AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 50, 2002
W. H. C. Propp, Exodus 1–18. Anchor Bible (NY: Doubleday, 1999). Pp. Xxxvii + 690. Cloth $US 44.95
Few scholars enjoin readers not to read large portions of their
work, but William H. C. Propp does precisely this in the introduction to
his commentary on the first 18 chapters of Exodus. This surprising request
is more a function of the work’s meticulous structure than of false modesty
— a structure which enables a variety of readers, lay and professional,
to negotiate the best possible path through the otherwise bewilderingly
detailed observations Propp has amassed in regard to this key biblical
The same careful attention to structure is evident in P.’s exegetical
approach. In a neat coincidence, William Propp adopts a Proppian (i.e.
Vladimir) methodology, applying his namesake’s folkloric morphology to
Exodus whereby the ‘hero’ (Moses) embarks on an identity-forming journey
of initiation with the help of the ‘donor figure’ (Yahweh, who doubles
as part of P.’s composite hero). The commentary itself is on something
of a parallel journey of discovery, its primary aim being anthropological,
“to understand, as best we can, Israelite social institutions and perceptions
of reality” (p. 39).
The Caananite myth of the divinity’s need for a dwelling place forms
an additional structural overlay, as P. explores his second, philological
objective, through a careful analysis of the semantic fields concerning
‘fire’ (’e_), ‘glory’ (kbd), ‘arm’ (yad)
and name (_em), as the means by which Yahweh is known in the world
(pp. 36–37). Propp finds this theme of knowledge echoed in the early chapters
of Genesis, a connection strengthened by Israel’s movement in Exodus from
slavery (’ebed) to worship (’abodah) — a reversal of Genesis 2–3.
These two aims are impressively realised, by way of example, in the
section on Pesach- Massot (Passover and Unleavened bread, Ex 12.1–13.6).
P. advances the view that the work of the redactor here reflects an earlier
merging of two independent festivals, both of which evolved into commemorations
of the Exodus, but where more ‘primitive’ interpretations of the rites
survive in the final text alongside the redactor’s more unified and ‘official’
aetiology and interpretive gloss (pp. 428–29). P.’s excursus in this section
on ‘Demons and Doorposts’ provides a fascinating comparative analysis of
Pesach and fidya, the Ancient Near Eastern sacrifice of atonement and purging,
through which readers can gain an insight into the deep and abiding relationships
between initiation, seasonal passage, exorcism, and substitutive redemption.
To engage with P.’s somewhat distant third objective, historicity, one
must wait for one of the five appendices promised in volume two. The others
will address the documentary hypothesis, Israelite monotheism (including
discussion of covenant theology and the names of God), an overview of the
Exodus theme elsewhere in the Bible, and additions, corrections and afterthoughts
to the present volume.
The commentary is organised into sections according to P.’s own assessment
of narrative shifts, each sifted through a recurrent pattern of translation,
textual notes, source analysis and redaction analysis (these latter three
being the sections the general reader is advised to pass over) — all of
which precedes the commentary proper, which is in turn divided into ‘notes’
(for technical matters of interpretation) and ‘comments’ (for more general
discussion of the text). In the course of explaining some of these features
of his commentary, P. provides a marvellously concise history of the Masoretic
text, and an equally well-distilled account of the documentary hypothesis,
both of which the general reader would do well not to skip.
The translation (provided in full before the introduction and repeated
in sections for analysis) is of a ‘hyper-literal’ style “in order to exhume
the dead metaphor’s buried in paraphrases” (p. 40), preferring fidelity
to felicity and intended for private study rather than public reading.
It also clearly indicates the results of P.’s own source analysis. Here,
as throughout, P. is cautious in his claims. Indeed, an interesting feature
of his commentary is the innovative use of the subheading ‘Speculation’
for what he regards as any “extreme lines of conjecture” (p. 54).
A bibliography of over one thousand works bears out the author’s claim
to be “the moderator of a vast, millennial colloquium” (p. 54). P.’s comprehensiveness
is indeed one of this commentary’s outstanding virtues: an attention to
detail which betokens great care of his subject to match the attention
to structure which shows a real care for his readers. I await volume two
with much anticipation.
Rev. Richard Treloar
Trinity College Theological School