Book Review: The Abiding Presence

After enjoying The Message of the Book of Revelation in my devotional time, I thought I’d use part of that time to read another commentary of a type/series I was unfamiliar with. In this case (working at work on a book on Moses) I thought that this commentary on Moses would be worth reading. I am very glad I picked it up. Rather than a classic verse-by-verse commentary, The Abiding Presence is, as it’s subtitle suggests, a theological commentary on Exodus. This doesn’t mean that textual and linguistic stuff isn’t important in the book – but that it is somewhat put in the background by theological analysis of the text as we have it (Rather than spending time working out whether it is the text we should have. There is interaction with it, but that is not the point of it).

Scarlata writes beautifully and has given a gift to the church with this book – noting what I’ve already observed at the outset, he writes “The purposes of this commentary is to offer a reading of Exodus that concentrates on the final form and the theological meaning of the story as it has been handed down to us by the sacred authors of Scripture“. I personally think Scarlata strikes a healthy balance throughout the commentary between noting the different textual and theological traditions of Exodus, and reading it as a coherent text. This is particularly helpful to folk like me, non-Jewish Christians, as I found The Abiding Presence forcing me to confront and remember the Jewish roots of my faith, rather than jumping straight to fulfilment in Christ. Scarlata does a good job of summarising New Testament themes relating to each part of Exodus – and this is what makes this perhaps a particularly helpful book for Christian preachers. As a book, it also helpfully provokes the reader to see the truth of the idea that “The Divine presence will shape Israel’s journey throughout the book of Exodus… With YHWH abiding in their midst they will be able to fulfil their call to become a ‘kingdom of priests’ and a ‘holy nation’ that is blessed and will be a blessing to all the nations“. This central idea is teased out throughout the commentary – at both the personal and national levels.

Personally, reading this commentary devotionally in the middle of ‘Lockdown 2’, I was reminded again and again of the power of Scripture to speak to and challenge the way the world is. Scarlata writes “When God comes to his own, they reject him. Yet despite this, in seemingly impossible scenarios, YHWH demonstrates his love for the world through the poor and the weak. At the moments when all seems lost and God is perceived as absent, his greatest victories are born“. As Advent begins, Amen! The way God’s kingdom comes is not the way we expect – and we see this in the story of Moses. Scarlata notes, I think rightly, that “Moses is not called into God’s service because he is eloquent in speech, or because of his political savvy. Instead, he is prepared to lead God’s people by seeking out lost sheep, binding their wounds and leading them to pasture where they might grow and thrive“. The fact that this takes place in the wilderness is even more of a challenge to our comfortable Western ways.

Theologically, one of my big interests is what it means to be made in and to understand the biblical phrase ‘image of God’. As such, I spend quite a bit of time reading books – and looking at commentaries on Genesis. One thing that struck me in The Abiding Presence was the way that this biblical theme is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of God’s word – even where the phrase doesn’t occur. Scarlata demonstrates this throughout – God is forming his people into the people he wants them to be. And one of the primary ways that this happens is through prayer. He writes “intercession is also the means by which God fashions his people into his image“.

You can probably tell that I liked this commentary. I think it reads superbly as a book, as well as being genuinely useful as a commentary. I’ll be referring back to it again and again – not just when thinking about Exodus – and recommending it widely.


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