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Review of W. Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus

Author: Nathan Bills
Published: February 2013

MD 4.1

Article Type: Review Article

W. Ross Blackburn. The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus. New Studies in Biblical Theology 28. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 238pp. $17.00.

Ross Blackburn’s study contributes to the recent rise of attention given to the theme of mission in the interpretation of Scripture. His purpose in this monograph, an iteration of his doctoral thesis written under Christopher Seitz at St. Andrews, is to argue that mission is the governing theme of the book of Exodus. At first glance this aim may strike the reader as peculiar, if not backward: how is mission the driving theme of Israel’s story of liberation and constitution? Anticipating such a question in the introduction, Blackburn defines his use of the word mission as God’s desire to right what is wrong, principally through God’s commitment to be known among his people and, through them, among the nations. Blackburn proposes that, when read as a coherent narrative within a canonical framework, Yhwh’s missionary impulse explains his motivation in each major development in the story and resolves some thorny hermeneutical issues therein.

After an introduction (ch. 1), Blackburn divides his treatment into six chapters. In chapter 2 he builds the case that the primary theme in Exod 1–15:21 is the revelation of Yhwh’s name/identity as redeemer. Through the burning bush, the plague cycle, and deliverance of the people from slavery, Israel and Egypt (to a lesser extent) come to know Yhwh’s redemptive character, Yhwh’s supremacy, and that Yhwh’s identity and mission is tied up with Yhwh’s goodness toward Israel.

Both chapter 3 (15:22–18:27) and chapter 4 (19–24) explore how the provision of torah/teaching carries forward God’s missional intention to make his name known. Blackburn argues that the sequence of wilderness trials serves the purpose of training (better than the commonly translated “testing”) Israel in the knowledge of her new sovereign. The giving of water, food, and security seeks to instill trust in Israel as preparation for Sinai. Chapter 4 casts Israel in a priestly role for the sake of reflecting the character of God before the watching nations. The law’s essence is a revelation of the character of God; thus, Israel’s holy imitation of Yhwh (by keeping the covenantal demands) aims toward the larger goal of mediating knowledge of God among the families of the earth. Israel’s witness pulsates out from her distinctive conduct.

Blackburn next turns to the dense tabernacle legislation in chapter 5 (25–31). The instruction detailing the materials to be used in the tabernacle’s construction and its accoutrements communicates the sanctity and kingship of Yhwh, dwelling in Israel’s midst. Moreover, within Israel, the tabernacle was a palpable, microcosmic symbol of Yhwh’s orderly, macrocosmic reign over the universe. The presence of Yhwh among his people in the tabernacle is an end in itself, but the purpose of the tabernacle was not limited to this end. Rather, the tabernacle pointed in nuce to God’s missionary desire to reign in similar fashion among all the nations.

Chapter 6 wrestles with how Moses’ petitions persuade God to forgive Israel’s transgression committed in the golden calf debacle (32–34). Blackburn persuasively argues that Moses succeeds in his remonstrations by appealing to Yhwh’s honor among the nations. In short, Moses defends God’s reputation before God. Thus, Yhwh restores Israel because Yhwh’s name among the nations is at stake. Yhwh’s judgment and mercy emerge from the same motivation—to be known among the nations. Yhwh’s forgiveness restores the plans for building the tabernacle (35–40), which Blackburn treats briefly in chapter 7. The construction of the tabernacle signals that forgiven Israel can now fulfill her commission to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation. God dwells in her midst—this is both the object and method of Israel’s missionary vocation.

The main body of the work is well written, well researched, and for the most part well reasoned. Blackburn’s commitment to reading the text in its canonical presentation as a coherent narrative pays rich exegetical dividends, especially in tracing underappreciated connections to the larger Exodus story in the wilderness narratives and Moses’s appeals to God in Exod 32–34. So too, Blackburn’s insistence that the minutiae of the tabernacle legislation carry theological, even missiological weight brings a welcomed corrective to traditions that devalue priestly texts. Because his work is in an evangelical series on biblical theology, Blackburn rounds out each chapter (and sometimes begins them) with reflections on texts outside of Exodus, mostly connecting his emphases to New Testament motifs. While this move helps further elucidate themes under discussion in some chapters (e.g., his parsing of the relationship of gospel and law in ch. 4), in others it feels more like an appendage that provides too terse a treatment. Blackburn concludes his work with four brief observations concerning how mission in Exodus informs the mission of the church. Because this is precisely the kind of theological payoff needed by churches (and so often lacking in rigorous works of biblical theology), the book could have been enhanced significantly if this chapter were longer than a thin five pages.

Blackburn’s book is a solid attempt to show how a missiological hermeneutic opens up the interpretation of a central Old Testament book. Yet, the book suffers on two accounts. First, Blackburn is in danger of instrumentalizing Israel’s election. His appreciation of God’s larger purposes undersells the promises to the patriarchs as a reason for the Exodus and creates some unnecessary tension with the subsequent history of God with Israel. For example, how does Israel’s future interaction with the nations (e.g., Canaanites) make sense of the missionary bent of Exodus, if this is indeed the governing theme of her root narrative? The conquest, which itself draws on themes from Exodus, fits this trajectory with difficulty. Israel as a “missionary people” may fit some of Isaiah’s prophecy—a prophet who draws liberally on Exodus themes—but is this the most apt theological backdrop for, say, the oracles against the nations? Moreover, what does it mean for the nations to know Yhwh? Is the acknowledgement expected of the nations on par with Israel’s acknowledgement? As a work of biblical theology, I would have liked these questions addressed with more rigor. Second, and related, Blackburn’s definition of mission will strike many as too narrow for biblical theology. He rightly stresses that in Exodus Yhwh’s presence is what makes Israel holy—attending to Yhwh’s presence is to make Israel distinctive, thus mediating knowledge of God. But does this fulfill the book’s subtitle: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus ? The missional theology of Exodus is chiefly centripetal, and I am not certain it is the heart of the book, that is, the central theme giving life to all else. Nevertheless, I recommend the book for students and scholars alike, and I look forward to future works from Blackburn.

Nathan Bills

Assistant Professor of Old Testament

Lipscomb University

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

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