Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review
James K Bruckner’s commentary on Exodus is the most recent addition to the Hendrickson publisher’s New International Biblical Commentary series, edited by Robert L. Hubbard Jr. and Robert K. Johnston. The series is aimed at an evangelical Christian readership. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between ancient literature and modern religious readers with a methodology of believing criticism. (p. xii). The series hopes to steer a path between an anti-critical hermeneutic, “whose preoccupation is to defend the Bible against its detractors, especially scholarly ones,” and a critical reading of the Bible that is detached from belief. Believing criticism seeks to wed reflective interpretation with “warm Christian affection” toward the biblical text. The hoped for result is that the minds of modern readers will be illumined and their faith deepened. Bruckner positions his commentary within the larger hermeneutical aim of the NIBC series. He identifies the book of Exodus as a statement of “hope for the world” that provides the “foundations and pillars of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The aim of the commentary is to explain the “text so that readers will more fully understand the depth and breadth of that hope” (p. xiii). The commentary is organized for the most part by paragraphs and aimed at a lay reader for devotional purposes.
Bruckner outlines the literary, historical, and hermeneutical perspectives of the commentary in fives sections in the Introduction. In the first section, Why Read Exodus?, Bruckner underscores the central driving theme of the book as liberation from oppression. The story of liberation unfolds in six parts: Exodus 1–14, Exit from Egypt; 15–18, Journey to Sinai; 19–24, Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant; 25–31, Tabernacle Instructions; 32–34, Golden Calf Crisis and God’s Forgiveness; 35–40, Tabernacle Built and God’s Dwelling Presence. The second section, Exodus as Scripture, states the six central themes of Bruckner’s commentary after a review of the commentaries by Fretheim, Durham, and Brueggemann. The six themes include the aim of the Exodus as freedom to serve; the universal scope of the Exodus; the power of grace in the conflict at the Red Sea that provides the basis for law; the emerging character of the Israelite people; the cooperative nature of the venture of the Exodus; and the role of hope throughout the book of Exodus. Exodus and History contains Bruckner’s brief assessment of the historical background of the story. He concludes that the Exodus and wilderness journey, as well as the conquest of Canaan are historical events. The section closes by dismissing the study of the history of composition in the modern era as detracting from the meaning of the text as a theological whole. As a consequence Bruckner states that his commentary will focus on the theological meaning of the Exodus, although he is aware of the diverse interests and styles within the text. The section, Interpreting Exodus in History, traces briefly the history of interpretation of the exodus in North America and more recently in Latin America. Bruckner notes the paradox that the theme of liberation often becomes a source of oppression by those who claim to be liberated. Finally, Exodus and God outlines the portrait of the deity in the book as one who reveals, initiates, rules creation, indwells with Israel in the Tabernacle cult, and appears in the form of Jesus.
The commentary departs for the most part from the six-part outline of Exodus in the Introduction and instead follows the book chapter by chapter. There are exceptions. Examples include, chapters 2 and 3 of the commentary divide Exodus 2 between 2:1–10 and 2:11–25; chapters 23 and 24 of the commentary divide the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 between 20:1–12 and 20:13–26; and chapters 25 and 26 of the commentary divide Exodus 21 of the Book of the Covenant into 21:1–17 and 21:18–36. In general, however, the commentary is aimed at individual chapters, which tend to be broken down into smaller paragraphs for interpretation. Chapter 1 provides an illustration. It is separated into three sections: 1:1–7; 1:8–14; 1:15–22. Bruckner provides commentary on key motifs in each section, often linking the passage under study with related texts in the Hebrew Bible. The descendents of Jacob in 1:1–7 tie back to Gen 46:27 as well as other genealogical texts in Genesis. The motif of fertility extends themes from Gen 1:28; 9:1 etc. Bruckner also explores key words within the pericope under study. In Exod 1:15–22, for example, he comments on the midwives’ “fear of God” and how it functions as a form of civil disobedience. The remainder of the commentary tends to follow the same methodology with a focus on individual paragraphs, the relationship of motifs in the text to other portions of the Hebrew Bible, and the explanation of key Hebrew terms.
The commentary has a number of strengths. It stays close to the text. It provides insight into many Hebrew words, while also providing theological reflection on the literature. Lay Christian readers will find the commentary by Bruckner to be helpful. His focus on individual paragraphs provides information that would not be immediately evident to the reader. To this end it fulfills the goal of the series to bridge the gap between ancient literature and modern religious readers with a methodology of believing criticism (p. xii). The weakness of the commentary is its limited engagement with current research and the implications of this emerging research for interpreting the meaning of the book of Exodus. The bibliography is very selective, and even these entries are used sparingly throughout the commentary. The easy dismissal of the composition of the book of Exodus allows Bruckner to avoid larger issues of the history of Israel, the nature of Israelite religion, and the formation of the book, all of which influence the reading of individual paragraphs. The limited scope of the commentary raises a question for this reviewer about believing criticism as an adequate methodology for theological reflection on the book of Exodus.