Review of H. Utzschneider and W. Oswalt, Exodus 1–15

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Utzschneider, Helmut and Wolfgang Oswalt, Exodus 1–15 (Internationaler Exegetischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2013). Pp. 372. Hardcover. €69.90. ISBN 978-3-17-022222-9.

The Internationaler Exetischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament is a promising new series aimed at a broad audience ranging from academic theologians to interested lay readers. The series is ecumenical and international in its perspective. A unique feature is that the volumes are co-authored and written from both a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. The synchronic reading focuses on the present form of the text, while the diachronic interpretation traces the development of the biblical text into its present form. Exodus 1–15 follows the format of the series with Helmut Utzschneider providing the synchronic reading, while Wolfgang Oswalt traces the history of composition. Each author provides a separate introduction, outlining his methodology for the commentary.

Utzschneider clarifies that his synchronic reading views the present form of Exod 1–15 as a literary-aesthetic object, in a similar fashion to New Criticism. The literary context for the interpretation of Exod 1–15 in its present form includes Genesis through 2 Kings. The context indicates that the story of Israel in Egypt is both an eisodus (an entering into Egypt) and an exodus (a leaving from Egypt). Central motifs in the present form of the story include war, liberation, and Israelite service as both oppressive slavery to Egypt and as worship of Yahweh in the wilderness. The plot is structured as a “novel of action,” in which the suspense is intended to influence the reader both intellectually and emotionally. Utzschneider identifies seven sections to Exod 1–15: 1:1–7; 1:8–2:22; 2:23–6:1; 6:2–7:13; 7:14–11:10; 12:1–13:16; and 13:17–15:21. These sections determine the outline of the commentary.

Oswalt provides an overview of the history of composition. He envisions a coherent narrative that is expanded through time. He notes, for example, the motif of the new divine name revealed to Moses in Exod 6:2, which conflicts with a similar motif in Gen 15:7; 26:22; 28:13; Exod 3:15. The same tension in theme is evident with the motif of the Mountain of God in Exod 18; 19:1, 2a. The revision or reinterpretation of the themes indicates that there is a history of tradition and composition to the story of the exodus, even though the exodus itself is not historical. Oswalt outlines five stages of composition that influence the diachronic interpretation of Exod 1–15: (1) the Old Exodus narrative [ExE] is a late monarchic or exilic story that spans Exod 1:11–14:30, 31a, in which Israel is presented as a vassal to Egypt; (2) the Exodus-Mountain of God narrative [EG] is an exilic vision of a kingless society in Exod 18–24, in which the people are organized in accordance with the Book of the Covenant; (3) the Deuteronomistic History [DtrG] subordinates the EG to the laws in Deut 12–26 by means of the story of the golden calf (Exod 32), where the breaking of the covenant makes the Book of the Covenant obsolete. The literary context of the DtrG places the story of the exodus in the larger setting of the rise and the fall of the monarchy (2 Kgs 25:30); (4) the Priestly composition [PK] is a postexilic version of the exodus that spans from Gen 1:1 to Josh 24:33, emphasizing the central role of the temple and the Aaronide priests; and (5) the Torah composition [TK] represents post-Priestly additions that accentuate the Torah and Moses in the late Persian period.

The innovative aspect of the series is that it brings the two distinct interpretations of Exod 1–15 into conversation. The diachronic reading explores the historical background of the texts, the social setting that may have prompted the author to write the text in the first place, and use of the text as a linguistic tool to convey a theological-political program. The synchronic reading, on the other hand, examines the creative relationship between the text and the contemporary reader, which often goes beyond the aims of the original author. The commentary is structured to explore the ways in which synchronic and diachronic readings provide distinct interpretations. To this end, most sections of the commentary are separated into four parts: (1) a Translation of the Hebrew text with brief notes on the text; (2) a Synchronic Analysis of plot, themes, and characterization; (3) a Diachronic Analysis of the history of composition; and (4) a final section, Synthesis, in which the distinct methodologies are brought into conversation.

The commentary on Exod 1:1–17 illustrates the goals of the commentary. After a translation and brief notes on the meaning of certain Hebrew phrases (i.e., “the sons of Israel”) or differences between the Hebrew and the LXX (i.e., seventy-five versus seventy as the size of Jacob's family), the commentary separates into two parts. The Synchronic Analysis highlights the link between Genesis and Exodus with the opening word in Exod 1:1—“and.” The literary relationship between Genesis and Exodus is reinforced further with the listing of the sons in vv. 2–4, which also appears in Gen 35:23–26. The death notice of Joseph and his brothers in Exod 1:6 also accentuates a break between Genesis and Exodus, emphasizing that Exod 1:6 is also a new beginning. The literary tension between Genesis and Exodus is highlighted when the methodological perspective shifts from the Synchronic to the Diachronic Analysis. Oswalt reviews a number of readings that identify a literary relationship between Genesis and Exodus throughout the history of composition. But, in the end, he rejects previous source-critical solutions, identifying instead the Priestly composition as the first that links the ancestral story in Genesis with the exodus from Egypt as two epochs of the same story (e.g., Gen 50:22–23 and Exod 1:1–7). Prior to the Priestly composition, the story of the ancestors in Genesis was separate from the exodus. The final section, Synthesis, relates the Synchronic and Diachronic Analyses, especially as they relate to the continuity and discontinuity between Genesis and Exodus. The Synchronic Analysis highlights motifs that link the two bodies of literature, while the Diachronic accentuates tensions, which clarify that the present unity of Genesis and Exodus actually combines two previously separate block or bodies of literature. The contrasting interpretations reinforce the hermeneutical goals of the separate methodologies. The Diachronic Analysis explores the theological-political aims of the author and the original audience, noting tensions in the present form of the text, while the Synchronic Analysis shifts the focus to the relationship of the text and present reader, with an eye on literary unity.

Exodus 1–15 is a very strong commentary. Both Utzschneider and Oswalt are accomplished interpreters in both synchronic and diachronic methodologies. Their interpretations of the present form of the text and its history of composition are valuable contributions to the ongoing research on the book of Exodus. These strengths alone make the book a necessary resource for any future work on Exodus. But the unique contribution of the volume is the Synthesis section, in which two accomplished authors enter into a dialogue about the meaning of a text from distinct methodological perspectives. I enjoyed these sections of the commentary the most, especially when the authors rigorously engage the differences between their readings or relate the distinct readings into an overall interpretation. It is in this section that I would like even more analysis. For example, there are places where the Synthesis section of the commentary is either absent or too short (e.g., Exod 2:11–15; 6:2–8; 6:13–30). There are also literary units in the book of Exodus, such as the plague cycle and its relationship to the events of the exodus or the literary structure of the cultic festivals, where the history of composition collides with the present form of the text to such an extent that it is difficult to determine the present structure or the intended points of transition in the story. An extended exchange on these literary problems from distinct methodological points of view in the Synthesis section would be very helpful for both professional and lay readers. I would encourage the authors to expand their reflections in the Synthesis section in the second volume on Exod 16–40, which I eagerly await.

Thomas B. Dozeman, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH