Barker, Joel and Steven D. West. Numbers. A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2023. 477 pp. Hb. $37.99 Link to Kregel Ministry
Joel Barker serves as Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario. He previously contributed a commentary on Joel in the ZECOT series (Zondervan, 2020). Steven D. West is Provost and Professor at Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario, and the Lead Pastor of Madoc Baptist Church. His Resurrection, Scripture, and Reformed Apologetics in the McMaster Theological Studies Series.
Given the goal of the Kerux series to produce an exegetical commentary with extensive preaching helps, a volume on Numbers presents many challenges. Most pastors or teachers would avoid large sections of the Book of Numbers and possibly even consider it “unpreachable.” As Barker observes in the introduction, many scholars see Numbers as an “unorganized hodgepodge” with a wide variety of genres, such as census lists, that do not make for good preaching texts.
As the authors acknowledge in the introduction, writers of a commentary on the Book of Numbers face the challenge of finding a balance between comprehensiveness and readability (44). Each chapter of the commentary covers large sections of text, and it will be difficult to cover everything in a half-hour sermon. Some sections simply do not lend themselves to a verse-by-verse exposition.
Nevertheless, the authors divide the book into forty-one preaching units (summarized on pages 13-40). Each preaching unit includes an exegetical idea, theological focus, and a preaching idea (one sentence each). Each preaching unit includes two paragraphs of preaching pointers. These forty-one units are divided into four sections:
A Shaping the Community at Sinai (1:1-10:10)
B Travels and Travails in the First Generation (10:11-19:22
B’ Sin and Redemption for the Second Generation (20:1-25:18)
A’ Shaping the Community on the Plains of Moab (26:1-36:13)
In the introduction to the volume, Barker and West argue that Moses is the book’s primary author. For example, in Numbers 33:2, Moses was commanded to write. But Moses was a supervising author, overseeing a collection of legal decisions, etc. The Book of Numbers is, therefore, “essentially Mosaic.” What sections are non-Mosaic? Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as the most humble man ever. Would the humblest man ever write something like that?
The date depends on the date of the Exodus, an issue too complex for this short introduction. Barker declines to say for certain whether the Exodus is early (15th century BC) or late (13th century BC). The context of the Book of Numbers is just after the redemption of god’s people from slavery comma during their time in the wilderness (the first word of the book). This commentary does not engage with the documentary hypothesis, nor are they interested in arguing for or against the historicity of any particular tradition found in the book of numbers. Other commentaries are available that engage in this sort of academic pursuit. The Kerux series aims to help pastors and teachers present the Book of Numbers to their congregations and classrooms, so much of this material is omitted (see, for example, Timothy Ashley’s recent NICOT volume, Eerdmans, 2022, reviewed here).
The body of the commentary is divided into 41 chapters of about ten pages each. Each chapter is about 75% exegesis and about 25% preaching tips. This means that large sections are often covered in short paragraphs. Exegesis is necessarily brief and focuses on the meaning of words, especially if there is a difference in English translation. Hebrew is not transliterated, and the commentary only rarely interacts with matters of Hebrew syntax. Major commentaries are cited in-text with additional interaction with secondary sources in footnotes.
Most Hebrew exegesis appears in boxes identified as translation analysis. These sidebars deal with Hebrew lexical issues and occasionally explain Hebrew syntax, especially when these generate differences in English translations. Barker’s goal here seems to be giving the preacher information to explain different English translations while preaching the passage.
As with other volumes in this series, the commentary is illustrated by frequent sidebars that expand on the text’s historical, cultural, and theological themes. For example, in Numbers 13:32-33, Barker deals with the Nephilim. “This may be a sheer exaggeration,” the people intentionally exaggerate the threat. He discusses Moses’s Cushite wife and suggests that she may be Zipporah (he concludes the question is unresolvable). A sidebar discusses the translation of “bitter water” in Numbers 5:15-28.
After the exegetical section of the chapter, the writers summarize the theological focus of the unit. These observations make canonical connections within the Old Testament and occasionally tie the passage to New Testament themes. They are working with a canonical biblical theology in this section.
Each chapter concludes with preaching and teaching strategies. This section attempts to move from exegesis to a preaching idea that basically describes “what this sermon is about” in a brief single sentence (Haddon Robinson style). West Then provides some contemporary connections (What does it mean? Is it true? Now what?) This is followed by suggestions for creativity in presentation. These include analogies and illustrations often drawn from contemporary culture. There are the usual suspects (C.S. Lewis, Lord of the Rings, Pilgrim’s Progress), but also a few classic hymns and a few historical documents (The Heidelberg Catechism). Providing illustrations for sermons on the Book of Numbers must be difficult for any writer. How do you preach a sermon on corpse contamination from Numbers 19? Or perhaps the question should be, should you preach on corpse contamination?
Conclusion. If scholars attempting to write a commentary on the Book of Numbers face challenges, so do preachers and teachers who attempt to work through the wilderness period of Israel’s history. Yet rich traditions in the Book of Numbers resonate with the rest of the Old Testament and even in the gospels and Pauline literature. It is my hope that a commentary like Barker and West’s will encourage local pastors to teach this often-ignored book of the Old Testament.
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Other volumes reviewed in this series:
- David B. Schreiner, and Lee Compson, 1 & 2 Kings
- Creighton Marlowe and Charles H. Savelle, Jr. Psalms, Volume 1: Wisdom Psalms
- Duane Garrett and Calvin Pearson, Jeremiah and Lamentations
- John D. Harvey, and David Gentino, Acts
- Gregory MaGee and Jeffrey Arthurs, Ephesians
- Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle, Philippians
- Adam Copenhaver and Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Colossians, Philemon
- Herbert Bateman and Steven Smith, Hebrews
- Timothy E. Miller and Bryan Murawski, 1 Peter
Published on Reading Acts, November 30, 2023