13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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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.