Finishing Roskop’s The Wilderness Itineraries

I finished Angela Roskop’s The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah.

Roskop’s argument is that a priestly scribe wrote wilderness itineraries in the Torah to promote a program of Israel returning from exile.  According to Roskop, the priest was influenced by the use of itineraries that we see in Neo-Assyria and Egypt, whose annals employ itineraries to depict the king as a military leader and a defeater of chaos.  Roskop notes that P’s wilderness itineraries portray Israel as a traveling army, which is consistent with the military focus of itineraries in Neo-Assyrian and Egyptian annals, and she also contends that the wilderness itineraries regard YHWH as the king.  In the same way that the Neo-Assyrian and Egyptian annals use itineraries to exalt the king, so likewise does P have wilderness itineraries to exalt YHWH as Israel’s king.

I asked in my last post why P presents Israel as an army, when his program probably did not include Israel returning to the land and taking possession of it through military conquest.  Roskop said a few times in my latest reading that what is important to P is not the military aspect of the wilderness itinerary, but rather his vision of Israel returning from exile.  Roskop’s view may be that P found the itinerary-genre as it was used in annals to be effective in promoting certain beliefs that he had—-that YHWH was Israel’s king, that Israel should move back to her land, etc.—-even if he did not regard Israel as a literal army.

Roskop addresses a possible problem with her thesis: that we do not know how Israelite scribes in exile would have known about a Neo-Assyrian annals-genre that was “no longer is use after the eighth century B.C.E.” (page 289).  She concludes on page 289: “The best we can do is explain as many details of the text as possible, and it is my present judgment that use of this form of the annals genre explains enough features of the wilderness narrative to posit that it was known and purposefully used, despite our inability to trace how the scribes knew it.”  For Roskop, an exilic setting provides a reason that one would “write a narrative about marching home with the vessels of Yahweh that envisions how Israelite culture might be reconstituted in the land” (page 289), and so she believes that is the historical context for the development of the wilderness itineraries, not the eighth century B.C.E.

Roskop also addresses the argument of maximalist James Hoffmeier that the biblical narratives about the Exodus and the wilderness reflect the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. and thus originated in that time.  Roskop effectively argues that even later people could have known ancient details, and she supports this argument by looking at Egypt and the Torah itself.  For Roskop, P could have drawn on something that was true long before him as part of his program of grounding his vision in Israel’s distant past.  At the same time, Roskop also contends that the wilderness narrative drew from later geography, such as that of the sixth century B.C.E.  So were P and other biblical writers writing history—-their understanding of what really happened in the past?  Roskop said a few times in my latest reading that what they wrote was not entirely history, but I wonder if they believed that they were conveying what really happened in the past, or if they knew that they were writing about things that did not actually happen but hoped that their audience would accept their writing as an authoritative depiction of the past, thereby embracing their ideology.

Another issue that Roskop discusses is the later addition of details to itineraries, and the motives behind those additions.  Many scholars agree that there are contradiction and tensions within the wilderness narrative when it comes to the journey of the Israelites, not to mention bizarre details.  Did the Israelites go through Edom or not?  Did they conquer Hormah or not (Numbers 14; 21)?  Why do they appear to zig-zag in so many directions?  Why would they encamp by yam suph a little while after they had crossed it and moved on (Numbers 33:11)?  For Roskop, later scribes added details to wilderness itineraries for a variety of reasons: to connect Numbers with Deuteronomy; to set the stage for the Balaam story, which is set in Moab; to promote the crossing of the sea as the time of Israel’s redemption rather than the Passover; to claim that certain land was God’s gift to Israel; etc.  Roskop argues, however, that the priestly agenda is what wins out, for Numbers 33  promotes the Passover as the time of Israel’s redemption, in accordance with priestly ideology (though, as Roskop notes, Brevard Childs’ view is the opposite, for he thought that P preferred the crossing of the sea as the time of redemption).

I will not go into thorough detail on Roskop’s argumentation, but I would like to highlight two things that I especially liked.  First of all, on pages 247-252, Roskop discusses the problem of yam suph.  I’d probably have to reread that section to grasp the arguments of scholars on this issue and Roskop’s response to them, but, on page 252, she makes the point that the product of the biblical writers’ wrestling with yam suph is somewhat of a mess:

“The artificiality of this effort is quite evident.  The scribe must take the Israelites away from the problematic referent for Yam Suf and have them head toward the same Yam Suf referred to elsewhere in the wilderness narrative.  To do this, he gives the potential for encountering war as a reason for the diversion away from the military route.  While this reason does accomplish the goal of reference repair, the scribe must sacrifice some plausibility vis-[a]-vis the annalistic character of the wilderness narrative, given that the Priestly scribe has already cast the Israelites as an enormous army.”

Second, Roskop discusses the difference of opinion between Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth about whether there is a Hexateuch or a Tetrateuch.  Von Rad thought that the Torah (if you will) was a Hexateuch that extended up to the Israelites conquering the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua, whereas Noth believed it was a Tetrateuch that was separate from Deuteronomy and Joshua and ended (I think) in the wilderness.  Von Rad’s reason for believing in the Hexateuch was that he could not envision the story not ending with the Conquest, since Conquest was a significant part of recitations of Israel’s history.  As Roskop points out, however, perhaps the Tetrateuch did end with a Conquest, since Numbers 21 is about the Israelite Conquest of Hormah, but that Conquest became marginalized, and there were also additions to the Tetrateuch to connect it with Deuteronomy.  In this scenario, both Von Rad and Noth appear to have valid observations, but neither is entirely right.

I’ll stop here.  This was a heavy book to read, since it meticulously covered a number of issues: literary criticism, ancient Near Eastern history and documents, archaeology, source criticism (if that is the right term, for she prefers a supplementary model to the Documentary Hypothesis), etc.  I found reading it to be worthwhile, particularly on account of Roskop’s discussion of how later writers could have drawn from ancient details that were no longer the case in their own time.

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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