Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does Boring Mean Historically-Accurate?

I was catching up on my reading of Nick Norelli’s “Bible in a Year” series. On Numbers 7, Nick says the following:

“Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to just say, ‘Each of the 12 tribes gave…’ rather than itemize the same things for every tribe and then add them up at the end? One of the most boring chapters in all the Bible!”

In response to that, Benjamin Smith states: “On the other hand, it does give us more faith in the historicity of the procedure (could anyone make anything so boring up?) ;-)

I disagree with Benjamin on this, for three reasons. First of all, I can think of an ideological or a literary reason that Numbers 7 would go through each tribe and what it gave, one-by-one: perhaps it wanted to honor each tribe individually. People love being singled out and praised. “My turn is next!”, I can envision each tribe saying.

Second, my impression of ancient literature is that it can be boring (by my standards) or repetitive, without necessarily being historically-accurate. I wish that I could come up with more examples of this in my mind, but I can’t right now. I know that one argument conservative scholars have advanced against the Documentary Hypothesis is that ancient literature can be repetitive for rhetorical reasons, and so we shouldn’t assume that the Pentateuch has multiple sources just because it is repetitive. I disagree with this argument about the Pentateuch (since the Pentateuch also appears to have contradictions and different ideologies within it, indicating multiple sources), but I do concur that ancient literature can be repetitive for rhetorical reasons. Some of that literature is historical, and some of it is legend, but I don’t think that its repetitiveness is what places it in either category. Also, what may strike us as boring in a document may have been significant to its writers, compilers, and original audience. For example, I’m not interested in reading all of Marduk’s names and titles in Enuma Elish. But the writer and original audience of Enuma Elish deemed that to be important, perhaps because it was a way to linger in one’s glorification of Marduk. But that does not mean that Enuma Elish is describing what actually happened in history (though its writer may think that it’s doing so, on some level).

Third, I don’t think that the people who wrote and included Numbers 7 did so simply to record history, what really happened. If that were their sole goal, they could have done what Nick says—-”itemize the same things for every tribe and add them up at the end”—-and remained historically accurate. There had to be a reason for the writers and includers to write and include Numbers 7 beyond recording history, for no historian includes every single detail of what happened in the past. Rather, he sifts through the details to determine what is important and what is not. Numbers 7, therefore, is probably in the Pentateuch for an ideological purpose (to go back to my first point).

I’ll stop here because I feel that I’m writing myself into a pit. My overall argument is that something being repetitive and boring does not make it historically-accurate, for there can be an ideological and literary reason that it is repetitive and boring. I also mean no disrespect to Benjamin. I checked out his blog, which shows his commitment to learning about the academic study of the Bible.

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