The Biblical Priestly Narrative

World Literature in Translation, the University of California Press (under contract, Expected 2023, 2024)

Note: This book will be published in two separate editions.

  • Expected 2023: the paperback version, containing the English translation, brief notes, and introduction
  • Expected 2024: a hardcover version that adds the full Hebrew text

The biblical Priestly Narrative is a complete and independent story hidden within the broader narrative of the Bible. For roughly two thousand years, it has sat in plain view, interwoven with other narratives in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, commonly known as the Torah or Pentateuch. Much of the work of the last two centuries of biblical scholarship has been devoted to unweaving these stories. While scholars today vociferously debate many aspects of those first five books, there is one widely shared conclusion: there is a distinct and identifiable stratum that comprises the largest collection of writing about ritual and sacrifice in the Bible. Far from a disjointed list of sacrifices and cultic laws, however, this “Priestly Narrative” offers a compelling history of the people of Israel and their god, Yahweh, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the death of Moses at the edge of the promised land. 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 and the humans and animals that populate the world he has made. At the heart of this reconfiguration is the recognition that he must move from his cosmic, heavenly home and take up residence on earth.

Although the narrative zips over more than two thousand years, the narrator lingers on eight critical days at Mount Sinai during which the Israelites assemble and inaugurate a movable tent shrine to house their God, aptly described by some scholars as “Yahweh’s majestic mobile home.” Over the course of these eight days, the story moves between divine speeches filled with detailed ritual instructions, third-person descriptions of the rites performed, and moments of intense conflict between characters. Taken as a whole, this story functions as a foundation myth for the Israelites, their religion, and their sacrificial practices. Like Hesiod’s Theogony, the biblical Priestly Narrative describes the origins of a civilization while simultaneously explaining the purpose of religious practice in that civilization. The Priestly Narrative is the most detailed and developed such myth in the Hebrew Bible and offers significant insights into how one group of ancient Israelites understood their religion.

This book will be the first complete edition of the story translated into lively, accessible English. Although components of the Priestly Narrative have been offered in various formats for the purpose of scholarly discussion, they are usually cobbled together from existing translations and rarely extract the materials from the other sources present in the canonical version of the Pentateuch. This edition fully presents the Priestly Narrative on its own, enabling readers to see clearly the literary artistry of the storytelling. Brief notes on specific words and passages point readers to the key structural and thematic elements of this story, and an introduction explains the methodology used to recover this text and situates it in its broader socio-historical context.