Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers. Second Edition (NICOT)

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. Second Edition. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xxxix+660 pp. Hb; $60.00   Link to Eerdmans

This second edition of Timothy Ashley’s 1993 NICOT commentary on Numbers is far more than a cosmetic upgrade. Ashley observes in the preface to the second edition, “I still agree with a good deal of what I wrote,” but there are some changes. He noticed that his earlier commentary tended to argue with the so-called documentary hypothesis. On the one hand, he appreciates the work of scholars looking for sources. However, fewer scholarly readers are asking the questions that those studies answered. For this reason, he has eliminated or reduced apologetic concerns, which took up space in the first edition. On the first page of the commentary itself, he deleted the phrase “so-called documentary hypothesis” and reference to Wellhausen (page 43 of the 1993 commentary, page 1 of the second edition). The second edition of this commentary “attempts to pull the reader into the final form of the Book of Numbers” which likely dates to the sixth or early fifth century BCE.

Ashley, Numbers NICOTNevertheless, the introduction includes an expanded and updated section on “authorship, composition, and the interpretation of the text.” He still begins with a summary of Wellhausen and form critical studies, but adds reference to Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Fortress, 1995, reprint, Eisenbrauns, 2007) as a major challenge to the documentary hypothesis. Several recent commentaries examine the literary features Numbers and argue for the “cogency of the final form of the text” (7). Ashley uses this approach as a model for the commentary.

Ashley thinks there is no reason to deny that the final form of the book was edited and re-edited until the post-exilic period. For example, Numbers presupposes a time later than the conquest, especially after chapter 22. The book certainly has a “more complex history of transmission than is recoverable” (9). Ashley has little doubt that there were sources, but also it is reasonable and practical to approach the final form of the narratives that probably “depended on a historical remembrance” (9).

As with any second edition, Ashely updated footnotes and bibliography to include many works on Numbers and the Pentateuch written in the last thirty years. However, he admits he has not attempted to be comprehensive. In addition, the indices for the commentary have re-compiled (only six pages in the 1993 edition, now seventeen pages). The select bibliography in the 1993 edition spanned 22 pages, in the second edition it appears on pages xxvii-l (28 pages). The commentary now conforms to the current NICOT style, including a smaller font size. Given these changes in pagination and font size, the new edition is 606 pages total, about 60 pages less that the first edition.

Conclusion. Ashley’s NICOT commentary on Numbers joins Baruch A. Levine’s Anchor Bible commentary (2 vols., Yale, 1993, 2000) as a top English scholarly commentary on Numbers.

As with any second edition of a commentary, someone might ask if it is necessary to replace the 1993 edition. Does the second edition include enough new material to merit the investment? Yes, if only for a shift in focus away from the discussion of the documentary hypothesis to the final form of the book. Ashley’s 2022 commentary reflects a mature understanding of the literary nature of the Book of Numbers. A second question, should you keep your 1993 edition? The 1993 edition does indeed enter a dialogue with the documentary hypothesis; if that is your interest, then the earlier edition will continue to have value.

Eerdworld has a sixty-five-page preview of the commentary.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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