“Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah” by Simeon Chavel

Simeon Chavel. Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 71. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014, x + 353 pp., 99,00 €  (sewn paper).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

In his most recent monograph, Simeon Chavel (PhD Hebrew University of Jerusalem; currently an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School) explores dimensions of the priestly historiography through what he terms “oracular novella”, originally called “oracular responsa” by Micahel Fishbane. These short stories are a combination of legal innovation and short-story and oracular consultation as means for achieving new law. For each of the four oracular novella (Leviticus 25:10-23; Numbers 9:1-14, 15:32-36, 27:1-11), Chavel explores three dimensions to interpret oracular novellas:  “(1) its internal coherence and poetics, its compositional history, and its tradition history; (2) its specific location within the Priestly history; and (3) its relationship with other texts in the Priestly history and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and lore outside them” (257). In all this, he seeks to discover the common, underlying themes and how fit within the composition of the Priestly history.

The first oracular novella he explores is Leviticus 24:10-23, the account of an Egyptian-Israelite cursing the name of God. Identifying the internal coherence of the story, he determines that the texts complexities arise not from the Egytian-Israelite roots of the one who curses, but serve as an ideological function “to explain the disturbing fact that an Israelite could come to offend the person of his deity in the most direct manner” (48). The crime, argues Chavel, is the explanation of God’s name in the fight. And based on the convergence of several telltale indications of Priestly authorship, he theorizes that the oracular novella was written by a single author who “synthesized them into a single coherent oracular novella” (80). The motive is, therefore, to formally express the relationship divine instruction and narrative form. More contextually, the oracular novella, Chavel theorizes, used to exist as the conclusion to a scroll based on how it synthesizes previous elements of Leviticus.

The second oracular novella is Numbers 9:1-14, the designation of a secondary Pesah. Exploring the complexities of the text through inner-biblical references, Chavel determines that the text went through many stages of development. Contextually speaking, it is intended to synthesize the issues of impurity and offerings from Numbers 5-8. Furthermore, the oracular novella is shown to have expanded to include by the “resident alien” and “native-born”. And this expansion of inclusion, along with claims that one who does not observe Pesah will suffer, serve to illustrate the centralized focus rather than the domestic one. Chronologically his analysis theorizes the possibility of this centralization taking place any time betweent he late 7th century BCE and early 5th century BCE.

The third oracular novella, which is the novella about the man gathering wood on Sabbath in contrast to the previous two underwent no growth (Numbers 15:32-36). Because the text stands in unity, with no evidence of composition history, Chavel theorizes that the linguistics differences from it to the first presented oracular novella, Leviticus 24:10-23, indicate a a late date of composition which likely originally was written on its own scroll, similar to a standalone scroll like Ruth or Esther. This extreme case served to promote the significance of Sabbath in ancient Israel.

The fourth oracular novella delves into the inheritance by women in Numbers 27:1-11. Through literary-critical analysis, Chavel illustrates a composition history of the text. This composition history demonstrates that the role of woman inheritance in the text is not a revolution or new idea; rather, “it represents the coalescence of a continuing concern with a persistent legal and social probelm” (213). As for the specific location in Numbers, the texts of Numbers 26:29-34 and Joshua 17:1-6 both support its present location. Furthermore, Chavel draws out how the list of inheritors in Numbers 27:8b-11a are from a different textual strata that clarifies its role in the formation as the daughter receiving “her deceased father’s land out of order and by different mechanism” (241) than the original oracular novella, Numbers 27:1-8a, 11b. The complete novella complicates the text by subordinating concepts from the original into the new by inserting the list portion. Finally, Chavel explores how the oracular novella relates to Numbers 36:1-12, Gileadite sequel to the oracular novella, and the scroll of Ruth.

All in all, the oracular novella shed light on the complex stratification of Priestly history, especially demonstrating the vibrancy of the oracular novella constructing, reconstructing, or developing legalities as narrative climax and how Yahweh’s ongoing inquiry was prized. Chavel wraps up his work by briefly exploring the literary relationship between law and narrative, emphasizing how “Priestly work brings law and narrative into mutual relation more richly, continuously, and organically than do the others” (268). The oracular novellas are one place where this is most evident in Priestly history.

Simeon Chavel’s work is by far one of the most unique in exploring Priesly historiography. His variety of methodological approaches, ranging from narratology, theory of law, philology, and historical analysis serve to propel the validity and strength of his conclusions. Those conclusions, while primarily theoretical in nature, do provide a renewed and more comprehensive view of Priestly historiography and the development of the Pentateuch as a whole. By drawing on the various inner-textual engagements and nuanced tensions within the oracular novellas, he provides reasonable explanation for the oracular novellas and even conjectures certain portions as originally distinct scrolls.

Another valuable aspect of his work, which many may not initially recognize, is a smaller point of his. In a forthcoming article on the legalities of Ruth, Dr. Brad Embry (Regent University), will be exploring the very thing which Chavel briefly engages with. In Chavel’s discussion about the daughters of Zelophad, he says the following: “The story of the rise of the law of female land inheritance – the novella of the daughters of Zelophad in Num 27:1-11 – appears to have served the author of Ruth’s the channel or the glue that brought them all together” (200). This is important because it provides valuable and rare insight into the book of Ruth, insight that will potentially propel forward Megilloth studies.

Although this is the case, it is still a very specialized focus and topic. To most people, this book will not be valuable. Realistically, his work will only be beneficial to people exploring the development of the Pentateuch, and perhaps those exploring the oracular novella, or, as Michael Fishbane terms them, oracular responsa. Without a doubt, Chavel’s work is the most authoritative on the subject, even if it is due to the fact that it is one of the few resources that directly engages with the subject. That said, this is not the sort of book valuable on ones bookshelf; however, for work on the composition of the Pentateuch and relating to any of the oracular novella, Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah by Simeon Chavel is absolutely a necessary resource.

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