Beginning Childs’ Commentary on Exodus

I started Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus.  Childs looks at the Book of Exodus from a historical-critical perspective, as he acknowledges such things as various sources and redaction.  But Childs also considers the interpretation and use of the Book of Exodus in the history of biblical interpretation: in the New Testament, Hellenistic Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, Medieval Judaism, the church fathers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, liberal Protestants, etc.  Moreover, Childs offers theological reflections on passages in Exodus.

I will need to reread Childs’ introduction to this book, but I will save that for later.  At this point, I will say some things that I have heard about Childs’ canonical-critical approach.  My understanding is that Childs does not just consider the historical-critical or traditio-critical meaning behind the texts, for he also considers the text as a whole.  Childs is also interested in the use of the Bible for the Christian church, to teach theology, and yet he draws from Jewish interpretations because they, too, look at the biblical text holistically as well as have some theological or homiletical interest in the Hebrew Bible.  This is how I understand Childs’ canonical-criticism at the present time, and I am open to correction.  But, if you do correct me, I will direct people to your comments rather than rewrite this post, or sections of it.

Is this the approach that I see in Childs’ commentary on Exodus?  Does Childs treat the Book as a whole—in a synchronic manner?  He does at times acknowledge the existence of the J and the E sources, or he suggests that an older tradition has accumulated additions.  But there are also times when he says that debates on source division do not matter for a particular passage because they are unrelated to the passage’s meaning.  He appears to be rather skeptical of scholarly tendencies to see a lot of hands in Exodus 3.  On page 98, when discussing the story of Moses’ near-death experience with an angel, he states that there is a scholarly tendency to focus too much on the passage’s possible original meaning (i.e., to account for a ritual), and not enough on the redactor’s use of the passage within the story (i.e., to highlight the importance of circumcision).

At some times, Childs is not exactly clear—or at least I am confused.  For example, he states that Exodus 3 is about the revelation of the name of YHWH, which differs from the J source’s claim that the God of Israel was always known as YHWH, even during the time of the patriarchs, and before then.  But Childs also appears to assert that Moses was confirming his own prophetic status by showing the Israelites that he knew the name of YHWH, as well as communicating to them what the name meant (that God will be present, in accordance with ehyeh asher ehyeh), rather than telling them new information.  The former notion presumes different sources, one that suggests that YHWH’s name was known before the time of Moses, and some that imply the opposite.  The latter idea, however, seems to be more of a harmonistic approach (though Childs, even then, attributes Exodus 3 to E), for it downplays the idea that YHWH’s name was unknown prior to Moses.

What is Childs’ stance on the historicity of the Book of Exodus?  I have not read everything that he has written on the subject, but he is not afraid of saying that a passage is unhistorical.  For example, “Moses” in Egyptian means “son”, but the author of the Exodus story about the Egyptian princess drawing baby Moses out of the water apparently does not know that, for he relates “Moses” to the Hebrew word for “draw out”, plus he presents the princess knowing Hebrew!  Childs does not seem to believe that the story of Moses in the basket has much to do with the Assyrian story of baby Sargon in the basket, for the Sargon story lacks the motif of genocide.  Yet, Childs does not run away from acknowledging foreign parallels to the Moses story, for he mentions the Egyptian story of Sinuhe in reference to Moses’ flight, showing that he deems Sinuhe to be relevant.  Childs on page 15 criticizes those who bring up Egyptian history in discussing the Book of Exodus.  Moreover, Childs also treats the text literarily.  He says that Moses’ sister in the story of baby Moses is a literary device that furthers the plot, and that there are two midwives in Exodus 1 for poetic purposes.  (On a side note, Childs presents reasons that the midwives in the story were Egyptian, not Hebrew, for, if they were Hebrew, Pharaoh would not have been surprised that the Hebrew boys were surviving under their supervision—since Hebrew midwives would naturally spare their own.)  Childs notices literary patterns, such as the two Israelites’ ungrateful rejection of Moses’ help, as contrasted with Jethro’s gratitude to Moses for assisting his daughters.  So far in my reading, Childs’ treatment of the Book of Exodus has not included viewing it as a historically-accurate source.

Childs’ approach to the Book of Exodus is Christian, yet he uses Jewish sources, which are from a different worldview—one that takes the text in a different direction from where Christianity takes it.  How does Childs do this?  First of all, Childs appeals to Jewish (and Christian) sources to answer questions about the text.  Were the midwives right or wrong to lie to Pharaoh?  (The Christian sources tend to vote “wrong”.)  Was Moses right or wrong to kill the Egyptian?  (Many early interpreters answered “right”, whereas later liberal Protestants answered “wrong”.)  Why did Moses not tell Jethro the truth about why he was returning to Egypt?  (Answers that have been proposed include that Moses was modest, or shy about religious matters.)  These questions cover neutral territory in terms of Judaism and Christianity, for they focus primarily on the plot of the story. (Yet, Stephen Fraade has argued that there can be ideological implications even in how one interprets plot, explaining the differences between Christian and Jewish interpretations of Genesis 4:26, which features people making some sort of use of the name of the LORD in the time of Enosh.)

Second,on page 25, Childs states that the Exodus was only a prelude to “eschatological redemption”, which Israel awaited.  This occurred, at least in part, when the Messiah (Jesus) identified himself with the history of Israel by descending into Egypt and coming out a true son.  Childs here does not dismiss what Israel understood as her history, and the concept of eschatological redemption is shared by many Jews and Christians.  But Childs maintains that Christ fulfills that concept.  His understanding of the eschatological redemption is probably different from that of many Jews, but that may not come into play in his interpretation of the Book of Exodus, which largely is not about eschatology (though Childs does acknowledge favorably when Christian interpreters have made eschatological use of Exodus).  To see how Childs would interpret eschatological passages in comparison or contrast with Jewish interpretations, a look at his commentary on Isaiah may be profitable!

Third, Childs admits that the New Testament interpretation of the Book of Exodus is not always the same as what the Book of Exodus itself is saying, for the New Testament draws from Hellenistic Jewish and other interpretations.  (For instance, Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus resembles the early chapters of Exodus, except, unlike Matthew’s story, the Book of Exodus does not present the king fearing a specific individual who would arise and undermine his reign.  Josephus, Philo, targumim, and Greek mythology, however, do have those kinds of stories.)  In one case, when the Book of Exodus differs from the New Testament’s interpretation of it, Childs treats both of them as valid witnesses.  Hebrews 11 interprets the story of Moses in terms of eschatological hope, whereas the Exodus story itself lacks this element, focusing instead on the here-and-now.  Childs says that Christians experience a clear call to discipleship, yet they navigate their way through sinful emotions and historical accidents.  After all, Moses’ “selfless act is soon beclouded by violence and nothing of lasting effect is accomplished for Israel’s plight” (page 43).

But, while Childs accepts the testimony of both testaments, he still highlights the importance of Jesus Christ.  Only in Jesus Christ, he proclaims, do the tensions between eschatological hope and living in the here-and-now come together.  As Childs considers the sermon of Stephen in Acts 7, he seems to agree with Stephen’s drawing of a parallel between the two Israelites’ failure to recognize Moses as their helper, and the failure of much of Israel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Childs’ use of the Book of Exodus is Christian, and it’s for the church, yet he utilizes historical-critical and Jewish interpretations for that goal.

These are my impressions so far of Childs’ approach, based on my reading of the first 102 pages.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Beginning Childs’ Commentary on Exodus

  1. Cool! Excited to follow your thoughts on this commentary.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hope you like these posts, Josiah!


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