I’m finishing my comments on volume 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (ZIBBC). I hope to post once on each of the other four volumes before leaving for the ETS and SBL meetings in mid-November.
I was looking for specific items in the treatments of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Let’s take the books in order:
Roy Gane’s ZIBBC Leviticus is strong in several respects. There is an abundance of connections made to wider ANE law codes and ritual practices, along with judicious comments from a variety of modern secondary sources that provide insight into the often strange language and imagery of Leviticus. For example, there is a Hittite parallel to the act of a priest laying his hand on the head of the sacrificial animal; parallel descriptions of the use of witnesses to establish guilt, the use of incense in the ancient world, and tables comparing the penalties for adultery and other sexual offenses in Leviticus with Mesopotamian laws.
Gane has a rather lengthy discussion of The Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16), taking particular care to go through the options on the meaning of the goat “for Azazel.” I agree with his conclusion, that Azazel refers to some sort of desert demon. For reasons Gane notes, this is the most coherent explanation.
Regarding the rationale for ritual, sacrifice, clean and unclean, Gane offers several explanatory trajectories. He seems to lean toward Milgrom’s notion that the guiding rationale for all this is to teach the value of life and bless the life-Giver, and the rejection of death. I’m not sure he ever cites the work of Mary Douglas, whose contributions to ritual study and the OT is significant. She isn’t in his bibliography, but she may be cited in the extensive footnotes. I read through a few pages of them, but not all of them.
Gane also devotes a full page sidebar to divination. He confirms some obvious (but uncomfortable to some) points, namely that divinatory practices like casting lots and the Urim and Thummim were not all that unusual. While it is true that outside Israel such practices and many others proliferated, Gane tends to downplay the extent of divination in Israel, though, failing to note biblical and archaeological evidence for “astral prophecy” and the association of oracular sites associated with “divine trees.” Another example is when he writes that necromancy was condemned because it “purported to draw on superhuman power apart from God.” In a worldview where the unseen world was believed to be heavily populated with divine beings (under the ultimate authority of the God of Israel), such contact would not have been viewed as merely “purported”. In fact, if we believe in the unseen world, a world that regularly features contact with humans, why would we view it this way — why not view it as factually real? It makes little sense for God to give a law abotu something that can’t happen. That’s akin to commanding “thou shalt not fly” in the Torah. The reason there were laws against necromancy is because it did work, and an Israelite was not to be involved with any divine/demonic entity other than the God of Israel.
As with my previous posts, these mild criticisms shouldn’t diminish the value of the contribution. Most Bible students aren’t going to enter the quagmire of scholarly commentaries on Leviticus! Gane has provided a wonderful concise, coherent resource for tapping into the relevant background material for this neglected book.
For Numbers (written by R. Dennis Cole) I was specifically interested in the treatment of the ritual test for adultery (Numb 5), the Balaam incident (Numb 22-23), and the itinerary of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (Numb 33).
I was a bit disappointed with the discussion of the adultery trial by ordeal in Numbers 5. On one hand, the discussion did note that the ritual, as odd as it seems to us, does empower the accused woman in that it at least provides some means to avoid an accusing husband of seeing to it that his wife is punished without any evidence at all. One the other hand, there isn’t any discussion of how the ritual was actually supposed to render a correct verdict. Ultimately, one has to embrace the idea that Yahweh would effect the result that brought punishment for one truly guilty. I was also puzzled by the comment Cole makes that “the Torah in fact legislates against any kind of class system.” I don’t see how this is true. Women could not inherit property in the Torah. The account fo the daughters of Zelophahad in Numbers 27 is the exception that proves the rule. These women had to appeal directly to Moses in this regard precisely because there was no provision in the law for inheriting the property in the absence of a male in the family.
The Balaam incident discussion is excellent. Two full pages are devoted to incorporating the Deir ‘Alla texts that are so important for contextualizing this unusual episode. Readers exposed to this material, which specifically mentions Balaam, the son of Beor, will be informed and fascinated. This sort of treatment is why the ZIBBC should be on every shelf.
I was even more impressed with the treatment of the itinerary of Numbers 33. This passage is critical for the study of the exodus route and has long been a frustration for interpreters. It has also been the subject of scrutiny with respect to archaeological evidence for the place names in the list, which are extensive. Cole devotes six tables to the itinerary, and they are a model of clarity, at once densely packed with information but easy to follow. I’ll absolutely make use of this the next time I teach on the exodus route.
Deuteronomy is just packed with items of interest for a commentary of this nature. One of the major items concerns how the structure of Deuteronomy closely follows that of ANE treaties and covenants, especially Hittite suzerainty treaties. Eugene Carpenter devotes almost two pages to this backgrounding. The treatment is revealing for those to whom the parallels are new. I was wishing for more, though, something akin to the way the covenantal parallels were visually illustrated by Kenneth Kitchen in BAR (which Carpenter cites). This would have communicated more than the prose description, though that is good.
More generally, Carpenter brings an impressive array of ANE parallels and other visuals to his portion. A good example is his brief but insightful treatment of aniconism (prohibition of images of the deity), not only in Israel, but also in other ANE cultures. Others include parallels on ancient court systems, boundary stones, inheritance rights, eunuchs, divorce laws, and levirate marriage. If this commentary doesn’t make Deuteronomy more interesting for students and pastors, I don’t know what will.
Carpenter sidesteps one of the more controversial issues in Deuteronomy — the insistence (really, presumption) of centralized worship. Briefly, other scholars have shown that the phrase “the place where the Lord shall set his name” most likely refers to the temple. But there was no temple in Deuteronomy, a fact that has led many to date Deuteronomy much later than the time of Moses. Carpenter makes the language generic by pluralizing it, though it isn’t plural: “God instructs Israel that he will put his name at those places where he chooses to be recognized and worshipped” (p. 471). He also writes, “The Lord claimed the Promised Land by placing his name there.” While Yahweh did take Israel (land and people) as his “portion” (cf. Deut 32:8-9, reading with LXX and DSS), it really can’t be demonstrated that the whole land is the point of this language. There are more coherent strategies to handle the “setting the name” issue if one wants to defend an earlier date for Deuteronomy than traditional source criticism posits.
Next up: Volume 2: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel.