Completing Childs’ Commentary on Exodus

I finished Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus.  I’ll just start writing about something in the book that interested me, and go from there.

An issue that has been in my mind as I have read this book is whether or not Childs believes there is a historical kernal behind the events narrated in the Book of Exodus.  I do not know what Childs believes about the historicity of many events, but, on page 561, he does appear to say that the Golden Calf was possible in pre-settlement Israel, and he disagrees with those who argue that the earliest story was favorable to the Golden Calf.  So he does appear to maintain that there is something historical in the Golden Calf story.  That does not mean, however, that Childs believes all of that story is historically-accurate, for he does think that the story has layers: there was an oral stage, at which time a story about the Golden Calf was combined with the motif of Israel murmuring.  That entered the J source and was incorporated by a pre-Deuteronomistic redactor into Exodus 32-34.  At some point, a pro-Levite and anti-Aaronide tradition, perhaps from the time of Jeroboam, was added.

Childs has said in this book that the Hebrew Bible contains reflections of Israel throughout her history about her stories.  Childs is not for going back to the historical kernal and building a theology on that alone, for he continually emphasizes the importance of the final form of the text.  In terms of the theology that Childs derives from the final form of the text, he does not focus, say, on whether God favored Aaron or the Levites.  Rather, he concentrates his attention on ideas, such as God’s holiness, God’s mercy, Moses’ compassion as opposed to Aaron’s self-justification, the danger of apostasy (even for the church), and Moses serving as a type of Christ (the intercessor between God and man). 

On page 543, Childs states: “In my judgment, the historical dimension has significance for exegesis only to the extent that it can illuminate the final form of the text.  To suggest that the ‘real’ meaning of the text depends on the accuracy of one’s historical reconstruction is an assumption which I do not share.  Indeed, to read off the meaning of the tabernacle from a reconstructed post-exilic historical context is as subjective a method as the older symbolic interpretation.”

This is a rich quote, in terms of understanding Childs’ methodology.  I can sympathize with Childs’ agenda, for, as I’ve read different ideas on historical-reconstructions, I have often wondered how exactly they illuminate the meaning of the text.  “Why can’t we just read the Bible?”, I’ve asked myself.  “Do we really need all these speculations in order to do that?”  In a lot of cases, maybe not.  But there are times when one layer of the text is ideologically different from later layers, or other sources, or even the final form of the text (at the hands of a redactor).  In some cases, these different layers or sources may come from the same time period, and, in other cases, they may be speaking to different historical contexts.  But, to understand the meaning of the “Bible”, one should do some sort of diachronic analysis, rather than just doing so when it helps us to understand the “final form”.

Also in this quote, we see a feature that I have highlighted before in this series: Childs’ rejection of two extremes—forced harmonization and midrash, on one hand, and atomization of the text, on the other.  Childs’ problem with forced harmonization and midrash is that it is not faithful to the text.  For example, one can speculate (as many religious interpreters, Jewish and Christian, did) that the Tabernacle symbolizes the cosmos, but where does the Bible say that?  Another example that Childs cites is the claim that Moses (rather than God) wrote the second set of Ten Commandments on the stones in order that the tablets would not become an idol, for the Israelites had just demonstrated that they could lapse into idolatry.  As Childs says, that is not in the text.  Childs’ problem with harmonization reminds me of issues that Jon Levenson and James McGrath have expressed: that harmonization creates a synthesis that is not what the Bible itself is saying, for the Bible has tension; rather, the harmonization is an attempt by an interpreter to smooth over what is not smooth.  When you harmonize the Gospels’ resurrection accounts, for example, you are creating a story that is not in the Bible. 

I think that Childs makes a good point, but I have a question: Whenever we interpret a text, aren’t we creating a thought that is not in the text?  On page 623, Childs entertains the rabbinic idea that Moses covered his face with a veil out of meekness.  That’s not in the text.  But what are we to do?  Not interpret the text, and remain baffled as to why Moses wore a veil?  This may not be the best example, for Exodus 34 says that the people were afraid of Moses when they saw his face, so it does offer a reason for Moses’ veil.  But what I’m saying is that there are details in the Bible that are not clear.  We can either offer ideas about what they mean, even though those ideas are not in the text itself, or we can remain baffled, which isn’t very enriching.  But, if we are to interpret, I suppose that we need boundaries.  What Childs thinks those should be, I am not entirely certain.  He believes that the editor who is responsible for the final form brings different things together, and Childs tries to identify normative ideas from those different things.  But he does not like allegory, or explanations that appear to be a stretch (i.e., modern midrashic attempts to find a reason for the order of laws, when there is no apparent reason for their order).  In Childs’ mind, he is being faithful to the text itself.

Throughout my series on Childs, I have focused more on Childs’ methodology, rather than areas in which he interprets the text itself.  Even though I passed my comps, I’m still in “studying for comps” mode, which means that I’m trying to get the gist of authors’ arguments, rather than just identifying points that interest me (which was how I used to study).  But, since I have identified with Childs’ concern about illuminating the text itself, rather than just focusing on the text’s prehistory, I want to refer to an area in which he made an interesting point about the text.  For example, he said that the bull represented Baal in Canaan and Apis in Egypt, and that, although Aaron conducted a feast for YHWH during the Golden Calf incident, that did not mean he was saying the Golden Calf was YHWH.  That reminded me of an interpretation I once read about Aaron’s declaration of “These are your gods” (Exodus 32:4), which was odd, since there was only one Calf: one god was the one whom the Calf symbolized, and the other was YHWH.

Overall, I found this commentary to be an excellent resource of information about scholarly and religious interpretations of Exodus.  Although I found interaction with scholarly scenarios—as well as his own scenarios—to require a lot of concentration and thought, I did not find his theological points to be all that deep, to tell you the truth.  This is significant to me, for I have long resented a story I heard about Childs, in which Childs told a student, “Do you want to write a good exegesis paper?  Become a deeper person.”  Well, Childs may have thought that his theological reflections were deep, but I found a lot of them to be the same old spiel that I have heard from evangelical Christians.  I did, however, like Childs’ conclusion about Jethro and God instructing Moses: that we can learn from God, and also from the wisdom of people in day-to-day life.

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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