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Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13–14 as Rewritten Tradition. It is a genuinely ground-breaking piece of scholarship and I wanted to excerpt snippets of it and ask Deane Galbraith about them. By so doing I hope to introduce you to a scholar you should know. Accordingly, what follows are passages from his book (which hopefully will soon be published), and questions about his work (in bold print, so as to set them off from citations and responses). Deane, you write early on in your work1 When considering literary disunity within the Pentateuch, a possible explanans which is seldom even raised is that a single author might have created the perceived disunity within the text (p. 32). This, as you know, flies in the face of the last 200 years of historical-critical work. How do you justify such a ‘sea change’ in our approach to the text? May I first thank you, Jim, for your interest in my work, and for so kindly offering to interview me on your blog. In terms of the history of scholarship on the spy narrative in Num 13–14, I agree: the approach I take is fairly innovative. But I am influenced by a significant number of Hebrew Bible scholars who, in recent decades, have challenged the prevailing historical-critical assumption that disunity within a text should usually be interpreted as a sign of its evolution over time. Nahum Sarna, Michael Fishbane, Jack Miles, and Robert Alter, for example, each question in their own way whether historical critics, in reaching their conclusions, have adequately considered the aesthetics of the ancient composers themselves. Jack Miles even entertains the idea that ancient composers had an aesthetic of ‘willed confusion’; that to some extent they simply liked the resulting unevenness in the text. If what Miles describes is a distinctive feature of much biblical
Note- the pagination I am following is based on a PDF of the dissertation and will probably in no way correspond to the published edition. I apologize for this but of course it cannot be helped.
literature—as I think it is—it would demand the kind of ‘sea-change’ to which you refer. Moreover, all of this has especial applicability to Numbers. For, as commentators have frequently observed, the book presents what appears to be a jumble of different narrative forms and traditions. If Numbers has the appearance of, as Martin Noth described it, ‘an unsystematic collection of innumerable pieces of tradition of very varied content, age and character’ (eine unsystematische Zusammenstellung von zahllosen Überlieferungsstücken sehr verschiedenen Inhalts, Alters und Charakters), then I think we should also question whether this tendency to juxtapose diverse material throughout the book applies to the method of composition within individual narratives.
You follow that statement up with Num. 13–14 is a compilation of multiple traditions combined according to an aesthetic of unity and disunity which is radically different from the sensibilities and techniques of modern critical scholarship (p. 33). The dissertation spends a lot of time supporting and explaining and ‘fleshing out’ this skeletal statement. Convincingly, I might add. But what led you to this view? In short, I found that both the traditional documentary hypothesis–based approach and the more recent approaches which posit a series of redactional layers in Num 13–14, did not satisfactorily account for the peculiar literary features we find in the text. As for the longer answer, it took me quite a while to come to this view, and I did so in a fairly roundabout fashion. When I commenced the project, my primary focus was on how and why stories about gigantic inhabitants of the promised land—very brief and allusive traditions—had ended up in the biblical texts. Where did these strange traditions come from, and what prompted their inclusion in a story about the settlement of ‘Israel’ in the land? Like most others before me, I first proceeded on the basis that what we had in these references to giants was the vestige of very old tradition—and so I began by examining the references to the r’pum at Ugarit and the Rephaim of the poetic biblical books, in order to trace their development. The problem I ran into was that these supposedly very old traditions about autochthonous rulers or giants consistently appeared to form a part of the very latest stage of literary development—not only in Numbers, but in Deut 1, Josh 14 and 15, and Judg 1. The late Lothar Perlitt had perceptively observed the same phenomenon, although his explanation falls back on some traditional assumptions about a progression from myth to history which I would dispute. At the same time, I noticed the complexity of the integration of the various components of Num 13–14: the purportedly very latest levels of the text seemed to presume what is contained in purportedly the very latest levels. So I eventually realized that the questions I had originally posed for investigation were themselves misconceived. The facts were getting in the way! I needed to reexamine some of the basic diachronic assumptions which were present in earlier studies of the spy narrative. Accordingly, my whole approach changed dramatically. Fortunately, I could find many of the tools I needed to understand the development of the text in studies of inner-biblical interpretation and rewritten Bible.
You also say The present study thus offers a distinct alternative to prevailing models for the composition of Num. 13–14, challenges existing theories of the relationship between Numbers and Deuteronomy, and makes a new contribution to our understanding of the composition of the Hexateuch (p. 41). In a nutshell, what is that contribution? The first edition of Numbers itself was written later than deuteronomistic Deuteronomy. That is, most of Deuteronomy was written before Numbers was conceived. Only very minor harmonisations were added to both Deuteronomy and Numbers when the two books were later combined into a larger narrative unit (a Hexateuch [Genesis-Joshua] or Enneateuch [GenesisKings]). My study of Num 13–14 and Deut 1 provides what I think is a good argument for such an understanding of the development of Numbers and the Hexateuch. But I readily admit that this conclusion needs to be corroborated by further studies of other narrative and legal sections of Numbers, by employing a similar model of ‘rewritten tradition’ (as indeed Benjamin Sommer has done for Num 11 and Robert Alter for Num 16).
And then you say something I found really important: … the biblical reviser honours the past by reinterpreting it; he finds the past authoritative only insofar as may be retold in ways that are consistent with the contingencies of the present (p. 45). This, I assume, is how you would view the entire Hebrew Bible. Is that assumption correct? This paradoxical manner in which authoritative tradition functions is, I think, an important feature of the composition of most parts of the Hebrew Bible. And it occurs in many other contexts as well; the paradox can be observed in almost any process involving the transmission of culture, not just in those processes which are categorized as biblical or even ‘religious’. This provides one very important reason why the study of reception history in any time period—of the contextual factors which produce a certain use or influence of texts—potentially offers valuable grounds for understanding the processes by which the Bible itself was produced. For the ability to examine the inner-biblical rewriting of tradition depends on the existence of the rewritten text and its precursors, or at least our ability to satisfactorily reconstruct a precursor. But there are only a limited number of these examples available within biblical literature. There are more if we extend our examination to Second Temple or later Jewish and Christian literature in general, but more still if we extend our investigations further afield in order to compare certain elements of textual production.
Also interesting, for me at least, is your definition of ‘myth’: I define ‘myth’ as an ideological narrative that people in a given society, or sector of society, understand (often unconsciously) to be a credible and authoritative truth claim and which both describes paradigmatic aspects of that society or sector of society and prescribes its paradigmatic goals and ideals (p. 61). Do you care to unpack that a bit? Yes—in that rather dense formulation, which comes at the end of a longer discussion of the term ‘myth’, I’m building primarily on the conceptions of myth and ideology developed by Bruce Lincoln and Louis Althusser. I also agree with Chiara Bottici that, despite the diverse range of meanings the term attracts, there is really no alternative which expresses the way in which certain narratives provide significance and foster identity for a given community. My immediate interest is, of course, how a particular subset of myth—the founding myth of Israelite settlement—developed over time. So, to unpack the definition: myth typically has a ‘narrative’ form, rather than a bare propositional form. This is largely because myth’s potential to evoke emotions is as important as, or perhaps more important than, its ability to convey conceptual information. By ‘ideological narrative’, I refer to those stories that are basic to the way that a community, people, or nation functions. Such stories determine the very way we see and experience the world—and so very often we just don’t even notice them let alone think about them, as they seem ‘natural’; they remain largely unconscious to us. They also determine our role in society, the very way we conceive of ourselves as a subject within society. Sometimes it takes somebody ‘looking in from the outside’ to articulate these largely unseen rules, discourses, concepts, practices, and institutions that those on the inside take so much for granted. The perceived ‘authority’ of such stories, and this is Bruce Lincoln’s claim, is what distinguishes a mythic narrative from other truth claims. As for myth’s ‘describing’ functions, I’m utilizing here Bronislaw Malinowksi’s conception of myth as a ‘social charter’. Malinowski opposed those earlier theorists who just dismissed myth as a primitive error, or as science done badly, reclaiming it as a symbolic map of the social order. Lincoln adds that myth is not only descriptive of society, but that it is prescriptive; it not only provides a model of society but also an idea for society (in Clifford Geertz’s words). Myth is not, for Lincoln, only a taxonomy of society in narrative form, it also reflects and enforces hierarchies and power relations; it is also ‘ideology in narrative form’. This last distinction is important when we come to consider changes between the deuteronomistic spy narrative in Deut 1 and the version we find in Num 13–14. For we are not getting a mere variation of some underlying ‘master’ myth; these changes are in fact reflections of specific changes in societal relations, economic structures, and ideology. These elements in my definition of myth usefully complement the inner-biblical interpretation and rewritten Bible models on which I also rely. Your work turns out to be meticulously researched and your arguments are supported by a virtual army of textual support. Might I ask, how long have you worked on this project?
The PhD took just over four years. Also, the year before that I worked on the Ugaritic texts and language. The mastery of the various languages involved itself is astonishing, as you demonstrate facility in Greek, Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Syriac among others. How necessary do you think mastery of the languages is to researchers? Or, to put it differently, what would you say about language study to a budding scholar? If I didn’t know Greek, Hebrew, and Ugaritic I couldn’t begin to properly understand the very texts which are the subject matter of my dissertation. I would not only have to rely on the secondary commentary of scholars, but I would have no real means of evaluating their various conclusions. It would be impossible! So, in short, a knowledge of the language of the primary texts you study is essential, and I definitely encourage doing so from the very beginning of undergraduate level. Having said that, your particular language requirements will be dependent on what you eventually study at postgraduate level—which complicates things. If you’re into apocryphal Egyptian Christian literature, then Greek and Coptic might be what you need; but if you’re into John Milton’s use of the Bible, then some basic Hebrew and Greek would be of some but limited use, but English and Latin would probably be more useful. This makes it kind of difficult, but for anybody beginning biblical studies, I’d definitely recommend at least a year of Hebrew and Greek. I noticed, and I sure you intended me to, that you date the materials you’re dealing with rather ‘late’. For instance, you write Numbers 13–14’s integration of four deuteronomistic or Persian-period precursor traditions, and its complex transformation of those traditions, is better explained as the product of a unified and coherent project of rewritten tradition carried out during the post-deuteronomistic stage of Pentateuchal composition (p. 153). And unless I have misunderstood you, you date that stage to the late Persian period or Hellenistic era. Do you consider yourself a ‘minimalist’ in terms of the dating of the Hebrew Bible’s texts? I date the origin of the spy narrative in Numbers on the grounds that it is post-deuteronomistic and reliant on more than one Persian-period precursor, and so provide a relative dating to the late Persian period or early Hellenistic era, say from ca 450–300 BCE. In addition, I see significant ideological connections between Numbers and the book of Chronicles which might suggest a date which is closer to the end of that period (and so towards the early Hellenistic era). Comparable dates have been offered in the detailed analyses by Eckart Otto and Reinhard Achenbach, albeit that they divide the text of Numbers into multiple levels from the mid-fifth to early fourth centuries BCE. The still later hexateuchal additions, and the formation of the Hexateuch, are quite plausibly, then, an early Hellenistic development. But I am not a ‘minimalist’. I think that the term ‘minimalist’ is largely meaningless, a term of polemic employed only by uptight and defensive reactionaries, providing about the same level of
semantic value as a child who puts her hand over her ears and shouts ‘la la la la la la’ at the world. In dating these texts as I do, I am simply making what I think are the best judgments in light of the available evidence—and this is properly neither ‘minimalist’ nor ‘maximalist’.
You do, after all, draw on a lot of Hellenistic materials. Indeed, you seem to find parallels to many of the Pentateuch’s stories in Greek literature. So, for instance, you say These abundant similarities between ענקand Αναχ of Miletos provide further good grounds to conclude that ענקis a cognate of the title ἄναξ. The ‘sons of Anak’ would accordingly refer generically to descendants of elite ‘rulers’ or ‘lords’, and in particular autochthonous rulers from antiquity (p. 300). Recent scholarship has also tended to see parallels between Greek literature and the Hebrew Bible with the result being that many see the Old Testament as borrowing its stories, in various degrees of dependence, from Greek tales. Do you see any peril in this sort of ‘parallelomania’? Or do you think that any hesitance is the consequence of an overabundance of caution or a desire to protect the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible? To be precise, I draw on a fair bit of Hellenic or Greek material, not so much Hellenistic material (the latter refers to the period after the death of Alexander), and, moreover, I do so in respect of a relatively limited number of elements in Num 13–14. But you are quite right to identify the two opposite dangers of employing Greek comparisons. By avoiding Greek materials altogether, one risks buying into the modern separation of ‘East’ and ‘West’ with all of its modern Orientalist underpinnings, and falsely imposing this conception on antiquity. And one would miss out on an important part of the background to the book of Numbers. Morton Smith notes the presence of ‘numerous Greek and Roman parallels’ in pre-twentieth-century commentaries, lamenting that they reflect ‘the happier days of Biblical scholarship, before the specialization of “ancient near eastern” studies had entailed ignorance of half the Old Testament’s Umwelt’. Moreover, archaeology has provided evidence of significant Greek influence in Palestine well before Alexander’s conquests, so we need to appreciate that the Persian period is also a time of significant Greek influence. On the other hand, by simply listing Greek parallels willy nilly, the risk would obviously be a lack of discrimination—which would add more confusion than light to the biblical passage under consideration. What converts the bare possibility of an etymological relation between the Hebrew Anak and the Greek Anax into a plausible option is a detailed comparison of the semantic range of each term and evidence of multiple common elements in the conception of each. That is what I set out to do. After all, the book of Numbers is the one book of the Pentateuch which explicitly mentions the contemporary Greeks (as ‘Kittim’: 24:24)—so there is all the more reason not to ignore the Hellenic portion of the Hebrew Bible’s Umwelt. Without unduly revealing too much (I don’t want to rob potential readers of your work the joy of discovering your conclusions for themselves), you write, in part, at the end of the volume: The spy narrative in Num: 13–14 is essentially a unified composition, composed by a single author in the late Persian period or early Hellenistic era. This author
was also responsible for the framework of the book of Numbers in its current form, including its two censuses of successive generations of Israelites, and therefore responsible for the first edition of Numbers as a whole. The changes which the author made to his five precursor myths introduce an emphasis on an elect remnant within Israel which was not present in earlier Pentateuchal traditions. The elect remnant is exemplified by Judah, thereby also revealing a pro-Judean bias in the composition of the book of Numbers. The divine election of Israel, however, is not limited to Judah, as it extends to members of other tribes of Israel who, according to the standards of the author, were considered to follow Yahweh fully (p. 433). Having finished your work, and having had time to reflect on the entire project, do you still see things that way? If not, what would you change or adjust? I’m not that long finished, so I won’t claim that I have the critical distance necessary to answer this question. I’m sticking by it for now! What are you working on now? While I was working on the dissertation, I made a list of ideas that could be developed into articles, but which I had no time to work on. So I am working on some of these now. For example, I am writing on a specific example of the use of the LXX in the Gospel of Peter—a refreshing break from Pentateuchal matters. In addition, editorial work for Relegere: Studies in Religion in Reception occupies a bit of my time. Have you any possibilities for publishers for your dissertation which, I imagine, will be revised at least in some respect? In fact, the dissertation is currently under peer review with a well-known publisher, and I will let you know when there are further developments. Read about it on this blog first! Thanks for your time, and thanks for your willingness to interact. We look forward to more from you in the future. It’s my opinion that you are a scholar people should know, and keep an eye on (for a lot of reasons)… Thank you, Jim.
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