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

Boorer, Suzanne, The Vision of the Priestly Narrative: Its Genre and Hermeneutics of Time (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016). Pp. 636. Hardcover. US$109.95. ISBN: 9789884140641.

Many have attempted to define the extent of the P-source of the Pentateuch and have argued at length for a particular date and provenance. Boorer's project is far more ambitious. She distinguishes herself by offering a comprehensive picture of P's message, grounded in its genre and hermeneutics of time. She begins with source criticism (an enterprise she admits is somewhat circular and tentative) and moves into biblical theology.

After an extensive survey of other views on the extent and message of P in chapter 1, Boorer defends her view that Pg (or the Priestly Grundschrift) was an independent composition rather than a redactional strand. She explores the “theological horizon of P” by attending to its genre and hermeneutics of time, especially in Exodus–Numbers, with somewhat less attention to Genesis (p. 34; see p. 89 for a full list of the texts she attributes to Pg). Boorer concludes that the non-P texts in the vicinity of Pg pre-date P, and therefore that Pg represents a substantial revision of the tradition.

Chapter 2 surveys views on P's literary structure, including Blenkinsopp, Lohfink, Zenger, Weimar, Steck, Blum, Carr, Ska, de Pury, and Nihan. What unites all these approaches is their attention to structural markers as well as parallels in language and motif. Boorer's proposal combines these, giving special attention to the contrast between the world and Israel, Israel's ancestors and Israel's nationhood.

In chapter 3, Boorer offers a linear account of the theological import of Pg that reads like a biblical theology, packed with insightful observations regarding the narrative arc. Even those unconvinced by her arguments concerning the parameters of Pg will find this section useful. Two major parallels Boorer identifies are the creation of the nation of Israel culminating in the sanctuary vis à vis the creation of the world, and the destruction of that generation in the wilderness vis à vis the flood. These parallels stop short of Israel's entrance into the land, which creates a sense of expectation for how things will play out.

Boorer surveys how a half-dozen scholars characterize Pg's genre, noting that divergent assumptions regarding ANE genres result in different conclusions about P. For Boorer, although attention to the genre of ANE texts is illuminating, any conclusions regarding the function of such texts is speculative. She advocates a reading of Pg that acknowledges its unique hermeneutics of time—a collapsing of past, present, and future in such a way that readers are invited to participate in history as well as envision a paradigm for the future.

The heart of Boorer's argument comes in chapter 4, a 230-page chapter where she systematically examines texts belonging to Pg in order to describe their function. Boorer consistently lays out her case, which is followed by a summary and restatement of her findings in the conclusion of each section. For Boorer, Pg functions paradigmatically by situating timeless ritual texts such as the Passover and the tabernacle instructions in narrative contexts. The detailed Passover instructions most likely “reflect ongoing contemporary practice” (p. 232). This liturgical text and its frame—signs and wonders (Exod 7–11) and the sea episode (Exod 14)—share several key features: YHWH's control, the “undoing of creation” (p. 282), YHWH's victory over the gods of Egypt, Egyptians' encounter with YHWH, Israel's liberation. The overall effect of Pg in Exod 7–14 is that future generations who perform the Passover ritual become participants in the story of the defeat of YHWH's enemies and the deliverance of the oppressed.

The hermeneutics of time in Exod 16–Num 27 achieves a similar effect; the detailed tabernacle instructions invite readers to visualize sacred space. The lengthy, ritualized description of Aaron's clothing “engenders in its audience a visual, imaginative experience that suspends time into a kind of timelessness” while underscoring the importance of Aaron's mediatory role (p. 348). The priestly ordination text has a similar effect.

Boorer also compares Pg's account of events with non-P in the narrative frame of the Sinai pericope and identifies emerging patterns. For example, Pg's account of Moses' commission is more streamlined and takes place in Egypt. The focus is on YHWH's self-revelation in connection with the patriarchs, the promise of land, and the deliverance from Egypt. When this commission is considered in light of Pg's portrayal of the wilderness events on the other side of Sinai, we see that Num 13–14, 20 and 27 reverse all that has been promised. The people reject the land, reject YHWH's presence in their midst, and reject the Exodus. Accordingly, Exod 1–40 depicts Israel's creation as a nation, while Num 13–27 depicts its destruction. The Passover ritual and the establishment of sacred space in the tabernacle are the two centerpieces of Israel's birth as a nation. Because these two episodes are portrayed in a timeless way, any generation can recover and re-enact the creation of the true nation. The absence of ritual in Num 13–27 constitutes a rejection of ritual that brings about the destruction of the nation.

Chapter 5 reintroduces the cosmic backdrop of these ritual centerpieces by tracing the historiographical trajectory of the framing narratives. The covenant promises of descendants, land, and YHWH as their God are all unrealized in Pg, which leaves the whole with a visionary, forward pointing quality.

Chapter 6 concludes the work by suggesting how the original exilic or post-exilic audience would have received Pg. The narrative would not only shape the community's identity, but would also necessitate ritual action as “the means of fully embodying the vision of the nation's creation and identity,” without which it is not possible to be Israel (p. 505). Pg's timeless vision remains available for any generation to embody and ritually enact or to reject.

I close with two critiques and a question. Boorer is a careful communicator, but at times her sentences are unwieldy. Take, for example, the sentence spanning nine lines of text on page 456. A chapter of over 200 pages tests the endurance of any reader. A paragraph with ten instances of “paradigmatic” feels too heavy (p. 500). The final chapter restates what has already been said repeatedly. A large percentage of her paragraphs in this chapter begin almost identically (“In moving on…,” “In moving through…,” “Moving on…,” “Moving through…,” and so on). Her argument could have been significantly more concise.

My second critique is more specific. Boorer's account of the “tensions” between P and non-P material in Exod 12 may benefit from attention to figurative language (see pp. 225 and 227). To one not trained in source criticism, her argument seems circular. How does one avoid imposing modern standards of non-contradiction on ancient texts for whose readers these “tensions” may not have registered?

Finally, my question: If Pg has such a distinctive and coherent vision of Israel's history, why would its producers be content to embed it in the less coherent non-P material? Does this not obscure Pg's message?

In the end, Boorer has made a fine contribution to the guild, which I suspect will stimulate much further discussion.

Carmen Joy Imes, Prairie College