    Mostly though, I don’t understand the reference itself. The Dineh’ believe that Father mated with Mother on the dark world and the divine Spirit led them into the light and the people were brought forth to live. I think that EVERY culture has taken the time to think about where they came from. And I don’t know for one hundred per cent, but I think they all have a creation event in their beliefs. What does that have to do with Genesis? There again, that is the epitome of the self righteousness that religious scholars will create arguments that diverse cultures derived their beliefs from christianity. I’m pretty sure the Dineh’ didn’t.
    When I read information about the Council of Nicaea I find that there are huge numbers of discrepancies in, well, everything. From sites telling me that 120 bishops attended to 320. And each with as many as 5 men in attendance. I read that Constantine after a year of debate finally took all of the so called books of scripture and tossed them onto a table, those that stayed on the table became part of his bible, those that fell to the floor, (and there were over 300) did not make it. Constantine then supposedly took those remaining scriptures and had that written down as THE bible that would be used to unify christianity for his causes. I also have read references to as many as 200 of the attending bishops then went and had their own personal versions of A bible written for their personal use. The Council also debated reincarnation, and there are discrepancies as to what transpired there as well what with some 20+ historians each giving their own account of the proceedings and each with differing viewpoints.
    ” the irregularities in the Bible which bear witness to its genuineness and ensure that it will stand up in a court of law” All due respect to Frank Morrison and, others, this is pure speculation. And of course, faith. Greek to Aramaic to Hebrew to Latin and finally to English, makes for a legal document based on faith alone.
    Then again, with so many historians telling their tale, with the church in later centuries cracking down, destroying and persecuting any that contradict what they chose to be the word of god, and with so many heresies being committed by the ecumenical leaders of our time and every single era since the time of Christ; how can anyone believe in your faith?

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