Carol Meyers, Exodus
(The New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Pp. xxiii + 311. Paper, US$21.99. ISBN: 0-521-00291-5.
Reviewed by William H. Irwin, C.S.B.
University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology

Commentary is a difficult genre, particularly when the text to be commented is printed in full as in Carol Meyers’ Exodus. The trick is not simply to repeat what can be gathered from careful reading. It should also provide additional information about the world behind and in front of the text. Meyers succeeds very well. Her interpretation makes available the most up-to-date understandings of the book and she supplies a wealth of information about the world behind it and its continuing relevance for the present day. In providing the latter she makes use of the expedient of shading blocks of information gray to set them apart from the interpretative sections. They are introduced by two headings: either “A Closer Look” for the world behind the text or “Bridging the Horizons” for continuing relevance. In addition, her chapter on “Suggested Readings on Exodus,” with its thoughtful appraisals of recent literature, makes the book ideal for recommendation to students. The chapter detailing the changed approach of historians to the factual basis of the Exodus narrative is admirable, presenting a well-rounded account of recent scholarship and documenting the current shift from history to historiography, parallel to the shift from interpretation to hermeneutics. Her explanation of why there are no maps, however—they are omitted so as not to give the impression that the actual route of the exodus can be mapped—is a little patronizing.

Meyers, following the current trend in biblical commentaries, concentrates more on explaining the text in its present form than on the sources and traditions that figured in its composition though she by no means slights earlier research in these areas. Her detailed account of the ritual matters that constitute the substance of chapters 25–31 and 35–40 is welcome, yet it is likely readers will gloss over these pages as of little importance to the message of the book. However much Meyers is alert to that message and tries to see it as a whole, she is still to some extent influenced by the disproportionate attention biblical critics have paid to chapters 1–24, to the liberation from Egypt and to the first covenant of Sinai. The narratives of both events have so much composition history of sources and traditions behind them while, ahead of them, they have their relevance for future generations. In consequence it is easy to slight Exodus 25–40 by comparison. Yet these chapters contain in the episode of the golden calf and its aftermath the true climax of the book, and in the coming of the glory of the Lord to reside in Israel’s midst in the newly-erected Tent Sanctuary its proper denouement.

Exodus 32–34 make plain the danger of living under the first covenant in the Lord’s presence. Only with the new revelation of the “ways of the Lord” to Moses does a second covenant become possible, not now with the jealous God but with the merciful and gracious God. Exodus 34 replaces the broken covenant of Exodus 19–24; it does not restore it. No longer inviting the people’s participatory consent as had the first covenant, the covenant of Exod 34:10–26 concentrates entirely upon the worship of the Lord. Although it is traditionally assigned to the J source and to a stage earlier in Israelite religion than the moral Decalogue of Exodus 20, its understanding of covenant is more congenial to the Priestly theology which frames it in Exodus 25–31 and 35–40 and continues through Leviticus into Numbers. The latter reinterprets covenant as a lasting commitment of the Lord living in Israel’s midst and in so doing restates Israel’s ritual and moral obligations as the response demanded of those living continually in that holy presence.

Meyers’ commentary would have been improved by laying more emphasis on Exodus 25–40, but it remains a fine example of the genre, packed with useful information, insightful observations and invitations to further study.