Ralph K. Hawkins, Discovering Exodus

Hawkins, Ralph K. Discovering Exodus. Discovering Biblical Texts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 308 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

The Discovering Biblical Texts series provides basic introductions of biblical books by focusing on the interpretation and reception of the book, as well as the contents of the book. Ralph Hawkins’s Discovering Exodus introduces readers to the overall canonical shape of the book and briefly introduces them to key interpreting issues.

Hawkins, Discovering ExodusThe book begins with a chapter on the structure and story of Exodus before turning to Exodus as literature. In chapter 2, Hawkins describes the rise of source criticism and the paradigm shift to literary criticism. This includes an overview of the origin and development of the documentary hypothesis, a theory which he considers flawed, even though he admits in North America the documentary hypothesis remains conventional wisdom. Following Brevard Childs’s work in the late 1970s, as well as the Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (and similar works), he considers Exodus to be a sophisticated literary work whether or not historical Moses wrote the book. However, in this book, Hawkins is interested in the final form of the text and how Exodus contributes to the whole canon of scripture.

Chapter 3 discusses the realia of Exodus. Since the 1960s, critical scholars seriously doubt the traditional view of Israel historiography. The absence of evidence for the exodus and the wilderness period has led many scholars to dismiss the Book of Exodus as a fabricated origin story, written long after the events it claims to record. However, Hawkins points out in methodological issue: doubts about the historicity of the exodus events are based on the use of data not collected or not found (an argument from silence, p. 23). Other events in Egyptian history are known only from literary sources and cannot be verified by archaeology. Few scholars would dismiss Thutmose III’s third military campaign in Canaan because of a lack of evidence for a battle near Megiddo. He argues a “hermeneutics of suspicion” creates preconditions that dismiss the biblical story because of lack of evidence (24). Hawkins argues the archaeology of the two storehouse cities Pithom and Rameses mentioned in Exodus 1:11 ought to be considered positive evidence for at least early Israelite presence in Egypt.

A historical exodus raises several issues, the first is the always difficult problem of the date of the exodus. Hawkins lists ten points favoring the later date in the mid-thirteenth century BC during the 19th dynasty. This is “essentially the consensus date for those who hold that a historical exodus occurred (27). Second, he agrees with the common explanation that the Hebrew does not mean 1000, but rather “unit” or “squad.” This unit was a few as six men and as many as twenty, so rather than 600,000+ men, the book of Numbers refers to “600 squads” representing a total fighting force of 5000 men. A third historical issue is the location of Mount Sinai. He comments on each of the three regions often suggested for the location of Sinai, but settles on the traditional site at Gebel Musa since it fits best with the eleven-day journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea.

Chapters 3-8 survey the contents of the book with occasional comment on key interpretive issues. This section is not a detailed commentary, but a survey of the contents of the book which intentionally highlight certain key historical and theological problems of interest to most readers of the book. These issues include the name of God, the uniqueness of Moses, the hardening of the pharaoh’s heart, miracles, the ancient Near Eastern background for the law, the Tabernacle, including the historicity of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

Chapters 9-13 place Exodus into an overall biblical theology and deal with matters of reception history. In Chapter 9, Hawkins discusses the “gospel of Israel in Exodus.” In Exodus, sin and rebellion lead to restoration and renewal. The golden calf incident is the key for this theological theme. The people deeply offend God by creating an idol to worship while Moses is receiving the Law. The people are punished, but there is also restoration and renewal when Moses intercedes. This sets up the pattern for the wilderness period. The section also has a fascinating look at the Lord’s revelation of his glory to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) and how that description of God echoes through the rest of the Old Testament and in both Jewish and Christian liturgy.

Chapters 11 and 12 trace themes from Exodus through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Hawkins observes the exodus events represent the foundational act of salvation in the Old Testament and every part of the Hebrew canon rehearsed and reflected on Exodus (202). The Psalms often refer to the exodus events. For example, the Psalmist worships the Lord because he “turned the sea into dry land” (66:6). In Psalm 77, the Lord makes a way through the sea and led his people “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (77:16-20). Although Hawkins mentions the exodus is important for the prophets, it is surprising he does not focus more on Isaiah 40-55 as a new exodus passage. Certainly, the idea of a new exodus becomes important in the New Testament. He points out exodus themes in the four canonical gospels, as well as the book of Acts. Paul made frequent allusions to the exodus events in the letters to the church at Corinth and much of what he has to say about the Law draws on the legal traditions found in the book. This chapter could have devoted more space to the importance of the exodus events for understanding the Book of Revelation, but it is difficult to be detailed in a survey chapter.

Chapter 13 deals with echoes of Exodus in culture. Here, Hawkins covers examples in art, literature, architecture, and film. More important is his discussion of Exodus in politics (241-55), although his focus is entirely on American history. Beginning with the pilgrims, colonialists thought of themselves as a new Israel traveling to a new promised land and building a new society guided by the Ten Commandments. For many colonialists, American liberty was understood through the lens of Israel’s liberation from slavery. This is ironic since those who later opposed slavery used Exodus to argue in favor of the freeing of slaves. He cites several examples from the United Methodist Hymnal, such as “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Go Down Moses,” a song Harriet Tubman sang as a signal to slaves to help them escape. He follows Exodus language in the speeches of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is an excellent survey of Exodus in American history, but Hawkins has nothing on how other cultures use Exodus, such as Liberation Theology in Latin America or how Exodus is read in an African context (see, for example, the forthcoming Kenneth N. Ngwa, Let My People Live: An African Reading of Exodus, WJKP, 2022).

Conclusion. The subtitle for the Discovering Biblical Texts series is “content, interpretation, reception.” Hawkins achieves his goal of surveying the content of the book of Exodus and interacting with key interpretive issues in this important book of the Old Testament and connecting the book with larger issues of biblical theology. The book is well-suited for academics as well as laypeople interesting this important biblical book.


Reviews of other commentaries in this series:


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

David Beldman, Judges (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Beldman, David J. H. Judges. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 316 pp. Pb; $30. Link to Eerdmans

David Beldman’s commentary on Judges in the Two Horizons series is an example of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. This is an attempt to do quality exegesis while reflecting on the biblical and systematic theological ramifications of the text in contemporary culture. Beldman previously contributed briefly on the book of Judges, Deserting the King (Lexham, 2017).

Beldman, JudgesHistorical questions (authorship, origin, audience, and date) typically dominate most Judges commentaries. Others employ a wide range of contemporary approaches, such as reception history and literary criticism. A reader needs to be interested in all these approaches. For Beldman, theological interpretation does not short circuit intellectual rigor, but it will redirect approaches to the task at hand: hearing God’s word in the book of Judges.

In fifty-six pages, the introduction to the commentary, Beldman describes the literary context of the book of Judges. Judges is part of the broad context of unfolding covenantal history. It is a literary composition in its own right even if it draws upon sources. Regarding the literary structure of the book, it focuses on narrative cycles associated with the careers of various judges.

Second, he discusses Judges as a Hebrew narrative. Nothing in the Bible was written solely for the purpose of history. Everything is theological. Beldman argues Judges was written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who is reliable and trustworthy (it is not satire). But the narrator is reserved in making evaluative statements about the characters in the story. The stories unfold in a way that allows the characters to speak for themselves. For example, a common question for interpreters of Judges, “was Gideon a good guy or a bad guy?” The book does not answer this question directly. Whether Gideon is a good or bad character is for the reader to decide. Following Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg, Beldman argues the reader ought to follow the narrator’s clues to determine the author’s evaluation (16).

Third, Beldman briefly sketches the historical context. Judges presents a picture of Israel settlement. Between the conquest and the monarchy. It is a time when Israel takes on the characteristics and practices of the Canaanites. He sketches the social structure and economy of Israel and Canaan (the household-clan-tribe-nation) developing through the book (21).

Beldman has little to say about the date for the book because there is competing evidence. For example, Judges 18:30 mentions a grandson of Moses who ministered at the shrine at Dan “until the captivity of Israel,” implying a date after destruction of Samaria in 722 BC. But in Judges 1:21, the Jebusites dwell in Jerusalem “to this day,” implying a date prior to David’s capture of the city of Jerusalem. He remains unconvinced that the book is anti-Saul, and pro-David (implying a date during David’s reign). As a compromise, Beldman tries to “hear judges” from the perspective of the rise of the monarchy in Israel, the fall of the northern and southern kingdoms, the exilic experience, and even the post- exilic return to the land. How would a reader hear judges differently in each of these periods?

Fourth, Beldman surveys various perspectives in the history of interpretation, from early Jewish and Christian medieval interpreters to the Renaissance and reformation interpreters and (classic) art, music, and theater. He deals briefly with modern criticism, and both the literary and postmodern approaches to the book.

The body of the commentary is based on large sections of the book and focuses primarily on literary observations rather than detailed Hebrew grammatical and syntactical issues. When Hebrew appears, it is always transliterated. He interacts with major English commentaries web, block, Butler, etc. This makes for a very readable commentary.

Near the end of the exegetical portion of the commentary, Beldman provides a retrospective evaluation, observing that endings are the preeminent location of truth in a narrative. What does the end of the story tell you about the entire story? By the end of the book, the reader believes Israel has degenerated, or “Caananized” (222). The worst moral behavior in the book is found at the end and the book concludes with the words “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). But this conclusion circles back to the introduction. In the first section, Yahweh commanded Israel to drive out the Canaanites. But at the end of the book, Israel wages war on the tribe of Benjamin. The book ends with Israel wiping out one of their own tribes (224). The reader is therefore shocked: how did this depraved behavior emerge in Israel so early in the settlement period? There are two themes found throughout the book: a lack of kingship, and a lack of a central shrine. As readers, the author tricked us into thinking there was a steady decline of Israel into the chaos described at the end of the book. But there was no steady decline: the moral and ethical failures which result from a lack of central leadership were there from the very beginning (229).

In the Two Horizon commentary series, a large section of the book is devoted to theological reflection. Beldman therefore begins by placing Judges into the context of the overall “grand narrative of scripture.” Looking back to the Abrahamic covenant, two elements of God’s promise to Abraham were impossible to fulfill in Genesis 12: that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and they would live in a particular land. The fulfilment of those promises is the theme of the Pentateuch. Judges describes Israel as persistently unfaithful, a condition that will result in oppression by the foreign nations and exile from the land. But Beldman points out the promise to Abraham remained foundational for future restoration (Jer 29:5-7).

In the second section of the theological reflection, he connects the book of judges to systematic theology. Beldman covers Judges’ contribution to several topics (God, the Holy Spirit, sin, and providence). But far more interesting is his section on Judges’ contribution to a political theology. Like Daniel Block, Beldman rejects Judges as a pro-David and anti-Saul propaganda. For Daniel Block, Judges is a “prophetic book and not a political tractate” (271, citing Block’s Judges commentary, 57-58). However, Beldman interacts a length with Yoram Hazony’s article “Does the Bible have a Political Teaching” (Hebrew Poetical Studies, 2006). For Hazony, the historical core of the Hebrew Bible has a political ideal: a limited government situated on a scale between an oppressive imperial ideology (Egypt) and political chaos (Judges). Beldman thinks this suggestion is creative and insightful, but by expanding the “historical core” to include the exilic experience of diaspora communities (Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther), Beldman argues for a politics of “participation and subversion” (272). Stories like Daniel show that diaspora Jewish communities could participate in many aspects of imperial politics, although there were some issues that required active resistance. Beldman considers this a give unto Caesar type politics found in later second temple Judaism and early Christianity. I would suggest Portier-Young’s Apocalypse against Empire (Eerdmans, 2014) for readers interested in more details of the post-exilic period.

The last section of theological reflection covers two difficult issues in the book of Judges. First, Beldman discusses violence in Judges. As is well known, Judges describes the utter annihilation of the Canaanites (often referred to as the Canaanite genocide). That God himself commands the total destruction of the people of Jericho, every man woman child and animal, is disturbing for many modern readers. Beldman begins with the observation that all violence is alien to God’s creation. The cycle of violence begins when Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden. Second, he observes that the conquest of Canaan was a onetime, limited judgment on the Canaanite nations in the history of God’s redemption plan (281). Once Israel settled in the land, they were to cease military expansion and begin their priestly role, drawing the nations to the Lord. He admits that this may not be a satisfactory answer for everyone, but he is clear that the violence of the book of Judges is not a model for the church to follow today. He does not discuss any political ramifications for modern Israeli politics.

Second, he deals with the problem of the treatment of women in the book. The treatment of women in judges is unique. On the one hand, the story of Deborah and Jael seems to elevate women (and humble Barak and Sisera). But the horrific crimes against the Levite’s concubine and Jephthah’s daughter are shocking. Beldman observes this as “in line with the rhetorical purpose of the book, most women in Judges are exploited and victimized” (287). But it is also important to understand violence against women is not normalized or excused: it is part of Israel’s degeneration.

Conclusion. Beldman concludes “Judges is a book for our times because it exposes idols in our midst that compromise our way of being in the world” (297). More than a historical and grammatical commentary on the text of Judges, this Two Horizons commentary provides a challenge to readers of this difficult book in the Hebrew Bible.


Reviews of other commentaries in this series:


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Book Review: Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth

Chisholm, Robert B. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth.  Kregel Exegetical Library; Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 697 pp. Hb; $39.99. Link to Kregel

Long time Dallas Theological Seminary professor Robert Chisholm wrote Interpreting the Historical Books for Kregel’s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series. This new commentary on Judges and Ruth in the Kregel Exegetical Library offers a more detailed application of Chisholm’s method from that introduction. He describes this method as a “literary-theological” method (p. 14). By this he means that he attempts to track the author’s literary strategies in the canonical form of the book in order to identify the text’s theological message.

Chisholm, Judges & RuthThe introduction to Judges (88 pages) begins with an overview of the literary structure of the book. With respect to chronology, Chisholm is open to the idea that the three major judges overlap with earlier material (p.22), although this is not critical to a literary-theological reading of the book, although he makes an attempt to create a chronology of the period (p. 34-53). After surveying a number of options, he argues for the Exodus about 1260 B.C., the invasion of Canaan in 1220 B.C. with the completion about 7 years later. The chronology of Judges begins in 1190 (Judg 3:8) and ends with Samson’s 20-year leadership sometime between 1110 and 1070. This overlaps with Eli’s 40 years at Shiloh (1130-1090) in 1 Samuel; the anointing of Saul is about 1050. This chronology does not differ much from other conservative writers, although it will not please everyone.

Chisholm is inclined to date the book before David and he detects something of an anti-Benjamin/anti-Ephraimite agenda (p. 66). While Judges is not wholly “pro-Judah” it does seem to argue Israel needs a strong, godly king. Chisholm is content to see the book as in the context of an early Davidic dynasty, although it is entirely possible this message would have been of interest in the late Solomonic period or just after the split. For example, Dale DeWitt’s unpublished dissertation “The Jephthah Traditions: A Rhetorical and Literary Study in the Deuteronomistic History” argues for a post Solomonic context for Judges.

Of interest is Chisholm’s eleven page section entitled “What Role Do the Female Characters Play?” (69-80). There are indeed a large number of female characters in the book and many of them are portrayed in a very positive light (Deborah is a judge, Jael kills Sisera, Delilah gets the best of Samson), although others are tragic figures Sisera’s mother, Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine). For Chisholm, the book portrays strong women as warriors and leaders in contrast to the weak spiritual leadership of men like Barak and Jephthah. Ultimately the “downward spiral of Judges” paves the way for Hannah, the woman who gives birth to Samuel at the darkest moment in the Judges period, who will anoint David as king.

In his 32-page introduction to Ruth Chisholm surveys the bewildering number of suggestions for the genre of Ruth. Since he does not care much for form-critical categories, he focuses on the literary and theological nuances of the book. He therefore highlights the fact that God is concerned for the needy and rewards those who demonstrate loving kindness (hesed) such as Ruth and Boaz. While he notices the canonical placement of the book of Ruth after Proverbs, Chisholm does not treat the book as wisdom literature. To me this is an important oversight since the book does illustrate via narrative the type of woman described in Prov 31:10-31 as well as the way a person of wisdom demonstrates hesed.

Each section of the commentary begins with a translation and narrative structure analysis. The translation is a “slightly revised version” of his contribution to the NET version. Chisholm breaks English verse into Hebrew phrases in order to visually demonstrate the flow of the original. He then assigns a narrative tag to these Hebrew phrases (initiatory, focusing, complementary, sequential, etc.) These categories are briefly described in the introduction (pp. 81-86) and Chisholm devoted the first chapter of Interpreting the Historical Books to reading narrative. The footnotes in this section of the commentary are concerned with narrative features of the Hebrew clauses and occasionally textual variants.

After a short comment on the literary structure of the pericope, Chisholm proceeds to the exposition of the text. This follows an outline developed from his narrative reading and covers sub-units rather than a phrase-by-phrase commentary.  Hebrew occasionally appears in this expositional section without transliteration, but a reader without knowledge of Hebrew will be able to follow the commentary. More technical details of Hebrew syntax appear in the footnotes. Chisholm occasionally interacts with other major commentaries on Judges and Ruth, although this usually appears in the footnotes. The result is a very reading exposition of the text which provides sufficient detail for pastors and teachers presenting sermons and lessons on Judges and Ruth.

Following the exposition of the text, Chisholm offers a section entitled “Message and Application.” First, he includes a few “thematic emphases” of the pericope. These are exegetical in nature and are closely connected to the text examined. Second, he gives some “theological principles” drawn from the section. These are broader than the thematic observations, connecting to theological themes of the whole book and to the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Not surprisingly, the theological teaching in Judges often centers on sin and its effects, while in Ruth God’s sovereignty is the main feature.  Third, Chisholm offers a few “homiletical trajectories” intended to give a preacher some hints at how they might present the text in a sermon. For each, Chisholm gives a short “exegetical idea,” “theological idea,” and “preaching idea” summarizing the section. For a busy pastor preparing a sermon on Judges or Ruth, these sections will be the most valuable.

Conclusion. Chisholm’s commentary on Judges and Ruth is an excellent exposition of the text from a conservative scholar. For the most part he assumes the historicity of the text and ignores any discussion of potential sources or anachronisms. He specifically eschews these methods in the introduction (p. 15), characterizing these as “creative scholarly conjecture” (p. 30).  He considers revisions of Noth’s Deuteronomisitc History to be a “debate going around in circles” (55). His exposition of the text is based on the assumption the book was intended to be read as a literary whole.

There is less historical background material in this commentary than might be expected. Major commentaries on Old Testament books can become bloated with material accessible in other resources (Bible Dictionaries for example). Since his interests are literary and theological, there is no need to offer descriptions of geographical locations or comments on archaeology (or the lack thereof) as background to the stories.

I would recommend the book to pastors and teachers who are preparing sermons on the often overlooked book of Judges.  Chisholm’s exposition is easy to read and provides excellent illumination of the text for the purpose of serving the Church today.


Review of other commentaries in the Kregel Exegetical Commentary series:


NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.