An Ark on the Nile

Beginning of the Book of Exodus

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Keith Bodner
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ark on the Nile is a fresh look at Exodus 1-2 through a narrative-critical lens. Tracing the events from the proliferation and oppression of the Hebrews in the land of Egypt to Moses’s birth and his escape to Midian, Keith Bodner skilfully studies the action-packed sequence with the help of various literary devices. One of the main strengths of Bodner’s work is his intertextual readings: he not only analyzes the content of the text, but also demonstrates how various literary methods have been used to tie Exodus 1-2 to biblical passages both inside and outside of Exodus. This review will focus on this literary aspect of his work. 

Ark on the Nile is divided into seven chapters, all of which explore a different aspect of the narrative. Bodner’s first chapter, entitled “Images of Egypt in Genesis,” discusses the portrayal of Egypt in several texts in Genesis, most notably those in the Joseph cycle. The overall conclusion is that “Egypt is portrayed as an attractive but unreliable partner during Israel’s turbulent monarchic history” (18). While promising safety, Egypt is ultimately envisioned as a partner-in-crime best left behind, which unsurprisingly becomes one of the major themes in the book of Exodus. 

Another instance where Bodner connects Exodus to Genesis is in his study of the new king of Egypt in chapter 2. His discussion of the new king is insightful, as he explores not only the well-established satirical elements in Pharaoh’s speech (Exod. 1:8-10) but also compares the actions of the new Pharaoh to those of the previous one in Genesis 41:37-45. Unlike the Pharaoh in the Joseph cycle, the new Pharaoh appears somewhat ambivalent: he needs the help of his countrymen, possibly his advisors and/or military leaders, to effect a strategy (vv.9-10) while his predecessor made his decisions alone. This is appropriate to a leader who may have arisento the throne (Exod. 1:8) in somewhat dubious and even violent circumstances, as a further study of the use of the verb ariseelsewhere in the Hebrew Bible indicates. 

In his third chapter, cleverly entitled “Pharaoh’s Midwife Problem,” Bodner celebrates the midwives for their bravery and trickery, as other biblical scholars have done before him (Exod. 1:16-22); however, he enhances this picture by illustrating the similarities of the midwives’ act of deception to other female tricksters, most notably Rahab in Joshua 2. By comparing the women’s deeds, Bodner further demonstrates the blurring of ethnic boundaries/loyalties in both narratives. Even the rewards given to the women defy these boundaries: whether Israelite or not, all women gain houseswhile the housesof their enemies come to ruin. In so doing, Bodner brings more depth to his reading as well as an appreciation of the artistry of the authors of both passages, even if this can only be admired by the reader in its final form.

The remaining story, and the characters therein, are all carefully analyzed in the following chapters. One of the main strengths of Bodner’s reading is his relentless connecting of the themes and vocabulary of Exodus 1-2 to the rest of the book. He illustrates some of the more frequently acknowledged connections, such as the rescue of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10 and its foreshadowing of the modus operandi in the exodus proper. However, Bodner also brings in elements that are not often studied in detail. One of these is his analysis of the well-established link between Moses’s basket, or rather the ark(Exod. 2:3), to Noah’s ark (Gen. 6-9); however, he also links Noah’s ark to the temple in Jerusalem. Viewing Noah’s ark more as a floating temple than a boat, Bodner concludes that a beautiful symmetry is found in these parallels: “A miniature version of Noah’s ark protects an Israelite who will be a major player in the construction of the sanctuary later in the book of Exodus” (97). 

Another example of surprising connections is Bodner’s study of Reuel, the priest of Midian. Bodner argues that Reuel is not only predicated on friendly foreigners such as Pharaoh’s daughter (Exod. 2:1-10), but also serves as an “ironic foil” (177) to Moses’s fellow Hebrews: the foreigner in the land of Midian welcomes Moses and offers him support and hospitality, while his own countrymen will at times act hostile toward him. The famous question “who made you ruler and judge over us?” (NIV; Exod. 2:14) will ring true for the rest of Moses’s leadership. Moses will indeed be a judge over his people, but his strained relationship with his fellow Hebrews will forever remain a thorn in his side. 

Fluently written and painstakingly researched, Bodner has successfully shed new light on often-neglected connections between Exodus 1-2 and other biblical texts: this on its own is a commendable achievement. After all, Exodus 1-2 is part of one of the most foundational events in the Judeo-Christian heritage and hence a frequent site for scholarly endeavor and creative imagination. What might have enhanced the book’s content would have been more analysis on the way gender is portrayed in the story. An example of this is the midwives’ trickery against Pharaoh: not only does the midwives’ trade play a part in the success of the trickery, as acknowledged by Bodner, but the specifically female nature of the trade could have also benefited from further analysis. Overall, Bodner’s work is an excellent and much-needed addition to the study of Exodus 1-2, and I recommend it to any student of this important passage.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirsi Cobb is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College, UK.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith Bodner is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in New Brunswick, after teaching for a number of years at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, and is a former section chair (Bakhtin and the Biblical Imagination) for the Society of Biblical Literature. His 2008 book 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix Press) was awarded the R. B. Y. Scott Award from the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and his recent books include Jeroboam's Royal Drama (2012) and Elisha's Profile in the Book of Kings: The Double Agent (2013), and After the Invasion: A Reading of Jeremiah 40-44 (OUP, 2015).



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