Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Pressler, Carolyn, Numbers (AOTC; Nashville: Abingdon, 2017). Pp. xvii + 323. Paperback. US $39.99. ISBN 978-1-5018-4653-3.

As part of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series, Pressler sets out to fulfill the goals of the series by providing a compact and critical Old Testament commentary for university students and teachers in congregations. The volume reaches these aims with ease, offering clearly structured comments and suggestive directions for intertwining the ancient contexts with current concerns.

The introduction posits the overarching genre of “family history” (p. 1) as the catch-all container for the Pentateuch at large and the book of Numbers in particular. This analogy allows Pressler to integrate diachronic and synchronic perspectives fairly seamlessly into her presentation. She specifically identifies three different contexts of interpretation that then structure her analysis of each chapter of the biblical book: the literary, the historical, and the interpreter's. She identifies the literary as the place of Numbers within the Pentateuch, the historical as post-Deuteronomistic late Priestly material from the early Persian period, and her own as a North-American woman teaching at a progressive, ecumenical Christian seminary (p. 8).

The analysis moves quite easily through the categories of literary analysis, exegetical analysis, and theological and ethical analysis in the discussion of each chapter (sometimes half of a chapter, sometimes one chapter, and sometimes two chapters at once) of the biblical book, which in some way mirrors those set out in the introduction (the exegetical does not strictly accord with the historical category in the introduction, though there is significant overlap). For example, her treatment of Num 16–17 shows the value of noting the position of these chapters after ch. 15, which commands all Israelites to be holy, for ch. 16–17 place a check on the egalitarian distribution of holiness in ch. 15. The discussion then moves to show the composite nature of the chapters, comparing them to a “doubly exposed” picture (p. 141). After detailing the battles for authority in these chapters, the “theological and ethical analysis” concludes that “Watching three extended families go screaming down into Sheol does not convince the congregation that Moses and Aaron have unquestionable divine authority…What leads Israel to accept the divine authorization of Aaron's leadership is in fact a far more peaceful event: the sprouting of Aaron's staff” (p. 157). The discussion therefore grounds its theological and ethical reflections deeply in the text, providing readers with a masterful example for their own interpretative work.

Pressler's discussion shows its strength in its sensitivity to a range of interpretive perspectives that could serve to alter the meaning of the text in drastic ways. She notes that Num 27:1–11 (the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad) appears to embody feminist concerns in granting the first land rights to a group of unmarried women (p. 240). However, she also highlights the fact that these women receive land on which Canaanites—including Canaanite daughters and wives—still live, thus casting a dark shadow over the feminist point of view (p. 247). As she concludes, the latter view does not cancel out the former, but it does invite humility in interpretation (p. 248). Similar helpful directions occur in, for example, the discussion of Num 34, concerning the boundaries of the land. Pressler uses the utopian nature of these boundaries—which match the extent of Egypt's control of the Levant—to consider the land as a form of involuntary reparations paid by Egypt to Israel for their 400-year service in Egypt. Combining this observation with the problematic nature of appropriating the lands of other peoples then leads to the question, “What reparations are owed indigenous peoples who have been occupied and colonized?” (p. 302), an imminently relevant issue today.

While the commentary fits brilliantly for the intended audience(s), more specific attention to, and hermeneutical reflections on, elements of literary continuation (Fortschreibung) present an aspect of critical scholarship that may prove beneficial for her readership. Perhaps due in part to the absence in the bibliography and discussion of Simeon Chavel's Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah and Reinhard Achenbach's Die Vollendung der Tora, the commentary does not offer significant consideration of the interpretive moves made in the book of Numbers in its reception of earlier (especially Pentateuchal) texts.[1] The discussion of Num 9:1–14 (Second Passover; also e.g., ch. 31) does make an initial move in this direction by calling the discussion “innovative” (p. 71) and stating, “That this great central ritual was open to innovations illuminates the dynamic nature of priestly law” (p. 74). This remark undoubtedly demonstrates that the law is, as she states, “responsive to the people's needs” rather than wooden. However, discussion of how Numbers' texts innovate could open up the profound nature of many of the texts in the book.

Without a doubt Pressler provides an articulate, readable, sensitive, and scholarly-informed reading of Numbers that introduces its readers to the significant discussions of the literature, politics, history, theology, and ethics arising in the book of Numbers. She deftly interweaves literary and historical concerns, displaying a skill that students and teachers would be well served to emulate.

Peter Altmann, University of Zurich

[1] Simeon Chavel, Oracular Law and Priestly Historiography in the Torah (FAT, II/71; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014); and Reinhard Achenbach, Die Vollendung der Tora: Studien zur Redaktionsgeschichte des Numeribuches im Kontext von Hexateuch und Pentateuch (BZABR, 3; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2003). reference