The Wilderness Narratives in the Hebrew Bible: Religion, Politics, and Biblical Interpretation (forthcoming)

The biblical books of Exodus and Numbers narrate the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan, from enslavement to freedom, from exile to home. Their itinerary entails several stops at which they complain about the circumstances of life in the wilderness. These complaint episodes employ a formulaic plot structure in order to develop answers to questions like “What constitutes community?” as well as “What is good leadership?” and “Who is best positioned to lead?” Common themes such as trust run through the episodes, and some episodes complement one another, but others offer contradictory answers. So it is evident that scribes from competing schools used the complaint genre as they imagined their future in a moment of crisis and transition and sought to influence it by reshaping the community’s foundational literature. Our ability to understand the history of the religious and political ideas in the wilderness narrative depends on our ability to unravel the literary history of these episodes.

The complaints and the itinerary notices that knit them into a geographical frameworkhave played a critical role in efforts to understand the literary history of this portion of the Bible. It has long been recognized that the Bible is a composite text and contains the residue of its editorial history, but efforts to identify and interpret these traces are often undertheorized. Moreover, study of the complaint episodes too often forces them into models of composition history that were established in work on Genesis and do not necessarily apply as well to literature in Exodus and Numbers. My current project seeks to understand the literary history of the complaint episodes on their own terms by viewing composition history as reception history—the history of how aesthetic norms (e.g., genres) are received and either reproduced or transformed in particular historical, social, and cultural contexts (Jauss, Iser). Reception theorists are concerned with how readers’expectations change over time. Within biblical studies, reception history has naturally tended to focus on the interpretation of texts after they reached a stable form, but we increasingly realize that there is a fuzziness to textual stability and an artificiality to the boundary between composition and reception. This project will show that ideas from reception theory can be profitably applied to understand how texts are written as well as read.

Because the complaint genre is used repeatedly throughout the wilderness narrative, it is an excellent candidate for tracing typical and atypical uses, ossification and rejuvenation through combination with other genres, experiments that failed and experiments that succeeded in creating some of the most beautiful and influential literature in the Bible. The problem is that the wilderness narrative has a deeper history than extant manuscripts allow us to see, yet a literary history of the complaint episodes is possible only to the extent that we can put them in chronological sequence. The itinerary notices are commonly viewed as little more than the glue that binds the thematically rich complaint episodes, but they themselves are an important key to interpreting the wilderness narrative and enable us to sequence at least some of the complaints. My award-winning The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torahbegan to explore the potential yield of reception theory, along with cognitive theories of genre (Lakoff, Sinding), for understanding how genre creates expectations and shapes interpretation. The itinerary notices evoke a genre typically found in royal military inscriptions. This genre is used creatively as a mode of emplotment (White) in the wilderness narrative in order to influence how we interpret the characters and the journey itself: the Israelites are not wandering or lost but triumphantly marching out of exile to establish a temple-centered society in their own land, an army led by God as their king. The current project expands previously exploratory work into a full-blown discussion of how these complaint episodes are not always artificially structured by but often work together withthe itinerary notices to achieve a set of literary and ideological goals—in the case of this military emplotment, to establish God as king, valorize human kingship, and create a new ideal of human leadership in its place. But the role of the itinerary genre in the literary history of the wilderness narrative does not end there. The Wilderness Itineraries also demonstrated that revisions of the wilderness narrative were accommodated using the itinerary genre—but different formulations of it that break the expectation of coherence in a chain of itinerary notices and make signs of editorial work quite clear. The current project will explore how complaint episodes are implicated in these revisions as well. To the extent that the complaints either work with or are overwritten by itinerary notices, we can know their chronological sequence and study their role in the literary history of the wilderness narrative.

Yet signs of editorial work are not always so clear. Not all the itinerary notices can be clearly sequenced, and not all the complaint episodes are clearly integrated with or overwritten by itinerary notices. It can be tempting, then, to sequence them along a presumed continuum of aesthetic development such as that proposed for biblical literature over a century ago by Herrmann Gunkel from the pure genre, to artistic literary genius, to ossification and decline. Reception theory (Jauss) found inspiration in Gunkel’s focus on changing aesthetic norms but recognizes (as do biblical scholars now) that no such linear arc is possible. The proposed project will treat seriously as an object of investigation how and to what degree we can see the literary history of the complaints when signs of editorial work are unclear or nonexistent.

The readings offered by the proposed project will have significant implications for key issues within biblical studies, including where the priestly version of the wilderness narrative ends, the role of so-called Deuteronomistic language, and the development of the character of Moses. Even more than particular readings, the proposed project seeks to shift the conversation about the literary history of the Bible from a fractured debate about which model works best (Dozeman et al.) to a generative dialogue about questions like “What constitutes narrative coherence?” or “How do we detect signs of editorial work?” whose results may or may not fit any currently existing model. My hope is that application of reception theory to the composition history of Exodus and Numbers may inspire similar readings of other composite texts within the Bible or in other ancient literatures as well as further theoretical reflection on how reception theory might be applied to writing and editing that could enrich literary theory and history of the book as well as future studies of specific texts.

Chapter Outline

Chapter 1: Introduction—The Sea Crossing

Chapter 2: The Priestly Wilderness Narrative

Chapter 3: The Earliest Exodus Narrative

Chapter 4: Spies

Chapter 5: Leadership Struggles

Chapter 6: Conclusion

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