Old Testament Commentary Reviews: The Pentateuch

Study book with coffee cup

Old Testament Commentary Reviews:

The Pentateuch

The Old Testament is made up of thirty-nine books that are traditionally divided into five groupings:

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

  • The Historical books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings, 1/2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther).

  • Poetry & Wisdom writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs).

  • The Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel).

  • The Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

Thousands of commentaries have been written about these books, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. My recommendations are divided into the three most common categories:

  • Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.

  • Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.

  • Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Hebrew text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Hebrew to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of the language will find these commentaries useful.

Genesis

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Genesis is by John Walton in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2001). 768 pp. Some (like me) will be put off by Walton’s conclusion that the first seven days of creation are not literal days, but if you can get past that, you will find a wealth of helpful information that is well-organized and clearly explained. Walton is an expert in Ancient Near East literature, and teachers will appreciate his many insights.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide may prefer Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, by R. Kent Hughes (Crossway, 2004). 704 pp. Sermonic and more exposition than commentary, Hughes does a great job of explaining and applying the truths of Genesis. Engaging and easy to read.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Genesis is by Kenneth Matthews in the New American Commentary (two volumes, Broadman, 1996 and 2005). 1488 pp. This is the commentary I reach for first when I have a general question about a passage in Genesis, and Matthews usually provides just the answer I need (not always–he does not believe in a literal creation week). That aside, I really like this commentary. It’s conservative, well-researched, and accessible.

Also recommended: Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Baker Academic, 1997). 744 pp. Especially helpful for pastors and teachers preparing lessons/sermons.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Genesis is by Victor Hamilton in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (two volumes, Eerdmans, 1990 and 1995). 1273 pp. Hamilton wrote the masterful Handbook on the Pentateuch (Baker, 2005), and is an acknowledged expert on the Torah. His commentary overflows with helpful information. For many, Hamilton’s NICOT is the go-to commentary for language questions. Readers will also appreciate the way he connects the text to the New Testament. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–a very accessible technical commentary. If I were limited to one commentary on Genesis, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Gordon Wenham in the Word Biblical Commentary (2 volumes, Nelson, 1987 and 1994). 908 pp. Dated, but helpful if you can endure the WBC format and an abundance of higher criticism.

Exodus

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Exodus is by Phillip G. Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory (Crossway, 2005). Massive (1248 pp.) and filled with practical applications. A wonderful devotional guide to read alongside Exodus.

Also recommended: Readers on a budget will appreciate J. Alec Motyer’s warm exposition in the Bible Speaks Today (IVP, 2005). 336 pp.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Exodus is by Douglas Stuart in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 2006). 826 pp. Stuart, who wrote one of the best technical commentaries on Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah for the Word Biblical Commentary, has also written the best general commentary on Exodus. Conservative, well-researched, and readable, this is the first resource I reach for when I have a question. Good intro with a lengthy discussion of the theology of Exodus. Technical comments are assigned to the footnotes.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary is by Victor Hamilton in Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2011). 721 pp. Hamilton, who wrote the masterful Handbook on the Pentateuch (Baker, 2005) and the top-rated Genesis commentary (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1990 and 1995), has also written one of the best technical commentaries on Exodus. It offers a fresh translation, a constructive interpretation, and a wealth of linguistic help. If I were limited to one commentary on Exodus, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Advanced students will want to check out the pricey but excellent analysis by Brevard S. Childs in the Old Testament Library (Westminster John Knox, 1974).

Also recommended: Advanced students will also appreciate the volume by John Durham in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1987). 560 pp. The WBC format is not user friendly, but Durham’s commentary is worth the inconvenience.

Leviticus

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Leviticus is by Derek Tidball in the Bible Speaks Today (IVP, 2005). 329 pp. Easy to understand and inexpensive, this volume does a great job of applying the principles in Leviticus to the Christian life.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Leviticus is by Mark Rooker in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 2006). 826 pp. Solid exegesis in a reader-friendly format. This is the commentary I reach for when I have a general question. Technical comments are assigned to the footnotes.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Leviticus is by Gordon Wenham in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1979). 375 pp. Clear and concise. Wenham provides a wealth of helpful information. If I were limited to one commentary on Leviticus, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Advanced students with big budgets will want to check out the massive (2,688 pp.) three-volume analysis by Jacob Milgrom in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (Yale University Press, 1998).

Also recommended: Advanced students will also appreciate the volume by John Hartley in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1992). 575 pp. The WBC format is awkward, but Hartley’s commentary is worth the inconvenience.

Numbers

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Numbers is by Gordon Wenham in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 2008). 192 pp. Brief, but overflowing with helpful insights. Given its low cost, this should be in every library.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Numbers is by Iain Duguid in Preaching the Word (Crossway, 2006). 400 pp. Easy to understand and filled with practical application. Daquid brings the ancient text into today’s world.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Numbers is by Timothy Ashley in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1993). 683 pp. Skimpy intro and more comments on textual criticism than I prefer, but thorough and (mostly) conservative. Knowledge of Hebrew will enhance the value of this resource, but all Hebrew is transliterated, so it’s accessible to everyone. If I were limited to one commentary on Numbers, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Advanced students interested in linguistics and minutiae will appreciate the analysis by Jacob Milgrom in the JPS Torah Commentaries (Jewish Publication Society, 1990). 520 pp.

Deuteronomy

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Deuteronomy is by Christopher Wright in the Understanding the Bible Old Testament (Hendrickson, 1994). 364 pp. Engaging and laid out well–the UBOT format breaks the text into pericopes and examines them verse by verse. Wright does a great job of explaining the relevance of Deuteronomy. Budget priced and an easy recommendation for any library.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary is by Eugene Merrill in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1994). 477 pp. This is the first commentary I reach for when I have a general question about a passage in Deuteronomy. It’s conservative, well-researched, and accessible. Technical notes are confined to the footnotes.

Also recommended: Daniel Block in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2012). 880 pp. Block wrote the best technical commentary on Ezekiel (NICOT) and my favorite intermediate commentary on Judges and Ruth (NAC). His intermediate commentary on Deuteronomy is also excellent. Lots of application–Block explains the importance of the book in a way that even a neophyte can grasp.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Deuteronomy is by Peter Craigie in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1976). 424 pp. The reading is dry in places and the commentary is getting a bit dated, but it is still my favorite. Craigie is more helpful with exegesis than many larger resources because he doesn’t spend time on textual criticism (though he does direct the reader to good sources for that). Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–a very accessible technical commentary. If I were limited to one commentary on Deuteronomy, this would be my choice.

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