Book Review: Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Thomas, Heath A. Habakkuk. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 243 pp. Pb; $25.   Link to Eerdmans

Following the methodology expressed in his Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (written with Craig Bartholomew, Baker 2016), Thomas attempts to use academically rigorous exegetical, historical, sociological and literary dimensions of the text in order to draw out theological implications for contemporary readers. In other words, this is “biblical criticism recalibrated within the larger aim of hearing God’s address through the prophetic book” (4). Later in the introduction to the commentary, Thomas calls this a dialectic between systematic and biblical theology which he considers a “hard-won ‘thick’ analysis of a biblical text” (34).

Heath Thomas, Habakkuk CommentaryIn his 55 page introduction Thomas observes the obscure prophetic of Habakkuk is sometimes dismissed as too “hellfire and brimstone.” Rather than a “ragbag collection of unintelligible material,” Thomas suggests the book is theologically rich and “extraordinarily pertinent” to contemporary church life and culture (3).

Thomas reviews the “drama of Scripture” in order to introduce the historical context of the prophet. The commentary assumes the context claimed by the book: Habakkuk is living in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, specifically during the reign of Jehoiakim just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (26). Thomas considers an earlier context in the reign of Manasseh or just after the death of Josiah. That the book mentions the Chaldeans and the imminent threat of exile favors a date around 587 BCE. He therefore understands the wicked and righteous in Habakkuk 1:2-4 are wicked Judeans oppressing the righteous.

Theologically, Thomas says, this context “pits the faithful prophet against his own people and culture” (27). A major theological point made by Habakkuk is that wicked nations will be swallowed up in their wickedness and “Yahweh will but them to rights. This is true…whether that nation is Judah, Babylon, or the United States” (30). Thomas revisits this interest in applying the words of the sixth century BCE prophet living through the final years of the kingdom of Judah to contemporary experience throughout the commentary. These asides are usually vague, allowing the reader to draw out the implications for their own time and cultural context. Habakkuk’s critique of evil in the leadership of Judah or Babylon is universal and speaks to every political climate in history.

The introduction concludes with a section on Habakkuk and the church. Here Thomas offers short surveys of the use of Habakkuk in the apostolic era (Romans and Galatians), patristic, Medieval, Reformation and modern periods, concluding with “Habakkuk today.” This final section includes one or two international commentaries, but this section could have been more robust. Although this would not fit into the Christian theology of the Two Horizons commentary series, the reception of Habakkuk in Judaism would have been a helpful addition especially given the interest in Habakkuk at Qumran.

The body of the commentary devotes one chapter to each of Habakkuk’s three chapters, Thomas sub-divides the material into several paragraphs in order to treat individual issues in the text. He comments on the Hebrew text and all Hebrew appears in transliteration. For the most part he only lightly touches on lexical and syntactical issues, although occasionally he draws on cognate languages for obscure vocabulary (Ugaritic, for example).

Two excurses appear in the body of the commentary, one on power of silence and the second on the power of memory. I comment only on the first excursus. Drawing on Habakkuk 2:20, “be silent, all the earth, before him,” Thomas offers a short reflection on “The Power of Silence (135-38). He suggests Habakkuk 2:20 is a “call for his people to recognize God’s power to vindicate the righteous and judge the wicked” (136). He moves quickly from this observation to the importance of contemplation as a spiritual discipline, “contemplation centers the church within God’s life so that she might live authentically as the body of Christ, rather than be conformed to the idolatrous patterns of this present word” (137). This is quite true and there is much to be said for the practice of silence as a spiritual discipline, especially in the context of suffering and injustice. However, in the context of Habakkuk 2:20, the climax of God’s judgment on the nations, perhaps this silence is “An overt eschatological hope is formulated whereby “the wicked are silenced in darkness” because “the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Sam. 2:9–10)” (G. K. Beale, Revelation [NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1999], 446). Rather than “be still and know I am God,” this text seems to say, “stand in silence before the Lord who judges from his holy temple.” Thomas’s interest in drawing theological implications from Habakkuk may go beyond the meaning of the text.

The final third of the book collects three essays on the theological horizons of Habakkuk. The first is somewhat typical of a biblical theology in that Thomas sets out the main theological themes of the book of Habakkuk: the destructive power of sin, waiting on the Lord, righteous suffering and God, Israel and the Nations. This unit also includes the New Testament use of Habakkuk, including a short interaction with Richard Hays’s view that Paul has an apocalyptic reading of Habakkuk 2:4b which makes the “righteous one” a messianic title. Thomas disagrees, arguing (briefly) Habakkuk 2:4b is not a prediction of a messiah but rather a pointer to the incarnation of God’s faithfulness in this present age. For Thomas, Habakkuk focuses on “faith in the faithfulness of God” (164). By this phrase he wants to draw attention to God’s faithfulness as the one who both judges the wicked and vindicates the righteous. With this emphasis “Habakkuk presses toward and eschatological hope” (168).

The second theological essay, “Centering Shalom: Habakkuk and Prayer” is in large part re-telling of the “drama of scripture common to the theological interpretation of Scripture. The bulk of the chapter describes shalom as the orderliness of creation, then shows how sin has destroyed the shalom of the original created order. Habakkuk’s laments are desperate cries to a Holy God in a world full of injustice because sin remains powerful. Yet “Habakkuk’s prayers do not shake an angry fist at God in the fashion of a petulant teenager moaning about the injustice of having to carry out the rubbish to the bin at the parent’s request. As Christian Polke rightly says, ‘To lament is not to whine’” (188).

In his third essay “Dead Ends and Doorways: Habakkuk and Spiritual Formation” Thomas addresses two common issues which prevent people from spiritual formation or even coming to faith in the first place. For many, the violence of God on display in a book like Habakkuk leaves no room for faith, and the silence of God in the face of great suffering in this world is the biggest stumbling-block to faith. Thomas argues that the book of Habakkuk addresses both of these issues by leading the reader to an overlooked form of worship, the lament. Although common in the Old Testament, lament is rarely practiced in the modern church. Thomas believes if the church slowed down and worshiped God through the form of lament it would avoid both “blissful naiveté” and “sterile ambivalence” (209).  By following Habakkuk’s lead in lament as worship, the church will see suffering through the cross and be open to a divine response.

Thomas’s Two Horizons commentary on Habakkuk is a model for the method of theological interpretation of Scripture. He does serious exegesis and pays attention to the historical and cultural context of this obscure prophet and is able to draw out implications for how the lives and breathes in contemporary culture.

 

 

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

 

Book Review: Jonathan G. Kline, A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew

Kline, Jonathan G. A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2019. 392 pp.; Pb; $29.95.  Link to Hendrickson

Kline has already compiled Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in Two Minutes A Day and Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic in Two Minutes A Day. This new volume provides one proverb a day with glosses and reading helps from Proverbs 10:1-22:16.

As Kline says in his introduction, proverbs are best internalized by “savoring them slowly in small quantities.” This is because proverbs are often difficult to understand. They are cryptic and ambiguous, and they are especially difficult to translate. His goal in this volume is to help students, clergy, teachers, and scholars who have not yet read much of the book of Proverbs in Hebrew begin to explore how these sayings work in Hebrew” (xiii). This is not a commentary and Kline does not provide any guidance for translating beyond lexical and syntactic glosses, not does he attempt any explanation of the cultural and historical background to obscure elements.

To produce this reader, Kline sorted 365 proverbs from Proverbs 10:1-22:16. The section was chosen since it is labeled the Proverbs of Solomon and it has 375 proverbs. Kline omits ten which are very similar. For example, he omits 11:4 since it is similar to 10:2; 15:22 since it is similar to 11:14. Another advantage to this section of the book of Proverbs is each proverb is formatted into two parallel lines. In Hebrew, the lines are usually three to five words long.

In some ways this is a graded reader. Kline selected proverbs with more common vocabulary for the earlier in the book, less frequent vocabulary towards the end. But there is no attempt to sort the proverbs by morphology and syntax. Although most of the vocabulary on day three is common for Proverbs, the noun עָרוּם is only found twice outside of Proverbs 12 and 14, nine times in the entire Hebrew Bible. A student also needs to know what to do with a hiphel infinitive construct. For most students with a semester or two of Hebrew, this book provides enough to read with clarity.

Each page contains a single Hebrew proverb divided into two lines. Each word is glossed and identified morphologically if necessary. In the example to the left, Proverbs 15:31 is divided into two lines, the first line has three units and the second line only two. The first word אֹזֶן is a very common word (ear, 155x) and does not need a gloss since this is the lexical form. The verb שֹׁ֖מַעַת is identified as a Qal participle feminine singular from שׁמע. Kline glosses this common verb as a participle, (one) that hears/listens/heeds. The final two words of the line are glossed together, תּוֹכַ֣חַת חַיִּ֑ים reproof / rebuke of life. Although literally this is “rebuke of life” it is an idiom for reproof. In the second line of the proverb, בְּקֶ֖רֶב חֲכָמִ֣ים is taken as a unit, קֶרֶב plus the inseparable preposition as the sense of “in” or “in the midst of” and חֲכָמִ֣ים is the masculine plural form of the common noun חָכָם. The verb תָּלִֽין is the Qal imperfect 3fs form of לין, to lodge/stay/spend the night.

Put this together, Kline translates Proverbs 15:31 “an ear listens to a life-giving rebuke, it makes its home among the comprehending.” This English translation is not at the bottom of the page. To keep students from using the English as a crutch he puts his translation at the bottom of the third page to avoid “accidental” peaking. As is clear from the previous paragraph, his translations are more periphrastic than expected. As he explains in the introduction, he is “drawing deeply from the rich reservoir of English vocabulary” to produce a translation which is “fresh, memorable, and—by dint of their novelty—defamiliarizing, thought provoking, and even fun” (xx).  This is an important feature since Kline wants the reader to stop and ponder the two simple lines of Hebrew, to chew on them for a few moments and meditate on what they mean in a variety of contexts and circumstances.

The book includes an alphabetical index and a frequency index. The latter would enable a student to memorize common vocabulary in Proverbs. For example, there are only the fourteen words occurring 25 times or more in the book (even a beginning Hebrew student will know most of them). The book is bound as in green cloth over boards with an attractive green pattern on the front and back. What is lacking is a string bookmark typical of a Bible.

This book certainly achieves the goal of providing a student with the necessary information to read a proverb a day and it will facilitate meditation on these important verses in Proverbs.

 

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

 

Book Review: John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 278 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP Academic

Goldingay describes this book as a spin-off from his popular commentary series The Old Testament for Everyone (SPCK and WJKP). Like N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone these short commentaries targeted the average Bible reader looking for some guidance in personal Bible study. Old Testament Ethics has a similar goal. The book contains forty-three short reflections divided into five parts. Each chapter is a brief self-contained reflection on some aspect of Old Testament Ethics. Each contains key texts using Goldingay’s own First Testament translation (IVP Academic, 2018) and concludes with a few questions for reflection and discussion. The book is written a familiar style and lacks the sort of scholarly trappings which would make the book difficult for the non-specialist. This format makes the book ideal for personal devotional reading or in a small group Bible study setting.

The first section collects eight character traits a person needs to lead an ethical life. These include Godlikeness, compassion honor, anger trust, truthfulness, forthrightness and contentment. In the second section of the book, he examines nine aspects of life (mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work). The third part of the book deals with relationships with friends, neighbors, women, husband and wives, etc. In the fourth section of the book Goldingay comments on a series of texts: Genesis 1 and 2, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15 and 20, Ruth, Psalm 72 and the Song of Songs. Like part four, the fifth section of the book reflects on a series people in the Old Testament. Some are well known (Abraham, David, Nehemiah) others are obscure (the women in Moses’s life, Shiphrah and Puah, Yokebed and Miryam).

Since each chapter contains a large amount of Scripture, it might be fair to describe this book as a sort of topical Bible. For example, the chapter on truthfulness is about five pages with about three pages of texts drawn from Proverbs. The chapter “Good Husbands, Good Wives” is similar, reprinting all of Proverbs 5:15-20, 6:28-35 and 31:10-31. This immersion on the Scripture is an important part of Goldingay’s goals for the book, even if some readers would prefer more expert commentary from him as the author.

A book on Old Testament ethics needs to deal with a few difficult problems. For example, the Old Testament is sometimes vilified for its view on women. Dealing with the unusual procedure for determining an accused adulterous woman’s guilt in Numbers 5, Goldingay observes “it’s not very egalitarian,” but there are aspects of the Torah which handle men and women in similar ways (126). He deals the troubling issue of the Canaanite genocide in a postscript. He admits “To exaggerate somewhat, the Canaanites got annihilated; and to exaggerate somewhat, the Israelites got annihilated too” (271).

There are a few topics which will be controversial. In chapter 22, “Who You Can’t Have Sex With,” Goldingay deals with rules for marriage and observes many of these commands have little to do with genetics, but with what causes disorder, scandal and disruption of the family (137). In addition, he says some of the prohibitions are based on the “built-in order about which we should adhere.”  Men, for example, are designed to have sex with women. “In Western culture we may but like that one, but it’s worth our seeing its rationale” (138). The next chapter deals with same-sex marriage under the title “People Who Can’t Undertake a Regular Marriage.” Goldingay thinks same-sex marriage falls short of the biblical vision for marriage (in fact it is “miles away from the vision that emerges from Scripture.” But Goldingay points out “but so do lots of other forms of marriage” (143).

There are a few unexpected topics for a book on Old Testament ethics. Several seem to cross over into biblical theology, but it is a fine line between a “biblical theology of friendship” and social ethics. Goldingay includes an interesting discussion of cities (ch. 27) He offers six observations about urban culture drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, concluding “if Christians want to play a part in the shaping of urban policy, we need to nurture economists, lawyers, planners, and civil servants in our churches” (168). The fourth and fifth sections of the book are engaging meditations on biblical characters are an attempt to illustrate ethical principles from the text of the Bible.

Conclusion. This book does not treat Old Testament ethics using traditional categories, nor does it approach modern ethical issues through the lens of the Old Testament in a systematic way. Goldingay does deal with modern ethical issues like violence and war, animal rights, status of women and immigrants, and homosexuality, but only as they arise in the texts he has selected. Although the title of the book suggests some similarities with more systematic works like Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP Academic 2013) or John Barton’s Understanding Old Testament Ethics (WJKP 2003), Goldingay’s book is more of a meditation on the text of the Old Testament.

 

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

Book Review: John Goldingay, The First Testament: A New Translation

Goldingay, John. The First Testament: A New Translation. Downers Grove Ill..: IVP Academic, 2018. 262 pp. Pb; $24.00.    Link to IVP Academic

In Goldingay’s recent Reading Jesus’s Bible (Eerdmans 2017) he argued Jesus and the writers of the New Testament not only read the First Testament, but use it as the bedrock for their theology and practice. In two other recent publications from IVP Academic, Do We Need the New Testament? (2015) and A Reader’s Guide to The Bible (2017) Goldingay argued the First Testament is foundational for a proper understanding the New Testament. Although he said few Christians would actually question the need for the First Testament in Do We Need the New Testament?, recent comments from Andy Stanley on “un-hitching” Christianity from the Old Testament reflect the struggle of the modern Christian reader to see the relevance of the first two thirds of their Bible. Or worse, they are embarrassed about much of the content in the Old Testament, preferring the loving God of the New. John Piper responded to Andy Stanley (as did virtually every blogger under the sun), forcing Stanley to clarify his views and un-hitch himself from his own comments.

Goldingay, First TestamentIn order to further his goal of bringing the First Testament alive for the church today, Goldingay has produced a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. The title of the translation reflects a modern allergy to the phrase “Old Testament” since the title implies antiquated or out-of-date. It is not the “we do not need it anymore testament,” but the first three-quarters of the canon of Scripture. As I have often said to my students we need a thorough knowledge of the literature and theology of the Hebrew Bible in order to fully understand the New Testament.

This translation had its origins in Goldingay’s Old Testament for Everyone series published by Westminster John Knox. The translation done for those popular commentaries was “substantially revised.” In the preface to the volume he lists a series of principles for the translation, beginning with his desire to stick as closely to the original Hebrew and Aramaic as possible using everyday English as much as possible. For example, he uses contractions and other colloquial expressions, but this is not a paraphrase. For example, most traditional Bible translate the euphemism for sex as “he knew his wife.” In Genesis 4:1, the man “slept with his wife” and in Isaiah 8:3 it is “I had sex with my wife.” Since the goal is a translation which reflects the underlying Hebrew, occasionally there are rough or jerky sentence; but that is the nature of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, he sets poetry out to look like poetry, a common practice in modern Bible translations. The goal is accurate translation while preserving the ancient Hebrew flavor of the First Testament.

For the name of God, Goldingay chose to use Yahweh rather than the common circumlocution Lord. Goldingay transliterates most names so they appear more akin to their Hebrew equivalents. Most of these will be apparent to readers, Mosheh for Moses, Yehoshua for Joshua, etc. For others, the first occurrence has the traditional name in brackets: Havvah for Eve, Qayin for Cain, or Ha’ay for Ai in Joshua 8. Seeing names like Iyyob (Job) and Hisqiyyahu (Hezekiah) are quite shocking, but reflect the actual pronunciation of these names which have been blended through translations of the Hebrew into Greek, Latin and English. Fortunately he uses the traditional names for the book titles. This practice moves away from traditional spellings but also traditional (easier) pronunciations. This may present some difficulty for some readers, but it is important for Goldingay’s goal of allowing the reader to hear the Hebrew sounds in the Hebrew Bible.

Although this is not a study Bible, Goldingay includes a short introduction to the history of the First Testament as well as for each book. He is not particularly concerned with traditional introductory issues in these single-page prefaces. Instead his focus on the main themes of the book and how the book fits into the overarching canon of Scripture.

Like most modern Bibles, Goldingay has added a short title to sections. These are often mini-interpretations, such as “How to stand tall” (Psalm 52) or “How to weave a sanctuary (Exodus 26). Exodus 1:1-19 is labeled “On how not to render to Caesar,” an appropriate title with a New Testament allusion. Others are tongue-in-cheek, such as Esther 5:6-6:4, “The girl who knows how to work her man” or Ezekiel 37:1-14, “Dem bons, dem bones, dem dry bones.” Some may not be helpful for someone who does not know the story. For example, Ruth 4:1-10 is entitled “how not to get overextended in property ownership.” Although that is what happens in the section for Boaz’s rival, someone reading just the heading might be led to believe this is some legislation on taxation.

As observed above, Goldingay uses traditional names for the books of the First Testament. He also chose to use the traditional order of the books. This order is based on the Septuagint and reflects that Greek translation rather than the order of the First Testament itself. Perhaps it would be too jarring to see Ruth, Esther or Daniel moved out of their traditional place in the canon. On the other hand, this translation is intended for Christian readers so the order of the Christian canon is understandable.

Conclusion. Some will be as skeptical of this new translation as they were when N. T. Wright released his The Kingdom New Testament or David Hart Bentley’s recent translation which highlighted the “fragmentary formulations” of the New Testament “without augmentation or correction.” Others will receive this new translation for what it is, one scholar’s attempt to produce a readable translation which is faithful to the spirit of the First Testament. As Goldingay says in the preface to The First Testament, there is no such thing as a “best translation of the Old Testament.” Goldingay’s translation is an example of a faithful translation which comes from a scholar with a deep passion to see Christians read the First Testament in a form as close to the original Hebrew as possible.

 

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

Book Review: Robert L. Hubbard Jr. and J. Andrew Dearman. Introducing the Old Testament

Hubbard Jr., Robert L. and J. Andrew Dearman. Introducing the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 560 pp. Hb; $40.   Link to Eerdmans

This new textbook from Eerdmans intended to be an up-do-date and user friendly textbook usable in both undergraduate and graduate level classes. In fact, EerdWorld has already published Ten Reasons to use Introducing the Old Testament in your classroom. Robert L. Hubbard Jr. is professor emeritus of biblical literature at North Park Theological Seminary. He wrote the commentary on Ruth in the NICOT series (Eerdmans, 1988). Andrew Dearman is associate dean for Fuller Texas and professor of Old Testament. He wrote the commentary on Hosea in the NICOT series (Eerdmans 2010) and Jeremiah and Lamentations in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan, 2002).

Two introductory chapters at the beginning of the volume. The first is a short introduction to the volume, the second intends to set Old Testament history in context. The authors provide an overall sketch of ancient Near Eastern history and briefly explains how historians date ancient events. They discuss how ancient history selects and interprets events using the Omride dynasty in Israel. The modern historian must draw on several streams of data (biblical texts, Assyrian and Moabite texts, archaeology) to understand this history more fully. The introduction deals with the contentious debate between “minimalist” who dismiss textual evidence in favor of archaeology and “maximalists” who favor the written record. The authors chart a middle course and argue for a 1250 B.C. Exodus, followed by no more than 150 years of tribal life before some form of monarchy emerging about 1100 B.C. The book concludes with a final chapter on the canon and text of the Hebrew Bible and a four-page glossary of key terms.

For each unit there is an introductory chapter for each unit (for example, “What is the Torah”). “What is Hebrew Poetry” is added to the unit on the prophets along with a chapter on the prophets in general, the unit on poetry has “What is Wisdom?” The authors provide a chapter on each book in the Hebrew Bible, although Genesis divided into primeval (Gen 1-11) and patriarchal history (Gen 12-50) and all the two-part books in the English Bible are combinesd. The twelve Minor Prophets are combined into four chapters of three books each. The authors re-order the Minor Prophets into logic units such as the three the eighth century prophets (Hosea Amos and Micah) and the three post-exilic prophets.

Each book is set into the context of the story of the whole Hebrew Bible using timelines charts and maps. Following a summary of the contents of the book the authors provide reading assignments with though provoking questions. For example, after reading 1 Kings 22, the student is asked to respond to the idea of God sending a “lying prophet.” How might this affect one’s view of God? (p. 190). For Leviticus, the student is asked to connect the instructions of Leviticus to God’s mission in the world: will these commands advance or impede God’s mission? (p. 82). These questions are well-designed for short papers or discussions in a classroom on online forum. Following the questions is a short bibliography directing students to more advanced studies.

The book is illustrated with a variety of tables, diagrams, maps and timelines. In addition, there are color photographs illustrating key archaeological finds and many examples modern art to illustrate a concept. For example, Vanitas Still Life by Hendrick Andriessen (1650) is used in Ecclesiastes. Too many times an introductory textbook is over-illustrated with photographs, sacrificing actual text. This is not the case for Interpreting the Old Testament.

With respect to content, although the authors do engage with modern scholarship, most of the material in this book will fit well in any classroom setting. They often simply avoid extremely controversial issues. For example, they discuss potential parallels between the creation and flood stories and other ancient Near Eastern myths. But there is no engagement of the highly charged issue of creation and science or the historicity of Adam. The bibliography points students to Walton’s Lost World of Genesis, but also Kenneth Matthews’s commentary on Genesis in the conservative NAC series. They do present Isaiah as a compendium written over 350 years (p. 282) but invite the student to reflect on why (or why not) this may be an important issue.

Any survey of the whole Hebrew Bible is open to the criticism of brevity. With so much material to cover, some chapters are less than ten pages including study questions and bibliography. Considering the book is printed with wide margins and frequent illustrations, some chapters are very brief indeed. Given the importance of Genesis 1-11 for the rest of the Hebrew Bible, there is less than six pages of actual text, and this is broken up by several illustration. However, this brevity allows the classroom teacher to fill-in material according to their own preferences.

Introducing the Old Testament achieves its goal to provide a readable and user-friendly textbook for an introduction to the Old Testament class. But the book ought to be useful for any individual or small group which desires to understand the overall flow of the story of the Old Testament as well as gain sufficient background to read these books with clarity.

 

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

 

Book Review: Mignon Jacobs, Haggai and Malachi (NICOT)

Jacobs, Mignon. Haggai and Malachi. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xlv+377 pp. Hb; $48.   Link to Eerdmans

This new contribution to the NICOT series is a companion to Mark Boda’s Zechariah commentary (Eerdmans, 2016), completing the post-exilic prophets and updating the older Haggai and Malachi commentary by Pieter A. Verhoef (1987). In April 2018 Verhoef’s commentary will appear as one of the first three volumes of Eerdmans’ new Classic Biblical Commentary series. Jacobs often refers to this still useful commentary in her own work. Jacobs is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary where she is also serves as Dean and Chief Academic Officer. She wrote Gender, Power, and Persuasion (Baker Academic, 2007) and Conceptual Coherence of the Book of Micah (Sheffield Academic, 2001). In addition to numerous journal articles on the prophets, Jacobs has chaired the Society of Biblical Literature Israelite prophetic literature section.

Jacobs says she has two main methodological concerns in her commentary. First, she primarily wants to read Haggai and Malachi as prophetic literature. Although this seems obvious, it requires her to place each prophet in their appropriate historical context. These two prophets address specific situations in the post-exilic community. Several pages of each introduction are devoted to the historical, socio-political and conceptual frameworks of the books. For Haggai, the theological problem of rebuilding the temple explain the economic hardships of the post-exilic community. Malachi addresses the problem of apathetic priests after the Temple was rebuilt and possible problems arising from shifts in the administration of the Persian Empire.

Second, Jacobs indicates she is interested in the “diverse intertextual voices within the Hebrew Bible.”  In order to achieve this goal, she includes a section entitled “intertextual indicators” in each of the two introductions to the books. For Haggai, Ezra and Chronicles provide a historical framework and there are some allusions to the Law. For Malachi, Jacobs points out Malachi’s dependence on the Pentateuch for his comments on priests, Levites, the tithe, marriage and divorce. I expected to see some intertextual comments on the marriage metaphor in her comments Malachi 2, but there is little there to suggest Malachi has Hosea or Isaiah in mind when he discusses the apathy of the returned exiles. For Malachi, Jacobs provides a table of eleven intertextual links to the New Testament.

With respect to the theological contribution of these two books, Jacob’s comments are limited to a few pages in each introduction entitle “Message.” These minimal comments reflect Jacobs’s reluctance to apply the text of the two prophets to contemporary issues. It is tempting, for example, to use Malachi to speak to the issue of divorce or giving to the church (the tithe, etc.) But Jacobs does now consider this kind of theologizing the task of a commentary since it requires moving from the context of the prophet to some other context. As she says, “recontextualizing the ideas and themes most often requires reconceptualizing,” and for Jacobs, reconceptualizing is not the task of a commentary (xiii). She is true to this intention, there is little in the Haggai commentary which could be seen as theological interpretation, application, or “bridging the gap” with the modern church and there is certainly no “Haggai Speaks to Us Today” sections in this commentary. Although Haggai has the least to say about social ethics among the prophets, there are sections of the commentary which invite reflection and application (the apathy of the priests in Malachi 1:11-13, for example). Jacobs leads the reader with detailed exegesis to the place where they can make their own pointed application to contemporary circumstances. But she is not going to reconceptualize the prophets herself.

The commentary for each book begins with an annotated translation of the text. The translation notes deal with lexical and syntactical issues as well as textual variants. This detailed material is necessary for a critical, exegetical commentary, although it may be skipped if the reader is not interested in the textual history of the book.

Following the translation and textual commentary, Jacobs moves through each pericope verse-by-verse commenting on words and phrases. All Hebrew appears in transliteration and most interaction with secondary literature appears in the footnotes. This makes the main commentary very readable. Given the goals of the commentary, it is not surprising to find frequent comments placing the prophet into the larger canonical context. For example, commenting on Haggai 1:5-6, Jacobs draws attention to Deuteronomy 11:10-15 to explain why the returning exiles are having poor harvests. Commenting on Haggai 2:6-9 she draws on earthquake language throughout the prophets. This might be considered intertextuality, but there is little in Haggai which implies he was intentionally alluding to an earlier text like Jeremiah and Jacobs does not argue he was intentionally alluding to anything. At best, the earthquake language is part of prophetic speech about the day of the Lord. This is not what is usually meant by intertextuality.

Conclusion. Jacobs has contributed a serious exegetical commentary on two of the neglected books of the Hebrew Bible. It is a worthy successor to Verhoef’s commentary in the NICOT series and will be a standard commentary on Haggai and Malachi for many years to come. Some readers might find fault with the lack of theological reflection, especially since that style of commentary has become increasingly popular in recent years. Jacobs is true to her method and written a fine exegetical commentary which will provide the details for the kind of theological reflection on socio-political situation of the post-exilic community which allows pastors and teachers to address modern issues in specific cultural contexts.

 

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

Book Review: Stephen G. Dempster, Micah

Dempster, Stephen G. Micah. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. 292 pp. Pb; $30.   Link to Eerdmans

In fifty-six page the introduction to the commentary, Dempster covers the usual material expected in an Old Testament commentary. He uses Micah’s name (“Who is like Yahweh?) as an entry point into the book. The book is about the incomparable Yahweh who will remove sin because of his great loving kindness (חֶסֶד). But Dempster suggests the name is not a question but a “cry of desperation” of lament because here are so few in Judah who are “like Yahweh” (3-4). Its leaders are corrupt and do not practice justice or loving kindness. Judah has already become a failed state like modern Somalia, prompting Micah’s lament.

Dempster’s goal in the commentary is to understand the original historical context of the oracles before examining their literary context (17). For this reason the introduction has a solid section placing Micah into the history of Judah in the late eighth century, especially in Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C. Dempster realizes the view that Micah is largely responsible for the original oracles is a minority view in contemporary scholarship (30), but he argues this allows him to view the book as a unified whole rather than a collection a oracles from various, unknown prophets who are dislodged from a real historical context.

This recognizes the individual speeches of the book of Micah were given in a specific historical context, but also that they were placed into a literary context at some point after the events. For example, Micah 1:6 refers to the fall of Samaria as a future event from Micah’s perspective. For the original audience, Samaria still existed, but for the primary audience of the book, Samaria had already fallen. Dempster argues an act of communication requires a recipient of the message. For Micah, the original audience is not always clear. Perhaps Micah 2:1-5 was written before Sennacherib’s invasion of 701 B.C., but it is difficult to know this with certainty (37). Because of this, it is not necessary for Dempster to know the exact historical context to do theological interpretation. As he says, “to know the historical situation behind Micah 2:1-5 coming away with a revulsion of the evil described is to lose one’s exegetical and theological soul” (38).

But there is a wider context yet. Eventually Micah was placed in the collection of the Book of the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Dempster things Micah’s placement at the center of the collection is intentional. Micah 3:9-12 is the first announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem, the exact midpoint of the Book of the Twelve (21, 51-56). For Dempster, the final editors of the Twelve were making a statement about the death of Jerusalem, but also its future resurrection of Jerusalem as the mountain of the Lord (Micah 4:1-5). It is certain the Book of the Twelve reached its final form in the post-exilic period (52), a time when hopes for restoration ran high.

The body of the commentary (pp. 57-192) proceeds through major sections of the book. For each unit, Dempster comments on the structure and literary features before moving on to “key words and expressions.” This section is the exegetical commentary proper, commenting on virtually every phrase of the Hebrew text of Micah. Hebrew appears in the exegetical sections of the commentary but it is always transliterated so those without Hebrew training will still be able to use the commentary.

Following the exegetical comments, Dempster makes two sets of theological comments, “Micah’s Word Then” and “Micah’s Word Now.” In the first set of comments, Dempster tries to tease out how the oracle relates to the original audience who heard Micah’s oracle as well as the primary audience who read the words of Micah prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. For example, commenting on Micah 2:1-11 Dempster argues the lower members of an agrarian society such as ancient Judah did indeed endure the injustice of foreclosure and confiscation of land. The ones committing this injustice thought they were safe from the Lord’s judgment because the prophets spoke well of them. But Micah says they will be stripped and driven from their homes, foreshadowing the fall of Jerusalem. Dempster then turns to “Micah’s Word Now” in order to bridge the gap from the late eighth century B. C. to modern western world. Here Dempster makes his own prophetic speech condemning wealth and consumerism in the west. “The attitude of the Christian church,” Dempster says, should be “to speak the truth in love, presenting Christ as the answer to such covetousness, criticizing injustice and rebuking evil…” (98-99).

The theological conclusion to the book (pp. 194-237) follows the same pattern as the interpretation sections in the commentary. Dempster briefly summarizes a series of theological themes in the book of Micah, including Micah’s vision of God, God and the nations, Justice, Land, Temple, Messiah, Worship and several others. These brief reflections connect the content of Micah to the larger interests of the Hebrew Bible. The second section draws implications from Micah to the “present day issues.” Some of these topics are expected (Justice; Idolatry, Covetousness and Injustice) but others are surprising (“Modern Ministry and the Role of the Spiritual Leader” and ‘Cheap Grace”). In the commentary Dempster pointed out Micah’s struggle against the “cheap grace” of his day, the belief of those who controlled Jerusalem and the Temple that they were somehow exempt from responding to the voice of the prophet and doing justice towards the poor. He draws the uncomfortable analogy to the modern church and its “barcode Christianity” that demands loyalty to a doctrinal statement without any attempt at loving mercy, doing justice, or walking humbly with God (250).

Conclusion. Although Dempster currently teaches at Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada, he wrote the majority of this commentary in Cameroon. As he says in the introduction, spending time with Micah in Cameroon was “a tonic for my soul but a goad to my conscience” (vii). Anyone who takes the time to carefully read the eighth century Hebrew Prophets will be struck by the obvious parallels between the abuse of the poor in Micah’s day and modern injustice in the affluent west. While Dempster is faithful to the text of the Hebrew Bible, he offers a challenge to readers of Micah who ignore the plight of the poor while perusing wealth and prestige.

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