Subproject B: The Historical Geography of Priestly Document and of the Priestly Literature in the Book of Numbers

B1: The Historical Location(s) of the Priestly Document

As already mentioned, among the few generally accepted theories in Pentateuchal studies is the identification of the so-called Priestly Document (cf. F. Hartenstein and K. Schmid, eds., Abschied von der Priesterschrift? Zum Stand der Pentateuchdebatte, VWGTh 40, Leipzig: EVA, 2015). While its texts are recognizable by means of their specific language and ideology, their date is far from certain. The P material seems to have grown over a considerable period (cf. R. Rendtorff, “Two Kinds of P? Some Reflections on the Occasion of the Publishing of Jacob Milgrom's Commentary on Leviticus 1-16,” JSOT 60, 1993, 75-81; R. G. Kratz, Historisches und biblisches Israel. Drei Überblicke zum Alten Testament, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). In order to overcome current impasses of scholarship, this project suggests to focus on observations from archaeology and historical geography for dating P more securely.

There are some hints that the main narrative of P may not predate the early Persian Period. First, the linguistic evidence for a preexilic dating is inconclusive for P. P is basically written in what is being identified as Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), but there are some linguistic features that contradict this conclusion. Three examples are: (1) For the 1st person singular, P usually employs אני instead of אנכי, this points to P as a transitional text between CBH and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). (2) The word רכוש “possession,” used by P in Gen 12:5; 13:6; 46:6, is otherwise only attested in Daniel, Ezra, Chronicles, the post-P parts of Numbers, and Gen 14 and 15. (3) The extended P material uses the LBH term דגל “banner” in Num 1-10. Given these elements, it is likely that P is to be situated at the end of CBH. The lack of external reference corpora for the 6th through 2th century for CBH makes dating P to the Neo-Babylonian or the Persian periods possible and plausible. The adduced comparison of P-texts with Ezekiel does not militate against this conclusion. Texts from the book of Ezekiel do not provide a fixed point in the history of ancient Israelite literature in the time of the historical prophet of Ezekiel. On the contrary, the book of Ezekiel is a very complex literary entity that grew over an extended period. The literary links between P and Ezekiel often hint that P is dependent on texts from Ezekiel. A good example is the reception of Ezek 7 in Gen 6:13: God’s statement in Gen 6:13, an undisputed P text, that “the end has come,” is very close to Ezek 7:2-3. Gen 6:13 alludes to it in order to demonstrate that there was an end of the world decreed by Yhwh, but this crisis has been resolved; it happened in the distant past and has been settled by Yhwh once and for all. P transformed Ezek 7 from a divine statement about the present into a primeval action (cf. T. Pola, “Back to the Future. The Twofold Priestly Concept of History,” in C. Frevel et al., eds., Torah and the Book of Numbers, FAT II/62, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013, 39-65) to subvert the biblical prophecies of doom.

Finally and foremost, cultural and political realities reflected in P corroborate an early Persian period setting at the earliest. The first element are the מכנסים, “trousers” mentioned in Exod 28:42; 39:28; Lev 6:3; 16:4; and Ezek 44:18. D. Sperling shows that “pants” were a Persian innovation in the ancient Near East (cf. S. D. Sperling, “Pants, Persians and the Priestly Source,” in R. Chazan, W. W. Hallo and L. H. Schiffman, eds., Ki Baruch Hu. Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Judaic Studies in Honor of Baruch A. Levine, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003, 373-85; cf. P. Calmeyer, “Hose,” RlA 4:472). Weightier is the evidence of P’s political geography. One general element is the pluralistic notion of the world portrayed in the “Table of Nations” in Gen 10, which neither corresponds to Neo-Assyrian nor Neo-Babylonian, but rather to Persian imperial policy (cf. J. G. Vink, “The Date and the Origin of the Priestly Code in the Old Testament,” in J. G. Vink et al, eds., The Priestly Code and Seven Other Studies, OTS 52, Leiden: Brill, 1969, 1–144, p. 61; Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch, 383.) Another observation is the status of Egypt in P. P maintains a very inclusive and pacifistic worldview with one single exception: Egypt. Especially the Egyptian army is the target of God’s violence in Exod 14, where it is drowned in the sea. According to Gen 9, God renounces violence, and nowhere else in P does God act as destructively as in Exod 14. Why is this so? The victory over Egypt’s army in Exod 14 is portrayed as the means of God to establish his כבוד “glory,” which plays an important role in P after Exod 14. Only after the defeat of Egypt is God’s glory ultimately established and present in the world. A. de Pury suggests that this stance towards Egypt reflects P’s historical position in the early Persian period, prior to the Persian king Cambyses’ conquest of Egpyt in 525 BCE (cf. A. de Pury, “Pg as the Absolute Beginning,” in Les dernières rédactions du Pentateuque, de l'Hexateuque et de l'Ennéateuque, T. Römer and K. Schmid, eds., BETL 203, Leuven: Peeters, 2007, 99–128). In addition, it is noteworthy that in P, the miracle at the sea plays out “in front of Ba‘al Zaphon” (Exod 14:2). This may denote the sanctuary of Zeus Cassius mentioned in Herodotus (II,6,158; III,5), usually identified with Ras Qasrun on the northern coast of Sinai. G. I. Davies (“The Wilderness Itineraries and Recent Archaeological Research,” in J. A. Emerton, ed., Studies in the Pentateuch, VTSup 41, Leiden: Brill 1990, 161–75) notes there are few relevant pre-Persian remnants at Ras Qasrun, which supports a Persian setting of P’s exodus account.

Clarifying these elements in P would help to secure the most important historical anchor for a critical analysis of the Pentateuch. One should, however, also attempt to clarify the inner stratigraphy of the P-texts, as well as investgate the “realia” (locations, names, geography, etc.) of the P-texts and integrate them with archeological research. A final question concerns the “material” location of the group that produced the Priestly texts. The temple or somewhere in Jerusalem is often assumed, but recent archaeological perspectives cast doubt on this conclusion (O. Lipschits, “Persian Period Finds from Jerusalem: Facts and Interpretations,” JHS 9/20 2009). This question is of great importance, and collaboration between biblical scholars and archaeologist may open new perspectives.

B2: The Historical Geography of the Book of Numbers

In 1966, M. Noth stated that for the Book of Numbers, the Documentary Hypothesis could only be maintained by means of a petitio principii: “If we were to take the book of Numbers on its own, then we would think not so much of ‘continuous sources’ as of an unsystematic collection of innumerable pieces of tradition of quite varied content, age and character (‘Fragment hypothesis’)” (M. Noth, Das 4. Buch Mose. Numeri, ATD 7, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966, 8). This remark anticipates current Pentateuchal scholarship. Many scholars conclude that neither the so-called Yahwist nor the original Priestly document (Pg) contain a narrative strand that comprises the whole Pentateuch (or Hexateuch). If the original P-document ended in the book of Exodus, or in Lev 9 or 16 (cf. Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch), this means that the Pentateuch could be based on a Priestly ‘Triteuch,’ which extended from creation to the installation of Israel’s worship, and on the book of Deuteronomy, which at some stage was sundered from the Deuteronomistic History. T. Römer, followed by others (e.g. E. Otto, Das Deuteronomium im Pentateuch und Hexateuch. Studien zur Literaturgeschichte von Pentateuch und Hexateuch im Lichte des Deuteronomiumsrahmen, FAT 30, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000; R. Albertz, “Das Buch Numeri jenseits der Quellentheorie. Eine Redaktionsgeschichte von Num 20–24,” ZAW 132, 2011, 171-83, 336-47) suggests viewing the book of Numbers as the “latest” book of the Pentateuch. The fact that the first and the last parts of Numbers contain laws and other texts that fit better in Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy indicates that the scroll of Numbers was created at the very end of the process of canonization of the Torah to integrate new laws and narratives.

Some of the narratives integrated did not, however, originate in the Persian period. This is the case for the Balaam narrative: the wall inscription of Deir Alla clearly attests to a well-known tradition about a seer named Balaam, son of Beor in the 9th or 8th centuries BCE in Transjordan.

There are further traditions, especially of “Eastern” or “Northern” origins, in Numbers that can only be satisfactorily explained by the combined efforts of archaeologists and biblical scholars. Especially intriguing are the “Moab connections” in Numbers 21 that may preserve some genuine memory from the time of the Northern Kingdom and on Moabite entities in the Iron Age. How can one explain the survival of such memories, especially given that these texts are integrated into a tradition depicting Moses as a warrior and military chief that do not fit well with the Deuteronomistic tradition? The answer may lie in the literary context. Num 21:10-35 is now linked to a tradition of Moses or Israel in Num 21:1-3 conquering Arad. A plausible solution requires inquiry into the relationship of this tradition with the archeological data concerning Arad.

Another intriguing theme in Numbers is the presence of numerous geographical names. One textual locus is the places in Num 32:34-42, which constitute the construction of Transjordanian tribes or clans: six of them are well-excavated and securely identified (see M. Wüst, Untersuchungen zu den siedlungsgeographischen Texten des Alten Testaments. I. Ostjordanland, BTAVO B 9, Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1975, 147-50). They have produced rich Iron Age and Hellenistic finds but no Persian period material. The options for interpreting this data should be investigated.

The desert itineraries are also of great interest. Num 33:1-49 contains an impressive number of toponyms. Many of them only appear here, while others have parallels in Exod 12-15, Deut 10:6-7, and Num 20-21. Archaeological developments over the past four decades suggest the importance of renewed investigation into this question. One may suspect that Num 33 and related texts are late, but they include both Israelite (Northern) and Judahite traditions about the desert. Such knowledge seems rather sparse in the Persian period, indicating that the Assyrian period may be a better context for Judahite knowledge of the Negev. The excavations and findings of Kadesh Barnea and Arad (ostraca) from that period indicate that the Judahites were well acquainted with the desert in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The site of Kuntillet Ajrud, functioning between ca. 800 and 730/720 BCE (I. Finkelstein and E. Piasetzky, “The Date of Kuntillet Ajrud: The14C Perspective,” TA 35 [2008], 175–185), indicates clear Northern connections. Therefore, some of the itineraries (especially those related to Transjordanian locations) may have been kept in Northern sanctuaries or in Samaria along with other traditions about Israelite possessions and territorial claims in Moab.

Better understanding of the geographical indicators in Numbers—traditions about Moab and other polities such as Sihon and Og, the itineraries, and the idea that Moses conquered Arad (Num 21)—can only be achieved through intense collaboration between archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars.