Examining The Source Material For Genesis

When biblical historians turn their attention to the source material of Genesis, one often reads a great deal of speculation (such as various ideas about the Documentary Hypothesis, where there are supposed to be four different strands of texts that were incompetently and inconsistently combined together, representing four different and independent histories, called J, E, P, and D.  The J stands for the Jehovist, who uses the name Yahweh for God, the E stands for the Elohimist, who uses the name Elohim for God, the P stands for the Priestly strand, and the D stands for the so-called Deuteronomist.  This is not one of those examinations, as I happen to believe the Documentary Hypothesis is an insulting fraud to the inspired word of God that detracts attention from such editing that the Bible does show and provides an opportunity for all sorts of unwarranted speculation about the so-called “evolution” of religion in the Bible.

Other historians seek to find parallels between the Bible and the debased and corrupt religious traditions of neighboring peoples, comparing the Psalms to Baal hymns at Ugarit, the laws of the Bible with the texts found at Mari and the Code of Hammurabi, and the Creation and Flood accounts of the Bible with the accounts in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Now, I do find this particular area of investigation quite worthy of interest as well, so long as it is remembered that the surviving pagan accounts are themselves a corruption of biblical truth that shows how some kernel of true history remained recognizable even when surrounded by a whole host of error, though it is only by knowing the truth that one can recognize the corruption.  Again, though, that is not the purpose of this brief investigation.

Instead, what I wish to do is examine the source material within Genesis itself and demonstrate what it says about the nature the Israelites as a people devoted to history from their very genesis as a society.  Additionally, I wish to examine how the structure of Genesis itself provides the reason why it contains certain materials that may seem obscure at first glance, like the Genealogy of Edom in Genesis 36, to give but one of the most obvious examples.  Rather than diminishing our faith in the fidelity of the Bible, an examination of the structure of Genesis itself shows the sort of faithful historical work was done in order to provide us with the Bible that we have, and Genesis happens to be one of the most obvious places to look to see the divinely inspired history involved in the human writing of the Bible.

Moses is traditionally known as the author of Genesis (or, it should be said more accurately) the original compiler of the material into its current form.  As Josephus says, “Now Moses’ understanding became superior to his age; and when he was taught he discovered greater quickness of learning than was usual at his age, and his actions at that time promised greater, when he should come to the age of a man [1].”  Even as a child, according to the historian Josepus, Moses was known as a quick study and a learned child. Likewise, Stephen says in Acts the following about Moses’ learning:  “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds”, in Acts 7:22.

The foregoing is important because the Book of Genesis shows the work of a careful, official historian [2], and because Moses himself shows the qualifications of education for such a work of compiling the historical documents of the history of Israel to the time of his own birth.  A careful look at the Book of Genesis demonstrates the work of a very excellent and careful historian with a keen grasp of a variety of source material.  Examining the source material for Genesis consists largely of two tasks–determining what “sources” were present in the raw material complied (presumably by Moses) and in examining the organization of Genesis into different parts.  Both of these tasks are worthwhile to undertake, at least in brief.

Biblical Source Material

First, let us examine the sort of information that is found in the book of Genesis, at least to provide a sample of the material.  Most of Genesis consists of narrative, often with intriguing details, such as day the ark of Noah rested on the mountainside (the seventeenth day of the seventh month of the year, during the Feast of Tabernacles; Genesis 8:4), or the fact that Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:2).  Some of the narratives seem to be mostly self-contained novellas (like the Joseph narrative of Genesis 37, 39-50), while others seem to be taken from diaries, like that of the servant of Abraham sent to find a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24 with its repetition and its tone of insistence.

Other source materials are less obvious.  There is a great deal of solemn prophecy made in Genesis, and as a lot of that prophecy consists of poetry, its solemn nature is more obvious, whether that poem is Adam’s naming of womankind because woman originally came out of a man (Genesis 2:23) or God’s commanding of the four seasons to continue without ceasing as long as the earth remains (Genesis 8:22-23), to the prophecy made at the birth of Esau and Jacob that the elder son would serve the younger son (Genesis 25:23), a prophecy that Isaac, unsuccessfully, sought to thwart.

Other sources are obvious, but their importance is not recognized.  For example, a recognizable portion of Genesis consists of genealogy (Genesis 4:16-22, 5:1-32, 11:10-32, 25:1-6, 29:31-30:24, 36:1-43, 46:8-27), though it is easy to read over the names and ages and miss some of the points that the author is making.  Let us briefly look at three of the genealogical sections to see some obvious points being made.  In Genesis 29:31-30:24 we have the genealogy of the children of Jacob while he was working for Laban.  In these verses we see nuptual rights being exchanged for mandrakes to help with fertility, and family with deep and horrible rivalries between sister wives in a deadly serious competition over who would be loved and respected with their children being named as if they were part of a ferocious battle.  In Genesis 36:1-43 we see an extensive genealogy of the children of Edom, a people somewhat periphery to the Bible, except that some of the children have fascinating names that come up later on in the Bible (Amalek, for example, in Genesis 36:12, as well as Uz in Genesis 36:28).  Besides these linkages between the scriptures, the fact that Edom had kings before any kings reigned in Israel (Genesis 36:31) is notable, since there were no kings in Israel until long past the time of Moses.  Likewise, the genealogy in Genesis 46:8-27 shows the people who went with Jacob to Egypt and from whom the nation of Israel was born.

The Bible’s concern with genealogy is a concern with historical detail in terms of the people with whom God worked–and our disinterest in lists of unfamiliar names and “begots” sometimes blinds us to the fact that God works with real people in real families and those ancestries are a thread that unites people together as heirs to the promise, as Peter states in Acts 2:38-39:  “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”  And also, as it is said in Exodus 20:5-6:  “For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to the thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”  If generations are important to God, they ought to be important to us as well.

Other source material of the Book of Genesis is even more obscure.  For example, Genesis contains many tantalizing hints of the law, including such aspects as tithing (Abraham tithing to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20, an incident that becomes very important in the book of Hebrews, as well as Jacob’s promise to tithe to God due to a dream at Bethel in Genesis 28:22), aspects of obedience to the law which give flesh to the blanket claim made that Abraham was blessed by God because He obeyed God’s voice and kept His charge, His commandments, His statues, and His laws (Genesis 26:5).  Likewise, the source materials of Genesis show a very astute judgment of the customs of childless women in seeking surrogate mothers (as procreation is a relentless pursuit of women during these times, as the stories of Sarah, Rachel, and Tamar attest to), as the Bible describes in Genesis 16 with Sarah and Hagar.  The source materials of the Bible also show an interest in the particular regard that Hittite law had for the care of trees in property transactions (Genesis 23:17-18), a sign that the author of Genesis was well-versed in Hittite law, and that the deed to the property and the account of its purchase remained known in Israel for generations, showing the interest of the patriarchs in recording their own histories.

Some of the history of Genesis is so obscure that it is denied by those of little faith, but which provides some intriguing hints into the geopolitical situation of the patriarchs.  To give but one example, let us briefly look at the first biblical account of organized warfare, in Genesis 14.  A coalition of four kings, led by Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, also with a couple of subsidiary allies in Mesopotamia (Amraphel king of Shinar, the plains of Mesopotamia, and Arioch, king of Ellasar, otherwise known as the city of Larsa), and Tidal the king of “nations.”  Since Tidal (in its form Tudhiliya) was common name for Hittite rulers [3] and the Hittite realms were not organized into an empire at this time, it is reasonable to guess that Tidal was the king of an area like Kanesh, one of the more important Hittite cities engaged in trade routes with Mesopotamia [4] and therefore a suitable ally for such nations in their raid against the land of Canaan (Genesis 14:1-3).  Again, though, this history is so obscure that it is often denied because no surviving extrabiblical source records this coalition of nations in existence.  Nonetheless, Abraham’s own historical archives appear as a major source of Genesis thanks to accounts like this.

In all of these cases the detail and information recorded by the Bible indicate that some historical activity was undertaken at a very early stage in human existence, perhaps from the very beginning.  The antiquity of historical records underlying the Bible also ought to remove the temptation for people to assume in error that the early people of the Bible were anything other than very attentive to recording their experiences or collecting important historical information, whether it was in laws, accounts of momentous events, genealogies, or prophetic poetry.

The Organization of Genesis

It was the skill of Moses (presumably) not in creating the book of Genesis de novo, but from collecting the preexisting accounts and historical information and organizing it skillfully and coherently, that is worthy of our highest praise.  In fact, the stitching together of Genesis into sections is so subtly done that it is often missed by readers (and by the unwary scholars fond of positing documentary theories).

In his majestic and scholarly work, Introduction to the Old Testament, R.K. Harrison makes the astute observation that “these are the generations of” in Genesis points back to the preceding text, dividing Genesis into a series of sections [5].  Indeed, Harrison very sensibly divides Genesis into eleven tablets based on this phrase, showing the true “sources of Genesis” in their biblical manner.  The twelve tablets are as follows [6]:

  • Tablet One:  Genesis 1:1-2:4:  The Origins of the Cosmos
  • Tablet Two:  Genesis 2:5-5:2:  The Origins of Mankind (The histories of Adam)
  • Tablet Three:  Genesis 5:3-6:9a:  The histories of Noah
  • Tablet Four:  Genesis 6:9b-10:1:  The histories of the sons of Noah
  • Tablet Five:  Genesis 10:2-11:10a:  The histories of Shem
  • Tablet Six:  Genesis 11:10b-11:27a:  The histories of Terah
  • Tablet Seven:  Genesis 11:27b-25:12:  The histories of Ishmael
  • Tablet Eight:  Genesis 25:13-25:19a:  The histories of Isaac
  • Tablet Nine:  Genesis 25:19b-36:1:  The histories of Esau
  • Tablet Ten:  Genesis 36:2-36:9:  The histories of Esau (in Seir)
  • Tablet Eleven:  Genesis 36:10-37:2:  The histories of Jacob
  • Tablet Twelve, if one wishes to call it that, would then be the remainder of Genesis, which is the Joseph narrative, Genesis 37:3-50:26, ending with the death and burial of Joseph.

What this analysis indicates is that Genesis, though quite probably inscribed in its final form, apart from a few editorial comments (like Genesis 36:31), by Moses, was itself derived from considerably older cuneiform tablets that served as a pre-existing history of mankind and of the patriarchal family, whose origin in tablets was maintained in the “and these are the generations of” formula that divides Genesis into its sections and shows that the biblical material goes back far before the 15th century B.C.  The existence of this very old material itself in the names and historical data demolishes the claims of documentary theorists, and provides compelling evidence that the Bible is a work of exceeding antiquity going back at least to the times of early Babylonian history, making the early chapters of the Bible among the earliest writings known to man [7].

A proper understanding of the source material and organization of Genesis, rather than diminishing faith (as a belief in the Documentary Hypothesis does, by its claim that the Bible was itself a fraud stitched together by incompetent editors long after the events in question occurred), itself demonstrates the centrality of text to the people of God long before the time of Moses, as well as a scrupulous concern for historical data, including laws, property deeds, genealogies, and geographical information.  This longstanding concern for text and the fidelity of its transcription as well as the highest respect for history done the right way ought to impress in those of us that seek to follow in the noble footsteps of our fathers in the faith a deep respect and a deep commitment to practice history in the fashion of those faithful who came before us.


In short, the book of Genesis itself contains a lot of fascinating information worthy of very close examination.  Likewise, the division of Genesis into tablets shows the early organization of materials from antiquity, demonstrating the lengthy concern for recording the deeds of God within humanity.  Rather than showing the Bible as some sort of botched “Johnny come lately” historical account, a close examination of its material shows it as a document of considerable antiquity that itself may have served as the original source material for the corrupt pagan accounts of Egypt and Mesopotamia that have survived.  The fascinating materials present within the Bible show that a great deal of written material is of concern to God, ranging from poetry to genealogy to law to dramatic narrative accounts of momentous events such as battles and marriages.  Our study of this material ought to provide us with a great deal of respect for the same sort of material itself, as well as the need to conduct one’s own work with the greatest respect for the truth and concern for an accurate understanding of the past.

[1] William Whiston, translator.  The New Complete Works of Josephus, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Krebel Publications, 1999), 98.

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/a-musing-on-official-historical-narratives-and-agendas/

[3] Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites, (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2005), vii.

[4] Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites, (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2005), 24-26.

[5] R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 543-546.

[6] R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 548.

[7] R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 552-553.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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