Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Canonical Shape of Leviticus and Numbers

Before I continue my thread on Childs' understanding of 'canonical shaping', I'd like to point out why I am doing this. For many these observations are now passé; the focus on the final form of the text has become a standard methodological assumption for many in the biblical guild. What I am concerned to demonstrate is not so much what the final from of the Pentateuch is, but rather the way in which Childs grounds his focus on this form. Despite a growing number of 'final form' approaches, there remains diversity concerning the nature of this final form, how one should read it and the theological/philosophical justifications for such an interpretative move. The early statements made by Childs here (1972), as far as I can see, remained with him throughout his career (though in modified form) and make his approach distinctive to later postmodern and postliberal approaches. Despite claims to the contrary, Childs never rejects the diachronic dimension of the text, both as a fact and as an interpretative guide. Childs never claimed that the Bible creates a hermetically sealed narrative universe which both 'swallows' up our world and is resistant to insights from outside the text. Childs never rejects authorial intentionality as significant for interpretation, though he certainly modifies it. He never rejects the 'happendness' of events as significant to faith, though their relationship to our faith is nuanced.

I hope that the brief summary of his 1972 essay gives a flavour of his approach, though it clearly raises many questions and thus nicely anticipates his more developed formulations from later in his career.

So, onwards with the Pentateuch. After Genesis and Exodus we come to Leviticus and Numbers:

Critical scholarship has characterized the priestly legislation of these books as one of the most extreme examples of historical fiction. A great deal of late material, much of which is post-exilic, has been joined to the Sinai material. Yet the canonical form of Leviticus and Numbers links these books to the same setting as the last half of Exodus. The directions for cultic worship are closely joined to the Sinai legislation. The result is that a witness is given that the institutions and rites which determine how Israel is properly to worship God stem from the revelation of God. Israel's cult is not her own invention. The canonical shape provides a critical theological judgement against any reading of the tradition which would isolate the priestly elements of the tradition from the so-called prophetic.

Again, the priestly material is dominated by the demand on Israel to comply to the holiness of God, a witness included by the canonical shape with the Sinai legislation. As a result, the presence of God which once dwelt on Sinai now accompanies Israel in the tabernacle. What once happened at Sinai is continued for the later generations of Israel in the tabernacle. The canonical redaction shaped the tradition in order to serve as Scripture for the use of later Israel. It offered a theological interpretation of the Sinai covenant. When the historical critics remove the Priestly material and assign it to the post-exilic age, then the major theological testimony of the canon is jeopardized.

No comments: