Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Jan A. Wagenaar, Origin and Transformation of the Ancient Israelite Festival Calendar (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 6; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005). Pp. x + 225. Cloth, UK£68,00. ISBN 3-447-05249-X.

It is well-known to scholars of the Hebrew Bible that the Israelite festival calendar(s) had a significant place in Julius Wellhausen's reconstruction of the history of Israelite religion. This book provides a thorough re-examination of the origin and development of the Israelite festival calendar(s), critiquing what Wagenaar terms the “Wellhausian construction” (p. ix) while remaining firmly committed to the basic Wellhausian project of relating questions about the composition of the Pentateuch to questions about the history of Israelite religion.

At the heart of the work is the thesis that the Israelite calendar did not undergo a process of gradual denaturation and historicisation, as Wellhausen proposed. Rather, a crucial innovation occurred during the exilic period, which altered the structure of the festival calendar, and led to a transformation in the nature of its agricultural orientation. The pre-exilic (“pre-priestly”) festival calendars (Exod 23:14-19; 34:18-26; Deut 16:1-17) had a tripartite structure, and festivals were dated flexibly in relation to the agricultural seasons. The exilic innovation that transformed the Israelite festival calendar appears in the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 45:18-20, 21a, 22-25), and involved the adoption of a calendar structured around semi-annual festivals at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (on the model of the Babylonian calendar). Subsequently, priestly tradents created a festival calendar (found now in the oldest portions of Exod 12:1-13 and Leviticus 23) that embodied this structure. Post-priestly editors revised this calendar to incorporate elements of the pre-priestly tripartite calendar, this process of revision culminating with the sacrificial calendar now found in Numbers 28-29. However, the basic disconnection from the agricultural cycle remained, most clearly manifest in the relocation of Pesah-Massot from the second month of a vernal year to the first month, with attendant disconnection of the festival of Shabuot from its original close relationship with the cereal harvest.

This well-written and lucid new engagement with long-standing questions merits the attention of anyone interested in the history of Israelite religion and the formation of the Pentateuch. In particular, Chapter 1 of the work, which treats the relationship between the agricultural seasons and the festival calendar, will have to be taken seriously by future students of the festival calendars. In it, Wagenaar demonstrates the importance of making use of the best available data on when various agricultural activities would have been performed in ancient Israel, and how such agricultural activities might have related to festival observances. Of particular significance is his persuasive argument that “Abib” refers to a season, the beginning of the barley harvest, and that this season occurs in the second month of a vernal year, not the first. Thus, he concludes, the pre-priestly festival calendars dated Pesah-Massot to the second month of the vernal year, in contrast to the priestly and post-priestly calendars, which date these observances in the first month. Scholars have erred in simply equating Abib with the first month of the priestly calendar (=Nisan), with resultant misunderstanding of the nature of Pesah-Massot in the pre-priestly calendars.

Many elements of Wagenaar's reconstruction of the development of the festival calendar are persuasive. He makes a strong case for the Pesah legislation in Deuteronomy 16 being older than the unleavened bread material. It also appears likely that Ezekiel's festival calendar is older than any of the priestly calendrical material. I was also persuaded by his argument that Numbers 28-29 represents the latest stratum of calendrical legislation in the Pentateuch.

Even in cases where Wagenaar's arguments are not so convincing, they are clearly presented, solidly supported, and highly stimulating. For example, his rethinking of assumptions about the relationship of the ritual eating of unleavened bread to the agricultural cycle—must such an action necessarily be regarded as part of a cereal harvest festival? However, I remain unconvinced by his argument that the observance is a creation of the Yahwist directly tied to the exodus narrative and created as a conscious alternative to Pesah. The Yahwist's etiology of the eating of unleavened bread (Exod 12:33-34, 39) seems like a strained post-facto explanation rather than an etiology intrinsic to the practice, for it implies not barley bread, which is normally eaten unleavened (as Wagenaar helpfully explains), but rather dough which would have leavened had there been enough time for it to do so. Moreover, attendant to the positive command to eat unleavened bread is a forceful ban on leaven, which seems to come with no explanation related to the exodus. Wagenaar does not, in my view, sufficiently address this side of the unleavened bread legislation. Thus, it seems that the Yahwist is trying to make sense of and historicize (in a forced way) a pre-existing practice. This objection to Wagenaar's argument, I would hasten to add, does not necessarily weaken his larger argument that the original Deuteronomic calendar lacked a festival of unleavened bread. It simply extends Wagenaar's very important methodological insight that we should not assume that the absence or presence of any particular calendrical element reflects a simple linear chronology. Rather, practices appeared, disappeared, and reappeared as the calendars developed.

William K. Gilders, Emory University