Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: SPCK Publishing (21 Oct 2010)
Tom Wright’s New Testament "...for Everyone" series of Bible commentaries have proved to be very popular, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to try the same approach for the books of the Hebrew Bible. Step forward John Goldingay, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in the US and former principal of St. John’s College Nottingham (UK).
Having dealt with the first sixteen chapters of Genesis in volume 1, Goldingay, along with SPCK - who are also the publishers of the Wright series - have moved onto Exodus and Leviticus for the second volume. Part 3 - Numbers and Deuteronomy - is due out in the UK later this month.
As the series’ title suggests, its aim is to give an overview of the books that is accessible to all-comers. Like Wright’s series, and William Barclay’s similar series from the middle of last century, Goldingay offers his own translation of each passage before attempting to summarise it, typically offering personal anecdotes to enlighten often obscure parts of the Old Testament. Some of these stories work better than others. At times the links are a little too tenuous, or require such a deal of explanation that the advantage gained is fairly minimal. That said, they did draw me into the explanations that were to follow, and give me a greater appreciation of the author and his life.
Goldingay’s translation, on the other hand, sustains a real freshness throughout. I don’t know a word of Hebrew, so I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of his choices, but they are often bold, causing certain nuances to leap out. Part of this is because such a large proportion of popular translations are essentially re-workings of the King James Version, but even the choices made in translating individual words give a new angle on familiar passages. It’s a shame that not all of the text is translated - often one part of a passage is translated whilst the other is merely summarised - but this is understandable given the nature of the project, and the length of the Old Testament relative to the New.
The difficulty in housing Exodus and Leviticus under one introductory roof is that typically most people are far more familiar with the former than the latter. In particular, many of this book’s target audience will have grown up with the stories of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. It’s difficult therefore to provide an introduction to Exodus which is consistently both accessible and informative. Most readers turn to commentaries seeking fresh insights, and whilst I recognise that Exodus is one of the books I have studied in more depth, I think the average church-goer, at least, will have heard much of this in one forum or another. Whether this is his failure, or merely a small flaw in what is a strong concept overall, I remain unsure.
Leviticus however is entirely another matter. Here, and to a lesser extent in the later chapters of Exodus, Goldingay’s work is excellent, managing to explain one of the Bible’s most impenetrable books in a way that makes it seem fresh, accessible, and, dare I say it, fascinating. Time and time again I came away feeling that I had gained a whole new perspective on the book and it’s implications for today. I’ve only dipped into commentaries on Leviticus before, but I feel I would recommend Goldingay’s work here to all but the most seasoned Torah-expert. Given that the average Christian gives a wider berth to the majority of the Hebrew Bible than a fictional Levite on the Jericho to Jerusalem road might give to a heavily beaten man, the outlook for the rest of the series looks promising.
That said, one of the problems with working through the Old Testament in order, particularly for a series that aspires to being wide reaching, is that the first few books contain a number of hurdles that risk alienating large swathes of readers. Genesis is the first - your take on creation will often cause some readers not to progress. This second entry in the series again it comes into contact with a number of controversial texts: how will the author handle God’s violence against the Egyptians in Exodus or the verses often cited from Leviticus as being anti-homosexuality?
On the first, Goldingay seems a little troubled by Exodus’ anticipation of the conquest of Canaan, covering the issue in his section on Ex. 23:20-33, but ultimately he’s seemingly content to accept the text’s reasoning. But the anti-homosexuality verses (18:22 and 20:13) are passed over. It’s possible to infer Goldingay’s take on the issue from his careful explanation of how similar passages function, but not to dealing with this issue specifically is an error. Whilst it’s no more than a passing reference as far as Leviticus is confirmed, in our culture this is Leviticus’ most well known / discussed verse (as any search engine will quickly confirm). To ignore these verses in a commentary aimed at the average person on the street is undoubtedly something of an oversight.
Another omission that will surprise many experts on the Hebrew Bible is the absence of a detailed discussion of the documentary hypothesis and the hypothetical sources behind the text. Goldingay makes a number of passing references to there being various sources behind Exodus, particularly when there seems to be some kind of conflict between them, but he avoids mentioning JEDP, Graf-Wellhausen or redactors. Whilst this is unusual, I think it’s the right call. Opinion on the sources behind the Pentateuch have become so diverse over the last century that there is very little consensus. Indeed many of Goldingay’s target audience will come from backgrounds where it is still widely agreed that Moses wrote the Torah almost single-handedly. To wade into such a complex issue would risk alienating many of the “Everyone”s who might choose to read the book. It could be argued that at least mentioning J, E, D and P might be useful, but again, if there’s to be no specific analysis of those sources, then simply explaining that there different sources seems a wise approach.
Goldingay’s approach to this issue typifies the way that the book consistently pitches things at the right level. Whilst this arguably leaves the Exodus section of his commentary seeming a little pedestrian, it results in a superb and insightful explanation of Leviticus, and the translation means that even without the commentary more seasoned students of these two books will find plenty to chew on.