From the archives: Mosaic Authorship of Genesis

From time to time, I am going to pull out an old article out of the blog archives from my old blog and move them over to this one. This is my first, a look into authorship of Genesis.


A while back, a friend was asking about authorship of Genesis. Was Genesis written by Moses? I provided a short answer at the time, but I thought I would further develop the idea presently.

Did Moses write Genesis? Yes! What evidence is there of this?

1) Tradition – Tradition has long maintained Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch, including Genesis. Nothing much more to say on this matter as it is certainly not definitive, but at least should be considered the standard which would need to be refuted if he is not.

2) References such as “the Book of Moses” (2Ch 25:4, Ne 13:1) and “the Book of the Law of Moses (Ne 8:1). Thus, the Old Testament not only appeals to Moses as the author, but seeks to establish its authority specifically BECAUSE the author was Moses. Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch in general and Genesis in particular was assumed by other OT authors.

3) Just as the OT makes references to Mosaic authorship, so does the New Testament. For example, in John 5:46, Jesus said, “Moses…wrote about me”. But, and here is a clincher for me, consider John 7:22. “Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath”. Jesus appeals to Moses as the source of the circumcision commandment. Yet, as this verse itself notes, circumcision began in Gen 17 with Abraham (the patriarchs). How then can we understand “Moses gave you circumcision”? Since Moses was the author of Genesis, Jesus can attribute Moses as the source of circumcision.

4) Theological purposes of Genesis – The recurring themes throughout Genesis make the original audience clear to be Israel as they wandered throughout the desert. Moses wrote Genesis to convince the Israelites that leaving Egypt (the exodus) and possessing the Promised Land was God’s plan for Israel. In the midst of their whining and complaining about returning to Egypt, Genesis stood as a reminder of the need to possess Canaan. While this motif comes through repeatedly, let me highlight two particular stories in Genesis intentionally recorded by Moses to encourage his original audience.

First, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as formless (tohu) and empty (bohu) with the Spirit of God was “hovering” over the waters. The world was uninhabitable, a barren land. Hovering is used to describe the special presence of God about to move against the chaos to bring order to the earth. Interestingly, only one other time in the Pentateuch do “tohu” and hovering each occur and again, it is together. In Deuteronomy 32:10-12 we read, “In a desert land he found him, in a barren (tohu) and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions”. Here, God “hovers” over Israel (like an eagle with its young) as God’s special presence as he takes them out of the barren (tohu) wasteland that is the desert of Egypt and into the Promised Land (the Garden). The correlation between Gen 1:2 and Deut 32:10-12 is not accidental. Apart from Mosaic authorship, one can not properly understand the intent of Gen 1:2 for the Israelites as they leave the desert of Egypt with God’s special presence leading them.

Consider one more example. In Genesis 15:17 we read, “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” This passage is God confirming his covenant with Abraham. But why the smoke and fire? How do we understand that? Moses’ original audience, the Israelites in the wilderness, would instantly have connected smoke and fire with the presence of God as they have spent years following the cloud by day and the pillar of smoke by night (Ex 13:21). They also remember Mt. Sinai which was “covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire” (Ex 19:18). Apart from the Exodus passages, how would we know that smoke and fire in Gen 15:17 symbolizes the presence of God? We wouldn’t. But Moses audience would have because they had seen the smoke and fire with their own eyes.

As can be seen, Mosaic authorship of Genesis is supported by tradition, the Old Testament, the New Testament (including the words of Jesus himself) and by a study of original meaning in light of the Writer-Document-Audience.

Postlogue >> I should also respond briefly to a comment from the friend about the hermeneutic I employed in my previous brief response. He wrote…
“Your theology or purpose should /never/ be your driving cause for accepting a more concrete (vs abstract) interpretational issue. In other words, theology should never drive the interpretation of a passage, but all passages should have precedence on their intrinsic meanings.”

Intrinsic meaning is incredibly important. The study of characterization, scene depiction (scenery and time of the story) and structure are vital aspects of comprehending original meaning in a text. They are, however, not exhaustive precisely because the texts did not just drop out of thin air. Rather, the were written within a specific situation and to a specific audience. Proper interpretation must evaluate extrinsic elements as well as intrinsic. Not only what is said (the document), but who said it (the author) to whom (the audience) and why?

Let me give a brief example. Consider the reign of Manasseh. Why is his story so strikingly different between the 2 Kings 21:1-18 account and the 2 Chronicles 33:1-20 account? Obviously the Chronicles used 2 Kings as source material, but changed significant aspects of the story. In 2 Kings, there is NO redeeming quality at all to Manasseh. Why? Because the author was writing to Israelites in the middle of the exile and wanted to illustrate that unfaithfulness and disobedience to God were the cause of their punishment and exile. But in 2 Chronicles, Manasseh becomes a figure to be emulated because in the midst of his exile, he repents and comes back to Jerusalem and immediately begins to rebuild the temple and the city wall. Again, why the striking contrast? Because the Chronicler was writing to an audience that had returned from exile and he was now calling them to rebuild the temple and the city wall (consider the ministry of Nehemiah and other post-exilic leaders like Zerubabbel). As can be seen by comparing the life of Manasseh in 2Kings and 2Chronicles, authors write for a purpose. They don’t write in a vacuum. And those purposes must be considered to arrive at a proper understanding of original meaning in a text.

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One Response

  1. I’m going to try to respond later tonight on my own blog.

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