woensdag 6 februari 2013

Review of: W.H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB2), Doubleday, 1999; in: Interpretation

W.H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB2), Doubleday, 1999

Review in: Interpretation 2001 55: 74
Review door: Terence E. Fretheim
Gevonden op: http://int.sagepub.com/content/55/1/74.full.pdf+html

Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary
by William H. C Propp
AB 2. Doubleday, New York, 1999.
720 pp. $44.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-385-14804-6.

THIS VOLUME CONSTITUTES A MAJOR CRITICAL COMMENTARY on the first eighteen chapters of the book of Exodus. This division of Exodus is dictated by the length of the two volumes and does not reflect Propp's understanding of the book's structure. He views Exodus in terms of a "diptych" with 15:1-21, Israel's response to God's saving deed, as the center that looks both backward and forward.

The commentary begins with a "hyperliteral" translation based upon a reconstructed Hebrew text, "at the frequent expense of English grammar and usage," in order to preserve ambiguities, approximate the experience of reading the original, and maintain "a necessary sense of temporal and cultural distance between reader and text" (p. 40). The next two sections introduce Exodus and the author's approach to the book, followed by an exhaustive bibliography (pp. 57-115). Propp states this commentary's aims:
My basic approach to the Bible is anthropological. My goal is to understand, as best we can, Israelite social institutions and perceptions of reality. This orientation will be most apparent in my use of the methods of folktale analysis and in my interpretation of [Passover/Unleavened Bread] as a rite of purification and riddance I am also interested in how aspects of the Bible and Israelite culture relate to the ancient Near Eastern milieu(s) from and against which they arose. And I am very interested in words: their contextual meanings, their semiconscious resonances and their ultimate etymologies. Lastly, I am interested in history. What reality underlies the accounts? How, when, where and why did Israel emerge as a nation? (p. 39)

The commentary concludes with extensive indices (pp. 637-80) of authors (including pre-modern authors, mostly medieval Jewish exegetes), subjects, scriptural and other ancient sources, and Hebrew and fifteen other ancient languages. The sheer volume of the various accompaniments to the commentary demonstrates the range and rigor of the author's work. Propp notes that the second volume will contain five appendices, the content of which is often referenced in this volume (the Documentary Hypothesis; issues of historicity; monotheism; the Exodus theme in the Bible; and afterthoughts to volume 1). The commentary is sprinkled with brief segments labeled Speculation, "extreme lines of conjecture" that may provoke further reflection without being paraded as certainty.

The commentary proper is divided into three main sections: Israel in Egypt (1:1-11:10); Liberation from Egypt (12:1-15:21); and Sojourn in the Wilderness (15:22-18:27). The first two sections are comparable in length, indicating something of the weight that Propp gives to 12:1-15:21 as the heart of the book of Exodus (the extended discussions of Passover/ Unleavened Bread and the Song of the Sea are especially to be noted). The text of Exod 1-18 is divided into seventeen literary units (six of which occur in chs. 1-2). The author's treatment of each unit follows a consistent outline. First, the translation is presented with text-specific source-critical identifications, including a substantial Elohist and the work of redactors. Next, the analysis consists of textual notes, source analysis, and redactional analysis. The notes, the largest amount of material in the commentary, consist of usually brief exegetical considerations, including meanings and etymologies of words, syntactic analysis, wordplay, and resonances with other passages. Finally, nearly one hundred mini-essays of varying lengths reflect on topics in the text and issues raised by the text. They include reflections on literary, historical, religio-historical, and theological matters, as well as ancient Near Eastern and folkloristic parallels and more extended discussions of textual details and intertextual developments. These considerations are a significant dimension of the commentary and alone are worth the price of the book. They can be read with profit quite apart from the exegetical detail.

The brief introductory section on themes that unify the book of Exodus is remarkable for its focus on God. The themes include "Yahweh's fire, his Glory, his arm, and his name—all are the means whereby he is known in the world" (p. 37). Added to this list is the service and worship of Yahweh. This thematic claim regarding the God of Exodus does not bear as much fruit as it might in the balance of the commentary. Creation themes are often noted in the commentary, but no thematic claims are made regarding the book as a whole. Generally, Propp is to be commended for the amount of theological reflection present in the volume. It should be noted that the words "supernatural" (for unmediated divine action?) and "punishment" (for divine judgment?) seem to be used uncritically.

Propp gives considerable attention to long-debated texts; his discussions are always interesting and often provocative, though at times leaving this reviewer in need of fuller clarification. In Exod 3:14, the divine response to Moses' request for a name, "I will be who I will be," is an evasion, even "cagey." Propp explains the hardening of Pharaoh's heart by saying that "while people are often spontaneously evil, God may encourage or tempt them to err, until they become so wicked that his own attribute of justice compels him to destroy them" (p. 354). The "destroyer" in 12:23 is, according to Propp,"a personalized, quasi-independent aspect of Yahweh... Yahweh assumes the glory of striking Egypt, while the 'dirty job' of threatening Israel is delegated to his semi-autonomous dark side" (p. 409).

Propp's detailed, imaginative, and learned study of the Hebrew text of Exodus will often be mined for its information and insights by the next generation of Exodus readers and beyond. Biblical scholars are the most obvious audience for this commentary, but it will prove useful to a remarkably wide range of "Lovers of the Bible," those to whom the book is dedicated.

Terence E. Fretheim

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