“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.

“A Prophet Like Moses” by Jeffrey Stackert

A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion by Jeffrey Stackert. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, viii + 243 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of A Prophet Like Moses by Jeffrey Stackert.

An emerging and ground-breaking biblical scholar, Jeffrey Stackert’s first book, Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007), resulted in bestowment upon him of the 2010 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Currently teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, his second publication will significantly further his already established authority in biblical studies.

Chapter One discusses Wellhausen’s impact the relationship between law and prophecy in the Torah, especially critiquing his coincidental correspondence between law and prophecy (15) and choice not to distinguish J and E. Additionally, rooting his analysis of the Torah in various concrete, historical settings, Stackert emphasizes that “the Torah sources engage in historical discourse for precisely… their conceptualizations of prophecy’s attenuation and demise” (31). Chapter Two turns to the literary characterization of Moses’ prophetic character, initially presenting four reason why he is not denoted a prophet. Following,  he demonstrates that Moses’ greater literary context, the ancient Near East, indicate his legitimate status as a prophet. He then narrows his focus to briefly analyze a variety of textual traditions, especially J, E, and D, to demonstrate that the Torah does portray Moses as a prophet.

Chapter Three, through tracing E’s narrative trajectory, analyzes five major passages: “Exod 3*-4*, 19-20*, and 33:6b-11; Num 11*-12*; and Deut 34:10-12” (71). In short, Stackert concludes “that E’s Moses stands as a singular prophet” (125), acting with in an extreme anti-prophetic sense and promoting law over prophecy. Chapter Four examines D’s unique appropriation and approbation of E, its literary fund. After analyzing Deut 1:9-18, 5:1-31, 13:2-6, and 18:9-22, he concludes that D expects some sort of prophetic action with its historical context. In response, D authorizes prophecy under the auspice that the prophet is derivative of Mosaic authority. D’s extension of prophetic authority “is one in which law and prophecy exist in a hierarchical relationship rather than being mutually exclusive options” (166), as E presents. Because there is far less direct reference or allusion to prophecy, Stackert discusses both P and J in Chapter Five. P, he concludes, is unique in that it simply views Moses as sole prophet of Israelite religion because of “the divine law mediated by Moses” (174). With P, H advocates for a priestly mediatory figure. And as Stackert succinctly notes P’s claims, “There once was a prophet who instituted a religious system in which there is no place for prophecy” (172), concluding that P holds an antiprophetic stance. Chapter Six, after initially reviewing the breadth of perspectives on ancient Israelite religion, discusses how Wellhausen, even in his attempt to distinguish the theological from historical, was unknowingly driven by his own perspective on religion. As a conclusion, he argues that biblical studies should be studied within the realm of humanities, such as ancient Near Eastern studies, rather than the realm of theology, noting his own study as one which provides “a richer and more nuanced appreciation of some distinctive views of prophecy and law in the history of Israelite religious thought” (208).

Stackert accomplishes his goal of demonstrating the breadth of theological tradition in the history of Israelite religion. Most praiseworthy is his ability to locate and draw out the nuances between the various sources. As he notes, many scholars overlook certain aspect of the sources and generalize based on the work of Wellhausen. Yet, by providing reason to doubt certain aspects of Wellhausen’s work, he illustrates the importance of each sources trajectory regarding prophecy and law, providing analysis essential to any future study of prophecy in the Torah and Moses’ literary character.

As for points of disagreement, there was only one place in which his argumentation needed more support. Chapter Five notes that “two specific omissions from P emphasize its antiprophetic stance… because P addresses the question of the performance of religious practices that YHWH did not sanction” (171). Stackert then draws of Nadab and Abihu’s death (Lev 10:1-2) and Korah’s death (Num 16), both P material, as evidence that “religious innovation provokes a fatal divine response” (172), his reason that post-Mosaic prophecy is not permitted in P. Yet to compare these two passages is inadequate evidence for such a claim. Leviticus 10:16-20 specifically notes Aaron’s error, perhaps intentional, in failing to eat the goat in the sanctuary, as Moses commanded. If God is against religious innovation, or differences in what he commands, Aaron should have died as well. He did not, and was in fact justified in his religious innovation. Thus, Stackert’s use of the beginning of the narrative in Leviticus 10 fails to take into account the greater complexities of the passage. In summary, his argument that P opposes religious innovation is weak in that he fails to explore or note the complexities of Leviticus 10’s narrative, leaving him with only one argument for P’s stance against religious innovation.

Even so, A Prophet Like Moses is valuable for research relating to the prophetic nature of the Torah and Moses, as it presents a ground-breaking and unique perspectives on how to understand the relationship between prophecy, law, and Moses. Stackert’s nuanced approach, additionally, demonstrates a focused approach on the history of Israelite religion and may be used as a guide for future research due to how it understands the complex dynamics of law and prophecy. And because his focus draws on the historical dynamics of law and prophecy, it opens doors for much future research regarding each source’s unique time period. In conclusion, Stackert’s nuanced analysis of the Hebrew Bible and willingness to look beyond generalized dynamics between law, prophecy, and Moses allow his work to potentially become a launch pad for future studies exploring the nature of the multi-faceted, historically rooted, theological traditions of ancient Israel.


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The Intertextuality of Genesis 15:9 and Leviticus 1

Genesis 15 is the center of the Abraham narrative because God moves beyond mere command and word to covenant, or vow. God does so via moving between a halved heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and young pigeon. God’s appearance is that of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch which moves through the halved heifer, goat, and ram (Wenham 1982, e.g. Exod. 13:21-22; 19:16; 20:18 etc.) . The covenant ritual God participates in is common within the ancient Near Eastern context (cf. Collins 1992, 223-24). While the nature of that ritual is still an unsolved mystery and deserves full explanation, the following may at least more fully color the intertextual nature of the whole passage. Primarily, my focus is on the animals which God command Abram to bring and the intertextual connections with the burnt offerings of Leviticus 1.

Leviticus 1 presents five creature options for burnt offerings: herd creatures; flock creatures, such as sheep or goats; or turtledoves and pigeons. All of the terms for the animals are plural as they are part of Moses’ commands to all of Israel. Israelite cultic ritual also expects Israelite burnt offerings to be done before God (for an exception, see my previous blog post). Sacrifices must be accepted before the presence of the LORD (אֹתוֹ֔ לִרְצֹנֹ֖ו לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה).

Genesis 15:9 is similar in it’s expression of Abram’s piety. He is commanded to bring a heifer, female goat, ram, turtledove, and young bird. All of the terms for the animals are singular as they are God’s command to only Abram. Although the ritual is not expressed as needing to be accomplished before the presence of God, as is in Leviticus, it may be assumed because Abram is already with the Lord in his vision from the Lord.

Leviticus 1 and Genesis 14:9

  • herd creatures and a heifer
  • flock creatures (sheep/goats) and female goat/ram
  • turtledoves/pigeons and turtledove/youngbird

Both of these passages, while maintaining distinct theological thrusts, dialogue with each other and provide a richness to the text. The correlation between the order of the order of animals, type, and context all suggest that the two texts are intended to dialogue. The order of the animals in Leviticus 1 are, broadly speaking, herd, flock, and bird. More specifically, they are herd, flock of sheep or goats, and turtledove or pigeon birds. Similarly, Genesis 15:9 includes a heifer (part of a herd), female goat, ram (male sheep), turtledove, and pigeon bird. Although the sheep and goat are in reversed order, the total order of the animals, along with their type, indicate that Genesis 15:9 is utilizing the pattern from Leviticus 1, or vice versa.

Additionally, the contexts of Leviticus 1 and Genesis 15:9 indicate positive correlation. Leviticus 1 operates within a cultic context that offers sacrifices within the tabernacle as part of the covenant (e.g. Lev. 26:9, 15, 25 etc.). Genesis 15:9, though Abram is not officially in covenant chronologically, is within a section that finds the climax at God’s covenant with Abram. Thus, the covenant focuses of both passages indicate a correlation and intertextual dependency.

What is does the intertextuality of Genesis 15:9 and Leviticus 1 indicate for the reader? Already Gordon Wenham has expressed that these five animals are standard sacrifices. He also notes that they represent the nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Wenham 1982, 135). To this I wish to extend his thoughts. First of all, Israel is not just a kingdom of priests for the sake of being a kingdom of priests. Rather, they are so in order that they may be priests to the world. Thus, secondly, Abram is represented as upholding the priestly role as the predecessor to the actual ancient Israel. Because Abram sacrifices the same sacrifices in the same order as found in the burnt offerings of Leviticus, he is represented as the totality of Israelite society. In effect, these ideas brings greater depth and focus to God’s universal outlook.

In Genesis 12:3, God promises Abram that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [him]” (NIV). While this is already quite universal in outlook, the two previous points, Israel as a kingdom of serving priests and Abraham as the representative priest, serve to further demonstrate the universal outlook of ancient Israel. The god whom they expressed sought to move beyond the borders of Canaan once ancient Israel attained the promised land. Through the intertextual connections of Leviticus 1 and Genesis 15:9, the Pentateuch editor reminds the reader of God’s universal outlook by bring back the reader to Abram’s narrative, and thus to God’s promise to Abram to bless all peoples through him.  In conclusion, the editor’s reminder about the universal aim of the God of Israel propels the development of a community which operates to change the world and prevents the development of a community which builds high walls to always avoid the world.

Works Cited

Wenham, Gordon J. 1982. “The symbolism of the animal rite in Genesis 15 : a response to G F Hasel, (19,61-78 1981).” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 22: 134-137.

Collins, Billie Jean. 1990. “The Puppy in Hittite Ritual.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies vol. 42, no. 2: 211-226.