Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review
How might an informed reader make sense of the wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers? The many difficulties that trouble a reader as they encounter this part of the Hebrew Bible are well known. Within critical scholarship various attempts have been made to explain the present form of the Hebrew text by appeal to source-critical and redaction-critical solutions. Without denying the diachronic dimension, Christian Kupfer's book tackles the same problems from the perspective of reception theory. How might the text and a co-operative reader work together to produce a coherent reading of the wilderness stories?
In the introductory chapter (pp. 143), Kupfer sets out his methodological approach giving particular attention to the works of reader-response critics such as Barthes, Fish, Eco, Jauss and Iser. His own approach sees meaning as a joint achievement of text and reader. He adopts a narratival approach that reads the text through the eyes of a competent and co-operative reader. Such a reader attempts to produce a coherent reading despite the occasional gaps, contradictions, and disturbances in the text. Kupfer's work is largely an attempt to show what problems might disturb an intelligent reader and how such a reader might construct a coherent story as they work their way through the wilderness narratives sequentially. The central part of the book is a narrative by narrative examination of the wilderness stories in Exod 15:2217:7 (pp. 4584) and Numbers 11:120:13 (pp. 85216). In most cases Kupfer gives the structure of the pericope and describes the main features that would disturb an attentive reader. There follows a detailed reading of the pericope, section by section, with attention to narrative features and how the cooperative reader might understand the pericope as she progresses through it. Kupfer concludes the analysis of each narrative by summarizing his main findings.
Two final chapters consider the narratives as a whole. The first (pp. 21751) examines the various narrative features that guide the reader. These include narrative patterns, perspectives of the characters, repetitions, leitmotifs, chiasms and other structural features. Perhaps Kupfer's most helpful contribution is his examination of the various ideas about the patterns of the murmuring narratives, and his reminder that a reader working through them sequentially would recognize certain similarities to earlier stories, but also significant variations. A simple pre- and post-Sinai distinction will not work. The second (pp. 25369) considers the wilderness stories in the context of Exodus and Numbers. Issues such as the echoes of Exod 3234 in the book of Numbers, the hoary question of the structure of Numbers, and the place of the legal texts that interrupt the wilderness stories are addressed. The book includes a bibliography and author index; unfortunately, a close examination reveals that some texts and authors that Kupfer cites have been accidentally omitted.
Kupfer's analysis of the wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers began as a doctoral thesis completed under Cornelius Houtman at Kampen University in the Netherlands some twelve years prior to its publication. It is deeply regrettable that there has only been very light revision to take account of recent scholarship. This is especially the case in the discussion of the book of Numbers where the scholarly discussion has moved on considerably since 2000. Indeed, Numbers has moved from the margins into the centre of the discussion of the composition of the Ppentateuchal theory. The attentive reader will observe only a few brief references to Reinhard Achenbach's exhaustive redaction-critical analysis of Numbers, David Frankel's work on the Priestly murmuring stories, Michael Widmer's dissertation on intercessory prayer, and these are usually no more than a brief bibliographical reference. Significant absences include Achenbach's ZAR article on Num 1314, Eckart Otto's discussion of the same chapters in Das Deuteronomium im Pentateuch und Hexateuch, Won Lee's Punishment and Forgiveness, the proceedings from the 2006 Colloquium Biblicum Lovaniense edited by Thomas Römer, Adriane Leveen's Memory and Tradition, the commentaries by Ludwig Schmidt and Rolf Knierim, and the fascicles from Seebass' commentary published after 2000. There are numerous other articles from 2000 that are likewise ignored.
Kupfer's reader-response methodology with its focus on the ideal reader and the interaction between reader and text also betrays the book's origins over a decade ago. The methodological commitments now look a little dated; the ground Kupfer covers has been well worked over. Within biblical studies, the centre of intellectual interest, especially in Europe, has shifted to reception history and to renewed engagement with diachronic questions, enriched with the insights of synchronic studies. In the case of the books of Exodus and Numbers, it is this latter approach that is proving especially productive. Of course, keeping step with the latest trends should not be the judge of a work's worth. It is true, however, that the textual disturbances that attract Kupfer's attention are being considered by scholars conscious of both diachronic and synchronic perspectives, and how these two perspectives might be mutually informing. In this respect Kupfer approach to the text is considerably narrower, focusing on only one of these poles. This is not to say that Kupfer's book is without virtues. This is a disciplined reading of the wilderness narratives with a strong methodological rigor, and occasionally enlightening for showing how readers might make sense of the canonical text. When read with this perspective in mind, the volume proves helpful.