Was the Genesis record authored by Moses, or mashed up from unknown sources by unknown editors, as proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) would like us to believe? Maybe neither, as it turns out. There is an alternative hypothesis that makes a lot of sense and preserves the notion of divine caretaking of the ancient history of mankind.
Could God have miraculously imbued Moses with knowledge of events and personal conversations that he himself was not privy to? Absolutely. But is that the most likely explanation? Probably not, in my opinion.
The Wiseman Hypothesis, sometimes called the Tablet Theory, provides an amazingly simple explanation of how Moses could have come into such detailed knowledge of events that happened long before his time. The basis for this persuasive theory is that in ancient Mesopotamia, it was a common practice for the patriarch of a family to record his family history on a tablet and sign it with his name at the end.
When you go through the Genesis record, there are actually many such "signatures" (called colophons) that could very well represent the end of one clay tablet source and the beginning of another. If you’re like me, you’ve read them numerous times without noticing them:
- These are the generations of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:4)
- This is the book of the generations of Adam (Genesis 5:1)
- These are the generations of Noah (Genesis 6:9)
- Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 10:1)
- These are the generations of Shem (Genesis 11:10)
- Now these are the generations of Terah (Genesis 11:27)
- Now these are the generations of Ishmael (Genesis 25:12)
- And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son (Genesis 25:19)
- Now these are the generations of Esau, who is Edom (Genesis 36:1)
- And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in Mount Seir (Genesis 36:9)
- These are the generations of Jacob (Genesis 37:2)
If this is true, then Moses was really doing with Genesis exactly what the compiler of the Chronicles and the Kings did; taking existing source documents and compiling them, with divine guidance, no doubt, into a single set of documents that could be passed down from scribe to scribe, generation to generation.
There is some disagreement about whether these signatures, or statements of ownership, take place at the beginning or end of each source tablet, but the ancient Babylonian practice was to place them at the end. After the death of a patriarch, the next generation would close the tablet out in his father’s name, and start a new one of his own.
Note that this theory is not an attempt to take God out of the process of Biblical authorship. After all, where did the first tablet come from, and who made sure these tablets were passed from one patriarch to the next?
For more reading on this subject:
- Who Wrote Genesis? (Excerpted from Henry Morris’s book, The Genesis Record)
- Wiseman Hypothesis
I think it’s useful to see the sources documented/cited in Genesis (as well as Samuel-Kings-Chronicles) and recognize that aspect of the “many times and various ways” of God speaking through the prophets. God did use human processes and chosen individuals who were recognized among their people as prophets with authority to bring the Bible into existence. Moses gets credit for the first 5 books quite correctly, but in somewhat the same way that he gets credit for building the tabernacle, or Solomon is described as building the temple. And of course even with Mosaic editing/authorship later prophets annotated the text in some places and sometimes updated the language or place names for clarity in later generations.
Exactly. I have met some who are uncomfortable with this theory because it doesn’t rely on supernatural revelation from God to Moses for the material. It does imply supernatural preservation of the material for Moses to compile it, though. It also requires a supernatural inscription of Adams’ “prehistory” on a tablet that was preserved for future generations and handed down to Moses.