Bryan D. Estelle
Numbers: God's Presence in the Wilderness, by Iain M. Duguid. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006, 399 pages, $27.99.
I can remember one of my former professors, a specialist in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, saying that other portions of the Scriptures just didn't excite him that much. Much to my shame, for me, the same could be said about some portions of the biblical book of Numbers. Thanks to Dr. Duguid's treatment that is no longer the case.
Professor Duguid does well to remind the reader at the very start of his commentary on this biblical book about its difficulty and apparent obscurity; however, he quickly helps the reader engage the book on its own terms and come to appreciate its complexity and beauty. Indeed, I am persuaded by Professor Duguid that real edification and joy await those who pick up this book on Numbers (from the Preaching the Word commentary series) and read it side by side with the biblical book itself. First and foremost, the book's strength is its clear engagement in each chapter with the substance and content of the specified section of Numbers. Duguid takes great pains to explain, at times showing real sensitivity to the original Hebrew, what are sometimes obscure portions of Numbers, and he succeeds in making the main point of each of its chapters conspicuously clear. Indeed, Duguid helps us hone in on the fundamental realities and central focus of each chapter.
The book has many more strengths, the more important ones of which I will describe. First, the book takes the New Testament apostolic hermeneutical cue seriously throughout (17). Second, in keeping with the overall goals of the series, the book eschews unhealthy moralism (e.g., 144, 154, 161–62, 208, 215) and is instead pervasively Christ-centered in its approach. Third, the book evinces knowledge of ancient Near Eastern customs and culture in an effort to understand the Old Testament (e.g., 39, 195, 232, 270). Fourth, at times the author offers psychologically penetrating insights (e.g., 88–89, 161, 203, 250). Fifth, the tricky symbolism associated with sacrifices and the purity system of ancient Israel is carefully explained. Sixth, both popular and critical commentaries, as well as literature, are brought into the service of expounding the biblical book. Seventh, the allusions made to modern and classical literature are helpful in illustrating the text as well as the points and principles under discussion. Eighth, in keeping with another one of the goals of the series, Duguid's new book is both readable and full of relevant practical application. Hardly a chapter goes by where there is not a point of modern relevance. Actually, at times the book tries almost a little too hard, in my opinion, to be constantly relevant. In other words, when careful and accurate exposition of the biblical text occurs (as it does in Duguid's writing), the reader could often make his own ethical applications under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Another area that I would like to have seen engaged and further developed, that probably would have strengthened the book, is the following. It is clear when one is wrestling with a book like Numbers that the idea of human obedience (albeit imperfect) cannot be avoided. Duguid rightly emphasizes that no one is perfect and none can merit their salvation from the Lord (64–65). Even so, as evidenced in several areas of Duguid's treatment, one cannot escape the notion of human "righteousness," expressed in different ways, entirely. The subject keeps popping up (e.g., 62, 68, 170–171, 355–356). A more systematic and in-depth treatment may have teased out some of the typology that is embedded in the text (e.g., 62) and that is connected with this difficult notion of human righteousness. This is not to suggest that Professor Duguid is not clear on the ultimate answer to this complex question. Clearly, based on what he states on pages 118 and 119, he is. It would be helpful to the reader, however, if a discussion tied some of these loose ends together.
In short, what is so good about Duguid's commentary (in spite of these areas just mentioned where more discussion was desired) is the fact that he instills confidence in God's Word, particularly in the book of Numbers. Indeed, the book offers intensely hopeful thoughts in the midst of our present pilgrimage (see, e.g., 44, 124, 134, 171, 248, 266, 285–286, 328). The book of Numbers has now found its way onto my dining room table for family devotions. And for this alone, plus other edifying and challenging aspects coming from the fruits of Duguid's pen, I am much obliged. Finally, much to the publisher's credit, a handsomely bound and carefully edited book has emerged from the press. This book should receive a wide reading among ministers, elders, and deacons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and other Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
Bryan D. Estelle
Westminster Seminary California
Ordained Servant, June-July 2008.