vrijdag 25 januari 2013

Review of: Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (JPSTC), The Jewish Publication Society, 1990

Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (JPSTC), The Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

Review in: Hebrew Studies Journal

NUMBERS. By Jacob Milgrom. The JPS Torah Commentary: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Pp. lxi + 520. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990. Cloth. 

Students of the Hebrew Bible seeking modem commentaries on the book of Numbers have not had a very large selection from which to choose. This state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of interest among Christian biblicists in the book as a whole. While individual texts have been deemed worthy of investigation, the totality of the text has not attracted much attention. That the level of interest in the book among Jews has always been much higher is amply documented in Jacob Milgrom's masterful new commentary, the first of two major commentaries by Jewish biblicists (Milgrom and Baruch Levine) on this book to appear in this decade.

Some of the problems facing the exegete are more daunting in regard to Numbers than in regard to other books of the Bible, for it does not lend itself easily to literary and structural analysis. It appears at first glance to be a miscellaneous hodgepodge of materials, mainly legal and narrative, spanning the period from the revelation at Sinai with its attendant laws (Exodus and Leviticus) until the farewell speech of Moses (Deuteronomy). Basing himself on earlier attempts to understand the structure and organization of the book, Milgrom has argued convincingly for the editorial unity and integrity of Numbers in its Masoretic recension. Beginning with his contribution to the classic understanding of the book's literary divisions as consisting of three major units, defined roughly by their geographical loci at Sinai (Num 1:1-10:10), at Kadesh (Num 10:11-22:1) and in Moab/Transjordan (Num 22:2-36:13), namely in grouping the first two together under the rubric of the "generation of the Exodus" and defining the final one as "the generation of the conquest," Milgrom has produced a work that places great emphasis on understanding literary units of all sizes and on their internal and external relationships.

The commentary begins with an introduction, in which Milgrom states his methodological assumptions and provides background information. While aware of the classic scholarly form, source, and tradition critical methods, Milgrom expresses his dissatisfaction with these and advocates a more holistic approach, which he subsumes under redaction criticism. Indeed, he finds early exponents of this approach among the medieval Jewish exegetes, and one of the strengths of this commentary is his integration of insights gleaned from them with his more modern literary and critical methods. There is not a page of this commentary that is not enriched by his attention to the full history of interpretation.

Milgrom's linguistic and institutional analyses of Numbers lead him to the conclusion that much of the book consists of pre-exilic materials, which underwent two priestly recensions (pp. xxxi-xxxv). Implicit is his assump tion that P is pre-exilic, a hypothesis that not all are willing to accept. Although Milgrom prefers to talk of the composition of the book rather than its redaction (p. xxxi), he believes that the final redaction [sic] of the book took place when Numbers was already part of a corpus that included Exodus and Leviticus (pp. xxx-xxxi).

Extremely helpful for both the general and the specialist reader are Milgrom's literary and theological analysis of Numbers within the context of the Hexateuch (pp. xviiff.), his discussion of the literary methods employed in the composition of the book (pp. xxii-xxxi), his summary of the theology of Numbers on the basis of both the book's divine and human protagonists (pp. xxxvii-xlii), as well as his capsule biographies of the major Jewish commentators to whom reference is made (pp. xlii-xlv).

The commentary is extremely user friendly. Each longer and shorter literary unit is given a brief introduction. At the top of each page are printed the Masoretic Text and the new JPS translation. The comments themselves are to be found below the foregoing and are keyed to their respective verses by number and phrase or word being discussed. Frequently found is the remark "rather," which indicates those passages in which Milgrom's translation deviates from the JPS version. The comments themselves are both lucid and erudite, with the more difficult scholarly references relegated to endnotes.

A major feature of this commentary is the section (pp. 333-520) of seventy-seven excursuses. In these are to be found extended discussions of a number of ancillary issues. These range from detailed structural and literary analyses of most units to discussions of the cult and its sacrificial system, of realia, ideology, theology, and ancient Near Eastern background and parallels.

This commentary on Numbers is as handsomely produced as are the other volumes in the JPS Torah Commentary. Editorial and type-setting errors are infrequent (although poor Queen Helena of Adiabene never has her land of origin spelled correctly) and are mainly to be found in transcriptions of Hebrew into the Latin alphabet. There appears to be a lack of consistency in the representation of doubled consonants in the transcriptions. Somewhat irritating in my opinion is the so-called "popular system for the transliteration of Hebrew." Even though its purpose is to aid non-specialists in pronouncing Hebrew, it has as the consequences of its usage the following drawbacks: First, the general reader will be unable to retrovert the transliteration into Hebrew, since there is no distinction made between homophones, and certain Hebrew letters are represented by various Latin ones; and second, cognate languages are transliterated using scholarly convention, thus often denying the general reader the ability to follow the linguistic argument. Although there is an abundance of bibliographical information to be gleaned from the endnotes to the volume, an introductory bibliography would have been a boon to the interested reader, as would indices.

Criticism of this volume will probably center in two related areas. First is Milgrom's avoidance of traditional critical approaches to the text, which is also reflected in the lack of emphasis given to text-critical questions. Second is his conservative approach to the biblical text. In spite of the fact that he deals quite extensively with redactional issues, an underlying assumption of his approach is that the book of Numbers reflects actual historical events which happened in the area in which they are said to have taken place. Thus the thrust of his investigation is to answer the question, "What does the text relate?" and not, "What did the text mean?" In other words, he takes the witness of the text at face value. Archaeological evidence is dealt with in a cursory fashion and mainly in order to bring it into harmony with the biblical text. He also passes over much of what had been discovered and propounded archaeologically in the years immediately prior to the writing of his commentary. Even though the conquest tradition plays an important role in the latter part of Numbers and in this commentary, Milgrom no more than hints at the grave historical problems associated with it.

These criticisms, however, are offered as a means for putting this commentary in a scholarly context. They should not detract from the conclusion that Milgrom has presented the English reading public with a major and nuanced work on a pivotal book of the Hebrew Bible. It belongs in the library of anyone interested in Torah.

Carl S. Ehrlich
Hochschule filr Jadische Studien

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