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ISSN 0045-0308

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 narrative.

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.

Review by
Rev. Richard Treloar
Trinity College Theological School
Parkville, Victoria