Renz, Thomas. The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xxxix+703 pp. Hb; $56.00. Link to Eerdmans
Thomas Renz is the rector of Monken Hadley. Previously, he taught Old Testament and Hebrew at Oak Hill Theological College (1997-2009). Renz published a revision of his 1997 University of Bristol dissertation as The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel (VTSup 76; Brill, 1999). He has contributed many articles on these books and a monograph on Hebrew Poetry, Colometry and Accentuation in Hebrew Prophetic Poetry (KUSATU 4; Hartmut Senner, Waltrop 2003). This new volume of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament replaces O. Palmer Robertson’s highly respected commentary on these three obscure Minor Prophets (Eerdmans, 1990).
Renz states in the preface he tried to confine himself to matters which “illuminate our understanding of the received Hebrew text” (xv). Initially he did not want to be overly concerned with text-critical or redactional issues. But as the commentary progressed, he realized some discussion of source, form and reduction criticism was necessary. But these are not what drives this commentary. Technical details appear in the commentary under the heading “composition” or in the footnotes. This will make the commentary accessible to pastors without being overwhelmed by technical details.
In the twenty-page general introduction, Renz suggests prophetic books were written soon after they were uttered, and he is skeptical about reduction criticism in various sources theories suggested for these books. It is uncontroversial to speak of the unity of the twelve Minor Prophets even if there is no actual agreement on what constitutes that unity. Renz suggests that Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah were grouped together because they share the same setting, the changing of the empires regarding the life of Judah. “Nahum speaks to a people for whom Assyria seemed invincible, predicting the fall of Nineveh and the end of its empire. Zephaniah speaks into the period when Assyrian domination was less keenly felt, but the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not yet on the horizon. Habakkuk addresses the problem that the divinely promised rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire merely substituted one evil for another.” (p. 20).
The introduction also has a brief sketch of the implied historical setting of these three books, the late Neo-Assyrian and early Neo-Babylonian Period. Nahum dates before 612 B.C., Habakkuk a bit later, just after the rise of Neo-Babylon and Zephaniah to the reign of Josiah. This gives a range of 660-600 B.C. for the three books.
Each commentary section uses the book’s superscription as an introduction to the book (thirty-five pages for Nahum, twenty-four pages for Habakkuk, and twenty-seven for Zephaniah). The first section, Profile of the Book, begins with the superscription and moves to what he calls the “macro structure.” This is more than just an outline since Renz includes literary and rhetorical notes as well. In this section he includes language, style, redactional history, and the textual witness. In the textual witness section Renz compares the MT with the LXX, any Dead Sea Scrolls available and other versions and briefly summarizes the difficulties which emerge. For Habakkuk and Zephaniah, Renz sketches the historical setting of the book (omitted for Nahum). However, for Nahum he has an extended discussion of the development of the book.
Each of the individual introductions conclude with the section on the rhetorical function of the book divided into five sections. First, he summarizes the message of the profit in its original context, then he places it into the context of the Twelve Minor Prophets in the larger biblical canon.
Following this is a history of interpretation. Renz begins this section with the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, in 4Q169 the pesher interpretation of Nahum turns Assyrian brutality into Hasmonean cruelty under Alexander Jannaeus. He briefly comments on the fragmentary Zephaniah pesher (4Q170) but 4QpHab is missing from the history of interpretation for Habakkuk (Renz mentions it under textual witnesses for Habakkuk). For Christian interpretation he comments briefly on ancient fathers, Renaissance, Reformation, and modern critical writers. Renz does not intend this as an exhaustive survey and these books are not often mentioned in ancient sources.
Finally, he discusses the place of the individual prophet in the church today. Nahum celebrates God’s sovereignty and justice, and Nahum invites readers to join the celebration. The book of Nahum becomes a token of God’s final judgment over evil. Remarkably, Nahum is a book of comfort for people who are suffering at the hands of evil, people who are helpless abandoned in afraid. Habakkuk invites the reader to reflect on the breakdown of the good order, the weakness of the Torah to restore justice and the role of God in this world. Renz suggests Habakkuk teaches that thoughtful, engaged prayer, informed by scripture, can help discern what is really going on in an evil world. Zephaniah is clear wealth and power count for nothing in the face of God’s judgment. In fact, there may be benefits to being powerless.
The body of the commentary begins with a new translation. This includes extensive textual and lexical notes often spanning several pages. For example, On Zephaniah 2:5-13 the notes run eight pages (through note nnn). The translation is often stunning. Renz strives for clear yet moving English phrases which reflect the heart of the Hebrew text. I would like to have his translation gathered into a few pages so one could read the whole of the book in a few pages. Following his translation is a section commenting on the composition of the section, mostly form and redactional notes, but Renz also comments on rhetorical strategies in these brief sections.
The commentary is verse-by-verse with remarks on nearly every word of the verse. Renz provides clear exegesis of the Hebrew text, with all Hebrew appearing in transliteration. A non-specialist will have no trouble following the commentary. Virtually all secondary literature appears in extensive footnotes. Renz makes extensive use of recent European commentaries such as Jörg Jeremias on Nahum (BKAT; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019), Heinz-Josef Fabry on Habakkuk (HThKAT; Herder, 2019), Huber Irsigler on Zephaniah (HThKAT; Herder, 2002), and Johannes Vlaardingerbroek on Zephaniah (HCOT; Peters 1999). Renz’s commentary may be the only access to the resources for many English readers.
Each commentary unit concludes with a reflection which draws a few conclusions and occasionally connects the section with the larger canon of scripture. For example, reflecting on is exegesis of Habakkuk 2:4-5, Renz asks, “who are the righteous in Habakkuk?” The righteous are those who are victims of injustice and the inability of the Torah to set things right (p. 294). This leads him naturally into a brief discussion of the use of Habakkuk in Romans 1:17. Righteousness from God as a matter of Faith from beginning to end. Habakkuk is to continue to trust God and cling to his commands despite the apparent uselessness of such obedience.
There are several excurses scattered throughout the book: The Relationship between Nahum 1:15 (2:1) and Isaiah 52:7 (106-09); The Destruction Nineveh (129-30); Different Hebrew Terms for Lion and Lion Imagery in Assyria (141-46); The Assyrian Campaigns against Egypt (164-70); “Look You Scoffers” or “Look at the Nations” (239-41, on Habakkuk 1:5); Significant words in Zephaniah (431-32); Finding the Book of the Law (435-43).
Conclusion. Thomas Renz’s commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah is an excellent exegetical commentary which demonstrates mastery of the Hebrew text and provides sufficient historical setting to understand with clarity the text of these obscure prophets. This the most extensive commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah and will serve both the those teaching these prophets in the academy and church for many years.
Reviews of other recent commentaries in the NICOT series:
- DeClaissé-Walford, Jacobson, and Tanner, Psalms (2014)
- Mark J. Boda, Zechariah (2016)
- Mignon Jacobs, Haggai and Malachi (2017)
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.