Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary by Victor P. Hamilton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. 721 page hardcover.
Victor P. Hamilton (Ph.D., Brandeis University) retired as professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury University in 2007. He has been appointed as scholar-in-residence at the University. He is also an adjunct professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. His best known books are The Book of Genesis, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (two volumes, 1990 and 1995). Hamilton helped translate the New King James Version (1982) and the New Living Translation (1996) and contributed to Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (1980) and The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992). He has an Evangelical Wesleyan perspective.
In his 2005 survey of Bible commentaries, John Brug wrote about Exodus, “We need help here. No recent, conservative, exegetical commentary is available.”
Enter Hamilton. Until a thorough Exodus commentary with a confessional Lutheran outlook appears, his volume may be your first choice, despite its drawbacks.
Unlike, for example, Keil-Delitzsch on “The Second Book of Moses,” Hamilton supplies his own translation throughout the commentary— a plus. He transliterates Hebrew (as well as Akkadian, Aramaic and Ugaritic) into English characters. This reviewer would have preferred Hebrew and Aramaic in traditional square script.
The translations and the grammatical and lexical notes for each section of Exodus will help pastors and students. Hamilton cites from a huge list of reference works, books and monographs (623–666). His notes on Hebrew wording make up one of the commentary’s strengths. Many print readers, though, will wish for a larger font for those notes. They are the tiniest this reviewer has seen in a commentary— printed in Arial 7-point— and might push some to buy the commentary in Kindle or Google e-book formats for better readability.
A spot-check of the translation proved mostly satisfying. At 15:2 Hamilton translates, “My strength and protection is Yah,” then gives a full explanation in notes that follow. We are probably used to “The Lord is my strength and my song,” but exegetical commentaries help us see alternatives and the reasons behind them.
Hamilton sometimes translates literally. “Do not go near a woman,” he renders 19:2, where NIV11 has “abstain from sexual relations.” He translates creatively at times. For example: “God called out to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ ‘Yes-s-s- sir,’ said he […] Moses cloaked his face, fearful of gazing on Divinity” (3:4,6).
As with any one-man work, Hamilton makes some unique choices, such as “I-WILL-BE-WHO-I-WILL-Be” in 3:14, or “dyed dolphin skins” in 25:5, etc., the latter despite the insistence of the Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament that this is hardly possible. (ESV: “goat skins.” Holman: “manatee skins.” NIV: “hides of sea cows.” NKJV: “badger skins.” Again, Hamilton offers a helpful note that explains difficulties and options— the kind of explanation someone searching an exegetical commentary would want.)
Hamilton is vivid at times. For instance, he entitles 33:12–17, “Moses Gets in God’s Face About God’s Face.”
One blurb on the back cover praises Hamilton because, “Perhaps even more important than his interaction with the latest scholarship, he answers the questions people actually ask when they read the text.”
Hamilton, though did not answer some common questions definitively. For example:
- Date of the exodus? Hamilton does not state his preference for fifteenth or thirteenth century, but refers the reader to articles in which Bryant Wood and James Hoffmeier debate the issue (10).
- Number of Israelite males of fighting age in the exodus? Hamilton writes, “A round number like ‘600,000’ lends itself to a more non-literal interpretation, but specific numbers like ‘603,550’ do not. I am left to conclude that whatever size the departing body of Israelites is, it is large enough for Pharaoh to say, ‘The Israelites have become much more numerous for us/than we’ (194).
- Route of the exodus/ location of Mount Sinai? Hamilton thinks the Israelites crossed what is still known as the Red Sea. Beyond that he demurs, adding on 13:20, “Ask the Hebrews decades later what they remember about Etham, and you will probably get a blank stare” (208). He prefers Jebel Sin Besher to Jebel Musa as Mount Sinai (299). In the end he admits that we are not sure, raises no other possibilities than those two, and cites no atlases or journal articles for further information.
While many readers might have liked to see more definitive answers to historically important questions, his silence on these issues shows that Hamilton is not as interested in historical or geographical matters as with interpretive and theological issues and their application today.
Hamilton is not the type of commentator, sadly, to connect Exodus 20:8–10 with a literal 6-day creation and its implications, or to apply “life as the penalty for life” in 21:23 to the scourge of elective abortion today.
He specifies that he does not see “Open Theism” in Moses’ debate with the Lord in chapter 32 (540).
How helpful is Hamilton on the most important theological elements in Exodus? Moderately. On the messenger of the Lord in 3:2, Hamilton gives a good explanation about God making himself visible but doesn’t refer to the pre-incarnate Christ (46). Source critics maintain that different authors wrote the verses in the burning bush account that call our Maker “the Lord” or “God” (48), but Hamilton properly disagrees.
Hamilton thinks J.P. Meier is right, that when Jesus shot down the Sadducees via Exodus 3:6, Jesus’ take on the resurrection was “idiosyncratic” (51).
Hamilton agrees with Peter Enns, author of another Exodus commentary, that Paul did not get the idea of Christ being the rock that accompanied the Israelites, from which they drank (1 Corinthians 10:3–4), from Exodus. Paul lifted it from tradition, Enns and Hamilton think. Enns (2005:151): “It is not just the words on the page but the interpretive tradition as well that made up Paul’s Old Testament” (quoted with approval, 266).
Hamilton misapplies Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” (298), as if it were a soothing invitation to calm overly-busy people who need to become more contemplative.
With the Ten Words (Exodus 20), Hamilton numbers them differently than Catholics and Lutherans, as expected. He could have been clearer on the good news of 20:2 introducing laws that Israel will obey out of wonder and gratitude (328). Hamilton thinks Sunday has become the Lord’s day. He does not cite Colossians 2:17 to show why we do not have to keep Saturdays as work-free Sabbaths to the Lord (340).
Missing from Hamilton’s voluminous “Works Cited” is an article by Duane Garrett from the December 2010 Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS 53.4).“Veiled Hearts: The Translation and Interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3” has a less-than-traditional explanation of Exodus 34:29–35. Garrett argues that “Exodus 34 never indicates that the glory was fading at all … The most natural interpretation of Exodus 34 is that Moses put on the veil because the people found his face disturbing …” Garrett’s conclusions about what this means for our gospel ministry are worth pondering for your future preaching. Perhaps Hamilton did not interact with Garrett’s article because it came out later than Hamilton’s first draft.
Hamilton makes helpful comments on 34:6–7, but adds that in the Old Testament God is never called “perfect/τέλειος” or “blameless/ἄμωμος” (576). Did he forget 2 Samuel 22:26?
None of these criticisms rule out your use of this commentary, but they add up to enough disappointments and “yes … but’s” that this reviewer would say, when it comes to the ideal exegetical Exodus commentary, “We need help here.”
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