Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Keith Clark

posted by Scot McKnight

When we have one available, we post book reviews on Saturday Afternoon. This review is by Keith Clark. If you’d like to submit a review to us, speak up…

Few texts are as pertinent as Exodus to the socio-cultural situation of many American Christians (of which I am one) these days. If, in fact, part of the goal of narrative as a genre is to draw readers into the story, Exodus poses significant challenges for readers like me. Unfamiliar geographical references, unpronounceable names, tediously over-descriptive language, and foreign customs can at times impose a seemingly insurmountable distance between the story and its readers. The tendency of westerners to identify with the hero(es) of the story at times creates a false sense of identification between the narrative of the text and the narrative of its readers. It is of paramount importance, then, for those of us who are readers to find a trustworthy guide to lead us through an encounter with the text so that we may be appropriately drawn into the story.

While there are certainly a number of qualified guides to follow, one of the best I’ve found is Mark Hamilton. In On the Mountain with God: Freedom and Community in Exodus
(Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2009), Hamilton carefully navigates readers through the treacherous terrain of the Exodus story. What makes Hamilton such a noteworthy guide is his ability to balance his commitment to lead readers to the edges of some dangerous cliffs which provide glimpses into incredible scenes of life-changing beauty while avoiding the spots too risky for all but the specialist to traverse. As such, On the Mountain is a paradigmatic example of world-class scholarship bearing fruit for the sake of the church.


Hamilton begins this
tour with an orientation session (chapter 1) to familiarize readers with the
terrain to be traversed. Acknowledging up front the apparent tension between
the seemingly opposing themes of covenant and freedom, he succinctly summarizes
the story of Exodus as “a story of freedom from the shackles of oppression, in which only the powerful
have names, and freedom for a
relationship to the true and living God” (15). Additionally, the
orientation session covers both the key figures readers are likely to encounter
along the journey (Yahweh, Pharaoh, Moses, and the people of Israel) and the
themes that will occupy the discussion along the journey (the identity and
nature of God, justice in community, worship, and election).

The first phase of the
journey (chapter 2) guides readers through a lengthy tour of reflections on the
nature of God, wrestling with the pros and cons of polytheism and monotheism,
questions about the apparent absence of God, doubts as to God’s covenant
fidelity, and the knowledge, actions, and values that can appropriately be
ascribed to God. Of particular benefit in this chapter are two special features
of On the Mountain. First,
the inclusion of textboxes highlighting excursuses is particularly helpful in
this phase of the journey, as Hamilton addresses the recurring theme of
“the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in such a way as to dispel common
myths as to God’s role in this heart-hardening. Second, the incorporation of
imagined dialogue between the author and a reader allows Hamilton briefly to
sidestep the primary discussion to address questions and concerns likely to arise
in the heart and mind of engaged readers, while not interrupting the flow of
the broader discussion.

Intent on modeling for readers
a manner of reading Exodus in which truth is sought while its frequent
elusiveness is acknowledged, Hamilton begins the second stage (chapter 3) with
a look at one of the more bizarre episodes in scripture: Yahweh’s attempt to
kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-26). This stage is replete with challenging terrain as
the expedition no sooner departs the roadside where God tried to kill Moses
than it arrives in Pharaoh’s temple, attempting to take in that most famous of
showdowns: the plagues. Finally, this part of the journey comes to an end with
an exploration of the contrast between God’s way of relating to the Israelites
and Pharaoh’s way of relating to the Israelites. While God certainly acts
unpredictably and inexplicably at times, God is not a tyrant in the mold of
Pharaoh, but one who is committed to true relationship, however messy it may
get.

Given the recent
resurgence in attention toward issues of “social justice” the next
stretch in the journey (chapter 4) might be of the most interest to many
readers. Beginning with a dexterous exposition of Exodus 12:30-36, Hamilton
briefly spotlights the thread of “justice” running throughout the
entire Old Testament. Of particular importance when reflecting on justice,
Hamilton asserts, are its social or communal dimension and its intricate
connection to the very nature of God. Additionally, a glimpse into the
interaction between Jethro and Moses in Exodus 18 provides an opportunity to
reflect on the importance of a commitment to justice and a willingness to seek the
counsel of others on the part of spiritual leaders.

The geographically
climactic phase of the journey comes in the next stage (chapter 5) when
Hamilton guides readers to the summit of Mount Sinai to look on as Moses
receives the law from Yahweh. The tour begins with some basics: a look into the
structure of the commandments (commandments 1-4 “orient us to God,”
commandments 6-10 “focus on human relationships and processes,” and
commandment 5 “links the two”), reflections on the character-forming
intent of the commandments, insistence that the giving of the commandments is
rooted in a broader story and occurs with the intent of promoting human
flourishing, and an acknowledgement of the commandments’ educational import.
Hamilton is particularly helpful in guiding readers toward an appreciation of
the finer details of the law, while maintaining a focus on the importance of
the overarching principles which provide the shape for the commandments
themselves.

The final phase of the
journey (chapter 6) takes readers on a circuitous tour in search of a better
grasp of the importance of worship in the life of God’s people. After a brief apology
on behalf of ritual, readers arrive back in Egypt for a glimpse at Passover, in
which it becomes clear that action and attitude go hand in hand in worship.
Venturing onward toward the Reed Sea, Hamilton highlights the “threefold
movement (upward, outward, and onward)” of the song of Exodus 15:1-18.
Finally, readers return to Sinai where work (in the form of building the tabernacle)
is redeemed from its perversion in Egypt, so that the very act of work becomes
an act of worship to the God who desires to commune with humanity, and to whom
humanity responds with worship.

At the conclusion of the
journey, Hamilton guides readers in an extended reflection on the theme of
human dignity (chapter 7). He begins by recognizing it is toward the
development of dignity that Yahweh is calling the people of Israel throughout
Exodus. After wrestling briefly with the question of why God would bother to
interact with humans in the first place, Hamilton recaps the life of Moses,
noting the manner in which his interactions with God throughout his life shaped
him into a mature human being. Finally, Hamilton offers short meditations on
three themes foundational to the pursuit of dignity to which God invites
humanity: respect, transcendence, and hope, all of which draw humans out of
themselves to focus on others and the Other in order that people might be human
beings in the truest and fullest sense.

In sum, Hamilton serves
as a well-trained and exceptionally skilled, yet highly accessible tour guide
for anyone desiring to journey through the vast terrain of Exodus. While On the Mountain with God does
not thoroughly cover every episode recorded in the text or address every
critical interpretive issue, it is a fantastic resource for personal study and
for small group reflection (the included “Questions for Further
Reflection” are invaluable in this regard). This is one of the finer
examples of the benefits to be reaped by all as a result of an altruistic
relationship between the church and the academy.



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