The ‘Person in the Pew’ commentary series is the only series of Commentaries in modern history written by a single person on the entire Bible and aimed at layfolk . Everyone needs a commentary on the Bible that they can understand and that answers their questions about the meaning of the text. So I wrote one.
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Several weeks ago, Jim West sent me a copy of his commentary on Deuteronomy, part of his series entitled “For the Person in the Pew“. Dr. West is well known among biblical scholars and those interested in the role of the Bible in modern intellectual history and culture, and his blog “Zwinglius Redivivus” is among the most widely read of those dealing with the history, reception, and PER-ception of the biblical materials. It was thus with great excitement that I set about reading his commentary on a book that has been so central to my own research as an historian and, I should add, to my own self-understanding as a Jew and my place in the long history of Judaism.
West’s commentary is not meant to be a “Critical Commentary” insofar as that genre of commentary is primarily geared for the critical, academic study of biblical texts. Rather, as the title of the series implies, his commentary is meant for someone who encounters the text in a devotional setting. The orientation of the work is primarily for Christian audiences, but West takes the ancient Jewish dimensions of the text seriously. He also gives the reader great intellectual credit, and assumes that he or she will approach the biblical text carefully…including aspects of the text in its ancient context.
For West, the ancient meaning, effects and understandings of the text among its original audiences have lasting importance for contemporary audiences. One’s obligation to the text as a defining feature of identity — both as an individual person of faith and as a member of a larger and dynamic community — is intimately connected to the past, the intricacies of ancient cultures, their suppositions and conceptual horizons.
Deuteronomy is a particular important text in this regard, for many scholars over the last several decades have drawn attention to its complex relationship to its own past. Deuteronomy negotiates the history of Israel’s covenantal traditions, countenancing different ideas but clearing the way for definitive and comprehensive attitudes that could endure and bind communities together. West’s careful explication of Deuteronomy’s verses show a deep awareness of this, and his commentary regularly delves into linguistic, geographical, and ritual details that, for many contemporary readers, remain hidden in the text’s sometimes hermetic rhetoric.
West’s discussion of Deuteronomy is ultimately rooted in an ethical commitment not only to the contents of the text but to the larger ideological cultures it helped create. It engages theological matters clearly and boldly, but also does not hesitate to draw attention to the complicated nature of those matters and the similarly complicated task of reconciling them with evolving contemporary needs. West also does a great service to his reader by making clear (through his discussions of critical details) that a host of other issues relating to ancient Israel and the communities who preserved this material in antiquity await those given to indulging their curiosities beyond the pew. As a Jew with great regard for the role that religious scripture plays in defining various communities of faith and setting them in conversation with each other, West’s commentary proved to be a rewarding and stimulating read, and bodes well for the rest of the volumes in his series as well. – Mark Leuchter, Temple University