Superscript or colophon? New insights on the toledot formula’s literary functions in Genesis

If one considers the translations of toledot in the Hebrew Bible, in particular in Gen 2.4, it is clear that there is no consensus about its interpretation. Opinions vary on whether the word means descendants, generations, history, account/record, story, or combinations thereof. The toledot formula and its functions have been equally enigmatic for biblical scholars. Opinions differ on its position in its various context, either as a superscript introducing a new section, or as a colophon summarizing what has come before, or both. The rationale for such interpretations has largely been based on macro level textual features, with minimal consideration given to lower level features. What is lacking in order to gain a fuller understanding of toledot is an analysis that combines both micro level and macro level discourse features.
This paper presents an eclectic literary study of toledot and the formulae that incorporates discourse analysis and linguistic analysis in an effort to bring clarity to the potential senses of toledot. Using a corpus-based analysis, all 39 tokens of the word in the Hebrew Bible are analyzed. The first section of the paper presents new criteria for determining whether it points anaphorically to something in the previous text, or cataphorically, introducing something following. It will be shown that the formulae point forward in all instances in Genesis. The next section of the paper discusses the context-determined senses of toledot throughout the Hebrew Bible. The goal is to arrive at the most plausible sense as indicated in each context. The study will show that several distinct senses emerge. The most common sense is “progeny.” Other related senses include “numbered progeny,” “immediate offspring.” and “created ones.” Each sense is connected to the type of genre where the word appears. The final section presents evidence for the toledot formula functioning beyond merely introducing a new section. It will be demonstrated how the author of Genesis used the formula as a complex literary device that conjoins narrative sections with genealogies to form a cohesive narrative line through the book of Genesis. This narrative line focuses on God’s relationship to the people on the chosen line. It also shows how God relates to the non-chosen line despite their ongoing disobedience. The paper will show that the toledot formula is the thread running through Genesis that ties its component parts together cohesively and coherently. The paper closes with a summary statement of the grand narrative, the Big Story of Genesis, that portrays the divine-human relationship in vivid color.

4 thoughts on “Superscript or colophon? New insights on the toledot formula’s literary functions in Genesis”

  1. George Payton
    I like the approach. . .kind of an advanced word study approach. The toledot are important narrative markers, so I would argue that the topic is relevant for our section.

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