How to Read Exodus
Longman III, Tremper. How to Read Exodus. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009. 181 pp. including 2 Appendices. Paperback, $15.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3858-5.
The single most significant event in the history of Israel was its exodus from captivity in Egypt, told in the Old Testament book by that name. For a wide variety of reasons Exodus has fascinated readers and stimulated scholarly research for upwards of two millennia. By its very nature it has been a blessing to believers through the centuries as well as raising numerous questions about the events it records. For example, did God really part the sea enabling the Israelites to escape? Given the book’s length and complexity, what are its major themes? And since Christ has delivered believers from the law what use, if any, are the Ten Commandments, let alone the instructions about the Tabernacle?
Tremper Longman III helps to answer those questions and more as he navigates the ‘ins and outs’ of this foundational biblical text in How to Read Exodus. Longman, who serves as the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, is an exceptionally knowledgeable Old Testament scholar and his expertise is visible on nearly every page of this short volume. The book is organized into five parts, with part one serving as a call to read Exodus strategically. Here Longman demonstrates the critical importance of interpretation and touches on the literary, historical and theological nature of the book, themes to which he later devotes three complete sections. He concludes this part with an exhortation to keep in mind the applicability of Exodus to our personal lives and contemporary setting.
Parts two through five focus on reading Exodus as literature, history, God’s story, and as Christians. This approach allows Longman to provide an engaging discussion on the nature, format, content and relevance of the book. Along the way he addresses various scholarly concerns, highlights the key themes, provides a helpful structural scheme, and reflects on the crucial role of Exodus in the life of the Christian. For the sake of readers of The Denver Journal, I’ll take a few moments to touch on each of these in more detail.
The second part, Reading Exodus as Literature, contains two chapters that analyze the book’s genre, outline, style and narrative structure. Longman argues that Exodus is primarily a historical work that tells the story of God’s loving actions toward Israel. Specifically, these actions are His salvation of them from Egypt, His provision of the Law for them, and His command to them to construct the Tabernacle. In the second of these chapters the author articulates the book’s three key themes: God’s presence, God’s covenant, and Israel’s servitude to Him. In my view, the last of the three is essential to countering the current Zeitgeist that over-emphasizes the nature of human freedom. Longman shows that by God’s gracious acts, the Hebrews were transformed from Egyptian slaves into His beloved servants. Thus the exodus is a move from the oppression of a cruel master to submission under a “new master…[who]…has his subjects’ best interests in mind” (p. 48). This theme soundly resonates with Paul’s emphasis in the New Testament that we are either slaves of sin or slaves to Christ.
Part III, Reading Exodus as History in Its Historical Context, is composed of three chapters and is the most technical of the five sections. Here Longman discusses the influence of ancient Near Eastern culture on the composition of Exodus as well as the evidence for the Exodus event. Moreover, he also raises the vigorously debated question of Israel’s escape thru the parting of the sea. After interacting with the latest scholarship, he admits that the data does not allow us to pinpoint a specific date for the exodus. This leads him to conclude that since neither archaeology nor the biblical record can satisfy all the key historical questions and both are susceptible to different interpretations, future research is needed. Yet Longman goes on to argue for the historical viability of the Exodus event because the text says so (my emphasis). While we cannot yet answer every historical question, it’s clear that the biblical author’s intent was to show God as both Savior and Judge. Thus, Longman pointedly observes that “the exodus loses its theological and ethical significance if it did not happen in space and time” (p. 91).
Part IV, Reading Exodus as God’s Story, is in many ways the meatiest portion of this small work. Longman uses its three chapters to tease out in detail the key themes of God’s rescue of, provision for, and commands to the Hebrews. Along the way he provides innumerable insights into the text and highlights some foundational elements of God’s character, most notably His love, holiness and purpose. I especially appreciated this section for its express focus on who God is and what He is doing in human history, something that is easy to lose sight of when reading the detailed instructions on how the Tabernacle was to be constructed.
Longman neatly ties things together in Part V, Reading Exodus as a Christian. He does a terrific job of connecting the two Testaments by demonstrating how God’s approach to His people changes over time as well as providing some profound insights into how both the Tabernacle and the Temple foreshadowed Jesus. He traces God’s plan to the end of Scripture where we’re told that in the New Jerusalem there is no temple (or tabernacle) because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Rev. 21:22). This section, along with Appendix 2 which lists the best commentaries on Exodus, will certainly be a great help to preachers and teachers who are wrestling with how to apply it to the lives of their congregants.
Without question the book of Exodus is crucial to our understanding not just of the Old Testament but of the entire Bible. Tremper Longman III is to be commended for giving us a ringside seat to its many stories, commands and truths. I heartily recommend this fine volume as a welcome addition to the library of every student, scholar and teacher who seeks to learn more about the story of Israel and how it connects to the life and ministry of our Lord and His church.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology