Finishing Van Seters’ Life of Moses

I finished John Van Seters’ Life of Moses. Here are some points:

1. In my first item, I’ll present two views on the dating of Balaam’s oracles in Numbers 24. First, here’s Van Seters’ view, on page 435:

“The picture of Israel’s settlements in the desert as being like gardens of exotic trees beside streams of water (Num. 24:5-6), which is probably derived from Ezekiel…is similar to the references to the desert becoming like Eden with trees and abundant water in Second Isaiah (Isa. 43:19; 49:9; 51:3; 55:13). In Isa. 44:4 Israel is compared to a green tamarisk and willows by flowing streams, similar to the comparison in Num. 24:6, and this is viewed as God’s ‘blessing’ (v. 3). Such gardens of exotic trees by streams of water are particularly characteristic of Babylonia, which could have influenced the choice of this imagery in Ezekiel, J, and Second Isaiah…One can reasonably conclude from this comparison that the Yahwist’s Balaam story fits very well into this era of the late exilic period.”

For Van Seters, Numbers 24 has themes that appear in exilic literature, namely, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, plus it echoes a Babylonian context. Moreover, Van Seters presents Balaam’s oracular statements in Numbers 24 as part of J’s story, as it fits into the story of Balaam blessing rather than cursing Israel.

Jo Ann Hackett, however, has a different view, which she states in her article on “Balaam” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

“Whereas oracles 1 and 2 depend on the prose setting for any meaningful interpretation, oracles 3 and 4 can be read and appreciated without any reference to the prose story. Furthermore, Balaam is introduced at the beginning of each of these oracles (24:3–4 and 15–16); such an introduction would not have been necessary had the oracles been composed along with the prose and transmitted originally in anything like their present context. The 3d and 4th oracles, then, are generally thought to have originated separately from the prose story and from oracles 1 and 2, and to have been transmitted separately for some time before being combined with the narrative of the curser-turned-blesser summoned by the Moabite king…

“The 3d and 4th oracles might date from the time of the early monarchy, since 24:17–18 can be interpreted to refer to David’s defeat of Edom and Moab (with the bĕnê-šēt, children of Sheth, identified with the Palestinian tribal name Shutu known from 2d millennium documents). Moreover, 24:7, as well as v 20 and the LXX reference to Agag (?) in v 23, if these be admitted to the 4th oracle, could plausibly refer to Saul’s defeat of Agag and the Amalekites. (Albright’s attempt to date the oracles even earlier, based on orthographic typology, has not met with much approval; neither has von Gall’s proposal [1900] that they were composed in the Maccabean era.)”

For Hackett, the oracles in Numbers 34 are secondary to their context, meaning that they were inserted, even as they are earlier in date than the story that surrounds them. Hackett also dates them to the time of Israel’s early monarchy.

2. According to Van Seters, J is more aggressive than Deuteronomy in presenting Moses as Israel’s leader. While Deuteronomy presents Moses as “the paradigm for prophecy such that all prophets have the primary task of confirming the Deuteronomic understanding of law and covenant” (page 463), J portrays Moses as a leader:
“J’s presentation of Moses as leader…is much more prominent in Dtr and entails accommodation to royal motifs in the birth story, the flight to Midian, the negotiations with Pharaoh for release, and his victory at the sea, even though Moses’ role in armed struggle is consciously subdued. The revelation of the law, although prophetic as in D, also has its royal aspect, in which the king is recipient of divine law. The role is confirmed in the ‘shining face’ motif and the repeated references to the Israelites as Moses’ people (Ex. 32:7; 34:10; Num. 11:10-17). The strong emphasis on the vanguard motif, in which the divine presence accompanies the leader with his people on their journeys, is another royal motif. The itinerary, the movement in stages, the notion of a camp with military organization, all belongs to this same milieu.”
At the same time, Van Seters does not believe that J is presenting Moses as a “model for monarchy” or the priesthood. Rather, he holds that Moses is the prototypical nasi, who was a religious and a political leader in exile, and who shared authority with elders (as Moses does in Numbers 11).

What was the purpose of J’s history, according to Van Seters? Van Seters states that J created “an antiquarian tradition of human and national history to complement and modify that of” the Deuteronomistic History (page 464). For Van Seters, J was more universalist in its orientation than the nationalistic Deuteronomistic History, in that J has stories about Abraham interceding for other nations (Genesis 18), and Pharaoh acknowledging YHWH (Exodus 8:6; 9:16; 12:32). (I wonder how Van Seters would address universal elements of the Deuteronomist, such as I Kings 8’s insistence that even people from other nations can worship at Israel’s temple. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 4:6, God says that Israel’s laws will impress the nations on account of their wisdom.)
Van Seters also refers to H.H. Schmid, who says (in Van Seters’ summary) that the Yahwist “has attempted to counter the whole thrust of the Dtn/Dtr emphasis on the law and divine judgment as a consequence of disobedience by his preoccupation with divine promise and favor to the fathers and mercy as a mitigation of judgment” (pages 465-466). According to Van Seters, “The promise supersedes the law as the basis of covenant, and in the face of covenant annulment through violation of the First and Second Commandments it is renewed through God’s forgiveness (Ex. 34:9-10)” (page 466). Moreover, Van Seters asserts that J’s promise of land and blessing to all Israelites on the basis of the “faith and obedience of Abraham” is a democratization of God’s promise to David, the sort of thing that we see in the exilic Second Isaiah (Isaiah 55:3).
This book could be complicated, but it had jewels, and it closed on an inspiring note.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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