This volume is the culmination of Mary Douglas’s 1989 Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh. As a social anthropologist, she brings a unique and illuminating perspective to the book of Numbers. The overarching argument of the volume is that the Numbers reflects the artistic and sophisticated political protestations of a priestly minority in the Persian province Yehud in the 5th century BCE. Ultimately, by employing refined literary and compositional structures, the redactors of Numbers argue for an inclusive reformulation of post-exilic Jewish life, a position that is diametrically opposed to the exclusivist perspective of the Persian appointed leadership. In contrast to the editors of Numbers, Douglas suggests that Ezra and Nehemiah argue for a society that excludes foreign wives, Samaritans, and those who remained in the land during the exile. Following, but gently critiquing the likes of Max Weber, she asserts that the leaders of the Yehud utilise ritual defilement as a means of gaining political power and regaining wealth. The book of Numbers embodies a priestly response to this dominating ideology.
Douglas begins making her case by exploring the contribution of social anthropology to biblical studies and discussing defilement in a religious context as ‘taboo.’ Based on this perspective she suggests that the biblical purity codes were designed to empower the priesthood and justify their pre-eminence in affairs of state (p. 38). It is, in part, the usurping of the defilement and purity by Ezra/Nehemiah that prompts a priestly response. In effect, the editors of Numbers attempt to “constrain a populist xenophobia” (p. 39). Another prolegomenon that Douglas examines is the phenomenon and interrelation of enclave and hierarchical cultures, suggesting that the priesthood was a hierarchical minority surrounded by a populist religious enclave (Yehud). She concludes her introduction by mapping the hierarchical culture of the priesthood onto the Deuteronomic History.
Next, Douglas explores the complex and integrated literary structure of Numbers. She rejects the likes of Noth and Welhausen who argue that redaction is identified by the clumsiness of editing. Douglas argues for the coherence of Numbers by noting the long tradition of learning and text production to which the Priestly redactors were heirs, by appealing to the common knowledge to mythic literary forms, and by observing Numbers’s reliance upon the structure of Genesis. For her, Numbers is a complicated, but coherent piece of literary art.
This literary art is reflected in Numbers’s macrostructure. Douglas identifies seven narrative panels that are sequentially interrupted by six sections of legal discourse. The coherence between these panels is multifaceted and moves vertically, horizontally, and circularly around her “parallel rungs.” This diagram (pp. 117-118), a visual summary of her literary analysis, is unpacked using various test cases for the majority of the volume (chapter 6-11). These test cases climax in her handling of the Balaam and Balak story (Num 22-24). She postulates that the story is political satire in which Balaam’s ass is a metaphor for Israel and Balaam for the Persian appointed governors of the Yehud: the people see that they are being driven to destruction by their leaders and are suffering for it; ultimately they will be vindicated by God. This is the commanding perspective of Numbers.