Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: A First Look

This is a first look, before I have read or used the book extensively.  I have simply looked through it, read the preface and some introductions, and laid out a plan for reading and study using the volume.  I intend to “blog through” rather than simply read and review this volume.  See the end of the post for how I will proceed.

Those who know me will be completely unsurprised that, when I was given the opportunity to review a volume in this commentary series, I chose this one.  There are two interlocking reasons:  1)  I love studying the Torah from every perspective I can manage, and 2) I believe Christians who neglect this part of the Bible also miss some of the depth of their own theology and tradition.

Yet few Christians are really interested in Torah, and it is difficult to get them to study it.  So while I have studied from much more complex commentaries on the topic, such as Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary on Leviticus (here is my review), I can’t pass those on to Sunday School classes or to pastors I’m encouraging to get started in preaching or teaching from these books.

Thus I am very much attracted to the basic idea of this commentary series, starting with its use of the NLT second edition text, which is an excellent foundation on which to build a commentary for everyone.  Too frequently commentary translations are done in a technical fashion, designed to illustrate the commentator’s points.  This is not a bad thing for a scholarly audience, or even for those past the first stages of study.  Indeed it is necessary.  But it doesn’t help much with that first study.

I’m encouraged by the ambitious goal set forth in the General Editor’s preface:  “… the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary aims at helping teachers, pastors, students, and laypeople understand every thought contained in the Bible.”  Yes, it’s ambitious, but it is aimed at the right group of people.  If one doesn’t keep one’s eye on the goal, then one will never get anywhere.

So how is this volume laid out?

First, it includes the full scriptural text from the NLT second edition.  That’s a highlight.  I’ve already read that part, though not from this volume.  It is a good translation to use in accomplishing the goals of the commentary.

Second, it includes notes on textual, translational, and interpretational details.  For example, looking at notes from Leviticus 4:1-5:13, I see explanations of the Hebrew word behind the English translation “commands” along with references.  We’re provided with word numbers in both the Tyndale and the Zondervan numbering system (Kudos to Tyndale for including the latter), along with references to selected works.  There’s a discussion of the phrase “ceremonially clean” and “an offering for their sin” amongst many others.  In scanning through the volume I also saw notes on various textual issues, but written in minimally technical language.

Finally, there is commentary on the passage as a whole, dealing more with themes, theology, and application.  In the case of Leviticus 4:1-5:13, there is about a page of notes followed by nearly five pages of commentary.  The scriptural text itself occupies very nearly two pages.  This will give you an idea of how space is proportioned.  (The introduction and outline of the book is 10 pages.)

Overall, the book is 679 pages + 14 pages of front matter.  The main section uses 214 pages for Leviticus, 229 for Numbers, and 236 for Deuteronomy.

So let’s compare bulk as a sort of “intimidation factor.”  The NLT Study Bible uses 65 pages for the book of Numbers.  The New International Commentary on the Old Testament volume on Numbers uses 667.  I don’t have a good intermediate number on Leviticus, but I would note that Migrom’s commentary is over 2700 pages.  I would say this commentary is well-placed then to draw people beyond the study Bible stage and on to the more serious study.

As for perspective, the authors (David W. Baker, Dale A. Brueggemann, and Eugene H. Merrill) and editors are all unsurprisingly evangelical, and fairly conservative at that.  I don’t intend to criticize the commentary for its stated perspective.  I will note just how much each author interacts with opposing viewpoints.  In a commentary such as this, there is a balance.  Too much discussion of every idea out there means that one can’t get to the basic work necessary; too little tends to limit the usefulness of the work to broader audiences.

As I mentioned in the initial note, it is not my intent to read through this book and then publish a review.  Rather, after publishing these initial notes, I am going to use it as my secondary devotional study, after my time spent on the week’s lectionary passages, and then blog about the experience, finally wrapping everything up when I have read the entire volume.  While I will, as always, be studying and comparing with many sources, my primary question in this case will be just how valuable and accessible the material is to someone preparing a Sunday School lesson or a sermon for their congregation that would draw from this material.

In terms of overall theme, I’ll be asking myself how well the volume will link the theological themes to Christian theology and tradition, and of course ultimately to Christian living.  Then I will rate the book as to how well it accomplished the stated goal I quoted above, with due consideration for how ambitious a goal it is.

You will be able to follow my study on my Participatory Bible Study blog.  There will be a final wrap-up post here.

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