Review of Between the Lines of the Bible by Yitzchak Etshalom

by Ben Zion Katz

Between the Lines of the Bible: Exodus: A study from the new school of Orthodox Torah Commentary, by Yitzchak Etshalom (Urim/OU Press, NY 2012) is a thought-provoking look at the second book of the Torah. One can tell that its author, a Rabbi and Tanakh educator in North America, is a dynamic teacher, because the book is quite engaging. The “new school” of the book’s subtitle seems to refer to a mainly literary approach to Torah, familiar to those who study midrash, and popularized by figures such as Robert Alter, beginning with the Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, NY 1981). Etshalom also seems to be clearly in the “modern” Orthodox camp, as he is not afraid to criticize the patriarchs (eg Jacob for his lack of parenting skills [p. 29], or Joseph indirectly leading to the enslavement of the Israelites [p. 31]), to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted in the context of its time (p. 139) or to be unhappy with an explanation of Rashi and offer his own (chapter 13).

The book begins with a chapter on methodology and then marches through the book of Exodus, with 13 chapters covering Exodus 1-24 and the last 5 chapters dealing with the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-40). Some of the best chapters in the book, which make excellent exegetical observations, include chapter 2 where the author compares Joseph’s brothers casting him into the pit with Pharaoh’s casting the Israelite infant boys into the Nile; how Moses, who was pulled out of the water will pull the Israelites out of Egypt (chapter 3); how Pharoah’s wizards (the hartumim) are foils to both Joseph and Moses (chapter 6); the connections between the paschal offering, tefillin and the brit bein habitarim (covenant between the pieces; chapter 8); the contrasts between the Israelites crossing the Re(e)d Sea with their war against Amalek, and the first plague of blood with the sweetening of the waters at Marah (chapter 10); explaining why the term “a priestly kingdom” is rarely used to refer to the Israelites later in the Bible after its first appearance in Exodus 19 (chapter 11); and explaining the theme of the book of Exodus in the final chapter.

The book is not without its flaws or omissions, however. For example, Ibn Ezra, one of the greatest p’shat (straightforward interpreting) Bible commentators would not agree with Etshalom (see Ibn Ezra’s comments on Exodus 20:1) regarding the differences between the Sabbath commandment as it appears in Exodus and Deuteronomy that “shamor (keep) … and zachor (remember) were said in one voice” is p’shat (p. 141). Defining melakhah as a creative act would go a long way to explaining why these acts are prohibited on Shabbat and derived from the building of the Tabernacle (p. 193). Etshalom argues that Moshe was the first prophet (p. 51) even though the Bible itself refers to Abraham as a prophet (Gen. 20:7). In chapter 9, the author tries to explain one of the most difficult questions in the Exodus narrative: why Moses (and ultimately God) deceived Pharaoh (and perhaps the Israelites themselves) into thinking the Israelites would only be leaving Egypt for 3 days? Etshalom posits that “[t]hey had to see how he (Pharaoh) would respond to their fleeing …to understand that they had no future [in Egypt]…” But how would anyone expect Pharaoh to react when he realized that he had been deceived? Only if Pharaoh had attacked the Israelites after agreeing to let them go permanently would his hypocrisy be self-evident. I am also not sure it is correct to say with Etshalom that the Tabernacle was meant to be “clothed in the mystery of seclusion and private revelation” (p. 190) for then why have it be the locus of the sacrificial service and why make it look like a house with lights (the menorah) and food (the showbread)? Finally, the reason huchal has a negative connotation according to Rashi and Sadia Gaon (but see the comments of Seforno and especially Ibn Ezra) in Gen. 4:26 (p. 206) is because they associate it with the root for “unholy” (hol or hll).

Despite the issues raised in the previous paragraph, however, I learned a lot from the book and it is a pleasure to read. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of the book of Exodus and look forward to future books in the series.

Ben Zion Katz is the author of the forthcoming book A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis (Urim Publications, Fall 2012)

This March 2012 review can be found on the Seforim blog.

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