Duane Garrett and Calvin Pearson, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Kerux)

Garrett, Duane and Calvin F. Pearson. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2022. 281 pp. Hb. $29.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

The Kerux commentary series pairs a biblical exegete and a veteran preacher in order to provide quality commentary with the sort of helps a pastor needs to teach or preach the text.

Duane A. Garret is Professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Garrett is well-known for his commentaries on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC, 1993), Hosea, Joel (NAC, 1997), Song of Songs (WBC, 2004), Exodus (KEL, 2014, reviewed here) and was the general editor for The Archaeology Study Bible (Zondervan, 2010). With Jason DeRouchie, he wrote A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (B&H Academic, 2009). He recently wrote the popular The Problem of the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2020). Calvin F. Pearson (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is a retired pastor who taught homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University, and Grace School of Theology.

Garrett, JeremiahIn the introduction (47-61), Garrett presents his view of the formation of Jeremiah. There are significant differences between the Hebrew text of the book and the much shorter Greek translation in the Septuagint. The consensus view (following Janzen, 1973) is that the translators of the Septuagint used an earlier version of Jeremiah, the Hebrew text is a later, expanded version of Jeremiah. Garrett describes the consensus view as a “rolling corpus.” Jeremiah and Baruch wrote a short book which was expanded over hundreds of years, resulting in the canonical Jeremiah. Garrett opines, “This interpretation of the composition history of Jeremiah reduces the book’s credibility as a faithful representation of the life and preaching of the prophet” (49).

In contrast to the consensus view, Garrett describes Jeremiah as an anthology of the prophet’s messages, interspersed with key episodes from his life (but not in chronological order). Jeremiah comprises several documents which were not originally part of a book (transcripts of sermons, letters, and documents). Think of Jeremiah as a collection of papers curated by the scribe Baruch.

Instead of a “rolling corpus” formed over several centuries, Garrett suggests the following scenario. When king Jehoiakim prohibited Jeremiah from entering the temple, the prophet dictated a scroll to be read aloud to the king (Jer 36:1-8). The king destroyed this scroll as it was being read in a fire (36:9-26). Garrett calls this “edition zero.” After they fled to Egypt, Jeremiah and Baruch expanded on the destroyed scroll. Garrett calls this “edition one,” or the Egyptian version. Baruch then made his way to Babylon, perhaps after Jeremiah had died. He brought edition one with him. While living in Babylon, he edited and expanded edition one, giving it a chiastic structure. This is “edition two,” the canonical Hebrew form of Jeremiah. Edition one remained in Egypt, where it was preserved and eventually translated into Greek (with minimal modification) and included in the Septuagint. Garrett’s suggested scenario means Jeremiah was formed within a decade after Jeremiah’s death. In contrast to the consensus, scribes without knowledge of Jeremiah’s life and message did not create the book over many centuries.

A key element of Garrett’s thesis is the chiastic structure of Jeremiah. This explains why the Hebrew version of Jeremiah includes the Oracles against the Nations later in the book (Jer 46-51). They mirror the oracles against Judah (Jer 2-20). The chiasm also explains why the message of salvation (Jer 30-33) appears in the center of the book rather than near the end (as in the Septuagint).

The introduction sketches the historical setting of Jeremiah (from kings Josiah to Zedekiah) and the outline of the book used in the commentary’s body. There is a brief review of theological themes, but this is barely a paragraph. Basically, the book says Jerusalem is condemned by Yahweh, and destroyed by Babylon, but the structural center of the book is a promise of restoration and eschatological salvation.

If the introduction seems brief for a lengthy book like Jeremiah, Garret teases a companion volume, Jeremiah: Composition, Setting and Message (Kregel, forthcoming). In addition, Garrett presents aspects of the theology of Jeremiah in sidebars scattered throughout the commentary. For example, there is a lengthy sidebar on the “Fulfillment of the New Covenant” (285-89). Garrett summarizes Jeremiah’s claim that the New Covenant will be for Israel and brings about a universal transformation of the heart, enabling God’s people to keep his commands. But Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and claims the church is under the New Covenant. Jesus says his death initiated the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) and Paul claims to be a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). If the New Covenant was “for Israel,” how do Gentiles enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant now? If the New Covenant meant all people would know God, why is evangelism a duty of the church? To answer these questions, Garrett compares contrasting answers offered by Covenant and Dispensational Theology. He wants to avoid a complete spiritualization of the New Covenant (so that the church is the new Israel) and an absolutely literal interpretation. Although Garrett clearly rejects aspects of older Dispensationalism, he does not embrace the view of Covenant theology either. Essentially, he concludes the New Covenant is inaugurated but not yet ultimately fulfilled. “Jeremiah predicts an eschatological future in which Israel would enjoy God forever under the new covenant. In its fullness, all people will know God and sin will be no more” (289).

Garrett and Pearson divide Jeremiah into thirty-two preaching units, and Lamentations into five (one for each lament). Each preaching section begins with a brief paragraph summarizing the literary structure and themes of the unit. This is followed by exposition of the text. Hebrew appears without transliteration, although it is always translated. Some knowledge of Hebrew terminology will be helpful. There are sidebars throughout the commentary dealing with detailed Hebrew exegesis. Entitled “translator’s notes,” these brief sidebars deal with details of Hebrew exegesis, lexical issues, in occasionally textual criticism (for example, “A Scribal Error in 42:10?”). In a commentary on a book of this size, Garrett cannot comment on every exegetical detail, but these sidebars touch on the most important details.

Following the exegetical notes is a short theological focus as a segue into preaching strategy. This unit begins with an exegetical and theological synthesis followed by a single sentence preaching idea (ala Haddon Robinson’s Big Idea). Pearson then attempts to draw contemporary connections by asking “what does it mean?” “Is it true?” and “Now what?” The last section of the preaching is “creativity in presentation.” Here Pearson suggests potential structure for sermons and contemporary applications from Jeremiah. Each chapter ends with a few brief discussion questions. Like other volumes in the Kerux series, Pearson devotes about one third of each chapter to preaching strategy.

Including the introduction, the commentary on Lamentations is about 64 pages. Garrett recognizes that the Hebrew book of lamentations is anonymous, although traditionally assigned to Jeremiah. He suggests “Little is gained by claiming that Jeremiah is the author, since the interpretation of Lamentations does not depend upon it being tied to the prophet” (431). Clearly written to Jews living in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, he suggests a sixth or fifth century B.C. date. The bulk of the introduction to Lamentations concerns genre, ancient Near eastern parallels, and the style of poetry found in the book.

The difficulty of interpreting a book like Lamentations is that it does not appear to have a message beyond voicing grief over Jerusalem’s destruction. He surveys several recent interpreters who argue the book contains a challenge to traditional orthodoxy. This includes feminist interpreters who find the metaphor of Jerusalem as a promiscuous woman offensive. Clearly, the book points out Jerusalem’s guilt as the reason for her suffering. The people have broken the Sinai covenant, even though God is a loyal covenant partner. This creates difficulty for a pastor trying to find a reasonable application in a contemporary context. Pearson warns against over-analyzing the text of Lamentations: “In trying to honor the intent of the text, the deep emotions that are present in the text need to be displayed as well as explained” (452).

Conclusion. Like other volumes of the Kerux series, Garrett and Pearson provide excellent exegesis and useful strategies for and preaching this important Old Testament prophetic book. Since Jeremiah is such a lengthy book, there are sections which seem too brief, but I do not think this distracts from the overall goals of the commentary.



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

Other volumes reviewed in this series:




Hannah K. Harrington, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NICOT)

Harrington, Hannah K. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 529 pp. Hb; $52.00   Link to Eerdmans

Hannah Harrington’s new commentary on Ezra and in the NICOT series replaces F. Charles Fensham’s 1983 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Harrington was Professor of Old Testament at Patten University and currently serves as an instructor at Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. She has published extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls on topics relating to holiness and ritual purity in Second Temple Judaism. She contributed “Leviticus” in Women’s Bible Commentary (WJKP, 2012), Purity Texts, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls (Sheffield Academic Press, 2004) and Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001). Her interest in holiness and ritual purity serves her well in this excellent commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.

Harrington, Ezra and NehemiahFollowing a thirteen-page bibliography, Harrington’s ninety-eight-page introduction opens with an explicit statement of purpose: “This commentary seeks to bring into relief the Second Temple context into which Ezra-Nehemiah was written” (1). She views Ezra-Nehemiah as an early repository of information regarding key concepts for Second Temple Judaism, ideas which surface in the literature of other Jewish communities such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Jews increasingly asked, “Who is a Jew?” Ezra-Nehemiah is an early narrative dealing with that issue. The books describe an ethnically pure Jewish community, legitimately connected with an Israelite past, guided by that or in the present, despite persecution and domination by a foreign regime (22). The book uses a wide range of literary techniques, in scholars often wonder whether Ezra-Nehemiah is fiction or polemic. She argues the book has historical concerns. There are many precise dates in the earliest audience would not be far removed from the events as they occurred. But the author’s goal was not a precise history, “the book has a theological agenda, presented carefully, using recognizable literary methods” (31).

Since Harrington argues Ezra began his ministry 458 BCE, Ezra’s work predates Nehemiah and the two overlap during the reign of Artaxerxes I. She thinks Chronicles was written later, probably not by the same author. As for the final compilation of Ezra-Nehemiah, if the Jaddua in Nehemiah 12:11 is the same as Josephus (Antiquities 11.302), then the final compilation cannot be before Darius (335-331 BCE). Ezra-Nehemiah claim that under Zerubbabel, about 60,000 lived in Yehud (Judea), but it is difficult to determine population archaeologically for the Persian period. For Jerusalem, some estimates are as low as 2000, others as large as 16,000.

Harrington uses insights drawn from social sciences to examine purity issues in Ezra-Nehemiah, especially intermarriage. For the first time, impurity is caused by certain types of people: gentiles. “The sinner, not just the sin, is impure” (33). This concern leads to a discussion of boundaries. Ezra defines boundaries and groups, which include some and exclude others. “This seems to be exactly the goal of Ezra-Nehemiah” (34).

She surveys Jewish life under Persian rule limited to Cyrus II, Darius I, and Artaxerxes I (35-57). One potential problem is that Ezra-Nehemiah is the primary source for Jewish experience under Persian rule. But there are several texts from the Achaemenid period which support its historical value (36). She says, “faithful readers of the book do not need to despair over discrepancies that exist in the text” and suggests the book was considered sacred, not because it was perfect (lacking error), but because “it was believed to carry divinely inspired traditions that could sustain the faith and life of the community” (37).

This section of the introduction also deals with internal Jewish leadership. What were the political and religious institutions that supported the community? In the absence of a monarch, the power of the priesthood and the Levites grew. But a new class developed, the scholar. Ezra the scribe is a scholar of the word of God. The voice of the prophet is muted in the period, although Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi are witness to the hope for a full restoration of Israel under a messianic figure.

Since the early Persian period is a turning point for Jewish faith and practice, Ezra-Nehemiah is a source for the development of both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. She therefore surveys the contributions Ezra-Nehemiah make to this developing theology (57-88). In fact, “it is the goal of this commentary to highlight the seeds of later Judaism in Ezra-Nehemiah” (59).

“Four ‘pillars’ of Second Temple Judaism are emphasized in Ezra-Nehemiah, and they continued to undergird the faith and practice of Jews across sectors during this period: (1) Yahweh is the only true God of Israel; (2) Yahweh’s law, the Torah, is authoritative; (3) Jerusalem and its sanctuary is “the place of his holiness” (Ezra 9:8); and (4) the community of Israel is holy (Ezra 9:2). In all four of these areas, there are signs in Ezra-Nehemiah of both heritage and innovation” (59).

A major contribution is that the Torah is for everyone. Ezra reads the Torah and explains it to the people. But what was Ezra’s Torah? She argues it was some form of the Pentateuch (65), although she recognizes other scholars suggest it was as little as Deuteronomy (with some priestly material). In this section, she covers several practices mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah that become important in later Judaism. A table summarizes this material by collecting traditions reflected in the book and Second Temple literature not drawn from the Pentateuch (79-80). For each, she provides reference to later sources for the practice. Examples include fasting during a crisis, minimum age for Levites, and intermarriage with non-Jews.

The introduction concludes with a brief comment on the Christian application of Ezra-Nehemiah (88-91). Since the theme of Ezra-Nehemiah is how to maintain a holy community within a society that applies pressure according to a different value system, the books speak to the heart of Christian life in a wide range of cultures. Like many Christians in the modern world, the Jewish community shared their homeland with antagonistic neighbors and paid harsh taxes to a foreign emperor. How do you maintain a religious identity and reject harmful practices while advancing in this hostile, idolatrous culture? Ezra-Nehemiah address the dangers of pluralism and relativism by emphasizing worship as central to the community. Some Christian application appears in the commentary’s body. For example, in her excuses on the exile, she suggests “in some ways Christians, too, live in exile within societies that often hold contrary systems of value” (116).

She divides the Text and Commentary (101-477) into units based on the outline from the introduction. She begins with a new translation with notes on lexical, syntactical, and textual issues. All Hebrew and Aramaic appear in transliteration. The commentary itself is based on the English text with footnotes used for details and secondary literature. This makes the commentary a pleasure to read and will be accessible for those without extensive Hebrew knowledge. Some units only merit brief comment, such as the genealogical lists. She covers 2:2b-20 in little more than a page since most of this material does not require comment.

The commentary includes twenty-three substantial excurses on theological and historical issues. Harrington uses these asides to connect Ezra-Nehemiah to other Second Temple theology and practice, especially Qumran. For example, in the context of Ezra 9, she discusses The Sacrilege of Intermarriage (Excursus 9, 244-54). She begins by dealing with Ezra’s view of intermarriage, along with the relevant background from the Old Testament. Ezra sees Israel as a “holy seed” and the people are responsible for continuing the remnant of that holy seed. To marry outside of Israel endangers the survival of the remnant since such marriages produce illegitimate offspring (i.e., not holy seed). She then connects this view to other Second Temple literature, such as the Testament of Levi, Jubilees and 4QMMT. Written about 150 BCE, 4QMMT is a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls which outline the practices of the community. In contrast, early Christians allowed marriage without racial distinctions, although Paul warns about being “unequally yoked” to a non-believer (2 Cor 6:14). As observed above, the concern is determining boundaries and determining who is properly in the community (and excluding those who are not).

Conclusion. Hannah Harrington’s commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah is an excellent contribution to the study of these two books, but also an introduction to the theology and practice of Second Temple Judaism. Her focus on Ezra-Nehemiah as an early witness to developments in later Judaism and Christianity makes this an especially valuable book. The excurses are worth the price of the commentary alone!


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

Walter T. Wilson, Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections

Wilson, Walter T. Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 321 pp. Hb; $34.99.  Link to Eerdmans

Walter Wilson is Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament at Emory. He previously contributed several works on gnomic (wisdom) literature, including The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (deGruyter, 2005), Philo of Alexandria: On Virtues (Brill, 2010), and The Sentences of Sextus (SBL, 2012; link to 54-page sample). Ancient Wisdom introduces readers to twenty-seven ancient wisdom collections from ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian sources. Although students in Old Testament Wisdom courses often sample other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature (usually Egyptian collections such as Sayings of Amenemope), few are exposed to post-biblical Jewish and Greek collections. Wilson’s book fills that gap.

Wilson Ancient WisdomAncient cultures created short sayings, maxims, and proverbs. This gnomic literature contains crafted sayings making observations about life, human experience, or present a moral stance. By way of definition, proverbs are anonymous traditions, while maxims are the product of a single author. Maxims intend to educate the reader, in contrast to epigrams (short, witty poems) which should amuse the reader. A chreia is a short self-contained narrative, usually with a climactic which maybe maxim-like.

In the introduction to the book, Wilson discusses and illustrates the various forms of wisdom literature. Often, this literature addresses the reader by an admonition. The same can be positive or negative (“do this” or “don’t do that”). Sometimes gnomic literature is simply a classification such as “silence is good.” In a section entitled “Constructions and Contexts” Wilson introduces three types of collections. First, gnomologia refers to a collection with relatively little formal or thematic organization, such as the biblical book of Proverbs or the Mishnah tractate ‘aboth. Second, Gnomic poetry (a sub-category of didactic poetry) survives only in fragments such as Pseudo-Phocylides (see also Pseudo-Phocylides on Justice and Hard Work). Third, Wisdom Instruction refers to collections topically organized (the Egyptian Sayings of Amenemope). Sometimes this category is organized as speeches or testimonials (as in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes).

It would be difficult to summarize a general theology of wisdom literature across such a broad spectrum of cultures and eras, nevertheless Wilson includes several reoccurring themes. For example, most of this literature deals with social relationships, obligations to parents, and harmony in marriage. Remarkably, this literature often includes instruction on wealth management. Wisdom literature teaches a balance between frugality and generosity, avoiding both greed and unjust gain, and even helping the poor. This literature often includes statements on how people in different social groups should interact, such as “don’t envy the rich” or “treat your superiors properly.” Frequently, this literature deals with restraining anger and controlling one’s emotions. There are several examples of proper behavior during a banquet when one might become drunk and speak out of turn. Recall Paul’s advice about lawsuits in 1 Corinthians 6 which may have been fueled by drunken behavior at a banquet.

Each chapter is brief, providing a basic summary of the author, dates, and origin of the book. What follows summarizes the contents of the collection and literary observations.Wilson provides several examples of sayings from the collection. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography so interested readers can find modern translations of the complete collection. Chapters are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically or by culture. Some of the collections should be familiar to biblically oriented readers, such as the canonical book of proverbs, or Wisdom of Ben Sira, which appears only in the Apocrypha. Wisdom of Solomon is not included although thi sis a important wisdom-like text from the Second Temple period.  Others are more obscure such as Ankhsheshonqy, an Egyptian papyrus dated to the first century B.C. or the Sayings of Ahiqar, a Jewish court tale which dates at least to the fifth century B.C. The oldest gnomic literature in this collection is the Sayings of Shuruppak, a Mesopotamian document which appears on tablets from the twenty-fifth century B.C. Wilson includes chapters on the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (d. 338 B.C.), the Greek dramatist Menander (d. 291) and the Stoic Epictetus (d. 135). The only distinctly Christian collection is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which seems to draw on both Jewish and Greek proverbial material.

Conclusion. Wilson’s Ancient Wisdom is an excellent introduction to non-biblical wisdom literature found in the ancient world. Each chapter provides sufficient background material to place the wisdom collection into a historical context and examples to illustrate the interests of the author. I think grouping the chapters into units (ancient Near East, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian) would improve the book, but the alphabetical arrangement does not diminish the value of the book. Although Wilson writes for a popular audience, the book includes detailed footnotes, and each chapter concludes with a bibliography, pointing interested readers to more detailed studies.

Minor question: at least twice in the introduction Wilson refers to “twenty-nine texts” (18). There are only twenty-seven and there do not appear to be chapters covering two collections. Were two chapters dropped after the introduction was written? Perhaps the Wisdom of Solomon?


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


Charlie Trimm, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation

Trimm, Charlie. The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 117 pp. Pb; $14.99.   Link to Eerdmans

In The Destruction of the Canaanites, Charles Trimm summarizes the problem of the command to destroy all the Canaanites at the time of the conquest. This is an important issue since the Canaanite Genocide  and violence in the Old Testament is one reason many modern atheists reject the existence of God, such as Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion or Dan Barker, God: The most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. After setting the background to the problem, Trimm offers four ways to understand why God commands Israel to destroy Jericho and other Canaanites.

Trimm Destruction of the CanaanitesTrimm begins with three chapters on the background necessary to develop an informed opinion on this issue. First, he briefly surveys warfare in the Ancient Near East. Drawing on Egyptian and Mesopotamia and texts, he shows that the rhetoric of warfare often includes hyperbole to describe their victories. Archaeology and history confirm ancient kings engaged in battle. But friendly casualties are vastly under-reported while the extent of the victories is exaggerated. Sometimes both sides claimed victory! In the second chapter, Trimm examines other examples of mass killing or genocide in antiquity, focused primarily on Hittite records. Sometimes the Hittites consecrated a captured town, something which could be described as “cultural genocide.” Finally, Trimm defines Canaanites as various people groups who were in the land when Joshua arrived. This section also discusses the command to destroy the city of Jericho, focused on the key Hebrew term ḥērem. The word is sometimes used to describe bringing order to chaos (40). But the command to slaughter all the enemy may be because of a scarcity of land and resources. In addition, ḥērem sometimes appears in the context of sacrifice and punishment.

After this section on Ancient Near Eastern background, the second part of the book offers four approaches to the problem of Canaanite Genocide in the Old Testament: First, some reevaluate God and conclude that he is not good, or that he simply does not exist. For an atheist like Richard Dawkins, the question is pointless since there is not God, whether good or evil. Second, others reevaluate the historical value of the Old Testament. The Old Testament does record genocide, but these reports are historically suspect. This view (obviously) rejects biblical inerrancy.

Third, others reevaluating the interpretation of the Old Testament. In this approach, the violence found in the Bible is not as violent as it appears. This approach involves a legal definition of genocide, but more often, in church history, these texts in the Old Testament are spiritualized to refer to a later enemy (the Crusades, or persecution of the Jews). Unfortunately, this doesn’t really solve the problem, it just moves it to a different enemy. Several scholars in this category will observe that the word ḥērem is not always lethal, since it can be used as a metaphor for devotion. Others will point to the hyperbole used in the command, “destroy the entire city and all the people.” It cannot mean they literally destroyed the entire city, since some cities continued to exist after they were supposedly destroyed.

The fourth view calls for reevaluating the violence in the Old Testament. These scholars accept that the Old Testament does accurately report mass killing, and that at one time, the holy God sanctioned this violence If this is true, then the violence must be a just punishment on the wicked Canaanites, not a “ethnic cleansing.” Scholars supporting this view often point out that the entrance into Canaan was unique in history. God gave the land to Shem and later to Abraham; Israel is reclaiming land that was already theirs.

Conclusion. Trimm’s The Destruction of the Canaanites is an excellent introduction to the problem of violence in the Old Testament, written with laypeople in mind. It does not require special training in Ancient Near Eastern culture or Old Testament literature to appreciate the various approaches to the problem. He does not advocate for any of the positions, although he affirms both God’s existence and the truth of Scripture. Readers interested in more detailed arguments from scholars representing the views themselves might turn to Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003). Trimm provides a wealth of footnotes and a detailed bibliography for further study of this important topic.


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

John Goldingay, The Book of Lamentations (NICOT)

Goldingay, John. The Book of Lamentations. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 228 pp. Hb; $40.00   Link to Eerdmans

John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaced J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here). There never was a NICOT volume on Lamentations. This new volume by Goldingay fills this gap.

The thirty-three-page introduction to the book introduces the five poems which make up Lamentations. Goldingay begins by comparing Lamentations with other ancient Near Eastern city laments, although some are a millennium older than Lamentations and from an entirely different culture. It is impossible to know if the author of Lamentations knew this literary genre, but some scholars suggest the canonical book is a parody of these ancient city laments.

Goldingay, LamenationsThe five poems manifest a tight unity which is unparalleled in the rest of Scripture. Even though the book describes a radical disorientation in grief, the acrostic poems make it one of the most orderly books in the Hebrew Bible (5). The Hebrew varies between qatal and yiqatol forms, but Goldingay consistently translates using the English aorist. For the poet, the destruction of Jerusalem is in the past.

Goldingay suggests Lamentations 1:1-4 is a “Textbook embodiment of many of the features of first testament poetry” (7). He assumes worshipers originally chanted this poetic material. The lines have a rhythm (he compares the Hebrew poetry of Lamentations to modern rap music). This poetry has a regular rhythm, which means exceptionally short or long lines draw attention to themselves. Following Allsop-Dobbs, the poetry of Lamentations has a “limping beat” (9). Other features of the book’s poetry include repetition combined with variation, terseness, imagery, and various points of view.  All Hebrew poetry omits the small words that aid communication, so his translation often assumes prepositions or an article. Terseness also implies the use of ellipsis, which can produce a certain “jerkiness in the translation.”

With respect to authorship and date, Goldingay is clear. The book is anonymous even if the Septuagint ascribed the book to Jeremiah. He suggests this results from “later guesswork or creative reflection” based on 2 Chronicles 35:25 (13). But there are many “Jeremiah-like similarities.” Like Jeremiah, the poets of Lamentations are acquainted with the devastation of the city of Jerusalem. Even though Lamentations follows Jeremiah 52 in the English Bibles, the books are quite separate in the Hebrew Bible. Lamentations does not have any direct historical data to suggest a date other than after the fall of Jerusalem. Goldingay suggests it is “plausible to follow the direction that the poems point in inviting us to think of the situation after 587 rather than starting from an alternative subtlety. The poets lived between the years 587 and the 540s B.C., “the same period that the Jeremiah scroll came into existence” (15). He suggests the poems Judahite communities used the poems in worship based on references to mourning, and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (Zechariah 8:18-19).

Regarding the occasion, place of origin, and destination, he simply observes that the book was not written from Jerusalem. Even though the city was completely destroyed, a Judahite community remained in the land. But there is no direct information in the book regarding why the poems were written. Goldingay suggests the books guide worshippers on how to think about the 587 catastrophe and to encourage to express their feelings about the disaster. The goals of the writer are therefore “theological, educational, pastoral, cathartic, and religious” (17). Sometimes the poems address Yahweh, other times the poets address one another, although not in a dialogue. Following Leslie Allen’s suggestion, Lamentations is a “liturgy of grief.” The poems facilitate people expressing to the Lord their continuing grief over the state of their city and the community after the catastrophe of 587 (17).

There can be no systemizing the theology of Lamentations, “the book is a whirlwind” (27). The writers are casting around for some meaning in the darkness. The poems are often an expression of suffering rather than the meaning behind it. He suggests two central theological themes in the book: Yahweh as the God of Israel, and Israel as the people of Yahweh. Yahweh is actively sovereign (Lam 3:32-38) but his anger toward his people is blazing (2:1-2). Many commentators on Lamentations assume the theology of Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, and Jeremiah: wrongdoing results in trouble. This is true, but Goldingay sees more in the book than poetry based on Deuteronomic theology. The theology of Lamentations can be compared to the Psalms. God’s people need to trust in Yahweh, and his faithfulness to his promises. But like the Psalms, Lamentations encourages protest in the light of trouble. Also, with the Psalms and the prophets, Yahweh continues to be committed to David and to Zion. Goldingay suggests that the “genius of Lamentations” is to hold all this together at the same time. It is not a “theology in shreds,” as some describe the book.

Lamentations is often considered a theodicy. The book is an attempt to explain the disaster of 587. For many Christian commentators, the explanation is that God was acting justly by punishing Judah for their sins. But as Goldingay observes, Lamentations “spreads the blame around.” Judah is to blame, but God himself is responsible for the disaster. Following Zachary Braiterman, Goldingay briefly discusses the term antitheodicy to describe Lamentation’s theology. Antitheodicy is a response to evil or disaster that is a protest rather than an explanation. But Goldingay thinks neither term is quite right. In Lamentations, it works both ways. There is traditional theodicy, but also bitter protest and expressions of genuine grief. In fact, he concludes “if there is a way of living with the unresolvable, it lies outside Lamentations.”

He begins his commentary on each poem by summarizing its content and offering something like an outline. Sometimes verses can be grouped together, but this is not always possible. He offers a series of observations on the structure of the poetry in each of the five poems. The commentary treats each verse of the poems as units.

Goldingay’s translation follows the Masoretic text. In the introduction, he draws attention to 4QLam and 5QLam which are not too different from the Masoretic Text.  In his translation, Goldingay uses of the Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, and the Peshitta in the footnotes of the commentary. These notes sometimes explain translation choices and occasionally amended the text. But in his view, amending the Masoretic Text does not always clear up ambiguities. His translation in the commentary is a beautiful rendering of the Hebrew Bible in English (see also Goldingay’s translation of the First Testament).

Following the commentary on each poem, he offers a brief “Readers Response.” What would someone worshiping in Bethel or Mizpah think about the poem? These are short imaginary responses are creative and moving. They are not the sort of thing one usually finds an academic commentary. This is not a basic pastoral application, nor is it an attempt to create canonical connections with the New Testament is is all the rage in some commentary series. Goldingay invites us into the post-exilic world and asks us to think and feel along with the original worshipers who used these poems to cope with the catastrophe in which they were currently living.

There are several other unique features of this commentary. First, Goldingay writes in a very personal, familiar style. He captures the reader’s imagination and makes for a stimulating commentary to read. The commentary is not bogged down with minor exegetical details; he remains focus on the meaning of the poems. Virtually every page challenges the reader to deal with the grief of the poet. Second, Goldingay often uses bullet point lists of literary features or other data to summarize material. Third, there is more direct citation of other commentaries than usually expected in an exegetical commentary. Goldingay appears to have read every significant commentary on Lamentations ever written and plucks the most salient, moving, perhaps even shocking lines. Anyone using this commentary to prepare for teaching Lamentations will appreciate the fruit of Goldingay’s labor. He does not cite many ancient commentaries, but there are a few references to Ibn Ezra and Rashi. Fourth, occasionally he makes important comparisons to other ancient near eastern literature. It is very difficult to understand Lamentations without this parallel literature. But he uses this material judiciously, to illustrate and not distract from the poems themselves.

Conclusion. As one expects when John Goldingay published a commentary, this new commentary on Lamentations is well worth reading. In fact, it is a rare commentary that should be read cover to cover as one might a monograph.


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