woensdag 6 februari 2013

Review of; Baruch Levine, Numbers 21-36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB4A), Doubleday, 2000; in: Interpretation

Baruch Levine, Numbers 21-36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB4A), Doubleday, 2000

Review in: Interpretation 2001 55: 426
Review door: Dennis T. Olson
Gevonden op: http://int.sagepub.com/content/55/4/426.full.pdf+html

Numbers 21-36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
Baruch Levine
Anchor Bible 4A. Doubleday, New York, 2000.
614 pp. $45.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-385-41256-8.

NUMBERS TRACES THE MARCH OF ISRAEL in the wilderness on its way from Egyptian bondage to Canaan's promised land. The book is filled with lists of numbers, tribal leaders, sacrifices, itineraries, laws, and cultic instructions along with its core narratives. Origen observed that Christians in his day tended to read these sections and then "constantly spit them out as heavy and burdensome food." In a long series of sermons on Numbers, Origen sought to resuscitate it as a biblical book filled with food for the soul. Baruch Levine, biblical scholar and ordained rabbi, seeks to do the same in his second of two volumes on Numbers for the Anchor Bible series. Levine writes that his work on Numbers has been guided by this line from the Morning Benedictions of the Jewish prayer service: Ό Lord, our God! Please make the words of your Torah sweet in our mouths" (p. xvi).

Levine's commentary is a rich and varied feast. He combines a profound appreciation of law, cult, and ethics nurtured by his Jewish commitments with a rigorous and historical-critical interest in the varied literary sources underlying the biblical text, ancient Near Eastern backgrounds, and the development of ancient Israel's religious and political life. After an original translation of the masoretic Hebrew text, an introduction to critical issues and themes, and a fifteen-page reference bibliography, there are 500 pages of commentary on Numbers 21-36. Each section of commentary contains an introduction and detailed notes on grammar and syntax along with historical and literary analysis. Some of the most interesting material may be found in extensive "Comments" on broader issues and themes, with special attention to the wider ancient Near Eastern backgrounds. For example, when discussing Moses' bronze serpent with its healing power, Levine includes a section on "the phenomenology of ancient Near Eastern magic" (pp. 88-90). By far the largest section in this commentary (140 pages) is devoted to the Balaam cycle of narratives and poetic oracles in Numbers 22-24. Levine guides the reader into the religious perspectives of the poetic oracles (assuming a polytheism of gods such as the Shaddai gods along with El as the high god), which are fundamentally different from the narratives (a monotheism of YHWH alone). Levine discusses at length the striking parallels and differences between this biblical material and recently discovered eighth-century B.C.E. inscriptions at Deir Alia in the Transjordan. These remarkable inscriptions include the name of a prophet Balaam and various gods including El and Shaddai. As Levine observes, "Rarely has the recent discovery of an extra-biblical source had so direct a bearing on the interpretation of biblical texts" (p. 41). One would be hard pressed to find a more thorough discussion of this Balaam material.

The focus of this commentary is neither literary nor theological but historical. Levine pays homage to the 1903 ICC commentary on Numbers by George Buchanan Gray, describing it as his "anchor and compass" (p. xv). However, Levine is not just after the historical "facts" but the broader agendas and concerns, both political and religious, that animated the various sources and traditions woven together in the rich tapestry of Numbers. Levine sets forth his basic interpretive stance:
The main function of Torah literature, and of Numbers even more so, is to lay the foundation for the life of the Israelite people in its land by defining the "self" in contrast to the "other," thereby differentiating between Israel and its enemies The Torah contains historical information, to be sure, but its function is not primarily to record history, as such, but to present several overlapping versions of Israel's formative phase as a people (p. 59).

Levine distinguishes two primary perspectives regarding Israel's relationship with the "other" in Numbers. First, the JE (Yahwist/Elohist) and other earlier poetic and narrative material in Numbers 21-36 is pre-exilic and dates from the time of the monarchy in Israel. These early traditions sought to justify Israelite hegemony over the territory of northern Moab in the Transjordan area after it had been captured by the Israelite king Omri in the ninth century B.C.E. (pp. 39-40, 477). These traditions also wrestled with the issue of whether Israelites living in the Transjordan were true and full members of Israel (e.g., Num 32). Second, the later Priestly material which dominates Numbers 21-36 focused not on the Transjordan but on the temple and its cult in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile in the Persian period. The agendas of the Priestly traditions that Levine detects are many and complex. For example, the massive killing of the Midianites in Numbers 31 suggests that "animosity against neighboring peoples was intense" in the Persian period, which contrasts with other Priestly traditions in Genesis in which Israel's ancestors seek to live in peace with the Canaanites (p. 55). Another concern is to legitimate Persian period cultic practices in Jerusalem by rooting them in ancient Mosaic authority from the time of the wilderness sojourn.

Levine's two-volume work on Numbers will become the standard historical-critical commentary on Numbers for years to come. One will not find much wrestling here with more recent debates about the Documentary Hypothesis and alternative models or dating for the sources of the Pentateuch. Nor will one find much help in bridging Levine's analysis of history, political agendas, and Near Eastern backgrounds with contemporary theological exposition. Other commentaries will need to carry that burden. But Levine is as reliable a guide as any to the sources, history, and cultural backgrounds of a book that for Christians may be unfamiliar. Enjoy the feast of Numbers, and may the words of Torah be sweet in your mouth!

Dennis T. Olson

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