Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

W. H. Bellinger, Leviticus, Numbers (New International Biblical Commentary, 3; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001), Pp. x + 338. ISBN: 0853647240. $11.95.

While the other three books of the Pentateuch each receive their own volume in the New International Biblical Commentary, Leviticus and Numbers are bound together in a single volume. The volumes on Genesis and Deuteronomy have already appeared, and they both exceed this one in total length. While this may indicate a predisposition to view these two books as less important, this is a notion that the author, W. H. Bellinger ably resists. The position of this commentary is clearly stated by both the series editors and the author. The overall approach is one of "believing criticism" (p. x), which is in dialogue with critical study and thoughtfully engaged in matters of Christian faith. Bellinger describes his own approach to the text as "a hermeneutic of curiosity, which attends to questions of origin, text, and reader" (p. 6). The result is a commentary which should prove useful to pastors, laypersons, and students. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive, critical commentary. It uses the New International Version as its basic biblical text. Nevertheless, Bellinger attends to critical issues, is in consistent dialogue with the major critical commentaries on Leviticus (especially Milgrom and Hartley) and Numbers (especially Milgrom and Budd), and demonstrates a superior level of expertise in handling the Hebrew text.

Bellinger breaks Leviticus into fairly standard units: The Manual of Sacrifice (1-7), Historical Narrative (8-10), the Manual of Purity (11-16), and the Holiness Code (17-27). Each of these is divided into subunits to create a total of twenty-seven pericopes which are treated in twenty-seven chapters. These divisions correspond approximately, but not exactly, to the traditional chapter divisions of the Book of Leviticus. The Manual of Sacrifice, for example, is divided into six subunits. Each of the corresponding six chapters of the commentary is a detailed exposition of the subunit, bounded by a brief introduction and conclusion. The latter generally points to matters specifically of Christian significance, such as direct or indirect references to the passage in the New Testament. Notes on more technical issues, including matters of Hebrew language are appended at the end of each chapter. These carefully crafted notes provide an excellent addition, which will increase the usefulness of the commentary for trained clergy and students. Observations about the connections between the major components of Leviticus (pp. 160-161), connections between Leviticus and other books of the Pentateuch (e.g., Exodus on p. 3), and connections to Israel's other traditions (e.g., creation on p. 165 and exile on pp. 156-159) build a compelling case for the book of Leviticus as a vital part of the Bible which ought not to be ignored.

Bellinger approaches Numbers in the same way he does Leviticus. Again, he identifies the authors of the book, in a general fashion, as the "priestly tradents." He is more concerned with general cultural background, literary shape, and theological message, than with technical matters or historical issues. The commentary stays true to its stated purpose and audience. Key to his reading of Numbers is the issue of order and the struggle of the Israelites to establish an ordered existence in the midst of the difficult wilderness experience. It is because of this aspect and Israel's creative use of tradition to solve difficulties in the latter parts of Numbers that Bellinger commends this biblical book as a valuable resource for contemporary faith (pp. 173-176).

Bellinger follows one of the traditional ways of dividing the book of Numbers, using geography, into three parts: "Preparation for the March" at Sinai (1-10), "Murmurings in the Wilderness" in and around Kadesh (11-20), and "Journeying in the Transjordan" (21-36). The book is then divided roughly, but not precisely, along chapter lines to produce thirty-three subunits, each of which is addressed in a chapter of the commentary. Bellinger's expositions of individual pericopes continues to be of high quality. Users of a commentary like this one are most likely to encounter it only one textual unit at a time. Thus, the higher levels of organization may be of little importance to them. Nevertheless, the larger contours of a commentary likely filter down into the discussion of individual texts. The division of the Book of Numbers is, therefore, one place where I would quibble with Bellinger. The use of the geographical divisions highlights the "journeying motif" (p. 171), but is this the defining feature of the Book of Numbers? This division separates the rebellion stories of chapters 21 and 25 from those of 11-20. It also downplays the significance of the second census in 26 as a turning point in the story. Bellinger does acknowledge the strengths of Olson's division of the book into halves, 1-25 and 26-36, but dismisses it for its lack of balance (pp. 169-171). Perhaps some hybrid of these two views would better fit the emphasis on the interplay between order and disorder in the book, a feature to which Bellinger gives excellent attention at numerous places in his commentary.

These debatable points of contention aside, this commentary fulfills its purpose with admirable elegance. Bellinger's scholarly passion for these two biblical books and his commitment to their theological claims are evident. Combined with his clear and concise writing style, they produce an engaging encounter with an often neglected portion of the Bible. This book's economy of size and price make it an unsurpassed resource for its target audience.

Mark McEntire, Belmont University