The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (Chapter 2, p. 31)The mistake that people like Dawkins make is to forget that the documents they are reading are thousands of years old and written in a very different culture and historical context than ours today. It is completely inappropriate to read texts this old as if they were written today and discuss theology in a way that we are used to now.
The book of Exodus is one of those Old Testament books that has come under intense scrutiny, particularly for its stories of miracles that occurred as the Israelites made their way from Egypt and travelled through the wilderness for forty years. Stories like the plagues, the parting of the Reed Sea, manna from heaven, and so on, have all been considered to be myth or explainable in natural terms. But once again, it is important to remember that these books were written in a particular historical and cultural context and we will not understand it unless we try to read it through the eyes of those for whom it was intended at the time.
Tremper Longman III has provided the reader of Exodus with an extremely helpful little volume in his How to Read Exodus. Longman is an Old Testament scholar who has written similar books on reading Genesis, the Psalms, and Proverbs.
The book is divided into five parts. In the first part he develops a strategic approach to reading Exodus. After summarising some of the issues in reading the book, he settles on the project of reading it in such a way as to rediscover the message the original author had in mind. He develops a number of principles for doing so that include recognising the literary nature of the book; exploring its historical background; reflection on the theological teaching of the book; and reflecting on our own situation, our society’s situation, and the global situation. In particular, he is anxious to warn the reader of the danger of imposing one’s own particular view onto the book.
The remaining four parts of the book deal with reading Exodus as literature, including its narrative structure; reading it as history in its own historical context; reading it as God’s story as God rescues Abraham’s descendants from bondage, gives Israel God’s Law, and provides instructions in building a tabernacle; and finally reading the book as a Christian.
In reading the book as a Christian, Longman focuses on the way Christians experience the Exodus, in particular, in the context of the New Testament; the role of law in the Christian life; and the way the motif of tabernacling in relation to Christ becoming flesh and living among humanity.
Two appendices deal with the issues of authorship of Exodus and an annotated bibliography of a number of commentaries Longman recommends for further consultation.
How to Read Exodus, although written by a scholar, is easy to read yet nuanced enough to encourage an appropriate contextual reading of the book. Longman gives due weight to the original context of the book and then moves to the way in which the contemporary Christian can relate to the text.
If you’ve read Exodus before and want a good guide to understanding it; or if you have read it before and dismissed it as irrelevant; or perhaps have never read it before; then this book is a good place to start. And maybe if people like Richard Dawkins read the Old Testament following a guide like this they might actually understand what these ancient texts are really saying.
Read my review of another of this author’s books How to Read Genesis by clicking here.
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