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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Methods for Exodus, edited by Thomas B. Dozeman.  Methods in Biblical Interpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.  254 pp.  $24.99.


The array of methodologies used in biblical studies in the twenty-first century can be daunting to serious students of the Hebrew Bible. The problem of diverse approaches is especially acute for Exodus, for it is among the most intensely examined biblical books. Dozeman’s edited volume, part of a series intended to make the main interpretive strategies comprehensible to clergy, seminarians, and students as well as scholars, is thus a welcome addition to the vast literature on Exodus. As Dozeman explains in the introduction, Methods in Exodus (like the other books in this series on Methods in Biblical Interpretation) provides an accessible introduction to a select group of six methodologies. Although each of the book’s six chapters focuses on one approach, the interplay of methods and the frequent need for multiple approaches is acknowledged and demonstrated. The methodologies examined in Chapters 1–3 focus on the production of biblical texts, whereas Chapters 4–6 focus on the reception of texts and the understanding that a reader’s social location and life experience inevitably affect how a text is interpreted.

Until well into the twentieth century, historical-critical approaches seeking to establish the authorship and context of biblical passages and books dominated biblical scholarship. Only one of the chapters in this volume, Suzanne Boorer’s “Source and Redaction Criticism” (Chapter 3), deals explicitly with those traditional methods. Boorer traces the development of these approaches since their origin in the seventeenth century and also considers their current iterations. Identifying the literary features of biblical texts figures prominently in Boorer’s chapter and also in the methodologies described in the book’s first two chapters. Dennis T. Olson’s study of “Literary and Rhetorical Criticism” (Chapter 1) forms a useful starting point for examining the six methodologies and also for understanding Exodus. Olson reviews the history of literary and rhetorical criticism and then indicates how three text-centered approaches—constructive, deconstructive, and dialogical and rhetorical—are used to examine a text’s literary characteristics in order to discover how they convey meaning. In the next chapter, on “Genre Criticism” (Chapter 2), Kenton L. Sparks explains how attention to genre, which developed from and improves the insights of form criticism, probes the nature, meaning, and significance of a text by comparing it to similar texts or traditions. Sparks also provide a summary of the insights of this approach for understanding each of the three main parts of Exodus: Chapters 1–18, 19–24, and 25–40.

The experience of oppression informs “Liberation Criticism” (Chapter 4) according to Jorge Pixley, who traces the roots and current vitality of this approach to South American liberation theology. Pixley shows how current practitioners appropriate biblical texts that can give hope to marginalized groups, including women, and encourage them to resist oppressive regimes or policies. Reading the Bible from the perspective of women, who respond to the sexism of the text and its interpreters, is the focus of Naomi Steinberg’s “Feminist Criticism” (Chapter 5). Steinberg highlights four of the many versions of this methodology in relation to their different social and political settings. The relation of “Postcolonial Criticism” (Chapter 6), which examines the many ways in which the unequal relations between colonizers and the colonized are manifest, to postcolonial theory is explained by Gale A. Yee. Postcolonial biblical studies are especially valuable, Yee suggests, in evaluating canon formation within the colonial context of Yehud.

In addition to describing a methodology, each contributor analyzes two passages—Exodus 1–2 and Exodus 19–20—to illustrate how the methodology functions. The results of these examples are too extensive and complex to be considered here, and a brief comment about each author’s analysis of one of the passages must suffice. Olson’s step-by-step rhetorical analysis of Exodus 1–2 identifies three narratives within those chapters and shows how a close literary reading can open up a myriad of interpretive possibilities. Sparks’s consideration of the genres found in the covenant and theophany themes of Exodus 19–20 alerts us not only to how they are similar to other materials in both the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature but also to the ways they are unique. Boorer draws attention to the complex interweaving of disparate materials in Exodus 19–20 and is especially helpful in indicating the prospects for making sense of them. Pixley’s reading of Exodus 1–2 emphasizes that the enslaved Israelites are liberated, and do not simply flee, from a tyrannical ruler with the help of God’s agent Moses, whose leadership involves the ability to identify with the oppressed slaves. Steinberg presents various feminist interpretations of two important, gendered features of Exodus 1–2: motherhood, especially in relation to public/private dichotomies; and the many female characters in those chapters. Yee shows the God/Israel covenant in Exodus 19–20 to be a hybrid text, part of a larger master narrative formed under Persian domination and serving both the colonizer and the colonized.

Making the complexities of biblical scholarship comprehensible to non-specialists is not an easy task. The choice of these six methodologies from among the many approaches in biblical studies is commendable. However, the chapter on liberation criticism—because this approach deals specifically with Christian groups, because its procedures seem not to intersect with other approaches, and because it is “more of a movement of poor people that [sic] an academic program” (p. 144)—seems somewhat out of place. Another problem is that the choice of Exodus 1–2 and 19–20 as the illustrative texts means that the largest block of material in Exodus— Chapters 25–40, most of which deal with the wilderness sanctuary—goes virtually unmentioned. These issues aside, the contributors to this volume and its editor are to be commended for producing a book that is a model of clarity in explaining complicated scholarly matters and of judiciousness in discussing their contentious aspects.

Carol Meyers

Duke University