D. V. Edelman, P. R. Davies, C. Nihan, and T. Römer, eds., Opening the Books of Moses

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

Edelman, Diana V., Philip R. Davies, Christophe Nihan, and Thomas Römer, Opening the Books of Moses (BibleWorld; Sheffield: Equinox, 2012). Pp. 208. Paperback. US$29.95. ISBN 978-84553-685-5.

Opening the Books of Moses is a composite work by four well-known scholars—Diana V. Edelman, Philip R. Davies, Christophe Nihan, and Thomas Römer. The book is divided into four chapters and includes a useful glossary for undergraduate and entry-level graduate students. The first chapter introduces readers to the authors' task. The second chapter outlines and explains the shape, date, and audience of the Pentateuch. In short, the first two chapters function as the introductory foundation for chapters three and four—the development of the Pentateuch in the Persian period (pp. 51–175).

In chapter 1, a concise overview is provided of the present state of Pentateuchal research. Additionally, the authors use the first chapter to introduce the task of the volume. Agreeing with a relatively new trend in Pentateuchal research, the authors build on the consensus that the Pentateuch is a product created during the Persian period. The authors describe their venture as

A new analysis of the origin and growth of the Pentateuch that reflects the huge changes in scholarship since Noth's work and pays more attention both to the overall shape of the entire structure as a complex of ideological statements and also to the social and religious history of the communities that created these statements, fashioned the completed narrative occupying this sequence of five scrolls, and transformed it into what Judaism inherited (or framed) as “torah,” “teaching.” (p. 3)

The book represents the initial framework for subsequent commentaries on the individual books of the Pentateuch. The future commentaries will not be concerned with traditional approaches (e.g., literary sources, redactional layers, textual variants, and exegesis). The authors of the commentaries will focus primarily on “how” each book relates and contributes to the monotheistic cult of Yahweh in the Persian period.

The primary emphasis of chapter 2 is the “real context” of the Pentateuch. After a brief overview of each book, the authors examine the internal and external indicators and evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch. Concerning the date of the Pentateuch, two guidelines are employed: (1) the biblical text cannot be dated from the probable age of characters and events; and (2) external literary parallels must be used to determine the earliest and latest date possible with priority being given to the later text (p. 34). External evidence suggests a late third century b.c.e. date as the latest possible date of the Pentateuch (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, LXX, Apocrypha, Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus, Demetrius the Chronographer, Hecataeus of Abdera, and Manetho). Internal evidence, particularly Lev 26 and Deut 30, presupposes Babylonian exile and the return to the land. With return from exile presumed, the authors maintain that the Pentateuch was finalized no earlier than the Persian period and did not attain authority until possibly the late fourth century b.c.e. (pp. 39–41).

Beginning in chapter 3, “Yehud in the Persian Period,” the authors provide contextual support for dating the composition of the Pentateuch in the Persian period. In doing so, readers are provided an insightful contextualization of the Persian period with emphasis given to the Jews/Judeans in Yehud, Egypt, and Babylonia. The authors also provide a concise overview of the Samarians in the same period.

Chapter 4 comprises nearly half the length of the book. The emphasis of the chapter is on seven key themes in the Pentateuch: (1) Torah; (2) ethnicity; (3) geography; (4) Yahweh and other deities; (5) theories of the cult in the Pentateuch; (6) treaty, loyalty, oath, and royal grant; and (7) the Torah's central character, Moses. Each theme is examined and discussed through various sub-categories. Due to the depth and scope of this chapter, unique and important facets will be highlighted. Most scholars will agree with the authors' suggestion that the Pentateuch became “the Torah” during fourth century b.c.e. (cf. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles). For the authors, the Torah contains a duality. First, the Torah was probably written in Jerusalem; yet, the composers allowed concessions to be made for the “Yahwistic communities outside Yehud in order to make it acceptable to them” (p. 106). Thus, the Torah and the concessions are for the Yahwists living in Samaria as well as those living in the Diaspora. Naturally, the inclusiveness of the Torah creates an exegetical discussion that extends into the late Persian period (pp. 106–10). Related to the inclusiveness of the Torah are ethnicity and geography. In fact, the authors describe ethnicity as “the goal of the Pentateuch” (p. 112) and geography as the “major narrative theme of the Pentateuch” (p. 122).

The theme, “Yahweh and Other Deities,” is important to the development of the Torah. Israel is identified correctly as being monolatrous rather than monotheist. Before the demise of the monarchy, Yahweh is a conceptual “male god” identified with a given territory and people. When the monarchy collapses, the people disperse and subsequently settle in foreign lands. The worship of Yahweh, however, does not cease with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The continual worship of Yahweh in foreign lands means Israel's god is not limited to a specific geographic location. Thus, Yahweh attains the status of a “universal deity” (pp. 128–36).

The theme of the cult in the Pentateuch plays a prominent role in the basic thesis of the book. For the authors, three ideologies “concerning Israel's veneration of Yahweh” coexist in the Persian period (p. 140). All three ideologies are accepted by the editors of the Pentateuch and interwoven into the “identity of nascent Judaism” (p. 140). The three independent ideologies of the cult and worship are Genesis, Exodus–Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The first two ideologies presuppose the concept of centralization in Deuteronomy (p. 140). To understand the relationship between the three ideologies, the authors suggest a reversal of the canonical order. The concept of centralization in Deuteronomy is reinterpreted by the Persian administration. This reinterpretation allows Jerusalem to become the economic and religious center in the Persian province Yehud. The “name theology” identified as Deuteronomic underscores the reinterpretation of the cult in the Persian period. With Yahweh no longer enthroned, “his statue was never replaced” (p. 142). Thus, Jerusalem with its temple became a symbol of unity for the cult rather than a geographic center. Furthermore, the implications of the Shema (Deut 6:4–9), along with the reading of the law, replace the temple with the home and the sacrifices with the divine word (pp. 141–3).

The ideology of Exodus–Numbers is described best as a “Priestly” work, which accepts the concept of centralization in Deuteronomy; therefore, the wilderness sanctuary is an archetype of the central sanctuary envisioned in Deuteronomy. Thus, Israel is redefined as a “priestly nation” with a “unique god,” which according to the authors makes more sense in the context of the Persian period. The authors explain, “The notion that all peoples are gathered under the supreme authority of one creator god, Ahura Mazda, is a central aspect of imperial Achaemenid propaganda.…From the perspective of the inclusive monotheism promoted by the Priestly scribes, this means Ahura Mazda was probably interpreted as a manifestation of the Jewish deity for all the nations in the Persian empire” (pp. 144–5). The final ideology is presented in the patriarchal traditions in Genesis. When reading these traditions in light of the Persian period, the ideology is in direct contrast to the Deuteronomic mandate of centralization. That Abraham and Jacob worship Yahweh at various altars and locations (e.g., Shechem, Bethel, and Mamre/Hebron) is antithetical to the centralization concept. On the other hand, Abraham and Jacob never actually sacrifice animals, which coincides with the Deuteronomic concession of sacrifices only at the central sanctuary (p. 146).

With the last theme, the authors suggest that Moses is aligned with the Deuteronomic school, particularly since Deuteronomy is written from the perspective of Moses. If true, the other contrasting ideologies aid in suggesting that Moses is not a historical figure. Thus, the story of Moses is a constructed “counter-history in reaction to Assyrian propaganda” during the seventh century b.c.e. Within the Persian period, the “anthology of Moses traditions” is woven together into a composite “symbol of the new religion called Judaism” (p. 175).

For a relatively short book, Opening the Books of Moses covers a vast amount of material. As with any book several critical remarks are in order. Before doing so, however, it should be noted that some readers might not accept the minimalist undertones presented in this book. This is not a critique of the book, but rather a disclaimer for individuals interested in reading the book based on the title (see my second critique). My first point has to do with the book's intended audience. Diana Edelman, the project coordinator, expressly wishes that Opening the Books of Moses “be used by undergraduates and interested non-specialists” (p. i). Since the book introduces the Pentateuch through a Persian lens, I think undergraduate students would benefit from a concise overview of other scholarly works dealing with the Pentateuch in the Persian period. The authors do provide a brief discussion on the topic, albeit halfway into the book (p. 104ff.). Undergraduate students might find the arguments and concepts discussed in the book more conceivable and sustainable if compared to other scholarly arguments. Second, the title of the book is somewhat misleading since little information is given about the content and critical issues related to the “books of Moses.” Thus, I recommend a general introduction to the Pentateuch be used to supplement Opening the Books of Moses. This critique is not saying the authors failed in attaining their goal, though, for the authors provide a well-researched and informative introduction to the Pentateuch through a Persian lens. The third critique is minor. The reader is never informed who wrote each section. This might seem trivial, but it would help the reader identify arguments and theories across various writings of the individual authors. In closing, the authors provide readers with a thoroughgoing introduction to interpreting the Pentateuch through a Persian lens. Undergraduates and entry-level graduation students will benefit from the authors' detailed and, yet, careful presentation.

Jeffrey G. Audirsch, Shorter University