Commentary Magazine


The Uses of Exodus

If the biblical Book of Genesis is the story of one family—in today’s parlance, we might call it a “multigenerational saga”—then the book which follows, Exodus, is the story of the birth of a nation and its constitution, of a people’s binding with God by history and by covenant. In the Book of Exodus, God brings His people Israel out of Egyptian slavery with many miracles; He gives them the Law at Mount Sinai; He takes up dwelling in the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary constructed by His servant Moses, and leads the Israelites on their way to conquering the land He promised their forefathers. Freedom and law—these are the twin subjects of Exodus; both, the book tells us, lie in obedience to the Almighty God. Indeed, it seems strangely consistent with their later history that of all the peoples of the world, the Jews should have become an autonomous nation, possessed of a comprehensive body of social, political, and religious laws, even before they had a land of their own.

As Exodus is the book without which there would be no Jewish people and no Judaism, it is hardly surprising that its text should prove of central importance to Near Eastern scholars, archeologists, theologians, historians, and political scientists alike. In the last several years, four significant works on Exodus aimed at a general and secular audience have been published just in the United States, besides the much larger number of academic essays and monographs in English and other languages in the various centers of scholarship around the world. Since two of the four are by biblical scholars, and two by political scientists, and since all four authors bring an avowedly Jewish perspective to bear on their subject, their more or less simultaneous convergence in print provides a happy occasion to look both at Exodus itself and also at certain recent trends in biblical interpretation.

_____________

 

Because every translation of the Bible is itself a historically-conditioned act of interpretation, it is appropriate to call Everett Fox’s Now These Are the Names both a new rendering of Exodus and a commentary.1 Now These Are the Names—the title, after the fashion by which biblical books are known in Jewish tradition, is drawn from the first words of Exodus—is the second volume in a projected translation of the entire Pentateuch. Fox, who teaches at Clark University, has already published In the Beginning (1983), a thoughtful and stimulating rendition of Genesis.

Fox belongs to a new generation of scholars who have brought to the study of the Bible the methods and assumptions of literary criticism. This approach, which seeks to repair the excessive atomization of the Hebrew Scriptures wrought by 19th-century scholarship, looks at the Bible as one rich and complexly ordered creation of the imagination, and examines its poetry, narrative, and law in terms of language, structure, imagery, and other conscious literary devices. The best-known practitioner of this critical genre is Robert Alter, whose “A Literary Approach to the Bible” (COMMENTARY, December 1975) remains the most penetrating and temperate exposition of its principles.

The literary approach, which today has its formalists, its New Critics, and even its deconstructionists, does not necessarily betoken a radical departure either from rabbinic exegesis or from 19th-century modes of textual analysis. Rather, as Fox stresses in his introduction to Now These Are the Names, the literary approach should be seen as “the uncovering of another side of the Bible’s meaning,” a supplement to older schools of biblical scholarship which, together with them, is intended to enrich our understanding of “the totality and greatness of the literature that lies before us.” Indeed, this conception of the Bible, which in some respects resembles a contemporary and secular reinstatement of rabbinic holism (with the artist standing in for God) itself has a pedigree that can be traced back at least a generation to Martin Buber. It thus seems fitting that Everett Fox, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the German translation of Genesis done earlier in the century by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, should use their rendition of Hebrew Scriptures as the model and inspiration for his own.

The Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, assailed by contemporaries as being at once barbaric, snobbishly affected, and inaccessibly Jewish, was revolutionary in several respects. Consciously wrestling against the familiar, Christian-conditioned cadences of Martin Luther’s authoritative translation, Buber and Rosenzweig employed an archaizing literalism purposely reminiscent of rabbinic exegesis. At the same time (as the biblical scholar Edward L. Greenstein has observed), Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation also owes a great deal to German Romanticism, with its theories of ancient literature as an oral tradition intended for performance and its belief in the essential untranslatability of language. Buber maintained that the translator should actively accentuate, even exaggerate, this quality of untranslatability, and strive to produce a rendition so difficult and ungainly that the serious reader would be driven to consult the original for himself.

From these twin premises of an oral poet and an untranslatable text, Buber and Rosenzweig spawned a wholly new language; their translation of the Bible was punctuated in breath-length bursts to suit recitation, and was larded with Hebraisms, German archaisms, and neologisms coined to convey to the 20th-century reader the cryptic brevity and urgency of the Hebrew text, as well as the full range of meanings suggested in the three-letter roots from which most Hebrew words derive. Their return to etymological roots frequently had the effect of stripping away Christian associations and arriving at a more starkly Israelite conception: thus, “altar” became “slaughter-site,” angel “messenger,” and prophet “proclaimer,” while “sacrifice” was returned to its suggestive Hebrew root, “coming-nigh” (or “bringing-near”). Buber and Rosenzweig’s most important innovation, however, was their targeting of Leitwörter, significant key words in the Hebrew text whose repetitions had customarily been suppressed by translators in the interests of a varied style, but which Buber and Rosenzweig recognized as imparting essential information about the meaning and character of biblical heroes, events, and laws.

In his own English translation of Exodus, Everett Fox closely follows Buber and Rosenzweig’s methodology and outlook, opting for an ungainly and foreign-sounding literalism intended to impress upon a diffuse and modern tongue something of the biblical Hebrew’s intensely packed brevity, its syncopated rhythms and choppy diction, its emotional passion, its wealth of alliteration, paranomasia (same sound), puns, and significant repetitions of key words. Although he acknowledges that contemporary scholarship has moved away from the theory that ancient literature derives principally from oral material, Fox’s translation, like Buber and Rosenzweig’s, is punctuated in spurts of language, sometimes no more than one or two words to a line, and is most emphatically intended to be recited aloud.

Fox also strives to expose in English the biblical Hebrew’s root meanings: thus, the biblical “month of Aviv” is rendered etymologically as “New Moon of Ripe Grain.” The compactness and mobility of Hebrew verbs, which Buber and Rosenzweig conveyed by an aggressive Hebraizing of German, converting nouns into verbs, Fox communiciates more timidly by such gawky formulations as “turn-them-into-smoke,” “provide-that-he-shall-be-healed,” “be-a-priest,” “bear-fruit,” or “become-many,” phrases which in Hebrew are contained in one word. (In an apparent desire to have it both ways, Fox alludes in his footnotes to agonized misgivings over his choice of words and proposes alternative formulations that are almost always more audacious than the ones he has settled upon in his text. This unfortunate habit gives his translation at times a withheld or vacillating air which is of course quite foreign to the Hebrew original.)

_____________

 

Although one might have wished that Fox had exerted greater pressure upon the English to reproduce the German version’s linguistic inventiveness or the Hebrew original’s brevity, his Englishing of Exodus is nonetheless engaging. Now These Are the Names, with its insistent assonance and alliteration, its hyphenated construct-words, its breathless diction, and its fixed epithets, looks and sounds to a contemporary reader like nothing so much as an Anglo-Saxon epic, after the manner of The Battle of Maldon or Beowulf. This is all the more the case since Fox in his translation of Exodus tends to emphasize the bloody, the violent, and the magical, bringing out buried hints of primordial monsters and battles between God and seabeasts. The Anglo-Saxon effect is actually quite seemly, since much of the Bible’s verse and speech is itself deliberately archaic, and a poem like the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-21) would likely have had an antiquated flavor even to its original audience.

At its best, Fox’s literalism brings out the frantic and sometimes almost speechless fervor of biblical speech, whose stuttering, tongue-tied cadences and mobility of emotion are lost in the longer periods and more regular majesty of the King James Version. A particularly acute instance is Fox’s translation of the law protecting widows and orphans in Exodus 22:22-24—a law so close to God’s heart that, like Moses, He almost seems to gasp and stammer in contemplating its violation:

Any widow or orphan you are not to
     afflict.
Oh, if you afflict, afflict them. . . !
For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,
I will hearken, yes, hearken to their
     cry,
my anger will rage
and I will kill you with the sword,
so that your wives become widows, and
     your children, orphans!2

If Everett Fox loses Buber and Rosenzweig’s extreme originality, in one respect at least he may be said to have improved upon their Bible. Whereas the highly romantic Buber tends (as Fox put it in his 1974 dissertation) “to a great extent to minimize the importance of the Law in Judaism,” Now These Are the Names displays a fit sense of the all-illuminating centrality of covenant and tabernacle. Indeed, Fox’s rather gaudy and baroque rendition of the ornamentation of the tabernacle and the garb of the priests enlivens a major portion of Exodus which many readers find dull. This correction is all the more welcome since literary critics of the Bible have been accused, with some justice, of accentuating its poetic and narrative aspects at the expense of law.

Acknowledging in his preface the “provisional” and “time-bound” nature of all translation, Fox likens his rendition of Exodus to a musical performance which, he hopes, will startle a lay audience into perceiving new meanings and gaining new pleasures. In this respect, it may indeed be said that Fox’s Now These Are the Names constitutes more of a curiosity than serious competition for a standard translation, serving principally to remind the reader with a jolt that the Hebrew Bible was not written by King James or, for that matter, the Jewish Publication Society of America, but rather was composed a very long time ago, in an ancient and difficult language, for an audience possessing beliefs, tastes, and traditions very different from our own. Fox’s chief accomplishment, besides underlining the Bible’s artistic unity, is to accentuate this quality of otherness. In doing so, his translation at its most daring also succeeds in conveying to us some of Exodus’s sheer emotive power, drawing us closer to those moments of mounting heat at Mount Sinai when sentences falter, narrative grows jagged, and God suddenly seems likely to hurtle through human bounds and sweep us away with the full velocity of revelation.

_____________

 

Among recent interpretations of Exodus, none is more accessible to the common reader than that of Nahum Sarna, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Brandeis, and author, previously, of the splendid Understanding Genesis (1970). To that volume now comes a fit sequel, Exploring Exodus.3

Nahum Sarna occupies a very particular territory in the landscape of biblical studies, which is itself (as he remarks in his introduction to Understanding Genesis) a fairly new—and highly polemical—discipline. In the late 17th century, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza laid the groundwork for a scientific and methodological approach to Bible Study. In contrast to traditional rabbinic and Christian exegesis, which understood Scripture as a divinely revealed whole, Spinoza deemed it instead a haphazard accretion of legends and laws harking back to different centuries and regions and, in his famous words, “promiscuously heaped together.” Spinoza proposed an analytical approach which would seek to separate the canon into all its disparate sources and to identify, where possible, their dates of composition, origins, and authors.

This approach, informed by a rational skepticism and sometimes by a not-so-rational animosity to the people of Israel and their religion, came to full fruition in the scientific study of Scripture Known as the Higher Criticism or as the Historical-Critical School, which nourished in 19th-century Germany and has dominated biblical scholarship ever since. In recent years, the Higher Criticism has been strengthened and supplemented by the various fields of comparative Near Eastern studies, which have discovered in other cultures any number of analogues for the rites, laws, literature, and institutions once thought to be unique to biblical Israel. Thus, Noah and his ark have been shown to be the offspring of a Sumerian flood story, Joseph and Potiphar to have their Egyptian forebears, while Moses’s Passover has been exposed as a kind of Israelite Presidents’ Day Weekend, that is, a handy amalgam of two existing holidays, one pastoral, the other agricultural.

If our vision of the Bible’s revolutionary uniqueness has been in some ways modified and refined by comparative Near Eastern studies, however, its claims to historical veracity, bruised by the Higher Criticism, have been much restored by recent archeological findings, many of which have served to confirm biblical geography and events. Together with the scrolls found near the Dead Sea, these discoveries have, in Sarna’s words, “led in turn to a more positive reevaluation of the general integrity and antiquity of our received Hebrew text.”

The Higher Criticism inevitably has had a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it has decisively influenced our view of the historical and cultural conditions which produced the Hebrew Bible, and has immeasurably improved our understanding of its language. It is no exaggeration to say that all academic Bible study today, at least in Europe and the United States, owes its methods and assumptions to the spadework done by the Higher Criticism. (Israeli scholars seem less taken with it.) On the other hand, as Sarna confirms, while pretending to a scientific certainty many of whose conclusions have been difficult to sustain, the Higher Criticism has proved undeniably reductionist and atomistic. If its minute and hairsplitting attributions were applied to modern literature, Moby-Dick, for example, would be revealed to be the work of five different schools of “redactors” working centuries apart. (In fact, this same falsely precise skepticism led 19th-century scholars to attribute to minor Elizabethans like Nashe and Greene acts and scenes of plays now believed to be wholly Shakespeare’s.) Most seriously, as Sarna observes in Understanding Genesis, with its emphasis on historicity and source-differentiation, the Higher Criticism has tended to overlook the Bible’s religious significance, giving us little sense of why, 2,000 years after its final canonization, much of the world today still worships the God of Israel and not Babylon’s Marduk, Ishtar, or Shamash.

Nahum Sarna himself professes what might be called the Higher Criticism with a human face—that is, a historicism that is modern and rational, yet suffused by a sense of religious purposiveness and guided by a vigilant recognition of the revolutionary newness of the biblical concepts of God, nature, history, land, people, and leadership.

_____________

 

In Exploring Exodus, Sarna leads us through the biblical book chapter by chapter, providing historical background and philological explanations. He examines the servitude under Pharaoh in the light of what we know today of Egypt’s monarchies, its use of slave labor, its methods of city-building and brick-making, its topography, its religions, its educational system. He compares Moses’s birth-story to other “abandoned hero” tales like the Mesopotamian Legend of Sargon. He analyzes the Ten Plagues for possible climatic and seasonal causes, and then rejects these explanations. He charts a likely geographical course for Israel through the wilderness and delineates the histories and customs of the peoples they encounter on their journey. He instances modern-day Bedouin variants of the portable sanctuary which Moses builds and likens the idolatrous golden calf to the cherubim that by divine decree adorn the tabernacle’s inner sanctum. Most importantly, Sarna provides us with a comprehensive and penetrating exploration of the covenant which God strikes with His people at Mount Sinai, comparing this pact with Near Eastern vassal treaties and its statutes with those of other legal documents recently discovered in the region.

But where others have instanced these same Akkadian, Sumerian, and Egyptian parallels to demonstrate that Israel, a brash newcomer on the scene of Near Eastern history, merely pirated institutions, gods, and stories from the great and by-then decadent civilizations of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates valleys, Sarna in each case shows how Israel’s radically different conception of the one universal and invisible God, Creator of heaven and earth, caused it to reshape, transform, unify, or depart significantly from material common to the peoples of the ancient Near East. If other historical scholars, in what Sarna dubs “parallelomania,” have emphasized sameness, he reveals the more illuminating differences and contrasts between Israel and its older neighbors.

In what areas of life were biblical Israel’s innovations most pronounced? In his introduction to Exploring Exodus, Sarna gives us some initial sense of the wholesale recasting of time and history which results from the events recounted in Exodus. In the biblical view, history is at once a providential enactment of God’s grand design, as initiated in the creation, and the ultimate source of biblical religion and of normative Judaism. One concrete historical act, the release of Israel from Egyptian slavery (which some rabbinic and literary interpreters conceive of as a second creation), provides compelling cause for Israel’s consent to the law revealed at Mount Sinai; the acceptance of that law will in turn convert the twelve tribes, however imperfectly, haltingly, and haphazardly, into a holy people, a nation of priests, separate from the other nations and endowed with a unique destiny. Similarly, this one time-bound event, which almost all scholars now date in the 13th century BCE,4 is the continued justification for Israel’s fealty to God and His teachings centuries and millennia after the deeds described in Exodus took place. Thus, to cite but one of a multitude of examples within the Bible itself, the prophet Amos, in a book compiled some 500 years after the exodus, can still enjoin his compatriots in the name of the God “who brought you up from the land of Egypt and led you through the wilderness forty years. . . .”

Stranger and more compelling still is the book’s innate sense of a projected historical consciousness, according to which future generations will reenact imaginatively the events of the exodus, each man as if he himself in person had been freed from slavery under Pharaoh, had wandered in the desert with Moses, and had received, and accepted, the Torah at Mount Sinai. A holiday specifically devoted to the remembrance of these events is ushered in by Moses himself, a figure whose own historical consciousness is so acute that when the hungry Israelite tribes receive the heavenly manna that will sustain them for forty years, his first thought is to preserve some in a jar, to be placed in the sanctuary so that those yet unborn may see how the Lord fed their fathers in the desert. Sarna does not say so, but once again it seems strangely appropriate to later Jewish history, with its externally dictated necessities and its stress on tradition and memory, that this first house of worship should be both portable and also, in a limited sense, a museum, whose exhibits testify to events in Israelite history confirming divine providence.

As Sarna points out, the exodus from Egypt occasioned a wholly new calendar and rearrangement of time. With the bringing forth from slavery comes a new year, blending lunar and solar calendars, and a new set of seasonal festivals all rerooted in historical events: the departure from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the dwelling in booths in the desert. Most significant of all is the forging of a new six-day week, stubbornly independent of planetary movements, with a seventh day of rest divinely ordained for all classes of society, including slaves and foreigners—an institution without precedent in the ancient Near East and one which impresses upon the surface of days a swiftly recurrent image and reenactment of God’s own repose after the creation of heaven and earth.

With the exodus comes not only a new notion of history and time, new festivals, new laws of dietary purity, but also a dramatically new social and political order whose legal statutes are informed by the experience of slavery in Egypt and thereby endowed with a peculiar psychological and ethical force. “With the historicizing of religion comes the ethicizing of history,” writes Sarna. Again and again throughout the legal sections of Exodus, diverse rulings—in which Israelites are commanded to feed and clothe the stranger, to observe the Sabbath, and to leave gleanings for the poor and orphaned, or are prohibited from “abhorring” an Egyptian or from taking “a widow’s garment in pawn”—are explained and anchored by the refrain, “For remember you were strangers [or slaves] in Egypt.” This reminder, as one commentator has observed, would seem to go defiantly against the grain of human nature. For whereas a people emerging from slavery into independent nationhood might naturally be expected to put behind it so shameful, scarring, and dehumanizing a condition, Israel is repeatedly and insistently enjoined to keep alive the memory of its former servitude, not only in order to avoid “oppressing the stranger” but also in order actively to get inside his skin and feel as he feels.5

_____________

 

Sarna is particularly acute in his discussion of those four pillars of biblical religion which are founded in Exodus: monotheism and law, people and prophet (or national leader). As Sarna observes, although Genesis establishes the supremacy of one universal God, it is only in Exodus that we see waged a total war against polytheism (personified by Egypt and the golden calf), as God seeks to win to His teachings not only Israel but all the nations of the world. In Exodus, too, we first see the terms of His service concretely rendered. Whereas Abraham obeys individual messages from the Lord, Moses inscribes for time immemorial the conditions of a daily life sanctified in the service of an invisible and omniscient God, to be revered not in images but in words, in the very letter of the law.

Sarna’s comparison of the Ten Commandments and their sequels in the Pentateuch with Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Amorite legal tracts serves to underline how radically different is the Israelite conception of human life and its obligations. Other Near Eastern legal codes, many of which were explicitly intended only for dissemination among priests or the nobility, stem from earthly kings and hence are subject to revision. More importantly, they invariably separate religious, economic, and interpersonal codes of conduct, and lay down grievous (and sometimes vicarious) punishments for their infraction. Biblical law, in contrast, which is to be learned and voluntarily consented to by every Israelite, fuses family law, property law, cultic and socio-moral requirements—a fusion presupposing an integrated view of life in which religious observance and (in Sarna’s words) “the desire to conform to the will of God” necessarily dictate the worshipper’s treatment of neighbors, mother and father, servants, and the poor, and in which shady business dealings, the withholding of wages, or the unmannerly collection of a debt constitutes a religious offense.

No less revolutionary than the divine source of law is the notion of peoplehood that follows from its acceptance. As a result of the covenant with God, “the entire nation is conceived as being a corporate entity, a collectivity, a sort of ‘psychic totality,’” a still-unique phenomenon which has determined the Jewish people’s miraculous survival long after the Hittites and Peruzzites have bitten the dust. From this national and communal, as well as individual, duty to keep the Law stems the ongoing obligation regularly to read aloud its provisions to the assembled public: an obligation which in time resulted in the practice of attending synagogue and, indeed, church.

Finally, in Exodus we see the emergence of the prophet, a figure who must combine within himself the sometimes conflicting impulses of obedience to God and love of his people. The prophet’s function (as Yochanan Muffs has described it) is to “stand in the breach” between the Lord and Israel, calming God’s rage against Israel’s intermittent deviations and mutinies and arguing Him out of His periodic longings to scorch to dust a people whom the 17th-century English poet John Dryden sardonically called “a Headstrong, Moody, Murmuring race/As ever try’d th’extent and stretch of grace.” This role, which Martin Buber identified as that of “dialogic man,” Moses loyally fulfills, for there has lived no greater lover of his people than this Egyptian-raised princeling whose first act on the biblical scene is to murder an Egyptian overseer for smiting a Hebrew. But in addition to his function as intercessor, which later prophets like Samuel or Jeremiah equally fulfill, Moses is a nation-builder—or, better, a kind of national and religious drill sergeant, who keeps a rebellious yet slave-minded rabble in the desert forty years, molds them into a fighting force capable of conquering a well-inhabited land, and with tender and watchful concern imbues them and their posterity with the soul-transforming habits of ethical monotheism.

_____________

 

Nahum Sarna’s book contains no controversial reinterpretations, but rather offers a wonderfully clear compilation and evaluation of historical matter and of recent scholarly findings. It is written for the general reader, and charged throughout by an alert, steady, and profound reverence for the Bible, its religion, and its people. Sarna’s few unconventional readings result in the main from an understandable—if, finally, less than persuasive—impulse to present the biblical text in all respects as rational, enlightened, and consistent.

One example is Sarna’s explanation of the question of how Jacob’s descendants in Egypt could have swelled so rapidly from a household of 70 to a nation boasting 600,000 able-bodied men (implying a general Israelite population of two million). After rehearsing all the demographic possibilities, Sarna straightens out this crux by suggesting that 600,000 is the number of able-bodied Israelites not in Egypt at the time of the exodus but in Israel at the time when the Book of Exodus was completed, in Davidic days—an anachronism imposed upon the text in Exodus’s own spirit of retrospective historical participation. Less satisfactory is Sarna’s apologetic interpretation of the episode of the golden calf. The children of Israel, in his reading, intended it not as an idol to worship—that is, as an alternative to God—but rather as a “pedestal” to God, and hence merely an (unauthorized) alternative to the cherubim which adorned the tabernacle. This reading would appear to be an unjustified mitigation of a crime so cardinal that its commission tempts the Lord to wipe out every last Israelite save Moses, to whom He offers the job of fathering a new “great nation” and chosen people. (Moses declines.)

Puzzling, too, is Sarna’s omission, in what is otherwise a meticulous and thoroughgoing commentary, of the famous “bloody bridegroom” incident (Exodus 4:24-26) in which God tries to kill Moses on his return journey from Midian to Egypt and releases him only after Moses’s wife has cut off their son’s foreskin. This dark, mystifying, and semantically obscure passage has been read in a variety of ways: as a further consecration of the rite of circumcision, as a parallel to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, as a foreshadowing of God’s slaughter of the Egyptian first-born, showing the atropic power of blood, and as a reminder that a single universal God necessarily subsumes within Himself demonic forces and murderous impulses. Sarna passes over the incident in silence.

These rare omissions or questionable readings point to a certain Tendenz. Ours, Sarna acknowledges, is an age whose prevailing orthodoxy is an aggressive unbelief, and one that would certainly be deaf to fundamentalist exegesis—which, in its ignorance and dogmatism, is actually responsible in his view for having caused the Bible to seem unworthy of the attention of readers in long pants. Instead, Sarna proffers a brand of biblical scholarship aimed, as he writes in his introduction to Understanding Genesis, at making the Bible “intelligible, relevant, and, hopefully, inspiring to a sophisticated generation possessed of intellectual curiosity and ethical sensitivity.” This he beautifully accomplishes, but his approach is not immune to objection.

Just as the Higher Criticism, by focusing on sources and parallels and questions of textual corruption, overlooked the theological complexity and the grandeur of Scripture, so an exclusively rational reading scants those powerful irrational forces in the Bible which, though less palatable to a modern sensibility, are intrinsic to its essence: the jealous and bloodthirsty vengefulness of the Lord, the recurrent depravities of His people, even the flights of a sometimes exaggerating fancy. When God repeatedly thunders that He will “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven,” it is correct to read this bloody vow, with Sarna, as “a summons always to be prepared for self-defense” and “a realistic appraisal of Israel’s situation as a weak nation in a hostile world”—correct, but not quite sufficient.

A more serious objection is that by formulating the appeal of the Bible in solely secular terms, Sarna may have already given up the ground to atheism. For if the lost or diminished authority of Scripture is ever to be recovered, the job will not be accomplished by making its delights and teachings “relevant” to a “mature” audience—for “relevance,” we have the far less strenuous substitutes provided by Erich Fromm or M. Scott Peck—but through a wholehearted embrace of even its “immature” elements of faith, however inimical these may sometimes seem to so-called reason.

_____________

 

Such reservations aside, however, Exploring Exodus is undoubtedly the deepest and most intelligent work on the biblical book that we will see for some time, and it is one which makes a curious contrast with two frankly political studies that have appeared in the last several years, Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution6 and Aaron Wildavsky’s The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader.7 These two authors are alike in possessing, as each confesses in his preface, a modicum of prior Jewish learning or background in the Bible, yet both examine the exodus story from a self-consciously Jewish stance, and both try to locate areas of contemporary pertinence in the text itself and the body of rabbinic interpretation that grew up around it. (Interestingly, both authors make greater use of rabbinic commentaries, as compiled by Nehama Leibowitz in her invaluable studies on the Pentateuch, than does either Sarna or Fox; an incidental source of amusement in reading these two books is to observe Walzer and Wildavsky citing the same passages from the Midrash to wholly discrepant purposes.)

Michael Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and a member of the editorial board of the socialist quarterly Dissent, portrays the exodus cycle as “a paradigm of revolutionary politics,” examining its events in the light of their significance in Western radical thought, from Savonarola and the English Puritans to today’s civil-rights activists, Marxist historians, and liberation theologians. He pays particularly close attention to three episodes or themes in Exodus most pertinent to latter-day revolutionaries: the problem of “the slave mentality” (people who do not want to be liberated but cry out instead for the fleshpots of Egypt); the motif of “the promised land,” whose inevitable shortcomings will be a permanent temptation to false utopianism; and finally the incident of the golden calf, in whose aftermath the Levites, at Moses’s command, kill 3,000 of Israel’s most obdurate idolaters in what Walzer classifies as a prototype of the revolutionary vanguard’s periodic purging of counterrevolutionaries.

After running the gamut of radical possibilities in Exodus, Walzer concludes with an attack on right-wing or religious-Zionist readings of the book, asserting that Exodus is really a humane account of reformist hopes and ideals whose primary message is that although “things are not what they might be,” we can get to the promised land “by joining together and marching.”

_____________

 

Exodus and Revolution is lively, clever, and full of felicitous insights, but it must be said that Walzer’s enterprise is a dubious one. To begin with, Walzer ostentatiously refrains from trying to understand Exodus in its own terms. “In returning to the original text,” he writes, “I make no claims about the substantive intentions of its authors and editors.” Rather, he sets out to “discover its meaning in what it has meant,” in this case to later generations of political activists and revolutionary theorists. Thus, if the American journalist Lincoln Steffens could find in Exodus (in Walzer’s words) a “complete vindication of Leninist politics, that is of dictatorship and terror,” Walzer, while careful to dissociate himself from the politics themselves, would nevertheless maintain that “To locate these elements in the Exodus is not to misread the text, to impose Lenin’s theory of revolution upon it.” As warrant for this statement Walzer is not above citing God Himself: “We must assume, along with one of the central strands of Jewish interpretation, that He intends all the meanings that He has made us capable of understanding”—including, one presumes, those wrought by theorists implacably hostile to religion in general and to the Jews in particular.

If all readings in Walzer’s eyes seem to be equal, still it emerges that some are more equal than others. Thus, he allows considerably less leeway to biblical prophets and rabbinic exegetes than he does to the Marxist Ernst Bloch. Of the prophet Ezekiel, who recollects the idolatry of Israel in Egypt, Walzer, in a rare display of “judgmental-ism,” asserts, “This is the wrong way to remember the house of bondage.” And later Jewish commentators are applauded only when their formulations coincide with what Walzer, in a self-confessed “shameless anachronism,” calls “the social-democratic view of the Exodus,” or can be seized as a stick with which to beat a right-wing perspective on the disposition of the West Bank.

Even were Walzer’s mingling of Maimonides and Marx more evenhanded, this treatment points to one obvious but fundamental difference between religious and political readings of the Bible. The difference can be illustrated with a simple hypothesis: if the Book of Exodus argued not for but against national independence, or urged submission to a foreign yoke—as for instance does, most explicitly, the Book of Jeremiah—we can be quite sure that the rabbis would most lovingly have attended to it nonetheless, but that neither Lincoln Steffens nor Walzer’s favorite liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, would have given it the time of day.

By interpreting Exodus according to those who have used the biblical book for political—and often anti-religious—purposes, Walzer gives us on the whole a faulty picture of its teachings and world view, a picture from which God is curiously absent, in which religion is merely one activity in the Israelites’ busy schedule (or else a vehicle for political indoctrination by Moses’s revolutionary vanguard), and in which law takes a remote back seat to liberation. Exodus is indeed a history of liberation and of a slavish people’s moral transformation, and as such it has proved a resonant inspiration to all peoples who are oppressed and enslaved. But it is no accident that the same Hebrew word refers to slavery in Egypt and service to the true God of Israel. Moreover, although Exodus rebels against the oppression of a self-deified Pharaoh, the Mosaic books give no sanction to a permanent revolt against authority, much less to Walzer’s conclusion that “wherever you live, it is probably Egypt.” “Thou shalt not revile the judges, nor curse the ruler of My people,” is God’s warning in Exodus (22:27), and the story of Korah’s rebellion in the Book of Numbers offers an explicit warning against radical egalitarians who would call into question the authority of the Lord’s chosen servant.

Entailed in the moral transformation of the Hebrew slaves into a holy people are the keeping of God’s commandments and statutes, justice and kindness to the needy, and the strong heart necessary to vanquish a territory which, as Michael Walzer forgets, is described in the Pentateuch not just as a land of milk and honey but also, in the same breath, as a land infested with hostile and pagan nations whose utter conquest and expulsion the Lord ordains. From this “absolutist” aspect of Exodus—admittedly only one aspect of many in the biblical narrative, although all are “absolutist”—Walzer understandably recoils. For in Exodus and Revolution the only kind of war that is justified is revolution, and the only enemy is the enemy within.

_____________

 

“If all the biblical Exodus were about was revolution, we would never have heard about it. For revolutions . . . are a dime-a-dozen. It is what happens afterward that matters.” Thus writes Aaron Wildavsky, professor of political science at Berkeley and author of The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader. (The title is from Numbers 11:12, and the plaintive speaker is Moses himself: “Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them that Thou shouldst say to me, Carry them in thy bosom as a nursing father beareth the sucking child. . . ?”)

Where Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution principally stresses the liberation from Egypt, Wildavsky in The Nursing Father is interested instead in the kind of “regimes” that succeed the liberation. His central thesis is that Moses’s system of government in the desert shifts from anarchy to “equity” (decentralized democracy) to, finally, “hierarchy,” a theocratic arrangement in which Moses receives the Laws from the Lord and a hereditary priesthood administers the central cult. In expounding upon this theory, Wildavsky provides charts and models of different “regimes” and outfits his work with such textbook-style headings as “Testing Makes Creative Conflict,” “Broadening the Pyramid of Power,” “Doing Fieldwork in the Bible,” and, in a lighter vein, “Why Me? Why Moses? Why Leadership?”

When it comes to Moses himself, Wildavsky defines his brand of leadership as one that capitalizes upon failure, that inheres in a loving and self-effacing identification of leader with led, and that emphasizes continuity. Moses constantly strives to instill in Israel habits of godliness, justice, autonomy, and perseverance that will survive his own demise and will fire succeeding generations. So it is that the last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, consists wholly of Moses’s “Farewell Address” to his troops, recounting the experiences they have undergone together, repeating to them God’s teachings, conferring authority on his deputy Joshua, instructing Israel how to carry on after his death and how to govern the land he has been barred from entering.

Wildavsky’s union of Scripture and political science results in a mongrel that is at first sight rather unprepossessing. It seems unlikely that a layman interested in learning more about the role of Moses in the Bible would have much to gain from an approach that emphasizes institutionalization of regimes, theories of crisis management, and pyramids of power. Nor, on the other hand, does Wildavsky effectively make his case for Moses’s style of management as a model for present-day bosses. Yet once one gets past the jargon and the charts one discovers in The Nursing Father a painstaking reading of biblical events and heroes, attentive to the word and spirit of biblical narrative and faithful to the larger precepts that animate rabbinic Judaism. Very much a quick-study’s discovery of the Bible, The Nursing Father stands in contrast to Walzer’s more learned and elegantly synthesized book by its enthusiasm, humor, and free-fall theorizing, as well as by its occasional nonsense and, distressingly, its abundant errors of transcription and attribution. But it is also alight with an understanding sympathy for Moses and his people Israel and attuned to the few fundamentals which guide the Exodus history: that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt in order to win them to His teaching, that biblical law sanctifies creation and confirms divinely-ordained boundaries, and that “obedience to God is the prerequisite to orderly social relations.” Such homely but essential reminders from the precincts of political science one can only greet with pleasure and gratitude.

_____________

 

By now a fairly clear sense should have emerged of those elements or themes in Exodus which have attracted modern scholars: law, liberation, leadership, the commemoration of history, and, not least, the forging of the Jewish nation, a nation indelibly and waywardly idiosyncratic from its very inception. And in addition to these themes, which scholars like Sarna, Walzer, and Wildavsky have in their various ways derived from Exodus, there is the intrinsic interest manifested by a critic like Everett Fox in the text itself as a consciously and masterfully crafted work of art, replete with drama, searingly vivid tableaux and imagery, an elegant structure, highly wrought literary language, and a profound psychological realism.

That Exodus should attract the attention of writers whose interest in the book is essentially secular is hardly a new phenomenon (one need only cite Freud’s Moses and Monotheism). What is different about these most recent works is that each, including Walzer’s, pays the deepest respect to the biblical text, to its unity and even, to an extent, its authority. After 200 years of secular unbelief, in which the most advanced biblical scholarship has been directed toward proving the Hebrew Bible a corrupt, derivative, and unhistorical jumble of ritual and legend, it might appear that the climate of opinion is changing. Certainly, the questions which these contemporary scholars and laymen bring to the Hebrew Scriptures are strikingly other than those posed by their 19th- and early 20th-century forebears. Where historical critics asked from what disparate slivers was the Bible assembled, our contemporary commentators ask instead what it means. This search for meaning, whether sociological, political, or literary, assumes a wholeness of biblical purpose and vision which itself marks an advance over the position of previous generations.

Yet for all this, it would be a mistake to conclude that a true restoration of biblical authority is in the wings. On the contrary, it is only because the overthrow of the Bible as divine revelation has been so complete that today’s critics may be willing to grant the Hebrew Scriptures some vestigial half-life, some spectral and partial reincarnation. C.S. Lewis, the great literary scholar and Christian apologist, addressed the phenomenon of the Bible-as-literature, or as-political-science, or as-philosophy, or as-whatever-it-was-manifestly-not-intended-to-be, in an essay of 1950. “A sacred book,” Lewis wrote,

is like a king dethroned. Toward either of them there arises in well-disposed minds a chivalrous compunction. One would like to concede everything except the thing really at issue. Having supported the deposition, one would wish to make it clear that one had no personal malice. Just because you cannot countenance a restoration, you are anxious to speak kindly of the old gentleman in his personal capacity—to praise his fund of anecdotes or his collection of butterflies. I cannot help thinking that when a critic old enough to remember the Bible in its power prophesies for it a great future as literature, he is unconsciously swayed by similar motives. But such courtesies will not preserve it. Neither the Bible nor those who still read it as believers invite them; and the generation which is now growing up will disregard them.

One suspects that it is only as God’s word that the Hebrew Bible, “remorselessly and continuously sacred,” to quote Lewis again, has ever enjoyed or can ever fully enjoy the life for which it is meant. A secularized Bible, read as political theory, as history, or as fiction, and hence ever in competition with Rousseau, Thucydides, or Madame Bovary, is in much the same position as a one-armed man: it can pack a mean punch, but it cannot lift heavenward.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Schocken, 230 pp., f 16.95.

2 King James Version: “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry. And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”

3 Schocken, 277 pp., $17.95.

4 The archeologist Emmanuel Anati in his Mountain of God (Rizzoli, 360 pp., $75.00), however, has provocatively antedated the exodus by a thousand years to 2200 BCE.

5 Still, for anyone tempted to apply this injunction with reference to today's Middle East, it is well to remember that “the stranger in your land” refers to one who willingly and peaceably lives among you, abiding by your laws, not one who wishes to drive every last man of you into the sea.

6 Basic Books, 177 pp., f 15.95.

7 University of Alabama Press, 259 pp., $25.00.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.