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.

The Message of Exodus (Alec Motyer)

This recent addition to the BST series is another from the respected commentator Alec Motyer. Although, in keeping with the series, this volume does not attempt to be a commentary, it would appear that Motyer would quite like to have written one anyway. The normal flow of the book, which considers the Christian relevance of the message of Exodus is interrupted with regular “Notes” sections (in addition to the standard footnotes), which relate specifically to individual verses, and are much more like the material found in a standard commentary. This can make it a bit disjointed for those reading cover to cover, but will be helpful to those who approach the book as a reference.

The main sections of commentary deal with Exodus in moderately sized chunks, drawing out the main theological and practical lessons found there. The book is of course understood in the light of the New Testament, and while Motyer expresses caution about spiritualising interpretation of the closing chapters of the book, generally he is in agreement with the main points that older commentators have detected. Christians are understood as priests under the great high priest Jesus.

The notes sections are more technical, and often refer to the Hebrew, which is always transliterated. Only selected verses are covered in this way, and it also allows extra space for Motyer to highlight the chiastic structures he finds throughout the book. While he does not make a full case against the documentary hypothesis, he takes regular opportunities to show why he feels it is unfounded.

Different portions of Exodus are covered at different speeds, with two thirds of the commentary covering the first 20 chapters of Exodus. Motyer is concerned to highlight aspects of Yahweh’s self-revelation throughout the book, and also to parallel the experience of the Israelites with our own – for example the struggles we face through life are like the wilderness experience.

Many theologically controversial issues are touched upon through the course of the book. For example, issues of free will and God’s sovereignty, the ongoing place of the Ten Commandments in Christian life, what to make of some of the severe punishments meted out, and God’s changing his mind. Motyer’s comments are usually balanced and instructive, without offering full treatments of these subjects.

Overall it is a bit more heavy-going than other BST volumes to read cover to cover, and perhaps Motyer’s work would have been better suited to a more intermediate level commentary series. Having said that, there is a broad range of helpful and practical material here that will benefit those who want fresh insight and deeper understanding of the book of Exodus. As with all BST volumes, the author’s deep reverence for God and respect for his word is evident throughout, alongside a pastoral heart for the readers.