Saturday, December 23, 2006

Best Books of 2006: Scripture #1

At the risk of this year's list being a carbon copy of last year's, I nominate yet another of Mary Douglas' excellent studies, In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers.

It would be odd for me not to, since it is an even better book than Leviticus as Literature, in my estimation.
This is the earlier of the two books as well, and contains a highly useful anthropological set-up which has exercised my own thoughts on the current situation of the Church and of the different arrangements possible for monastic and religious life (I am presently wondering, for example, if sarabaites of RB 1 might actually be sectarians rather than the cozy bachelors I've always assumed they were). In the process, she again does a great deal of heavy lifting to rehabilitate the Second Temple priesthood in Judaism, and by extension, the institution of the priesthood in the Church (this is not her intention, merely a consequence of her analysis of organizations).
Her argument is something to this effect: when a large group of Judeans was carried off into exile in Babylon, many of the old priestly families were left behind in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Being 'aristocrats' and part of a historical hierarchy, these men and their families and neighbors utilized ritual law as a means of broad inclusion and reconciliation (she notes, impressively, that the book of Numbers, much like the rest of the Torah, is concerned with moral defilement and not defilement by contact with outsiders).
When Ezra, Nehemiah and their gang returned to Jerusalem, they did so (according to Douglas) with a sectarian or enclavist mindset. They wanted to redefine the heirs of the covenant to be only those of the tribe of Judah. Hence all foreign wives must be put away, and the overtures of the Samaritans, who claim to worship the same God, must be treated as treachery (see Ez. 4: 1-3). Douglas notes with keen insight that the authority for this judgement is not God but the king of Persia! Ezra and Nehemiah surprisingly come off as heavies. In fact, Douglas goes so far as to claim that Balaam is a spoof of Nehemiah, the real foreigner sent by a pagan king. Similarly the rebellion of Korah suggests the folly of a priesthood yoked to secular authority, such as was urged by Nehemiah.
Most scholars agree today that the final edition of the book of Numbers was completed shortly after the Exile by a priestly team. Douglas argues, again most impressively, that far from being the 'junk room of the Bible' (Wellhausen's estimation), Numbers is carefully contructed in alternating sections of narrative and law. These alternations allow the careful reader to interpret sections by other sections, with persuasive results (though admittedly, one wonders why no one else has done this in 2500 years!).
The very fact that Moses numbers all twelve tribes several times in the book is significant. It is a clear proof that the heirs of the covenant include all twelve tribes, not only Judah, as Ezra claimed.
Douglas recognizes that her book is daring, even perhaps a bit ungrateful to the Biblical scholars who have assisted her in this field (She writes, with self-mockery, "since the year one we have "all been marching out of step, except our Mary."'). Critics of her approach there are, but most of them that I have read acknowledge that she is on to something. Her structural and cultural approach do open up new avenues of understanding texts that are typically considered opaque. Before concluding, I must admit that each of her books works better for me as a kind of poetry than as tight scholarship. She offers new ways of knowing a text, even if her conclusions at times are based more on her own ingenuity than on the text itself (in Chicago Franciscan Lester Grabbe's considered opinion). As one who does more lectio than critical scholarship and who frequents the thoughts of the Fathers and Rabbis, I don't see much to criticize about even these supposed shortcomings.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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