Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Translating Exodus

Author describes first steps in translating Exodus 1-18, Anchor Bible 

by William H. C. Propp
Professor of Ancient History and Judaic Studies
University of California, San Diego

    Had someone told me, when I was studying at Harvard in the 1970s and early 1980s, that I would one day contribute to the Anchor Bible, I would have been incredulous--and delighted! Since the 1960s, the Anchor Bible has been the premier venue for comprehensive and often innovative biblical commentary. I was signed up to do Exodus in October, 1987. I don't think I was chosen for my great accomplishments--I was just 30 years old--but because I shared an office wall with the series editor, David Noel Freedman. Exodus had been through several hands in the previous decade; I imagine Freedman thought he would keep his eye upon me.


    Anyway, I had to start from scratch. The first step was establishing a text to translate. During the ten years I spent writing volume I, the flap over the Dead Sea Scrolls publication erupted, and the texts began to flow forth. I realized that, for the first time, one could utilize the full range of data to reconstruct the original wording of Exodus. This sounds more important than it may be, however, because the Hebrew text of Exodus is in unusually good shape.


    The next step was to translate. There are so many readable editions, I thought I'd try something new--the grindingly literal. Imagine that the author (call him Moses) at age 40, instead of going down to Egypt, came to America, got a job and enrolled in night school! I tried to imagine how his English would sound, assuming he still thought in biblical Hebrew. The result is hardly a beautiful translation. I have half-jokingly called its esthetic "punk." It makes its effect through shock, making the boring old text unfamiliar. It has been received with uniform hostility from my colleagues--who, after all, don't need a translation--and considerable encouragement from non-specialists. But I hardly expect people to take the trouble to contact me just to tell me how much they hated my translation! I did not know, when I started, that Everett Fox had embarked on a similar project.


    I then broke down the translation into smaller units, convenient for discussion. I spent considerable time on source analysis: differentiating between J, E and P (the hypothetical documents underlying the Torah) by typeface. I thought it important not to present the analysis as "Torah from Heaven," but to justify it in essay fashion, not obfuscating where the arguments are weak, but not treating the text as the product of a single mind either.


    After each section on source analysis follows another essay on what the editor may have thought he was doing. What were other choices he could have made, and how did the editorial process change the meaning of the original documents?


    As in any commentary, I also wrote copious notes. I set myself the presumptuous task of answering any question I could imagine a reader asking. So if you don't find yours addressed, I am entirely to blame! Where relevant, I cite opinions from pre-modern Jewish and Christian commentators. But I basically approach the Bible as a work from the ancient Near East, to be illuminated by archaeological finds, not theological speculation.


    Each section ends with a series of longer essays on the text's meaning. Here I think my anthropological bent comes to the fore, especially in the discussion of the Passover (Exodus 12:1-13:16), which is my favorite part of the commentary, along with the treatment of Exodus 15:1-18, the "Song of the Sea." Readers may also be intrigued by the Introduction, which compares the plot of Exodus to a fairy tale.


    I am currently hard at work on volume II, covering chaps. 19-40. At this point, I am almost done writing about the Tabernacle. I'm not sure when I'll be finished with the entire project. Exodus contains many laws, each with its own immense secondary bibliography.


    After the commentary proper, the second volume will end in a series of appendices on the Documentary Hypothesis, the Historicity of the Exodus, the Evolution of Monotheism and the Exodus Motif in the Bible.


    The entire work is dedicated to "Lovers of the Bible"--the sort of people who probably visit your website. It is not a work of theology, for not all who love this ancient book are believers. Except for the most technical discussions, I have written for the (persistent) amateur. For example, I have taken care to provide a glossary of terms, so that anyone can follow the discussion. I hope my work brings enjoyment and illumination.