Oracular Law & Priestly Historiography
in the Torah

Forchungen zum Alten Testament 2. No.71


By: Simeon Chavel
January 2015
Mohr Siebeck
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9783161533419
361 Pages
$172.50 Paper original


In this study, Simeon Chavel establishes the existence of a distinct type of story within the Torah, the “oracular novella,” traces its contours and poetics, identifies its historical background, and analyzes its use. The oracular novella is a very short story with a legal climax, in which divine adjudication and legislation resolves human complication. In a spartan style, the narrative recounts how an incident or set of circumstances in Israel led through oracular inquiry of Moses to legal resolution by Yahweh. The Torah contains four oracular novellas, all in the Priestly History, two action stories and two situation stories: a man curses Yahweh (Lev 24:10–23), a man gathers wood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32–36), impurity of certain Israelites at the time of the Pesaḥ threatens to cut them off forever (Num 9:1–14), and the name of a man who died without sons to possess his portion in Canaan stands to go to oblivion (Num 27:1–11).

Each utilizes the legal climax differently as an expressive ideological moment; each was composed, incorporated, and revised separately and differently; and each had a different effect on prior and subsequent biblical literature. But all function similarly within the Priestly History to dramatize a set of principles and themes in the immediately preceding divine legislative speeches and divinely directed activities. Ancient court records and biblical materials show the oracular novellas to adapt a form of priestly activity for historiographical purposes. As a group, they illuminate the Priestly History as a narrative founded on a deep and extensive troping of divine will as law and legislation, and highlight how Judean priests cherished oracular inquiry as the nexus of divine and human society.