Elaine Phillips, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah (AOTC)

Phillips, Elaine. Obadiah, Jonah & Micah. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. London: Apollos, 2022. xxi+393 pp. Hb. $32.99   Link to IVP UK  

Before her recent retirement, Phillips was Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at Gordon College in Boston. She wrote the Esther commentary in the revised edition of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2010), The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary on Exodus (Baker, 2015), and An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts (Hendrickson, 2017). Her commentary combines exegesis and a pastoral heart for the application of these three minor prophets to the contemporary church.

Phillips, Obadiah, Jonah & MIcahIn the brief general introduction to the commentary, Phillips makes several general observations regarding hermeneutical issues and general principles. Her method is “rigorously critical and unabashedly confessional,” yet maintaining the historical integrity, literary artistry, and theological importance of these books. She is clear, these books are the word of God written to people facing real trauma. They are a word of hope for God’s people.

Regarding method, she begins with a careful translation of the Hebrew text, with an awareness of the features of Hebrew poetry. The introduction summarizes common features of Hebrew poetry (following Kugel, as everyone else does). The general introduction also includes a brief discussion of the Book of the Twelve. Was there an intentional shaping of the twelve minor prophets? Was there a final redaction? For example, Obadiah 1-14 may be a commentary on Joel 4:19 [ET 3:19]; Obadiah 15-21 may be a commentary on Amos 9:12 (as initially suggested by Wolff in his Hermeneia commentary). Phillips suggests several reasons for the arrangement of Obadiah-Jonah-Micah. She concludes “the three perspectives jostle against each other, echoing a turbulent century in geopolitics” (8). She suggests some caution since the Masoretic text order differs from the Septuagint, and even at Qumran, the order of the minor prophets is still fluid.

In the fourteen-page introduction to Obadiah, Phillips discusses the history of the troubled relationship between Israel and Edom in the Hebrew Bible followed by a geopolitical discussion of Edom in history and archaeology, up to the Nabataean takeover of Bozrah in 312 BC. She discusses several literary considerations, such as structure unity, prophetical rhetoric, and vivid descriptions found in this short prophetic book.

When did Obadiah speak? And is that different from the written book? Readers would be literate and competent to appreciate echoes of authoritative texts, such as Leviticus 26:31-45 or Deuteronomy 32:7-9. She also suggests Obadiah makes use of Ezekiel. It is well-known Obadiah uses Jeremiah 49, although it is possible both passages look back derived from an earlier source. She cites favorably Daniel Block’s suggestion that Obadiah refined Jeremiah 49 but does not come to a definitive conclusion.

There are three possible historical contexts for Obadiah. First, some suggest Obadiah reflects the second half of the ninth century and Joram’s conflict with Edom (2 Kings 8:20-22). Second, the book may come after the Syrian-Ephraimite war under Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:16-21). Third, the widely held view (reflected in this commentary) is Obadiah was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, even though the book does not specifically mention Babylon or Nebuchadnezzar. Regardless of the date, the defining principle of Yahweh’s justice is lex talonis, a judgment is appropriate to the crime (25). Yahweh will repay Edom for her deeds.

In her introduction to Jonah, she asserts Jonah is the authoritative word of God, but this does not mean only one hermeneutical approach. She assumes a doctrine of inspiration and revelation but also develops the literary artistry of the book. She rejects the skepticism of the nineteenth century which questioned whether the book had any historical value. The ancient near eastern world accepted divine intervention as described in the book of Jonah. “We must allow Jonah to reflect the volatility of emotion that is human and not subject him to scrutiny as ‘a failed prophet of Yahweh’… in sum, I offer a sympathetic reading of Jonah” (69).

The historical context for Jonah is 2 Kings 14:23-27. This puts the historical context of the story in the court of Samaria. She therefore reviews the geopolitics of the ninth and early eighth century in both Israel and Assyria. Even if this is the historical context, the book could be written any time before 200 BC since Sirach mentions Jonah. Phillips reflects briefly on possible compositional contexts. If the book was written early, how does this help our interpretation?

The introduction also describes the literary artistry of the author. This includes macrostructures, narrative features, and poetry, especially the Psalm of Thanksgiving in Jonah 2. She also traces intertextual considerations, such as connections with 2 Kings 14:23-27, but also to Genesis (the doom of Nineveh echoes the doom of Sodom), echoes of the Elijah narrative (who also fled to Phoenicia), as well as the character of Yahweh from Exodus 34:6-7).

Any commentary on Jonah must struggle with the genre of the book. Is Jonah a satire? Parody? Midrash? Legend? Novella? Tragedy? Didactic fiction? Allegory? Parable? All these have been suggested, but she observes the favored fallback alternative to Jonah being a historical narrative is that it is a parable. This avoids fuzzy categories like allegory or the negative connotations of fiction. A Hebrew mashal has a much wider range of connotations than a New Testament parable. She raises the common objection that if Jesus alludes to the story of Jonah, it cannot be a parable. Although many scholars do not think Jesus’s point suffers if Jonah is a fictional story or a parable, Phillips disagrees. She argues this does not fit with a proper understanding of a sign. She defines a “sign” as “divine interventions in a given historical context” so that “the forthcoming event is equally lodged in history” (83). If this is the case, then Jonah cannot be fictional whether it is a parable or not. Since the details of the story fit the eighth century BC, this does not suggest the story is a parable constructed much later to make a theological point. Phillips concludes, for Jesus and centuries of interpreters, Jonah is a historical figure. With respect to the purpose of Jonah, scholars have suggested the book is a polemic against Jewish exclusivism, a commentary on the prophetic role, relationship with Yahweh (whether Jonah’s or Israel’s), or a commentary on God’s justice and mercy.

Introduction to mica surveys historical, rhetorical, literary, and theological factors which are interwoven into this sometimes overlooked minor prophet. Phillips says her reading of Micah was affected by a course of study she took in Israel. For this reason, geographical considerations of the western foothills of the Shephelah are important for her reading of Micah. She sets Micah into the context of the late eighth century BC, during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and tracks the Assyrian aggression under Sennacherib in 701 BC. An editor brought together well over a dozen units that alternate between judgment and hope (183). But when were the oracles spoken and compiled? From a conservative perspective, Micah is responsible for all the discourse units, and she refers readers to Waltke’s 2007 commentary for a summary of scholarly views on date and authorship. Regarding the literary relationship between Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1-5, she argues the verses fit well into an eighth-century BC context, so they are unlikely to be a later insertion. Phillips concludes the verses are “more at home in Micah” (187).

Phillips divides the body of the commentary into several sections. She begins with a new translation of the section, accompanied by notes on the text. These notes compare the Masoretic text to variants found in the Septuagint, Targums, Syriac, and Latin Vulgate. For a book like Micah, there are often significant variants. She also includes Qumran manuscripts where available. Technical terms appearing in the glossary are printed in bold.

Following the translation, the commentary proceeds verse by verse. Phillips’s exegesis is on the Hebrew text, and she often refers to Hebrew grammar and syntax. Readers who have not had Hebrew may struggle with this, but since all Hebrew appears in transliteration, this is not overwhelming. All secondary literature is cited with in-text citations; there are no footnotes. The commentary interprets the Hebrew text in the historical and literary context of the eighth century BC and includes references to historical figures and the literary features of the Hebrew text.

Following the commentary, Phillips offers a section entitled explanation. These are brief summaries, often setting the pericope into a canonical context. For example, commenting on Jonah 2, she suggests Jonah experienced a “baptism in the sea” and she cites 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 where Paul develops a similar typology. She also suggests a canonical connection between the three days in Jonah and the resurrection. Commenting on Micah 3, she looks back to the appointment of elders in Exodus 18:13-17 and draws attention to several texts in both the law and prophets, calling on judges to be fair and just. She points out other occurrences of the cooking metaphor in Micah three, such as Ezekiel 11:27-11. She includes some contemporary comments. On the violent metaphors describing injustice in Micah 3, she concludes “lest we think our sophisticated culture is far advanced beyond such things, we must pause… our hermeneutical compass may need to be adjusted to face our own contemporary realities” (251).

Conclusion. Phillips’ work on Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah is a solid exegetical commentary written from a conservative perspective. Her commitment to reading these books as the word of God to God’s people is clear throughout the commentary and often her pastor’s heart shows through in her comments. This is an excellent, readable exegesis of the Hebrew text and will be of great value for pastors and teachers as they study these important prophetic books.


NB: Thanks to Apollos for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Elaine Phillips, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah (AOTC)

  1. Yet from your review it sounds like Ms. Phlillips believes Jonah surviving three days in the belly of a big fish is historical? I’m unconvinced. I believe it is a parable and Jesus used it as a parable of his future resurrection.

    Woodrow Nichols

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