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Walton, Benjamin H. Preaching Old Testament Narratives. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 254 pp. Pb; $18.99. Link to Kregel
This short book is based on Walton’s 2012 D.Min thesis for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (“Enhancing Hermeneutical Accuracy for the Preaching of Old Testament Narratives Using 2 Samuel 11-12 as a Case Study.”) The book offers a methodology for both the interpretive and practical skills necessary for preaching Old Testament narrative.
The first three chapters deal with hermeneutical concerns. First, Walton explains preaching with “biblical authority” means accurately proclaiming and applying the message of biblical preaching texts (29). This necessarily requires a proper hermeneutic for the genre. Since the genre of Old Testament narrative is quite different than a New Testament epistle, Walton argues this difference in genre requires hermeneutical steps in order to write a sermon with an appropriate application.
Second, Walton deals with the often difficult problem of selecting appropriate texts from the Old Testament to preach and making them applicable, what he calls “take home truth.” He offers five steps, beginning with identifying a complete unit of thought (CUT), the moving from the original theological message (OTM) to the take-home truth (THT). These abbreviations are used throughout the book. Although chapter 2 is a basic introduction to reading narrative, it goes beyond identifying a narrative to demonstrating how a large narrative can be captured in a short, crisp original theological statement. If that statement is clear and concise, then “crafting the take-home truth” will be easier and more accurate. I suspect pastors usually start with what they want their application to be, then drive that thought into a text whether it belongs there or not. Walton’s method starts with a serious reading of the text using all of the exegetical skills and tools available so that the final application arises from the text itself. Walton provides a short example of his method in chapter 3 using 1 Samuel 11-12.
One thing missing from Walton’s discussion is some advice on “what not to preach.” A pastor might decide to preach through a series of stories in the Old Testament, but not every paragraph needs to be read and explained. In fact, there are texts that do not make appropriate preaching texts. For example, when preaching through the life of David, it is important to illustrate Saul’s jealousy of David and the loyalty of Saul’s children to David rather than to their father. But it might not be appropriate to treat the dowry Saul demands of David in detail (1 Sam 18:24-28). I might discuss this unusual bride-price in a Sunday School class or a small group Bible Study, but most morning worship service sermons are not quite ready for this particular paragraph.
Walton indicates chapters 4-10 are a “conscious attempt to apply, in my own way, Donald Sunukijan’s homiletic to the preaching of Old Testament narratives” (19). Some of this is generic enough to be used for any text in the Bible (creating introductions and conclusions, applications as “picture painting, etc.) Where Walton excels is his principles for preaching through a text in complete units of thought, rather than verse-by-verse. He recommends summarizing texts without reading whole sections. Certainly some verses ought to be read with the congregation, but to read twenty verses of an Old Testament narrative will not engage the congregation. Another way to do this is to explain the text as it is read, so that the preacher is creating a running commentary, explaining details of the text in order to bring the focus back on the take-home truth.
In Chapter 11 Walton outlines a method for moving from the text of the Old Testament to Christ. Since evangelical pastors want to preach Christ in every sermon, they often avoid the Old Testament because it can be difficult to draw a reasonable and appropriate application from an Old Testament narrative that somehow can be tied to the Gospel. Walton uses an “old covenant to the new covenant” method, similar to apostolic preaching in Acts or Paul in the epistles. By preaching new Covenant theology or ethics, Walton asserts, we are preaching Christ (185). If the take-home truth is well-crafted and attentive to the theological meaning of the original text, then a preacher might as how Christ makes that application possible in the present, New Covenant age. Walton highly recommends the work of Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1999) as well as his Preaching Christ from Genesis (Eerdmans, 2007).
In his final chapter, Walton offers advice on developing from a good preacher to an excellent preacher. These nine sections apply to any sort of preaching, whether expository from the Old Testament or not. Two sections of this chapter stand out to me. First, he recommends fifteen hours dedicated to sermon preparation, not including practicing the sermon. I suspect most pastors would like to dedicate this much time, but few are able to do so because of other demands on their time. Walton cites his mentor Donald Sunukjian as describing sermon preparation as “the hardest and best thing we will ever do” (200). Second, he recommends writing a manuscript for the sermon, then ditching it. I almost always create a lengthy manuscript of my sermons, although I cannot quite “ditch it” when I preach; it functions like a security blanket for me, and I am OK with that. But Walton is correct that the best preachers have prepared well and should not need the safety net of a manuscript.
Walton includes several appendices demonstrating his method and offering a short overview of the story of the Old Testament.
Conclusion. With five pages of endorsements from academics and preaching experts, the book certainly comes well recommended. Walton’s book does in fact provide a useful method for preaching the narratives of the Old Testament. The value of the book is often in the form of brief advice from an experienced preacher.
Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Padilla, Osvaldo. The Acts of the Apostles: Interpretation, History and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 264 pgs., Pb.; $26.00 Link to IVP
In his introduction, Osvaldo Padilla says his intention is to do for the present generation of Acts students what I. Howard Marshall’s Luke: Historian and Theologian is for the previous generation. The third edition of Marshall’s classic study was published in 1998, but the original was written in 1970. Much has changed in Luke-Acts studies in the more than forty-five years since Marshall’s book was first published. One major issue cited by Padilla is the postmodern conception of history has changed the way scholars approach a book like Acts. It is necessary to engage “broader philosophical and theological questions” before approaching some of the basic matters of introduction (14).
For most readers of this book, the main question is about the history found in the book of Acts is “Is It True?” For Padilla, Luke is a serious historian who wrote “a dependable portrait of the early church,” but he is “dependable as a historian of his age” (19). If we demand Luke conform to the modern practice of history writing of the nineteenth century, we will be confused and disappointed by the book at the historical level.
In the first chapter Padilla deals with the issue of authorship. Contra Andrew Gregory, Padilla argues the tradition Luke was a companion of Paul goes back to the early part of the second century. There are many in contemporary scholarship who are not concerned with matters of authorship, whether because of a rejection of authority intention or because narrative criticism willfully ignores the historical setting a text (33). Padilla thinks it is important to identify Luke as the author claims to be writing an accurate investigation (Luke 1:3). Since the author is using a historiographic genre, ignoring historical questions must be addressed.
Second, Padilla treats the often contentious issue of the genre of Acts. Beginning with a “brief history of Genre Theory, he surveys several proposals on the genre of Acts such as epic (Bonz), novel (Pervo), history (Haenchen). With respect to the popular identification of “novel” as the genre of Acts, Padilla points out ancient novels are parasitic. Although they may take place in a real place and time, they rarely correspond to reality.
He concludes Acts is an example of “ancient historical monograph in the Jewish tradition” along the lines of 2 Maccabees (63). The prologue in Luke 1:1-4 contains many historiographic markers common in other ancient histories, yet Acts is unashamedly theocentric and stands on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible. Like 2 Maccabees, Acts presents God as braking into history to “superintend the movement of the mission” (67). Padilla lists a series of editorial comments which indicate the action is the work of God. One example will suffice here: in Acts 5:19 Peter and John are rescued from prison by an angel if the Lord.
But how does this identification help us read and understand Acts better? A historian claims the events described in the monograph actually happened. But with respect to the book of Acts, this must be carefully nuanced to avoid reading modern historiography into an ancient historical monograph. Padilla agues the genre “ancient historical monograph in the Jewish tradition” allows a reader to view the events narrated as actually having occurred even if it does not guarantee accuracy (72). A document claiming to be a history is not necessarily accurate (historians may lie or misrepresent facts, or be ignorant of all the facts). The history may be accurate, but it is not accurate because it used the genre of history. Second, the reader of a historical monograph expects the author to have been an eyewitness or to have interviewed eyewitnesses (73).
In the third chapter Padilla discusses Luke as a theological historian. Since it is clear Luke has written a theologically motivated history, Padilla must argue this does not preclude the possibility he was also a responsible historian.
In order to show Luke was a reliable historian Padilla compares Luke’s preface to Josephus. He compares Luke’s use “terms that would have raised historiographic expectations for his readers” (77) to Josephus, specifically πρᾶγμα (deed, event), πληροφορέω (fulfilled), and αὐτόπτης (eyewitness). Although a Greek reader would find the use of πληροφορέω strange (since history is not fulfilled), Luke is writing a more theologically driven history. But Padilla illustrates this word only in Luke, so it is less important for Acts. The use of αὐτόπτης (eyewitness) intentionally bolsters Luke’s claim of credibility for history (87).
According to Padilla the modernism of the late nineteenth century gave rise to the “professionalization of history” (113-16). History was seen as a science dealing with raw facts and rejecting the use of narrative features to write a proper history. When applied to a theological history like Acts, Luke could hardly be accepted as a “credible historian.” More often Luke is described as engaging in a pious fraud to support church unity at a much later date than the events of the book. Postmodernism, Padilla says, allows for an understanding of Acts that is both historical, artistic and theological at the same time (116-20). Postmodernism is aware the past can never be accessed directly and that “brute facts” are meaningless without interpretation. “Creating a plot” is the way history can be best understood.
As a storyteller, Padilla argues Luke compresses his information for theological effect. His example compares Luke’s compression of four resurrection stories to a single day. But he also compresses the story by being extremely selective. Although he mentions James, Stephen, Philip and Barnabas, Luke only follows the story of Peter and Paul. Much is left unexplained, such as how the Gospel came to Rome. Padilla argues Luke has theological motivations for his selectivity. Like any other ancient historian, Luke compresses his history by epitomizing or abridging sources. For example, Acts 4:32-37 summarizes the activity of the Jerusalem community. Padilla thinks epitomizing lengthy and complicated events helps explain some of the differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 (although there are other ways to account for the differences).
In order to assess Luke’s historical method, Padilla devotes two chapters to the speeches in Acts. After surveying several examples from Thucydides, Polybius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Lucian of Samosota. Padilla shows there is a range with respect to how much creativity a historian may have in reporting speeches. For Thucydides, speeches were reported as closely to the original as possible and for Polybius it was “unthinkable to invent a speech” (135). But by the first century, Dionysius and Lucian were more creative in reporting speeches. Padilla argues Luke was conservative in his reports of speeches. In order to support this assertion, he points out Luke’s speeches are quite brief and often paired with another speech in Acts. Josephus, by way of contrast, takes a few words of Abraham in Genesis 22:8 and creates a lengthy speech. One option is Luke lacked sources, but Padilla thinks it is more likely Luke was reticent to create lengthy speeches, preferring to briefly report the theological gist of the speeches.
Second, Padilla surveys the speeches by examining the theology of the six speeches in Acts.
- The Speech of Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41)
- The Speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53)
- The Speech at the Home of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-48)
- The Speech at Athens (Acts 17:16-31)
- The Speech Before Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32)
Padilla finds a remarkable consistency of theological themes across these six speeches, although is emphasis is on God, Christology, Pneumatology and Soteriology. This is not a theology of Acts,” but rather a theology of these particular speeches in Acts. It is at this point in the book I expected Padilla to come to a strong conclusion based on his thesis that Luke is a conservative reporter of speeches. If there is such theological consistency in the speeches, does they represent Luke’s theology more than the original speaker? Or is there a level of unity on these particular topics? I suspect one could show some distinct contrast between Peter’s two speeches in Jerusalem, Stephen’s synagogue speech, and Paul’s synagogue speech in Acts 13 if the theological issue were something like “who are the people of God in the present age”? While he has demonstrated unity, Padilla may have need to show some diversity in order to confirm Luke’s conservative reporting of speeches.
In a final chapter Padilla enters into a “conversation with postliberalism” in order to offer a justification of Truth-Claims in Acts. First, by “postliberalism” Padilla means narrative theology represented by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (202). In general, postliberalism sees theology as a “descriptive enterprise” rather than apologetics, an enterprise that moves away from the truth claims of foundationalism and prefers narrative theology Using the resurrection as an example, Padilla points out we do not have access to the resurrection through a reconstruction of the “historical Jesus” or our apologetic argument for the resurrection. Rather, “we only have access through God” (243).
Conclusion. Padilla’s book is a useful conservative contribution to the ongoing discussion of the genre and historical reliability of Acts. He ranges from the almost mundane matter of authorship and genre to important philosophical questions of how we can know historical truth. By limiting his investigation to the speeches in Acts, Padilla has left many historical questions unanswered, but that is the nature of a short monograph such as this.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Boda, Mark J. Zechariah. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 935 pp. Hb; $58. Link to Eerdmans
Mark Boda’s new commentary on Zechariah in the NICOT series from Eerdmans sets the standard for exegetical commentaries on this important post-exilic prophet. Too often Zechariah is bundled in brief commentaries along with Haggai and Malachi. For example, The WBC commentary, for example, devotes a mere 130 pages to the prophet. Joyce G. Baldwin’s useful commentary on Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series was replaced by Andrew Hill still only manages about 170 pages on Zechariah. Boda himself contributed Haggai, Zechariah to the NIV Application Commentary. George Klein’s 2008 NAC commentary is a notable exception trend.
Based on questions concerning the unity of Zechariah, commentators often divide the book into two volumes, one on chapters 1-8 and a second on chapters 9-14. For example, the excellent commentary on Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 and Zechariah 9-14 by Carol L. Meyers in the Anchor Bible Commentary. The Old Testament Library commentary by David L. Petersen combines Haggai with Zechariah 1-8, and Zechariah 9-14 are combined with Malachi in a separate volume. By devoting over 900 pages to the whole book, Boda is able to argue that Zechariah 1-14 ought to be treated as a single book despite clear evidence of two or three sections and editorial activity. He does not, however attribute every section to Zechariah the son of Berechiah.
The Introduction. The commentary begins with a short, 56 page introduction, including about ten pages of bibliography. Although this seems to be a short introduction, Bod also includes short introductions in the body of the commentary (labeled “orientation”). For example, the orientation section for the first until, the Vision Reports (Zech 1:7-6:15) runs about twenty pages and includes genre, structure, relationship to apocalyptic and relationship to the other sections of Zechariah (intertextuality).
After a short discussion of the text of Zechariah, Boda surveys the historical context of the book. Since the book was composed over an eighty year period (520-440 B.C.), Boda traces the history of the period from the end of the Babylonian Empire through Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes and Artexerxes. The rebellions against Cambyses and the rise of Darius are in the background of Haggai and Zechariah,
Second, Boda canvasses the complicated suggestions concerning the composition of the prophecy. Zechariah 1:7-6:15 contain eight “night visions” and chapters 7 and 8 begin new unites with the phrase “the world of the Lord came to me.” Chapter 9 is a “clear shift in style” marked by the phrase “a prophetic utterance of Yahweh” (mśʾ dbr-yhwh) at 9:1 and 12:1 (23), the same phrase which begins the book of Malachi. Boda argues there is a clear distinction between chapters 9-10 and 12-14, but also editorial effort to integrate the two sections, including most of chapter 11 (25). Despite his recognition of these basic divisions in the book, Bod thinks there is warrant for reading the whole book as a single unit. First, both sections are have intertextual allusions to earlier biblical material (primarily Jeremiah). Second, the prophetic sign-act appears in Zechariah 1-8 and 11:4-6. The shepherd-flock motif is a “skeleton key” for understanding chapters 9-14 (28). Third, similar themes are developed within redactional material which serve to bind the two parts of the book together, including (fourth) a similar movement from restoration to frustration with the pace of restoration due to the leadership of the community. This “connectivity” suggests the scribal tradition joining the two books is “related to the latter’s recognition of an original editorial intention” (29).
Boda expands this canonical approach to the book to the rest of the Book of the Twelve by arguing for a striking similarity between the messenger formulae” in Haggai 2:10 and Zech 1:1 (30). Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 came together soon after the completion of the Temple in 520 B.C., chapters 9-14 were integrated with an “already existing Haggai-Zechariah 1-8” (30). In addition to these three books, Malachi was added based on the “messenger of Yahweh” in Haggai-Zechariah to form a prophetic corpus calling on the restored community to return to the Lord (Zech 1:3, Mal 3:7).
With respect to dating the original composition, Boda argues chapters 1-8 fit the dynamics of the restoration of the Temple, 520-518 B.C., but the dating of chapters 9-14 range from the eighth to second centuries. Some detect a historical allusion to Alexander the Great in 9:1-8 and possible Ptolemaic Egypt in chapters 10 and 14. That Zechariah 14 is often identified as apocalyptic has encouraged a later date as well. Boda, however, argues the intertextual links in Zechariah 11:14-16 imply a date near the end of Zerubbabel’s tenure, about 510 B.C. (36). The book functions as “a supplemental vision to that represented by Nehemiah’s infrastructural initiatives, reminding both priestly and political leaders of Yahweh’s desire for renewal that moved beyond physical restoration” (37).
The third and fourth sections concern the literary form and inner biblical allusions. Zechariah 1:1-6 indicates that the words spoken to the prophets before the exile continue to have meaning to those who are returning to Jerusalem. “My words” and “my statutes” refer to prophecy and the Law of Moses, but Boda argues the forms which appear in Zechariah have been “shaped by the Jeremianic tradition” (40). There are allusions in the book to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, other books within the Book of the Twelve, and the Torah. Boda does not take any time to define what he means by an “intertextual allusion” other than to refer to his earlier work, Bringing Out Treasure: Inner Biblical Allusion in Zechariah 9-14 (T&T Clark, 2003). The “orientations” in the body of the commentary include a section on intertextuality.
Finally, Boda offers a few pages on the message of Zechariah which have “enduring relevance for communities of faith who have recognized the authority of this book as sacred Scripture” (41). Of particular interest is “Zechariah for today.” Several New Testament writers were influence by the book and used elements in their presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. The book continues to be applicable as a warning to believers that sin still can easily entangle communities and individuals.
The Commentary. The body of the commentary resembles other volumes in the NICOT series. Boda offers a fresh translations followed by textual notes, a running phrase-by-phrase commentary on the text. Textual notes on the translation include syntactical options and variations from the Old Greek, Vulgate, or other ancient witnesses. Because the text of Zechariah is difficult, these notes sometimes appear on almost every word of the translation. On 9:11-13, for example, there are 24 notes; on 11:4-12 there are more than three pages of notes! By placing these technical details prior to the commentary proper, the body is more useful for readers who are more interested in the meaning of the text. All Hebrew appears in transliteration in both the body of the commentary and in the footnotes.
Given Boda’s interest in intertextuality, it is not surprising the commentary is rich with possible allusions to other text in the Hebrew Bible. For example, on Zechariah 9:9, he suggests the verse is “reminiscent of earlier expectations of Haggai and Zechariah 1-8” (565). Commenting on Zechariah 12, he says “earlier textual traditions have played a key role in the shaping of 12:2-13:6” (696), primarily Ezekiel 36, but “the vocabulary of 13:2 echoes Ezek 14:1-11” and the cleansing contained in 13:1 “reflects the river of water which flows from the temple in Ezek 47:1-12” (696). The section is also “reminiscent” of Isaiah 51 among other texts. A potential objection here is the dating of Ezekiel, since it is possible the final form of Ezekiel is later than the composition of Zechariah, about 520 B.C. according to Boda. Although I consider Ezekiel to predate Zechariah, it is at least possible Zechariah and Ezekiel represent common tradition in this particular example.
Zechariah and Apocalyptic. Boda’s commentary reflects in part an ongoing discussion of the genre of Zechariah. Since chapters 1-6 are a series of visions which include strange imagery and an angelic guide, the book is sometimes associated with apocalyptic literature. The final two chapters of the book are concerned with eschatological battles using apocalyptic language. Since imagery from Zechariah is used in Revelation, the book is sometimes considered an example of early apocalyptic. Boda however does not think it is helpful to read the book as apocalyptic since this makes the visions reports refer “strictly to futuristic events, place in the distant future or even eschaton” (102). He argues the vision reports in the book concern recent events in the community, the punishment of Babylon and Persia, and the restoration of the the priestly and royal houses in the new province of Yehud (102). It is in fact dangerous, says Boda, to use the term protoapocalyptic because “it encourages treatment of the vision reports as apocalyptic” (102).
Perhaps this is the case, but it is possible Boda has protested too much. The genre of apocalyptic does not necessarily require a vision refer to the extreme distant future. For example Daniel 8 is clearly apocalyptic, yet refers to the decline of Persia and the rise of Greece. Depending on one’s view of the date of Daniel, this vision refers to either very near future or recent past. It does not refer to events of a distant eschatological age at all. Perhaps this is an example of hearing premillennial interpretations of Revelation in the text of Zechariah. There is no reason Zechariah could not use a variation on the developing genre of apocalyptic to comment on the struggles of his own community prior to 520 B.C.
Conclusion. Boda’s commentary on Zechariah is an excellent exegetical commentary on a most difficult prophetic book. His careful attention to detail makes this commentary one of the best on Zechariah available today.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Provan, Iain. Discovering Genesis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 224 pp. pb; $22. Link to Eerdmans
Discovering Genesis by Iain Provan is the first Old Testament volume in Eerdmans new Discovering Biblical Texts series (Discovering Matthew and Discovering John are currently available). The Discovering series attempts to apply author, text and reader based methods to the biblical text in a complementary way in order to invite students into a theological and historical discussions raised directly by the text. As with other contributions to this series, Provan lists and evaluates interpreters, often focusing on reception history.
After a short introduction to the structure and plot of Genesis, Provan devotes two chapters to “reading strategies” for Genesis, using the Renaissance as a dividing point for the two chapters, but he divides his history of interpretation into four major sections: up to A.D. 476, medieval readings 476-1350), Renaissance and Reformation (1250-1648) and modern readings (1648-today). Prior to the modern period, Provan gives examples from both Jewish and Christian commentaries showing how serious readers of Genesis tried to make the book apply to a new situation. For the most part, this involved allegorizing the text, but there are examples of writers who did take the stories at face value. What unites all these Jewish and Christian pre-modern readings of Genesis is an assumption of the authority of the book of Genesis.
By the modern period, Enlightenment thinkers had eroded the authority of Genesis. Baruch Spinoza, for example, famously declared that a plain reading of Scripture was not worth of a reasonable person’s assent (34). The study of history and geography, along with the rise of Darwinism, had a major impact on the study of Jesus. Post-Enlightenment commentaries reject allegory and return to the text, often with positive results. For example, prior to the modern period, Jacob is a model of virtue. By actually reading what the text says it is clear Jacob is a scoundrel (159)!
Provan surveys briefly Source, Form, and Redaction criticism. Although he does consider the emphasis on genre to be a positive contribution of Form criticism, Provan finds these methods problematic. Provan is skeptical about our ability to objectively reconstruct the documentary or oral sources behind the text of Genesis and he expresses his lack of interested in what lies behind the book (50).
In addition to these three, Provan comments on Muilenberg’s Rhetorical Criticism and Structuralism as a bridge to the now-popular Narrative Criticism. Provan thinks Narrative Criticism provides a “more satisfying resolution of the ‘difficulties’ in a text than that of which Wellhausen was capable” (44). He includes short sections on Social Scientific Criticism and Feminist Criticism. With respect to Social Science, Provan offers Norman Gottwald as an example, although he concludes “Gottwald does not illuminate the text at all; he suppresses it” (46). Finally, he briefly introduces Brevard Childs and Canonical Criticism, concluding that Childs’s method offers “a framework in which man previously illumination f the text through the ages . . . can be brought into fruitful conversation” (48). One element missing from this short survey of approaches to Genesis is a Theological Reading of Genesis, perhaps illustrated by James McKeown in his Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary on Genesis.
The third chapter locates the “word of Genesis” in its proper time and place. Although this is perhaps the most important “reading strategy,” the chapter is tantalizingly brief. Since modern study of Genesis focuses on the literal sense of the text, it is necessary to place the text in the proper historical, social, and literary context. For Provan, the world of the Ancient Near East included complex cultures which worshipped many gods in temples within emerging city states ruled by divine or semi-divine kings (52). By the sixth century B.C. these foundational beliefs were being questions by most cultures. Provan considers Genesis to be the response of Mosaic Yahwehists to the kinds of questions many cultures were asking about the “old religion” (55). Genesis develops a cosmology in which there is one God who rules as king of the universe and creates the cosmos as his sanctuary (56). Humans are marked out as his image and given dominion over the cosmos to rule on behalf of the divine King, God.
The next four chapters cover the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It may be surprising at first almost forty percent of Provan’s book is devoted to only these chapters of Genesis.. But since most of the theologically rich passages in Genesis are in the first eleven chapters appropriate Provan spend significant space unpacking the often difficult theological questions of Genesis 1-11. Anyone who has taught Genesis knows students have more questions about creation, the Fall and the Flood than any other section of book.
Provan treats the problem of two creation stories by suggesting a single author who wrote the stories in order to highlight the transcendence of God (60). Many (especially evangelical) readers approach Genesis with scientific questions, but Provan sticks to the text in order to argue the creation accounts are about God ordering chaos. God blessed his good creation, but after the human rebellion he curses the creation, creating conflict between humans and their environment. In these chapters Provan does cover many of the common questions asked about the first few chapters of Genesis, although given the brevity and purpose of the book, he can only hint at possible answers.
The final three chapters of the book are devoted to the Patriarchal narratives (Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Jacob, and Joseph). Abraham and Sarah and placed in the context of the Ancient Near East. For example, Abraham’s lie about Sarah and the use of a hand maid to produce an heir can be illustrated in the culture of the second millennium B.C. Since the stories are far less controversial, he does not need to interact with scholarship as often as the first few chapters of Genesis
Provan makes use of rabbinic texts and early church commentaries to demonstrate how early readers received the text of Genesis. Frequently he makes reference to medieval commentaries, art and literature. What is more, he often refers to modern interpretations of the stories and Genesis in contemporary art and literature. Most of these are classical references, although he does include Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited as in contemporary allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis chapter 22 (149). Most of these allusions are simply mentioned, however the footnotes tend to treat these allusions in more detail. A helpful addition would be a website collecting photographs the art referred to in the text.
Conclusion. Discovering Genesis is a short introduction to the study of Genesis ideal for use in a seminary class on the Pentateuch or a more specialized class on Genesis. Provan presents the material in way which will also be useful to the general reader interested in the theological and historical issues for reading Genesis with accuracy. As an introduction, the book is often frustrating in its brevity, but this is to be expected given the goals of the book and the Discovering series.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Abraham: The Story of a Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 256 pp. Pb; $29. Link to Eerdmans
In this book, Joseph Blenkinsopp offers what he calls a “discursive commentary” on Genesis 12-22, the life of Abraham. In the preface he states his in this book goal is to write an exposition of the text which is “basically historical-critical” but also sensitive to the general theological and human interest found in the biblical text itself (xi).
The introduction to the book surveys the character of Abraham in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. In this book, Blenkinsopp assumes the stories reached a final form fairly late, in a “time of uncertainty” as a response to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (21). The promise of land repeated throughout these stories would have been important to the struggling post-exilic community as would Abraham’s tenuous hold on the Promised Land. That God remained faithful to Abraham during his struggle to live in a land promised to him would have encouraged the post-exilic community.
The life of Abraham is divided into ten chapters, extending to the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. There are few technical details in the text, the few times he references the Hebrew text words appear only in transliteration, and interaction with literature on Genesis appears in the footnotes. This makes for a readable text without too much distraction from technical details.
Occasionally he deals with theological readings of the text. For example, he discusses the sacrifice of Isaac (the Aqedah) foreshadowing the death of Jesus (155-8). Although the New Testament does not specifically connect the story in Genesis 22 to the crucifixion, “it was practically inevitable” the story would be seen as prefiguring Jesus’ death. That Paul would call Jesus “our paschal lamb” (1 Cor 5:7) may be the New Testament connection to the Aqedah. The Second Temple book of Jubliees associates the sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. According to that book, the story begins on the twelfth of Nisan. Since the journey to Moriah took three days, he arrives at Moriah on the fifteenth of the month, the day Passover will begin later in history. Every year after the events on Moriah, Abraham celebrated a seven day “feast of the Lord.” Although there is no explicit New Testament connection between Genesis 22 and the death of Jesus, Romans 8:32 says “God did not withhold his own son” (cf. Gen 22:16). Blenkinsopp suggests the Isaianic Servant is also dependent on the Aqedah.
At the end of each chapter is a short reflection entitled “Filling in the Gaps.” These sections draw on the post-biblical legends about Abraham found in Second Temple sources such as Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Philo. He often summarizes the Genesis Rabbah or other later Jewish traditions which interrogate the biblical narrative “probing fractures and fissures” (25). He omits these legends in the commentary on the text since is goal is accurate exposition of the story of Abraham, yet these “illuminations of the text” provide insight into the way later faithful readers of the text understood the story of Abraham. As he points out at the very end of the book, most of these retellings of the Abraham story developed in a time when there were no Christians or Muslims, although they are the paradigm for both Christian and Muslim expansions of the text (210).
A welcome addition to the story of Abraham is a chapter on Abraham’s “other beloved son” Ishmael. Despite the brevity of this chapter, Blenkinsopp deals with some of the historical problems associated with the Ishmael stories, but also the theological problem of “setting aside the firstborn.” Although not considered the firstborn of Abraham, Ishmael “is still recipient of blessing and inheritor of the promise made to Abraham” (167), as is demonstrated by the genealogy of the twelve Arab tribes in Genesis 25. He briefly traces the history of these tribes into the Second Temple period and beyond into the legends included in Qur’an.
Conclusion. As Blenkinsopp states in his introduction, book is a theological exposition rather than a detailed exegetical commentary. Blenkinsopp achieves the goal of presenting the story of Abraham in a way that is both faithful to the text and theologically insightful.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Thomas, John Christopher and Frank D. Macchia. Revelation. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 692 pp. Pb; $36. Link to Eerdmans
This new addition to the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans by John Thomas and Frank Macchia combines an exposition of Revelation with theological insight drawn from the text of the final book of the New Testament. The commentary is not intended to be an exegetical commentary on the Greek text nor do the authors intend to explore every possible allusion to the Old Testament or other Second Temple period text. Thomas and Macchia contribute a clear, readable theologically-oriented commentary on Revelation which will be useful for pastors and teachers as they present this difficult book to their congregations.
The introduction to the commentary is divided into five parts. First, Thomas and Macchia discuss the structure and nature of the book of Revelation. Aside from the usual outline of the book, they emphasize the oral nature of Revelation, commenting that “at every turn there are indications that the book is designed for oral enactment” (7) in “the context of worship within the community” (8). But the book is a Christian prophecy using the style of apocalyptic, although not without significant modification. John sees himself as an heir to the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament so that the book of Revelation is a “prophetic re-interpretation” of the traditions John has received (11). Yet John never directly quotes the Old Testament. He alludes to or echoes the earlier tradition in order to re-interpret them in a new context. Thomas and Macchia describe this as “intertext” (14) although they are not distracted by the often nettlesome discussions of how to detect allusions and echoes.
Second, the audience is Asia Minor, specifically the seven churches from chapters 2-3. There are other churches in the region which were prominent yet are not mentioned, and at least Thyatira seems less important than the others. This suggests the book was intended to be read by all of the churches in Asia Minor. Thomas and Macchia are content to locate Revelation within a “Johannine Community” and point out a number of connections between the Gospel of John and Revelation (20). This community would have been able to hear John’s intertextual allusions because they revered the Jewish Scripture and were led by the Holy Spirit to interpret that Scripture. They cite Revelation 11:8 as evidence for a “spiritual interpretation,” although it is not clear πνευματικῶς in that verse implies a revelation from the Holy Spirit to understand the allusion. Thomas and Macchia suggest the audience included female leadership, although the examples in Revelation 2-3 are mostly negative (i.e. Jezebel). The community faces persecution and suffering from Satan (“cosmic oppression”), Rome, the Jewish community and false teachers from within the community itself.
Third, with respect to the date and authorship of Revelation, Thomas and Macchia affirm a date in the last quarter of the first century, surveying the usual evidence for the later date. They dismiss a pre-A.D. 70 rather quickly. While I agree with the later date, there have been a few good arguments made for an early date recently which could have improved this section of the introduction. They do, however, offer a “modest proposal.” Since the phrase “the Lord’s Day” in 1:8 is the only time reference in the book, perhaps the only date that “counts” is the eschatological Day of the Lord (35). Since there is no specific a date given (as in many Old Testament prophets), the book of Revelation is “dehistoricized.”
This commentary takes seriously the claim someone named John wrote the book, although they prefer the title “John the Prophet.” While they think there is little reason to identify this John with the apostle, the Son of Zebedee, it is at least possible the author is John the Elder, a figure active in Ephesus at the end of the first century according to Eusebius. John the Elder is often thought to be the Beloved Disciple, one of the suggested authors of the Gospel of John. Although it is impossible to conclude John the Prophet and John the Elder are the same person, they think both the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation are from “the same community if not the same hand” (43). Neither book is from the Apostle John, but the two books ought to be read together as authentic voices from a community in Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
This thesis is intriguing and might be improved in two ways. First, Thomas and Macchia do not deal with the obvious objection the Gospel of John and Revelation seem so different. Although there are some similar motifs, the Greek style is radically different and for many the theology of the two books seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. This is especially true for eschatology, the Gospel of John is often described as “realized eschatology” while Revelation looks forward to a glorious return of Christ. This is enough to keep the Gospel of John and Revelation in separate categories for most scholars.
Second, it is possible to make a positive argument in favor of a Johannine community authorship by observing the fact the Olivet Discourse is missing from the Gospel, but may be the source for the seven seals (Rev 6). The author of John may have been motivated to intentionally drop the Olivet Discourse from the Gospel because it is presented in apocalyptic garb in Revelation 6. Since the Gospel is so non-eschatological, it is possible the author intentionally removed this theological thread to include in another book using an apocalyptic style.
The introduction concludes with a survey of the influence of Revelation, including several “disastrous applications” of the book, other apocalyptic documents, art, music, poetry, film and other commentaries. This is an interesting addition to the introduction, ranging from Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant’s Revolt (154-25) to Charles Manson and David Koresh! They devote several pages to other apocalypses of John and artistic and musical representations of Revelation. The two films they chose as examples are terrible, End of Days and the TBN produced Omega Code. Neither are worthy of mention, the space could have been devoted to far better apocalyptic films. The final section surveys historical commentaries on Revelation from the gnostic Victorinus to Allan Boesak, a commentary written in South Africa during Apartheid.
Thomas is responsible for the commentary proper. At 332 pages, the commentary relatively brief commentary compared to some recent works. For example, this commentary section is less than a third the size of Greg Beale (NIGTC) or Aune (WBC). A major reason for this is the relative lack of interest in allusions to the Old Testament and virtually no reference to other Second Temple literature. The index only lists one reference to 3 Maccabees under Pseudepigrapha. There is barely a column of Classical references. This is a refreshing exposition of the text of Revelation without falling into the error of parallelomania.
One feature which is unique to this commentary is the frequent reference to other Johannine literature. The commentary often refers to the use of a word or phrase in the Gospel of John or draws some parallel to a motif found in both books. For example, while discussing the souls under the altar of God in Revelation 6, Thomas points out they are called “witnesses,” a common theme in Revelation but also the Gospel of John (160).
The body of the commentary divides the text into larger sections works through the section. Salient phrase open paragraphs without reference to verses numbers within the section. Not every element of syntax or grammar is discussed nor does the exposition bog down in excessively detailed study of individual words. As is often observed, it is not difficult to read the Greek of Revelation; it is the meaning which is often obscure. There are only occasional references to Greek (and even more rarely Hebrew). These always appears with transliteration so a reader without Greek or Hebrew will find the commentary usable.
As is the case for other Two Horizons commentaries, following the commentary is section devoted to the theology horizons of Revelation more or less based on the standard loci of theology (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Church, Salvation and Eschatology). This is different than other Two Horizon New Testament commentaries, although there does not seem to be a single method for writing a “theological reflection” in the series. Macchia begins each section with a few pages on the theology of God (Christ, Holy Spirit, etc.) in Revelation, followed by “other voices in the New Testament” in order to tease out the distinctive contribution of Revelation. It is significant the first voice in each section is the Gospel and Epistles of John. Matthew and Mark are treated together as are Luke and Acts, Paul and the “other voices” (mostly Hebrews). This comparison is followed by a few short essays on Revelation and Systematic theology.
With respect to the eschatology of Revelation, Macchia is clear the book is about the triumph of the triune God and the reader of the book should not be “preoccupied with future ‘end-time’ events” (590). The book of Revelation teaches that the future is in God’s hand and attempts to read Revelation as if it was a crystal ball predicting the future are inappropriate and dangerous. Yet this is not a complete rejection of a future-aspect to the book. For Macchia, the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation “helps us avoid any illusion that the Kingdom of God can arise from human efforts” (615). This thousand-year reign precedes the final new creation and is focused on “the reign of the crucified and risen Lamb” (618). Since Macchia does not allow his view of Kingdom to be classified in one of the standard millennial categories, both pre- and a-millennial readers will find his discussion stimulating (although both will probably want more support for their own views).
Conclusion. This is a very readable commentary on one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. Thomas and Macchia provide a solid commentary on the text of Revelation and significant theological reflection on Revelation. It avoids several excesses which tend to plague commentaries on Revelation and will serve as a solid resource for pastors and teachers.
Ross. Allen P. A Commentary on the Psalms. Volume 3 (90-150). Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 1040 pp. Hb; $49.99. Link to Kregel.
Allen Ross’s third volume of his Psalms commentary brings to completion this major contribution to the study of the Psalms. Considering all three volumes, Ross has written nearly 3000 pages on the Psalms. But as Ross himself says in his preface, no commentary on the Psalms is every quite complete. Since this commentary is written to assist pastors and teachers study the Psalms for sermons and Bible studies, there is much left to the side. Rarely does he comment on form critical issues nor does he devote space to historical interpretations of the Psalms like Waltke’s recent work on the Psalms. Ross does not attempt to write an overall theology of the Psalms nor is there much awareness of canonical interpretation of the Psalms. He is true to his goal to write a solid exegetical commentary on the Hebrew text to meet the needs of pastors and teachers.
There is no additional introduction to the commentary beyond a short preface. Like the previous volumes in the series, Ross begins his commentary on individual psalms by “paying attention to the text.” He provides his own translation of the psalm with copious notes on textual variations, emendations, and lexical issues. Ross weighs evidence from the versions (Greek, Syriac, etc.) and does not shy away from the syntactic difficulties one encounters reading Hebrew poetry. There are notes on textual variants in the Masoretic text and alternative translations based on Hebrew syntax.
Following his translation, Ross comments on the composition and context of the Psalm. He begins by taking the Psalm header seriously if present. One example is the first Psalm in the commentary. The header for Psalm 90 identifies it as a “Song of Moses, a man of God.” Virtually all commentaries consider Psalm 90 to be post-exilic since it appears to be a communal lament and has been influenced by wisdom literature. Usually the header is understood to mean the Psalm was written in the style of Moses, as if Moses the Man of God was commenting on the present state of Israel in the post-exilic world. Ross considers this plausible, yet “unnecessarily contrived” (27) and ultimately “unconvincing” (25). Since there are Psalms attributed to David in the last section of the Psalter, it is plausible a song of Moses, composed in the late wilderness period. It was intentionally placed here in the Psalter as an introduction to the final section of the Psalter.
After the context is set Ross provides an exegetical outline for the psalm, beginning with a short summary of the Psalm (usually a single sentence). This outline is based on the English text but takes into account exegetical decisions made in the translation. There is nothing unusual about these outlines, In fact, they are excellent resources for pastoral use since they could be adapted into an exegetical sermon very easily.
The extensive explanation of the translation of the Hebrew text of each psalm is a strength of this commentary. In the main body of the commentary Hebrew appears in parenthesis without transliteration. The method is more or less verse-by-verse, although he occasionally groups verses under a single header. He interacts with a broad spectrum of scholarship in the notes, although there is preference for more conservative writers. There is no separate bibliography for each Psalm (as in the WBC or NICOT). Most of the commentary focuses on the vocabulary of the Psalm, with special attention to the main point of the metaphors chosen. When a Psalm refers to some historical even in the life of Israel, the commentary attempts to use the allusion to understand the text of the Psalm.
Each chapter ends with a short “message and application” of the Psalm. It is here Ross attempts to bridge the gap between ancient Hebrew poetry and contemporary Christian worship with a short application. Pastors will find these conclusions very helpful as they draw on this commentary for sermons. Since Ross began by “paying attention to the text” and done his exegetical work, the “message” of the Psalm is tied directly to the text. Usually there is a single line in italics that functions as a kind of one-sentence application for the psalm.
If there is any messianic element in the Psalm, it appears in this “message and application” section. For example, Psalm 118:22-24 is explicitly messianic in the New Testament (Matt 21:42-44). Ross considered this Psalm a typology of Jesus; the builders are the Pharisees and the kings are the Romans (454). The interpretation of the Psalm, Ross says, but function at two levels because “the Lord Jesus Christ clearly appropriated it to himself” (457). Likewise, Psalm 110 is a “prophecy of the coming victory of the Messiah over the world” (358).
One significant feature of this commentary is a 136 page commentary on Psalm 119. As Ross explains, Psalm 119 has not received the kind of attention it deserves (459). By way of comparison, the excellent NICOT commentary on Psalms devotes only sixteen pages to Psalm 119, but nearly ten of those pages are a translation of the whole Psalm and more than two pages are concerned with the acrostic form and repeated vocabulary. So too Samuel Terrien’s EEC commentary; of the nineteen pages devoted to Psalm 119, twelve are a translation and one is bibliography. Geoff Grogan’s Two Horizons commentary on the Psalms has about six pages on the Psalm. To be fair, Ross has about three times the pages than the NICOT, but a 136 page unit only on Psalm 119 is perhaps the longest attempted study of this psalm is modern biblical studies.
Ross observes that a quick reading of Psalm 119 may result in the conclusion that it is a “repetitious and random collection of meditations on the Word of God” (462). Yet careful study will show each stanza is a careful meditation with certain themes, and each stanza builds toward a message which must be read from beginning to end. To demonstrate this, Ross offers a short exposition of each stanza as if were a separate Psalm. He includes an exegetical outline and expositional notes along with a “message and application” for each eight verse unit.
Conclusion. Like the other two volumes, Ross’s commentary on Psalms 90-150 is a model for how to read any section of Scripture. Ross’s method is clear and yields fruit that will enhance any sermon or lecture on the Psalms. This commentary would make an excellent addition to any pastor’s library.
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Psalm 73 begins with a proverb, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” But the writer wonders if that is really true. From his own experience, the wicked seem to prosper (73:4-12) and he does not see much benefit in keeping his heart pure (73:13-14). Despite his careful attention to the details of the Law, he still suffers in ways that seem to be punishments. When the Psalmist entered into worship, his perspective changed (73:17). It was then he realized the success of the wicked is an illusion. They are not as “blessed” as they appear.
This change in perspective is also seen in his renewed commitment to be near to God (73:25-28). The last two verses of the Psalm returns to the theme of the first, “But for me, it is good to be near God.”
The writer’s commitment to God is based on God’s presence in his life. God is near his people. This is God’s persist care for his people. The image the writer uses is a young child who is protected by loving parents. This is particularly vivid because most parents need to work very hard to watch over a child. A parent must be persistent, since the moment you let your guard down there is going to be crayon on a wall of a spoon in the light socket.
This metaphor also expresses God’s sufficiency. God is all that the writer needs; as it turns out, he does not need to envy the prosperity of the wicked since God has given him all that he needs, he is able to be completely satisfied in the presence of God. What more on earth could there be to satisfy me compared to true fellowship with God?
As it turns out the proverb in 73:1 is correct. The one who is pure in heart is near to God, the external circumstances of the individual do not matter, whether they are wealthy or in poverty, whether they are in good health or suffering greatly. True shalom, the peace of which the covenant speaks is to be found in nearness to God and only in nearness to God.
Conversely, it is a fearful thing to be far from God, as are the wicked. Their apparent prosperity in the present time is nothing, it is in fact not real prosperity at all. Ironically, in the end, misery is to be far from God, while true shalom is to be near to God.
Even though he questioned the value of his innocence, the writer’s perspective is changed when he entered into worship. The wicked are not as prosperous has he once thought (73:18-20). The writer knew his feet were in danger of slipping when he became envious, but the wicked are in a slippery place as well, in ignorance! Because they trust in their wealth and power, they are in the most insecure place imaginable. The prosperity of the wicked is compared to a dream. It is not real and substantive, it is merely a vapor which will pass away when morning comes. The wicked are “unreal” or even naturally unstable, liable to fall at any moment.
We might think it strange that this new perspective might come out of a worship experience since we do not really sing worship songs about the damning of the wicked. This is true in the psalms, however. Assuming the writer did engage in the liturgy of the temple, then there is a strong possibility that he would have sung some of the Psalms which reminded him that God is a righteous judge and would punish the wicked.
The writer’s change in perspective is also seen in his self-evaluation (73:21-24). Like most people who have “come to their senses,” he feels a bit foolish. he calls himself senseless (only in Pss 49:11, 73:22, 92:7, Prov 12:1, 30:2, parallel to foolish, etc.), he compares himself to an animal which has no reason or wisdom at all. In saying this, he is not deprecating himself out of a false humility. Worship has taught him what he really is (a child of God) and his understanding of the way things really are in this world will be driven by that worship experience.
He recognizes that God is always with him, holding his hand as a parent with a small child. The reason a small child can walk or play with confidence is the knowledge that the parent is nearby and watching over them. The psalmist is describing himself as a small child who simply needed to be reminded that his loving parent is keeping watch nearby.
This is a child-like faith, but it is not a simple, unquestioning faith. In this psalm the writer has expressed very grave doubts about God’s justice in the world, perhaps even the ability of God to keep his promises. He has critically evaluated both the world and his faith, and returned to an honest faith in the God who is very near.
The writer’s changed perspective is also seen in his renewed commitment to be near to God (25-28). The last two verses of the Psalm returns to the theme of the first, “But for me, it is good to be near God.”
The writer’s commitment to God is based on God’s presence in his life. He is always with me, he is near. This is an expression of God’s persistence. The image of a young child is particularly good because a parent has to work pretty hard to watch over a child all of the time. A parent must be persistent, since the moment you let your guard down there is going to be crayon on a wall or a spoon in the light socket.
This also expresses God’s sufficiency. God is all that the writer needs; as it turns out, he does not need to envy the prosperity of the wicked since God has given him all that he needs, he is able to be completely satisfied in the presence of God. What more on earth could there be to satisfy me compared to true fellowship with God?
As it turns out, the proverb in 73:1 is correct. The one who is pure in heart is near to God, the external circumstances of the individual do not matter, whether they are wealthy or in poverty, whether they are in good health or suffering greatly. True shalom, the peace which the covenant speaks of, is to be found in nearness to God and only in nearness to God. Conversely, it is a fearful thing to be far from God, as are the wicked. Their apparent prosperity in the present time is nothing, it is in fact not real prosperity at all.
Ironically, in the end, misery is to be far from God, while true shalom is to be near to God.