Rethinking Genesis: the Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch

Written by Duane Garrett Reviewed By John Niehaus

In 1753, a French physician named Jean Astruc hypothesized that Moses had made use of two older narratives in composing the book of Genesis: the ‘J’ (‘Jehovist’) and ‘E’ (‘Elohist’) documents. German scholarship took up this suggestion and elaborated it into a ‘documentary hypothesis’ which typically denied Mosaic authorship and the historicity of the events recorded in the Pentateuch. This broadened hypothesis received its classic form under the pen of Julius Wellhausen and is still the prevalent working hypothesis of OT scholars today.

Duane Garrett has produced an alternative way of accounting for the origins of Genesis. Garrett brings evidence from the ancient world to bear on the traditional documentary analysis of Genesis and effectively shows the inadequacy of the documentary approach. He also cites the abundant evidence of literacy in the second millennium to counteract the arguments of form-critical and traditio-historical studies that much of Genesis must have been handed down orally over a long period, and thus suffered expansions and distortions over time (Chapter 2, ‘Form-Criticism and Tradition-Criticism’). Evidence from the ancient Near East shows that ‘the patriarchal narratives are well suited to the Palestinian situation in the early second millennium bc’(Chapter Three, ‘Mosaic Authorship and Historical Reliability’, p. 67).

But Garrett’s purpose, as the full title of his book announces, is not primarily to dismantle the documentary approach. He proposes an alternative model for the origin of the book of Genesis. As one might expect, his model is based to a considerable extent on literary evidence from the ancient cultures. Garrett’s first step is to understand the toledoth sections of Genesis (Chapter 4, ‘The Toledoth and Narrative Sources of Genesis’). Garrett rightly points out what many must have noticed, that the occurrences of toledoth do not make sense in context when taken as colophons, but function admirably as ‘source titles’ (pp. 96ff. Titles also appear at the head of inscribed tablets in the ancient Near East.) His analysis yields 13 such sources (p. 101: Gn. 5:1–32; 6:9a–10; 7:6; 9:18–19, 28–29; 10:1–32; 11:10–26; 11:27–32; 25:12–18; 25:19–20; 35:22b–29; 36:1–43; 37:1–2a; 46:8–27). The rest of Genesis, he argues, consists of narrative sources which were ‘originally oral accounts from the patriarchs that were subsequently reduced to writing’ (p. 106). Analysis shows that the toledoth sections have been placed between the major divisions of the ‘primeval history’ (Gn. 1:1–11:26) and between the Abraham, Jacob and Joseph cycles—and so help to structure the whole book of Genesis. Whether Moses or some earlier redactor made this arrangement cannot now be determined.

But if Genesis may be described broadly as a combination of patriarchal toledoth and narrative, the question arises as to the subdivisions of ‘sources’ of the narrative material. Garrett draws upon form-critical data from the ancient Near East to help identify these sources. He follows Kikawada and Quinn (Before Abraham Was), who discern a formal parallel between the Atrahasis myth and Genesis 1–11: a broad pattern of (1) introduction, (2) threat and (3) resolution. Garrett calls this schema the ‘ancestor epic pattern’ (p. 110). He then shows how the pattern also applies to the ‘ancestor epics’ of Jacob, Lot and Hagar (Chapter 6, The Ancestor Epics’). He goes on to draw a formal parallel between a Ugaritic ‘negotiation tale’ and similar narratives in Genesis: Abraham’s negotiation of a burial place for Sarah in Genesis 23; the betrothal and marriage of Isaac in Genesis 24; the story of Dinah and the Shechemites in Genesis 34 (Chapter 7, ‘The Negotiation Tales’). As for the Joseph material which concludes the book of Genesis, evidence from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and even Greek and Roman ‘migration epics’ (e.g. the Odyssey, the Aeneid) provide a form-critical background for Genesis 37–50, the migration of Israel into Egypt (Chapter 9, ‘The Migration Epic of Joseph’). That Abraham material which remains unaccounted for by the above analysis Garrett calls ‘The Gospel of Abraham’ (Chapter 8), a genre unique in the ancient Near East but with NT parallels—because, when all is said and done, the career of Abraham is ‘a theological statement of hope, a gospel’ (p. 168). Thus, on the basis of ancient Near Eastern parallels, Garrett accounts for most of the materials in Genesis.

Garrett argues that these various patriarchal materials were reduced to writing and eventually handed down to Moses. Moses edited them and composed Genesis 1:1–2:3 as an introduction to the whole. The result was ‘Urgenesis’, essentially the same as our Genesis save for some minor editorial alterations (e.g. subseqent revisions of vocabulary, especially place names). Garrett makes two startling conclusions at this point, which ought to fuel some future discussion. The first is that Moses received Genesis 1:1–2:3 from God as revelation: it is ‘visionary and revelatory and … Moses, the premier prophet of the Old Testament, is the direct author of this material’ (p. 193). The second is that the Levites were already established as a class of scribes and teachers among the Israelites in Egypt before the exodus, and that they were the tradents of the various materials which Moses combined into Urgenesis: ‘Urgenesis is therefore the Mosaic redaction of the Levitical records of the history of the patriarchs’ (p. 232).

Whatever one may think of these last two points (and Garrett’s arguments for both are intelligent and compelling), Duane Garrett has given us a book which does what has long been needed. Not only does it draw on ancient Near Eastern evidence to show the inadequacy of some prevalent assumptions of OT scholarship, it also proposes a thorough, well-reasoned alternative account of the origins of Genesis—an account which uses data from the ancient Near East in a careful, well-controlled and intelligent manner.


John Niehaus

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, S. Hamilton, USA