Posts Tagged ‘historical background’

Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

One of my Christmas presents for this season was volume 4 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament.  I have reviewed volume 5 of this series here;   my opinions of this series remain as they did in my earlier review, so a new reader may wish to consult it first.  Danny has also reviewed volume 3 here.

In volume 4, ZIBBCOT offers comment on the major prophets:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  The volume does so with characteristic style, and is (at the risk of being redundant) quite helpful.  While the comments on the text are illuminating, I should state again that some of the best portions of this volume are found in the “sidebars,” wherein a particular concept is described in greater detail.  I have found these mini-articles to be most helpful in understanding the text at hand, and would even submit that they are what sets ZIBBCOT apart from other background commentaries.

Even more helpful, in my opinion, are the introductions to each book.  In this volume, where the subject matter often covers large swatches of history, the extended introduction is invaluable for a broader view of the book as a whole.  In some instances, the authors even include separate introductory sections on the literary setting and historical settings.  The only exception here was the introduction to Ezekiel, which is far less substantial than the others; I would have preferred the more in-depth introductions such as in Isaiah or Jeremiah.

Again, I would commend this series to anybody with sufficient resources as a great help to drilling into the OT.  Each author is competent, and the text is easy to understand irrespective of your level of education in biblical studies.

As a much more general note, and one perhaps better reserved for a different post, those who are less acquainted with biblical reference materials should know that this series, like any backgrounds commentary, does precisely what it advertises:  illumine the cultural background of a text.  There is little in the way of word studies, grammatical analysis, interpretations (past and present), examination of the text with respect to other works in the canon, etc.  A (good) full fledged exegetical commentary will take into account everything that informs the meaning of a text, and will submit what that meaning is.  Backgrounds commentaries will only offer, well, backgrounds.  So if you are having trouble understanding Isaiah’s meaning at some point, a good backgrounds commentary (such as ZIBBCOT), will do only part of the job.

This is in no way a pejorative statement against background commentaries, much less ZIBBCOT, but it is important to understand this distinction.  Without this understanding, and only the back cover to read, I would be disappointed with this series.  It delivers on its purpose, but is only one step (among many) required to uncover the meaning of  a text.

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

I received volume 5 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT) a few weeks ago.  This volume covers the Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  (You may also want to read Danny’s review of volume 3).  As my volume notes on the back cover, “Many today find the Old Testament a closed book.”  The purpose of this series of backgrounds commentaries, then, is to illuminate the cultural context in which the Old Testament was written.

Zondervan sets out to accomplish this goal with style:  thousands of pictures, maps, charts and other graphics are scattered throughout every glossy, full color page.  Each chapter (which covers an entire book) opens with a page or two of historical background before proceeding to the commentary proper.  As for the commentary itself, it is important to remember that this is a backgrounds commentary.  As such, it should be noted that these volumes are only one (essential) piece of the library one would consult when doing sound exegesis.

The information provided in my volume largely lived up to its promises, and indeed each page serves as a great start to uncovering the cultures in which the Old Testament books are couched.  I was particularly impressed by the “sidebars” that make frequent appearances.  These dive deeper into a particular concept, and are immensely helpful.  Consider, “To Whom do Hosea’s ‘The Ball’ and ‘The Balls’ Refer?” (pp.16-18), “The Early Days of the Persian Empire” (p.207), or “Community Lament in the Ancient Near East” (p.356).  Taken with the commentary text, they are an excellent addition that is often lacking in other background commentaries.  One would miss a large benefit of these commentaries if they were ignored.

Although all of the pictures are interesting, at times, I couldn’t help but feel that many of them were the commentary equivalent of eye candy.  That is, they’re fun to look at, but ultimately contribute little in the way of nutritional value to the text.  Do several pictures of various ancient clay tablets with indecipherable writing add much in the way of understanding?  Perhaps one or two do, but the return in small, in my opinion.  The graphics do add an overall sense of approachability to the text:  It’s far less overwhelming to open to a colorful page full of interesting pictures than a page of plain text.  They also contribute to an overall atmosphere that some may find helpful, albeit in a subconscious way.  If the graphics are the nudge that an otherwise hesitant reader needs to consult a commentary, then they’re worth it.  If you’re unintimidated by hundreds of pages of plain text, and you’d rather the sandwich without the parsley garnish, this may not be the commentary for you.

That said, many of the pictures are very helpful (e.g., a threshing sledge (p.60), a lamp (p.271), or the modern reconstruction of the Israelite view of the cosmos (p.264)).  As for the maps and charts, they’re often worth their weight in gold.

As Danny noted, the text can sometimes be uneven, since there are so many contributors, but I doubt I’d notice if I used the commentary as a reference (as I would), rather than reading it through.  Given the wide range of genre in my volume, differences should be expected anyway.  In all, I was very pleased with the choice of authors (especially the excellent Duane Garrett for Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs), and what they had to say.

Finally, I should mention something about the price tag.  Colorful glossy pages aren’t cheap, and neither are these volumes.  All 5 are selling for $158 on Amazon, and when I consider that IVP’s 800+ page single volume OT backgrounds commentary is $24, it makes it a hard sell for me.  The pictures and illustrations are indeed helpful, and I won’t deny that they set Zondervan’s commentary apart from others, but are they $134 more helpful?  The answer is ultimately a subjective one that likely enjoys direct proportion to your annual book budget, and how you best engage with a book.  If you have the money, and vanilla text makes you cringe, these are a great addition to your library.  Pastors, teachers and students alike will certainly benefit.  If you’re on a tight budget (financial, shelf space or both), and text alone will scratch most of your itch, I would look elsewhere.

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman of Zondervan for a review copy of this book.

Old Testament historical narratives can be among the most confusing portions of the Bible for the modern reader.  After all, it assumes customs far removed from the 21st Century and kings and nations some of us might remember from high school Ancient Civilization class if we scan the dusty files in our distant memory banks.  Pastors and teachers are no different from everyone else in this regard.

ZIBBCOT Vol 3Zondervan, in partnership with editor John Walton (OT professor at Wheaton Graduate School), has attempted to help bridge the gap between the ancient and modern worlds with the publication of the 5-volume Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT).  This particular review will cover Volume 3, which contains the commentaries on 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther (shameless plug: more reviews coming in the near future).  As a side note, Zondervan ought to be commended as pioneers in the field of publishing aesthetically pleasing books.  In the last couple years they have published a number of volumes that include helpful photographs to aid the learning process (see my review of Clinton Arnold’s How We Got the Bible for an example).  Thus far, they have taken advantage of both our growing knowledge of the ancient world, and improving technology that can take high quality photographs for use in studying, teaching and preaching.

Each biblical book receives a short introduction covering topics such as the historical setting and literary setting of the book.  I found this to be one of the most helpful parts of this volume, because it contains in a relatively short space much of the information one needs to know for the book.  Within the commentary section itself, one finds pieces of information the writers deem helpful to understanding the background of the text. The authors of the individual sections did a great job of selecting texts to comment on and relevant background information to help illuminate the biblical text.  The numerous shadowboxes/sidebars contain informative nuggets on subjects such as The Cedars of Lebanon, Large Numbers in the Hebrew Bible and the Significance of Genealogies for a Postexilic Audience.

What will probably stand out the most, though, is the high number of striking photographs sprinkled on every page of this book.  For those who are visual learners, this book will not disappoint.  The pictures include everything from the famous Lachish Reliefs found in Sennacharib’s palace (1 Kings 18) to the Cyrus Cylinder (Ezra 1 and 2 Chronicles 26).  One of the great benefits of this particular volume is that it can double as a major help for teaching and preaching on the prophets.  Teaching on Hosea?  Check out the sections on the Northern Kingdom and its fall in 2 Kings (where you’ll see an awesome picture of The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III on page 149).  Haggai and Zechariah?  You’ll find help in Ezra-Nehemiah.  In fact, pointing out these connections between the historical narratives and prophetical books will be a great benefit to any congregation.

There are a couple minor “hiccups” along the way.  As one might expect from a multi-author volume, the book can be slightly uneven.  I felt the section on Esther was the weakest (where are the shadowboxes that proved so useful throughout the rest of the book?).  The dates of Ezra’s work in Jerusalem could have been made much clearer, given the fact there is over a gap of over a half century between Ezra 6 and 7.  I found these dates in the introduction to 1-2 Chronicles in a chart of Persian Rulers.  The problem is that this book is not a novel, to be read from cover to cover, but a reference book.  There is, tucked in the comments on Ezra 7:26, a note referring to “the silence about Ezra’s activity between 458 and 445,” but even then it isn’t clear that 458 BC is the date of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.  I’m assuming Edwin Yamauchi, the author of this otherwise excellent section, holds to that date, but I wouldn’t know it from reading the commentary.

Finally, I have to comment about a glaring error.  I’m not one to point out typos in reviews.  After all, in a 500+ page book there are bound to be a couple mistakes.  It’s understandable.  However, when the typo occurs on the front cover of the book, well… I’d be a failure as a book reviewer not to point it out.  It was actually the very first thing I noticed about the book when I took it out of the box.  In the upper right hand corner of the front cover, it reads, “1 & 2 Kinds” instead of “1 & 2 Kings.”  Seriously.  Now, the thought did occur to me that perhaps I only received an early printing that was sent out as a review copy, and that the volume sold online or in bookstores will be different.  But then I discovered that the picture of this book on Zondervan’s own website, as well as Amazon, had the typo.  Ouch.  If they had fixed this mistake, I imagine it would have been fixed on these websites, too.  Again, typos in the text of a long book are one thing, but on the front cover it’s embarrassing.

That mistake, of course, has nothing to do with the content contained within the book, which is quite good.  Those preaching and teaching on these historical narratives will benefit greatly from this book, as I’m sure they will from the rest of the ZIBBCOT series.  This volume, and I suspect the entire series, will prove to be a tremendous resource for the church for many years to come.

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1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of the most confusing passages in the entire Bible.  Check that, it’s probably the most confusing.  I wrote a paper on it in my undergrad days and I’m still confused.  While I believe it’s good to research difficult passages in the Bible and try your best to come to a conclusion (even if very tentative), it’s a passage like this that reminds me of the need for humility in proposing our answers.

One influential (in some circles) treatment of this passage is Wayne Grudem’s, proposed in an article that was reprinted in his Tyndale commentary on 1 Peter.  In it, he takes on the prevalent view that Peter is recalling a story from the Enoch tradition within Judaism.  Basically, to summarize as best I can, in 1 Enoch (a pseudepigraphal writing) there is a story of Enoch being transported to a place where the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-5 were being held.  These fallen angels were held in a prison while their progeny (called “spirits” in 1 Enoch) corrupt the earth during the days of Noah (and continue to do so).  God pronounces a judgment on these fallen angels and the spirits.  There is more to it, and there are all sorts of questions (including whether or not the Genesis account is actually talking about fallen angels), but that’s enough to show that there are points of similarity between the Enoch story and 1 Peter 3.  The story is found in 1 Enoch 12-16, you can click here to read Charles’ translation online.

Grudem objects to seeing the Enoch story in the background of 1 Peter 3 (you’ll have to forgive me for not citing page references, I’m working from memory since I don’t have it in front of me).  Basically, he questions whether or not Peter’s readers, who were probably Gentiles, would be aware of a relatively obscure Jewish text (if indeed it was written before 1 Peter) that was most popular in areas and cultures removed from Peter’s readers in Asia Minor.  It is, to be sure, a fair question.  Many counter this by noting that the story from 1 Enoch and Peter’s word in chapter 3 may reflect the same tradition, even if Peter is not directly refer to 1 Enoch 12-16.  That’s always a possibility (though I have to wonder if we have a case of an “independent traditions of the gaps” argument here), but the case would still need to be made that Peter’s readers could have known this story.  In other words, one would have to show that Peter’s Gentile readers in Asia Minor had some connection to the story of the fallen angels in Noah’s time and the rebellion of the “spirits.”

I’m working through Karen Jobes’ commentary on 1 Peter and she offers up some information that somehow I’ve either never read or never noticed until now.  She notes (on pages 245-247 for those following along at home) that the Noah story was actually a favorite in Asia Minor (presumably because his ark was said to land there).  She notes that there were 4 flood stories that stemmed from Asia Minor, though they aren’t about Noah himself.  But, Jobes states, “Noah was… the most prominently known biblical figure in Asia Minor even among the Gentiles” (245).  It would make sense that Noah would become popular, since strong flood traditions already existed in Asia Minor.  He was so popular, that in the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD, Noah and his wife were featured on coins minted in Asia Minor.

Jobes also points out that the Sibylline Oracles also feature Noah and his pronouncement of judgment on his wicked generation.  The Sibylline Oracles date from around the time of the Jesus, and could have been written in Asia Minor.  Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Peter’s readers were familiar with the Sibylline Oracles themselves, but possibly possessed shared stories and traditions regarding Noah.

Of the existing Noahic traditions in Peter’s time, we see Noah proclaiming judgment on his wicked generation and the spirits who brought about wickedness in his day being judged by God.  Noah himself was a popular figure in Asia Minor, so it wouldn’t be surprising if these stories (and many others) circulated throughout the area.  In fact, it’s probably likely.

If this is true, Peter is using this story because it’s familiar to his readers, whether or not they know of the texts in 1 Enoch or the Sibylline Oracles.  Regarding Peter’s pastoral goal, Jobes writes (247),

Therefore, despite their small numbers the Christians of Asia Minor are not lost to God’s concern in the mass of pagan humanity, and God saves the righteous in spite of their small number (cf. Gen. 18:22-32).  Moreover, though the pagans of Noah’s time spurned his warning to repent, God’s patience did not imply God’s indifference.  Just as the rain eventually began to fall for forty days and forty nights, the final judgment of God will also overtake scoffing unbelievers in the future.  These points were meant to be words of encouragement to the Christians of Asia Minor who, like Noah, were being derided and maligned by their society because of their faith.

Like I said above, one has to approach this passage with a large amount of humility.  While there are enough connections between the Noahic traditions and Asia Minor to convince me to see their importance here in 1 Peter 3, I’ll admit it isn’t a knockout argument.  I still think the main point is discernible despite the confusion: the salvation of the few righteous (Noah & his family) corresponds to the salvation of Peter’s readers.  Though that correspondence is worthy of its own post.

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Believe it or not, one of my favorite passages in the Pentateuch to teach is Leviticus 19.  I can think of a couple reasons, including the strong correlation between theology and ethics.  But, I’ve found that this is a good place for a Bible teacher to show how historical background can help us understand the seemingly random laws we find in Leviticus.  Enter October’s Resource of the Month, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament.


In verses 26-31, we see a combination of laws that seem, to our minds, arbitrary and disconnected to one another.  However, when we understand the pagan cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, we can understand why the Lord issued these commands.


The Bible Background Commentary informs us that the issues brought up here in these verses were a part of pagan religious rituals.  Some of this is obvious to us (practicing divination, seeking out mediums), while much of it may not be.  Let me share some relevant background information from our good friends Walton, Matthews and Chavalas (all of these quotes are from page 134).


V26– The connection of meat with blood still in it and divination is seen in nearby cultures (such as the Hittites), who used the blood of sacrificed animals “to attract the spirits of the dead… or chthonic (underworld) deities in order to consult them about the future.”


V27– “The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead. …In ancient thinking hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives of a person’s life essence.  As such it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic.”


V28– Cutting oneself was often a means of attracting a god’s attention (think of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:28).  As for tattoos, this was often “designed to protect a person from the spirits of the dead.”


V29– While the denunciation of prostitution does not necessarily require a pagan religious ritual context, it may well include that (and since this command falls in the context of pagan rituals, I would argue it does).  As we know, prostitution was often a part of pagan religion.  (Remember the story of the idolatrous Israelites and the Midianite women in Numbers 25.)


So, when we read Leviticus 19:26-31, we can see that these are not arbitrary laws, but rather are commanding Israel not to practice their religion like their pagan neighbors.  You don’t need to perform magical spells or stir up a special concoction in order to hear from the Lord.  You don’t need to mutilate your body to ensure that the Lord will hear you.  You don’t need to live in fear of the spirits of the dead because you have the God who created all things on your side. 


This all leads to another reason why I like teaching Leviticus 19: I find it ripe for hermeneutical reflection.  In what ways do we copy the surrounding pagan culture?  Have we adopted means of determining the Lord’s will that are actually unbiblical?  Do we worship in ways that reflect our godless culture more so than our holy God?  There are many more questions one could ask, which are admittedly open ended, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of our readers.

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I recently had the privilege of kicking off a series of three classes on the Pentateuch at our church’s training school. I mentioned early in the class that the Pentateuch, (or OT in general), is often among the most challenging portions of the Bible.  Why?  Firstly, the Pentateuch is the oldest portion of the Bible, written in the neighborhood of 3,500 years ago.  Secondly, the culture in which it was was written, the Ancient Near East, is vastly different from our own Greco-Roman (i.e., Western) roots.  These increased chronological and cultural differences (as compared to one of Paul’s letters, for example) often require extra diligence on the part of the reader.

Praise be, many resources are available to us as a help to flesh out the richness of the Pentateuch, and close some of the gaps we encounter when we read it.  I would recommend the five books below as some possible starting points:

Our resource of the month, IVP’s Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament, is a great starting point, and a helpful, accessible resource for OT study in one volume.

From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch is the best book I’ve read on the Pentateuch.  Ever.  It is more concerned with theology than strict exegesis per se, but I’ve yet to encounter its equal. There is only one caveat: There are 100 pages or so at the front of the text about higher criticism. While this is ‘important’ material, it is much more geared for those in scholarly circles, and far less important than understanding the Pentateuch itself. Those interested in higher criticism should read Garrett’s Rethinking Genesis instead. As such, I’d recommend skipping the first section of Paradise to the Promised Land, unless you really enjoy trudging through the annals of what OT critics have (mostly in error) written about Pentateuchal authorship.

Archaeology and the Old Testament is another good resource for OT backgrounds. While the text sticks closely to its subject, archaeology, it is far from a dry history book. You will not find detailed commentaries on biblical passages here, but you will find a great resource that explains what we’ve learned about the history of the ancient near east through archaeology, and how that relates to different passages in the Bible. Hoerth often points to how certain findings bring to life different OT passages. Aside from being a great resource for understanding the culture of the OT, this text is also helpful in affirming the historical reliability of the Bible. Hoerth is very careful (and right!) to note that as helpful as archaeology is, it can never “prove” the Bible. He does well to describe what archaeology can and cannot do for us as we study Scripture.

Handbook on the Pentateuch is effectively a chapter by chapter commentary on Genesis through Deuteronomy that ties together many of the larger themes running through the Pentateuch. It’s also Danny’s favorite, and that’s worth something :)


A final recommendation would be IVP’s New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Here is another great starting place for those looking for an accessible, single volume commentary of the entire Bible.

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One of the most popular Old Testament stories shows up in 1 King 18, the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Or, perhaps better said, it’s the showdown between Yahweh and Baal.  While certainly there is a contest between Elijah and his opponents, ultimately what this event proved is the superiority of Yahweh to Baal.


The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament gives us a little background help in understand the significance of this story.  The contest really begins back in 1 Kings 17:1, where Elijah reports that Yahweh will not allow rain in Israel, where Baal was worshipped (at least at that time).  As the authors point out, “By withholding rain, Yahweh is demonstrating the power of his kingship in the very area of nature over which Baal is thought to have jurisdiction.  …If Baal is the provider of rain and Yahweh announces that he will withhold it, the contest is on” (p376).


So, the showdown has already been started when we get to Mt Carmel (right in “Baal territory”).  The authors break down 18:23-24 into 3 main points (all from page 378):


1.  Fire is an indication of the presence of God.


2.  Fire is connected to the lightning of the storm god.


3.  Fire represents the acceptance of the sacrifice.


I’d like to focus mainly on the second point, the connection between fire and the storm god.  Since the contest was spurred on by the drought in the land of Israel, it was thought by the prophets of Baal that Baal would surely prove himself more powerful than Yahweh.  Baal, as their storm god, would be able to control the rain as well as the lightning, able to send both rain and fire to the earth. 


What some of this background knowledge helps us understand is that this battle is staged in Baal’s favor.  Sending fire and rain is supposed to be right in Baal’s wheelhouse, and the contest happens right in his backyard.  This would be like challenging Einstein to a calculus quiz or Michael Phelps to a swimming race.  God picks a fight with Baal and skews the rules in Baal’s favor.


Now, we know that Baal didn’t really exist; there was no god hanging out over Israel sending storms.  But they didn’t know that- at least until Yahweh whipped Baal in what seemed to be a one-sided contest.  Obviously you don’t have to know a bit of ancient history to get the main point of this passage.  But knowing what the prevalent beliefs were about Baal helps us to understand just how decisive this victory was for Yahweh.  Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that when God said “you shall have no other gods before me”, He really meant it.

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