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GENESIS TO DEUTERONOMY VOL 1 (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) Hardcover – 2 Nov 2009

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Beautifully done and useful, but too often disconnected 26 May 2010
By mtlimber - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I write as a layman, and I expect the following may be most useful to fellow book worms who do not hold a seminary degree but who read semi-academic materials anyway.

The first thing that will strike anyone who picks up this book is the excellent presentation - plenteous photos, maps, archeological artifacts, ancient manuscripts, etc. on nearly every page. In addition to the full-color bling, there are many sidebars discussing ancillary topics (e.g., "Inheritance practices in the Ancient Near East," "Ancient grain-processing and bread-making," "The location of Mt. Sinai"), although I thought some shorter sidebars could have been incorporated directly in the commentary text, which would have improved the flow of those pages.

Back to the presentation, the font and spacing and the layout make the commentary text itself eminently readable. All foreign alphabets are transliterated, so if you're like me and don't know much about Hebrew or Ugaritic, you won't be traumatized by incomprehensible calligraphic squiggles in the middle of sentences and can follow the discussion much more easily.

The main commentary text consists of verse reference with a brief, bolded quotation from the NIV (Zondervan's translation, natch), followed by "backgrounds commentary," That is to say, the commentary usually deals neither with the precise meaning of the biblical text, though occasionally it brings in linguistic evidence to clarify the meaning of particular words (usually controverting the NIV!); nor with manuscript traditions or "higher criticism" of the text; nor with the import of the biblical text for our theology; nor with modern application. Instead, it uses the text as a launching point to describe the evidence we have from the Ancient Near East (ANE) that is directly or tangentially relevant to the text, and it provides ample footnotes (collected at the end of each biblical book, not at the bottom of the page or at the end of the volume) for further study.

So, to pick a text at semi-random, the comments on "No razor may be used on his head" (Num. 6:5) from the Nazirite regimen don't mention Samson or John the Baptist (that latter of whom may or may not have been a Nazirite) or the modern application, if any, as one might expect in a work of expositional commentary. Instead, this work summarizes in one sentence what the significance of long hair is for the Nazirite and then spends two paragraphs discussing long hair in the ANE - in Mesopotamian and Mediterranean law codes like Hammurabi's, in religious settings, and in society in general.

In short, the commentary brings the wealth of information long hidden in comparative studies to bear on the Bible. Anyone who received a Ph.D. in Old Testament from a secular university in the last 30 years will be steeped in comparative studies, and while the Bible's harshest critics have long used such information in an attempt to destroy the Bible, only relatively recently have evangelicals begun to mine it for information that actually elucidates the text and the culture.

The biblical authors assumed a cultural background that would allow their audience to interpret the text in the way they intended it to be understood, but our context is radically different. The series's editor Walton suggests, "[S]tudying the [mythological, legal, etc.] literature from the ancient world can help us, whose cultural worldview tends toward empiricism, to make adjustments as we try to understand how a nonempiricist worldview works. The result is that we can be drawn out of the restricted perspectives that come most naturally to us. This is the value of [comparative studies] for the study of the Bible" (p. 10).

A book like Leviticus, which I daresay is nigh impossible for a layman to appreciate except at limited points, gets clarity from comparison, particularly in how it stands out from other ANE law and ritual codes. For instance at v. 1:5, which commands the sprinkling of blood on the altar as part of a sacrifice, the commentary tells us quickly that the use of blood as representing the life blood "enacted ransom of human life." Then it spends two and a half paragraphs describing the significant differences between the ANE and Hellenistic practices and the Israelites' practice - e.g., many ancients didn't ritually apply blood in any way, while others offered blood libations only to an underworld (deathly) deity through holes in the ground, whereas the Israelites' sacrifices were offered to the heavenly deity.

Likewise, in discussing the Sabbath (Gen. 2; Ex. 20; Deut 5), the commentary repeatedly notes how it is unique to Israel, though we know plenty about secular and religious time divisions in the ANE. The comparison here brings out the specialness of this command, which the Old Testament emphasizes again and again. I assumed there was some parallel, independent or dependent, cultural or natural, perhaps based on the planets (cf. Planet Narnia) or phases of the moon, but that appears not to be the case, despite a goodly number of failed attempts to find parallels. That's helpful.

The commentary on Gen. 17:10 discusses circumcision outside the Bible as well as the peculiarly modern questions of gender and the sign of the covenant marking men only.

These are places where the commentary shines, and the work as a whole is chock full of good and useful material. Yet I have some significant complaints, too.

Sometimes, particularly in Walton's own commentary on Genesis, the comparison is too bald. That is, the author gives some ANE data but does not offer evaluation of its precise connection to the text, which sometimes leaves me with the feeling that they had some tangentially relevant data that they wanted to throw in but not enough understanding of it to really make it stick. In one way, for empiricists like us it's nice to have this data in front of us, but that doesn't stop the data from occasionally seeming like unrelated fluff.

For instance, at Gen. 9:13 there is a comparison to the Gilgamesh epic, in which there is a necklace in the shape of flies (an Egyptian fly necklace is pictured, though not referenced) that is the "basis of an oath by which [the swearing goddess] will never forget the days of the flood." He quotes a scholar who connects Noah's rainbow and "the iridescence of the flies' wings" with no further comment. Perhaps the footnote makes the case better, but at the level presented, that seems like quite a stretch. Presumably Walton thinks it a plausible connection or he wouldn't have included it, but its relevance is not spelled out. What does this tell us about the biblical text, and how should we now interpret it in light of this connection?

The commentary continues on the same verse, indicating that an Assyrian relief shows two hands reaching out of the clouds, one offering blessing and the other with a bow (threatening punishment?). This is relevant because "bow" and "rainbow" are the same Hebrew word, and it is "an interesting image [and may have] diverged from a common core." This is more helpful. However, what it doesn't say is that after a bit of text in a new section, the relief is pictured on the following page.

Indeed this is a common flaw in the commentary: the pictures, maps, and sidebars are not often referenced by the commentary itself (e.g., "see figure 4"). It's almost like a completely separate team was responsible for digging up photos of relevant artifacts to match the already-written commentary, which they could not modify. The captions of many photos give only a bare minimum of information about the pictured item, and the vast majority of them are not described in detail like the hands from the clouds mentioned above. If one came to look for help with the rainbow and didn't happen to turn the page, the whole comment might be discarded as too academic, speculative, and lacking relevance.

Young Earthers will not like the Genesis commentary at all. I am sympathetic to Walton's critique of reading our empirical worldview back into the text, as both Young Earthers and Old Earthers like Hugh Ross do, but I find his comparative analysis here only somewhat helpful in getting to the bottom of things. Better, I think, is Meredith Kline's framework interpretation (cf. part 3 of The Genesis Debate or consult the Wikipedia under "Framework interpretation (Genesis)").

I must also note that this volume contains a picture index for the entire series of five volumes, but it does not have any other index (subject, author, and/or Scripture). Presumably, at least some of those are given in another volume in the series, and while I see the value to a series-wide index, it was decidedly inconvenient to use this as a reference work without access to it. Since one can buy the volumes separately, Zondervan should certainly make those indices available online.

The danger of this commentary is reading too much parallelism from the ANE into the Bible since it may well be that we don't have the right archeological evidence/understanding to compare and put some things in their proper context. This certainly doesn't mean that we should give up on archeology, comparative studies, or trying to illuminate the Bible's hard-to-understand passages. Rather, I think it means that we must be careful not to be too dogmatic, particularly in obscure passages, because we are far separated from the authors' primary audience and our ancient cultural artifacts are limited and not necessarily the most important and characteristic ones.

To summarize, I'll quote Walton. Following some ANE data, he says, "None of this information offers clarification of [a biblical character's] behavior, but it does *alert us to a number of alternatives that we otherwise might not have recognized*" (p. 56, emphasis mine). I find this to be generally true of the commentary throughout, and perhaps this is its greatest value: keeping us humble in our interpretation by calling out the fact that there is much in the ancient world that we fail to intuit or understand properly from our modern vantage point.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
A New Standard In Bible Backgrounds!! Exceptionally Clear, Insightful & Helpful Pastoral Tool 12 Nov 2009
By David A. Bielby - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I audited a course from Dr. Walton at Wheaton College Grad School a few years ago. I found him to be humble, warm, hospitable, humorous and very knowledgeable about the background of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. He's the kind of prof who will drag an extra 15 or 20 books into the classroom each week to show the students and to recommend for further reading....sometimes giving a quick commercial for the best ones. He obviously has a passion for his work and he's very good at it. His The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy is a very helpful tool that has remained in use since I discovered it. Also the tool, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible is helpful for more academic pursuits of the background of the Old Testament, and even for more studious Pastors who want to dig for a series or passage they are exegeting. (See my review of that book for a summary from my perspective)

At the time I was in his class the text of this book was about done and he was searching for quality photos for the series. So I've been looking forward to this commentary for awhile now. Let me say in one sentence:

I am NOT disappointed.

Why am I not disappointed with this book? Let me summarize.

The binding is high quality and the paper is heavier than most of my books. It also has a light matte coating that is durable and pleasant on the eye. The fonts are large and even the footnotes are legible without straining. It is also hard to find a page without a relevant photo or graph on it. The publisher has set off the margins with a light moth green that fades from the border to the edge of the page with a fade out to white technique that is different and pleasant. Special articles throughout the text are in a maroon trim with a cinnamon (very light) hue shading to set the text off. Usually these kind of techniques by editors or publishers to make text stand out tend to irritate me, but I found these to actually enhance my reading experience.

The integration of Ancient Near East Thought, Culture and Religion into practical places where they can help a pastor, Bible teacher or scholar find more relevant background material is the main value of this book.
From my perspective Walton's strength is multi-faceted, but his talk about Cosmic Geography of the Ancient Near Eastern world opened up the Bible for me with a paradigm shift. That talk is summed up well with an excellently written two page summary embedded around an artists drawing that drives the point home.

Let me point out that Walton, who is the General Editor of this volume and the set in general, did not write all the material for this volume. He wrote the Genesis material. For Exodus we have Bruce Wells (St Joseph's University in Philadelphia), Leviticus is done by Roy E. Gane (Andrews Univ in Michigan), Numbers is done by R. Dennis Cole (New Orleans Bapt Theo Sem), and Deuteronomy is by Eugene E. Carpenter (Bethel in Indiana).

I just did a sermon series through Genesis last year, and how I wish I had had this tool then. It would have enhanced my studies tremendously. I am working through Exodus right now, and am having a wonderful time in Exodus. This book has become my new favorite tool! I love it!

It has points that help correct other tools out there. For example, I was looking at the Spirit-Filled Life Bible-NKJ notes on Exodus 13. They describe the war chariots of Pharaoh as heavy and easily bogged down in mud. They also say that Israel probably took a certain route to the promised land. However, my Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by Strudwick says the chariots of that time period were light and easily maneuverable. So I looked at Walton's BBC Vol 1 (this book I'm reviewing) and here is what Wells says
The evidence for which route they took is no longer as scholars used to think. He goes on to lay out the cases and concludes that they don't know which way the Israelites went. He says that the use of chariotry by the Egyptian military, especially during the New Kingdom, is well attested. Chariots functioned mainly as vehicles for archers who could spray the enemy with arrows while staying mobile, and therefore relatively safe. He approaches numbers with a blended commentary that I don't particularly like, stating that there is no evidence for 600+ chariots of Pharaoh, so therefore he probably only had a few hundred. He states that this text is probably a hyperbole. Maybe so, but if this text says there were 600 chariots, then that itself is evidence. So to say there is no evidence is an error in my mind (I'm no scholar though). The best part of this article though is the photograph of an ancient art piece on display at the British Museum showing Pharaoh on a chariot with other Chariots in the background and a blend of Egyptian and African infantry in the foreground. Here you can see that the ancient chariot is stunningly simple, lightweight, and agile enough that the horses could rear up and strike with their forelegs (or perhaps they are charging-I'm not certain). But my point in all of this is that the photo gave me enough insight to realize that the Study Bible summary was probably incorrect and the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by Amber Books (not available on Amazon?) was probably correct.

Wells also has a very interesting take in his article on the Merneptah Stele (pg 210). Here there is a photo of the Stele with an article that discusses the date of the Exodus. Which Egyptian pharaoh was incharge when all this took place? He covers the ground succinctly in about 1/2 page concluding that there is no clear answer that wins the day for most scholars. He then says that perhaps the Bible reluctance to name the Pharaoh here is meant to leave the reader in the dark...so that this account can have a broader appeal in the future and so that the nameless pharaoh can function as a symbol for any oppressor of the Israelites. An interesting spin on the dilemma indeed! Far superior to a dogmatic claim that a certain Pharaoh was the one, or that it was all a myth.

Another refreshing element in this book is the effort to reject extremism. There are two extremes that I'm referring to: 1) Fundamentalist literalism with no accomadation to the fact that the Bible was written to people who had a completely different mindset and a completely different understanding of the world than we do. 2) Anti-supernaturalist scholars who automatically reject any claim to anything supernatural as impossible and as proof that the Bible is a book of myths.

Somewhere between these two views lies the truth. And I think Walton and his team have come closer to this than anyone out there I've seen for OT material. Instead of taking accounts in the Old Testament that refer to the cosmic geography of the ancient worldview as evidence of error, Walton proposes that God is speaking to the ancients in ways they can accept and embrace as their own view. For example: If the ancients believed that the sky was a hard shell, with windows that let the rains come in...and that the mountains supported the sky...and that the way to connect with a deity was to get as close to the sky as you could by going up on top of mountains and hills, they why couldn't God call a man to come up on a mountain to meet him? This doesn't mean that God is endorsing their worldview, it just means that He knows what they think and that He is doing things in a way that impresses them. This tool continually brings this perspective to bear on the biblical text. For some pastors, it may tilt too far towards the evangelicals and for some evangelicals it will tilt too far towards 'liberals'. But my contention is that this work of scholars is a serious effort that reconciles the differences between these worlds with a better approach. I've found it compelling and helpful in my sermon prep.

It's superior to the other Bible Background Commentaries I have. It's the sort of tool that I enjoy sitting and just reading for the enjoyment of it all. That's how well done it is in my opinion. It is also helpful to have on hand in a small group so that you can show the pictures to a handful of people. It would be helpful if the book had a cd with photos/graphs for display via projectors for teachers/preachers, but that is not included.

For these reasons and others that I don't have time to get into, this is a five star tool...one that is a 'ya gotta have this one on your shelf guys' resource for preachers and bible teachers. Especially if you are teaching anything that references the first five books of the Bible!!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A detailed commentary on the historical context of the Pentateuch 27 Jan 2010
By George - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
First of all, thanks go out to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for this review copy of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (hereafter, ZIBBCOT1).

ZIBBCOT1 is a wonderful work to reference if you need to understand the background of scripture and Israel as a people uniquely set apart to God. It provides great depth as it describes the relationships between Mosaic Law and other legal codes and treaties of the time period. ZIBBCOT1 also provides clear insight into the shared cultural understandings of the time, spring-boarding as necessary into points of uniqueness found in Israel's understanding of its own beginnings, purpose, and relationship with deity.

Due to the subject matter, I found there to be a lot of repetition between books. This was especially noticeable as one moved into Deuteronomy. But Genesis was covered with power, patience and clarity, and Numbers, often treated as a throw-away book sandwiched between Leviticus and Deuteronomy, came alive under R. Dennis Cole's authorship. After reading this volume, I have a greater sense of the law and covenant as something experienced by the people, rather than just rules and regulations to be kept, mulled over and re-interpreted or questioned.

ZIBBCOT1 is replete with maps, aerial views, ancient writing samples, idols and religious artwork - and in the case of the early sections of Genesis, a number of well done artistic concept renditions. Of all of these, I found the maps the most powerful in advancing understanding of the text, though the rest helped immerse me in the material.

In the commentary on Genesis, the concept of the creation narrative as setting up "functionaries" within the cosmic temple will probably be hard for some to swallow - especially as it almost entirely ignores the debate over creation/evolution - but I believe the author and editor have done a good job presenting the information and staying on task.

Throughout the text, the authors are willing to admit where there is question or doubt about meaning, while pointing out any possibilities for understanding the context, even if they do not fit traditional renderings or are not fully conclusive in the end. One example is the comments on the traditional "cool of the day", p. 35:

"...If so, then then God is coming in judgment rather than for a daily conversation, which explains Adam and Eve's desire to hide.

The problem is that though this Akkadian word is connected with the storm, it is more often a "storm demon" or a deified personification of the storm. Thus it is difficult to argue that the Akkadian word means "storm," and one cannot therefore carry it over to a few ambiguous Hebrew occurrences...

The insufficiency of the alternative does not tacitly support the traditional translation, since that has no support either."

Overall, a detailed and thoughtful way of saying, "After much research, we don't know for sure in this instance." A reasonable statement, in such an event.

The text gives ample reason, at regular intervals, to situate the Mosaic Law, including hotly debated Deuteronomy, in the context of 1400-1200 BCE, rather than 9-7 BCE. This is supported within ZIBBCOT1 by details of archeological and textual relationships, rather than just being asserted - and for that I was grateful. However, text critical theories about the makeup of the first five OT books play almost no part in the commentary, and this left me wondering if some time should have been spent at least responding or dealing with how this might affect our understanding of the background. All that is offered is a note in the introduction to Genesis (pp. 3-4) that:

"Many scholars unconvinced of the connection to Moses are more inclined to view the book against a mid-first millennium B.C. backdrop. The discussion is not without significance, but its impact on background issues will not often be felt. It is more important to become aware of how ancient culture differed in general from our own and to assess how the literature of the ancient Near East offers us understanding of that ancient culture."

Not wholly convincing, as these things go.

In summary, ZIBBCOT1 is detailed and picturesque, immersing the reader in the Biblical context. It suffers from some unmitigated repetition, but this might be expected based on the material being covered. Overall, it does a great job of providing needed historical and literary context for those trying to understand how Israel saw itself in relation to God and other ancient peoples.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Need Context? Look No Further. 29 Oct 2012
By Matt Turner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful commentary, whether your a serious theologian or exegetical newbie. As a missions guy, I fall somewhere in between, but I gave the gift to my (theologically untrained) mom for a Bible Study she's leading and she found it to be an amazing resource. She told me that her class considered her an expert, even though she pretty much ripped off exactly what Dr. Walton wrote in the Genesis section.

For those of you Scripture hounds who don't trust a commentary with pictures to be academically sound and challenging, I found that the pictures always aided immensely in the interpretive process. For example, in the opening pages is a diagram that shows the ancient Hebrew concept of the world that completely changed the way I read scripture. Since I had Dr. Walton in class for Old Testament I had heard this concept spoken of, but it wasn't until I saw the diagram that I really understood the way it affected their thinking and writing.

I'll admit I'm biased because I just really like Dr. Walton. I got to know he and his wife on a Holy Lands studies program in Israel, and he was an absolutely one of a kind, amazing man to take the trip with. I can assure you, his knowledge of Genesis is surpassed by few scholars in this century in in the past. Buy this commentary, and enjoy God's revelation even more!
5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Great resource with some caveats 21 Nov 2009
By Rob Taylor - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Let me just start by saying that this is a fantastic resource. It actually reminds me of many of my history textbooks in school. There are many pictures and maps throughout with a picture index in the rear. There are also many sidebars for clarification and expansion of the background notes. The layout is very user-friendly and the text size is very easy to read as well. While this volume (and this set) may be used by some primarily for reference, this would be a mistake. Having read through most of the 500+ pages in this volume, I would strongly recommend reading straight through the volume. By far, this is the best way to get a feel for the overall culture of the biblical world as well as the limits of that culture to illumine our understanding of the biblical text and our theology.

As to the accuracy of the background information, I can't say much. I am certainly no OT scholar, so the best I would be able to do is to compare and contrast the information in ZIBBCOT with other works. However, this volume certainly seems superior in scope and depth compared to other background commentaries I've seen. My studies have largely been in theology and philosophy, and this is the eye through which I have read this volume. This is also why my comments below focus on Walton's contribution and not so much on the other sections of this volume.

I'm not sure if this is supposed to be an evangelical work, per se. However, evangelicals should be aware that there are some elements which they may find disturbing. Walton begins by comforting his readers that there is "nothing inherently damaging to orthodox theology and beliefs about the Bible if its authors were interacting at various levels with the literature current in the culture" (p. viii). However, some of what follows this statement would be disconcerting, in the least, to those readers . . . especially those with a strong desire to correlate all aspects of their theology.

In his section on Genesis and mythology, Walton steers clear of offering a definition of mythology. Neither does he say that Genesis either is or is not myth. Rather, he says that mythology in the ancient world functioned like science does today, in that it explained how the world works and how it came to work that way. Coincidentally, he also says that Genesis had the same function. This doesn't offer much comfort once it is discovered in this volume that many of the beliefs about the world found in ANE literature (including Genesis) are incorrect, wholly apart from modern sciences' naturalistic/empiricist assumptions. When I say they are incorrect, I am here utilizing a correspondence view of truth. A belief is true if it corresponds with a certain state of affairs and it is false if it does not.

For example, we find that the author of Genesis believed that the "firmament" (Heb. raqia) is a solid dome of some sort. Maybe I'm misunderstanding Walton, but isn't this simply incorrect? I don't think that saying the biblical authors merely described the cosmos functionally gets them off the hook here. If the cosmology of the biblical authors was largely identical to that of their neighbors, at what point is inerrancy compromised? If they believed the land floated on the water and that the sky was a solid dome that rested on the mountaintops, then they are simply incorrect. I certainly understand that God didn't need to straighten our their cosmology before revealing Himself to them. Nevertheless, inerrancy says that the Bible is without error, even when it touches on science.

Most defenses of inerrancy don't seem to handle biblical cosmology very well. They say that the biblical authors use phenomenological language to describe the cosmos, in a similar manner that we do. We say that the sun rises when we know that it really doesn't. The difference between us and the ancients is that we know and intend to use phenomenological language and the ancients didn't. Walton goes the other route and maintains that the biblical authors were simply interacting with the literature of the day.

If one were to take Walton's depictions of the ancients' cosmology seriously, then the pressing question is how far do we need to go in demythologizing the beliefs of the biblical authors? This makes me wonder what the ZIBBCNT volumes have to say about demonic possession and influences. Are demons said to have been put into functional service by the gospels authors in lieu of modern science's empirical discovery of human ailments and disorders? I understand that the NT volumes are decidedly evangelical, so probably not. Again, I question the intended audience of these volumes. For some reason I doubt that the readers of ZIBBCOT cut their theological teeth on Bultmann, but if Walton is correct this may be where they end up.

Nevertheless, this is a great resource. I would have given it five stars had there been a more thorough attempt to reconcile the background material with evangelical theology. It seems that too many scholars are unwilling to cross over into other theological disciplines these days, in the name of scholarship. Unfortunately, another perspective of this phenomena is compartmentalization.
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