Book Reviews

How to Read Exodus

Tremper Longman III Downers Grove, IL 2009-08-18

This is the latest of the “How to Read” series authored by Longman and published by IVP Academic. Like the others it is intended primarily for lay readers, but this by no means suggests that it lacks scholarly precision or that it avoids commonly recognized difficulties in the Book of Exodus. This book consists of five major parts, all having to do with different ways of reading Exodus: “With a Strategy,” “As Literature,” “As History in Its Historical Context,” “As God’s Story,” and “As a Christian.” Longman has a well-deserved reputation as an astute and perceptive reader of biblical texts, especially poetry, and the present work reflects that skill.

As for reading strategy, Longman urges that attention be given to such matters as genre, outline, and style. As for literature, he suggests three major themes or motifs—presence, covenant, and servitude—the recognition of which in their interrelationship provides the key to understanding the central message of the book. Turning to Exodus and history, Longman views Exodus against the ancient Near Eastern context in which it was written, pointing out possible connections such as the birth accounts of Moses and Sargon, Moses’ law and that of Hammurabi, and the tabernacle as a place of worship in both Israel and other communities. Following this brief overview the author offers evidence for the Exodus event. He concludes that indirect testimony of its historicity abounds but that the date cannot yet be firmly established. He describes the data of 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26 as “meager chronological information” that does not point to a precise date and he wonders “as to whether the number [480 years] in Kings is symbolic rather than literal” (p. 79). This is a hazardous methodological move in the absence of anything in the text that suggests anything but a literal reading (see also Exod. 12:40–41, a similar chronological datum, one that Longman ignores).

In his description of Exodus as “God’s story” Longman makes a strong case for the factuality of the plagues and other miracle accounts against naturalistic explanations, to say nothing of outright denial of their occurrence. He rightly points out the problem of the enormous numbers of Israelite escapees, concluding that “numbers in the biblical narrative frequently have purposes other than merely to communicate literal fact” (p. 117). To Longman, to read Exodus as a Christian means that “as part of the ‘writings of Moses,’ the Christian should be attentive to how the book of Exodus anticipates the coming of Jesus Christ. As we do so, we marvel at how the New Testament guides us to a proper appreciation of how Jesus fulfills the exodus (chap. 10), the law (chap. 11), and the tabernacle (chap. 12)” (p. 144). The numbers refer to the chapters in his book.

In conclusion Longman has much to contribute to the apparently easy but in fact extremely difficult task of reading, particularly the reading of biblical texts. This little volume advances that process in a number of helpful ways.

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Eugene H. Merrill
Eugene H. Merrill is a former faculty member of DTS. Dr. Merrill has been heavily involved in international Christian ministry in Europe, Asia, and the Near East. As a scholar Dr. Merrill regularly contributes to leading journals, periodicals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. Academia runs in his family as his wife, Janet, holds a doctorate in counselor education from Columbia University and his daughter, Sonya, earned a Ph.D. in medical ethics from the University of London and an M.D. from Harvard University.
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