T.B. Dozeman, Exodus

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Dozeman, Thomas B., Exodus (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Pp. xix+868. Paperback. US$55.00. ISBN 9780802826176.

Thomas Dozeman's commentary on Exodus offers perspectives on the identification of the major narrative voices in the book of Exodus, the date of their composition, and their interrelationships that will be of interest to specialists and non-specialists alike. The commentary begins with a concise and well-written presentation of the author's operating assumptions. Dozeman identifies a primary and cohesive narrative in Exodus in a body of literature for which he employs the term the “non-P History” (following the lead of David Carr).[1] In his opinion, this narrative ranges beyond Exodus to form the earliest continuous history of Israel in the Pentateuch and likely extends into the Deuteronomistic History. In fact, the non-P History shares many of the perspectives of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History, although each body of literature underwent a distinct history of composition. While a firm date is not necessary for interpreting Exodus, Dozeman favours dating the non-P History to the post-exilic era, since in many places it appears to be post-Deuteronomistic (e.g., the story of the Golden Calf in Exod 32 is regarded as later than the parallel narratives in either Deut 9–10 or 1 Kgs 12).

Besides the non-P History, Dozeman identifies a second major literary narrative related to the Priestly school. The source called the “P History” is considered to be a supplement to the prior non-P History. For the most part, distinctions between non-P and P material follow generally accepted divisions in contemporary scholarship (the contents of the two corpora are summarized in chart form on pp. 48–51). One exception appears in his treatment of the Decalogue, in which Dozeman resists proposals that the entire text of the Ten Commandments is a P insertion into the Sinai narrative.

The commentary is separated into two major sections: “The Power of Yahweh in Egypt” (Exod 1:1–15:21) and “The Presence of Yahweh in the Wilderness” (Exod 15:22–40:38). Each is divided into subsections in which attention is given to identifying the non-P and P elements and describing their respective interests and interrelationships. These subsections are provided with interpretative remarks that include translation, textual notes, discussions of source and authorship, and observations regarding themes and narrative perspectives. While Dozeman acknowledges ongoing debates about multiple levels of authorship in P and non-P literature, the focus of interpretation stays at a more general level, considering both narrative strands in their canonical form.

For the most part, Dozeman declines to reconstruct the literary history of the non-P and P Histories. One consequence of Dozeman's methodology, therefore, is a certain flattening in historical perspective when accounting for the origins of the book. For some readers this will stand out as a weakness in the commentary. Dozeman does an excellent job of describing the status of source critical debates on various segments of the text, but these concerns are subordinate to the author's stated aims, which are focused on mapping the dimensions of the non-P and P Histories and explaining their viewpoints and relationships. A good example of his approach is found in the discussion about the altar law in Exod 20:24–26. While he recognizes its associations with centralization ideas in Deuteronomy, ultimately he leaves the question open as to whether the law is an older expression of a theological perspective appropriated by Deuteronomy or derivative of Deuteronomic thinking. What the reader is presented with is a description of the function of the altar law within the final form of the non-P History. A particular bias emerges with discussions of proposals regarding post-Priestly redaction(s) of Exodus. While he acknowledges this hypothesis, Dozeman does not appeal to it in his interpretative comments. By implication, this means that post-P insertions or authorial activity are negligible and, for all practical purposes, either non-existent or non-identifiable.

In his introduction, the reader is alerted to the fact that Dozeman finds the documentary hypothesis unhelpful for explaining the origins of the book of Exodus, but no overarching scheme of composition is put in its place. In this regard, it is worth noting that many source critical questions may be incapable of receiving the kinds of precise answers that earlier generations of biblical scholars have wanted to give them; the necessary evidence is often ambiguous or lacking. An example of his approach can be seen in his discussion of the non-P History in Exod 3–7. Criteria such as variants in the use of the divine name and other repetitions in the story about Moses' call in the non-P History show that it is a compilation of stories, providing distinct points of view on the narrated events; but Dozeman rightly notes that the complexity of these chapters makes all literary judgments tentative and open to revision (p. 98). By the same token, the dominant theme of the theophany of God on the mountain in the second half of Exodus becomes a context for the inclusion of a variety of traditions that may have circulated independently of each other. But, in Dozeman's opinion, it is not particularly helpful to find a single temporally organized strand to make sense of Moses's repeated trips up the mountain. The various scenes in Exod 19–24 constitute a composite narrative “in which temporal sequence is replaced by a more circular movement around the central core subject” (p. 434). This is a useful perspective to bring to a section of the book in which the action often appears to be confusing and contradictory.

With respect to the non-P history, the commentary is informed by Dozeman's view of the origins of Israelite historiography. He rules out both the Hellenistic period and the early monarchical period as viable candidates for dating the rise of ancient Israelite history writing. Placing this phenomenon in the exilic and postexilic periods suggests that, like its Greek counterpart, Israelite history writing developed during a time of social subjugation (under Neo-Babylonian and Persian rule). In this matter, Dozeman is following the lead of a number of recent studies about the origins of biblical historiography; but by implication the commentary also communicates a certain pessimism about reconstructing antecedents to the final form of the non-P History. It is clear that the non-P History has appropriated various narrative fragments or individual stories and adapted them into a cohesive narrative. So, e.g., Dozeman regards the stories about the midwives now found in Exod 1 and the account of the visit of Jethro in Exod 18—both once attributed to the E-source—as independent narratives integrated into the non-P history. But the presence of such stories means that the Exodus theme had been preoccupying Israel's storytellers for some time. It is difficult to believe that there was no overall plot or narrative to which these various tales were connected before the final form of the non-P History. But this is the kind of speculation about the prehistory of the narrative that Dozeman declines to weigh into.

The commentary is particularly rich in its discussions of the inner-relationships of the non-P and P Histories. Dozeman is at his best in describing their differing emphases while also showing how they are connected. A few illustrations will serve to make this point: In commenting on Exod 1:1–7, Dozeman shows how explicit literary ties to the creation story accentuate the triumph of life over death in the P History, providing a contrapuntal voice to the non-P History with its more tragic vision of salvation history as a process whereby humans forget the past and act violently in the present. In the subsection dubbed, “Defeat of Pharaoh” (Exod 10:21–14:31), the non-P and P Histories differ in their interpretations on a variety of issues including the purpose of Yahweh's interventions in Egypt, the timing of Passover, and the place in which the saving event at the Red Sea took place. The commentary does a good job of explaining how these differing perspectives are related to the theological interests of each narrative strand. In the Sinai narrative, it is observed that the non-P and P Histories share a common view of the origins of holiness and its dangers to human beings; they disagree, however, on how holiness becomes transferred to them, with the P perspective depicting a less direct process.

One of Dozeman's assumptions is that “Exodus contains a range of authoritative interpretations of salvation history, which force the reader to relate historically divergent traditions in the formation of the canon” (p. 42). This is an interest that has obviously animated the commentary but it also indicates a program of interpretation that goes beyond the present volume. This book lays the groundwork for a thorough synthesis of the characteristics of the non-P and P Histories and the meaning of their canonical relationship. That is, there are the raw materials here for an important study in biblical theology. One might hope that Dozeman will make some effort in this direction, if not in a second edition of this commentary then in another publication.

In summary, there are a number of reasons this commentary makes a useful contribution to contemporary scholarship. Students of Exodus will want to pay careful attention to the arguments Dozeman brings to ongoing debates about distinctions between P and non-P narratives. The book is also a valuable resource for reviewing the history of scholarship on a range of source critical issues. A variety of readers will find its focus on describing and comparing the non-P and P Histories in their canonical form informative and helpful.

William Morrow, Queen's School of Religion

[1] David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 44–45. reference