- Exodusby Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
The goal of the series in which this learned, judicious, and accessible volume appears is stated nicely by the editor, R. R. Reno, in his preface: to encourage an "unashamedly dogmatic interpretation of scripture" (xv). The commentators are thus "not biblical scholars in the conventional, modern sense of the term [but rather] were chosen because of their knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition" (xiii). Procedurally, the method is based on the conviction, again in Reno's words, that "philological precision and stability is a consequence of, not a basis for, exegesis. Judgments about the meaning of a text fix its literal sense, not the other way around" (xv). To the pressing question of just how such a doctrinally determined exegetical method relates to [End Page 476]what he calls "the now-old modern methods of historical-critical inquiry," the editor professes himself agnostic (xiv), but he underscores his determination to pursue a more traditional and theologically focused alternative when he quotes the old adage "War is too important to leave to the generals" (xiii).
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., the author of this commentary on Exodus, meets these goals with outstanding success. To what extent succeeding in this controversial task, however, involves taking liberties with the scriptural texts is a more complicated question and one we shall explore anon.
In White's case, "the interpretations offered … presuppose the perennial truth of [Roman] Catholic doctrine" (17) and draw "special inspiration from the theological insights of Thomas Aquinas" (8). In the Thomistic exegetical mode, "the literal sense of the text of scripture pertains primarily to the realities signifiedby the human author of the text, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit" (ibid.), and "the spiritual sense … is always founded in the literal sense" (9). Unlike a conventional, historical-critical commentary, White's book is thus focused on the spiritual meanings, giving attention to the moral, typological, and anagogical senses, that is, to "things to be done," "realities pertaining to Christ and the Church," and "the eschatological life of the world to come," respectively (ibid.).
Apart from the literal sense, however, it is the typological that receives the most attention, and here the reader grounded in premodern Christian exegesis will find the method familiar but the insights refreshing and edifying. Moses's intercession for the people Israel in the narrative of the Golden Calf is thus interpreted "to denote literally a reality in Israel's past" but also "typologically, as a prefiguration of Christ, who prays for all of humanity on the Cross, or of the Church, who prays for the salvation of human beings from sin and death." Similarly, White interprets the "crossing of the Red Sea" as a report that once more "denotes literally an event in Israel's past," but, on the basis of Revelation 4:6, he also sees it anagogically "as an image of the blessed who stand on the far side of the divide between heaven and earth" (10). Similarly, citing the thirteenth-century Jewish commentator Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), he sees the descent into Egypt as a type of "the later exile of the people of Israel into Babylon," but he also connects it with "the voyage into Egypt of Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus" in Matthew 2. Anagogically, the same event "represents the souls of men who go down into the material things of this world," from which they must then be delivered (26).
White's investment in the spiritual sense should not blind the reader to his equally Thomistic conviction that "the teaching of the Old Testament has an integral literal signification that must be explored for its own sake" (10). Unlike many highly religiously traditional commentators in the Jewish or Protestant traditions, he has recourse to historical-critical research and does not object to the notion that Exodus shows ample evidence of a complex compositional history involving the work of...