Deuteronomy. Vol. 4 in The New American Commentary

By Eugene H. Merrill
Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman (1994). 477 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 248-250

Eugene H. Merrill is professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has published books and periodical articles in the areas of OT history, OT theology, Palestinian archaeology and the OT, Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, the minor prophets, and the Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns.

The New American Commentary is the continuation of the tradition established by the older An American Commentary series under the editorship of Alvah Hovey at the end of the nineteenth century. In keeping with that tradition, the current series affirms “the divine inspiration, inerrancy, complete truthfulness, and full authority of the Bible” (from the Editors’ Preface). The format makes the materials available to layman and scholar alike. Technical points of grammar and syntax occur in the footnotes rather than in the text. The commentaries are based upon the NIV. The individual commentators, however, have the freedom to develop their own translations of the original text where they differ from the NIV.

The brief but helpful Introduction (21-57) is notable for its uncompromising stand on Mosaic authorship and an early date prior to 1400 B.C. (22-27). At pertinent points in the commentary, Merrill defends his acceptance of the early date for the Exodus by offering an explanation for the existence and/or lack of archaeological evidence for the conquest of Canaan (170, 207). He often disagrees with the identification and interpretation of alleged anachronisms that critical commentators use to support either non-Mosaic authorship or extensive post-Mosaic editing (69, 86 n. 62, 87, 94, 97-98, 362, 385). Sometimes, however, he agrees with those commentators (106 n. 129). In at least one case, the author contradicts himself. He cites the mention of Naphtali in 34:2 as an obvious indication that a later addition was made to the text (452). However, his commentary on 33:23 seems to indicate that Moses was perfectly capable of identifying the land holding of Naphtali (445-46). In fact, his similar use of the mention of Ephraim and Manasseh in 34:2 to argue for a later addition would find vigorous opposition from Jacob himself since he had transferred his land holding to Joseph 400 years before Moses lived (Gen 48:22). Jacob and Joseph knew exactly which piece of Amorite territory was involved. These last points regarding Deuteronomy 34 are but two examples of many unmentioned issues in the debate over Mosaic authorship of that chapter.

His summation of the theology of Deuteronomy provides readers with a clear understanding of the significance of covenant for the theocratic community of Israel (47-56). In the commentary proper, he consistently identifies the presence of prophetic revelation requiring a future eschatological fulfillment for Israel (353, 355, 388, 389). However, Merrill’s identification of the modern port of Haifa as a fulfillment of 33:19 and Gen 49:13 is questionable (444).

Throughout the commentary the author identifies interpretative problems, discusses them carefully, and offers viable solutions. The following are examples of such problems: 1:37-38 (Moses apparently blaming the people for his being barred from entering the land of promise, 82-83); 1:46 and 2:14 (apparent contradiction involving arrival, departure, and stay at Kadesh Barnea, 89-90, 95); 2:27-29 (the ethical dilemma of Moses’ message to Sihon, 101); 4:19 (God’s apparent apportioning of heavenly bodies to heathen nations so that they might worship them, 122-24); 15:12-18 (the meaning of “Hebrew,” 247-49); 22:9-12 (the significance of regulations forbidding seemingly non-moral and innocuous mixing of seeds, plow animals, and cloth, 299-301); and 32:48-52 (the grounds for Moses’s disqualification from entering the promised land, 429).

Merrill’s identification of the various sections of 12:1–25:16 with the appropriate one of the Ten Commandments (esp. 219, 227, 229, 234-35 n. 34, 239, 299, 314) provides a worthy alternative to the divisions proposed by Stephen Kaufman (in “The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law,” Maarav 1/2 [1978-79]:105- 58). Kaufman’s structure is the basis for Walter C. Kaiser’s discussion of the laws in Deuteronomy (Toward Old Testament Ethics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983] 129).

Some problems could have been discussed more fully. The discussion of the Rephaites ignores references such as Ps 88:10; Job 26:5; Isa 14:9; 26:14 (93- 94). Comment on the Shema (6:4-5) lacks a clear discussion of trinitarian interpretations as well as a more specific conclusion regarding the matter of unity (163). Texts supposedly supporting a variety of sanctuaries contemporary with the central sanctuary are offered without observing that each case may involve a onetime occurrence without continued usage (224, 226 fn 20). The associations of the “angel of the LORD” or the ark of the covenant with the altars of Gideon, Manoah, and Beth Shemesh may in some way be sufficiently exceptional to disqualify those altars as continuing places of worship parallel to the central sanctuary. In addition, the exceptional nature of Samuel’s ministry related to such altars needs discussion rather than mere citation.

The author’s comment that leaven suggests corruption (253) fails to note that leaven was a required ingredient in the thanksgiving offering (Lev 7:13) and the offering of first fruits (23:17). The biblical explanation for unleavened bread in the festival of unleavened bread contains no mention of corruption (cf. Exod 12:39; Deut 16:3). Likewise, the claim that Num 35:31 suggests that a ransom could be paid as a substitute for one’s life (281) ignores the problem presented by Ps 49:7-9. The greatest omission, however, is in Merrill’s failure to even mention the debate over a “Palestinian Covenant” in his commentary on 29:1 (372-73).

The suggestion that the availability of interest-free loans “must have served as an inducement to the foreigner to contemplate” conversion to the covenant faith begs for further discussion in the light of missions (244). Is it possible that the divine program even under covenant law encouraged what would appear to be the use of economic inducements? How would that affect missionary enterprise in the world’s needy countries? Alarms went off in this reviewer’s mind because of 15 years as a missionary in Bangladesh.

Merrill is to be congratulated for his identification of key elements of Hebrew grammar. One of the important distinctions for Deuteronomy is in the matter of the usage of the second person singular and plural. Merrill clearly defines the exegetical significance of both usages of the second person (162, 383). Sometimes, however, an explanation of the significance of a point of grammar is not offered (e.g., the Hebrew negative, 144) or the explanation is given much later than the mention of the grammar (e.g., the infinitive absolute, 144 and 211 n. 191). Occasionally an unfortunate wording mars the commentary. One example is Merrill’s discussion of the wrath of God. He indicates that God can be tempted to imitate Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant (81). Another occurs when the terms “heart” and “soul” are being defined. The author defines only the soul (not the heart) as being “the invisible part of the individual” (164). His statement that the two tablets of the law were duplicates in order to supply a copy for each party of the covenant (120; cf. 399) leaves the reader wondering why God would need a copy for Himself—as though He would not remember its contents. Mention of a “dominion mandate” (122) desperately needs clarification in today’s theological environment with its proponents of dominion theology. Identifying Abraham as a candidate for the first prophet in the OT (230) ignores both Abel (Luke 11:51) and Enoch (Jude 14). Defining the “supernatural power” of false prophets as “granted” by God or “God-ordained” (231), the author omits any mention of the alternative: divine permission.

More mundane errors in the volume include “heavenly beings” for “heavenly bodies” (124 n. 174), the erroneous insertion of the NIV text of 1:41-43 where 4:41-43 should have been printed (136), omission of a paragraph indentation (257), omission of lines of text (329, 398), and a displaced footnote (441, 442).

In the volume’s footnotes Merrill provides the reader with a wealth of significant bibliographic references to a wide range of resources. Students and professors alike will find these paths to further research extremely helpful and rewarding. The work as a whole deserves the same evaluation. The volume is a welcome and valuable addition to commentaries on Deuteronomy.