Posted by: Keith Clark | June 9, 2010

Review: On the Mountain with God

This review appeared last month on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. I am reposting it here for those to whom it might be of interest.

Few texts are as pertinent as Exodus to the socio-cultural situation of many American Christians (of which I am one) these days. If, in fact, part of the goal of narrative as a genre is to draw readers into the story, Exodus poses significant challenges for readers like me. Unfamiliar geographical references, unpronounceable names, tediously over-descriptive language, and foreign customs can at times impose a seemingly insurmountable distance between the story and its readers. The tendency of westerners to identify with the hero(es) of the story at times creates a false sense of identification between the narrative of the text and the narrative of its readers. It is of paramount importance, then, for those of us who are readers to find a trustworthy guide to lead us through an encounter with the text so that we may be appropriately drawn into the story.

While there are certainly a number of qualified guides to follow, one of the best I’ve found is Mark Hamilton. In On the Mountain with God: Freedom and Community in Exodus (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2009), Hamilton carefully navigates readers through the treacherous terrain of the Exodus story. What makes Hamilton such a noteworthy guide is his ability to balance his commitment to lead readers to the edges of some dangerous cliffs which provide glimpses into incredible scenes of life-changing beauty while avoiding the spots too risky for all but the specialist to traverse. As such, On the Mountain is a paradigmatic example of world-class scholarship bearing fruit for the sake of the church.

Hamilton begins this tour with an orientation session (chapter 1) to familiarize readers with the terrain to be traversed. Acknowledging up front the apparent tension between the seemingly opposing themes of covenant and freedom, he succinctly summarizes the story of Exodus as “a story of freedom from the shackles of oppression, in which only the powerful have names, and freedom for a relationship to the true and living God” (15). Additionally, the orientation session covers both the key figures readers are likely to encounter along the journey (Yahweh, Pharaoh, Moses, and the people of Israel) and the themes that will occupy the discussion along the journey (the identity and nature of God, justice in community, worship, and election).

The first phase of the journey (chapter 2) guides readers through a lengthy tour of reflections on the nature of God, wrestling with the pros and cons of polytheism and monotheism, questions about the apparent absence of God, doubts as to God’s covenant fidelity, and the knowledge, actions, and values that can appropriately be ascribed to God. Of particular benefit in this chapter are two special features of On the Mountain. First, the inclusion of textboxes highlighting excursuses is particularly helpful in this phase of the journey, as Hamilton addresses the recurring theme of “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in such a way as to dispel common myths as to God’s role in this heart-hardening. Second, the incorporation of imagined dialogue between the author and a reader allows Hamilton briefly to sidestep the primary discussion to address questions and concerns likely to arise in the heart and mind of engaged readers, while not interrupting the flow of the broader discussion.

Intent on modeling for readers a manner of reading Exodus in which truth is sought while its frequent elusiveness is acknowledged, Hamilton begins the second stage (chapter 3) with a look at one of the more bizarre episodes in scripture: Yahweh’s attempt to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-26). This stage is replete with challenging terrain as the expedition no sooner departs the roadside where God tried to kill Moses than it arrives in Pharaoh’s temple, attempting to take in that most famous of showdowns: the plagues. Finally, this part of the journey comes to an end with an exploration of the contrast between God’s way of relating to the Israelites and Pharaoh’s way of relating to the Israelites. While God certainly acts unpredictably and inexplicably at times, God is not a tyrant in the mold of Pharaoh, but one who is committed to true relationship, however messy it may get.

Given the recent resurgence in attention toward issues of “social justice” the next stretch in the journey (chapter 4) might be of the most interest to many readers. Beginning with a dexterous exposition of Exodus 12:30-36, Hamilton briefly spotlights the thread of “justice” running throughout the entire Old Testament. Of particular importance when reflecting on justice, Hamilton asserts, are its social or communal dimension and its intricate connection to the very nature of God. Additionally, a glimpse into the interaction between Jethro and Moses in Exodus 18 provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of a commitment to justice and a willingness to seek the counsel of others on the part of spiritual leaders.

The geographically climactic phase of the journey comes in the next stage (chapter 5) when Hamilton guides readers to the summit of Mount Sinai to look on as Moses receives the law from Yahweh. The tour begins with some basics: a look into the structure of the commandments (commandments 1-4 “orient us to God,” commandments 6-10 “focus on human relationships and processes,” and commandment 5 “links the two”), reflections on the character-forming intent of the commandments, insistence that the giving of the commandments is rooted in a broader story and occurs with the intent of promoting human flourishing, and an acknowledgement of the commandments’ educational import. Hamilton is particularly helpful in guiding readers toward an appreciation of the finer details of the law, while maintaining a focus on the importance of the overarching principles which provide the shape for the commandments themselves.

The final phase of the journey (chapter 6) takes readers on a circuitous tour in search of a better grasp of the importance of worship in the life of God’s people. After a brief apology on behalf of ritual, readers arrive back in Egypt for a glimpse at Passover, in which it becomes clear that action and attitude go hand in hand in worship. Venturing onward toward the Reed Sea, Hamilton highlights the “threefold movement (upward, outward, and onward)” of the song of Exodus 15:1-18. Finally, readers return to Sinai where work (in the form of building the tabernacle) is redeemed from its perversion in Egypt, so that the very act of work becomes an act of worship to the God who desires to commune with humanity, and to whom humanity responds with worship.

At the conclusion of the journey, Hamilton guides readers in an extended reflection on the theme of human dignity (chapter 7). He begins by recognizing it is toward the development of dignity that Yahweh is calling the people of Israel throughout Exodus. After wrestling briefly with the question of why God would bother to interact with humans in the first place, Hamilton recaps the life of Moses, noting the manner in which his interactions with God throughout his life shaped him into a mature human being. Finally, Hamilton offers short meditations on three themes foundational to the pursuit of dignity to which God invites humanity: respect, transcendence, and hope, all of which draw humans out of themselves to focus on others and the Other in order that people might be human beings in the truest and fullest sense.

In sum, Hamilton serves as a well-trained and exceptionally skilled, yet highly accessible tour guide for anyone desiring to journey through the vast terrain of Exodus. While On the Mountain with God does not thoroughly cover every episode recorded in the text or address every critical interpretive issue, it is a fantastic resource for personal study and for small group reflection (the included “Questions for Further Reflection” are invaluable in this regard). This is one of the finer examples of the benefits to be reaped by all as a result of an altruistic relationship between the church and the academy.

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