Understanding the Verse as Part of the Book: A Review of “The New American Commentary: Exodus” by Doulgas Stuart

There are some books, which after you finish reading give you a real sense of accomplishment. Big books, complex and involved books, books like War and Peace, Ulysses, Crime and Punishment, Being and Time. I’ve not read a single one of those books. perhaps one day I will. But I can say that I joyfully read all 794 pages of Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus. It’s only taken me three years to finally complete the work, but I feel a real sense of accomplishment with it. It’s been so long, however, since I started the book that, truth be told, I need to sit down and start it all over again. And, I don’t mind that requirement. It’s not just that I love to study the book of Exodus, but I love this commentary. Unlike a number of smaller commentaries Stuart’s volume in The New American Commentary series, gives a breadth of knowledge and understanding regarding the Biblical book of Exodus. And that is not simply a feature of its size. Lots of commentaries are big. Philip Graham Ryken’s commentary, which is really just his sermons, is even bigger. What makes Stuart’s volume so important is that he is constantly trying to place themes and parts of the story within the larger framework of the whole. Stuart doesn’t just give us a running exposition of the text. He gives us, with all his excursus, a theological framework for thinking about all the individual parts that make up this complex book.

In the Introduction Stuart goes through all the usual and expected pieces of his writing. He addresses the structure of the book, stating that Exodus is essentially “bifid in composition,” meaning it’s divided into two parts ( first, God’s rescue of Israel from slavery and bringing them to Mt. Sinai, and second, the establishment of His covenant with them). He addresses historical issues surrounding the book. Stuart is honest about the lack of corroborating historical evidence, but provides some grounds for his position on dating and so forth of the book. He accepts too the arguments for traditional Mosaic authorship, which is a breath of fresh air in this consistently skeptical climate. The bulk of the introduction, however, deals with the theology of the book of Exodus.

Stuart argues that chapter 6:6-8 articulates the major theme and point of the book of Exodus. Here God is announcing his plan to rescue his people from oppression and slavery and to make them his special people. He writes:

These three verses can be understood to more or less sum up the theological message that Moses was required to relay to the Israelites, and, we submit, that the reader is expected to recognize as the principal statement of the theology of the book. (34)

He un-packs these three verses by narrowing it to several major themes that comprise the thesis of the book: (1) Salvation, freedom from Bondage; (2)Real Knowledge of God; (3) A Covenant People; (4) A Promised Land; (5) The Limited Presence of God in Israel’s Midst; (6) Representing an Invisible God by Visible Symbols; (7) The Necessity of Law; (8) The Necessity of Following God; and (9) Only One God Has Any Real Power. These nine themes are developed across the whole book and Stuart does an excellent job of pointing us back to them time and again.

Stuart achieves much of this cogency not simply by referring back to previous made points and passages, which he does often, but through the addition of the “Excursus.” We’re only three chapters in when we get our first one, it deals with the subject of a “Theophany” literary structure in ancient cultures. Here Stuart connects this literary structure not simply with the ancient cultures around the Jewish people, from whom Moses clearly borrowed the structure. But he also connects it to the book of Genesis, where Moses has already employed it. We see this too in his excursus on the “Angel of the Lord.” How are we to understand this phrase? There is debate around it, but Stuart gives us a brief Biblical theology of the phrase to draw out its true meaning. He shows it usage and meaning by drawing out not simply all its uses in Exodus, but even those in Genesis. This is immediately followed by another excursus, this one on the “Fire Theophany,” which Stuart explains by means of a rapid fire Biblical theology stretching across the Pentateuch and the Prophets. This kind of comprehensiveness surely makes the book long. But it also makes it incredibly useful.

I realize that most of the time there simply isn’t enough time to sit and read through an entire commentary of this size. Sunday’s sermon is coming and even the most patient and persistent student needs to eventually close his commentaries and get to the business of drawing up his Homiletical outline. But there is a real weakness in using commentaries simply to get some quick help on a difficult passage. In such a process we often miss the forest for the trees. We are so focused on our one passage that we fail to see how it builds upon and sets up all sorts of related themes within the book and within the whole canon of Scripture. And that failure has been hurting the church for centuries now.

I have a frustration with preaching today. It’s a frustration with the type of preaching that takes each individual part of a book and preaches/teaches it as if it is self-contained. The Bible is a first and foremost a story. And any preaching that seeks to do justice to an individual passage must follow Dr. Stuart’s model and set it within the framework of the whole of its book and, indeed, within the whole of the Bible itself.  And in an impressive and comprehensive form, in both an accessible and academic manner, Douglas Stuart has done just that in his commentary on Exodus. Of all the commentaries I’ve been working through, this is hands down my favorite. Read and be overwhelmed with the complexity, beauty, and majesty of the book of Exodus.

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