I started Angela Roskop’s The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Georgraphy, and the Growth of the Torah. This book is about wilderness itineraries, such as the one in Numbers 33, which lists the places that the Israelites went after they left Egypt.
What was the function of such itineraries in the Torah? Some scholars believe that the intent behind the itineraries was simply to specify where the Israelites historically went after leaving Egypt. Roskop refers to James Hoffmeier, who maintains that the geographical details in the wilderness stories show that we’re not dealing with a “concocted story written centuries after the purported event”, for a writer simply concocting a story “would likely not bother with such trivial details as geography” (Hoffmeier’s words on page 11); rather, for Hoffmeier, we’re dealing with an “accurate historical report” (Roskop’s words). But, as Roskop notes, there are fictional works that refer to real-live places.
My impression thus far is that Roskop is arguing that the wilderness itineraries served an ideological purpose, within a history that was designed to shape the values of Israel. She looks at itineraries in the ancient Near East, and they were often used for practical purposes: so a person could report to his superior officer about where he and his men had been, to keep track of routes from one place to another, etc. But, as Roskop notes, there came a time when Assyria and Egypt used itineraries in larger narratives that had an ideological function: to portray the king as one who defeated chaos (through military victories, for example).
What was the purpose of the itineraries within that? Roskop states on page 90: “…a scribe might choose to capitalize on the implication of verisimilitude in order to make his account appear authoritative, whether or not it might be accurate. He might also use the linear and goal-oriented characteristics of itineraries to help him depict a king who moved swiftly to the site of battle.” First, according to Roskop, the itineraries within royal propaganda could have served to give a sense of realism and thereby authority to the narrative, for Roskop states on page 81 that “we expect itineraries to be accurate”, especially when they were used for pragmatic purposes. How, after all, could one follow instructions on the basis of an itinerary if it is inaccurate? Second, Roskop says that the “linear and goal-oriented characteristics of itineraries” could have exalted the king by portraying him as a swift warrior.
What is the ideological function of the wilderness itineraries in the Torah? I have not gotten to that part of the book yet, but, in what I have read so far, Roskop refers to a scholarly view that the wilderness itineraries served to give the narrative a sense or realism and thus authority, as well as a scholarly view that the wilderness narrative promotes the Israelite ritual calendar. On pages 34-35, Roskop appears (if I’m not mistaken) to regard the wilderness stories as “an origin narrative…set in valorized time, in the epic past.” She states:
“The epic past becomes the repository for a group’s formative traditions; here they acquire authority because this past is closed off and must be ‘accepted with reverence.’ Some of these traditions in the wilderness narrative are ritual, such as the calendar that governs the Israelites’ collective life and, as Mark S. Smith argued, is written into the itinerary notices. Some are social, such as the roles of priests and levites. Israelite legal tradition certainly plays a prominent role. Some of these traditions may even be historical.” For Roskop, the wilderness stories are an epic past that promotes Israel’s traditions, rituals, and institutions. Moreover, on pages 9-10, Roskop discusses E. Theodore Mullen’s argument that scribes wrote the Torah narrative “to establish continuity between life before the exile and the envisioned life after it, especially for individuals who were born in exile” (Roskop’s words on pages 9-10).
I find Roskop’s arguments thus far to be plausible. In terms of questions I may have, I have one about something she says on pages 27-28, as she discusses the difficulties in identifying the genre of the wilderness narrative, then says that we can identify the “subgenres” within it. Roskop says that two scholars “recognized that this narrative might mix genres, but the need to identify a single intrinsic genre generated a ‘genre’—-saga of a migrating sanctuary campaign—-that is otherwise unattested in ancient Near Eastern literature.” She then goes on to say that “It could be that the wilderness narrative is the only extant example of a saga of a migrating sanctuary campaign from the ancient Near East and that there are more of them to be excavated or located in a genizah.” I wonder if she would consider Greek and Roman historiography relevant to this discussion, for (as John Van Seters notes) there was an element in that historiography that presented founding fathers migrating from abroad to a country and conquering its inhabitants (see here). For Van Seters, that is relevant to the Torah.
(UPDATE: On page 147, Roskop explicitly engages Van Seters’ argument. Roskop thinks that the depiction of the Israelites in Exodus-Numbers as a military unit is more consistent with “ancient Near Eastern administrative documents and military narratives” than with “antiquarian historiography”.)