Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus

Written by John I. Durham Reviewed By Douglas Jackson

The present volume is one of more than twenty that have appeared since the Word Biblical Commentary series was launched in 1977. Word’s ambitious series is intended to be ‘a showcase of the best in evangelical critical scholarship’, although judging from the available volumes, the evangelical and critical stance as well as the distinctiveness of each contribution will need to be assessed individually. Durham’s work on Exodus deserves to be counted as a positive and most useful addition.

In his preface and introduction Durham declares something of his own commitment to the canonical text, as a masterful declaration of Yahweh’s presence and its implications. He says, ‘It is a book of faith, about faith, and directed to those with faith. Those who read the Book of Exodus without faith, though they will inevitably profit from their reading, will not understand its message.’ His stated concern for a scholarly investigation of the text we have before us, integrated with a living faith, is important for both the ‘fledgling student’ and the professional scholar whom the series seeks to assist.

In general the reader will find Durham’s bibliography helpful. Those desiring a wider coverage will want to turn to other major commentaries like Childs’ (1974). A quick comparison based on four randomly chosen sections covering a total of c. 500 references showed a shared bibliography of 100+ works between Durham and Childs. Durham is able to include more recent works while Childs ranges more widely, including NT context, history of interpretation and extended theological reflection. They complement each other well, but by no means exhaust the possibilities. Unfortunately the bibliography seems to leave untouched a number of evangelical works that would seem to be appropriate given the stated ‘evangelical stance and commitment’.

The sections assigned to translation and notes are of paramount interest to Durham, and most readers will find his material very helpful. This reviewer found the translation a bit too choppy and mixed in idiom when read aloud, but most stimulating and helpful for the student who wants to get into original text and capture its vibrance. Durham’s notes confirm his deep respect for the text as we have received it and he sees no reason to take a sound textual tradition and recast it to represent some linguistic or theological model.

The sections headed Form/Structure/Setting could be the forum for long discourses on the many and divergent scholarly opinions on source criticism and tradition history, but Durham succeeds most often in disciplining the discussion in line with his insistence on interpreting the text as it stands. Building on its literary-critical foundations, modern critical studies, especially after Noth’s and von Rad’s work, have tended to place all too heavy an emphasis on diachronic analysis of the OT traditions. The search for the sources of tradition and the reconstruction of the complex history of reformulation and application has tended to drive comment in the direction of fragmentation and speculation. Dissatisfaction with unconvincing and inconsistent results of scholarly effort has contributed to the recent turbulence in the area of OT studies and the search for new approaches. The synchronic approach which Durham affirms is one of the positive reactions to emerge over the last decades. He thus sketches the current critical opinion briefly, expressing appreciation for its value and opening the way for further investigation, but he insists on pushing on to the text as it stands before us. He repeatedly eschews the speculation which has been so rife in the field, though his own weakest moments come when he allows himself to drift into the same mode of analysis.

Durham generally handles the Comment sections well as it is here that he develops the bulk of his central theme. From the very first pages of the introduction he makes it clear that the complex and diverse richness of the material found in Exodus is unified by its theological purpose. As he states, ‘The centerpiece of this unity is the theology of Yahweh present with and in the midst of his people.’ This is the major theme under which the others are subsumed, including deliverance (salvation, rescue), covenant and a wealth of others. The thology of Yahweh’s presence draws everything to itself in this work and it permeates every page. One will have to turn elsewhere to consider other theological centres and priorities in the book of Exodus. He has avoided serving up ‘literary or theological goulash’ for us, but the ‘sub-themes’ in his analysis definitely deserve more attention.

Additional space could profitably be devoted to historical considerations too. The theological purpose is set in history, but could be illuminated more as history. Having affirmed the historical origin of the traditions against a backdrop of the beginning of the 19th dynasty of Egypt, Durham does not probe much more into matters of history or historicity. For him it is best to leave the matters of specialized historical, scientific and archaeological inquiry to the experts. Much lies beyond our reach and therefore excessive speculation or binding the text to specific historical reconstructions is not productive. He maintains that it is not essential for the interpreter to delve into these matters deeply, because the theological message of the text does not require it. One positive result of this is that he treats the text’s own coherent presentation of the revelation and development of Israel’s Yahwistic faith in the pre-conquest/settlement period as opposed to the synthesis of diverse and scattered tribal history and religion as some reconstruct it.

Many, including the present reviewer, will see a much more significant connection between historical inquiry and the theological purpose of the text. There is an undoubted need for caution in avoiding conclusions that reach beyond the available evidence; however, the available evidence is substantial. There is a wealth of non-biblical archaeological, historical and linguistic data, which is the fruit of abundant archaeological and ancient Near Eastern studies. When handled properly this material can do a great deal to illuminate the text before us. The Hittite and Mesopotamian covenant-treaty forms for example deserve much greater recognition in explaining the shape of the text. One will have to look elsewhere for help in these matters.

The explanation sections are often the shortest and include a good bit that is repetitive. Given the format, it is unavoidable. There are some good summaries here, but one longs to see something of the wider canonical and theological reflection on the text along the order of some of B. S. Childs’ material, even if in only a brief sketch.

A few concluding words on the collective impressions of these sections is in order. In his theological analysis of the content of Exodus, Durham follows closely the sequence of the text. The ‘swarms’ of Israelites we meet in the opening scenes of the book are directly related to the patriarchal narratives, personages and promises. Their numbers are a fulfilment of the promise and the turbulent days of conflict in Egypt point to the release and promised land motifs. The theological purpose undergirding all of these recorded events is seen in the God of the Fathers taking active initiatives on their behalf and ultimately for the benefit of all mankind. Thus Durham presents us with an account of the deeply moving currents of salvation history and not some dark and fragmentary picture of early tribal life and religion as some authors do.

Throughout the commentary he remains faithful to this theological understanding of the text. Moses’ arrival and survival is part of God’s carefully wrought plan, the family and Pharaoh being assigned to lesser roles as a result. This is clearly seen in Durham’s assessment of the ‘ten blows’ and ‘hardening motif’ throughout the mighty act sections (7:8–13:6). What occurs is the result of Yahweh’s supernatural ‘proof of presence’ initiative and not to be explained solely on human or natural terms. According to Durham, this is how the text unabashedly presents itself and thus we must accept it on its own terms. He does not adopt the position of some, however, who over emphasize divine action as part of a series of sporadic and dramatic acts of Yahweh which dominate heilsgeschichte. Such an analysis has led to the loss of significance for the ten blows, the golden calf story, the details of the cult and even Moses himself. For Durham the proof of Yahweh’s presence, the advent of his presence, the people’s response and the necessity of his continued presence bind this material together in significance. The theophanic advent may be centre stage, but the daily life of the faithful, the role of leadership, the vitality of the cult and even the details of moral and cultic legislation have an important role to play.

The constructiveness of this approach for the student of the present text of Exodus can be illustrated with two examples. The dominant theme of presence/response is seen expounded in the call and obedience section (3:1–7:7). From the outset Yahweh is the active partner revealing himself and declaring his unique name and purpose. Moses at the burning bush, who is at this juncture not characterized as an ardent religious seeker but a shepherd, must respond. As our author says, ‘Theophany describes the advent of God’s presence; call describes the opportunity of response to that Presence. Theophany provides both stimulus and authority for response; response, despite a choice, is virtually inevitable following theophany.’ Moses’ experience foreshadows the Sinai events and the theme propels the narrative cohesively forward through to the greater Advent of Presence and the people’s response at Sinai. ‘Necessity’ leads to the ‘ideal’ response in Exodus 24 and ‘choice’ to the real and tragic ending in Exodus 32–34. Despite source-critical visions of a ‘labyrinth of seams and separate parts’ in the latter section, Durham sets these aside for a valuable discussion of this material as a paradigm of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.

The prescribed ‘media of worship’ (25:1–31:8) and obedience (35:1–40:38) sections also benefit from this approach. A close comparison of parallel portions has led many to disassemble the text and finally get bogged down in the vagaries of source and tradition analysis. Durham’s emphasis is on seeing the obvious repetition, reordering, compression and expansion as a sign of the conscious literary skill and theological purpose attributed to the final editor. Above all it is to be seen as bound together by theological connections which bear the key theme of the immanent Presence of Yahweh and the authorized media for response.

Durham’s commentary does make a definite and positive contribution to our understanding of Exodus within the scope of Word’s new series. He has rigorously focused his attention on the interpreter’s task as he sees it and constructively develops the significance of the theology of Yahweh’s presence. Though working from a moderately source-critical stance, he has for the most part left speculation aside and concentrated on the text at hand. This focus and scope will be a help to the student, but only a beginning to the study of this foundational book of the OT.

Douglas Jackson