The reason I’m so far behind on my Bible in a Year reading plan is that I’ve been reading Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus via the JPS Torah Commentary volumes. No, I’m not reading the Hebrew alongside the English–it’s just that the introductions, essays, and verse-by-verse notes are so gripping and elucidating, that I am moving more slowly through the Torah than my plan dictates. (I’m still on track for Bible in Two Years–maybe.)
With the exception of a few chapters, my recent reading of Exodus was all from Nahum Sarna’s volume, which, like other JPS Torah volumes, has all of the following:
- the full Hebrew text of Exodus, with vowel points and cantillation marks,
- an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation)
- commentary that addresses the text and its background at the section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, and word-by-word level
- an introduction and excursuses
- sewn binding and beautiful construction
Sarna begins with just a 5-page (!) introduction. Leviticus in the same series, by contrast, has a 30-page introduction. Sarna discusses the book’s title, the division of Torah readings, the book’s setting and events, and it’s “contents and character.” Broadly speaking, Sarna divides Exodus like this:
- Exodus 1:1-15:21–oppression and liberation
- Exodus 15:22-18:27–toward Sinai
- Exodus 19-40–at Sinai
He notes that Exodus’s “influence is due to the special orientation and perspective of Exodus. It is a document of faith, not a dispassionate, secular report of the freeing of an oppressed people.” (Again–I love this guy’s writing style.)
Sarna blends what I experienced as a faith-filled and a critical approach to understanding Scripture. He understands God in the book as “the sole actor, the only initiator of events.” In addition to verse-by-verse and phrase-by-phrase commentary (sometimes down to the word level), Sarna sets up each chapter with a short introduction, which is always good and always useful.
The glossary, which takes up almost as many pages as the introduction, gives a really helpful orientation to readers like me, who keep needing reminders on the distinctions between Talmud and Targum, Mishnah and Mekhilta, Rambam and Ramban.
Sarna’s Exodus commentary does not initially seem to be as thorough as his Genesis volume. (Here there are six as opposed to 30 excursuses at the back of the commentary.) On the other hand that short introduction allows the reader to get into the text right away with Sarna, who makes up for the initial brevity of his work along the way. In the end I found that the comments really did seem to be just the right amount of detail for the kind of reading I was doing of the text–Sarna had addressed nearly all my questions by the time I made it through Exodus 40.
And Sarna’s comments are delivered beautifully. On Israel’s response of faith to the LORD’s “wondrous power” in Exodus 14:31, Sarna writes:
“Faith” in the Hebrew Bible is not belief in a doctrine or subscription to a creed. Rather, it refers to trust and loyalty that finds expression in obedience and commitment.
The commentary on the following chapter of Exodus 15–the one with the “Song at the Sea”–is one of the most moving, incisive, and compelling commentary sections I’ve ever read… and why I’m so far behind on that reading plan!
By way of critique, I only offer two things: (1) a few places could have benefited from more exegetical or grammatical-historical detail and (2) having Sarna’s detailed outline of Exodus all in one place–beyond what’s in the Table of Contents and section headings throughout the book–would have enhanced the introduction. His passage divisions are clear enough throughout the book, but I found myself wanting a summary sketch of Exodus all in one place for quick reference.
When I preach or teach on Exodus (or when I just want to remember what I sensed God speaking to me when reading through Exodus this spring), I will reach first for this exceptional volume.
If you want to look more in-depth with me at the body of the commentary, I interacted a bit with Sarna’s take on the 10 plagues here.
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.