Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and its utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.
In a previous review of a volume in this series, I wrote “this is a series that I’ve had mixed feelings about – some are superb, readable and theological, others seem disconnected from the idea of commentary“. Having worked through this commentary on Exodus by Thomas Joseph White, sadly for me this volume falls into the latter. It follows an interesting structure within the series style – the series in my experience does not have a particularly rigid attempt at a series structure – and this division of the book of Exodus is perhaps it’s most useful feature. Exodus is an important book of the Bible – and White does an interesting job of dividing it into five parts, and another strength is his biblical/canonical theological connection. This is not a commentary that is disconnected from the rest of Scripture, and that is good.
This volume suffers from two fairly major flaws, in my view. Firstly, and somewhat surprisingly, is a seeming reticence by White to be upfront about what he thinks about historicity, etc, even though he tends to be well-reasoned and clear. One wonders if this is a professional nervousness – yet this is a theological commentary, and so it is ok to have theological reasons for thinking things about the text, both in terms of content and form! For example, “As for the events of the exodus itself, I take it… Some of them… I believe theologically… I take it then… I think it likely” (p. 14) is quite obfusticated and wordy – rather than just writing what he thinks. Secondly, and this will obviously not be the case for some readers, this is a commentary by a Roman Catholic that is quite unaware of just how Roman Catholic it is. This displays itself in an over-reliance on Thomas Aquinas for interpretation and theology, which is sometimes strange and sometimes just straightforwardly unimaginative; a very strange treatment of texts in terms of their literary/historical/symbolism/typological qualities, and a minimal engagement with secondary literature outside of some narrow streams.
These flaws aside, there is some good writing here, and some helpful theological reflection on the text. It just isn’t uniformly a helpful commentary, in my opinion. Some good examples of nuggets that hint at a good book on Exodus (and this is not a verse by verse commentary) include:
- “The exodus teaches us to hope in the transforming power of the creator to make all things new” (p. 75)
- “In the wilderness God nourishes the faith of the people of Israel, leading them into spiritual communion” (p. 121)
- “The worship of Israel recapitulates the opening chapters of the Torah, and represents the ultimate purpose of creation” (p. 227) – Amen!
- “The book of Exodus begins in darkness and ends in light” (p. 289)
I’ve alluded to the structure of this book being interesting, and I summarise it thus, selectively quoting from the introduction: “The book of Exodus has five main parts. Exodus 1-12 is concerned primarily with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt… Exodus 13-18 is concerned with the experience of Israel in the wilderness… Exodus 19-24 takes place at Mount Sinai and is concerned with the giving of the covenant and the law… Exodus 25-31 is concerned with the cultic rituals of the people of Israel… Exodus 32-40 is concerned with the fall and restoration of Israel” (p. 6-7). This is not necessarily groundbreaking, but seeing this long book of Scripture in these five acts was helpful for me, at least.
Overall, then, this isn’t a commentary I’d recommend to many preachers – except perhaps those in, say, an Anglican context with some folk with Anglo-Catholic formation – beyond the outline piece. It is too tentative, not particularly textual, and Roman Catholic in a way which detracts and distracts from the text.
Exodus is an important book of the Bible, key to understanding a range of things. With this commentary in the BTC being not that useful, here are my recommendations:
- T. Desmond Alexander’s contribution to the Apollos Old Testament Commentary – in my view the best available single volume, technical, evangelical commentary, yet retaining readability, good biblical theology, and application.
- Mark Scarlata’s The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary on Exodus – see my review for more, but this from Scarlata is a superb example of the possibility of a good theological commentary, readable and textually careful.
- Chris Wright’s contribution to the Story of God series is good, with more application than the other two, but in my view hangs together less well than Desi or Scarlata.