In my judgment, Exodus is one of the more neglected books in the Old Testament. This may sound surprising since there is so much in the book that is familiar to so many: the burning bush, the plagues, the exodus, the ten commandments, the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant. These items may be familiar, but this book presents a number of exegetical, theological, historical, and archaeological difficulties. And there are few quality commentaries on the book. Bruce Wells makes a genuine contribution here in bringing issues to the attention of the reader, offering relevant background material at every turn, and offering excellent bibliographic material. His contribution is a cornucopia of background data, again richly illustrated.
The items that follow can be found in scholarly commentaries and academic journals, but too often the non-specialist isn’t exposed to important and difficult issues. One of the key contributions (broadly speaking) of the ZIBBC will be to make the non-specialist a more informed and engaged reader. The church is not served by publishers who aim to merely affirm their readership’s positions or ignorance. The church needs pastors and lay students who are actively engaged in struggling with the text. Here are some examples.
1. Moses and the Sargon Legend: Most readers will never have heard of the Sargon Legend unless they’ve stumbled onto a website that seeks to undermine biblical inspiration with academic material. This Mesopotamian legend is part of a broader literary genre scholars call the “Abandoned Child Motif.” In a nutshell, Sargon is abandoned at birth and set adrift on a river in a sealed reed basket. Sound familiar? Wells has a brief discussion of the very obvious parallel to the biblical Moses story and concludes with an honest, measured statement:
While the Moses narrative likely does not depend on the Sargon legend, it may well be that the biblical story attempts to describe the events in Moses’ life in such a way that an astute reader in the ancient world would recognize the “abandoned child” theme and foresee that great achievements are in store for this lonely infant afloat on the river.
2. The chronological difficulties in the text for the timing of the exodus: Wells discusses the problems associated with the chronology of the exodus in the pertinent passages. (In my reading, Wells is a bit stilted in favor of the late date, which is the majority view among scholars). While he discusses early vs. late chronology with respect to all the usual stopping points (Pithom and Rameses, 1 Kings 6:1, Merenptah, Exodus 12:40), his sidebar on p. 187 related to the problem of the generations of Moses and Aaron (Exod 6:14-25) will be new to many. The difficulty of mapping these generations onto a 400 or 430 year sojourn is not a matter that can be lightly set aside as merely interpretive. As Wells notes, “… there is no obvious solution that makes all the biblical data fit together neatly.” Bringing such things to the attention of the non-specialist shows a commitment on the part of ZIBBC authors and editors to raise the bar for that audience and their Bible study.
3. The issue of historicity of the exodus story: As someone who has taught the history of Israel on the undergraduate level, I really appreciated Wells’ brief comments on the difference between “possible, plausible, or probable” when thinking about what historicity means. It’s nice to see some logic in a textbook.
4. Natural and Polemic Explanations of the Plagues: Wells does a nice job of introducing readers to the work of Great Hort, whose naturalistic explanation for the plagues is about as coherent as that view gets, and the notion that the plagues targeted Egyptian deities. What’s especially appreciated about Wells’ treatment is that he shows how both have definite weaknesses. That is, he doesn’t simply adopt the ideas to escape the supernatural.
5. The location of Mount Sinai: It’s about time that some mainstream attention is put toward the very possible view that Sinai was actually in Midian. Wells wisely does not endorse the Jebel el-Lawz location, but he is quite fair with the evidence in Scripture that points to Midian and not to the traditional location.
6. The lengthy discussions of the ten commandments and the rest of the laws laid out in Exodus is worth the price of the volume. This is a neglected area and Wells provides a wealth of comparative information. As noted in my first ZIBBC post, this is his specialty and it shows.
Now for some nit-picking.
1. Wells’ comments about the Angel in the burning bush are undeveloped and perhaps even under-thought. Granted, this is one of my own academic focus points, but given his willingness to engage biblical-theological material elsewhere, there’s a lot more that could have been said. Particularly noteworthy in its absence is any discussion of Exod 23:20-23 in regard to the Angel. This passage was fundamental to Jewish teaching on the two powers in heaven that was later declared a heresy once Christianity was born.
2. I was also disappointed with the commentary on Exodus 6:3 (God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them”). It’s of course true that most scholars see this passage as proof that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs (by name). This notion fuels discussion on the evolution of Israelite religion and source-critical theory on the Pentateuch. Wells fails to note that there is substantive disagreement on the accepted translation, most notably by Francis Andersen in his book The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew. On syntactical grounds, Andersen argues for a translation that is basically opposite in its meaning to the accepted view: I am the Lord (YHWH). ?3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai. And my name is the Lord (YHWH); did I not make myself known to them? Andersen’s seminal work on sentence structure and its implications for this crucial text should at least have been noted.
3. Wells notes that the first commandment reflects henotheism or monolatry. On the surface–and restricting the discussion to this one verse–this seems coherent. It actually isn’t since henotheism presumes certain ideas out of step with orthodox Yahwism. Yes, henotheism is a useful term if one restricts the discussion to whether Israel believed its God was superior among many. The same goes for monolatry, which allows for the existence of other elohim but insists on the sole worship of one. But these terms do not say enough. Henotheism allows that the top deity could be toppled or fall out of disfavor. It also is not consistent with respect to why the favored deity is favored — that is, it fails to speak of ontological uniqueness. The same goes for monolatry, since all that term does is tell us how many can be rightly worshipped. It provides no information as to why. An orthodox Israelite (e.g., the biblical writers) considered Yahweh unique on the basis of certain attributes (pre-existence, sole creatorship, omnipotence, omniscience, lone sovereign). Henotheism and monolatry fail to articulate all that an Israelite believed about Yahweh, and so they aren’t very helpful.1
- See my article Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Bulletin of Biblical Research 18:1 (2008): 1-30. ↩