Toledoth and the Structure of Genesis
September 5, 2017

As many commentators point out, Genesis is structured by 10 uses of the word toledoth, “generations.” The word means something along the lines of “begotten things,” and the toledoth statements head the various sections of Genesis. When Genesis 2:4 announces “these are the begettings of heaven and earth” and then proceeds to recount the creation of Adam and Eve, we are to understand that the first human couple are products of the marriage of heaven and earth.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a record of creating not begetting. God does order earth to bring forth plants and animals during the creation week, but Genesis conceives of that as God’s own work rather than the begetting of earth. When we get to Genesis 2, earth is a more active partner in making: Watered by rain from heaven, the earth will sprout with plants (2:5), and man is presented as one of the “begettings” of heaven and earth, the product of earthy dust and heavenly Breath. God creates from nothing; heaven and earth and human beings are fruitful by begetting.

Some toledoth are genealogies. Other toledoth statements introduce long narrative sections. The toledoth of Terah contains the story of Abraham (11:27-25:11), and the toledoth of Isaac is the lengthy story of Jacob (25:18-35:29). That someone’s life history is seen as something “generated” by a father is instructive in itself. Terah doesn’t just father a son named Abram; he fathers a son Abram who leaves Ur and Haran, sojourns in Egypt, delivers Lot, fathers Ishmael, pleads for Sodom, etc. Terah “begets” Abraham-with-his-life-history.

We can summarize the “generic” variation of the toledoth schematically:

  1. Heaven and Earth: narrative
  2. Adam: genealogy
  3. Noah: short genealogy + medium length narrative
  4. Noah’s sons: long genealogy + short narrative
  5. Shem: genealogy
  6. Terah: short genealogy + long narrative
  7. Ishmael: genealogy
  8. Isaac: narrative
  9. Esau: genealogy
  10. Jacob: narrative

There is something of a pattern in the alternation. Let G stand for genealogy, and N for narrative, and the pattern is, if we ignore the combination sections, N-G-N-G, N-G-N-G-N. Along the way, there is an overall shift, in terms of sheer page count, from genealogy to narrative. Noah’s toledoth begins with a very brief genealogy and then goes to a fairly long narrative, but the narrative is nowhere close to the same length as the narrative that follows the genealogy of Terah in section 6.

After Terah’s toledoth, further, the combination sections fall out completely. There are still genealogies, but they are not connected to the long narratives of the Isaac and Jacob sections. Noah, Noah’s sons, and Terah all generate descendants and stories; Isaac and Jacob generate only stories, while Ishmael and Esau, the other branches from Abraham and Isaac respectively, generate only sons and daughters.

The indidividuals who get narrative treatment are noteworthy: Noah, Terah (Abraham), Isaac (Jacob), and Jacob (Joseph). These are clearly the characters that hold the most interest for the writer of Genesis, since they form the genealogy of Israel. But the similarity of “genre” also brings out parallels between the different characters: Noah is a new Adam; Abraham a new Noah, rebuilding a world after the flood at Babel; Jacob is an Abraham and a Noah of a different sort, etc.

And each of the narrative-heavy sections hearkens back to the original narrative of heaven and earth: Noah and his wife, Abram and Sarai, Jacob and his wives, Joseph and the daughter of the Egyptian priest are new unions of heaven and earth, new Adams and Eves, beginning the project of undoing the curse.

In the end, the import of the pattern of the toledoths can best be summarized this way: All nations generate people, but the story of the world is borne by the people of God. Or, more abstractly: Everyone generates things, but the people of God are the ones who generate history, who generate events.

We can arrive at a similar conclusion from another angle. After the extra-toledothic opening, Genesis moves in several toledothic cycles:

1. Generations of heaven and earth, 2:4-4:26

2. Generations of Adam, 5:1-6:8

3. Generations of Noah, 6:9-9:29

(New Creation, 8:1-9:29)

1’. Generations of Shem, Ham, Japheth, 10:1-11:9

2’. Generations of Shem, 11:10-26

3. Generations of Terah, 11:27-25:11

1”. Generations of Ishmael, 25:12-18

3”. Generations of Isaac, 25:19-35:29

1”’. Generations of Esau, 36:1-37:1

3”’. Generations of Jacob, 37:1-50:26

The cycle is easiest to see in the first six toledoth, the ones that climax with Noah and Abram respectively. The first two #1 sections include lists of descendants without any ages or dates/ Both include references to building and city culture, Cain’s city and Babel. Both  have fall stories. The first has a triple fall story – Adam, Cain, and the sons of God; Babel is the fall of the new humanity after the flood.

Both #2 sections are genealogies with ages, which is to say, with chronologies. Both trace ten generations, first from Adam to Noah, then from Noah to Abram. The #3 sections are generically similar. Instead of lists or brief narratives, they are long narratives.

The flood is the dividing line between the two cycles, marking the end of the world of creation. and the beginning of a new world. It reverses creation, breaking down the firmament, so that waters above and below rejoin, covering the earth, killing everything that breaths. After it has decreated the world, the world is put back together in a sequence that roughly corresponds to the seven-day sequence of Genesis 1 (I’m sure I picked this up from James Jordan somewhere):

Day 1: Wind (Heb. ru’ach ), 8:1; cf. 1:2

Day 2: Water sources above and below close, 8:2; cf. 1:6-8

Day 3: Waters separated, dry land appears, 8:3-5 (plants, 8:11); cf. 1:9-13

Day 4: Window of ark, 8:6 – link to heavenly bodies?; cf. 1:14-19

Day 5: Birds sent out, 8:7-12; cf. 1:20-23

Day 6: Animals pour out on the earth, Noah as new Adam; 8:13-9:17; cf. 1:24-31

Day 7: Noah’s vineyard, rest, and Ham’s fall, 9:18-29; cf. 2:1-3 (or, 2:1-3:24)

This is not a reset, not a mere return to the beginning. Humanity has grown up between Adam and Noah, and there are some new privileges for Noah. Humanity has been expanding, gaining new skills in metallurgy and animal husbandry and arts and music, architecture and city planning. Yahweh affirms Noah’s advance over Adam by forming a covenant with him.

No SabbathSabbath
PriestKing (authority to kill; ascension offering)

It is harder to see the pattern in the remainder of the toledoth. The generic similarities are, however, clear. The last two #2 sections are similar to Genesis 10, lists of names without ages or chronology. The #3 sections are lengthy narratives like the flood and the Abrahamic narrative. And that reinforces the parallels we noted above: Abraham stands in a position parallel to Noah, who is parallel to Adam. Jacob (in the toledoth of Isaac) and Joseph (in the toledoth of Jacob) are true sons of Abraham, and thus also new-new Noahs and Adams.

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