The Book of Numbers: A Critique of Genesis

The Book of Numbers: A Critique of Genesis

by Calum Carmichael

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In this work Calum Carmichael—a legal scholar who applies a literary approach to the study of the Bible—shows how each law and each narrative in Numbers, the least researched book in the Pentateuch, responds to problems arising in narrative incidents in Genesis. The book continues Carmichael’s process of demonstrating how every law in the Pentateuch is a response to a problem arising in a biblical narrative, not to an inferred societal situation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300183320
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 06/26/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Calum Carmichael, professor of comparative literature and adjunct professor of law at Cornell University, is the author of Sex and Religion in the Bible. He lives in Ithaca, NY.

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The Book of Numbers

A Critique of Genesis
By Calum Carmichael


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18332-0

Chapter One

Genesis Extended

The Book of Numbers is an integral part of a narrative that runs from Genesis through 2 Kings: the Primary History, as it has come to be called. Numbers might be viewed as a study in secular and sacred leadership—with a twist. Moses represents more the secular side and Aaron the sacred. The twist is that their decisions and actions often oppose the ways of the ancestors in the Book of Genesis, particularly the conduct of Jacob, Judah, and Joseph. Before proceeding to an analysis of Numbers (in chapter 2), some comments are in order to introduce the role of Numbers in Genesis–2 Kings.

The Primary History depicts life from the creation of the world through the creation of Israel as a nation to its end in exile in Babylon. In the epic we have the unfolding of the history of the generations. There is among scholars, most welcome in my view, increasing recognition of and detailed argumentation from a nonreligious perspective for the unified character of Genesis–2 Kings. Much recent work has paid attention to the connections between one narrative and another, with Moshe Garsiel one of many critics pointing to the numerous links: for instance, the marriages of David and Jacob in 1 Samuel 18 and Genesis 29, respectively, which involve two sisters, noncommercial bride-prices, devious fathers-in-law, and the flight from them, which requires a wife (Michal, Rachel) to make use of household gods (teraphim) in order to escape the hostile fathers (Saul, Laban). I have long argued that the fable about the proposed marriage between the son of the thistle and the daughter of the cedar in 2 Kgs 14:1–14, puzzlingly relayed to curb the saber-rattling of King Amaziah, owes a great deal to the story in Genesis 34 about the slaughter of all the males of Hamor's clan by the two sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi. They took up arms against the proposed marital alliance between the son of the ass (Hamor) and the daughter of the ox (Jacob). A major aim of this book is to bring out a plethora of hitherto unrecognized links between the narratives and laws in Numbers and the contents of Genesis. Greifenhagen's claim that "Joseph is essentially bypassed" and forgotten after his story has been relayed at the end of Genesis could not be further from the truth, as is Thomas Römer's claim that the Joseph story is virtually an appendage to the Pentateuch in its final form.

Bodies of rules, law codes in some sense—for instance, Exodus 21–23 and Deuteronomy 12–26—are part of the narrative history of Genesis–2 Kings. Numbers does not have a comparable body of rules that might conveniently be called a code of laws but we do find, interspersed among its narratives, different sequences of rules. The joint presentation of storytelling and laws, not just in Numbers but to a lesser extent in Leviticus too, immediately invites puzzlement because the recitation of a series of rules that every so often interrupts a continuous narrative history seems anomalous. Equally awkward is the impression that there often appears to be neither rhyme nor reason why one law follows another. This mode of literary arrangement wherein it appears that narrative flow is interrupted by legal text is present throughout the Pentateuch. Because Numbers is a continuation of Leviticus I shall focus in this chapter on some laws in Leviticus to set the stage for my analysis of Numbers, for what is true of Leviticus is also true of Numbers.

Consider, then, one example from Leviticus that serves well to indicate the problem of sequence. Lev 19:11–12 has a seemingly haphazard succession of rules—theft, false dealing, lying, swearing falsely by Yahweh's name, and profaning God's name: "Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another. And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am Yahweh." If we consider this particular instance of the problem of sequence, the issues that arise are worth unpacking because the example serves to lay out clearly the difference between the long-standing Wellhausen, JEDP, scholarly approach and my argument about the highly integrated character of Genesis–2 Kings.

A recent book by Christophe Nihan brings out the gulf in the respective positions. His book is a model of its kind: very well researched in terms of the Wellhausian approach he favors and faithful to scholars who strongly adhere to the method in question. His aim is "to reassess the difficult question of the formation history of the book of Leviticus, in relationship to the composition of the Torah as a whole and to the history of the early Second Temple period, during which this book was written." He makes the common claim that, despite appearances, Leviticus was not composed as a coherent narrative at a certain historical moment but incorporates a considerable number of additions over time. Almost all the added extras he identifies he detects by exercising sensitivity to language and syntax; and also by inferring historical developments behind literary texts. One problem, however, is that different scholars exhibit different sensitivities to language and syntax, providing many variations in parsing texts, and, from my perspective, producing quite bewildering arrays of propositions about editorial additions and the dating thereof. While Nihan details the many scholars and their views, he does not address the implicit but never questioned assumption that differences in the texts must necessarily indicate differences in the period of time they were produced. My approach is fundamentally at odds with their attribution of historical development, so carefully yet so variably parsed from the texts and unquestioningly based by these scholars on that bulwark of received opinion, the JEDP hypothesis. Moreover, working on the same historical critical assumptions, on the same material in the Pentateuch (the Patriarchal stories in Genesis and the account of the Exodus from Egypt), scholars such as Römer and John Van Seters come to results quite at odds with each other. For the latter JE is the primary redactor, for the former it is P.

One of Nihan's conclusions is a typical tour de force of contemporary neo-Wellhausian scholarship: "Later [after Lev 1–3 has used an alleged earlier document], Lev 1–3 was included into P's narrative by means of Lev 8–9, building an inclusion with Ex 25–29, as well as by various additional redactional devices, such as the envelope created by the motif of Moses' [actually non-] admission into the sanctuary in Ex 40:35 and [admission with Aaron] Lev 9:23." For Nihan, these additions are spread over many periods of time and the dates guessed at. The final form of Leviticus is dated to the Second Temple period and for Nihan constitutes a window into the life and institutions of the state Yehud (Judea after the return from exile). But the complaint of Montesquieu from over two hundred years ago about those who construct history still applies: "They don't make a system after reading history; they begin with the system and then search for proofs. And there are so many facts over a long history, so many different ways of thinking about it, its origins are ordinarily so obscure, that one always finds materials to validate all sorts of opinions."

If we wish to gain insight into the substance of the rules in Leviticus, Nihan has us consider similar rules in law codes that allegedly predate Leviticus: the Decalogue, the Covenant Code, and the Deuteronomic Code. He then cites the succession of rules in Lev 19:11–12 (quoted above), which he claims belong to a separate Holiness Code (H), a fifth main source which Wellhausen's scholarly heirs have added to the Priestly Code of Leviticus 1–15. The Leviticus rule about theft

completes the prohibition ... in Ex 20:15; Deut 5:19 [against stealing] with two others concerning deception of a fellow Israelite ... not found in the other codes. V. 12 [about misusing God's name] takes up Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11 [not to use Yahweh's name in vain], but restates it emphasizing the specific aspect of the prohibition on swearing a false oath ... in Yahweh's name (instead of the more general prohibition on misusing the name in the Decalogue), and adds a different rationale: the fear of desecrating Yahweh's [text has God's] name. This rationale betrays a characteristic feature of H which introduces for the first time in the Torah the notion that not only Yahweh but also his [text has God's] name are holy and thereby liable to be desecrated.

In Nihan's view, it is all about additions, with the last one supposedly revealing the final editor's contribution to Israelite legal history and Israelite religion.

Plainly, Nihan pursues the form of literary analysis associated with Graf-Wellhausen, dividing the Pentateuch into different sources and assuming that these sources reflect historical development. But it is possible to pursue less complicated means of understanding the text so that, as in mathematics where the simpler solution is usually the more convincing one, the more convoluted one then becomes precarious. For example, when considering the series of laws in Lev 19:11–12, I too assume a narrator-lawgiver (or scribe or school of scribes) who is familiar with other parts of the biblical corpus. But whatever the sources of his knowledge for the diverse contents of this corpus might have been originally, he set down the rules' disparate subject matter in response, not to existing laws in other codes of law in order to update them but to a disturbing event in the life of the nation's founding father, Jacob-Israel (Genesis 27).

Isaac had asked Esau to bring him a game dish that he enjoyed with a view to conferring the blessing of the firstborn on Esau. But in collusion with his mother, Jacob set about stealing Esau's birthright. To this end, the two of them prepared a meat dish from one of their domestic animals. Jacob disguised himself as his hairy brother and presented the dish. Isaac, who was blind, identified the bringer of the meat as Esau by feel and expressed surprise at how quickly he had brought the food. Asked who he was, Jacob lied by saying that he was Esau. We have in this story a clear succession: an intention to steal involving false dealing, followed by a blatant lie. It is the same order as in the prohibitions in Lev 19:11: "Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another." When asked by Isaac about the speed with which he had brought the dish, Jacob, invoking God, swore falsely by audaciously saying, "Yahweh your God made it come before me" (Gen 27:20). In the prohibition in Yahweh's own words against false swearing in Lev 19:12 both names are used—as in Gen 27:20: "Ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am Yahweh."

Instead of comprehending this cluster of rules as a product of a bewildering process of redaction involving different and even hypothetical documents and inferred time periods, we can view the medley as formulated in reaction to issues raised when Jacob cheated Esau. Not only do particulars in the episode carry over into details in the rules; by unraveling this thought process a more natural and certainly more engaging method of composition emerges. Did the scribe of Leviticus have before him a written text? I think we should envision the narratives and the laws as being written down simultaneously and being in conversation with each other, rather than one serving as background material to the other. At some seat of learning and training it may have been realized, generally, that to derive the full benefit of several sources of information it was essential to keep them several. Like similar laws probing different aspects of a narrative incident, similar narratives probe different aspects of some basic situation (for example, the suffering of the people in the wilderness because of lack of water). The uncovering of legal, ethical, and religious ideas by a full and thorough integration of the narrative and legal materials has driven the complex composition of Genesis through 2 Kings. It is vain, I think, to try to separate out behind-the-scene sources and impose our historical knowledge on them. Historical inquiry should focus primarily on the narrator's own interest in history, his going back and forth between the generations as recorded in Genesis–2 Kings. The narrator is aware of historical development, and it is his sense of past and future we should heed, not scholarly speculations about the dating of different bodies of material.

While I do not set aside the achievements of the Wellhausian methodology—even if judgments about different strands of material might be off the mark, much illumination is often forthcoming—it is possible to so view the unity of the material as to cast serious doubts on many of the method's results. Even the major distinctions among the inferred sources, P, H, and D, turn out to be decidedly shaky because, in my view, all the material in Genesis–2 Kings is a product of the same process of composition. Critics who have pursued and continue to pursue the source-critical approach are, in my view, like alchemists who attempt to make gold out of disparate elements without suspecting that they stand beside a goldmine. In concluding a chapter entitled "Genesis as Part of a Larger Unity" that deals with the harmonious character of Genesis–Kings, Tom Brodie states, "There is significant evidence not only that Genesis is unified but that the same is true of the larger body of the Primary History. Many problems within the Primary History remain unresolved, but as with Genesis, the weight of evidence is shifting, and the idea of literary unity is gaining plausibility. It is the simplest hypothesis that accounts for the data." I take Brodie's point further to claim that the laws are an integral part of the larger literary unit of Genesis–2 Kings. Enabling us to discern many more of the interconnections than have been shown to date, my results prove compatible with this developing trend.

My hypothesis that the laws took up issues in the narratives and not, at least not directly, societal problems in the lawgiver's time came long after I noted links between an increasing number of laws and narrative incidents in Genesis–2 Kings. The first time I broke through to what has become my primary hypothesis was when considering the rule against plowing with an ox and an ass together in Deut 22:10. I thought that the rule may not have a literal meaning but, like the rule about illegitimacy in early English law "Whoso bulleth the cow, the calf is yours," be coded communication expressed as a proverb that criticized Jacob's lackadaisical attitude to Shechem's treatment of Dinah. Jacob's moderate approach to Dinah's contact with the Hivite people is depicted in Genesis 34. Jacob seemed not to care overmuch that the house of Israel would enter into a marriage alliance with the Hivite (Canaanite) house of Hamor (Ass). The rule against plowing with an ox and an ass together portrays the idea that Shechem, the son of the ass Hamor, plowed in a sexual sense Dinah, the daughter of the ox—Jacob refers to his house as that of the ox in his comment on the incident in Gen 49:6. The prohibition is directed against intermarriage with the Hivites, an injunction actually spelled out in Deut 7:1–3. One reason for the law's cryptic expression is that it attacks the founding father of the nation, Jacob.

I assume that the narrator-lawgiver's knowledge of legal lore in his time was brought to bear on the nation's traditions and that he used that knowledge to formulate the laws he set down in the text. In this light, although rules come before narratives, the rules set down in the biblical text, having reacted to what is going on in the narratives, reformulate preexisting ones. Because biblical rules are the earliest written version of that early law, we have no way of knowing the legal lore and practices that existed before they were formulated and that the lawgiver was surely steeped in. I do not exclude the possibility that rules found in other Near Eastern writings may have been known to biblical authors, but the evidence remains elusive. When we observe how the procedure is from narrative to legal formulation, not the reverse, strange sequences of rules, oddities in their language, and puzzling features of their contents time and again make sense.


Excerpted from The Book of Numbers by Calum Carmichael Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ONE Genesis Extended....................1
TWO Pharaoh and Yahweh as God-Kings (Numbers 1–4)....................15
THREE The Suspected Adulteress and the Nazirite (Numbers 5 and 6)....................26
FOUR A Test Case for the Study of Biblical Law (Lev 6:2–7 [5:20–26] and Num 5:6–10)....................44
FIVE Joseph and Moses as Sources of Discord (Numbers 7–14)....................54
SIX Joseph's Dreams and the Laws of Numbers 15....................68
SEVEN The Status of Firstborn (Numbers 16–18)....................90
EIGHT The Ritual of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19)....................103
NINE Speech Acts (Numbers 20–24)....................120
TEN Sexual and Religious Seduction (Numbers 25–31)....................135
ELEVEN Reuben's Legacy (Numbers 32–36)....................159
List of Abbreviations....................179
Index of References....................195
Subject Index....................205

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