Leviticus Commentaries

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. You can see my annotated Amazon Listmania! list of Leviticus commentaries if you want a quick overview of what I think are the most important commentaries (or at least what I thought when I made the list) before looking more deeply at this more detailed review.

Gordon Wenham (NICOT, 1979) has my favorite commentary on this difficult book. Wenham is especially strong on understanding the theological significance of cleanness/uncleanness, holiness, and other ritual matters. It's not as detailed as some of the following commentaries, but I think it's the best starting place for a pastor or Bible teacher. He's got a good sense of the symbolism behind most of the laws that sound very strange to the modern ear and what they would have meant to Israel. He ends each section with some reflections on connecting the material he's just discussed with the New Testament. Especially helpful are his explanations of how the New Testament authors would consider the various festivals and sacrifices as fulfilled in Christ in different ways. I thoroughly enjoyed working through this commentary. Wenham spends little time speculating on source critical issues, due to the circularity of most such arguments and the wide divergence of source reconstructions among those who spend their time making what flimsy consensus there is even less of a consensus.

Jacob Milgrom has authored one of the most significant commentaries on any biblical book of our time. His Anchor Bible work takes up three large tomes (1991, 2000, 2001), with more detail than anyone should probably need on most issues. He's one of the foremost Pentateuch scholars in history, and no student or scholar should miss out on this work. He does both source criticism and final-form interpretation, with more emphasis on the latter. His source-critical views are much more conservative than the academic orthodoxy has held, e.g. he places P much earlier than the usual dating. There's also lot of history of interpretation in here, particularly with medieval Jewish sources. I consider this the most important scholarly commentary on Leviticus, and I suspect it will remain so for some time. I'm less confident that it will be helpful to those whose commentary use is primarily for teaching the Bible to those with no scholarly training, but it might prove a good reference work even if it's much too detailed for a busy expositor to wade through more carefully.

You can find Milgrom's conclusions with some but nowhere near as much support in his volume on Leviticus in the Continental Commentary series (2004), an odd duck in that series for at least two reasons. One is that it isn't a translation of a continental scholar's work but was first written in English. The other is that it's a more popularized work based on a more detailed commentary, and this series tends to be almost as detailed as the Anchor Bible series. In this case, popularizing doesn't mean making it an exposition, however. Three huge volumes shortened into one shorter one can still be extremely detailed, and this may be a very helpful way to access Milgrom's work for those who don't have the time, training, or moneybags to make good use of Milgrom's longer commentary. The downside, of course, is that you lose over something over 2300 pages in the distillation (though that includes the huge index and bibliography of the AB volumes).

John Hartley's WBC (1992) is probably the most detailed evangelical work. I've heard mixed reports on how evangelical Hartley is. One of his former students tells me that most evangelicals would consider him weak on inerrancy. I've also read reviews that speak of Hartley as a solid evangelical. I haven't spent enough time in any of his commentaries to judge on that issue, but I do have the sense that he's in the more moderately critical range, more conservative than most critical scholars but probably not as conservative as most evangelicals (including Wenham). He thinks the core of the book goes back to Moses, but later settings served as an occasion to work in further applications of what was there. He does give time to theology, Christian interpretation, and contemporary application, which you won't find in most of the other detailed commentaries on the Hebrew text. Like other WBC volumes, Hartley uses the Hebrew font on comments directly on the Hebrew text. The annoying WBC format also makes me less inclined to want to spend much time looking at this volume.

Allen Ross has written an unusual work (2002). I haven't looked at it, but I expect to get it at some point. Having already finished a close study of Leviticus, it's not on my priority list at the moment. Ross seeks to provide preachers and teachers with especially focused expositional help. This book isn't really a full commentary in many respects. Its goal is simply to aid the expositor in the sort of work that goes into teaching an unusual book like Leviticus. Many things found in a normal commentary will be in here, but it's especially focused toward moving to exposition (while not being an exposition itself). Ross's work has received high praise from many people I respect, and if it's anything like his Genesis work then I would encourage anyone teaching this book to get it. This book should be strong on theology as well, particularly in the Reformed tradition.

Kaiser's contribution to the NIB (1994) is probably one of the better expositions of this book. It's unusual for the series in being written by one of the most conservative evangelicals among Old Testament scholarship. The series tends to be moderately critical, and Kaisers doesn't really fit that mold. One nice thing about buying this volume is that you also get Terence Fretheim's Genesis commentary and Walter Brueggeman's commentary on Exodus. Both have received very good reviews as top expositions of those books from the more critical camp. The biggest downside of this series is that the volumes are extremely expensive for purchase and can't be checked out of most libraries due to being classified as reference materials. No other commentary series I know of is like that. It probably would even make interlibrary loan extremely difficult. I would thus not recommend this over some of the following expositional commentaries, unless you really want all three commentaries in the volume.

Mark Rooker's NAC (2000) is excellent at accomplishing the goals of the series. The NAC editors wanted a mid-level commentary that learns from contemporary scholarship but doesn't wear it on its sleeve (footnotes for most of its points but less mention of names in the text than you'll find in some of the more scholarly series). The contributors are expected to hold to full inerrancy and tend to come from a very conservative theological perspective. The Southern Baptist publishers have managed to put dispensationalists into many of the key works where that makes a difference, but you see little of it in this volume. I think Rooker's understanding of the law and its relation to the New Testament is less nuanced than some experts in that area (Frank Thielman comes to mind), but I didn't see anything really objectionable in this book, and I've read most of it. He certainly devotes more space to NT connections than almost any of the other commentaries in this review (excepting perhaps Ross or Gane, but I'm not sure for either). For those who tend to agree with those on the more conservative end, especially those who want less detail than the more academic commentaries will provide, Rooker is a nice backup to Wenham. I read them together and found Wenham much more helpful, but Rooker helps with being more up to date on the scholarship that came after Wenham.

Roy Gane's NIV Application Commentary (2004) is one of a few volumes in the series that I haven't seen yet. I really like the series, which specializes in moving from the original context to the contemporary one in an explicit enough way that you can see what principles motivate taking certain applications from the text. This series is especially good for those who don't rely on it solely but use more exegetical works first, since it assumes that kind of work. But what it adds to that kind of work is rarely found in commentaries and very thought-provoking for sermon or Bible study preparation. Gane studied under Milgrom and has certainly got the scholarly background that the popular-level format of the series would not lead you to expect. I expect that a lot of research lies behind this book. The commentary also includes Numbers, but it leans a little more heavily on Leviticus.

Derek Tidball's BST is an exposition focusing on the general flow of thought of the book, with a special focus on its contemporary relevance for Christians. Read Mark Heath's review for more detail on some of his emphases.

William H. Bellinger's NIBC (2001) is a lighter commentary from a moderate Baptist, with a more critical perspective on authorship and dating and a more conservative theological reading of the content of the book's final form. New Testament connections sometimes make an appearance. The commentary also includes Numbers.

Gary Demarest's Preacher's Commentary (formerly Communicator's Commentary, 2000) volume is a popular-level exposition. I hear that this volume has a little more research behind it than some others in this series, but I haven't looked at it myself.

R.K. Harrison's TOTC (1980) is probably not as helpful as it once was. It has become seriously out of date. While this is true of Wenham, there is much more substance to Wenham, which in some ways is a model commentary. This commentary was for a long time very important to more academically-minded evangelicals. His works in general have fostered a more responsible and eventually more respected sort of conservatism as evangelicals have gradually submitted their work to more mainstream evaluation in the academy. This commentary's place in that general scheme makes it worth looking at, since much of what Harrison is up to is arguing for more conservative views that need much less argument for evangelicals today. Philip Jenson puts Harrison in the category of commentaties that "descend too quickly to allegory, apologetics or medical materialism". It's unclear to me how much of that he thinks Harrison himself does, since he may just think he does one of those things.

Samuel Balentine's Interpretation volume (2002) is from one of the more mainstream expositional series. This series in general tends to be somewhat less friendly to evangelical views and more in line with critical scholarship than most expositional series. Balentine's study reflects his academic expertise on ritual, putting in popular form many of the conclusions of Jacob Milgrom's work, along with other work by Mary Douglas and Frank Gorman. One reviewer I read says this commentary emphasizes theology, but another says it occasionally focuses too much on anthropology at the expense of theology. Balentine is interested in connections with the New Testament and questions of contemporary significance. Balentine does not shy away from seeing the sexual conduct issue in chs.18-20 as central to the proper response to the presence of God among his people, and thus he does not relativize sexual prohibitions the way some do today. Even so, he rightly recognizes that those chapters speak only of behavior, not of internals, and it does not do to derive from them a view on what the Torah says about homosexuality as a modern social construct having to do with attraction to people of the same sex. It simply condemns homosexual sexual behavior. The balance he displays on this particular issue is what seems to me to be lacking in many treatments of the issue people on both sides.

Frank H. Gorman's ITC (1997) is more scholarly than most in this popular-level series and thus less useful for one purpose of the series as a popular exposition. It is, however, less critical in perspective than some in this series, which is often less likely among the volumes in this series that are more academic. Gorman thinks of Leviticus in terms of sacred space and time.

Philip Budd's NCB (1996) is a thin commentary that yet manages to be mostly a form-critical and redaction-critical exercise in fragmenting the text. This might be helpful for those who engage in such studies. I don't give this kind of work much time. He is very skeptical on historicity and rarely interested in the theological import of the text.

Erhard Gerstenberger's OTL (1996, originally 1993 in German) is in the mainstream of European form criticism, placing the book well into the post-exilic period. The commentary focuses on detailed exegesis and is easier to read than most academic commentaries. I would prefer Milgrom for detailed work, but scholars ought to consider Gerstenberger. I don't expect this to be all that helpful for those preparing Bible studies and sermons.

Baruch Levine's JPS (1989) is worth consulting by those doing serious academic work. I don't think it would be all that helpful for those teaching a more popular audience, though it isn't because it's really hard to read. He just doesn't focus on what popular audiences would care about. Hartley's commentary is probably the best detailed work for that sort of thing, and Milgrom is probably going to be more valued among the more critical works than Levine. Milgrom is a little more sympathetic to the materials he's commenting on as well. Scholars will, of course, also need to look at Levine, and Levine might have a little more of an eye for theology than Milgrom, certainly than Gerstenberger or Budd. Nevertheless, as with Gerstenberger, Budd, and Milgrom's Anchor Bible volumes, I don't expect this to be all that helpful for those preparing Bible studies and sermons.

Stephen Sherwood's Berit Olam volume is strongest in motivating appreciation of the literary analysis of the books it covers, which also includes Numbers and Deuteronomy. It focuses on the narrative art of these three books almost to the exclusion of most other things commentaries do. It does give some sense of how each passage relates to the book as a whole and to the overall Torah. The value of this commentary is in supplementing rather than replacing other commentaries, but even what it does would have been better suited if the series had allowed more space than 300 pages for this very large set of material.

You can see Tyler Williams' listing for a few more Leviticus commentaries that I haven't got much information on or thought were long enough out-of-print or outdated to be less worthy of focusing on than the ones I included.

Several forthcoming commentaries on Leviticus are worth a mention. I'm very much looking forward to the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series as a whole. I don't know much about Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, but I expect his Leviticus volume in this series to be pretty conservative at the mid-level, though probably more detailed than Rooker. Perhaps it may even be like a new Wenham for evangelicals. This one should be out fairly soon, but I haven't seen any notice of it except a premature announcement on the IVP website that was taken down soon after it was up.

David Baker's Cornerstone commentary on the NLT will be a conservative work at the popular level. I very much like Baker's brief works on the minor prophets in the TOTC. This might also be excellent. I have heard conflicting things about this series, however. One scholar projected to be contributing to the series did not know that he was doing so, and he thinks maybe they're just releasing the notes he wrote for the NLT Study Bible as a standalone commentary. If so, this series will hardly be worth the money.

Richard Hess is doing a new Leviticus commentary for the EBC revision. This will be bound with Sailhamer on Genesis and Kaiser on Exodus, both of which will be revised by their original authors. This will probably be one of the better volumes in the new series. Hess has previously done good work on Joshua (TOTC) and the Song of Songs (Baker Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) and is also working on Job (HCOT). This series is generally on the lighter side, though more detailed than some expositions. All contributors in the past have been very conservative, but I suspect the revised series will be less so. Hess was very conservative in his Joshua commentary on historical matters (though he has been crticized for focusing entirely too much on historical issues). I'm not sure if his Leviticus work will be like that or not.

Gary Anderson's Hermeneia will be very technical, as the series tends to be. This series specializes in parallels to biblical material, though some contributors thankfully minimize the parallelomania that many of the contributors proudly engage in. This commentary is likely to be somewhere on the more critical end theologically, and it will probably be good on the history of interpretation, judging by some of the author's interests and strengths.

James W. Watts is working on the HCOT on Leviticus. Watts has written some excellent work on source criticism and the Pentateuch, refreshingly critical of the mainstream of work that accepts at least the rough outline of the Wellhausen JEPD approach. Some of his current work is on the more general topic of sacrifice in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures. My sense of his overall viewpoint (from his work that I've seen and from talking to several undergrads who have taken courses with him) is that he's theologically moderate with a higher respect for conservative evangelicals than many on the more critical end of evangelicalism (or outside it altogether) have.

12 Comments

thanks for this superb summary. I would add Derek Tidball's Bible Speaks Today commentary on Leviticus. I think it is one of the highlights of the series. I haven't read any other commentaries on Leviticus, so I can't compare it to those you listed.

BTW, there is one typo I noticed: "add" should read "aid"

I don't know how I forgot Tidball. I'll have to put that in when I get the chance. Thanks for letting me know about the typo. One other commentary occurred to me after I finished this, so I'll figure out how to work both of those in later, when I have a little more time.

Thanks for these lists--they are great resources!
Another forthcoming commentary on Leviticus which might be worth checking out is Ephraim Radner's commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary series. I heard Radner speak at a conference a month ago and his concern for a theological hermeneutic was impressive.

Just wondering - have you looked at Allen Ross' "Holiness Unto the Lord"? It's technically a "guide to exposition" of Leviticus rather than a commentary, but a good friend who has spent a great deal of time studying Leviticus recommended it as THE book to buy on Leviticus.

I guess you missed it above, but I did include Ross in the list. As I said above, I haven't looked at it. It wasn't out when I did my study of Leviticus. I have his Genesis one, and that's very good.

Those of lutheran persuation may look to Kleinig in the Concordia Commentary Series. Conservative and confessional w/o being angry about it.

What about Currid's commentary in the Evangelical Press Study series (http://www.evangelicalpress.org/esales/product_info.php?products_id=193)? He's like a second Dale Ralph Davis (which is no surprise because they've both done time at RTS, Jackson)!

I looked at Currid on Exodus, and I was very unimpressed, especially after seeing the glowing review by John Glynn. It was extremely thin, and I thought he was too easily jumping to conclusions. I also found him to be unnecessarily conservative in ways that required questionable reasoning when a fully inerrant view of the scripture required no such conclusions.

Jeremy have you looked at the Apollos volume for Leviticus since it came out?

No, I haven't seen yet. Since I've studied Leviticus carefully already not too long ago, I haven't motivated myself to get anything else on it. I do intend to get it at some point, though.

Do you happen to know if there's a resource that lists changes or corrections in editions. I imagine its just typo-stuff but it always leaves me scratching my goatee when I see the 1979 edition for 16 bucks and a crispy new shiny 1994 edition for 25.

Unless it's a genuine second edition (and not just a repackaging with a new cover), there's usually no difference at all. The NICOT and NICNT changed their covers in 1994, not just the dust jacket but the entire way the book is put together. What's on the pages is exactly the same, and the 1994 date is not in the copyright at all. It's usually not a second edition in such cases. There's nothing at all new in the 1994 printing of Wenham's Leviticus except the binding of the book and the dust jacket. I'd look at the copyright page on Amazon to see what it says. That's the easiest way to tell if it's a new printing or an entirely new edition.

The one series to watch out for is WBC. They have a fondness for adding a brief essay and new bibliographic entries and then calling it a second edition. But they also have full revisions that they call second editions. In those cases, it's best to ask someone who might know or to see if the preface to the second edition is viewable on Amazon to see how much is changed. There's only a short essay different in their second edition of John by Beasley-Murray. They didn't even update the bibliography. Psalms 101-150 by Allen was thoroughly revised with quite a lot of new material. The commentary review books I've got usually say whether a second edition changes much, so Longman and Carson might help.

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