The JPS Bible Commentary on Exodus: Sarna Does it Again

JPS Torah ExodusI’ve come to Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus with high expectations. His Genesis volume in that series is one of the best commentaries I’ve read (on any book of the Bible).

So far, after spending long periods of my last Sabbath with the book, it’s lived up to expectations.

While I work on a review of the full volume, here are a couple compelling sections of Sarna’s commentary on the 10 plagues:

The present narrative is a sophisticated and symmetric literary structure with a pattern of three groups each comprising three plagues. The climactic tenth plague possesses a character all its own. The first two afflictions in each triad are forewarned; the last always strikes suddenly, unannounced. Furthermore, in the case of the first, fourth, and seventh plagues Pharaoh is informed in the morning and Moses is told to “station” himself before the king, whereas in the second of each series Moses is told to “come in before Pharaoh,” that is, to confront him in the palace. Finally, in the first triad of plagues it is always Aaron who is the effective agent; in the third, it is always Moses.

Having this literary outline in mind made me really appreciate the narrative artistry of Exodus in a way I might have otherwise missed.

Not only does Sarna offer expert literary analysis, his writing itself is lucid and reads more like a compelling novel than what you might expect from a technical commentary. That Chaim Potok is the literary editor of the JPS Torah Commentary does not hurt, either! It shows.

Sarna strikes an interesting balance between (a) reading the plagues as God’s using natural events and (b) reading the plagues as purely supernatural. Regardless of how the reader understands the text in this regard, Sarna highlights the theological import of the plagues:

The controlling purpose behind this literary architecture is to emphasize the idea that the nine plagues are not random vicissitudes of nature; although they are natural disasters, they are the deliberate and purposeful acts of divine will–their intent being retributive, coercive, and educative. As God’s judgments on Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelites, they are meant to crush Pharaoh’s resistance to their liberation. They are to demonstrate to Egypt the impotence of its gods and, by contrast, the incomparability of YHVH, God of Israel, as the one supreme sovereign God of Creation, who uses the phenomena of the natural order for His own purposes.

Plague by plague Sarna returns to this theme and draws it out.

I’m 12 chapters in (out of 40) and am appreciating Sarna’s wisdom on Exodus as much as his excellent work on Genesis. More to follow.


Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me the copy of the Exodus commentary for review. The book’s JPS product page is here; you can order it through Nebraska Press here. Find it on Amazon here.

Prefer an electronic edition? Accordance has the JPS Torah Commentary here.

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