Book Review: REBC Exodus (Walter Kaiser)

I have reviewed various other commentaries in this series (find them here) so I won’t repeat my comments on the layout of the series, which is very good.

226 pages are devoted to this volume on Exodus, which is bound with Sailhamer on Genesis and Hess on Leviticus. The introduction is brief. Kaiser says that Exodus was never intended to exist separately from the rest of the Pentateuch. He accepts Mosaic authorship and defends the historicity of the book:

we are left with no explanation for Israel’s appearance on the historical canvas at all when we try to explain the emergence of this nation and this time without the presence of a Moses or an Aaron.

Exodus is a book full of foundational theology – containing God’s revelation of his person, his redemption, his law and his worship. He broadly structures the book as follows:

  1. God’s plan for deliverance (chs 1-19)
  2. God’s plan for morality (chs 20-24)
  3. God’s plan for worship (chs 25-40)

His commentary on the first of those sections was I felt the best material. His analysis of the three-fold promise of Ex 6:6-8 is good, and he provides a helpful chart giving an overview of the plagues. His interest in linking the plagues to known natural phenomena of the time is fascinating (e.g. deducing what particular disease the cattle died of), but perhaps not altogether what I was looking for from this commentary. However, despite his willingness to see God working through non-miraculous means for many of the plagues, he is not anti-supernaturalist, and accepts several other miracles features in the account (e.g. the manna, after ruling out various naturalistic explanations).

Kaiser shows an Arminian bias in his comments on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, explaining God’s announcement in Ex 7:3 as the “occasion” but not the “cause” of his hardening. He makes an interesting point on Ex 12:3-11 and Ex 19:5-6, that God’s original intention was for the whole nation (i.e. not just the Levites) to be a nation of priests. Rather curiously this leads him to suggest that the “priests” of Ex 19:22 means everyone. He considers the “pillar of fire” to be the same as the “angel of the Lord”, which is also to be identified with the “shekinah glory”, which is Christ himself.

He sees the tabernacle as embodying the theology of worship – it signifies that God has come to dwell in the midst of Israel as he would one day come in the incarnation and will again in the second advent. He offers a few brief and tentative suggestions as to the symbolic significance of various items in the tabernacle. The commentary on this latter part of the book seems to speed up, to the point where chapters 36-39 are handled in one brief chunk, which mainly refers you back to his comments on the same topics earlier.

Since this commentary series has limited space, it is only reasonable to recognise that not every exegetical, historical and theological issue can be covered. But Kaiser’s interest in certain historical matters, such as whether crocodiles are to be found in the Nile, or what similarities the law might have with the Eshnunna Law, often meant that more pressing matters for expositors (which is who this series is aimed at) were left untouched. For example, preachers will probably want to wrestle with why some of the laws can seem unfair to us. Sadly, he opts to refer us to other works he has written on OT ethics without summarising his conclusions.

Overall then, I would say that this commentary on Exodus, while having some interesting insights here and there, didn’t quite scratch where I was itching, and I don’t think it fulfils the goal of being a commentary ideally suited to “expositors” (unless they are willing to supplement it with further reading). I’m going to try out Enns (NIVAC) or Stuart (NAC) next time I go through Exodus, as both those commentaries seem to be highly regarded.

Book Review – Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis (John Sailhamer)

I’ve read several of the newly revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary series, but this was my first Old Testament volume. All the comments I’ve made before about the nice layout of the series apply again here, as does my reservation that it sometimes seems to fall between the gaps, not quite being an exegetical commentary for academics, and not quite being an expositional commentary for preachers.

The Introduction

Sailhamer introduces Genesis as a book concerned with global and ‘family’ matters – it is a book with unity but not uniformity. He briefly surveys different opinions on authorship, and takes on the unwarranted skepticism of some critical scholars and seems to favour a “compositional” view. He believes the purpose of Genesis should be viewed in terms of the purpose of the Pentateuch, which looks forward to a new covenant and a Saviour-King. He observes a pattern of poems concluding significant sections in Genesis, and believes that many of the events are selected to demonstrate that the past portends events in the future. Ultimately the central concern of the Pentateuch is the rule of God among his people and within his creation. It is written as an answer to the failure of the Sinaitic covenant, and points forward beyond itself to the time of the promised “seed” of Abraham and a new covenant.

The Commentary

Naturally I was interested to see what his take on the creation account was. He suggests that a seven day week follows an unspecified amount of time. There are some detailed footnotes which rather irritatingly refer the reader to the first edition for more information! He also detects a polemic against idolatry in the creation account. The recurring description of various creative acts being “good” indicates that these developments are for the “good” of humankind. In Gen 2:15 he rejects the translation that man is to “work and keep” the Garden, but rather is to “worship and obey”. The “knowledge of good and evil” refers to Adam and Eve wanting to decide for themselves what is good and evil.

He has an interesting approach to Cain. He sees the story of the mark of Cain (Gen 3:13-14) as being one of repentance and forgiveness. He demonstrates how lots of these incidents in earlier chapters are reflected in laws given later in the Pentateuch. Here the example is cities of refuge.

The real key to the Pentateuch according to Sailhamer is found in the poems. He takes care to show that the poems link together the seed of Abraham with the coming King from Judah. They are one and the same.

In many ways it felt as though Sailhamer’s main interest in this commentary was not really to explain the meaning of individual passages (though he does do a bit of that), and not at all to suggest preaching points or applications (these come very rarely), but rather to explain why a particular story has been included, and how it fits into the overall scheme of the Pentateuch. He is always looking for links backwards and forwards (which he calls “inter-textuality”). He points out parallels between the lives of Noah and Abraham, between Abraham and Joseph, and even between Eve and Sarah. Abraham is an example of someone who had God’s law written on his heart – he obeyed it even before it was given.

He picks up on the importance of the promise of kings in Abraham’s line. Even though the closing portion of Genesis seems to focus exclusively on Joseph, the author still shows how Judah is “next in line” after the fall from grace of his elder brothers (Reuben, Simeon and Levi). Judah transcends Joseph – he will ultimately be in the royal line even if he now bows the knee to Joseph. I felt at first that he was stretching things to suggest that Judah remains the prominent character in spite of Joseph’s leading role in the narrative, but he did find more evidence for this than I was expecting.

Joseph himself is described as a “second Adam”, and is the only man in the Old Testament who is said to have been filled with the Spirit. Abraham also is a “second Adam” and Jacob’s sons represent a “new humanity”. Genesis also shows repeatedly through the struggles between older and younger brothers that God’s blessing is not based on natural rights. While he doesn’t join up the dots for you, Sailhamer certainly points expositors in the right direction to be able to preach the gospel from the Genesis story.

Strengths and Weaknesses

It was an interesting read, and didn’t tackle the kind of issues I was expecting. Many ethical and theological topics were left unremarked on. I suppose that is inevitable in a mid-sized commentary. The great strength of this commentary is that it takes a big picture approach. It develops a sense of the overall progression of Genesis and how it fits into the Pentateuch. Its weakness is that if you were to use it as a reference to get some insight on a particular verse or passage, you might find many of your exegetical and theological questions haven’t been addressed. But overall I would say it represents good value for money, as you get Exodus and Leviticus in the same volume for little more than the price of a single commentary.

Book Review – Revised Expositor’s Commentary on 1 & 2 Peter & Jude (J Darryl Charles)

I’ve already reviewed a number of commentaries in this volume of the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary (see Hebrews, Revelation, John’s Letters). The same complements on the nice layout apply here.

J Darryl Charles has provided the commentary on 1 & 2 Peter and Jude. The big danger with this commentary series is that it can fall through the gaps between an expositional and an academic commentary. It is aimed at “expositors”, but does not always provide enough space to really engage with the exegetical and theological issues that can be raised. Its strength therefore is in helping the reader to appreciate the meaning and flow of the argument, and briefly filling in background historical details or scriptural cross-references that will elucidate the text. There are brief pointers for application, but this series is not an exposition in the style of the Bible Speaks Today series. For those preparing a sermon or essay on the passage being commented on, I expect they would actually want to consult more detailed commentaries, but this commentary will still have value as a reference book for those wanting to quickly get an overview of a section of these epistles.

In the introduction to the 1 Peter commentary, Charles argues that it is reasonable to believe Peter authored this epistle. He acknowledges some differences in style to 2 Peter, but he gives a list of 41 similarities between the two epistles, which weaken the case for separate authors. In the commentary on 1 Peter, he highlights Peter’s concern for ethical living, which is rooted in eschatology. He notes that the epistle is filled with imperatives, and though it has suffering as a theme, its goal is not to provide a “theology of suffering” but rather to present a Christian ethic which responds to suffering by following the example of Christ.

The commentaries on 2 Peter and Jude have a fairly lengthy introduction which argues for Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, and lists the parallels with Jude. Despite the similarities, the purposes are different: Peter is more concerned with ethics than combating heresy. If Peter is combating anything, it is more likely sexual libertarianism than gnosticism. He presents the Lord’s coming as a day of moral reckoning and calls us to live virtuously. Charles believes that Peter even warns against the possibility of “loss of call” for the Christian. In the introduction to Jude, Charles considers the arguments against an early dating to be merely speculative. Jude uses examples of those who were privileged but who became dispossessed as warnings against apostasy.

For those who cannot afford to buy individual commentaries on each book of the New Testament, the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary represents a good compromise – offering essentially six commentaries for the price of one. While none of the individual commentaries would be described as “must haves”, they will prove useful to those who do not have the time or money available to consult the larger commentaries.

Book Review – REBC Revelation (Alan Johnson)

This commentary is from the same volume as Hebrews and 1-3 John I reviewed previously and shares the excellent layout I mentioned in those reviews. It weighs in at 220 or so pages, which makes it just about possible to use as a study guide as you work through Revelation. The introduction discusses dating although the author admits that both authorship and dating are hard to determine. He expresses doubts over the preterist view and himself adopts a futurist-symbolical view.

The commentary itself is not so preoccupied with determining the structure of the book as others I have seen and he is wary of attempts to tie different symbols to specific historical people or fanciful speculations about future events. In a few places he notes his disagreements with the dispensational interpretation of Revelation. He sees some of the letters to the churches as warning against loss of salvation.

He sees the seals as events preparatory to the final consumation, but not necessarily specific events – they may just be general conditions as in the Olivet discourse. He discusses the use of “Israel” to mean the church and considers that this meaning may just have been coming into use at the time of the writing of Revelation. He sees chapter 11 as refering to the church rather than the Jewish people. He considers the “antichrist” to be both theological heresy and possibly a future character. He opts for understanding 666 simply as a trinity of evil rather than refering to Nero or someone else. The mark of the beast speaks of socioeconomic sanctions against Christians.

He emphasises the victory won at the cross, and shows how even in Revelation the kingdom is both now and yet to come. In a few places he cautions against the trend to downplay the doctrine of hell – it may be extremely distateful to us, but it has the support of Scripture and Jesus himself. Similarly he argues against universalism in a few places. He does not equate Babylon with Rome, prefering to see it as a transhistorical reality expressing the total culture of a world apart from God. Some space is given to discussing the Nero redivivus myth and arguing against identifying the seven hills with successive emporers.

When it comes to the millennium, Johnson gives a brief and fair summary of options and indicates that he is historic, nondispensational premillennial. He believes that part of the reason for the millennium is for humanity to learn about the deep-rootedness of its own sinful nature – we will not be perfect before the eternal state even with Jesus dwelling with us on earth. In chapter 20 he notes that in the New Testament, judgement always proceeds on the basis of works, with a long list of supporting Scriptures. It is the book of life though that is decisive – the works reveal your true loyalties. When discussing the bride-city of chapter 21, he shows how this imagery emphasises both the relationship we will have with God, and the social relationships we will have with one another in heaven.

Though Revelation is a book that can easily bog you down in possible options for interpretation, I feel Alan Johnson has stuck well to the goal of this series to produce a commentary for preachers. It gives enough background information to give you confidence in tackling the passage, and does not ignore theological and practical concerns. His respect for Scripture as the word of God also shines through the commentary.

Book Review – REBC 1-3 John (Tom Thatcher)

This commentary is another in the new Revised Expositors Bible Commentary, from the same volume as Hebrews by R T France, which I reviewed in a previous post.

One of the strengths of this series is a really well laid out format, including the NIV text of the Bible, and Greek and Hebrew is always both transliterated and translated. It is aimed at the biblical expositor, so it is not application heavy, but it is not overly academic either.

This particular commentary starts with an introduction that covers all three letters. Thatcher talks about the “Johannine community”, a distinct branch of the early church, and likes to highlight John’s unique emphases when compared say to Paul or Matthew. Although interesting, I do feel that expositors would be served with some suggested resolutions to these apparently divergent approaches. These things are of great interest to academics, but congregations will benefit more from a coherent big picture of what the whole Bible says.

Another aspect of the Johannine epistles that Thatcher stresses is John’s “dualism”. By this he means that John isn’t into shades of grey – you’re either right or wrong, in our out, true or false, Christian or antichrist. He mentions this throughout the commentary, and by the end it really has sunk in. No “generous” orthodoxy for John! Thatcher has a concern to let John speak for himself, rather than rushing in to soften the blow when strong sentiments are expressed.

He shows how in John’s mind, the theological and ethical aspects of the Christian life are inextricably linked. Christological heretics always fail to love, and true believers never do. This commentary is very light on application, and we are often left to ponder the ramifications of these challenging statements without much guidance from the author.

I have heard some people claim that while Paul was into “truth”, John was into “love”, as though John was a really kindly person and Paul was a bit stern. Reading this commentary has perhaps opened my eyes to a somewhat harsher (even ‘intollerant’) John! That we are called to a lifestyle of love as well as to a belief in orthodox doctrine is something we need reminding of, especially in our age where Christians want to emphasise one at the expense of the other. John was equally “full on” in both categories. Thatcher goes as far as to say that “if John’s tests of doctrine and love were rigorously applied, one might have to conclude that most Christians today are antichrists”.

Overall I would say I benefitted in my understanding of these epistles from reading this commentary, although I would still recommend people check out David Jackman’s BST if they want more pastoral application, and reflection on how what John teaches ties in with the rest of the New Testament. I have said that there is not a great deal of “application” here, but he does throw in some interesting insights and reflections as he works through the epistles – I found him particularly helpful on the atonement (1 Jn 2:2), on prayer (1 Jn 3:22), and the “health and wealth” gospel (1 Jn 5:14). I didn’t find his commentary on 2 and 3 John as useful as that on 1 John, although he enumerated the various options for interpretation clearly.

Book Review – REBC Hebrews (R T France)

The first volume in the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary series was recently published, containing commenataries on Hebrews (R T France), James (George Guthrie), 1,2 Peter & Jude (Daryl Charles), 1,2,3 John (Tom Thatcher), and Revelation (Alan Johnson). This is just a review of the Hebrews commentary. The book itself has been well put together, with a very easy to follow layout. It includes the full text of the NIV, although France seems to wish that he was commenting on the TNIV, and regularly prefers the TNIV wording. He is non-commital on authorship – but he does say that it was someone like Apollos, writing a word of exhortation as a pastor, with a probable pre-AD 70 date. He is writing to Jewish Christians tempted to question whether they have made the right decision in converting to Christianity, and his main structure is based around the idea of supercession – how much better the Christian gospel is than the temporary provisions of the Old Covenant.

Hebrews makes much use of Old Tesament quotations, and France gives some space to discussing the sometimes unconventional hermeneutics of the author. Basically, in the Old Testament what is true of the Father is assumed to be true of the Son. In fact, in many instances, the author’s exegetical methods are remarkably similar to our own.

For Calvinists, the warning passages in Hebrews present a possible contradiction to other text emphasising the security of the believer. France does discuss this issue, but doesn’t attempt to provide a resolution other than noting the differing pastoral intentions that are present in Hebrews (Paul wants to give assurance to doubters, Hebrews wants to give warning to the complacent). Moreover, France believes that the author of Hebrews really does indicate that ‘real’ Christians can deliberately abandon the faith. The use of “we” in 10:26 indicates to him that again “real Christians” are in view. While not interacting directly with a Calvinist approach to 3:14, he sees this as a verse stating that our “sharing remains conditional” – the race is not run until it has been finished. France sees apostacy also in the mention of Esau in 12:16.

There are helpful explanations of what Christian maturity is about, and how Jesus became perfect through suffering (5:8,9). While he does not wade right in to controversial debates on the atonement, he does emphasise understanding the cross in terms of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Commenting on 10:14 he says that it is pastorally essential to recognise the believer’s ongoing battle with sin. His introductory material to chapter 11 is helpful in explaining the nature of faith, and how the author sees faith in some Old Testament stories that do no explicitly mention it. France sees chapter 13 as naturally concluding the letter and so doesn’t see the need to consider it a later addition.

Overall, I found this commentary very helpful in following the argument through the book, and explaining some of the more difficult parts. It is not a long-winded commentary, which may mean that in places you would like a more detailed explanation. Although he touches on some theological debates and practical applications, on the whole he is happy to do the exegesis, and leave the systematic theology and contemporary application to the reader, which is probably about right for a commentary series aimed at preachers. The volume as a whole represents good value for money compared to most other commentary series available, providing commetaries on nine books for the price of one hardback book.

Book Review – EBC Matthew (D A Carson)

Despite being written back in 1984 and being part of a series that generally is not considered an “in depth” level of commentaries, Don Carson’s volume on Matthew still consistently finds its way to the top of most evangelical lists of recommended commentaries on the first gospel. It is, in fact, considerably more detailed than the EBC Mark and Luke volumes, and deliberately so, as it was intended to deal in more detail with issues of harmonization of the gospels.

It can be bought separately, rather unnecessarily bound in two volumes, or it can be bought much more cheaply as part of a large hardback edition including the Mark and Luke commentaries. There is a revised version of Expositor’s Bible Commentary currently in the process of being published. Rumour has it that Don Carson will be updating Matthew for the new series, which if true will doubtless reinforce its status as one of the best evangelical commentaries on Matthew available.

It is amazing how much Carson fits in. He is ready to jump in to almost any argument concerning the historicity, exegesis, theology or contemporary application of a passage. He manages this mainly due to his ability to write in a very concise fashion, enumerating his opponents’ views succinctly, before despatching his own verdict with the minimum of fuss.

The introduction is fairly comprehensive, and includes a discussion of the “synoptic problem”. He tentatively accepts a two source hypothesis and Matthean authorship. The commentary itself includes the NIV text, and sections are introduced with anything from a single paragraph to a long discussion of different interpretations. The comments are then based on one or two verses at a time. Greek and Hebrew terms are always transliterated and translated, but he assumes that readers are familiar with terms such as apodosis and chiasm.

Carson clearly loves the gospel of Matthew. Almost every section is introduced as being special or unique in some way. His great concern with New Testament usage of the Old also surfaces in many places. He has a special interest in the word “fulfil” (pleroo), in particular how it is that Jesus can be said to fulfil the entire Old Testament Scriptures.

The content of the commentary is well suited to Biblical expositors, who will want to grapple not only with the meaning of the text as Matthew intended it, but also to deal with the diverse issues that congregations will be interested in – historical (e.g. ‘discrepancies’ with other gospels), theological (e.g. do we still need to obey the law) and practical (e.g. can you remarry after divorce). He does this in a way that treats the Biblical text as the Word of God, but he is careful not to resort to contrived harmonisations, or pious but tenuous interpretations.

Throughout the commentary he shows willingness to interact with the views of other commentators (especially Hill on Matthew and Lane on Mark), often resulting in a long list of possible options. This has the effect of making the commentary somewhat uneven in coverage as the comments on some sections are only a paragraph, while on others a number of pages.

I’ll just single out two passages for particular comment. As might be expected, the Sermon on the Mount is given an excellent treatment, as Carson has written on this separately elsewhere. In the ‘Olivet Discourse’, he surveys the wide variety of interpretations, casting doubt on both Dispensational understandings and France’s idea that the fall of Jerusalem and the “coming of the Son of Man” are the same event (I would expect that the forthcoming revision will also interact with N T Wright on this point as well, and also with 21:20-22 on the mountain that is thrown into the sea). He ends up proposing that Jesus used the discourse to introduce a concept of a delay between the destruction of the temple and the Parousia, contrary to what his disciples were expecting.

In summary, any serious evangelical student and teacher of the Bible will greatly benefit from having this commentary as part of their library. It is especially useful in providing clarity on difficult passages. I haven’t read the Mark and Luke commentaries in the same volume yet, but the price is worth it for the Matthew commentary alone. Zondervan seem to be working backwards at a rate of two volumes a year in their revision of the series, so if you can wait until 2008 there may well be an even better volume available.