Reviews of

These Are The Generations: Identity, Covenant, And The ‘Toledot’ Formula

In Bloomsbury, Genesis, HB/OT, Kerry Lee, Matthew A. THOMAS, Pentateuch on March 9, 2012 at 9:05 pm

2012.03.07 | Matthew A. Thomas. These Are The Generations: Identity, Covenant, And The ‘Toledot’ Formula. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 551. New York: T&T Clark, 2011. xviii + 153 pages. £65. ISBN: 9780567151414.

Reviewed by Kerry Lee, University of Edinburgh.

In this published version of his PhD thesis, Matthew Thomas, who serves as adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University, has engaged the problem of the relationship between the macro-structure of Genesis (and indeed, of the whole Pentateuch) and the toledot formulae, a long noted recurring feature with particular density in Genesis. The exact phrases, occurring in Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, and 37:2 (not counting a handful of repetitions), are all variations of a verbless clause translating roughly “These/this are/is the generations/book of the generations of [PN].” Using a range of analytical concepts encompassing semantics, text-linguistics, and narratology, Thomas subjects the book of Genesis and, to a lesser extent, the entire Pentateuch to a synchronic analysis which yields results that are often surprising, at times problematic, but always thought-provoking.

These Are the Generations is made up of an introduction and five numbered chapters, the last one of which is a summary of the conclusions of the monograph and some suggestions for ways those conclusions might be usefully applied to other areas of Genesis scholarship. As one would expect, Thomas focuses on the scope and method of his study in the introductory chapter. Chapter one argues on syntactic, semantic, and linguistic grounds that the toledot phrases in Genesis are rightly understood as content headings, indicators of surface structures. In chapter two, Thomas studies variations in the syntax of the toledot phrases in order to nuance his description of their macro-structural function, dividing them into two tiers: five of the phrases are first-level headings, the rest are second-level subheadings. Chapter three looks more closely at differences among the genealogies in Genesis and relates this to the toledot structure. Lingering problems in the logic of the occurrence of toledot phrases are addressed in chapter four by their relationship to the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants.

Thomas’ monograph has certain strengths. In his introduction, Thomas gives a good justification for the primacy of synchronic analysis and expresses scepticism (rightly, in my opinion) about the usefulness of genre criticism. His handling of the semantics of the word toledot in chapter one is one of the stronger parts of the book. Without extensively using the vocabulary of the field of semantics (which might have aided his discussion), Thomas essentially asserts that the meaning of the word toledot has acquired a structural specialisation and is not so simplistically consistent that it can be universally translated by any single English word. Rather than focusing on the named character in each toledot phrase or on the succeeding generation, Thomas emphasises the word’s connotation of the passage of time from one generation to another. While the fourth chapter is not entirely convincing, Thomas does offer up the intriguing observation that some of the occurrences of toledot formulae which head the genealogies of the lines not chosen to carry the patriarchal promise (Ishmael, Esau) can be explained by their partaking of what one might consider the side effects of patriarchal blessings/covenants.

The work also has significant weaknesses. Without going into unnecessary detail on every point where I might disagree with Thomas, a few issues must be addressed by a conscientious review. A number of my more objective critiques can be summarised by saying that I perceive in Thomas’ work a lack of scholarly scope. As just a few examples, in his introduction he relates virtually everything to form-criticism, though his own study bears almost no resemblance to form-criticism of any sort. Rather, his study easily falls into more recent literary- and rhetorical-critical methods, though he makes less pronounced reference to them. Twice he evidences a lack of familiarity with or understanding of standard literary-analytical concepts. First, he describes and uses the non-standard term “primary readership” (borrowed from a commentary on Micah and treated as innovative) rather than the accepted literary-critical term “implied audience/reader” which needs no definition in the current scholarly climate (at most it needs a footnote citation of a dictionary of literary terms). Second, his use of the concept of narrative tempo to differentiate between the different kinds of genealogy essentially misunderstands the concept (both kinds of genealogy are predominately “summary,” and critics do not typically differentiate between summaries of different densities: one year in one sentence is treated essentially the same as one hundred years in one sentence). His understanding of the pertinence of the linguistic concepts of theme and rheme, presupposition and assertion, and identifiability and activation is also suspect, since these concepts apply to sentences in general, not to subject headings specifically (as he tries to use them in chapter one). In all these cases, Thomas’ work would have been improved by a more thorough mastery of the relevant scholarly literature and concepts.

At times Thomas is not nearly concise enough. Most of the introduction reads like an apology for Thomas’ overall approach to biblical studies (involving subjects not directly related to the monograph) rather than simply a discussion of methodology for the present study. This, combined with his failure to use some of the specialised vocabulary of the various fields whose methods he uses, gives the whole monograph, but especially the introduction, a distinct feeling of reinventing the wheel. A lot of the discussion should have been shortened and put into footnotes.

Thomas investigates very closely the syntactic variations of the toledot phrases, and his attention is to be commended. In particular, his discussion of the phrase in Genesis 5:1 is a worthwhile read. However, Thomas’ tiered approach to the structural function of the toledot phrases is based upon an over-interpretation of the presence or absence of an initial conjunction waw. This distinction cannot be maintained on these grounds alone, and his perception of a chiastic organisation to the five first-tier headings does not help.

One final critique (though this one encompasses more than just Thomas, since he is following in the footsteps of those who came before him): Thomas makes the very common logical leap of (correctly) identifying the toledot formulae as primary structural indicators in Genesis but then (incorrectly) presuming them to be exclusive primary structural indicators. In other words, despite two places where his study should have led him in this direction (his excursis on the absence of a toledot formula for Abraham and his recognition of toledot style material in Genesis 4 and Number 1-2 without the toledot phrase itself), Thomas never seriously considers the possibility that Genesis might be divided into blocks of material that include not only the sections headed by the toledot phrases but also sections not so headed. Once again, to be fair, this is a very common logical leap, but it is one that Thomas could and should have avoided based on his own research. Ultimately, this leads Thomas to attempt to use the toledot formulae as primary structural indicators for not only Genesis but all of the Pentateuch (so that Toledot Jacob includes Genesis 37:2-50:26 as well as the entire books of Exodus and Leviticus), an attempt that falls well short of plausibility.

I fear this has unfortunately turned into a rather negative review. However, I do want to reaffirm that despite some significant weaknesses (which likely result largely from the fact that this was probably Thomas’ first major contribution to biblical scholarship) the monograph has a number of good things to offer to the study of Genesis. While I doubt very much that These Are The Generations will dramatically change the scholarly discussion of the toledot formulae, it will certainly (and deserves to) become an important part of discussion.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh
k.d.lee [ at ]


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