The Priestly Narrative: A Hebrew Edition with English Translation and Introduction

(Proposal under review)

Although scholars ferociously debate every aspect of the composition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), one of the shared conclusions of scholarship over the last two centuries has been the identification of a discrete stratum of the Pentateuch, which has been labeled “priestly.” The description of this stratum as priestly is due in large part to its consistent attention to ritual and cultic matters. Far from a disjointed list of sacrificial rituals or cultic law, however, the priestly pentateuchal text is a narrative composition that tells its own version of the history of the Israelites and their god, Yahweh. More specifically, it tells the story of a deity who, despite the best of intentions, is surprised time and again by the behavior of his creation, and must continually adapt and reconfigure the relationships between himself, humans, and animals. At the heart of this reconfiguration is the recognition that he must move from his cosmic, heavenly home and take up residence in a tent-shrine ion earth. The Priestly Narrative is, first and foremost, a story about Yahweh’s movement between heaven and earth. More broadly speaking, it is a foundation myth for the Israelite cult and its sacrificial practices. Like Hesiod’s Theogony, or the Mesopotamian Atrahasis, the biblical Priestly Narrative describes the origins of a civilization while simultaneously explaining the function of religious practice in that civilization. The Priestly Narrative is the most detailed and developed such myth in the Hebrew Bible, and offers significant insight into ancient Israelite understandings of religion and religious practice.

Beyond these insights, however, the Priestly Narrative is also an exceptional example of an early Israelite myth in prose narrative. The literary artistry and broad narrative arc of this text has often been overlooked. In part this is due to the fact that it is part of a composite text—the Pentateuch. In order to access the Priestly Narrative, one must first separate it from the non-priestly elements of the Pentateuch. This is a task that has been done over and over again in the last century, but in most cases it has been done in one of two ways: 1) in service of a broader argument about stratification within the priestly materials themselves, or 2) as part of a project concerning the composition of the Pentateuch itself. In the first case, scholars have identified and transcribed a full priestly narrative, but have reduced that narrative to what they consider its “original” form. More often than not, this means the exclusion of most of the ritual and cultic materials, and the text is given only in translation (see Guillaume 2009, Gaines 2016). Alternatively, when the Priestly Narrative has been fully delineated (including its cultic materials), it has not been separated from the rest of the Pentateuch. Rather, full versions of the Pentateuch have been printed with priestly and non-priestly strata marked, but still left side-by-side in their canonical context (see Carpenter and Harford-Battersby 1900, Friedman 2003). In all cases, the final product is an English translation. There is currently no full version of the Priestly Narrative in its original Hebrew. At most, there are descriptions of the contents of the narrative, sometimes with accompanying chapter and verse notations that are keyed to the Hebrew text (Baden 2012, Boorer 2015). These notations necessarily include subdivisions of verses (e.g., 12:5aβ). While such notations are intelligible to specialists, they can be imprecise, and are often unclear to non-specialists.

The motivation for this edition of the Priestly Narrative is to present a full edition of this important text in both Hebrew and English (ideally in a facing-pages layout). This type of edition would present the Priestly Narrative as a composition in its own right and allow it to be read as a piece of literature. The Hebrew edition of the text will be particularly useful for biblical scholars who want to engage with the priestly materials, both as an independent composition and in relation to later biblical and early Jewish literature that makes use of this narrative in different ways. While there is still some level of disagreement among scholars about the scope of the Priestly Narrative, this edition seeks to present a maximalist perspective on what can be considered “priestly” in the Pentateuch, and thus lays out the broadest possible option for scholars to work from as they make their own arguments about the contours and literary history of the text.