The New Century Bible Commentary: Numbers

Written by Eryl W. Davies Reviewed By Timothy R. Ashley

Davies’s book replaces one-half of Norman Snaith’s New Century Bible volume on Leviticus and Numbers (1967). The volume contains a helpful 28-page bibliography (pp. xiv–xli), followed by a 25-page introduction to critical issues, and over 350 pages of commentary. The text is, curiously, based on what is now the oldRevised Standard Version rather than the New rsv.

Davies, like Snaith, adopts the documentary hypothesis as the model through which he explains the composition and growth of the book of Numbers. The P or Priestly source (early post-exilic period) is the source of over three-quarters of the text. P is both a source and a redactional layer that ‘consists both of indigenous Priestly material and a revision of earlier traditions’ (p. 1). Davies also finds earlier, non-Priestly material which he calls J (predates the fall of Samaria in 721 bc). Although J and P are ‘interwoven’, Davies does not tell us who is responsible for the final form of the book. The case for earlier materials in the book is dismissed in one paragraph (pp. xlix–1).

As far as the structure of Numbers is concerned, although Davies discusses other proposals, he opts for the traditional view, which divides the book by the geography: 1:1–10:10 (the sojourn at Sinai), 10:11–22:1 (from Sinai to the Plains of Moab), 22:2–36:13 (preparations for entry into the land of Canaan).

The overarching theme of the book is ‘Israel’s journey to the promised land’ (p. liii). Numbers’ religious contributions are its views on the land of Canaan, the priests and Levites and purity and holiness. Davies is very cautious about the value of the book for reconstructing even a broadly accurate picture of life before the settlement of the Hebrews in Canaan. He is willing to grant that some texts may contain some historical reminiscences of such a time (p. lxix), but he does not tell us which texts these might be. The theological reflection in the commentary proper is found within individual passages rather than under separate headings.

The most serious flaw in the commentary is Davies’s tacit assumption that the primary locus of meaning for the book is in the pre-existent sources and their combination at the hands of various editors, rather than in the Hebrew text ‘in final form’. This assumption leads to a good deal of discussion in the commentary proper on the question of sources and their combination. He tends to discuss narratives with apparent disunities, repetitions, etc., as a combination of two or more disparate sources rather than as unified narratives with literary complexities (see, e.g., the so-called ‘ordeal of jealousy’ (5:11–31), the ‘rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram’ (English 16:1–50), or the Balaam narratives (chs 22–24)). Davies spends less time explaining how the text as a whole is to be understood than in trying to understand parts of the text in isolation from one another. Most texts have some kind of sources. The present reviewer is not convinced that the combination of these putative sources is a process that can be recovered, nor that it impacts the meaning of the present text to the extent that Davies seems to think. The primary locus of meaning in a text is, rather, the whole text whatever its source(s).

Having passed that rather negative judgement on the standpoint of the volume, I hasten to add that, from within this standpoint, Davies’s detailed comments on particular words and phrases in the book of Numbers are sensible, balanced and give a fair assessment of much modern scholarly work. Some evangelicals will probably be unconvinced by his easy dismissal of a historical basis to the book, and such commentaries as Wenham’s Tyndale OT Commentary or (dare I say it) the New International Commentary on the OT volume may be more appropriate longer commentaries for such readers. Davies’s commentary is much more readable than Budd’s Word Biblical Commentary volume, from more or less the same standpoint.

Timothy R. Ashley

Acadia University, Wolfville, NS, Canada