A. R. Roskop, The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Roskop, Angela R., The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah (HACL, 3; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. 311. Hardcover. US$49.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-212-9.

It is an unusual experience, but in this case a very rewarding one, to read a book (based on a Hebrew Union College dissertation) that refers frequently to one's own doctoral dissertation (1975) and published work, and studies some of the same texts and issues that were the subject of it.[1] The common topic comprises the extensive wilderness itinerary in Num 33:1–49 and the shorter passages in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua which resemble parts of it, viewed in the light of similar texts from the ancient Near East (in my case with further examples from the Greek and Roman worlds). Roskop has of course been able to incorporate into her comparisons texts that have been discovered or newly edited in the intervening period and to take account of further studies of the biblical itineraries and the changing state of biblical scholarship, including Pentateuchal criticism. But, more important, she has also advanced the study of the itineraries in some valuable ways and has set it within the context of methodological principles that have a much wider usefulness.

The first two chapters, “The Torah as History: Rethinking Genre” and “Emplotment and Repertoire: A Reading Strategy,” introduce and justify an approach to textual interpretation which does well to hold together two at first sight conflicting principles. On the one hand, Roskop emphasises that literary genres may be used for new purposes by creative authors: in the case of the Pentateuch “reporting” genres like itineraries and annals may be used or imitated to present a liturgical programme (M. S. Smith) or to create an effect of verisimilitude and a sense of reliability and authority in the reader (B. E. Scolnic).[2] On the other hand her “reading strategy” is grounded in a fourfold categorization of the factors involved in written communication as author, text, world outside the text, and reader. The inclusion of the world outside the text is a notable addition to a widespread threefold analysis of the process of reading, and as Roskop shows, it shares in the openness of cognitive linguistics to the existence of the real world and the availability of knowledge about it to both writers and readers. In studying the biblical text this means not only the results of archaeological excavations but equally and perhaps even more the constantly growing body of non-biblical texts which provide our best access to the various aspects of the culture(s) in which biblical texts were written, such as social conventions and structures, ideologies, intellectual trends, and history. Geography too is of special relevance to itineraries, though it needs to be understood to include “mental maps” which endow physical space with meaning and value. The combination of these two principles is the main driving force and validation of Roskop's detailed work and they could serve very well as guides for a whole range of textual studies.

The next two chapters, “Itineraries and their Contexts” and “Experimenting with Genre: Using Sources and Shaping Narratives,” deal with the ancient Near Eastern evidence and divide it in a way that I think is superior to my distinction between “forward-looking” and “backward-looking” itineraries, the more so as relatively few of the former are available from Egypt and Mesopotamia (there are more from the classical world) and they mostly, perhaps all, relate to specific impending journeys. Roskop's sub-division separates “raw” itineraries, which are administrative documents, from Egyptian and Assyrian royal annals which use (or perhaps sometimes imitate) itineraries as part of display inscriptions that serve to magnify the king's achievements and establish his rule. She is able to add some new examples, especially one from Mari[3] and a Middle Assyrian example from Tall Šēḥ Hamad on the lower Habur,[4] both administrative texts, and to use better editions of some others. The use of (a variety of) formulaic structures in such texts thus receives further confirmation. There may also be evidence for the copying of daybooks/itineraries as exercises in Egyptian and Mesopotamian schools (cf. p. 52 on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus and pp. 79–80 on UIOM 2370, the small tablet containing part of the “Old Babylonian Itinerary”). The great advantage of the separation of the annalistic texts is that it shows clearly that the use of itineraries (or in the Egyptian example, more precisely day-books) in a more wide-ranging “literary” text, for new purposes, was not first undertaken by biblical writers but by Egyptian and Assyrian scribes. There was, in other words, a model which might have been available to biblical writers for the incorporation of itinerary-notes into a larger narrative as well as for the production of a “raw” itinerary.

Roskop's chapter on “Experimenting with Genre” examines in detail how itineraries came to be inserted and adapted in the developing genre of Assyrian annals in the ninth century b.c.e. and in the much earlier Egyptian annals of Thutmose III.[5] In each case the annals have a strongly ideological character, which makes them an ideal transition to her study of the main Exodus and wilderness narrative in the Pentateuch in the next chapter (“An Israelite ‘Annal’”) and those which follow it. Her view is that here the itinerary-notes imitate the genre but are not borrowed from a pre-existing text like Num 33:1–49. She takes up earlier observations that military features of the biblical narrative make a connection to Assyrian annals likely, but rightly observes that the character of the other material included is rarely military, emphasising the cultic preoccupations of the Priestly “layer” to which she attributes the main sequence of itinerary-notes. So there has been a major change: the purpose is no longer the glorification of an earthly king but the validation of a programme for the rebuilding of the Temple (cf. Ezek 40–48) and a revival of the image of Yahweh as king and commander, which may be connected with sixth-century prophecy and especially Isa 52:7–12. At the end of this chapter and more fully in the next (“The Routes of the Wilderness Sojourn: Itineraries and Composition History”), Roskop discusses some key examples of “fractures” in the text and how the introduction of itinerary-notes served to modify the ideas implied by earlier versions of the wilderness story—about divine presence, a “conquest from the south,” Israelite claims to land in Transjordan, and the decisive redemptive event of the Exodus—and to integrate additions to the narrative such as the Balaam story and the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. Some of this is based on the presumption of intertextual links (here especially between names) that is widespread today but perhaps overdone. The construction (as Roskop sees it) of Num 33:1–49 is examined along similar lines, showing how (in its present form at least) the chapter matches the Priestly narrative earlier in Exodus and Numbers and summarizes what is meant to be the authoritative, divinely validated (cf. v. 2) account of the whole journey. It is interesting and perhaps significant that Num 10:28 resembles Num 33:1a so closely, but its positioning is not as odd as Roskop finds it (pp. 231–32): it belongs to a fairly common type of Priestly concluding formula and the use of מַסָּע (surely “departure,” not “deployment”) takes up the use of the word earlier in the chapter (vv. 2, 6).

The final main chapter (“Places in the Wilderness: Geography as Artistry”) takes further Roskop's concern with writers' purposes or “goals” and again breaks valuable new ground in her discussion of particular issues. She is up-to-date on the geographical issues raised by the Exodus sites and Kadesh but again rightly looks beyond them to larger issues, such as the differing concepts of the southern boundary of Canaan in the latter case. Some attention to the Wilderness of Paran as the departure point of the spies in P (Num 13:3; cf. v. 26), not Kadesh, which comes later (20:1), would have been helpful here. An “Epilogue” sums up the main conclusions of the work and briefly addresses some further issues about the composition of the texts. There are useful indexes of authors, biblical references, geographical names and other texts referred to, and several maps and tables clarify the argument.

As indicated above, this is a valuable fresh study of the subject. Opinions may well differ over some aspects of it, such as the assignment of the main sequence of itinerary-notes to P, the treatment of P as a supplement rather than a source (which is no longer as popular as it was twenty years ago) and the view taken of the relationship between Num 33:1–49 and the main narrative. But much of Roskop's argument can stand whatever view is taken on these points and I would myself now lay greater stress than I did in 1975 on the (post-)Priestly revision of Num 33:1–49.[6] There are few misprints: more substantial slips, but still minor ones, are “ninth” for “nineteenth” on p. 66 and the translation of the (restored) preterite ulammidani on p. 73 as a future.

Graham Davies, University of Cambridge

[1] Graham Davies, “The Wilderness Itineraries in the Old Testament” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1975). reference

[2] M. S. Smith, The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus (JSOTSup, 239; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 290–98; B. E. Scolnic, Theme and Content in Biblical Lists (South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 119; Atlanta: Scholars, 1995). reference

[3] M.5431; published by F. Joannès in D. Charpin and F. Joannès (eds.), La circulation des biens, des personnes et des ideés dans le Proche-Orient ancien (ARAI, 38; Paris: Éditions Recherches sur les Civilisations, 1992), 185–93. reference

[4] DeZ 2521; published by W. Röllig in Damaszener Mitteilungen 1 (1983), 280–84. reference

[5] With valuable reference to A. J. Spalinger, Aspects of the Military Documents of the Ancient Egyptians (YNER, 9; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982). reference

[6] See my “The Wilderness Itineraries and Recent Archaeological Research,” in J.A. Emerton (ed.), Studies in the Pentateuch (VTSup, 41; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 161–75 (172–4). reference