Milgrom-my problem with the P source

I am going to pause here in my reading of Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus to articulate a problem I see in his exposition so far.

He has used the documentary hypothesis to cull out the priestly stratum in Genesis and he has used that to show the priests as holding that violence against men and animals was the reason for the flood.  Then he has gone on to make this anti-violence a part of the basis for the purity and sacrifice laws in Leviticus.

My problem is that P, the priestly source, also tells the legend of the slaughter of the Midianites in Numbers 31.  In this story the right thing to do included the killing of old women and young boys after the men had been massacred.  I mean, this is a story that makes the Red Wedding episode in Game of Thrones look like a nursery story.

Now, first of all, I do not think this ever actually happened.  There is an alternative account in the J source where the Midianites aren’t even involved (Numbers 25:1-5). I do not know that that account is historical either, but the contradictions show that the stories contain a lot of spin.  So the slaughter probably originated in the mind of a propagandist. (Joshua, with its stories of the elimination of the Canaanites, is also propaganda.  The archeology does not necessarily show a totally peaceful expansion of the hill-country, village culture of Israel.  But the picture in Joshua of a massive and violent wiping out of the Canaanites does not square with history either.)

So the problem a lot of people have with the violent, genocidal “Old Testament God” is somewhat mitigated by the fact that these things didn’t actually happen.  Still, the writings justify violence.  The writers of P, who thought the spread of violence in the world led to the flood, could tell a story of the brutal killing of most of a population as though that was a good thing.

The story in Numbers 31 does say that after killing the older women and boys the soldiers of Israel had to go through a purification rite.  But that is a lot of blood guilt to cover by ritual.

I have always disliked the P source in the Pentateuch more than the other sources.  This is one of the reasons.  Milgrom’s exposition was making me like the source better.  Then I remembered Numbers 31.

Milgrom may say something about this later in the book.  If he does, I will point it out and comment.



About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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