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Posts Tagged ‘historical narrative’

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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As I’ve taught through portions of 1-2 Samuel (I generally just refer to it as “Samuel”, indicating the unity of the 2 books), I’ve become more and more convinced of the need to read this book as a narrative.  I’m certainly not discounting the historical veracity of it; I’m simply trying to acknowledge that this book, and the stories that make up this book, uses literary and narrative techniques to make it’s point.

For instance, readers are often confused at the end of 1 Samuel 17.  We’ve just read the story of David killing Goliath, but we come across something that seems to contradict the previous chapter: Saul doesn’t know who David is.  Saul asks Abner, the army commander, “whose son is that young man?” (v55).  The problem is this: in chapter 16, Saul is comforted by David’s musical abilities and requests that David be allowed to remain in his service.  He seems to know who David is then, so how is it that only one chapter later he doesn’t have a clue who David is?

Now, some will suppose that the author/editor of the book is a buffoon and unknowingly included a contradiction.  That seems unlikely, since it’s so obvious that you would think that someone would have caught the “problem.”  So, it’s far more likely that the confusion is intentional. 

Is it possible that the author is wanting you to ask this question?  Perhaps you, the reader, are supposed to wonder, “why is Saul asking who David is?  Doesn’t he know already?”

I think this is exactly what is happening here.  You’re supposed to wonder why Saul doesn’t remember David.  And the answer is unraveled in the following chapters, especially in chapter 18: Saul is insane.  It’s not hard to notice, just look at the next chapter.  Saul tries to pin David to the wall with his spear (he tries again in chapter 19).  In fact, Saul tries to spear his own son, Jonathan, in chapter 20.

What I’m suggesting is that the author’s portrayal of Saul is intentionally confusing.  The narrative is inviting you to ask the question: why doesn’t Saul remember David, who just a chapter earlier is favored by Saul?  The narrative works in a way that we ought to expect a narrative to work.  It isn’t through an explicit statement (“then Saul lost his marbles and went nuts”) that we learn of his insanity.  It’s through the story itself that we learn that Saul went crazy.  The “problem” is really no problem at all; it’s neither a contradiciton nor an oversight.  It’s a literary technique used to craft a crazy king.

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