A Commentary on Exodus, by Duane Garrett

9780825425516My interaction with the Kregel Exegetical Library series has left me quite impressed, though admittedly I’ve only interacted with the Psalms and Exodus volumes!  For my review volumes 1 and 2 of Allen Ross’ set on the Psalms, click here.  Below, I will review Duane Garrett’s treatment of Exodus (available here and here).

Preface and Introduction

According to his preface, Garrett seeks to fill a lacuna in Exodus commentaries by contributing a few specifics to the study of Exodus. First, he endeavors “to give readers a short, basic introduction to Egyptian history, culture, language, and geography” (9). Many commentators treat Egyptogy as though it’s not that important in interpreting Exodus, but the author obviously disagrees.  In his introduction, he spills copious amounts of ink in an effort to orient the reader to all things Egypt as a backdrop to Exodus, and I found his treatment helpful and informative. Second, Garrett intentionally takes on historiographical issues such as “the date of the exodus, the genealogy of Moses…the location of the sea that Israel crossed, and the location of Sinai” (P10). I haven’t read enough to know myself, but I believe him when he says most critical scholars see such questions as meaningless, and Garrett’s commentary will not take such an approach. He will argue for a specific position when he feels the evidence strong enough, but in an even-handed manner. Third, Garrett proposes that his “clause by clause” approach is somehow unique 🙂 …I think he’s getting at interpretation at the level of discourse rather than simply picking words apart, but I’m not entirely sure. Fourth, he sees in Exodus a whole series of poems that goes beyond Exodus 15. This is largely dealt with in an appendix in the back. Fifth, Garrett designed his commentary to be useful to pastors and Bible teachers while not glossing over “thorny problems” (10). This accounts for it’s relative shortness. I applaud his removal if technical discussion to the footnotes, but I sometimes wish it were longer and more detailed. There are other ways to avoid forcing your readers “to wade through pages of discourse to find out what [he] thinks a passage means” besides making your commentary short! Short and accessible are not synonymous (10). Nether are long and inaccessible synonymous. Garrett’s sixth and final unique contribution (okay, not entirely unique!) is consciously and intentionally reading Exodus as a Christian theologian by relating the book to the NT and Christian doctrine. I love this, as Exodus-New Exodus is an important, if not “the” important, paradigm for the Gospels. This often shows up visibly in each section when he tackles theological “key points.” He is this not afraid, for example, to tie the first Passover to Jesus, our Passover lamb (369). OT scholars, even Christian ones, often avoid such trans-testamental, Christo-telic arcs. Not Garrett. Yet doesn’t fall into the opposite trap of seeing Jesus behind every event and ritual.

He begins his commentary with a thorough, 145-page introduction dealing with many issues, which a book like Exodus necessitates due to it’s broad history of interpretation, it’s canonical significance, and the historical issues in its narrative (i.e. date of exodus, location of “Red Sea” crossing, miracles, Egyptian period, etc.) Maps are glaringly absent though. While he doesn’t always put cookies on lowest shelf, it’s a pretty accessible introduction. He abruptly dives into history of interpretation and a discussion of documentary hypothesis on page 15 (immediately after his introductory paragraph for the whole commentary!), and I wish he would have given more background on what the DH is and why it needs to be included in discussion. Nonetheless, he offers what I sense to be a balanced (and skeptical!) accounting of JEDP discussions which I found refreshing. I quote,

Beyond being a dubious enterprise, source criticism of this kind is of doubtful heuristic value. That is, it does not help us to understand what the book means. To the contrary, source analysis has often hindered the literary and theological interpretation of the text. A distressing and inevitable outcome of analysis based on some version of the documentary hypothesis is that it leads to commentaries that I have more to say about the supposed sources of Exodus than they do about the canonical text. That is, we come away with a little in the way of an interpretation of the one document that we know to be a real, the book of Exodus” (18-19)

Amen and amen! As for authorship, the following quote is very helpful and judicious:

… one may responsibly contend that Moses was responsible for the compilation of this book. This does not reject the possibility that sources were used or that there has been editing… but for the most part, there is very little basis for distinguishing sources within Exodus, and the effort gives few benefits in terms of an enhanced understanding of the book. The full process whereby the book was composed of the unknown to us, but it is a unity. It bears the marks of being a late second to millennial text…and it was written by someone who is familiar with the circumstances of Israel and Egypt. We may continue to view exodus as the ‘Second book of Moses'” (20).

Structure

For each section, Garrett typically structures it as follows:

  1. Translation.  This is his own, clause-by-clause translation, and he gives ample footnotes that delve into grammatical, lexical, and syntactical issues.  This will deeply satisfy us more technical interpreters!
  2. Structure
  3. Commentary
  4. Theological Summary of Key Points

He also includes numerous “excursuses” in which he skillfully and insightfully deals with various exegetical, theological, and historical issues surrounding the interpretation of Exodus. Topics range from such biblical-theological thrusts such as “Israel and Moses as Prototypes of a New Creation” (185), to modern geographical questions such as the location of the wilderness of Shur in Exodus 15 (415), to questions of ancient background in “The Egyptian Army in the New Kingdom” (388), the army that was drowned in the sea! I will preview my main complaint with the commentary here: there is no index or easy way to find and navigate these excursuses; you literally have to thumb through the book to find them! This is a shame, given how helpful they are.

Here’s an example drawn from the excursus, “The Hardness of Pharoah’s Heart (370ff). He deals deftly with the issue of how God and his messenger can be justified in condemning Pharoah, even when God is often stated as the agent behind Pharoah’s hard and obstinant heart. While rightly acknowledging that human free will is not what would have concerned the ancient readers, he wisely deals with the question for us moderns. At the same time, he brings us into the concerns of Exodus, it’s author, and it’s world in a skillful and tactful manner. The main purpose is to show, without a doubt, that God was the sole deliverer in the Exodus, without help from the Hebrews or from Pharaoh. And check out this incredible chart on the subject:

photo 1

I like the “theological summary of key points” sections which he places after each commentary section.  This is where he interacts with other disciplines and fields, such as systematic theology, history, philosophy, and New Testament studies. In the section following Exodus 2:23-4:17, for example, he discusses areas such as the angel of the Lord, the name of God and it’s relation to theology proper, the identity of God, transcendence and immanence, incarnation, salvation and eternal life, theodicy, anti-Semitism, Jesus’ use of Exodus 3 in Luke 20:27-37, etc. His discussions are often very thoughtful and fruitful. These “theological summary of key points” sections are sometimes actually about theological points, but often they are applications. This is great, but I wish he had a separate sections for theology and application to make it easier for the reader to find them.

Other Observations

Garrett sometimes includes untranslated and untransliterated Hebrew text in his comments. More often than not he includes a translation, but not always (see four instance his discussion of Exodus 4:24-26). He probably should have always included at least a translation, if not also a transliteration, since his commentary is not geared solely for academics.

Edifying and applicable points drawn throughout. For instance, referring to Moses’ unbelief in Exodus 6:10-12:

Moses’ unbelief also tells us to things about the nature of faithlessness. First, it comes about because one forgets that one is supposed to have faith in God and not in oneself. Moses was not supposed to persuade pharaoh to let the people go, so the fact that Pharaoh would not be persuaded is it relevant. Moses was simply to announce what God commanded Sarah to do and allow God to enforce the command. Second, faithlessness often comes about from giving undue attention to one’s own weakness, unworthiness, and inability. Moses was too concerned about how he would look, making an announcement for God with this horrible speech. But apparently is speaking ability was good enough for God (257).

Garrett makes use of tables and charts to great avail, as seen above and below.

photo 3

 

On a less positive note, Garrett doesn’t always give sufficient evidence for his assertions (but what commentator does?!). One example is his claim that the Egyptian magicians’ producing frogs is not demonic or miraculous but rather the “equivalent of a stage magician pulling rabbit out of hat” (290). Why can’t it be supernatural? He doesn’t deny Moses’ miracle. But he denies that the Egyptians as doing anything supernatural. Also, I’m not yet fully convinced by his dismissal of the idea that each plague corresponds roughly to and is tantamount to the defeat of an Egyptian god (see excursus and notes on 12:12 on p 363). But his discussion was erudite and informed, and must be reckoned with. And lets face it, he may have me convinced–I’m just hesitant to let go!

I wanted to know how he would handle issues of “law and gospel”, particularly as Exodus recounts the giving of the “10 commandments” and other laws. On p. 370, he writes, “Contrary to some modern evangelical opinion, the laws are not given as a kind of punishment for Israel’s disobedience.” Amen! But why were they given? Admitedly, I didn’t read the commentary in its entirety, but this is the closest I found him getting to answering the question:

It is true that anyone who seeks to follow the moral law without first coming to terms with the demand for devotion to God has missed the main point. But it is also true that anyone who claims to be loyal to YHWH but does not obey the moral commands deceives himself (143).

The distinction between the bilateral Sinai covenant and the unilateral Abrahamic covenant is critically important. The Abrahamic covenant is God’s commitment to create a nation for himself and ultimately to bring blessing to the world through that nation (Gen. 12:1-3). The Sinai covenant is, in effect, a pedagogue (Gal. 3:23-24), meant to guide and preserve Israel the nation as they await the fulfillment of all the promises (544).

I would have hoped for a larger section in the introduction and even a independent excursus on the topics of the purpose of the Law, its relation to Gospel, and even an analysis of the Reformation’s “Threefold Use of the Law.” I was sorely disappointed. You can expect more discussion of that topic from me in the near future as I study Galatians.

photo 2My Main Criticism

My main problem with this commentary actually has to do with its layout and structure, not its content! It’s not that it lacks structure; but judging by the way it is laid out, the structure is far from obvious unless you read it thoroughly. Take a look at the photo. The headers on the tops of pages only specify sections by five chapter chunks or so, thus requiring you to dig through the body of the commentary itself to find the section you’re looking for. This is inconvenient and cumbersome. There is an outline that is more detailed in the introduction, but, ironically, you have to dig for it! I would have liked to see this outline at the very beginning, perhaps page 1. And with this outline, I would have liked to see page numbers attached to the outline so as to make for a more useful, analytic table of contents (his table of contents basically only gives page numbers for the seven main “parts” of Exodus).  And while we’re on the subject, a list of all the excursuses would have also been helpful. The book is somewhat of a nightmare to navigate, but it’s worth it!

Conclusion

This is an excellent mid-level commentary. It is concise enough to not be exhausting, but it does not have the corresponding liability many concise commentaries have: superficiality. No, Garrett leads us deep into the text, it’s world, and it’s theology. If you’re looking for detailed discussion of each and every verse, you’ll want to supplement. But this is a great starting point. Garret’s treatment is not the same as every other; it is fresh and insightful. I highly recommend it.

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