Thus far in our examination of the book of Numbers we have only looked at passages from the Priestly source, now preserved as the opening of Numbers (Num 1:1-10:28), and how this literature or more appropriately its ideas, beliefs, and even ideologies contradict other textual sources and traditions that went into the making of the Pentateuch. This material is easily identifiable as Priestly based on its unique vocabulary, formulaic style, and emphasis on the Aaronid priesthood, subordination of the Levites (which only occurs in the Priestly source), its concern for issues of purity, contamination, blood, proper expiatory sacrifices, the observance of Yahweh’s appointed times and festivals, the Tabernacle cult and the arrangement of the Israelite encampment around it, etc. Indeed, as textual critics long ago observed, the literature spanning Exodus 25 (minus Ex 32-34) to Numbers 10:28 including the entire book of Leviticus was all penned by the Aaronid priestly guild and displays this priestly guild’s theological beliefs, ideology, and worldview.
Needless to say, the book of Numbers is highly composite. It contains stories from our older sources, the Yahwist and Elohist traditions. These stories preserve distinct traditions about the wilderness period, which were often characterized by the people’s disloyalty and stubborn behavior toward their deity, Yahweh. Although this image too has its contradictory portrait (#124).
At any event, the carefully laid out presentation of the Tent of Meeting and the arrangement of the Israelite camp around it, the subordinate role of the Levites, and issues of purity all neatly presented in Num 1:1-10:28 are completely absent or even negated by later passages in Numbers, that is by traditions from the Yahwist and Elohist sources. We first encounter these traditions, now heavily edited by surrounding priestly material, in Numbers 10:28-16:35. We will take a look at the contradictions created when these traditions were edited together over the next couple of weeks, from minor narrative details to sweeping theological and ideological differences.
One concern that the Priestly writer had when incorporating this older material into the wilderness narrative that he was creating was imposing a chronology and a wildness itinerary to these random traditions. Numbers 33 will be the fullest display of that itinerary, but there are bits and pieces of it to be found throughout Numbers. For example, Numbers 10:12, attributed to P, states that just 20 days after the events of Numbers 1-9 the Israelites set out toward the Wilderness of Paran, northern Sinai. In fact, Num 10:12 even claims that Yahweh has already settled his cloud there, a sign that the Israelites are to stop and set up camp (Num 9:15-23).
But the Elohist material now in Numbers 11-12 has the Israelites marching toward and encamping in Hazoreth, that is still in the Wilderness of Sinai! As one commentator put it, the later Priestly redactor must have been fully aware of this discrepancy and attempted to rectify it by stating as a summation after this Elohist material in verse 12:15 that “only afterward” did the Israelites then embark on their march toward the Wilderness of Paran.
In a later contradiction we will also see that the Wilderness of Sinai was calculated differently by the Priestly writer than it was in these earlier traditions.