The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah


History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant 3

Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011

Winner of a 2014 Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise

As we read the wilderness narrative, we are confronted with a wide variety of cues that shape our sense of what kind of narrative it is, often in conflicting ways. It often appears to be history, but it also contains genres and content that are not historiographical. To explain this unique blend, Roskop charts a path through Akkadian and Egyptian administrative and historiographical texts, exploring the way the itinerary genre was used in innovative ways as scribes served new literary goals that arose in different historical and social situations. She marries literary theory with philology and archaeology to show that the wilderness narrative came about as Israelite scribes used both the itinerary genre and geography in profoundly creative ways, creating a narrative repository for pieces of Israelite history and culture so that they might not be forgotten but continue to shape communal life under new circumstances.

The itinerary notices also play an important role in the growth of the Torah. Many scholars have expressed frustration with historical criticism because it seems at times to focus more on deconstructing a narrative than explaining how this composite text manages to work as a whole. The Wilderness Itineraries explores the way that fractures in the itinerary chain and geographical problems serve both as clues to the composition history of the wilderness narrative and as cues for ways to navigate these fractures and read this composite text as a unified whole. Readers will gain insight into the technical skill and creativity of ancient Israelite scribes as they engaged in the process of simultaneously preserving and actively shaping the Torah as a work of historiography without parallel.

What they’re saying

For many biblical readers, the Pentateuch’s itinerary notices do not appeal as fertile ground for understanding the literary goals and creative instincts of Jewish scribes. In The Wilderness Itineraries Angela Roskop convincingly demonstrates how these geographical snippets can provide a lens onto the purposes of the Torah’s revisers. This is finely focused work but with larger interpretative issues never out of sight. It is an engaging piece of writing. . . . This is an excellent piece of work that bristles with insights. Its specific focus might lead some potential readers to pass over it, but if they do so, they will be missing an important work whose contribution to the discussion far surpasses its immediate focus. Tolle, lege!Nathan MacDonald, Review of Biblical Literature, 2013

The insights gleaned from literary theory, cognitive linguistics, geography and archaeology are viewed as useful interpretative tools when reading biblical texts, and the volume effectively demonstrates why literary criticism should never be divorced from historical concerns. The book makes for a rewarding read and is important for the fresh approach it takes to the relevant biblical texts. — E. W. Davies, SOTS Booklist 2012

This monograph convincingly demonstrates that the scribes responsible for the wilderness itineraries transformed standard Ancient Near East genres to serve new purposes by using them as a literary device: that is, while these itineraries may be historiographical in form, they contain a “profound blend of cultural repertoire” which anchors Israel’s future in an account of its past. — Penelope Barter, Religious Studies Review 39.2 (2013)

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