How Was Genesis Composed?

Excerpted from Marvin L. Lubenow. 2004. (Revised edition.) Bones of Contention: A Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. Pages 316-325.

Marvin Lubenow is professor of Bible, theology, and apologetics at Southern California Bible College and Seminary in EI Cajon, California. He has spent more than thirty-five years researching the human fossil issue and frequently speaks and writes to defend the creationist position.

[page 316]

Chapter 31 — GENESIS:  The Footnotes of Moses

The precise circumstances of the composition of the book of Genesis have been a matter of continual interest for Bible scholars. Since there is strong internal as well as external evidence that Moses wrote Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and since the Pentateuch is considered to be a unit, the approach of most conservative scholarship has been that Moses wrote Genesis also.
     Nowhere does Scripture say, however, that Moses actually wrote the narratives or the genealogies of Genesis. There is no statement in Genesis referring to Moses as its author, as there clearly is in the other books of the Pentateuch. Not even Christ or the apostles say that Moses actually wrote or spoke the words they quote from Genesis. While accepting the Mosaic authorship of Genesis, conservative scholars have not detailed the means by which Moses received his information. There are three possible means by which Genesis was composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: (1) Moses received his information by direct revelation; (2) Moses wrote Genesis using material passed on by oral tradition; or

[page 317] (3) Moses wrote or compiled Genesis using earlier-written documents. Literary items in Genesis make the first possibility seem unlikely. The second possibility also seems remote because of the probability of information being lost or degraded in oral transmission. The third option seems most likely. The majority of evangelical scholars accept some version of the third view but give few details.


     One of the arguments used by critics of the past century in their attack on the historicity and integrity of Genesis was that the art of writing went back only to the time of David, about 1000 BC. Hence no portion of Genesis could have been in written form before that time. It is now known that these critics were not only wrong but very wrong. By the 1930s, our museums were rich with cuneiform writing on clay tablets dating back to 3500 BC. Excavations of the royal archives at Ebla, in northwest Syria, possibly dating as far back as 2700 BC, reveal that writing at that early date was commonplace. It was not necessary in that era for the average person to know how to read and write, but writing was readily available to everyone through a class of professionals known as scribes. In fact, the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians seemed unwilling to transact even the smallest items of business without recourse to a written document. This characteristic is dramatically seen at Ebla.
     It may surprise some to learn that a clear reference to writing is found in Genesis 5:1: "This is the written account of Adam's line." This suggests that the art of writing was known within the lifetime of Adam, which could make writing virtually as old as the human race. To a creationist, this is not surprising. It is obvious that at the time of their creation, Adam and Eve knew how to speak. Yet language is incredibly complex, and no one understands its origin. The ability to write is more complex than the ability to speak. However, since God created our first parents with the ability to speak, it is reasonable to suggest that he created them with the ability to learn to write as well. A naturalistic, evolutionary origin of language stretches credulity.1
     Cuneiform writing became the system used by all civilized countries east of the Mediterranean—Assyria, Babylonia, Persia—and by the Hittites, who are mentioned seven times in Genesis, beginning at Genesis 15:20. Cuneiform writing consists of a series of wedge-shaped impressions (cuneia means "wedge") made in plastic clay. The Hebrew word for "to write" means "to cut in" or "to dig." Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all would have written in cuneiform. Cuneiform was not a specific language but a method of writing on clay tablets, and it embraced many languages and dialects.

[page 318] The clay of the Euphrates Valley is remarkable for its fineness, as fine as well-ground flour. The scribes would mix a bit of chalk or gypsum into the clay to keep the tablets from shrinking or cracking. They were then dried in the sun or in a kiln. These clay tablets are the most imperishable form of writing material known, next to stone. It is possible that the two tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments were actually clay tablets (Exod. 32:15-16). The western Asian archaeological record suggests that virtually everything written before Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, and much after that, was written on clay tablets in cuneiform.
     As early as 2350 BC, clay envelopes were used for private clay tablet correspondence and sealed with a private seal. A reference to this seal is found in Job 38:14, which is believed to have been written before the time of Abraham. Judah carried a seal with him and gave it to Tamar (Gen. 38:18,25). Joseph was given Pharaoh's seal ring (Gen. 41:42), which enabled him to act in an official capacity on behalf of Pharaoh.
     Although papyrus was the common writing material in Egypt, cuneiform writing was understood, as the Tell el-Amarna tablets, found in Egypt in 1888, reveal. Among these clay tablets were letters, dated about 1400 BC, from Palestinian officials to the Egyptian government—all written in cuneiform.
     Those who do not consider the early chapters of Genesis to be reliable history use oral transmission as the explanation for those chapters of the book. But it is absurd to think that God would entrust his eternal Word to the fragile memory of humans. Scripture teaches the opposite. In Deuteronomy 31:19-21, Moses was given a song to teach to the people. He was specifically commanded to write it down so that it would not be forgotten. God said that forgetting is what the people were disposed to do. Obviously, God has little faith in oral transmission.


     All scholars agree that the most significant and distinguishing phrase in Genesis is "these are the generations of." Commentators of all theological schools divide the book around that phrase, which is found eleven times in Genesis (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12,19; 36:1,9; 37:2). The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) regarded that phrase as being so significant that they named the book after that term. Genesis is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew toledot, "generations."
     It is common for ancient records to begin with a genealogy or a register documenting close family relationships. Because several of the toledot phrases in Genesis are followed by genealogies, scholars have almost universally assumed

[page 319] that the toledot phrase serves as an introduction to the section that follows. Hence the major sections of Genesis have been made to begin with the toledot. Since the person named in the toledot does not figure prominently—if at all—in the narrative that follows, the word has taken on the meaning of "descendants" ("these are the descendants of").
     Yet the lexicon defines toledot as "history, especially family history" or something associated with origins. This would mean that the term is concerned with ancestors rather than descendants. It also suggests that the phrase looks back to the preceding narrative rather than looking ahead to what follows.
     The first use of toledot in Genesis 2:4 ("these are the generations of the heavens and the earth") clearly establishes that this reference at 2:4 is looking back rather than ahead. Nothing following Genesis 2:4 deals with "the heavens and the earth." Many commentators recognize that here toledot looks back, even though they interpret the other occasions where it is used as looking ahead. They fail to see that Genesis 2:4 is the key, and that all of the toledot phrases refer back to the previous material.
     James Moffatt, in his translation of the Bible, actually lifted the toledot phrase out of Genesis 2:4 and transferred it to Genesis 1: 1 so that it serves as an introduction to the first chapter. Other liberal writers have stated that this phrase was out of place at Genesis 2:4 or that it was put there by a compiler merely to serve as a transition.


     In 1936, P. J. Wiseman wrote a book titled New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis. Wiseman seems to have found the key that unlocks the details of the authorship of Genesis. His thesis is that internal clues in Genesis reveal how it was written; that the actual authors of Genesis were Adam, Noah, the sons of Noah, Shem, Terah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, and Joseph; that the authors, other than Joseph, probably wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets; and that Moses, using these records, was the redactor or editor of Genesis rather than its author.
     Wiseman's work was recently edited and reissued by his son, Donald P. Wiseman, a noted evangelical scholar.2 The younger Wiseman was assistant curator of western Asian antiquities at the British Museum and later professor of Assyriology at the University of London. He is also general editor of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series. Donald Wiseman endorses his father's work, as does R. K. Harrison, professor of Old Testament, University of Toronto, who has incorporated it into his monumental Introduction to the Old Testament.3 Although P. J. Wiseman is often cited by evangelical scholars,

[page 320] his remarkable insights into the composition of Genesis are not well-known by the evangelical community.
     Wiseman asked this question: How was information recorded and how were documents formulated in ancient Mesopotamia, which was the geographical context of much of the book of Genesis? The heart of Wiseman's contribution to the problem of the formulation of Genesis was his insight in identifying the toledot phrases in Genesis with ancient Mesopotamian colophons. A colophon is a scribal device placed at the conclusion of a literary work written on a clay tablet, giving—among other things—the title or description of the narrative, the date or occasion of the writing, and the name of the owner or writer of the tablet.
     It is not surprising to the student of ancient Eastern customs that many of their literary habits were precisely the opposite of our own. For instance, the Hebrews commenced their writing on what to us is the last page of the book and wrote from right to left. In ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq), it was the end and not the beginning of the tablet that contained the vital information regarding date, contents, and ownership or authorship. This custom was widespread and persisted for thousands of years.
     Perhaps the most striking aspect of the colophon practice was that the name in the colophon was the name of the owner or writer of the tablet. Sometimes the owner would also be the writer. If a person was not able to write, however, he would hire a scribe to do the writing for him. The scribe would include not his own name but the name of his employer—the owner of the tablet. Thus it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the colophon at Genesis 5:1: "This is the written account of Adam's line." Not only does the Hebrew word sepher mean "book" or "a complete writing," but the presence of Adam's name suggests that it was a written account owned or written by Adam, not just a written account about Adam. Genesis 2:4–5:1 gives evidence of being a firsthand, eyewitness account of the experiences of Adam, possibly written by him on a clay tablet.
     Derek Kidner (Tyndale House, Cambridge) understands the impact of the Hebrew word sepher at Genesis 5:1.

The opening, This is the book . . . , seems to indicate that the chapter was originally a self-contained unit ("book" means "written account", of whatever length), and the impression is strengthened by its opening with a creation summary, and by the set pattern of its paragraphs.4

     However, Kidner rejects Wiseman's theory that Genesis contains a series of colophons in which the names given are the names of the original writers or owners of the tablets. "By insisting on a complete succession of named tablets the theory implies that writing is nearly if not quite as old as man."5

[page 321] At the risk of being thought a bit naive, one could ask what is wrong with the art of writing being nearly as old as the human race. Here is where preconceptions enter in. If one believes that God created humans directly as humans, there is nothing at all wrong with the idea. The problem is really with Kidner. He is a theistic evolutionist. His philosophy demands that humans not be that intelligent that early in their history. Therefore, Adam could not have known how to write. It's rather gracious of Kidner to allow Adam to be able to speak. This is not the only occasion when Kidner forsakes solid biblical exegesis because of his preconceived notions about origins.
     Colophons also included the date or occasion of their writing. It is easy for us in the twentieth century to miss this fact, because we date our writings by the calendar. Not so the ancients. The creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:4) is dated "in the day that the Lord God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 2:4). "In the day" equals "when" and implies that the creation account was written very close to the actual time of creation, not centuries later. In Genesis 37:1-2, Jacob dated his tablet as having been written "when he lived in Canaan." Although by our standards that phrase is not precise, it does reflect a specific period in Jacob's life. Before that time he spent many years working for Laban in Haran. After that period he lived with Joseph in Egypt until his death. Leviticus (although probably not written on clay tablets) is dated as having been written when Moses was "on Mount Sinai" (Lev. 27:34), and Numbers is dated as having been written when Moses was "on the plains of Moab" (Num. 36: 13). This type of dating was accurate enough for the people of that era, considering the nature of their society.
     The use of colophons persisted almost unchanged for over three thousand years in ancient Mesopotamia and elsewhere. Colophons are found in the Ebla tablets in northwest Syria (2700 BC) and in the Akkadian texts from Ras Shamra (1300 BC). Colophons continued at least until the time of Alexander the Great (333 BC), and they are not unknown today. In one of my English Bibles, at the end of the epistle to the Romans, is this statement: "Written to the Romans from Corinth, and sent by Phoebe, servant of the church of Cenchrea." Readers of Time and Newsweek will recognize that many of the major news articles have the name of the author and the place of writing at the end of the article, such as, "Written by Susan Smith in Washington." These are all suggestive of colophons.


The internal evidence suggests that Genesis was written on a series of clay tablets as follows:

[page 322] Genesis 1:1–2:4 Origin of the heavens and the earth. No author is given. P. J. Wiseman suggests that the author was God himself, who wrote it in the same way he wrote the Ten Commandments, probably on clay tablets. According to its date, as given in the text itself, it was written very soon after the act of creation.

Genesis 2:5–5:2 Tablet written by or belonging to Adam.

Genesis 5:3–6:9a Tablet written by or belonging to Noah.

Genesis 6:9b–10:1 Tablet written by or belonging to the sons of Noah.

Genesis 10:2–11:10a Tablet written by or belonging to Shem.

Genesis 11:10b–11:27a Tablet written by or belonging to Terah.

Genesis 11:27b–25:19a Tablets written by or belonging to Isaac and Ishmael.

Genesis 25:19b–37:2a Tablets written by or belonging to Jacob and Esau. Esau's genealogy may have been added later.

     It is significant that the last colophon is at Genesis 37:2a. From Genesis 1 to 11, the Mesopotamian setting and local color are very obvious. From Genesis 12 to 37:2a, that Mesopotamian influence persists. Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, Isaac sent back there for his wife, and Jacob got his wife from Haran and worked there for many years. From Genesis 37:2b to the end, however, the setting and local color change dramatically. We are now in Egypt. This section has a strong Egyptian flavor and was probably written by Joseph on papyrus or leather; hence it is without colophons, which are only associated with clay tablets.
     Strengthening the arguments presented thus far is the fact that in every case the person named as the owner or writer of the tablet could have written the contents of that tablet from his own personal experience. It is also significant that in every case, the history recorded in the various tablets ceases just prior to the death of the person named as the owner or writer of the tablet.


     All of the tablets could have come to Moses in the way that family records were normally handed down. Nothing would have been more precious to the patriarchs than their family histories and genealogies. It is possible that there were many sets of these tablets and that each member of a patriarchal family had his own set. Of all the personal items that Noah would have taken on the ark, he would have considered his family histories the most precious and most worthy of preservation.

[page 323] Because of his education in the household of Pharaoh, Moses had the finest scholarly training of that day. He would have known how to read the languages of the cuneiform tablets, as well as Egyptian. Cuneiform writing was well-known in Egypt because of Egypt's relationship with Mesopotamia. Moses's task would have been first of all to organize the book—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—into a unified whole. The use of previously written documents in no way does violence to the concept of verbal plenary inspiration. Luke also tells us that he used previously written documents (Luke 1:1–4). It is reasonable to assume that each of the original writers of the tablets was guided by the Holy Spirit as well. By retaining the colophons, Moses clearly indicates the sources of his information. Just as a scholar today documents his sources with footnotes or endnotes, so Moses documented his sources of information with the colophons. These colophon divisions, based on the different sources, constitute the framework of the book of Genesis.6
     Moses' second task would have been translation. Any tablets written in Mesopotamia would have needed to be translated into Hebrew. If this translation had not been done before Moses' time, Moses would have been qualified to do it. Joseph's records, if written in Egyptian, would also have needed to be translated into Hebrew by Moses.7
     The third major task for Moses, as the redactor or editor, would have been to bring place names up-to-date for the Israelites of the exodus. Geographic names change, and this updating is seen clearly in Genesis 14:2, 3, 7, 8, 15, and 17. This tablet, written in Abraham's day, had in it many geographic names that had become obsolete in the over four hundred years between Abraham and Moses. It is indicative of Moses' deep regard for the sacred text that he did not remove the old names but just added an explanatory note telling of the new names. Such notations are also seen at Genesis 23:2, 19; and 35:19. Genesis 23:2, 19 also indicate that these notations were made before the Israelites entered Canaan, since Moses had to state where these places were. Had the Israelites already been in the land, these notations would not have been necessary.
     Several passages indicate the antiquity of the tablets Moses had in his possession. In Genesis 16:14, regarding the well or spring to which Hagar fled, Moses added this note: "It is still there, between Kadesh and Bered." Genesis 10:19 is one of the most important evidences of the great antiquity of the book of Genesis. This passage, part of Shem's tablet, had to have been written before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since these cities were destroyed (Genesis 19) and never rebuilt, and their very location was forgotten, this tablet telling of the settlement of clans near those cities obviously had to be written while those cities were still standing.


     The implications of this evidence for the origin of Genesis are staggering. Rather than Genesis having a late date, as is universally taught in nonevangelical circles, the evidence implies that Genesis 1–11 is a transcript of the oldest series of written records in human history. This is in keeping both with the character of God and with the vital contents of these chapters. It is reasonable to expect that the first humans created by God would have had great intelligence and language capabilities and that God would fully inform them as to their origin.
     This research also confirms the idea that the Genesis creation and flood accounts are the original accounts of these events and were not derived from the very different and polytheistic Babylonian accounts.8 It also supports the fact that monotheism was the original religious belief and not a later evolutionary refinement from an earlier polytheism.
     This research further serves to falsify the widespread idea that Genesis 1 and 2 give conflicting accounts of creation. It also suggests that the higher-critical theories on the composition and date of Genesis are factually bankrupt.
     Just as God has not left us in doubt about our destiny, so he has not left us in doubt about our origin. We have the footnotes of Moses.


Genesis 10:5 "From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language."

Genesis 10:14 "from whom the Philistines came"

Genesis 14:2, 3, 7, 8, 17 Geographic clarifications.

Genesis 16:14 "it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered."

Genesis 19:37b "he is the father of the Moabites of today."

Genesis 19:38b "he is the father of the Ammonites of today."

Genesis 22:14b "And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.' "

Genesis 23:2, 19 Geographic clarifications.

Genesis 26:33 "and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba."

Genesis 32:32 "Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon."

[page 325] Genesis 35:6, 19, 27 Geographic clarifications.

Genesis 35:20 "and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb."

Genesis 36:10-29 Esau's genealogy probably added later.

Genesis 47:26 "—still in force today—"

Genesis 48: 7b "that is, Bethlehem."


1. See John Korgan, "Free Radical: a word (or two) about linguist Noam Chomsky," Scientific American (May 1990):40–44.

2. P. J. Wiseman, Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis, ed. Donald J. Wiseman (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985).

3. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 542–53.

4. Derek Kidner, Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 80.

5. Ibid., 24.

6. Some recent evangelical writers question that the toledot phrases are colophons. However, their objections are not weighty and can be adequately explained. See Kidner, Genesis, 23–24; Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 69–74; and Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 94–96.

7. There is some question as to just when Hebrew came into common use as a language. There is abundant reason to believe that it was in common use in Moses's day.

8. For examples of colophons in Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation account, see Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 25–45.

For further reading:

"Five Arguments For Genesis 1 And 2 As Straightforward Historical Narrative" <>

"Genesis 2:4 and the Meaning of 'Day' in Genesis 1" <>