In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, Childs spells out some of the aspects of canonical criticism that I was discussing yesterday: his view that scholars should look at the final form of the biblical text, rather than just concentrating on the text’s different authors and redactional stages.
Granted, Childs is not a fundamentalist, for he emphatically disagrees with scholars who act as if tensions within the Book of Exodus do not exist, out of apologetic motives. Much of what I read today was Childs’ interaction with historical-criticism, source criticism, and traditi0-criticism, as Childs agreed with some models, critiqued others, and offered his own model in some cases. As an example of Childs’ belief in different sources, Childs acknowledges differences between J and P. J presents Pharaoh’s recalcitrance as being in response to the plagues and their removal, whereas P asserts that Pharaoh’s recalcitrance resulted in the multiplication of plagues. (On a side note, Childs focuses on this point in his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which, in my opinion, failed to address the problematic nature of God hardening a person.) On page 193, Childs notes how J and P also contradict each other on the Israelites’ departure from Egypt:
“According to J the Israelites left at night, whereas P has them depart in the morning. In J the people are unprepared and hastily packed up their unleavened bread. In P careful preparation has been made for the feast throughout the night. The hasty departure is only acted out. Unleavened bread is not an accidental discovery, but part of the prepared ceremony. In J the death of the first-born culminated the long struggle with Pharaoh and resulted in his abject defeat and capitulation. In P the judgment is directed rather to the gods of Egypt (12.2) and Pharaoh plays no significant role.”
Childs acknowledges the existence of tensions within the text, but how does he handle those tensions as one who treats the Bible as canon—as a sacred text? On pages 150-151, Childs refers to Moshe Greenberg’s approach of identifying major themes in a passage, and of seeing how the themes fit into “the movement of the book as a whole.” A theme that Greenberg identifies is “the revelation by God [through the plagues] of his nature to Pharaoh, to the Egyptians, and to all men.” (And something that Childs talked about more than once in my reading today was how the plagues story acknowledged the God-fearers among the Egyptians.) According to Childs, by looking at how different sources interact with a broad theme, we can avoid getting lost in “unduly fragmented” exegesis, and we can also highlight different dimensions of the text and “sketch the full range of God’s method of showing his power.” In essence, Childs appears to be saying that we should keep our focus on broad themes, while allowing the diversity of the text to illustrate them, rather than concentrating predominantly on fracturing the text into different sources and layers.
I can envision this sort of approach becoming boring because it may highlight the same themes over and over: God’s sovereignty, God’s love, God’s justice, etc. And yet, perhaps this approach can be interesting because it can reveal different, nuanced ways of illustrating these themes. Moreover, while historical-criticism can be fascinating because it presents the Bible as a prism rather than a monochromatic document, I often find myself asking “So what?” in response to many of its claims. I wish that, rather than just looking at differences within the Bible, biblical scholars would also comment on the significance of those differences—within religious ideologies. Childs does that on one occasion in my reading today, when he talks about P’s ideology behind including the genealogy of Moses and Aaron: P’s belief in history as “the ongoing life of the established institutions and offices of the covenant people” (page 116).
Another question that I have as I read Childs is the significance of some of the information that he provides. For instance, he refers to Jewish and Christian exegetes (Augustine, Rashi, etc.) who try to answer how the Egyptian magicians found water to turn into blood, when Moses had already turned all of the water into blood. This is of interest to me because I like to see how the ancients addressed difficulties within the Bible, from their own religious standpoints. But I wonder why Childs includes that information. As far as I know, Childs himself does not embrace an approach of harmonizing the Scriptures, so why does he refer to incidents in which ancient exegetes did so? Is it for encyclopedic purposes, or to give us an accurate picture of ancient exegesis? There are times when the ancient exegesis that Childs cites appears to clarify the text or to explain the story, but then there are times when I wonder how certain information fits into Childs’ model of canonical criticism.
Moreover, Childs himself at times seems to act as if ancient exegetes (like historical-critics) focus on minutiae while missing the key theme of the text. For example, while ancient exegetes sought to justify the Israelites’ spoiling of the Egyptians (one reason being, for some exegetes, that people like Marcion criticized the Old Testament on the basis of things such as this), Childs notes that the Old Testament attempts to make no such justification. Childs states that, “Seen in the light of the whole Old Testament, the despoiling of the Egyptians is another sign of Israel’s election which constituted the faith of Israel (Gen. 15.14)” (page 177). Childs may appeal to ancient exegetes because they, too, have a sensitivity to the broader context of biblical passages—within the canon of the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian canon of the Old Testament plus the New Testament. But he may also think that there are times when ancient exegetes neglect broader themes in their focus on technicalities.