Tuesday 27 January 2009

Peter Enns on Reading Exodus (1): Original Meaning

Peter Enns, Exodus, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

The Introduction to this commentary is available online as a pdf download.

The NIV Application Commentary series is distinctive in treating each biblical passage in three sections:

• Original meaning – understanding the meaning of the text in its original context.

• Bridging contexts – building a bridge between the world of the Bible and today’s world ‘by focusing on both the timely and timeless aspects of the text’.

• Contemporary significance – applying the biblical message to today.

The second of these stages is arguably the most problematic, and (in my opinion) not all the contributors to the series have deployed the steps with the same degree of sophistication.

Peter Enns, however, begins his commentary by reflecting self-consciously on how he handles the three categories.

According to Enns, the first of them – original meaning – ‘is the meaning as it was intended by the writer to be understood by his audience’ (19).

He recognises this is not necessarily a simple task, not least because of the anonymity of a number of biblical books – which, in the case of Exodus, at the very least, is complicated. Likewise, there may be problems when it comes to identifying the original audience: who was Exodus addressed to?

Even so, according to Enns:

‘To acknowledge that the author and the audience cannot be precisely identified is not to say that we can freely mold the text to any shape we desire. Even though we do not have access to the mind of an author, we most certainly have the words he has produced, and it is to these words that we are bound’ (21).

Furthermore, says, Enns, because Scripture is God’s word, we must go beyond the matter of human authorship to the divine author. Discovering God’s intention in a text may require stepping back from the details and looking at ‘the sweep of Scripture as a whole’, which entails that ‘the “meaning” of an Old Testament text cannot simply be equated with what was intended by its human author and what it meant to its original audience’ (22).

On the issue of ‘original meaning’, Enns also deals with the related matter of ‘the question of history’, especially important for Exodus. Crucial though this is, however, he makes the point that we have not understood the book of Exodus when we have successfully defended its historicity. Rather…

‘The Old Testament is theological history. It has been written to teach lessons. The primary lesson I would argue is to teach us what God is like and what it means for his people to live with that knowledge’ (24).

It is not that the things the text records as happening did not actually happen, but that ‘it is the text that is the focus of our attention, not what might lie behind it’ (25).

For Enns, then, the goal of the ‘original meaning’ sections of his commentary is ‘to draw out the theology of the text’, to understand what the text teaches ‘God’s people about himself and their relationship to him’ (25).

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