Childs’ Heart Is in the Right Place, but I Still Have Issues

In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, I read forty pages, plus I reread Childs’ “Preface” and “Introduction”.

Childs expresses many of the problems I have with the historical-critical method (and I include under this category source criticism and traditio-criticism).  He says that many scholars spend so much time talking about their ideas regarding the pre-history of the biblical text—the sources and the development of traditions—that they neglect the text in its final form, which was the canon for the synagogue and the church.  Moreover, on page 338, Child states that “American scholarship has tended to impose Ancient Near Eastern patterns upon the biblical traditions with a heavy hand which has only succeeded in smothering the text, or it has fallen back into rationalistic harmonizations and reductionist theories of ‘what really happened'” (page 338).  Childs states that looking at the pre-history of the text is valuable if it clarifies the text’s meaning.  At the same time, however, he talks a lot about debates regarding the text’s pre-history, and I’m often left scratching my head as I wonder how exactly that information sheds light on what the text is saying.  As a matter of fact, Childs in his introduction says that lay-people can skip his sections on form and traditio-criticism “without seriously jeopardizing the comprehension of the exegetical section” (page xvi).  Technically-speaking, the development of a tradition should be relevant to what a tradition means.  But Childs realizes that many people ask “So what?” when they encounter certain scholarly sketches of the text’s pre-history and sources.  Those sketches leave many of us still hungry!

And yet, although Childs does have sections on the text’s prehistory, my problem is that he does not engage issues involving history as much as I’d like.  Yesterday, I raised the question of whether or not Childs believes that there is a historical kernal behind the events that the Hebrew Bible narrates, and if he addresses the question of whether or not the historicity of biblical events is important for faith.  So far in my reading, he has not addressed that question in a direct manner.  Like Martin Noth, Childs does believe that there may be a “historical memory from the wilderness period” in Exodus 17’s story about Israel’s battle with Amalek, for the story mentions an altar, “which would suggest an early localization of the tradition” (page 313).  But, overall, at least in my reading so far, Childs does not wrestle with the historicity of biblical events.

On page 326, Childs states regarding the story of Jethro in Exodus 18 that “the lines of development begin to emerge clearly in the course of Israel’s own reflections on her tradition in the light of the ongoing history of the nation.”  This may actually be a significant statement, one that reveals Childs’ viewpoint regarding history.  Childs believes that traditions developed as Israelites reflected.  That shows that the traditions before us in the Hebrew Bible do not necessarily reflect what really occurred in history, for the traditions indicate development.  This development occurred “in light of the ongoing history of the nation”, Childs says.  And yet, rarely in this commentary have I seen Childs specify how traditions developed in response to historical events.  History does not play a significant role in this commentary, at least in what I have read up to this point.  Probably the closest Childs comes to relating tradition to history is when he says that Exodus 12’s description of the Passover ritual emerged in Israel’s post-exilic period, when the Passover was considered significant, and that it highlighted an “already and not yet” (my words) dimension of redemption.  But, often, Childs does not touch on ancient Israelite history.  In a sense, this is understandable, for I have read many scholars who dogmatically relate biblical texts to specific historical contexts, when it seems to me that the texts could relate to a variety of contexts.  It is possible for scholars to become so obsessed with identifying the Sitz im Leben of the text, that they neglect to focus on the meaning of the text itself.  At the same time, when I read about how a tradition developed, I’d like to encounter ideas about why it developed as it did: what were the theological ideas or the historical contexts that led to the tradition’s development?  I feel at times that historical-critics do not comment enough on the significance of their insights.  (Of the people I’ve read, however, John Van Seters actually does this, for he relates biblical texts to history and the theology of the authors.) 

In many cases, Childs’ approach to the text is rather synchronic.  I talked yesterday about how he is uncomfortable with the historical-critical idea that P came along and added a supernatural element to the parting of the Red Sea, whereas J was fine with saying that God used natural causes (a wind).  For Childs, the editor of the text did not aim for one tradition to supersede another, for he presents both of them simultaneously.  I came across the same sort of approach in my reading today.  On pages 331-332, Childs discusses how many religious commentators had problems with Moses receiving advice from Jethro.  Why, after all, would Moses need advice from a foreign priest, when he had access to the very voice of God?  Childs says that “the remarkable thing is that the Old Testament itself does not seem to sense any problem on this issue.”  Childs then looks at Christian exegetes who used Exodus 18 to say that Christians can learn even from pagans (an “All truth is God’s truth” sort of idea), and Childs concludes in his theological reflection that we can learn from both divine revelation and also “the wisdom of human experience” (page 335).  My problem with Childs’ approach here is that part of the Hebrew Bible may have a problem with Moses receiving advice from Jethro, for Deuteronomy 1 does not mention Jethro when it discusses the origin of the Israelite court system.  Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity, as well as a possible attempt by Deuteronomy to supersede what is in Exodus. 

Perhaps something valuable that Childs contributes—in terms of his methodology—is that we can read two different traditions together: that Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 both teach us something valuable.  Both traditions were preserved, after all!  As I read many biblical scholars, I wonder what exactly I am supposed to do with biblical diversity, from a theological standpoint, and Childs (to his credit) does try to tackle this question.  But there are times when Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity.  For example, Jethro in Exodus 18 says that YHWH is above all gods, which drew the ire of John Calvin, who concluded that Jethro did not make the full leap into monotheism!  But Childs says that this is too literal, and that “there is no vestige of polytheism left” in Jethro’s words (page 328).  In my opinion, this shows that it’s easy to simultaneously accept certain tensions within Scripture—learning from God, and learning from a wise person—but not others.  After all, either there is only one God, or there are many gods!  What can we do when the Hebrew Bible presents both views?  Can we hold to a contradiction in our faith?

I noted above that Childs criticizes scholars who smother the text by referring to ancient Near Eastern parallels.  But there is one occasion in which Childs uses an ancient Near Eastern parallel to illuminate the text, and also to correct religious interpretations.  Why did Moses in Exodus 17 lift us his hands, resulting in the victory of the Israelites over Amalek?  Religious commentators have said that Moses was praying, or was encouraging the troops.  But Childs simply states that “In Exodus 17 the hands are the instruments of mediating power, as is common throughout the ancient Near East” (page 315).  But overall, in my reading thus far, Childs does not make use of ancient Near Eastern parallels.  Could that be because we live in a different world, and ancient Near Eastern mindsets are not our own?  We, after all, do not believe that hands channel power (or maybe there are people who do, such as practitioners of alternative healing practices).  Childs wants his commentary to be relevant for his age, so he excludes certain things that he does not deem relevant.       

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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.