An Exodus to Freedom: a book review

As I write this, we are at the beginning of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the beginning of their long sojourn to the Promised Land. Israel’s Exodus wasn’t just its liberation of Egypt, but it encompassed the forty-year wilderness journey with forty-two different campsites and G-d’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.  Both Christians and Jews read the Torah, and the Exodus story,  as Scripture, looking for what deeper meaning it has for life. Christians describe Jesus as our Passover lamb and appropriate Jewish traditions of liberation and salvation. Unfortunately, we haven’t often paused to listen to how Jewish interpreters understand our shared scriptural tradition.

reimagining-exodus  Rabbi David Zaslow is no stranger to the interfaith discussion. His award-winning book, Jesus First Century Rabbi, explored the Christian gospel from a Jewish perspective (I review that book here). As the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon (not too far away from my home in Medford), workshop leader and media pundit, he has deepened the dialogue between Jews and Christians.

His newest book, Reimaging the Exodus: A Story of Freedom builds a bridge between Judaism and Christianity while respecting the unique features of both religious traditions.  Zaslow happily notes the common themes of Passover and the cross, Exodus and Easter. Yet, he also notes ways in which Christians have bowdlerized the Jewish tradition with a replacement theology that demeans the sacred history of the Hebrew Bible.

Zaslow’s book divides into five parts (so did his last book. Self-conscious patterning after the Torah?). Each section is distinct in style and purpose. In part one, Zaslow describes the significance of the Exodus for the Jewish tradition—G-d’s liberation of Israel and their forty-year, two-hundred-mile journey, learning to walk in freedom. Part two offers a Midrashic interpretation of twenty passages from the Torah (mostly drawn from Exodus, but also Numbers and Deuteronomy). Zaslow’s commentary on the passages is scholarly and rich, but suggestive and evocative. Part three explores the common themes and key differences between a Jewish understanding of Exodus and the Christian Easter. Part four discusses in more detail the ways Christians (and Jews) have historically appropriated and misappropriated the tradition to justify various agendas (i.e. Puritans settling the New World, American Colonialism, the American Revolution against British Tyranny, Civil War Southern’s against the North,  Mormons, Civil Rights advocates, etc). Part five has personal stories (and a poem) of where Zaslow has seen Exodus reimagined in interfaith contexts (including an interfaith Good Friday service with a Portland synagogue, and stories from a model seder Zaslow leads in a Catholic parish).

Zaslow has an irenic nature and looks for ways that Christians and Jews can connect with each other and find common spiritual ground. He is respectful of what is distinctive in Christian theology and practice, but he is not afraid to offer a sharp critique of Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. Too many Christians have treated the Old Testament and Jewish Tradition as a mere prequel and failed to listen to the insights of Judaism. In Zaslow’s early book (Jesus First Century Rabbi) he engaged the Christian gospel traditions. This book invites Christians to a similar engagement with Judaism. Beyond just mining the text for Christological insights, the Exodus has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and to be spiritual. Rabbi Zaslow’s evocative Midrash reveals as much.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christians, Jews and those who are spiritual but don’t sit easily in either world.  Zaslow invites us to a journey toward freedom, ” Just as the Exodus began with a catastrophe of enslavement but led to a great redemption, so we pray to God that the catastrophes of our own era are merely preludes to an even greater redemption and the liberation of all humanity as well as the planet” (33). ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Shalom in Psalms: a book review

Shalom in Psalms is a sort of devotional commentary. The words to each psalm are printed out, from the Tree of Life Version ( a Messianic Jewish translation from the Jewish Family Bible Society), followed by a brief devotional reflection. These are generally two or three pages long, though a short psalm like Psalm 117, only warrants a paragraph and a long psalm like Psalm 119 has 9 pages of devotional notes. The authors comment on the text, make canonical connections with Torah and to Jesus the Messiah, and to the contemporary Messianic community.

9781493406456The three authors, Jeffery Seif, Glenn Blank and Paul Wilbur take turns writing the reflections for each psalm (often Seif or Blank, with some Wilbur).  The three men bring together linguistic scholarship, pastoral concern, and insight into worship. Wilbur is an artist and worship leader. Blank is a pastor, the Rabbi of Beit Simcha in Allentown, and a  Bible translator. Seif is the project manager for the Messianic Jewish Family Bible Project.

There is a lot to like about this book. The translation and notes are designed to reflect both the Jewish particularity of the Psalms and to highlight ways that the text points forward to Jesus the Messiah. They handle the text and the various genres well (i.e. lament psalms, psalms of praise, royal psalms, psalms of thanksgiving, wisdom psalms). They deal difficult themes (like the baby bashing in Psalm 137) with pastoral sensitivity. The explore the setting of life in the Psalms and draw connections to today. Wilbur especially shares stories from his songwriting and the worshipping community.

As a devotional commentary, this is pretty good. The Bible nerd in me wishes they discussed their translation method and their text-critical decisions for particular verses (i.e. ‘kiss the son’ or ‘kiss his feet’ in Psalm 2:12 is one text critical passage where modern translations are divided. The TLV follows the BHS with ‘kiss the Son’ but it would be fun to see how they weigh the textual evidence).  I realize this is a devotional pitched at non-scholars so text criticism is outside of their purview. But with the TNV translation, some textual notes would be a nice addition.

This is a nice devotional to delve deeper into the world of the psalms and what they have to teach us about the life of prayer (from a Jewish Christian perspective). I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

I’m enthusiastic about the Kregel Exegetical Library.  I have read several volumes from the series and have been impressed by its depth and its usefulness for expository preaching. The first volume I ever read, was Allen Ross’s A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1, which in addition to providing solid commentary and textual notes for book one of the Psalms, also provided a superb introduction to Psalm’s literary genres and Hebrew poetics.  In Volume 2, Ross explored books two and three of the Psalms. With A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 3 Ross completes his journey through the Psalter, this time exploring books four and five (Ps 90-150).

9780825426667I have been eagerly anticipating this volume. This last third of the Psalm’s have some of my favorite Psalms. I love Moses’ communal lament in Psalms 90, the assurance of divine protection in Psalms 91, the joyous praise of Psalm 100, the lengthy meditation on God’s law in Psalm 119, and Psalms of Ascent, the comprehensiveness of God’s plan in Psalm 139, and the way lament is swallowed up by praise in the concluding five psalms. These are Psalms I turn to, to cement my courage and commitment to God.

I came to trust Ross’s voice when his Introducing Biblical Hebrew gave me a basic understanding of Hebrew syntax.  As with Allen’s other Psalms volumes there are a number of Hebrew word studies here, and this volume provides an index of them (including those in Volume 1 & 2). Allen is conversant with the scholarly literature but this commentary is accessible to the working pastor. Ross isn’t too technical but he is not light on detail either (at 1018 pages!). One-hundred-eighteen pages are devoted to a single psalm, Psalm 119, where Ross walks through each stanza in the Hebrew acrostic (by way of comparison, Leslie Allen’s devotes about thirty pages to that Psalm in WBC, Psalms Vol. III). For each psalm, Ross provides a translation of the psalm with textual notes, a discussion of composition and context, an exegetical analysis, and a discussion of the Psalm’s message and application.

The preface relays that Ross’s approach to the Psalms was shaped by a class he took in seminary which was co-taught by Bruce Waltke and Haddon Robins. Waltke graded the exegesis, Robinson graded the exposition. Ross tells us that Waltke said he didn’t think it was a good class, but the experience was transformational for Ross. He still strives to hold exegesis and exposition together in his interpretation of the Psalms (12). I appreciate the detail and passion that Ross brings to his task. This volume is a fitting conclusion to his Psalms commentary. I give this five stars.

Note: I received this from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

The Chronic: a commentary review

I find reading 1 & 2 Chronicles difficult. It isn’t the genealogies or long lists of temple attendants, musicians and officials. When I encounter these in the Bible, I just read faster. My difficulty is in the narrative itself. When you read Kings, you discover the dynastic declines of Israel and Judah and a prophetic critique of the monarchy, which explains why God’s people went into exile. Chronicles tells a different tale. Kings of Judah described as evil turn out to be redeemable (i.e., David’s sins are omitted, Manasseh of Judah in II Kings 21:1–18 vs. 2 Chronicles 32:33–33:20). However the Chronicler was no mere propagandist. Eugene Merrill (professor emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary) points out that the Chronicler’s omissions and additions are “designed to offer hope to the beleaguered community as well as issue warnings that should they fall back into the ways of their fathers they could expect the judgment of God to be repeated” (57). This means that Chronicles is less about whitewashing the errors of David and his line, and more about underscoring the ways God’s redemptive plan was operative, despite Judah’s failings.

9780825425592A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chroniclesfrom the Kregel Exegetical Library is another volume in an exceptional series. This is a much more detailed commentary than Merrill’s early 1, 2  Chronicles (Zondervan, 1988). Each pericope has the text in translation (the NIV), text-critical notations and a section exegesis and exposition. In Merrill’s introduction, he discusses authorship and provenance, the historical and cultural setting of both the book and the post exilic community it was written in, the literary form and genre of ‘sacred history,’ the theology,  and the book’s sources. In addition, there are ten excursuses which take a more detailed look at theological and historical issues, a index of seven  significant hymns and prayers (the Prayer of Jabez doesn’t make this list, but is treated in the commentary), and an examination of the theology of each of the nine sections.

At 636 pages, this isn’t a light commentary, but it is an accessible one. Merrill is detailed but readable. If you are interested in exploring the message of Chronicles, its theology and implications, Merrill is a fantastic guide. He highlights the hope Chronicles brought to Jews returning to Jerusalem. This commentary (like the series) represents some of the best in evangelical biblical scholarship. This will be a useful for pastors who would like to preach from Chronicles and seminarians alike. Merrill distills well the chronicler’s theology and this will be my go-to-resource for this section of scripture.  I give this commentary five stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.


Warfare in the Old Testament: a book review

While the 20th Century is the bloodiest century in human history, warfare was a reality for ancient peoples. The Bible deals with reality so, it is no surprise that when you look at the Hebrew scriptures you find battles and warfare enshrined in the text. Boyd Seevers, professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Northwestern St. Paul,  did his doctoral studies on warfare in the Ancient Near East. In Warfare in the Old Testament, Seevers examines Israel and five Ancient Near East cultures to show how each waged war. He looks at their military organization,  weapons, strategy and tactics.

Israel’s had five major enemies through out nationhood, destruction and exile. These include Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Of course there were other nations which troubled Israel, but these nations were particularly troublesome in different eras of their history. Egypt was the large empire to the West where the Israelites had escaped from. They continued to exert influence throughout the region. The Seafaring Philistines were a thorn in the side of Israel during the period of the Judges and early monarchy. The cruel Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and turned Judah into a vassal state and laid siege to Jerusalem. Babylon sacked Judah and carried its inhabitants into exile with the spoils of war. And the Persians and the Medes overthrew the Babylonian empire. Seevers illustrates the unique features of each culture by beginning each section with a ‘historic fiction’ which describes particular battles from the perspective of one of its military commanders. He then goes on to catalog the organization, weapons and tactics of each nation.

This makes this a perfect book for tooling around in the background of the text. Those who study and research the Bible will find Seevers synthesis and summary of Ancient Near East warfare helpful– both academics and pastors working to exegete the text well. This book is exegetical, not expositional. Seevers focuses on describing the tactics of Ancient warfare and thus does not comment on the the theological significance of particular passages of scripture. So when Seevers presents ‘spying’ as an Israeli tactic in warfare (70), he does not comment on the ambiguity of Joshua sending spies in Joshua 2 after God spent  the previous chapter commanding him, “Be strong and courageous.” This is not a criticism, but it does illustrate what this book was intended to do: to fill out the cultural background of warfare, especially where the Bible is economic and sparse in its description.

This is a great resource for teaching from the Old Testament. Because it spans the whole of Israel’s national, military history, it does illuminate the arc and trajectory of the biblical narrative and describes some  technological developments. The illustrations in each chapter (based on archeological discoveries) show how weaponry, armor and military structure changed over  the centuries. I recommend it as a Bible background resource for those exegeting the historical books and the prophets. I give it four stars: ★★★★.

Love in Hard Times: a book review

Who doesn’t love a good prequel? It is fun to hear the back story of characters you care about and their family history (please note: Star Wars Episodes 1-3 do not qualify as a ‘good’ prequel). In the Old Testament, the book of Ruth is something of a prequel.  It is set during the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1, AKA hard times) and it tells the story of the great grandparents of Israel’s greatest King, David. David’s great great grandmother, Naomi, was widowed in the land of Moab and her sons also died in that land. She returns to Israel with Ruth (her Moabite daughter-in-law). Ruth had left her culture, her family, her foreign gods and swears loyalty to Naomi, her people and her God, Yahweh.  Through God’s providence, Ruth ends up gleaning from a field belonging to Boaz,  Naomi’s near relative. Under Israel’s law,  Boaz is a possible Kinsman-Redeemer for Ruth and for Naomi’s land (securing the land for later descendants). After Ruth approaches Boaz according to Naomi’s plan(at night on the threshing floor), Boaz acts swiftly to make sure that Ruth and Naomi are cared for and to insure that another (closer) relative lays down his claim on Ruth and the land. Ruth and Boaz marry and they have s son named Obed and through his line comes David and eventually Jesus.

Ruth: From Bitter to Sweet by John Currid

John Currid,  professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, has written an insightful commentary on Ruth for the Welwyn Commentary Series (Gordon Keddie wrote an earlier volume  which explored Judges and Ruth, but this is the first stand alone treatment of Ruth for this series).  He  is also a pastor at a Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church. Ruth: From Bitther to Sweet is both accessible and full of scholarly insight.

Currid looks at Ruth in five acts: Act I. 1:1-5, setting the scene; Act II. 1:6-22, Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law; Act III, in fields of  Bethlehem;  Act IV, The scene at the threshing floor; and Act V, redemption. In looking attentively at the arc of the Ruth narrative, Currid offers ‘points to ponder’ which explore the themes of the cost of disobedience, God’s sovereignty, faithful living, and redemption.

I enjoyed this short commentary. Currid is attentive to the story and presents it in a way that is sensitive to the cultural, Literary and narrative context.  He notes narrative inclusios and reputations and the meaning of Hebrew terms, but manages to write in a way which is understandable for the lay person.  His theological lens is strongly informed by his Reformed Evangelical heritage, but a focus on God’s sovereignty seems appropriate for the Ruth story.  I appreciated how his opening chapter, made the bitter struggle and hardship on Naomi  relevant to our context.  His ‘points to ponder’ which close each chapter helped underscore the significance of this story. But he doesn’t overdraw his conclusions. For example. Boaz is not pictured by Currid as Christ figure (even though he sees some Christlike aspects). Currid is judicious in his theological inferences.

I didn’t agree with Currid on every point.  He insists that the encounter between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor was wholly non-sexual. I think the narrative is intentionally ambiguous at this point, but I agree that in light of the wider narrative is unlikely that Ruth and Boaz ‘had sex’ that night. I just think that the story is told with delibrate undertones and ambiguities (i.e. what all did Ruth uncover? And even if it was just the feet. . .).

But my disagreements are small and  I appreciative Currid’s insights and accessible presentation. I came away from this commentary with some new insights into the text.  Anyone could read this commentary with profit. Small group leaders doing a Bible study on Ruth or Sunday School teachers could make use of this resource. It is also a great resource for personal devotional reading (which is how I read it).

Ruth is a prequel but it is also a love story. There is the mutual love of Ruth and Boaz, but at the center there is also the relentless love of God for his people and his daughter Naomi, whom he would not allow to be called Mara (bitter) for long. Naomi tasted the sweetness of God’s plan for her and her people.

Thank you to Crossfocused Reviews and Evangelical Press Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.