And Moses wrote down their route according to their points of departure by Yahweh’s word. (Num 33:2)
Although there is no verse in the Torah that explicitly contradicts the claim made here in Numbers 33:2, there is nonetheless implicit support for drawing this claim into question by pinning it against other, and variant, itinerary traditions of the Torah that were also allegedly written by word of Yahweh, and which contradict and/or disagree with the itinerary stops listed in Numbers 33. I will be posting these contradictions over the course of this and next week. But there are other indicators as well.
First, a quick glance at Numbers 33 reveals that it was written in the 3rd person: “And they traveled. . .” If these stops had been written down by Moses at all we would expect to find the 1st person singular or plural being used. As the case is, we have an omniscient neutral 3rd person narrator—a literary convention of its own—who was not a part of the events described.
Second, the language, syntax, and Hebrew of this 3rd person narrator exhibit the same features as found in other texts identified as having been written by the 6th-4th century Aaronid priestly guild. Unique Priestly expressions include: “by the hand of Moses and Aaron“; “judgements on their gods”; “in the plains of Moab by the Jordan toward Jericho”; and other locales not mentioned in the non-P strata of Exodus–Numbers, such as “Succoth,” “Pi-Hahiroth,” “the wilderness of Sin,” “Dophkah,” etc.
Additionally, the fact that this itinerary doesn’t have the Israelites stop at Kadesh until the 40th year (vv. 36-38) is also a unique feature of the Priestly source (see #260-261), and so too are the mention of Aaron’s death at Hor in the 40th year and the fact that the Israelites travel through Edom and Moab, not around them as in the non-P material of Numbers 20-21 (see #268, #275, #281).
Third, many of the place names listed in Numbers 33 are anachronistic if one reads verse 2 at face value. In other words, most of the geography mapped out in this chapter exhibit knowledge of the Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian delta region, and/or Transjordan as it was known to much later generations—centuries later!
Fourth, and perhaps the most weighty of the evidence against a face-value reading of verse 2 is the simple recognition and acknowledgment of the literary conventions, techniques, and tropes ancient Near Eastern scribes used when composing their texts. Presenting a narrative, law code, commandments, the selection or denigration of specific groups, the appointment of monarchs, the right to conquer and own lands, etc. as something written down “by the word of God” was a common literary convention employed throughout the ancient world. I don’t have the time to engage in researching this at the moment, but examples off the top of my head include: Hammurabi’s writing of the law code per the word of Shamash, the selection of kings per the word of Marduk in Babylonian traditions, the conquest and ownership of northern Moab per the word of Chemosh (against the word of Yahweh), the use of medicine per the word of Asclepius in Greek tradition, the writing of sections of the Qur’an per the word of Allah, etc.
I need not remind readers of the real and potential dangers associated with individuals who are ignorant of these ancient literary conventions and thus read them at face-value! One of the main aims of this blog is to educate about ancient literature and thus understand the literary conventions that scribes used in the ancient world.
But besides knowledge about ancient literature, the real evidence that speaks against claims of divine authorship as we find in Num 33:2 are the Torah’s textual traditions themselves. In this specific case we will see that there are other traditions that also claimed to have been written down by divine authority and which contradict the itinerary given here in Numbers 33. Either Yahweh has lied in these different circumstances, doesn’t know himself, or we have scribes writing per an ancient literary convention, each attempting to authenticate what they write through divine appeals. The latter here is not only the more reasoned conclusion but the one with the most textual data as well.