Review of K. E. Pomykala, Israel in the Wilderness: Interpretations of the Biblical Narratives in Jewish and Christian Traditions

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Pomykala, Kenneth E. ed., Israel in the Wilderness: Interpretations of the Biblical Narratives in Jewish and Christian Traditions (TBN 10; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. xii+246, Hardcover. US$148.00, ISBN 98-90-04-16424-6.

This collection of articles is the fruit of several years of the Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity section convened at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, and the latest in a Brill series dealing with exegetical motifs from the Hebrew Scriptures. The present volume examines the pentateuchal wilderness themes and various related traditions from the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, largely dealing with the history of their reception and interpretation in early Judaism and Christianity.

The volume begins with an essay by Won Lee—the only to deal exclusively with the pentateuchal accounts—which undertakes a literary-structural analysis of the wilderness narratives grounded in a canonical reading. Though Lee does not state his main point up front, and thus leaves the reader wondering why he is spending so much time examining various structuring possibilities, his conclusion is interesting and worth consideration: that Deuteronomy's conception of the wilderness as a series of major crises and resolutions differs markedly from its role in Exodus-Numbers, as a locus of God's punishment and forgiveness. In its canonical context, argues Lee, the deuteronomic view conditions the earlier account.

Kenneth Pomykala explores Ben-Sira's presentation of the covenant of high priesthood made with Phinehas. Through a careful, instructive reading of the pertinent passages in Ben-Sira, Pomykala first demonstrates how the biblical text was read and extended to support the Zadokite high-priesthood, and secondarily how the Greek translation of Sirach recast the earlier Hebrew version to fit a new historical situation in which the Zadokite line was defunct, ousted by its Hasmonean successors. The clarity and structure of this essay are excellent, and it provides a fine example of how scriptural exegesis and its historical-social setting are closely related.

The biblical wilderness motif and its reception in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the focus of Alison Schofield's article. Interacting with Talmon's classic essay on the wilderness motif, Schofield guides readers through the ways in which wilderness functions in both the Hebrew Bible and the Scrolls. Though she mentions the negative aspects of the motif, the brunt of her analysis falls on the location's positive portrayal as a symbolic and literal place of revelation and preparation for the covenanters.

Louis Feldman contributes a previously published piece on Philo's interpretation of Korah—the Levite who challenges Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16—in his trademark style. In fact, the title is a bit misleading, since the essay vacillates between the varied construals of Josephus, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and “the rabbis”, though Philo provides the base of the discussion. While Josephus and others show marked interest in the character of Korah, Philo never even mentions the rebel's name in his retellings of the episode. Rather, he generalizes (even allegorizes) the account, deploying it as a warning against arrogance, a political illustration of the dangers of leaderless mob rebellion and ochlocracy, and the goodness of sound leadership and established order.

Marc Turnage delves into early Christian and Jewish interpretation of the stories of the bronze serpent and battle against the Amalekites in Numbers 21 and Exodus 17, both of which sought to neutralize an illicit magical understanding of the raised snake and Moses' raised hands. At a basic level this is a helpful introduction to Jewish and Christian exegesis on these passages, but Turnage goes further to hypothesize an early (at least 1st cent. CE) Jewish tradition propounding that neither Moses' hands nor the raised serpent had any power of themselves, but merely served as symbols directing the audience to God. This is preserved in-tact in the Mishnah and various rabbinic midrashic works, but was also adopted independently by the Hellenistic Christian authors of John's Gospel, the Epistle of Barnabas, and Justin's Dialogue with Trypho, all of which gave the symbols a Christological referent: they now point to Christ. The main point is that “Hellenistic Christianity” drew from a Jewish wellspring for the development of some Christological ideas.

The retelling of the Amalekite narratives by Josephus is the topic of a second essay by Feldman. Again, this is a classic example of his methodology, beginning with a comparison of the length of Josephus' retelling in reference to the biblical account, and then going on to a detailed comparative analysis of individual stories. Feldman concludes that Josephus greatly expands on the Amalekite narratives, generally portraying them negatively despite their potential connection to Rome. The role of Moses is aggrandized and miraculous elements are downplayed. Importantly, the divine command to annihilate the Amalekites is eliminated (as opposed to Pseudo-Philo), and re-presented as the sad result of this people's wicked practices, which threatened to “destroy the fundamentals of Judaism” (115). Despite God's (and Moses') preference for mercy, these actions left the Israelites no other option.

Bruce Fisk offers a piece on the exegetical trope of the rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, as recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and in Pseudo-Philo's LAB. Like Turnage, Fisk seeks to go “behind” these attestations of the tradition that a miraculous, water-filled rock accompanied the Israelites on their journey, and to reconstruct the exegetical origin and subsequent development of that tradition. In response to how and (especially) why the “rolling stone” tradition came to be, Fisk marshals six “strands of biblical evidence”. In the end, he does not settle on one of them as the more likely candidate for generating the tradition, but observes that “post-biblical exegetical reflection on Exodus 17 and Numbers 20-21 was already well developed and hermeneutically sophisticated in the 1st century C.E.” (136).

Pseudo-Philo also stands at the center of Judith Newman's essay, which explores the use (or lack thereof) of the divine attribute formula of Ex 34:6-7 in the LAB, and how this contributes exegetically and rhetorically to its portrayal of Moses. Newman's close readings of Moses' prayer before his death and God's response in LAB 19 are well done, and make the point that the divine attribute formula is not used earlier in the work in order to make their deployment in chapter 19 all the more striking and supportive of Moses' exalted status. She also places in relief other important themes employed by Pseudo-Philo, such as the impossibility of Israel truly rupturing their relationship with an ever-faithful God.

Clayton Jefford surveys the apostolic fathers in order to discern how and why they drew on the wilderness narratives. In marked contrast to the New Testament he finds a very limited use of these texts and themes in the fathers, the only significant examples being in 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas. In the former, Jefford perceives a concern over ecclesiastical order and authority, and thus an emphasis on Moses' strong, divinely ordained leadership of the Israelites in the wilderness. In Barnabas, however, the stubborn, unrighteous nature of Israel is highlighted in an effort to elaborate why the covenant is no longer theirs but the newly created church's. Jefford finishes by offering some possible reasons for the drop in use of the wilderness stories in the church, including that the early church desired a “certainty and reassurance” that the lukewarm wilderness narratives did not provide, and especially the transition of the church to a primarily Gentile population that would not have readily identified with these stories. Rather, argues Jefford, the church shifted attention to the more “certain” motif of inheritance of the land of Canaan. I found these suggestions somewhat problematic for multiple reasons, not least the very limited number of texts surveyed. Like Newman's essay, this one would have benefitted from more incorporation of primary texts to allow the reader to better evaluate the argument, rather than simply taking Jefford's word for it.

A reason why one might hesitate over Jefford's conclusions is found in the following essay on the Sinai experience in patristic exegesis by Nicholas Perrin. Here we are surprised indeed to discover that other elements of the wilderness narratives are to be found among a number of early Christian writings. Perrin traces the influence of the curious detail that Israel's clothing did not wear out during its peregrinations (Deut 29:5) through Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Chrysostom, and others, demonstrating how it contributed to early Christian discussions on resurrection, immortality, and the afterlife. Moreover, he suggests that this association of the Sinai generation and the eschatological church is based on the prior analogy of the Eucharist with the life-giving manna afforded Israel in the wilderness. Perrin's article is tightly presented in an easy-to-follow style, and includes ample primary citations.

Susan Graham deploys her expertise on Irenaeus of Lyon to discuss his uncharacteristic attention to the Israelite spying expedition and subsequent rebellion (Numbers 13-14; Deut 1:19-46) in the Epideixis. Moving through the Epideixis via a handful of themes, and drawing attention to the place of this story in the work's broader structure, Graham discusses the multiple ways in which Irenaeus forges a tight, sequential connection between Joshua and Jesus. In this construal, Jesus is seen as the successor and fulfillment of Joshua, who was chosen to lead a rebellious generation into the Promised Land. In this way, Jesus becomes the ultimate Joshua (i.e. “salvation”) for God's people.

The final essay, by Alena Nye-Knutson, surveys the recapitulation of the manna notifications in the targums; specifically Targums Neofiti 1 and Pseudo-Jonathan. Nye-Knutson provides detailed and well-wrought readings of the targums, placing them in the wider scope of recent targumic scholarship and supplying the pertinent original texts in both Aramaic and English. She draws some more general exegetical observations from these texts, but also observes that the expansive targums take manna as a hypostatic agent of divine-human interaction somewhat akin to analogies drawn between manna and the Eucharist in Christian exegesis. In this regard, Perrin's and Nye-Knutson's essays compliment each other nicely.

Taken as a whole, this volume serves as a helpful collection of exempla demonstrating how some early Jewish and Christian individuals or communities used the wilderness narratives to help define their own identities, react to their present circumstances, and interpret later texts. Though the essays are not equal in scope, they all add some color to the rich, diverse picture of ancient biblical exegesis centered on these stories. A final note to readers is that they should be wary of a significant number of typographical errors clustered in the first half of the volume. This is especially true of the Hebrew transcriptions, in which I counted 10 mistakes.

Daniel A. Machiela, McMaster University