Ralph K. Hawkins, Discovering Exodus

Hawkins, Ralph K. Discovering Exodus. Discovering Biblical Texts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 308 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

The Discovering Biblical Texts series provides basic introductions of biblical books by focusing on the interpretation and reception of the book, as well as the contents of the book. Ralph Hawkins’s Discovering Exodus introduces readers to the overall canonical shape of the book and briefly introduces them to key interpreting issues.

Hawkins, Discovering ExodusThe book begins with a chapter on the structure and story of Exodus before turning to Exodus as literature. In chapter 2, Hawkins describes the rise of source criticism and the paradigm shift to literary criticism. This includes an overview of the origin and development of the documentary hypothesis, a theory which he considers flawed, even though he admits in North America the documentary hypothesis remains conventional wisdom. Following Brevard Childs’s work in the late 1970s, as well as the Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (and similar works), he considers Exodus to be a sophisticated literary work whether or not historical Moses wrote the book. However, in this book, Hawkins is interested in the final form of the text and how Exodus contributes to the whole canon of scripture.

Chapter 3 discusses the realia of Exodus. Since the 1960s, critical scholars seriously doubt the traditional view of Israel historiography. The absence of evidence for the exodus and the wilderness period has led many scholars to dismiss the Book of Exodus as a fabricated origin story, written long after the events it claims to record. However, Hawkins points out in methodological issue: doubts about the historicity of the exodus events are based on the use of data not collected or not found (an argument from silence, p. 23). Other events in Egyptian history are known only from literary sources and cannot be verified by archaeology. Few scholars would dismiss Thutmose III’s third military campaign in Canaan because of a lack of evidence for a battle near Megiddo. He argues a “hermeneutics of suspicion” creates preconditions that dismiss the biblical story because of lack of evidence (24). Hawkins argues the archaeology of the two storehouse cities Pithom and Rameses mentioned in Exodus 1:11 ought to be considered positive evidence for at least early Israelite presence in Egypt.

A historical exodus raises several issues, the first is the always difficult problem of the date of the exodus. Hawkins lists ten points favoring the later date in the mid-thirteenth century BC during the 19th dynasty. This is “essentially the consensus date for those who hold that a historical exodus occurred (27). Second, he agrees with the common explanation that the Hebrew does not mean 1000, but rather “unit” or “squad.” This unit was a few as six men and as many as twenty, so rather than 600,000+ men, the book of Numbers refers to “600 squads” representing a total fighting force of 5000 men. A third historical issue is the location of Mount Sinai. He comments on each of the three regions often suggested for the location of Sinai, but settles on the traditional site at Gebel Musa since it fits best with the eleven-day journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea.

Chapters 3-8 survey the contents of the book with occasional comment on key interpretive issues. This section is not a detailed commentary, but a survey of the contents of the book which intentionally highlight certain key historical and theological problems of interest to most readers of the book. These issues include the name of God, the uniqueness of Moses, the hardening of the pharaoh’s heart, miracles, the ancient Near Eastern background for the law, the Tabernacle, including the historicity of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

Chapters 9-13 place Exodus into an overall biblical theology and deal with matters of reception history. In Chapter 9, Hawkins discusses the “gospel of Israel in Exodus.” In Exodus, sin and rebellion lead to restoration and renewal. The golden calf incident is the key for this theological theme. The people deeply offend God by creating an idol to worship while Moses is receiving the Law. The people are punished, but there is also restoration and renewal when Moses intercedes. This sets up the pattern for the wilderness period. The section also has a fascinating look at the Lord’s revelation of his glory to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) and how that description of God echoes through the rest of the Old Testament and in both Jewish and Christian liturgy.

Chapters 11 and 12 trace themes from Exodus through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Hawkins observes the exodus events represent the foundational act of salvation in the Old Testament and every part of the Hebrew canon rehearsed and reflected on Exodus (202). The Psalms often refer to the exodus events. For example, the Psalmist worships the Lord because he “turned the sea into dry land” (66:6). In Psalm 77, the Lord makes a way through the sea and led his people “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (77:16-20). Although Hawkins mentions the exodus is important for the prophets, it is surprising he does not focus more on Isaiah 40-55 as a new exodus passage. Certainly, the idea of a new exodus becomes important in the New Testament. He points out exodus themes in the four canonical gospels, as well as the book of Acts. Paul made frequent allusions to the exodus events in the letters to the church at Corinth and much of what he has to say about the Law draws on the legal traditions found in the book. This chapter could have devoted more space to the importance of the exodus events for understanding the Book of Revelation, but it is difficult to be detailed in a survey chapter.

Chapter 13 deals with echoes of Exodus in culture. Here, Hawkins covers examples in art, literature, architecture, and film. More important is his discussion of Exodus in politics (241-55), although his focus is entirely on American history. Beginning with the pilgrims, colonialists thought of themselves as a new Israel traveling to a new promised land and building a new society guided by the Ten Commandments. For many colonialists, American liberty was understood through the lens of Israel’s liberation from slavery. This is ironic since those who later opposed slavery used Exodus to argue in favor of the freeing of slaves. He cites several examples from the United Methodist Hymnal, such as “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Go Down Moses,” a song Harriet Tubman sang as a signal to slaves to help them escape. He follows Exodus language in the speeches of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is an excellent survey of Exodus in American history, but Hawkins has nothing on how other cultures use Exodus, such as Liberation Theology in Latin America or how Exodus is read in an African context (see, for example, the forthcoming Kenneth N. Ngwa, Let My People Live: An African Reading of Exodus, WJKP, 2022).

Conclusion. The subtitle for the Discovering Biblical Texts series is “content, interpretation, reception.” Hawkins achieves his goal of surveying the content of the book of Exodus and interacting with key interpretive issues in this important book of the Old Testament and connecting the book with larger issues of biblical theology. The book is well-suited for academics as well as laypeople interesting this important biblical book.


Reviews of other commentaries in this series:


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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